Thursday, 31 December 2009

DAVID LEVINE: THE GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of David Levine is online at Guardian.co.uk, you can link to it here. It ought to be in the next print edition, and has a lovely Eisenstadt photo portrait of Levine at work. Sadly, they changed my description of Henry Kissinger 'screwing' the world in one of Levine's most memorable caricatures to 'copulating' with her, thus losing the double entendre, which I heard Levine describe in an interview, in a sort of cackle: 'he was screwing the world and they kept giving him more chances to do it!'. It's also the expression on Kissingers' face, pure childish bliss and greed, which helps make the drawing work so well.

The change suggests a bit of respectability that somehow echoes the New York Times' editorial page killing another of Levine's Kissinger drawings, to which I refer in the obit. On Alter.net there's a fascinating piece about those killed cartoons; they've now been collected by the long-time art editor of the Times, Jerelle Kraus, in a book called All The Art That's Fit To Print, published by Columbia U, and you can link to that here. According to the article, a 1991 Levine cartoon they didn't kill raised a huge negative response; it showed the descent of man, from Clark Gable to Saddam Hussein, via apes and chimps, thus offending any number of people, as well as, the Groucho Marx in me calls out, apes and chimps.

I would have loved to go on about his 'serious' art: his watercolours on the shoreline remind me of Winslow Homer, a little bit of Hopper, and they have a wonderful sense of the open loneliness of the coast. His Brooklyn paintings, of architecture that marks the borough, cross Demuth and Marin, and it's a fascinating combination. They are not hugely original, but they are very satisfying. I would also have loved to detail many more of his non-political subjects, his John Wayne or Ted Williams (he was a huge Dodgers' fan...of course the Brooklyn sports' ground to which the Guardian refers was Ebbetts Field, where Marianne Moore was among the regulars.

It's hard to explain just how important Levine's art was to a certain kind of American--the kind who read what Esquire, I think, once lampooned as the New York Review of Us. If the magazine's articles sometimes meander, Levine's art inevitably got you straight to the point, and his point was inevitably right on. I was impressed to discover that, although he grew up in Flatbush and had worked his way up to the Heights, he remained a real Brooklynite to the end. It makes me want to find a place to start a breakfast club too....which reminds me, last Sunday we saw Alan Greenspan chowing down in Dan Snyder's box at the Redskins' game, and it reminded me of one of my favourite Levine drawings, which you can see to the right. It was a privilege to be able to write an appreciation of Levine's life, especially on the last day of 2009.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

TARANTINO'S INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS ON DVD AT CHRISTMAS

British tradition used to reserve Christmas TV for films like The Guns Of Navarone, so it felt somehow appropriate to settle in Christmas night with Nate's two uncles to watch Inglourious Basterds (hence, IB to avoid terminal irritation by spellcheck), which has just be released on DVD (Universal, Dec 2009). The film was hailed as a return to form for Quentin Tarantino (henceforth QT), but it seems to me more of a transitional work, as there are two separate movies pulling at each other here, and when QT finally brings them together, he needs a good twist to make it work. But the set-piece portion of the film works brilliantly, more than enough to carry you through to the end of Christmas evening.

The first and less interesting strand of the film is the story of the IBs themselves, and oddly it is the bit which received the most attention. This is partly because it features the star, Brad Pitt, and partly because of the politics of having Jews massacring Nazis. Those considerations aside, it is also the bit which is very much in the vein of QT's last few films, all of which have been big budget star vehicles which transmute the low-budget shlock he admired in his video-counter days. This one is a hommage to an Italian rip-off of The Dirty Dozen; the IBs are eight Jews and one German led by a red-neck officer from Tennessee played by Pitt as if trying to channel Clark Gable before George Clooney can claim him permanently. Like Clooney, Pitt's approach to comedy is mugging and over-egging, and in this context that almost works. But the whole conceit of this Jewish version of Sgt. Fury going round France scalping Nazis pales after a short while, though one can see why it might appeal to the Weinsteins, who produced it. In the end, the Basterds wind up being primarily a plot device, as their plot to assassinate Hitler is far less interesting than the other one, initiated by cinema-owner Shosanna Dreyfuss, who has escaped massacre herself, at the hands of SS office Hans Landa.

The more interesting story revolves around Landa, played with great relish (and really as a Gestapo officer) by Christophe Waltz. It is, as I said, a series of set-pieces, all of which involve interrogations by Landa in which he twists his interrogees in a kind of verbal torture. These are, at first, the highlights of the film, and by the time they have paled QT realises it and lets the last one dissolve to violence. Interestingly, there is one parallel interrogation by an 'actual' gestapo officer involving the IBs, which recalls the 1940s film OSS, where one character was exposed to the Gestapo when he switched his fork from left to right hand. This scene's shootout foreshadows the massacre in the cinema that is the climax of the film.

As usual, one can see scenes from movie history played with, everything from To Be Or Not To Be to The Eagle Has Landed, and one hears music which is taken from other films, most obviously Ennio Morricone, whose presence also echoes the hommage to Sergio Leone in the title of the film's first 'chapter' 'Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France'. This is less of a problem than it might seem, because the scenes themselves are brilliantly written and almost as well played.

But it's also because the film is not about war as much as it is about the cinema of war, most specifically the pleasure audiences get from watching large numbers of Nazi bad guys mowed down by their heroes. Its most interesting conceit is a German version of Audie Murphy, a baby-faced sniper whose heroic killing of scores of Americans in Italy is being turned into Goebbels' greatest success as a propaganda film, A Nation's Pride. The soldier, played by Daniel Bruehl, falls in love with the cinema-owner, and gets the Paris debut of the film scheduled for her theatre. And there in a nutshell is the plot. The British (Rod Taylor as Churchill and Mike Myers as the inevitable plan-ridden general) bring British, devise a plan to send a German film scholar, Archie Hicox (Archie Leech, Alfred Hitchcock) to meet up with the German actress who's a British agent, Bridget von Hammersmark, and you can guess where it all goes from there.

The irrelevance of the Basterds themselves to all this is obvious in the way four of them simply disappear from the film, and another pops up again only when Brad Pitt is arrested, with no explanation of where he was or when he was arrested himself. One assumes there was much footage left on the cutting room floor (or intended for a more complex DVD reissue later on—in fact, I saw that Maggie Cheung had a role as the original theatre owner, who leaves the cinema to Dreyfuss, her 'niece'). The only extra in this DVD is a bit from the German propaganda film itself, powerfully effective and every bit as modern as anything in QT's work propre.

In the end, it's only Pitt's Aldo Raine who is willing to settle for less than ultimate revenge, an odd sort of compromise that merely points out the bloodthirsty-ness of all that has gone before. In the Kill Bill films, QT looked at over-the-top violence and cartoonish body counts, and we smiled until we got bored. Here he's looking at the context in which such things are acceptable, and the seriousness of that point is reinforced by the seriousness of the set-pieces, which remind us of the awful reality which underscores all World War II memories.

Tarantino gives Waltz a showcase, though the moment he pulls out the Meerschaum pipe to show he's really not a Jew-Hunter but a 'detective' is more out of Airplane than anything else. Bruehl is excellent also, and Diane Kruger (as Bridget) and Melanie Laurent (as Dreyfuss) are equally good. But the real star is cinematographer Robert Richardson, Oliver Stone's one-time cameraman, who gives the whole production a look which encompasses the history of war movies, as well as casting a lush, dream-like feeling over the whole thing. It gives the film a lustre which helps carry you along, but in the end, like so much else of QT, it's unsatisfying, not stretching you beyond the narrow boundaries of its own exploitation. At least in parts. I await its revival at countless Christmases to come.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

I, SNIPER: STEPHEN HUNTER

Stephen Hunter's history of the Swagger family has, over the years, been engrossing. It was a Hunter novel Bill Clinton was carrying when he stepped down from Air Force One on a visit to Britain; it appeared in newspaper photos, and because John Coldstream remembered my offering a review of the book to him I wound up reviewing it for the Telegraph; the Times, meanwhile, to whom I'd forwarded the offer in the meantime, and who had put the photo on the front page, declined to even discuss Hunter's new noteworthiness.

The series was at its best when it was involved with historical facts, which was more when it starred Bob Lee's father Earl; things like the corruption in Cold Springs, Arkansas, or mob-controlled Havana in 1953 (I always thought the Swaggers and the JFK/MLK hits were a good match, but the timings just never worked out!) and it has always benefitted from the aptly-named Hunter's interest in guns and sniper lore. There is a fine line between interest and obsession, however, and although I Sniper is admirable in the way it integrates the minutiae of armament apparatus into its plot devices, it never seems to allow for the idea of a reader whose own interest may be slightly less technical.

The title itself is interesting. It refers, obviously, to Swagger himself, who is simply the best at what he does, even if he's been content to do it in obscurity. When a more-reknowned sniper goes off on what appears to be a deranged attack on 1960s war protestors, Swagger is called in by your friendly FBI sniper turned special agent, to check his own suspicion that something doesn't feel quite right. The key clue turns out to be a device called I Sniper, a computerised scope which doesn't actually exist, but, according to Hunter is eminently possible. Finally, however, one can't help but think that I, Sniper also refers to Hunter himself, and that Swagger, who in this book is all-seeing, all-knowing, all-American, and always moral, is a wish-fulfillment more than a brilliantly conceived character.

Here he seems much more of a plot device, two-dimensional apart from his macho capability and his devotion to honour. This is something critics of war (in general, in Iraq, in Vietnam, whatever) appear to lack, and that signposts the villainry in the story far too openly to keep it suspenseful. This is a shame, because Hunter's skill at having Swagger anticpate and outthink his rivals remains undaunted; were he to invest Swagger with a bit more depth, as he had in earlier novels, he might have been able to rachet the suspense higher. Less is more in plot sometimes.
What Swagger becomes here is a kind of thinking man's Rambo; meanwhile, the fate of Nick Memphis, the FBI sniper/agent who is set up by the villain is the most suspenseful part of the story. Hunter, once a film reviewer for the Baltimore Sun, seems to take great pleasure in making a Washington Post (the paper to which he moved from the Sun) journo the real villain of the piece, and the twist that resolves that story is perfectly judged, especially if you are a devotee of the small print of small arms.

I have followed Hunter with great pleasure for many years, but in the end I Sniper is a book for the already converted; it has the feel of a series novel, a plot-driven Ludlum or Clancy maybe, and it's too device-centric by half. Bob Lee doesn't lose his swagger, but it would be nice to have just a small glimpse of the man behind it.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

JACK O'CONNELL: THE AMERICAN EYE INTERVIEW

After far too long a hiatus my latest American Eye column, an interview with Jack O'Connell, is up at Shots (the link I originally posted to that has now expired). Jack was over to promote his latest novel, The Resurrectionist, which was one of the very best books of 2009 and deserved far more attention than it got.

If you missed my retrospective review of O'Connell's first novel, Box Nine, last month, you can link to it here or just scroll back through November's entries. In the meantime, here's the original interview:

JACK O'CONNELL

 
The thing that stands out about Jack O'Connell is his sheer enthusiasm for the art and craft of writing. As we reduced the world's stock of Guinness, and a bitter named The Fall, whose Biblical overtones impressed us, in an Irish pub nestled in a West End alley, O'Connell spun out the pleasures of reading which, for him, grew into the pleasures of writing. That we appeared to share the same tastes, indeed many of the same experiences with the same editions of the same paperbacks of our younger days meant the two hours became an exercise of head-shaking agreement, each punctuated by another drink.

O'Connell was born, educated, and has spent his whole life in Worcester, Massachusetts ('within a three-mile radius, really'), which provides the geographical basis of his fictional Quinsigamond, but it is his reading that has provided Quinsigamond with its unique mix of rust-belt America, Weimar Germany, and futuristic LA. Although it's easy to see the influence of any number of modern cult-favourite writers in O'Connell's work, it is sui generis, never derivitive, and at least two of his five novels, his first Box Nine, and his latest, The Resurrectionist, deserve to stand alongside names like Pynchon, DeLillo, Disch, Dick, or and Burroughs.

Like many cult writers, though, none of O'Connell's books has found commercial success to match their critical acclaim. His problems may have started when Box Nine won the Mysterious Press first novel award. Prestigious as the prize was (and appreciated as the $50,000 prize was as well), it saw him labeled as a 'crime writer', and although it fit into that category, it also resisted it. Genre labels don't quite work for O'Connell; there are significant elements of sf, and stylistic experiment which put much 'serious' fiction to shame, which makes it difficult for them to appeal to the 'hard core' crime reader, while at the same time making it almost impossible to reach beyond the genre boundaries created by the 'mystery' section of bookstore shelving.

Along those lines, I noticed Jack was carrying the new US paperback edition of The Resurrectionist, and I commented that the covers of that book reflected his dilemma of classification. constant nodding in agreement and digressing into tangential concerns that seemed to be mutually apparent immediately....

JOC: I loved that first cover (the US cloth edition), but the publisher thought it was not quite right.

MC: It emphasized the circus/freak show sub-plot; it reminded me of Glenn David Gold, or maybe a book like The Prestige or The Illusionist.

JOC: And this cover (which features cards) is along the same lines, but less mysterious. I think it reflects part of the problem with my books. I was doing a tour recently, and in Denver I was in the general fiction section, in Phoenix I was in crime, and in San Francisco I was in horror/sf...

MC: Which might tell you more about San Francisco than your books! But the British edition really looks great, like a mainstream novel, perhaps historical, that John Banville or someone might have written. Maybe we should call it 'slipstream'...

JOC: No Exit have done a great job with my covers...

MC:...and they've always GOT the book; the Box Nine cover is much more sf than anything else! I saw you mentioned Harlan Ellison as an early influence. I didn't see Ellison the writer as much as Ellison the editor, because everything you've written would fit nicely into Dangerous Visions.....

JOC: Oh yeah. I loved those books, Disch, Delany, Aldiss. I sort of stumbled into sf as a kid, but then this stuff seemed so radical, and those writers led me, naturally, to finding Gravity's Rainbow, and wow! There's an anthology of stories out now, called the Secret History of Science Fiction, and it's based on a piece Jonathan Lethem wrote about ten years ago, speculating on what would have happened if the Science Fiction Writers had voted the Nebula to Gravity's Rainbow in 1973, when it was nominated, instead of Arthur Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama. From Pynchon to Delany's Dhalgren was a natural step.

MC: And where does the crime fiction fit in?

JOC: As a kid I loved Hammett and Chandler, and the next generation of pulp writers, the Jim Thompsons and David Goodises. But my first fictions were two Pynchon-type novels, long and dense, and they never sold. Then I did Box Nine, which is at heart a dark city noir, and has a female detective, and after it sold the first question was, can you make it a series? Is the main character coming back? And I said 'sure', because in my mind the main character was the city, Quinsigamond, not the woman! Both my agent and the editors were disappointed, but I said, did you see where Leonore winds up at the end of the book? And they said, well, send her to rehab! From a strictly commercial point of view they were, as usual, righter than I was. I think the problem is that I'm generally a little too dense for the dedicated crime reader, and there's no way to make the jump to 'literary'. There have been some relatively brief windows into what they call the 'slipstream', the cultish books just off the mainstream, but now my attitude is I've written five books, I'm turning 50, and I'm just gonna write what I write. You never know what's going to come out...

MC: The Resurrection is your first book in nearly a decade. Was it very carefully planned?

JOC (laughing): Just the opposite! Partly, I was working days, editing the alumni magazine at Holy Cross, and I'd get up at four ayem to write. But the first draft did not contain Limbo ((the comic book story which Sweeney reads to his comatose son)) and I wrote it in a white heat, in about 8 months, which all began after a cafe crawl around Poitiers, at a festival with Francois Guerif, or Rivage, my French publisher. It was inspired by the Gold Medal guys I love, particularly Gil Brewer, and it was the story of Sweeney and his son and the gang of bikers. I'd written maybe 90% of it, and I was really excited and I sat down to write a simple scene, where Sweeney reads a comic to his son, and the questions started. I took a left turn. Six months later, the wife says 'how did it go?' and I say 'we're going to have to get rid of Sweeney,' and she looks at me and says 'Let's not do that, alright?'. But the Limbo story just grew and grew, and in the end it was double the length it is now in the book, as I had to select just the best bits.

MC: How direct is the Gil Brewer influence?

JOC: It's partly conscious and partly organic evolution. I knew from the beginning that the only thing I wanted to do was write, but I had this terror because it didn't seem a career option to a kid growing up in Worcester! But it was the verve of those guys, the Brewers, and Ellisons, and also Richard Matheson, which I wanted to emulate. Eventually, I was able to marry it to more metaphysical themes, and more epic scope, but it took lots of experimentation, false starts, and frustration; not least those two novels which are up in the attic somewhere. Box Nine finally started to do it, I think by leaning more toward the genre electricity side of things.  The crime element of The Resurrectionist is mainly one of character; Sweeney is a real noir hero, he's disturbed, he's needy, and above all he's vulnerable, with a weak spot that the ruthless can take advantage of, and there's a black widow femme fatal, in Nadia, a seemingly virginal blonde in Alice and a creepy shrink, a Dr. Ampthor type, in her father.

MC:  And the Limbo Comics stories are so wonderful. I'm amazed someone doesn't jump at adapting them in comics, it's very much like Alan Moore..

JOC: And how great would that be. Comics, and then the movies!

MC: I'll drink to that.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

ROY DISNEY: THE GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of Roy Disney is up at Guardian.co.uk (click here) and should be in tomorrow's print edition. It was shortened somewhat, and what was lost was my observation that Roy's life in the Disney business was re-enacted in many of the Disney films he supervised, most notably The Lion King --his resemblance to his uncle Walt was striking, and he twice exiled himself from the Disney board, only to return both times and, if not assume the role of leader that his uncle had, at least keep the company running the way he thought Walt would have wanted. Although he was ruthless as a corporate raider, when it came to Disney he had a firm belief in the company's traditional core values. I was also not surprised at all when Bob Iger survived the Eisner purge; I worked for Bob at ABC Sports and watched his ascent through Capital Cities/ABC, and throughout that time what stood out to me was Bob's belief in doing well what the company was created to do. It would have been nice to have more time to discuss Roy's personal life, or the very bitter feud with Jeffrey Katzenberg (in many ways, more than Eisner, Roy's polar opposite--or polar express opposite) or the books by Bob Thomas and James Stewart on the two Disney crises (the Stewart is the better), or to discuss the changing nature of the Disney enterprise in terms of Walt's original conception of a controlled, self-contained, Disney world (or Disneyworld!). But life is long and space is brief.

Friday, 11 December 2009

RICHARD NORTH PATTERSON'S RACE

I've suggested before that in Richard North Patterson's political thrillers the politics usually was more compelling than the 'thriller' portion of the story, and at one point I compared him to Allen Drury. This can lead to problems, because the more involving your background story, the more mechanical seem the devices of the thriller. In his last novel, Exile, Patterson moved into current affairs. The book was set amidst the perpetual conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and full of well-researched in depth analysis of the struggle, extremely balanced, carefully nuanced, and deeply sympathetic. Of course, although the book was resolved, the issue could not be within the framework of a thriller.

With The Race, Patterson returns to more straightforward electoral politics, and dispenses entirely with the thriller format. Patterson writes with a firm sense of narrative, and can wring out the suspense from the long process of the Republican presidential primary. But by setting the novel so firmly in the present, and with such easily-identified characters, he creates a whole new problem for himself. In his earlier trilogy, Kerry Kilcannon was just enough not a Kennedy to be believable, just enough of a middle-road Democrat to be part of the process. The second and third of those novels, Balance Of Power and Protect And Defend, engaged with single issues, and the fact that he approached those issues from a position of 'right' and 'wrong' allowed him to focus the narrative better than The Exile. And they dealt in 'real' politics, as practised by more or less 'real' people.

Paradoxically, Patterson's new presidential candidate Corey Grace, Gulf War hero and POW, is too obviously crafted from a base of John McCain to be real. Though Patterson acknowledges that Grace's good looks and liberal outlook are taken from former Maine senator, 'defense' secretary (and thriller writer) William Cohen, it is McCain's background that resonates through Grace. And though Patterson claims Grace (the name is revealing) is a 'politician as we wish politicians would be', he is a character from a romantic fantasy, in which Republicans can be more liberal than their Democratic rivals, yet still believe in the party that has long-since jettisoned any pretense toward such values. Those guys died with John Lindsay, who was, as mayor of New York, a sort of soft-shelled version of Grace (the mayor of the Big Apple lives in Gracie Mansion, by the way, unless, like Giuliani, his wife throws him out!). There's also an honourable Republican general pitched somewhere between James Earl Jones as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to President Harrison Ford and Colin Powell.

This is a more serious problem than it seems, because the novel's main impact is its final twist, a truly brilliant one, but only someone as uncorruptable (that is, fantastic) as Grace would be able to pull off what he does. Yet it becomes difficult to believe in the character, because he is such an impossible construct. Even his girlfriend, Hollywood star, liberal, and black, notices this problem, though being the fantasy man he is, he overcomes her reservations.

But the meat of the novel, the machinations between the 'mainstream' candidate (loosely based on Rick Santorum, with a little Mario Cuomo perhaps) and the evangelicial preacher candidate (who turns out to be almost as honorable as Grace, which is another flight of fantasy) and their campaign advisers, is gripping, so gripping I would have perferred more of the primaries, rather than the jump straight into the convention. There must have been a temptation to include an assassin and amp up the straight-forward thriller element, but Patterson's been there and done that.This is book is better for that, but by opting to anchor his political story so firmly in reality, and then turning to fantasy politics, he's lost the element of ambiguity which would have made this a political novel up there with Advise And Consent, or The Last Hurrah (both of which I read when I was 12 or 13, along with Fail Safe and Seven Days In May...and you wonder where my cynicism about the American system comes from!).

Bill Clinton has a lot to answer for, as I suspect Patterson is yet another former 'liberal' disillusioned by the Clinton presidency, and turning to the moral certainties of the Republicans as a result. The Exile suggested Patterson favours those who recognise, if not favour, grim reality. I wonder how Barack Obama, whose dating a black woman couldn't become a campaign issue as it did for Grace, but whose politics, at leaast before he took the oath of office, didn't match Grace's, nor the character who's the thinly-disguised Colin Powell, fit into Patterson's paradigm when he got elected president?

The Race, by Richard North Patterson
Pan Books, £6.99, ISBN 9780330440158

Monday, 7 December 2009

JACQUES CHESSEX: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Jacques Chessex is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. In a very moving piece of synchronicity, a copy of A Jew Must Die, which is published in February, arrived in the post this morning from the estimable Bitter Lemon Press, and moves to the top of my reading list. You can also read my September 2008 review of The Vampire Of Ropraz by linking here.

A couple of small points about the obit: L'Ogre was published in English as A Father's Love, but only in America, by Bobbs Merrill. It's an interesting title switch, because of the ironic ambiguity, but what is lost is the fairy-tale sense of a dangerous childhood. The Guardian added the French titles of books which basically have English cognates, like The Vampire Of Ropraz, which seemed redundant to me, but in the case of Les Aveugles du seul regard left the title as is, as I suggested they might, since my own translation as The Blind Who Only Glance may not be the best.

I had also mentioned a collaboration he did with the sculptor Manuel Muller, A Night In The Forest, which when I wrote the piece had yet to appear, but now presumably has been published. I'm hoping Bitter Lemon will publish The Last Skull Of M. De Sade in English eventually; in Donald Wilson's translations one gets the feeling of Chessex's French prose, a style which reminds me somewhat of the prose of poets like Robert Creeley, and with the atmospheric feeling of a number of Quebecois novelists, particularly Marie-Claire Blais.


Sunday, 6 December 2009

DOUGLAS HORNE'S NEW LOOK AT THE JFK ASSASSINATION

Robin Ramsey, editor of Lobster (to which I contributed occasionally, and which is soon to re-appear as an on-line journal) forwarded on a link to some background information about a new JFK assassination book. Oh no, I hear you groan, but Inside The Assassination Records Review Board, Vol IV, by Douglas Horne, is a comprehensive review of the medical evidence, written by an AARB staffer. You can get some background to the book in the review posted here, at the JFK Countercoup blog, but following that is an interview with Horne in which he sets out the major pieces of new evidence, or new interpretation, he uncovered, you can link straight to that here.

Reading that interview, I'd be tempted to put Horne's book up with James Douglass's JFK And The Unspeakable (my essay on that book from Lobster can be linked to from the Bullseye's listings on the right, or just bang it here) and the LaFontaines' Oswald Talked as the past decade's most substantial and convincing books showing a conspiracy and a cover-up (not necessarily in concert) in the JFK assassination. He's very convincing on the autopsy, and though there aren't any answers provided, when you combine it with the long-ignored evidence in Douglass' book, and the strong case the LaFontaine's make for Oswald's thinking he was a government agent infiltrating subversives, the conclusion that the assassination was not the work of a lone crazed assassin, or even a few crazed assassins, becomes inescapable.

IAN VASQUEZ IN THE HEAT COMPETITION

Ian Vasquez's novel In The Heat won the 2008 Shamus Award as best first PI novel, and his publisher, Regal Literary, is celebrating that by giving away five signed copies of that book and his second novel, Lonesome Point.

To enter, you have to join Ian's Facebook page, and send an email to vasquez@regal-literary.com, with the subject line I'm A Facebook Fan, by 31 December. Sounds easy enough, especially if you're on Facebook. You can check the page out here. Ian's own homepage is here too.

Look for a review of a non-signed copy here at Irresisitible Targets soon...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

LIONEL DAVIDSON: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of Lionel Davidson, whose eight adult novels won three CWA Gold Daggers, is in today's Indpendent; you can link to it here. I suspect Davidson will be one of those rare writers who gets revived cyclically; his work is firmly rooted into its various settings, and times, and this, along with the intricacies of his plotting will probably intrigue new audiences.

Monday, 30 November 2009

CAPTAIN LOU ALBANO: THE GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of Captain Lou Albano is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. 'Bombastic' was a great word to use in their headline, but the copy itself was trimmed to fit available space, and a few good points were lost (as well as the adjective 'great' when I described him as a 'great heel manager'. I was never a particular fan of Capt. Lou's, but bombastic he was, and when you consider all the reasons professional wrestling is both entertaining and embarassing, he makes an almost perfect example of the 'sport's' appeal. In fact Lou managing George Steele may be some sort of litmus test for wrestling fans with sentience above plant level. To get the full flavour of the Captain, here's my original copy for the Guardian:

CAPTAIN LOU ALBANO: WRESTLING MANAGER

Outrageous even by the flexible standards of professional wrestling, the appeal to teenagers of 'Captain' Lou Albano, who has died aged 76, was a key factor in the ascent to mainstream popularity of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in the 1980s. Albano's appearance as Cyndi Lauper's father in her video 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' was a sensation in the early days of MTV, and led to a programmed feud with WWF wrestlers which grew to include other 80s celebrities like Mr. T, whose popularity helped transform the likes of Hulk Hogan into household names. Albano's cartoonish act later found its perfect home playing in the live action segments, and providing the voiceover for the animations of one of the Super Mario Brothers.

Albano was one of the great 'heel' wrestling managers, and a mainstay of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), owned by Vincent J McMahon, which dominated the northeastern US area, and was the precursor to the modern WWF, now known as WWE. Born in Rome, Albano moved as an infant to America, where his family settled in Mount Vernon, outside New York City. A gridiron and wrestling star at Archbishop Stepinac High School, he won a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee, but soon left college to join the army. He was working as a bouncer when he met some wrestlers and began training, making his debut aged 20 in Montreal. His career took off when he joined Tony Altimore as a mafioso tag-team, 'The Sicilians'. After success in the American midwest, McMahon Sr hired them for his WWWF, which dominated the US market between New York and Washington, DC; in 1967 they won the WWWF tag titles from 'The Golden Boy' Arnold Skaaland and Spiros Arion.

Altimore was the better wrestler, but Albano's arrogant interviews inflamed the crowds. He soon became a manager, his 'captain' title a self-awarded honorific, and was especially effective for heels who couldn't talk like convincing villains, or weren't supposed to talk, in character, like the 'Russian' Ivan Koloff, who, in 1971 with Albano as his manager, ended the long reign of Bruno Sammartino as WWWF champ. Albano drew heat from fans with his rapid-fire stacatto delivery, peppered with catch-phrases like 'often imitated, never duplicated'. His increasingly bizarre appearance, an open Hawaiian shirt flaunting his great belly, numerous piercings from which he hung rubber bands, and a rubber band wrapped around his beard, matched his chaotic ringside behaviour. He was at his best managing tag-teams, the wilder the better, including the evil Valiant Brothers, the hillbilly Moondogs,and the Wild Samoans.

But his finest moment came when he double-crossed his wrestler, Superfly Jimmy Snuka (right), in order to switch to manage The Magnificent Don Muraco. Snuka then met Muraco in a 1983 cage match which ended with Snuka, now the babyface, delivering a flying 'Superfly splash' on top of Albano, to the crowd's delight.

Albano met Lauper on an airplane flight, and after making the video (a performance that may have inspired Rodney Dangerfield in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers) he began taking full credit for her success, and putting her down as a 'mere woman', which led to MTV's Rock and Wrestling Connection programme. Vince McMahon Jr. had bought his father's company, renamed it the WWF, and taken it nationwide on cable TV, where MTV was the fastest-growing channel. The feud began with Lauper managing woman wrestler Wendi Richter in a grudge match against The Fabulous Moolah, managed by Albano. Rowdy Roddy Piper stepped in, which led to Mr. T, then a huge star with The A Team, interfering, and the feuds were eventually resolved at the first Wrestlemania, which put Hogan and the WWF on the mainstream map.

Albano's popularity made it natural he turn 'babyface' (good guy) in his final years in the ring, managing the lovable George 'The Animal' Steele and the popular British Bulldogs, Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith. He explained his character change by saying he'd had surgery to remove 'a calcium deposit on the medulla of my oblongata.'. He made three more videos with Lauper, and later toured with the band NRBQ, playing their manager. A true icon of the 1980s, he acted in Miami Vice, the film Wise Guys, and the wrestling movie Body Slam, before shaving his beard to play Mario, in Super Mario Brothers in 1989-90. He later became a familiar pitchman on local New York television. But he occasionally still presided over chaos. At his 75th birthday party, police had to be called to a Mount Vernon restaurant to remove one wrestler, 'The Sandman', who began fighting with bar staff after breaking glasses while delivering a long and emotional testimonial to his hero. Albano, 'often imitated but never duplicated', died 14 October, under hospice care in Mount Vernon. He is survived by his wife Geri and four children.

Louis Vincent Albano born 29 July 1933 Rome, Italy
died 14 October 2009 Mount Vernon, NY

PAUL WENDKOS: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of the director Paul Wendkos is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. I liked The Mephisto Waltz quite a bit when it came out, but it was my later discovery of The Burglar, a small gem which is arguably the greatest of all David Goodis adaptations (and features a part for John Fasenda, later to be the stentorian voice of NFL Films) and is a feverishly atmospheric film where Dan Duryea, despite being too old for the role, catches perfectly the doomed frustrations of Goodis' world. It's a small classic, and provides a rare substantial part for Martha Vickers, who contrasts brilliantly with Jayne Mansfield; you can almost sense her 'been there, done that' feeling. Wendkos really only came close to repeating such atmosphere with The Brothers Rico, but the made for TV format wasn't geared to those kinds of moodyness.

Friday, 27 November 2009

RICHARD PRICE'S LUSH LIFE

With Lush Life, Richard Price returns to New York, taking the tunnel back to the Lower East Side after setting his previous trilogy in the fictional Dempsy, New Jersey, just across the river. It's a move that seems to reflect Price's work on The Wire, not so much because his Jersey city couldn't provide him with the urban backdrop that Baltimore does in the world's greatest TV series, but because Lush Life concerns a character who would be a bit player, mostly excluded from most of the Wire's five series arcs: the bar manager Eric Cash, 35 and looking at a dead-end future among the latest influx of yuppies and young artistic types moving from trendy spot to trendy spot in the upwardly-mobile neighbourhoods of Lower Manhattan.

Cash is like a bit player from the The Wire elevated into the main role. Not a bartender in the kind of places McNulty and Bunk drink, nor the ones the politicians or teachers or dock workers of that series did their drinking either. He is also a recognisable figure from Price's earlier work, the sensitive kid who's not a genius and not inspired and always about to be subsumed into the neighbourhood he can never escape. He was there in The Wanderers, Price's bravura first novel, and now, he's somewhat desperate.

Cash is walking home late with one of his bartenders, Ike, who's everything Cash was 15 years earlier. Especially optimistic. They are dragging along Ike's shit-faced friend when they are confronted by two muggers, one of whom has a gun. When Ike resists, he gets shot; the friend is dropped unconscious to the ground and Cash has fled to the safety of a nearby building. When the police arrive, the embarrassed Cash's story doesn't seem to hold up with other witness reports, and he becomes their main suspect.

What Price does in Lush Life is play with urban misdirection. The key to success, it seems, is knowing what it is you want, where you are going. But the city exits to confuse you, and what happens when you are wrong, when you can't trust your instincts? When you're a detective like Matty Clark, being right isn't enough, and being wrong is dangerous. Clark, cut off completely from his sons upstate, drawn to the wife of the murder victim's father, is the reflection of Cash in a cracked mirror; what he might have been had he not had the illusory options of acting, or writing, or indeed small-time drug dealing. When Clark's instincts fail him about Cash, the case spins dangerously out of control, and the politics of the police nearly defeat him. Price writes his cops very well, something that made The Wire so effective, but there is a deeper comparison here, because easy as it is to see Clark and Cash as two sides of a coin, the other side of the Cash coin could just as easily be Price himself, the Price reflected in those earlier novels.

There is one last comparison with The Wire, whose structure, within each series, was echoed in each of the books of Price's Jersey trilogy. It's an old-fashioned, Dickensian structure, and in Lush Life Price has turned back to a more modern, driven narrative. Although he draws his characters from the projects as well as his cops, they become the bit players in this. But even the bit players resonate; in fact, the only characters who remain thin are the yuppies, tourists in Price's world as much as they are in New York. Which makes the cover contrast interesting; the Bloomsbury paperback, illustrated above, could well be a still from The Wire, where the original US cover (right) actually sells the hip downtown scene, as if it were one of Price's earlier novels.

Lush Life's promises of redemption, in the Philippines or Atlantic City, are presented as illusory. The reality is the city, which, as much as anything, is Price's most sharply drawn, compelling, and dangerous character.

Lush Life by Richard Price
Bloomsbury, £7.99 ISBN 9780747596776

Friday, 20 November 2009

JACK O'CONNELL'S BOX NINE: A Forgotten Friday Entry

I'm revisiting Box Nine specifically because O'Connell is in Britain to promote his latest novel, The Resurrectionist, but more generally because it is hard to believe that a novel which won the then prestigious $50,000 Mysterious Press First Crime Novel Prize, and which has been followed by four books full of both invention and erudition, should even spring to mind as being overlooked today. But Box Nine appears to be out of print in America, and although The Resurrectionist may be his best book yet, it has not received anything like the attention it deserves.

Box Nine, like all O’Connell’s novels, is set in Quinsigamond, which is based geographically on Worcester, Massachusetts (where O'Connell lives) but is a futuristic fantasy of a mill town crossed with the Blade Runner LA of cyberpunk novels. In Box Nine there’s a new drug around town, called Lingo, which gets you speaking in tongues but also drives you to fiercer rage than the worst crank you ever saw. The high is great, but the price is high.

Connections to Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine are obvious, and also to Naked Lunch, which first posited language as a viral infection, and addiction. Language, in one way or another, has been at the heart of all O'Connell's work. When Box Nine first appeared, I noted O’Connell’s most relevant influences appeared to be the early Thomas Pynchon, concerned with issues of entropy, the early Don DeLillo, apparently concerned with early Pynchon, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (and the Borges who inspired Cortazar) and of course Blade Runner, and its source material, Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

This may have seemed a strange mix to apply to a small city in central Massachusetts, however fantastically it is imagined, but it does work, particularly because O’Connell’s alternately manic and dreamy prose echoes not only the effects of Lingo, but his concerns with the uses and abuses of language itself. I am amazed this guy is not being taught in post-modernist English Departments all around the world.

Leonore Thomas is the drug cop investigating Lingo. Problem is, she’s a thrill-seeking speed freak gun fetishist who might be more at home on the other side of the fence. In a city torn apart by ethnic gangs, the big drug lord is Cortez (Cortex? Neil Young's Cortez the Killer? Keats' 'stout Cortez'?) and the microcosm of society O'Connell presents is more like a slide full of bacteria wiggling under a microscope. It works as a crime novel, it works as a 'mainstream' novel, it works as a cult 'slipstream' novel. The bottom line is, it works.

O’Connell is one of those writers who can bend his prose to what he’s doing. There aren’t many of them around. It's form as an extension of content—and it wasn't a surprise I discovered Robert Creeley as one of his earlier influences. I, and other reviewers, keep comparing O'Connell to so many great writers not because he's derivative, but because he's unique, the kind of writer who makes you want to compare him to those other great writers who've blown you socks off with your first hit. Sort of like Lingo. And now I try to compare his career path, and I find no one close to the same, perhaps Joseph McElroy or someone else you probably haven't heard of either, or maybe Donald Harington, most of whose books were set in his own fictional Arkansas (see my obit of him here). But he's the real deal, and Box Nine is the place to get that first hit. No Exit Press have kept him in print in the UK, and their cover for The Resurrectionist should be one that attracts the kind of 'sophisticated' general readership who perhaps might pass by the book were it billed as crime. Their cover for Box Nine was a beauty too: Dick would have loved it. At least one publisher gets it.

Box Nine No Exit Press 1998 (second edition)
ISBN 9781901982275

The Resurrectionist No Exit Press 2009
ISBN 9781842433065

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

DONALD HARINGTON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Donald Harington, whom Entertainment Weekly called the best unknown novelist in America, is in today's Guardian; you can link to it here. A couple of qualifiers have been lost in the cutting process: when I compared him to Faulkner I pointed out the way Faulkner used his fictional geography to explore deep within the character of the south, where Harington used his Stay More to move outward, to wider issues. Similarly, I mentioned the awards Harington won as a southern writer to belie his own disavowal of regional status; despite his best efforts, he was always going to be cherished by the area that provided him with his backdrop and his fictional tools.

Also cut was mention of his second Stay More novel, Some Other Place, The Right Place (1972), which was made into an interesting looking film called Return (1985) with Frederic Forrest and Anne Francis. Harington and John Irving share some characteristics, one of which is the sense of authorial omniscience, though Irving is more 19th century, while Harington is more like the 18th,
although sometimes cinsciously post-modern, like the John Barth of The Sot Weed Factor or Giles Goat Boy perhaps. His work was always too unique to reach wide popularity, but since Toby Press is keeping all his books in print, he's now easier to discover than ever.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

MARK HARRIS: THE LOST GUARDIAN OBIT

NOTE: Here's another obituary, written for the Guardian in 2007, but not published, probably because the centrality of baseball to Harris' appeal seemed a little outre, if not inconsequential, to them. Oddly, cricket has never spawned a sub-genre of literature the way baseball has. But as you will see, although the Wiggen novels are impressive, and Bang The Drum Slowly remains one of the best baseball, indeed sports, movies, Harris' credentials went far beyond that. I found the copy when I was filing an obit of another somewhat negelected novelist, Donald Harington, to the paper today, look for it soon.

Although he wrote 18 books, including novels, memoirs, and literary criticism, Mark Harris, who has died aged 84, will be remembered best for four novels narrated by Henry Wiggen, a left-handed baseball pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths. No sport has been transformed into more lasting literature, and, with the arguable exception of boxing, into better films, than baseball; Harris is unique in that his most famous novel, Bang The Drum Slowly is considered one of the very best set in the world of baseball, and its film adaptation, for which he wrote the screenplay, routinely features near the top of lists of successful sports movies.

The novel was the second to feature Wiggen, introduced as the author of The Southpaw (1953). Left-handed pitchers are baseball’s eccentrics; it is telling that their signature pitch, a reverse-breaking curve, is called a ‘screwball’. Harris’ (and Wiggen’s) style was influenced by the baseball fiction of Ring Lardner, particularly You Know Me, Al, but on publication he was often compared to Bernard Malamud, whose The Natural had appeared the previous year. But where Malamud was recasting myth, Harris used the quotidian nature of the baseball season to reflect everyday life, and the baseball team to mirror society.He once explained that ‘the society of boy games is a miniature of the larger society of men and business,’ and that some writers understood that and some did not.

Bang The Drum Slowly appeared in 1956 (that's a 1956 shot of Harris from Sports Illustrated above) and was immediately adapted for television with Paul Newman playing Wiggen and Albert Salmi as his dim-witted and much-ridiculed catcher Bruce Pearson, who thinks Wiigen's nickname 'Author' is actually 'Arthur'. In the film, Michael Moriarty, looking every inch a pitcher, played Wiggen, while Robert De Niro, less convincing with his baseball mechanics, was endearing as Pearson, whom Wiggen discovers is suffering from terminal Hodgkins disease. With Wiggen orchestrating Pearson’s acceptance, the catcher blossoms and the team wins. Harris downplays the baseball melodrama in favour of wryly comic insights expressed best when Wiggen initiates Pearson into the card game ‘TEGWAR’, The Exciting Game Without Any Rules’, and eventually allow him to win. After Pearson’s death, Wiggen meditates on what he has learned: ‘from here on in, I rag nobody’.

Concerns with prejudice, peace, and justice permeate Harris books. His characters are often trapped between worlds, an echo of his own life story. Born Mark Harris Finkelstein in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon, he changed his name legally after serving in the army in 1943-44, advised that he would have a better chance at a writing career without such an obviously Jewish surname. He worked in New York on the short-lived left-wing daily PM, and for International News Service,then in Chicago for Black Digest and Ebony. His first novel, Trumpet To The World (1946) is about a struggling black writer who marries a rich white woman.

While working as a magazine writer, he earned bachelors and masters degrees in English at the University of Denver, and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 1956. While studying at Denver he wrote City Of Discontent, (1952) an off-beat study of both the poet Vachel Lindsay and his home city of Springfield, Illinois. After Wiggen’s third book, A Ticket For A Seamstitch (1957), Harris turned to more mainstream novels, with perhaps his best book, Something About A Soldier (1957). Its protagonist, Jacob Epp, (ne Epstein), is disillusioned by both the war and by racial injustice. He goes AWOL, and winds up in prison writing out his process of self-discovery. Sixteen years later, confronted with the Vietnam war, Harris wrote Killing Everybody (1973), a more diffuse and much darker work, focussed on parents who’d lost their son in the war.

Harris often used narrators to highlight his seemingly-natural style of humour. Wake Up Stupid (1959) and its sequel, Lying In Bed (1984) take the formof letters written by Lee Youngdall, a novelist/teacher/boxer whose character bears obvious parallels with Harris’ own. The eponymous protagonist of The Goy (1970) keeps a life-long journal detailing the conflicts which follow his marrying a Jewish woman. Harris’ own journal-memoirs, Mark, The Glove Boy or The Last Days of Richard Nixon (1964) and Twenty-One Twice (1966) anticipated the blurring of the line between novel and non-fiction by writers like Norman Mailer and Robert Coover (himself the author of the novel The Universal Baseball Association). He maintained his playfulness in a more formal autobiography, The Best Father Ever Invented (1976).

Harris’ baseball non-fiction was collected in Diamond (1994) and his short-stories in The Self-Made Brain Surgeon (1999). He maintained a parallel career as an English professor, including twenty-two years at Arizona State, where he retired in 2002. He published another eclectic work of criticism, Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck in 1980. The previous year, the final Wiggen novel, It Looked Like Forever chronicled the now-39 year old pitcher trying to cope with the loss of his fastball. As a metaphor for the aging process, many writers have done worse. He died a month after breaking his hip and contacting pneumonia, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by his wife of more than sixty years, Josephine, two sons and a daughter.

Mark Harris (Finkelstein)
Born 19 November 1922, Mount Vernon, NY
Died 30 May 2007 Santa Barbara, California

Saturday, 14 November 2009

ROBERT B PARKER'S PROFESSIONAL

If you were looking for a book to sum up all the strengths and weaknesses of Robert B Parker's Spenser novels, The Professional might well be it. On the surface, it's a perfect set-up for the tough yet sensitive private eye whom almost all women seem to find irresistible; Spenser is hired by a group of four trophy wives, all of whom are being blackmailed by a gigolo, and none of whom wants their husbands to know. But when Spenser finally tracks down the stud in question, whose name is Gary Eisenhower, aka any number of more sophisticated aliases, things don't go quite the way he planned. First off, he feels a certain amount of sympathy for Gary, which appears to arise from an instinctive understanding of Gary's almost sociopathological disorder. It doesn't take Spenser long to figure out Gary likes the feeling of outdoing the big men who keep the trophy wives, and he also finds that Gary is relatively honest, within the framework of being a blackmailing gigolo. Then one of the wives, Beth Jackson, gets threatened. And her husband, Chet, who's on the shadier side of business, turns up dead. And Gary turns up as the prime suspect.

What's most interesting here is the way Spenser treats Gary, almost professional to professional, men who follow the codes of their chosen professions, by which I don't mean irrresistible stud. It doesn't quite work that way, but there seems to be an element of moralising going on here; Gary's blackmail is not such a bad thing because people need to be responsible for their actions—the most noble character in the book is a college president who stood up to Gary when he blackmailed her and faced down the consequences. I was wondering if Eisenhower was supposed to refer us back to the up-tight Fifties, when blackmail was rife. And where Beth Jackson might have stepped right out of a John D MacDonald novel, as longtime Spenser readers might imagine, Gary's neurosis provides plenty of fodder for Spenser and Susan Silverman to discuss, and thus prove to us that their relationship transcends such things. And that is where the weak points begin.

The Gang of Four wives are portrayed with a fairly shallow touch of caricature, their stories irrelevant apart from one wife who's protecting her gay husband's secret. Chet, it turns out, is in the classic film noir scenario, in love with a woman he knows is no good; he even confesses to Spenser that he's had therapy for this, before asking Spenser in another scene if he thinks he's a psychiatrist himself. Of course he does, Chet! There is a hugely funny scene where Chet tells Beth she can go off with Gary, except he'll cut her off completely from his cash, and she looks at Gary for advice and he says 'take the money, that's what I'd do.'

But the biggest problem with the story is Beth, who turns out to be a less than compelling femme fatale. Parker even goes as far as providing her with a semi-sympathetic back story, but it isn't enough; her character remains one dimensional (two, if you include sex, or the promise thereof). Beth needs to manipulate men to get what she wants, and, it occurs to me she might well be the professional of the title. But athough she's not a compelling character herself, Parker has set up a compelling end. It's not particularly original, and one gets the sense that the story has been constructed to get us to that place, but it works particularly well for two reasons. One is that the story has also been constructed to set this relationship off against many of the others, and the contrast is powerful. The other is that Parker remains a master of tone. Usually that tone is flippant, lightly entertaining, wise-crakcing; Chandler with a degree in psych. Detectives and shrinks are the real professionals of his books. But sometimes, his tone can be exactly right for the emotional effect he wants to convey, and that's what it is here. It's a moving ending, in a downbeat way, and all the better because Parker doesn't try to make it louder.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

GLADYS GILLEM: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Gladys 'Killem' Gillem is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. The expression 'she's a pistol' doesn't have much currency today, but that's what she was.

Monday, 9 November 2009

IN NEW YORK, MONEY TALKS...

It's been a big week in the Big Apple. On Tuesday, Michael Bloomberg was elected to his third term as mayor of New York. The next night, the New York Yankees won their 27th World Series baseball championship, their first since 2000, to cap off their inaugural season in the brand-new Yankee Stadium. The next day, Happy Days Were Here Again on Wall Street as the Yankees celebrated with an old-fashioned ticker-tape parade. Behind the triumphalist cheering, the reality implicit in the imagery was easy for most New Yorkers to miss, as plain as a Leni Reifenstahl film to those of us outside the five boroughs.

Once upon a time, the tape cascading down from the windows of the financial institutions (in the days when such windows actually opened), came from the tickers of the brokers and merchant bankers. It was a tangible, if disposable, symbol celebrating the triumph of another old-fashioned American value: the power of cash. New York may have been the epicenter of the world's financial meltdown just a few short months ago, but you wouldn't have known it last week. It was as if Wall Street were celebrating, not just the Yankees' win, but the triumph of money itself. Because both the Yankees and Bloomberg, who made his fortune providing Wall Street's news, gained success by following a simple formula: outspend your opposition, outspend them by huge margins, and then keep on spending like it's 1999.

Some baseball traditionalists poo-poohed the idea that this Yankee win was a product of financial leverage. After all, they said, the Yankees have had baseball's largest payroll for each of the past eleven seasons, and for the last eight seasons had not won a championship, despite spending a total of $1.4 billion on player salaries in that time, roughly $500m more than their closest competitors. If money could buy success, the Yankees would never have been beaten.

Similarly, political analysts pointed to a lackluster campaign run by Bloomberg's Democratic opponent, William Thompson. A more fiery candidate, with better backing from his party, could have easily overcome a 14-1 deficit in campaign spending. Exactly how no one really explained.

Bloomberg, who had earlier campaigned for term limits, and then overturned them to allow himself another run, was, for this campaign, rebranded from Michael, New York Democrat turned Republican, to 'Mike', tough Conservative and just your simple average billionaire next door; an urban, Jewish Shrub Bush. 'Mike' became the predominant one-word identification on his campaign posters, as if he were already as iconic a figure as, Cher, Madonna, Roseanne or, say, Stalin. There was more than a hint of Stalinism (in a capitalist version) in the prospect of 'Mike' buying his way into perpetual rulership of the city. Since Republicans are outnumbered in the five boroughs by a margin almost as large as Bloomberg's spending advantage, this cult of the individual served to create an aura of inevitability about his re-election. Success was portrayed as breeding success, a self-fulfilling prophecy which worked to restrain the campaigning of some Democratic officials, especially those who have to work with the mayor, on behalf of their own candidate.

This season the Yankees' best-paid player, the steroid-stained Alex Rodriquez, received $33m. This was less than four million dollars short of the entire team payroll for the Florida Marlins. Like Bloomberg, Rodriquez is known by his nickname, A-Rod (or, after his steroid use became public, A-Roid). He too has been rebranded: from drugs cheat, serial adulterer, Madonna trophy-stud, and selfish choker of previous failed Yankee teams, to all-around nice guy and team leader of the current champions. In fact, it's hard to recall such a complete turnaround from the tabloid press, at least not since Princess Diana's tragic death turned her overnight from international slut and object of journalistic scorn to the people's saint.

Rodriquez and fellow sluggers Derek Jeter and Mark Texieira combined to rake in $75.2m in salary, more than the total payrolls of 16 teams. Throw in the Yankees' three top pitchers, for another $46.7 million, and the team's' six biggest stars earned $121.9m, slightly more than all 25 Boston Red Sox. And the Red Sox had the fourth biggest payroll in baseball! Texieira and pitcher CC Sabathia were considered the two best players available in last winter's free agent market; the Yankees, of course, signed them both.

They can do this because they have huge resources available to them, primarily their own subscription TV channel offering the team's games at premium prices to the nation's biggest television market. The brand-new Yankee Stadium boasts the highest ticket prices in baseball. Where the original stadium looked like a temple from the outside, the new version resembles a faceless bank or, yes, Stalinist ministry, as if 'Mike' had ordered the federal reserve moved up to the Bronx. It is the House That Ruth Built on steroids, its exterior swollen by massive walkways leading from 'shopping experience' to 'eating experience', the concrete paths already cracked as if the stadium itself were rebelling against being turned into a mall with a 'baseball experience' in its piazza. 

The playing field itself has been shrunken, like a steroid abuser's testicles, to bandbox proportions, a home-run friendly design which, in fairness, echoes the Babe Ruth-friendly proportions of the original. It may be garish, it may be expensive, but it's New York's, it's a winner, and New Yorkers have proven they will pay to follow a winner. In some cases any winner. Many of those celebrity fans devoted in the 1980s to the then-edgier stars of New York's other baseball club, the Mets, switched long ago to the more successful Yankees. We're lookin' at you, Spike Lee. The Mets have a new stadium of their own, Citi Field, sponsored by a bank, and built, like Yankee Stadium, next door to its predecessor. Sadly, Shea Stadium was located, like the New York World's Fair for which it was built, in the flight path to LaGuardia Airport, and the modern version echoes the same sense of planned obsolescence of the original.

Bloomberg seems to have internalised the Yankee blueprint. According to figures released 10 days before the election, he had already spent more than $85 million on his campaign. Those tracking the huge flood of advertising as election day closed in estimated Bloomberg's final spending total to come in around $110m. Of course Bloomberg, whose personal fortune is estimated at $16 billion, can afford it. The hapless Thompson had spent a mere $6m a week before the election—Bloomberg's 14-1 spending advantage is likely to have widened in the campaign's final week.

It doesn't seem to worry Americans that winning election as mayor of New York costs only half a much as winning the 'world' championship of baseball. And it certainly doesn't bother New Yorkers, who have an old saying: 'money talks and bullshit walks'. Let the losers gather the bovine droppings. New Yorkers don't worry that the Yankees' payroll of $208 million dollars was about 50% more than baseball's second most-expensive team. Especially because that team, with a payroll of $136m, was, of course, the Mets. It may have puzzled the perennially disappointed Mets fans, the hard core who haven't followed the herd to the Bronx. But it probably pleased many non-New Yorkers that at least the Mets didn't even make the post-season playoffs (nor did the team with the third-highest payroll, Chicago's perennially hapless Cubs). It may also be reassuring for non-New Yorkers to assume that, for now, 'Mike' Bloomberg has no Presidential ambitions. At least not this week. After all, most of the country are not Yankee fans. And can't necessarily be bought, not even by a winner.

Friday, 6 November 2009

ELLROY'S BLOOD'S A ROVER: THE SPECTATOR REVIEW

November is Ellroy Month at Irresistible Targets! If you follow the link here you can read my review of Blood's A Rover, in today's edition of the Spectator. I'll be writing about the Ellroy tour of the UK soon, and may even resurrect the long-lost Headpress interview essay as well. Meanwhile, it's interesting to compare the covers of the US and UK editions: the US (below left) is far more atmospheric, while the UK (right) seems designed primarily to sell the 'Ellroy' brand. Whatever works....

FRANK BATTEN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Frank Batten, who started The Weather Channel and ran both Landmark Communications and served as chairman of Associated Press, is in today's Guardian. You can link to it here. He seemed a uniquely exemplary media mogul, almost Capra-esque, which the Guardian's desk had picked up on astutely when they asked me to write it.

Fellow pedants who follow paper's style guide will note the contrast between their use of caps in Culver military academy and the US Merchant Marine Academy, in consecutive sentences.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

WAVE: A POEM, AND THE LONDON MAGAZINE LAUNCH

If you're in London tonight, I'll be reading a poem (or two) as part of the launch of the Oct/Nov issue of London Magazine, in which my tribute to William Burroughs' Naked Lunch appears (note, you can find that essay, which I reprinted in 2011, here). It's at the Opera Gallery in New Bond Street, at 7:30pm.

One of the poems I will read will be this one, 'Wave', which takes its title from a song by Antonio Carlos Jobim. I heard the great Al Cohn play his arrangement of it one night in May 1987 at the Pizza Express in Dean Street, where I had taken the beguiling Sarah Brown, 'the girl with the million dollar eyes'. I scribbled what follows on a napkin that night, and it came out virtually fully formed, as it were, from that wave. It was published a few months later as part of a three-poem sequence called 'Solo Trio' in Infolio (Cambridge). Then in 1992 in the US in Shadowplay (Grand Isle, Vermont), and in Canada in 1993 in the Windhorse Review (Yarmouth, Nova Scotia). What you read here, what they printed, and what I will read tonight, is virtually unchanged from that Pizza Express napkin. Thank you Sarah. Thank you Al.

WAVE

The sun sets twice into the same stretch
Of water; small fish hop out of the waves &
Walk on shore. In a cafe set under the only tree in sight
The tableclothes are folded; everyone is going home.
It is the dead hour of the morning; there is nothing
That is not either ending or beginning now.
With nothing else to think of or to do I fall asleep.
In my dreams, the sun sets only once each night.
In my dreams, no fish can walk.

MICHAEL GOLDFARB'S EMANCIPATION AT GLOBAL POST

Michael Goldfarb's column at Global Post includes the first of three extracts from his new book, Emancipation, published in the US by Simon & Schuster. He uses a fascinating section about Napoleon's conquest of Ancona and subsequent liberation of the Jewish ghetto there to discuss the current debate on 'assimilation' of Europe's Moslem population...you can link to it here.

Next he'll need to draw parallels between Napoleon at his most meglomanical and Michael Bloomberg...

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

THE HARPSICHORD: JANE CAMPION'S BRIGHT STAR AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Bright Star (currently in the London Film Festival and opening 6 November) marks a return to costume drama for Jane Campion, and revisits many of the same themes as The Piano, albeit with literature substituted for music. Pitched somewhere between the symbolic and silent story-telling of The Piano and the ethos of the celluoid world of Jane Austeniana, the film struggles to decide just who is whom in its romantic triangle, and just what its central issue ultimately is.

Partly, of course, this is because we know (or at least those of the audience who still have read poetry know) that Keats' romance with Fanny Brawne is never consummated, that he will die of 'consumption' (which, as Susan Sontag pointed out, was the Victorian Romantic way of investing tuberculosis with the tragic power we now give cancer), and his poetry will not be recognised properly within his lifetime. Thus the film flounders about looking for ways to move itself from one recitation of a Keats classic poem to the next; it would have been nice to hear Keats read Fanny one of his less well-known verses for a change, before moving on to their inevitable parting and his equally inevitable death.

The Piano was, at heart, about a woman's struggle with the strictures of society; Ada does not participate in society by speaking (though she signs, which seems a rather hypocritical compromise), she has had a child out of wedlock, and is 'sold' into marriage in New Zealand, where she eventually falls in love with the one European who has actually left his society for another, a sort of Pacific rim Dances With Wolves. As in The Piano, Campion tries to establish a triangular relationship; in this case between Keats, Fanny, and Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown. Fanny quickly announces that Brown is her 'enemy', even before she has fallen in love with Keats, and Campion will play on a sublimated homosexual attraction more and more blatantly, and contrast Brown's appalling lack of fashion sense with Fanny, who is, in the film's worst conceit, a Designer. Fanny shows up in each scene with a new outfit, designed and made by herself, as if materials had no cost in those days. It is an attempt to show her as practical, as well as witty, but it jars. The costumes are part of a film that is, in every sense, a showcase for Abbie Cornish, and it is thus pitched at a level of quiet that lets her dark expression and bright clothing speak for her.

Brown is played by Paul Schneider as a wild man, George Baines in NW3. Campion must see something intrinsically wild in American actors, and here it contrasts with the true heart of an Antipodean actress with a resemblance to Nicole Kidman. But where, in The Piano, the wild man turns out to be the one with the equallty true heart, here it is Brown who is false. In fact, the valentine's card he sends Fanny, which turns Keats into a raging bull who pins him up against a Heathen tree, is the exact equivalent of the message on the piano key which sends Stewart into a violent rage in The Piano. Oddly, in this film Keats' consumption is brought on by a trip on the outside of a coach from London to Hampstead in the freezing rain; in reality it seems to have been the result of a trip to Mull with Brown, which would have been all the more reason for Fanny to villanize him! What is exceedingly odd however, is the film's title, taken from a poem about steadfastness, because the character who most wishes he were 'as steadfast as thou art' is neither Keats nor Fanny, but Brown. That he in the end is revealed as a cad, who impregnates a servant girl, is confirmation of this conundrum.

The problem is that Keats becomes the Ada figure, communicating through his own sign language (poetry) which no one understands except Fanny (and, inconveniently, his friends who thus must mostly remain offstage in this film). This requires that Fanny has to be both Flora , and the Stewart character, the one bound to societal strictures. Keats cannot marry Fanny because he has no money; even she understands that. But the pathos of that conflict is lessened by our knowledge that Keats also cannot marry Fanny because he is going to die.

The real core of the film is the attempted transformation of Fanny from restraint to passion, and back again to restraint, and it is here that Campion's silences are best used. There are some wonderful set-piece scenes, the lovers touching opposite sides of the wall, for example, that convey the story far better than internal monologues or joint recitals of Keats' poetry. Keats' departure is a truly gut-wrenching scene, because it is so brilliantly underplayed, and sets up Cornish for a big finale when news of his death reaches the Brawnes, interrupting their everyday life, in the kitchen, in an off-handed way. Campion channels some of the strongest emotion, as she did in The Piano, through a child, in this case Fanny's younger sister Toots, played nicely by Edie Martin. Visually, as you'd expect, it's lovingly constructed, with both the houses and Hampstead Heath used to accentuate the characters' emotions, to pin them in or set them free. It made me long to live in Hampstead again!

Perhaps the less one knows about Keats, the more one will enjoy Bright Star. His circle of friends, those who believed in his talent, are shown as a supporters club, but have no relationships with him, as if giving Leigh Hunt or Charles Cowden Clarke personalities would somehow diminsh Brown's lugubrious presence. Ben Whitshaw's Keats is the ultimate Romantic poet hero, alone and palely loitering from the start. In some ways he's like one of those teenaged vampire heroes in todays film and television, without the power once the sun goes down, but with that same kind of doomed, half-dead beauty. This may be a reflection of the screenplay's source, Poet Laureate Andrew Motion's recent biography of Keats, which shall we say embraces the tragic romantic ideal. John Gittings' 1968 biography is somewhat more straightforward, no less tragic, but probably not as open to turning Fanny Brawne into a fashionista and Brown into Mr. Toad of Toad Hall.

To be honest, although all the reviews and publicity will probably emphasize the differences between Jane Campion's costume drama and mere costume drama costume drama, the reality is that this film works best exactly on the level of standard period drama, and Campion's exquisite visual sense of the dramatic make it an excellent example of that sort of thing. Where it tries to extend itself into the sort of unique set of conflicts that made The Piano memorable, Bright Star stumbles somewhat over its own costumes. Perhaps I need to sharpen my own negative capability a bit.