Tuesday, 27 July 2010
In fact, there are a lot of familiar elements, and not just from boxing stories or the real world of boxing. Hauser has written one of the best books on Muhammad Ali (His Life And Times) and other good books about the sport, whose point of view can be gleaned from titles like A Beautiful Sickness. He's also written widely outside the field, with a definite romantic edge. He's well read within the field, and out of it, but there isn't a lot in his own fantasies that's very new. It was telling in our Open Book discussion that Prof. Kasia Boddy brought up Jack London's tales of women watching, or waiting, while their men box, because Melissa, the educated woman who's seen him fight, is a construct with fewer dimensions than London's turn-of-the-last-century women, and immediately after the hero meets her, he asks us: 'How do you respond when a woman who's more beautiful than any fantasy you've ever had comes up to you on the street and says "you're the fighter"?'
The echoes of Love Story and the admission of fantasy aren't surprising, since the love story here is two dimensional if not second-hand. Indeed, they could be seen as ironic in a very subtle way. But not when you consider his response to Melissa: 'that's one way of defining me', which is certainly a fantasy response for any boxer in this world, but more to the point sums up the book's central failing, it's point of view.
Hauser has certainly been influenced by W.C. Heinz's The Professional, still as great a boxing novel as has ever been written. As I mentioned in my recap of the Open Book discussion, The Professional is narrated by a magazine writer, thus it's point of view is that of the erudite observer, and the voice of the people within the world of boxing contrasts with the narrator's, and one of the book's points is that it is no less accurate, and truthful, and in fact may be moreso. But Carver Boyd is told in the first person, which means the boxer himself is given a point of view which all too often turns obviously into Hauser's own, and there is a far greater distance between him and the world on which he reports. The boxer narrator narrator is far too mature, far too erudite, far too ominsicent; he is in effect Hauser, just as Heinz's narrator was Heinz, but Heinz was a journalist and Hauser isn't a boxer.
But it makes sense, because the villains in the story are Boyd, the reigning heavyweight champ, described as a more violent successor to Mike Tyson, but obviously his clone, and Boyd's promoter, Vernon Jack, just as obviously Don King, and the explanations of the backroom dealings need to be told by a journalist--if their resolution, a victory of sorts over the Don King figure in terms of future promoting, seems even more fantastical than our hero's romance! Where the first person works best is in its description of the fight itself, which is always one of the tests of boxing writers. Like the fights themselves, a good account can enthrall even the most neutral observer, the human drama is just too great. And when it is the fighter narrating it, it carries even more immediacy, and is easily the book's strongest selling point. But when you're that good at writing your boxing with close-up accuracy, it reveals the abject fantasy of the rest the book even more starkly.
In that sense, Hauser is his own worst enemy. I wondered if he was consciously seeking to be inspirational, attract the Mitch Albom, Saturdays With Morrie crowd, or whether this was simply a paean to a lost time in boxing, before the Kings and Tysons. Perhaps when it was more white. His anonymous hero in that context could be seen as an amalgam of Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jim Jeffries, and James Braddock. He really should have been named Jim.
Monday, 26 July 2010
Ed Brubaker is one of the most interesting writers in the field of neo-noir, but perhaps because he writes for comics he doesn't seem to get the attention he deserves. When people talk about the comics medium, it's usually to express the way it allows the same sort of story-telling possibilities as film, but without some of film's limitations. A corollary to this is the fact that it allows writers to work visually, and thus to explore the original attitudes of a genre which, as it developed almost parallel in film and fiction, is itself hugely visual. And it certainly isn't a new idea to have the creator of a tough-guy detective fall into what might be one of his character's stories, but Brubaker handles it do deftly, and with such invention, you'd think it was all brand-new.
The artist in this case is Jacob Kurtz, and he draws a daily comic strip called 'Frank Kafka, PI'. The literary allusions aren't subtle, but they're not meant to be. Kurtz's wife disappeared, and he was suspected of her murder by both the police and her gangster uncle, Sebastian Hyde, who controls crime in Center City, and who had him beaten to the point of death. When her body turned up, the father, feelings slight remorse, arranged for Kurtz, by now having made a miraculous recovery to the point where he can walk again, to get the strip, and as the story starts we see him lost in the darkness of insomniac creativity, a figure in the modern urban jungle not that different from the Conrad's Mr. Kurtz. You may recognise the setting, for its where all Brubaker and artist Sean Phllips' Criminal series has been set, and there are subtle links to other stories from the series.
One night, in the Blue Fly Diner, he watches a mean hood abusing his red-headed girlfriend, gets involved to his cost, and, leaving for home, finds her hitching a ride. Anyone familiar with the tropes of noir will know what begins when she climbs into his car, a steadily downward spiral that eventually involves the girl, the boyfriend, and even the cop who pursued Kurtz for his wife's murder, and whom he's now revenged himself on by drawing him into the Kafka strip as a buffoon.
Center City as drawn by Phillips has a certain noir timelessness, something reinforced by the very fact of a daily comic strip, already an anachronism. Kurtz himself resonates with an earlier era, say the 50s, a loser worthy of Jim Thompson. The Kafka strip provides a sharp contrast, and another neat parallel to Bad Night itself; the old story within a story, but again, Brubaker gives it another twist. And equally, although it's one we've seen before, I found its uses here original.
As I say, if you're familiar with noir you will be familiar with Bad Night, but it will still surprise, and please you. Tom Cruise and Sam Raimi were making a version of Brubaker and Phillips' Sleeper, and he won't be a well-kept secret for too much longer...
Thursday, 22 July 2010
I wrote a quick response and posted it there, but I thought I'd share that response with you here, and add a few small second thoughts...
Very nice piece–and interesting speculation. I havent read No Pockets For A Shroud (though I should have by now) but it seems to fit in with a number of works, going back to Jack London's Iron Heel and including President Fu Manchu, which speculate on proto-fascism in America: I wonder whether it’s the fatalism or the politics (or a little of both) that relate to its relative lower status?
There is that strange disconnect, more evident in noirish films, between the obviously corrupt society it portrays, and the triumph of the system (more than the little guy who is the nominal hero) which of course is what is corrupt in the first place. The honest are exceptions, and honesty is a flexible thing in the real world, and that’s what makes McCoy and Hammett (and George V Higgins) work…
Certainly McCoy is arguably the most fatalistic of all of them, which is what makes him great. In fact, you might call him at his strongest nilhilistic, which would also explain the French attraction to his work.
Footnote: I'm not sure John can get away with blaming it all on Sun Ra, but with Sun Ra, all things are possible. A college friend of mine once sat in Ken McIntyre's office while he talked to Sun Ra on the phone, and afterwards I asked him what Ken called him, Sun? Mr Ra? Herman Blount (his original name)? Wasn't it a dilemma? No, my friend answered. He just called him 'man'.
Tuesday, 20 July 2010
It would also be interesting to see the way a Frazetta cover might have affected the sales of second-tier novels, say, the sword and sorcery of Gardner Fox. He certainly did spark the Conan boom with the Lancer paperbacks in the 1960s, something I know from personal experience; it probably set my literary development back half a decade when I discovered them on the wire racks at Izzy's Smoke Shop or Chapel Street Books or wherever it was I was gathering my literature in those days.
I mention the baseball games he and Al Williamson organised. Williamson just died, and it would have been nice to have done his obit as well; like Frazetta his influence went far beyond his presence in comic books. He also found a niche in daily strips which meant we probably never saw the best he could have done after the 1960s. There's also an interesting parallel to the mainstream artists around New York at the time these guys were making their mark. Frazetta and Williamson would have fit in very well with the very masculine life style of the Abstract Impressionists, the T shirt and dungarees image, though perhaps not so much with the drinking. I think in their field they had to work too much to be hungover regularly!
Monday, 19 July 2010
I also thought one of the real beauties of the film American Splendor was the way it took Pekar and his work with the seriousness it deserved (and it is probably Paul Giamatti's best, least stylised performance). I really wanted to draw a comparison with Philip K Dick, whose 1950s work, including his mainstream novels not published until much later, usually deal with people caught in the reality of such mundane work and lives, and who like Pekar saw that as a by-product, not just as reflection of society itself. And like Dick, he was a fanatic collector of records; I would have liked to write more about his jazz reviews, but again, space wasn't available.
As with Dick, Pekar's work turned out to be prophetic, in its way, as more and more people found themselves caught up in the financial meltdowns and victimised by the antics of the money-pushers. I meant to stress the irony of his medical coverage via his employment: the Veterans Administration is, like Social Security, one of the last remaining targets of the right in their efforts to dismantle the New Deal and other post-war efforts at making an egalitarian society. For all its faults, the VA is a shining example of government run socialised medicine in a system whose flaws we already know all about.
One other thing about Pekar I enjoyed was the way he never did anything to improve his image or presentation, not for David Letterman, and not, according to one obit, for comic conventions. He remained stubbornly true to his persona, which may be seen as self-indulgence, or may be seen as a kind of Tolstoyan self-belief. It was also impressive how he turned in his last decade to different kinds of projects, things and people about which he cared deeply, in the world outside his Cleveland life.
I will also admit that Butler's landmark book Sex After Sixty is starting to look far more important to me now than it did when it was published 35 years ago....
Thursday, 15 July 2010
My boss at MLBI had lots of dealings with George at the US Olympic Committee. He was genuinely interested in helping, and could be very affable, but he was a nightmare to work with as well as for, since, as Vice President of the USOC he assumed everyone in the Olympic system was working for him. And of course, in the nightmare world of Euro-centric Olympic politics, that approach did not have many legs. He had the patience of a flea on speed, hence his nickname 'George Jettison' for what he did to managers. He did have a sense of humour, and was willing to satirise himself, although when Sports Illustrated dressed him as King George III for its cover I don't think The Madness Of George III had been written.
That's the longest obit I've done for the Indy and it could have been longer. I recall once being in the City (which is how I still think of New York), seeing Rothko and Pollock exhibitions at the Whitney and MOMA and thinking how incredible life must have seemed to adults in those days. Then I went to Yankee Stadium, and had my illusions returned back to the 90s.
Steinbrenner also introduced the singing of 'God Bless America' during the seventh-inning stretch, after 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame' and apart from my dislike of compulsory patriotism, I couldn't think of anything less keeping with the spirit of the game. But it was his politics that first got him into trouble. The first time I wrote about him was when he was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Nixon, and the piece was titled 'You Can Take The Boy Out Of Cleveland But....' and I got to recycle it in this obit. It ran almost as written, but one line that was excised, and rightly as it may not have been appropriate for an obit, was my summary of New York using their unofficial motto: 'Money talks (and bullshit walks)'. As I pointed out last November, here...
Monday, 12 July 2010
And this is a brilliant Holmes pastiche--especially as it's 'updating' the character, as it were, to act like a hermit-like 89 year old. That the actual 'puzzle' and its clues turn out to be rather mundane, indeed something the younger Holmes might have seen immediately, the way in which he reminds us of his younger talents is perfectly done.
And if the actual puzzle is rather simple, the over-arching secret, of what information the parrot actually holds, is brilliantly ambiguous, though the shadow of the book's title hangs over it all the time. This works because Chabon has built up a rich metaphoric sturcture, not least with Holmes' bees, to put the Second World War and the crimes of Nazi Germany into context, and also because that metaphor extends in many ways to the present day.
At heart, however, it's a piece of bravura writing, a beautifully structured mood, a playful but serious imagining of a famous character, and a touching little story in the end. Chabon seems energized by pop culture, and able to turn that energy into something beyond exploitation, and that's a rare talent.
It's also fascinating, in this context, to see the way the book was marketed (remembering that at no time was Sherlock Holmes mentioned). The original US hardcover, from Fourth Estate (shown above, on the left), featured the parrot, and the numerical cyphers at the center of the story, as if this were a post-modern exercise in meta-fiction. Which in fairness, it in some ways is.
The British Fourth Estate hardback (above, right) also used the parrot, but without the cyphers, and included the line 'a novel of detection' and among the three figures included in the bands across the front was one looking about as much like Holmes as it would be possible to be without actually using a Sidney Paget drawing.
The edition I read was the Harper Perennial paperback (illustrated top right), which includes interviews and feature material, designed to help it be used for study. Its cover reflects that, using something that literally might be English nostalgia but powerfully recalls vivid Holocaust images, not least those of any number of recent films. But when the book was issued in its straight forward Harper Collins paperback (left), the Nazi imagery was far more direct. I remember once being told that putting a swastika on a book cover increased sales by 10-15%, and this cover makes it look like a Jack Higgins novel.
I think the US hardcover is the cleverest, and perhaps in terms of what Chabon is doing, the best. But the Harper Perennial shot is by far the most effective in conveying the tone of the story. But it would be interesting to learn which ones sold the best, though how you might measure that (against expectations, say) I'm not quite sure. If someone has the numbers, however, I'd be happy to try.
The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Harper Perennial, 2006, £6.99 ISBN 0007196032
Sunday, 11 July 2010
In fact, the BBC's Gary Lineker was forced to argue that this mixed martial arts slug-fest, a cynical festival of fouls, ref-baiting, diving, and bad acting ('the pain in Spain lies mainly in the feign') was a 'good advertisement for football' -- solely on the grounds that at least the match wasn't decided on penalty kicks! Some advertisement!
In the end the better team won, in the sense that the Dutch were forced to adopt their very cynical tactics in order to negate the dominance of the Spanish in midfield. But their tactics depended on the English referee Howard Webb's instinct to 'ensure a good game' rather than enforce the laws of football. This means the ref should not send players off early--DeJong's spinning chest kick was worthy of Ultimate Fighting-- and thus be accused of imposing 'his mark' on the game. Webb also avoided giving a second yellow card to any number of players, including Van Bommel's foul immediately after getting his yellow, which was worse than the one for which Webb carded him, and most notably to Pujols who tried to drag down a breaking-away Arjen Robben. Robben instead got the yellow for pointing out that had he dived Webb probably would have rewarded him, but since he didn't dive Webb let it go. Of course the yellow would have seen Pujols go.
I also thought Heitinga's sending off came after a dive, but by then everyone was so fed up it seemed just desserts for the Dutch. Webb also should have sent off Joan Capdevila for an extremely cheap-shot to the turned back of a player he thought had just fouled him. The English soccer word we are searching for here is 'bottled'. Of course it is difficult when one team is playing like thugs and the other is whining and diving.
We used to call this tactic 'penalty paralysis' when it was used by the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team in the mid 1970s. Their coach, Fred 'the Fog' Shero, had won in minor league hockey, where the game was somewhat more violent and less tightly controlled, and figured that the same tactics could now work in the expanded National Hockey League, with the more diluted talent base. In hockey fights, referees almost automatically sent both players to the penalty box, therefore your goon attacking the other team's best player would get both off the ice, even if the other team's guy simply held his arms up to protect himself.
More crucially, Shero realised that if you committed 'minor' penalties (ie, fouls) all the time, the referee could not call all of them, for fear of 'killing' the game. This was the dilemma in which Webb quickly found himself trapped--having dished out yellow cards, he couldn't go back for a second without changing the whole dynamic of the game. He was more concerned with keeping the game 'even' than enforcing its laws, and dug himself a deep hole doing it.
I couldn't help but thinking that this Dutch team must have got very tired of being compared unfavourably to the great sides who lost in the finals to the home teams in 1974 and 1978, so they watched the 1978 final for inspiration, and decided to come out and play like it was 1978 again...and they were the Argentinians!
And it almost worked.
Wednesday, 7 July 2010
When I was a kid, I used to write for fanzines. It was fun, but it was a hobby, not a living. When I started working in media, and time was limited, I still wrote the occasional piece for magazines, but continued to write other reviews in my notebooks, for my own critical practice, to clarify in my own mind how I felt about things and perhaps leave conclusions for myself to draw later on. I wrote poetry, which I could do in bits and pieces, but although much of it was published in quality journals, little of it generated income. In those days, working for UPI or ABC or MLB, that wasn't a problem.
Dr Johnson said the man who writes for anything but money is a fool, and for the most part he was right. Obviously, some of the posts on IT have linked to, and commented on, published work that has been commissioned from me, or that I have sold. But just as obviously, many of the essays and reviews I've posted here are things that, a few years ago, I would have expected to have sold--and I tell myself that as my writing ability doesn't seem to have declined precipitously, changes in what we now call euphemistically 'market forces' are to blame.
I have reached a few people via this blog, and received some excellent feedback, which is the part of the writing game Dr Johnson (probably with tongue in cheek) overlooked. And I'd be happy to match the content here against a great deal of material in print or on the web (forgive the immodesty). Originally, I began this blog (actually, I started with a different, sports-oriented blog, And Over Here, and added a third, Untitled Perspectives, specifically about art, but I've left the first dormant and the other almost so) as a dry run for a website, intending it to be primarily crime-oriented. Now I'm looking at various ways to roll IT into a website, something which might act as a focus for marketing myself, as they say. If there's a problem, it's one I've encountered ever since high school, the dilemma of having too wide a spectrum of interests, and not having a specific enough focus for the market to latch on to. That's why a website, directing readers to various specific areas of interest, might work better than what I have been doing, which has been expanding the brief of IT to include whatever interests me.
In the meantime, I'll continue doing what I have been doing here, sharing work that's published elsewhere and work that I just want to share...and thanks for reading...
Saturday, 3 July 2010
Thursday, 1 July 2010
But the strength of the book is its inescapable moral rightness, which forces the reader into associations. I have mentioned the one which immediately occured to me about a society that relies on mercenaries, and it has provoked the reflections above about my own generation. I think the argument about the transformation of our societies into increasing Orwellian, and even more prophetically, Philip K. Dickian worlds, is one which needs to be addressed. And in the wake of his scorn poured on the huge bonuses paid out at Goldman Sachs, it suggests the thesis that, given their virtual control of the US treasury in the past two decades, 2008's huge financial meltdown was part of the Goldman Sachs plan, giving them total domination of the marketplace as well.
I don't think Judt is dreaming of a golden age that never existed, nor of an age of relative justice that can never exist again. But I confess that rarely can a book create such a feeling of uplift by bringing on such a sense of depression. It's a rich but bleak story. That it was written by a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease merely adds to the sense that he, and we, need to focus our minds more intensely on the moral dilemma which we have brought upon ourselves. This compact moral treatise reminds us eloquently of that fact.