Monday, 30 April 2012

T. JEFFERSON PARKER'S BORDER LORDS

The Border Lords is Parker's fourth Charlie Hood novel, although Hood is not really the main character. You can read my original review of the first, L.A. Outlaws, in the previous post here, and the same thing is true of that book. Hood's part in that story is to act as foil and contrast for Alison Murietta/Suzanne Jones and in this one he's performing the same role for two people: Sean Ozburn, an undercover ATF agent who has gone renegade, and Bradley Jones, a brand-new and massive corrupt deputy LA County Sheriff; a sheriff being what Hood himself used to be. Jones, as it happens, is Suzanne's son, and he blames Hood for his mother's death. That's a fascinating subplot, which presumably will run as the series continues, but it is Ozburn's manic odyssey as a rogue undercover that is the real core of the book. Hood tracks down the reason behind this turn, in the process hears of the strange Father Joe Leftwich, a priest who befriended Ozburn and his wife when they were on vacation, and somehow seems to be at the centre of Ozburn's behaviour.

Writing about L.A.Outlaws, I said that Parker takes risks; that novel ran the risk of being strangled by its own gimmick, but he handled it so well he got away with it. This one has a gimmick too—parts of which seem very obvious (I won't go into details, to avoid spoiling) but which connect finally into something which is more John Connolly territory, a cross-over of the supernatural into crime. It's a nice contrast, especially to the expert way Jones plays the politics of the Sherrif's department, and Hood doesn't do so well with ATF.

I'm not sure if he actually does pull it off—but that is very likely something we will find out in a future Charlie Hood novel. Which is something to look forward too, and look forward perhaps to Hood playing a bigger role—his character is still somewhat one dimensional, and it takes others to bring it out. If Parker's ultimate villain lives up to his reputation, that ought to happen. In the meantime, a UK publisher really needs to pick up these books. I've missed the second and third, The Renegades and Iron River, and a fifth, The Jaguar, is just out in the US. Omnibus time guys.

The Border Lords by T. Jefferson Parker
New American Library, $15.00, ISBN 97804512355565

T. JEFFERSON PARKER'S L.A. OUTLAWS: THE 2009 SHOTS REVIEW

NOTE: Two years ago I wrote the following review as part of my (now in limbo) American Eye column for Shots--the other part was Henry Chang's Chinatown. What the novels had in common was neither was published in the UK. I thought I'd reprint the L.A. Outlaws review here as a prologue to my review of Parker's The Border Lords, which will be the next post here. 

I jumped at the chance to pick up a 'new' T. Jefferson Parker novel when I was at the airport in New York recently, and as it turns out, that was a good thing I did, because neither the book I bought, L.A. Outlaws, nor his subsequent Renegades, has a UK publisher. This strikes me as being both unjust and amazing, because Parker's had a string of impressive standalones (and the three Merci Rayborn novels) published here. In fact, 2005's California Girls, was one of the two or three best crime novels of that year. What interests me most about Parker is the way he's willing to take risks; Fallen  could've been extremely gimmicky, but managed to avoid that fate, and I have a similar feeling about Outlaws.

Allison Murrieta is a masked bandita who performs small armed robberies and gives the proceeds to charity; she's claiming to be the descendant of the legendary outlaw Joaquin Murietta, beheaded by a posse in 1853. In reality, she's Suzanne Jones, a gorgeous school teacher who lives in the countryside a long way from downtown LA. One night, about to take down a sale of jewels, she witnesses an ambush and shootout which leaves the stones with her, and a bad gangster on her tail. Also on her tail is sheriff's deputy Charlie Hood, who is bedazzled by Suzanne Jones and her muscle cars, and soon suspicious as well.

Where Parker shines is in characterisation, and he does it here by alternating between Suzanne/Allison in first person, and Charlie Hood in third, which makes it easier for the reader to be carried away by the pace of Suzanne's life of crime. And you probably need to be carried away a little, as Charlie himself is, because otherwise you might ask yourself how, in the modern era of surveillance cameras and computers, she's able to keep Charlie bamboozled enough to keep the rest of the LA County Sheriffs force off her back. But because the pace of the story is so good, and the character so compelling, most readers will relax and go with the flow.


Of course it gets complicated: there are too many greedy people involved, as is usually the case in jewel thefts, and Murietta may be in over her head. Charlie is certainly in over his. But it is also to Parker's credit that he resolves things with some flair, including a bravura set-piece in a junkyard, but that the ultimate resolution is the kind of downbeat thing that smacks of realism, and more than justifies whatever suspension of disbelief you may have felt was necessary to indulge Murietta's career. It's a superior piece of high voltage action writing, a suspense thriller worthy of any on the market, and it seems amazing to me that this is the book British publishers would choose to leave untouched. By the way, Renegades  brings back Charlie Hood, who's an interesting study in down-to-earth, not super-hero, cop, and I'm already looking forward to that. It would be nice if I didn't have to go to America to read it!

MURRAY ROSE: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Australian swimmer Murray Rose is in today's Indy, you can link to it here. While I was researching it, it occured to me that the Australian swimmers had been eclipsed by the Eastern Europeans, and their special training techniques, but that, helped by a home Olympics, they'd pushed themselves back into the spotlight. It will be interesting to see if the home pool advantage (and attention in training) helps Britain this summer.

You can see why Hollywood might have been interested in Rose--it would be hard to imagine him looking any more Californian, and the precedent with swimmers was already established. Of course, had he examined the careers of Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe more closely, he might have spared himself the trouble!

Rose's movie career was short-lived, but I do remember him as an engaging swimming commentator, back in the days when it was still a big draw on Wide World of Sports.

Although I'm not really old enough to remember Rose's performance in Melbourne, I do recall the college swimming battles between USC, with their Aussie imports, and Yale's Don Schollander and Steve Clark, both recruited from the Santa Clara Swim Club, almost in USC's backyard. Schollander, of course, was the star of the 64 Tokyo games, which the Aussie blazerati stopped Rose from attending. Clark won three relay gold medals there, setting a world record in the opening leg of the 4x100; he couldn't swim in the individual events because he'd swum with a hurt shoulder at the US Olympic trials. Growing up in New Haven, we followed things like Yale swimming.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

MIGNOLA AND GOLDEN'S BALTIMORE

Baltimore: The Plague Ships is a vampire tale based on a conceit richer than most: a resurgence of vampires, and a plague fungus that seems to create more of them, have been the result of World War I. It is as if the metaphor of vampirism from Stoker's original Dracula (which of course began upon a plague ship of sorts), for the pent-up repressions of the Victorian era, with whose end seemed to begin the inevitable spiralling Malaise culminating in the Great War, has been released on a grand scale. Henry, Lord Baltimore's post-battlefield encounter with a king-Vampire named Haigus sparks the destruction of all he loves, and begins a revenge quest, but it is not the quest itself that makes this story interesting, but the world in which it takes place.

In fact, a series of scenes in which Baltimore, heavily armed, triumphs over huge numbers of zombies, vampires, or whatever, becomes repetitive relatively quickly. But what is fascinating is the milieu itself—the world of the Great War and its newly-minted killing machines, the effects of the plague on so-called civilisation. There are obvious metaphors here, and parallels with our modern world—war as plague, plague as threat—which are far more challenging than the current fascination with vampires as a way to work out adolescent fears/fantasies about sexuality in an overly-sexed civilisation.

This comic is a sequel of sorts to an illustrated novel published a year before by Mike Mignola (Hellboy) and Christopher Golden, who have combined to write this.The comic art is by Ben Stenbeck, some of whose preliminary sketches are appended. It's a combination of very basic horror motifs with a sort of early-sf view of the Great War; in his introduction Joe (King) Hill mentions Alan Moore's League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and that is apt, because a good way to look at Baltimore might be as the fantasy of Victorian war meeting the fantasy of Victorian horror. I've talked about Dracula, but Mignola himself dedicates the book to William Hope Hodgson who, as he says, had a lot to say about wrecked ships and fungus (you'll see the connection). In a modern world. While in itself it's not the most satisfying story, The Plague Ships is good enough to make me want to seek out the novel, Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Solider and the Vampire.

Baltimore: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Ben Stenbeck

Dark Horse, 2011,  $18.99, ISBN 9781595826770

Monday, 23 April 2012

CHARLES COLSON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Charles Colson, Nixon's hatchet man turned born-again evangelical and prison reformer, is up at the Guardian online. You can link to it here, and hope to see it in tomorrow's print edition.

If I'd had more space I would have liked to detail more of Colson's dirty tricks--the one that stands out involves the assassination of George Wallace. When Arthur Bremer shot Wallace, Nixon was taped asking Colson about Bremer's politics. 'Well, he's going to be a left-winger by the time we get through,' Colson told him, and explainedhow Bremer might be framed. 'Good, keep at that,' exclaimed the President. One of the key elements of evidence against Bremer was his diary. In a long review of E. Howard Hunt's oeuvre in the New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal pointed out similarities between Hunt's spy novels and Bremer's diaries and argued convincingly that Hunt was their author. Of course, it was Colson who had brought his college friend Hunt into the White House in the first place. The pattern of creating a false leftist identity echoed Lee Oswald, while the diary was a major element of the case against Sirhan Sirhan. Just saying.

There are a couple of things missing from what I wrote, partly because the paper wanted an extended explanation of his role in Watergate, which took away part of the space from details of the rest of his life. It was a shame not to include the acronym for Nixon's Committee To Re-Elect The President, the wonderfully apposite, CREEP.

I was fascinated by a couple of links. Colson's dad did work for the SEC, but attended law school at night, and the family moved around Boston peripatetically because his mother, nicknamed Dizzy, was a sprendthift. Eventually, his father practiced law, and Colson went to Brown & Nichols. But he later claimed to have turned down a scholarship offer from Harvard to attend Brown on Naval ROTC, which seems somewhat unlikely. Of course it was at Brown that he and Hunt first hooked up.

Colson's work on Saltonstall's 1960 campaign was his first major 'dirty trick', though he claimed to have learned the basics as a teenager working on Republican governor Robert Bradford's re-election. He formed a bogus committee to link Saltonstall (Massachusetts' Republican senator) with John Kennedy (the Democratic candidate for President against Nixon). He may have had Kennedy's connivance in this, although JFK was always going to win his home state. But Colson claimed to have sent the committee's literature to 'every Irish name in the phone book', and it worked. Saltonstall ran well ahead of Nixon and won re-election to Senate.

When he and a partner set up their law practice in Boston and Washington, one of their first clients was Raytheon, a major defense contractor, a connection likely made while Colson was working with Saltonstall. But they added Raytheon's former counsel to the firm, along with the former head of the SEC, whom Colson may have known through his father. These two partners were so important, that their names (Hannah and Gadsby) replaced Colson and Morin as the firm's name. Raytheon's chairman, Thomas Phillips, would be crucial in Colson's later conversion.

The paper was also strangely reticient in labelling Colson's biographer, Jonathan Aitken, a 'disgraced' former cabinet minister--even the Telegraph called him that. I wrote that Colson might have provided Aitken with a road map to redemption (and a cynic might say to non-profit profit). Aitken would have been well aware of Colson's life after writing his 1993 hagiography of Nixon, and he followed in Colson's footsteps--highly promoted prison memoir, non-profit Christian prison reform etc--so closely that his 2005 biography of Colson could be read as an exercise in self-justification, if not congratulation. I especially loved Aitken's revealing choice of the adjective 'maniacal' to describe Colson's energy.

I didn't get a chance to go into some of Colson's positions, the most interesting of which were his efforts to form links with conservative Roman Catholic groups--something which was anathema t0 many of his evangelical followers and partners. He never sought a high political profile, like so many of often-disgraced and unabashedly political Christian conservative leaders--but he did manage to express his disappointment with the Obama presidency, saying the President had turned into 'an ideologue'--something repulsive to fundamentalists. Among his 30 books was one he co-wrote about intelligent design.

Colson was always one of the more irritating of the Nixon flunkies, though, as Greg Marmalarde would say, each in their own way was outstanding. In Colson's case it was the horn-rimmed glasses and pipe, like a character from Mad Men, and the avuncular face full of contempt for outsiders. It was a Scandinavian face not unlike my father's at the same time, when he was getting jowly, and I found that disconcerting. Colson famously had a Green Beret saying mounted behind his desk: 'if you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow'. Like many of those who display similar bravado, when the crush came, he followed with abandon.

The big problem with writing this obit, and being respectful to the dead as I always try to be in print, is that a natural cynicism takes over. I tried to express that through Daniel Ellsberg's reluctance to forgive and forget (John Dean was more forgiving). Colson's conversion came at just the right time to make excuses for a plea bargain, and avoid giving testimony. He seemed to live pretty well in his world of non-profit 'ministries', much of the funding of which came from tax dollars--at one point courts ruled against public funds paying for prison programmes that excluded those unwilling to be born again, and one thinks of many of those joining such programmes in the same way hungry men sing hymns in Salvation Army soup kitchens. I wasn't about to denigrate Colson's work--but in many ways it seemed he was propagating the same ideological agenda as he had in the Nixon White House, with a kinder, gentler front, but, as we have seen from the attitude of those born-again to those who are not, a kinder gentler enemies list as well.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

LEVON HELM: WHEN I GO AWAY

I've been thinking about Levon ever since the news came out that he was about to die. Today I put together a disc with oddities, including Levon doing Short Fat Fanny with the Max Weinberg 7 on Conan O'Brien in 1993. He wasn't out of my thoughts much all day, and I wondered what I might want to say when he did move on. This is what came out...

I remember it as one of the nicest surprises I'd ever had. First day of my second year of college, and one of my roommates, Winsor H Watson III, arrives and presents me with a copy of The Band's second album, titled, appropriately enough, The Band. I'd turned him on to Music From Big Pink the year before, when there weren't many of our freshman class playing 'Chest Fever', and he was returning the favour I guess. So I carried my primitive stereo up to the roof and we listened to it there, and now, more than 40 years later, I still can't decide which of those two records I like more.
The feel of the second one was nicer, more solid and serious. John Simon, who was already my producer of choice, got his props, and the group and their functions were laid out properly. But what I'd always loved about Big Pink was the photo on the album's inside of all the families and friends—just average people like our own families, a reminder that not every rock musician had to make his audience by rebelling against everything, that there was much to love and cherish and hold on to in the old while bringing in the new.
Levon Helm was at the core of that. The Band themselves were like a family, and at times you might like one of them more than others, but Levon was the one who seemed like the musical anchor, the one with the country voice, the dance-beat rhythm, and the love of throwing the football around the yard of that house in the Saugerties. If you were going to be in a rock band, you'd want to be in one with Levon.
You can argue about what happened after The Band broke up, who had the best career. Robbie went on to movies and some good solo albums. Richard, whose voice could make you cry, killed himself, tired of pretending on the road. Rick, the good time guy, died too—a couple of his last records are really good. Garth continued to be the enigmatic musical genius—showing up on odd records, and making one beauty of his own. They toured as The Band without Robbie and with the Cate Brothers; they toured without Robbie and Richard with some good Woodstock players but it was never the same.
Levon was always there. He did the faux Band tours, and I really like the Crowmatix disc I've had for years. But he was also with the RCO All-Stars, and with Ringo's All-Starr band—good time collections of great players who seemed to have a hell of a lot of fun doing the same great songs over and over again. And he too hit the movies, as an actor, and a damn good one—not just the roles you remember, but look for his wasted body in Shooter, or In The Electric Mist, where he plays General John Bell Hood, or his ghost, which is about the best casting I can think of. Bertrand Tavernier loved him, as a musician and as an actor. And then, after temporarily beating his throat cancer, he put together another band, went back to the roots, and won Emmys and new fans, and became an Icon—if you hang around long enough in America and keep smiling you're bound to get wide acceptance.
Go through You Tube and watch some of the Levon videos from the last few years and see if you don't smile as you see the big names lining up to play with him. There are so many versions of The Weight it will take you a sombre evening to get through them...but watch for Donald Fagen's verse on the organ, and Howard Johnson's on tuba in the concert with Wilco, followed by Levon croaking out the third verse. I know 'I Shall Be Released' is about prison, but I guess we can look at it as being about life too—not that it's a prison, but all of us have someone who's 'put me here', and all of us will be released. RIP Levon.

Friday, 13 April 2012

ROBERT CRAIS' TAKEN: THE 500TH POST

NOTE: This is the 500th post at Irresistible Targets. It may be worrying that it happens to be Friday 13th, but it is also auspicious that it happens to be a review of Bob Crais' latest novel, because he's one of those writers I've been following since the start, and one whom I've been fortunate enough to review frequently and meet up with regularly, but sadly less frequently.

IT will resume its more frequent service, I hope, now that I'm back from New Zealand and Nate is on the mend and on his way back soon. Sadly, on my way back via LA I just missed Bob and another of IT's favourite people, Michael Connelly, doing a joint appearance at the Santa Monica Library to discuss Raymond Chandler (see the photo bottom left).

Thanks to all of you who've followed IT so far--your comments are encouraged, and please pass the link onward if you do enjoy what you find here...


In his last novel, The Sentry, Elvis Cole protected his friend and partner Joe Pike. It didn't take long to pay the favour back. In Taken Cole is hired to find a young woman who has gone missing, and, as it turns out, she's been tkidnapped by bajadores, modern-day bandits who steal whatever the Mexican cartels are smuggling across the border. In this case, it's people, and they extort money from the families, no matter how poor, then kill their victims rather than return them. As Cole notes, it's a business dependent on quantity of kidnappings, not quality. And with Cole involved and turning over stones, the case grows to include both the cartels and the Korean mafia, the ATF, and eventually, Cole himself, when he too becomes one of the taken. But that brings Joe Pike into play.

Taken is one of Robert Crais' most ambitious novels. It begins like a classic Cole—we've almost forgotten how irreverent about hard-boiled conventions the early Elvis was, and indeed here, when he is hired, it is as the 'World's Greatest Detective'--an ironic part of his personality which has pretty much disappeared over the years. With Cole a prisoner, the novel flips, and then becomes a Joe Pike story—but not in the 50/50 mix you might expect. Because Crais does something very daring, shifting not only between multiple points of view, but also multiple timelines, moving back and forth between not only his two protagonists, but also the kidnapped girl, her boyfriend, their fellow captives and their captors. It truly is the story of all the taken.

And a brutal story it is. Last time I interviewed Bob (for Shots, on publication of The Sentry last year; you can link to it via here) we talked about Don Winslow and Savages, his exceptional and very brutal cross-border story. It seems inevitable that the excellent crime writers Los Angeles can boast would begin to focus south, and on the border, and Crais has moved adeptly into territory worked so well by Winslow and Jeff Parker. And for him, it's a difficult tightrope to walk: Pike is a character who can deal with violence and keep even huge body counts on an even keel for the reader, but Cole's character is different. Over his past few novels, Crais has brought the characters closer together, and here he's got the tone right throughout, balancing brutality with humanity. And it ends with a simple scene that is so Californian in its metaphor, yet so touching as well, that it re-validates the whole concept of the book (validate, of course, is a key Californian word).

Along the way we also see characters who seem poised to recur: Joe Pike's mercenary colleague Jon Stone and ATF bigwig Nancie Stendahl, who seems a worthy friend/foil for either Cole or Pike or both. It struck me as I raced through this compulsive story that Crais has come a long way since The Monkey's Raincoat, and so have his characters. They've grown together and the books are better for it.

TAKEN by Robert Crais
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9781409116035

JOHN GRISHAM'S CALICO JOE

NOTE: I read Calico Joe as part of my essay on baseball fiction for BBC Radio 4's Open Book last Sunday, you can link to my post about that here, and it may still be available on IPlayer if you live in Britain. I thought I'd give it its own space here, and I may look back and dig out my review of Bleachers and post it on this site later.

In Calico Joe, John Grisham effortlessly combines two of the main strains of baseball literature: the update of the classic, mythic hero tale (The Natural, The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant) and the metaphor of baseball as the key to the relationship between father and sons (the poet Donald Hall's Fathers Playing Catch With Sons). It's 1973, and a powerhouse rookie from Calico, Arkansas, Joe Castle (note the Arthurian overtones) is tearing up the National League. He becomes every kid's favourite player, even young Paul Tracey, whose father Warren is a pitcher for the New York Mets. Warren is not much of a pitcher, by big league standards, and even less of a husband and father, and it when the on-field confrontation between hero and father takes place that Paul's relationship to both his parent and the game of baseball is changed forever. Or almost forever.

It is when Paul discovers that his father is dying that the story begins, with the childhood element told in his flashbacks, and those of Clarence Rock, a local newspaperman from Calico, whom Paul visits. Which take place in the present, as Paul tries to sort out his own relationship with his father while putting the story together.

I've reviewed Grisham's crime fiction many times, and he is a story-teller who has the uncanny ability to keep the reader engrossed even as characters or situations become cliched. He skirts that here—much of what we read we've read before, and at times Rock's cracker-barrel personality and Grisham's own paeans to baseball can seem very familiar indeed. Part of that is also because baseball was part of his (and my) childhood when it still was the 'national pastime', and thus it resonates with echoes of an America we now feel is lost—that has been a theme of many writers over the past few decades—but it also reflects Paul's own life, and the loss of both baseball and his father reflect a deeper loss for him.

And overall, the effect rings more true than not, and the emotions real, and this is in part because the characters are framed by their own reticence; part of the story is the tale of getting men to admit their feelings, and in that sense Grisham's limitations work to make it more believeable. He also manages to keep the tone pitched perfectly—there is an element of suspense which becomes obvious early on if you understand baseball, and will be more of a shock the less you do, but it is rarely saccharine as some of his other writing with sports themes (Bleachers, Playing For Pizza) has been.

In fact, the British publishers were so worried that they asked Grisham to write a 15pp preface introducing baseball to their audience. This was a mistake, because the deeper you get into his explanation, the more confused you will be. It would probably have been better to let the story speak for itself, which I think it can do (even though there are people, as I pointed out on Open Book last week, when I discussed baseball novels, who will always affect an inability to comprehend sports). If they were worried he could have added a brief afterword explaining the baseball issues relevant to the book. Or they could have tried a shorter explanation to the game, written by someone who understands the British perspective as well as the game (hint?).

As someone who also has worked in baseball and knows more about it than he needs to, I was impressed by the way Grisham worked his fictional characters into the real 1973 baseball season. Joe Castle's performance is probably a bit too spectacular (see George Plimpton's Sidd Finch) to convince purists, but I think he's playing the Roy Hobbs/Natural card there. Personally, I doubt you would have seen many people wearing replica jerseys to a game in 1973, certainly no adults; that is a practice which started during the baseball revival of the mid to late 1980s (and helped spark the similar soccer revival in this country a few years later). And I was very surprised by something Grisham flat-out missed. Walt Dropo, a rookie sensation for the Red Sox in the early 1950s, was indeed called Moose, not just because he was big, but more importantly because he came from Moosup, Connecticut. His nickname reflected his smalltown origins, just like Calico Joe's.

Calico Joe by John Grisham
Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, ISBN 9781444744644

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

HARRY CREWS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the novelist Harry Crews is in today's Guardian online, you can link to it here. Note that the very first line should read 'stretching back to Edgar Allan Poe'; for some reason Poe got omitted. (NOTE: This has been corrected).

Looking at it now, I probably should have mentioned Barry Hannah, another modern Southern gothic novelist and unlikely academic, whose obit I also did for the G just about a year ago (you can read it here).

I might also have tried to stretch the point a bit, and suggest that Crews himself would have made a fine character for Flannery O'Conner novel. The quote from Michael Connelly came from one of my past interviews with him--in an interview he gave for the LA Times obituary he also said the best thing he learned from Crews was that if you were going to be a writer you had to write every day.

Monday, 9 April 2012

BASEBALL NOVELS: THE OPEN BOOK ESSAY

My essay on baseball novels was broadcast yesterday on Open Book. You can link to it here on IPlayer for a while, or listen to the repeat on Thursday on Radio 4. Obviously it was limited by time (and the relative lack of interest in baseball amongst the R4 audience) so I was concentrating on making the literary link as strongly as possible. There are a number of fine boxing novels, but I can't think of any other sport which can boast more than a couple of noteworthy works of fiction. In this country, of course, sport is not considered a fitting subject for serious fiction--laddish work, like Nick Hornby's, which draws heavily on the idea of fantasy baseball, notwithstanding--but baseball, in America, has always been seen by literati as a metaphor not only for life, but for their work.

It was nice to be able to quote from Eliot Asinof's Man On Spikes, which is fine and overlooked novel--and mentioning Eight Men Out could have led me to discuss the wealth of exceptional non-fiction writing about the game, beyond just reporting (which is also very good). I was happy to mention Harry Stein's Hoopla, another overlooked novel which is the best fiction about the Black Sox scandal. But baseball has been the subject of serious works of history and biography which again I take to be the result of taking the subject itself seriously.

Among the novelists who didn't make the final cut were John Sayles (Pride Of The Bimbos), Mark Winegarten (Vera Cruz Blues), William Brashler (The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars And Motor Kings) and Michael Bishop's Brittle Innings, which isn't a great novel, but an audacious sf book which resets Frankenstein into the low minor leagues during World War II. Of course Shoeless Joe is an sf novel too, now that I think about it.

And of course I couldn't get into the movies--and although here boxing may edge baseball as the subject of more greats (among other things, boxing's far easier to film, and you always have one strong central character) there aren't any other sports which can match the catalogue of baseball movies, both adaptations of works mentioned and original stories like Bull Durham or It Happens Every Spring.

And one thing you might not get from the readings that accompany my piece, but All-Star Game leads off Philip Roth's Melvillian alphabetical list of the things we note about baseball...it is the 'A' in the list!

Monday, 2 April 2012

MY SO-CALLED WAR: HOMELAND, GOOD WIFE, BRING THE MIDEAST HOME

A few nights ago, suffering an odd coincidence of jetlag, worry, and Channel 4 On Demand, I watched episodes of two TV series back to back. The first came from the third season of The Good Wife, Alicia's law firm brings suit against the government for torturing an American Moslem doctor whom they have accused of being a terrorist. The second was the first episode of Homeland, in which a Marine held and tortured for eight years by Al Qaeda, is rescued and returns home, where CIA agent Clare Danes suspects he has been turned.

It was like watching conflicting decades from my past battling it out for the control of small screen reality. The Fifties against, I'm not sure: the Sixties perhaps, or the Eighties. Depending on how you interpret The Good Wife.

I said the Sixties because,at times, Good Wife seems to be trying to be The Defenders for a new century (and I do not mean the Jim Belushi series, but the Reginald Rose-created EG Marshall and Robert Reed one back in the early Sixties). That show was filled with the promise of The New Frontier, a certain American liberalism which no one had yet turned into a dirty word (though sponsors still balked at some of the topics. Today they simply fund right-wing think tanks instead). More often, The Good Wife reminds me of LA Law (or indeed, ER, on which Julianna Marguiles made her name back in the days when the features on her face were still capable of movement): its heart is in the right place but with far more interest in glitzy melodrama and an optimism based on Reagan-era fantasy—which I would argue was the prevailing mode in America for two decades. In fact you might even argue that the election of Barack Obama was a last gasp of such a fantasy. Obama himself could be the considered the apotheosis of what I'd call the Sorkin Syndrome: the appearance of a left-wing agenda which when push comes to shove always winds up endorsing the American status quo, our good intentions, and the triumphs of our democracy—usually with the cast of West Wing loosening their ties, rolling up their sleeves, and drinking domestic beer from the bottle. Mitt Romney couldn't do it better.

And in fact, as if to prove my point about the halvah-like crumbling of The Good Wife's intentions, no sooner do they outline the repressive nature behind the democracy Americans have surrendered in the name of 'security', they move to an episode in which a drone operator's killing of civilians targeted by her missile turns out to be an old-fashioned good old honest error, not something endemic to the wars we send our noble soldiers to fight on behalf of powerfully vested interests. And the 'will she-won't she' nature of Alicia's personal life returns to the fray as an inevitable side-effect of the show's most interesting feature: it's matter-of-fact attitude toward Cook County politics, whose corruption never lessens its faith in democracy in action.

Speaking of noble soldiers, Homeland is a reversion to the paranoia of the early 1950s, when the McCarthyite world-view was made into drama (I Led Three Lives, Invasion Of The Body Snatches), and which reached its apotheosis in The Manchurian Candidate, which turned us into the victims of the all-powerful mentalists of North Korea. Funny how things don't change. The key thing about Homeland is that it is a remake of an Israeli series, and the world-view is one in which the powerful are actually the victims. Al Queda, like the North Koreans, are actually all powerful, infiltrating our society, ready to destroy it, or considerable portions thereof, at a moment's notice. If you think my first reaction was overly paranoid, the show itself made this clear in the close of a later episode, when Danes' psychotic CIA agent Carrie (interesting Stephen King/Brian dePalma resonance there) Mathison is visiting her sister's family so she can cop more medication to keep her functioning, explains to her niece how she literally will protect her from the nasty terrorists so she can sleep at night. The message is you have everything to fear, including fear itself (corollary: stay inside and boost our ratings by watching more TV, which will exacerbate your fear, which will...ad infinitum).

There was a reaction to this in the 1970s--sparked by the infamous Russian roulette scenes of The Deer Hunter, which led to the 'veterans betrayed' films, the Rambo franchise, but more tellingly less well-known movies like Rolling Thunder, where the returning vet is not just denied heroism, but actually robbed of it. Homeland, as we will see, plays with those tropes, but the veteran's heroism is never questioned on the outside, just the inside.

Speaking of infiltration, I find it more dangerous that Damien Lewis, a Brit who's already a veteran of DDay and World War II in Band Of Brothers, plays the returning Marine Sgt. Nick Brody, and another Brit, David Harewood (think a less intense Idris Elba with Mr. Spock ears) plays the ambitious deputy director of the CIA. Of course The Good Wife features Archie Panjabi as the sexually ambiguous investigator Kalinda, and Alan Cumming as Eli Gold, whom nobody seems to have noticed is English. This is something HUAC ought to be recalled to investigate, though I can't really complain if Archie's on our screens more as a result.

More interestingly in Homeland, Mandy Patinkin plays the CIA's top Mid-East analyst in a very Jewish way, as if to emphasise the close parallels of world view (though as I write this, there are serious smoke clouds being thrown up around his characters, and I refuse to cheat and look ahead to find out how they resolve. Even more interestingly, Brody's wife is played by Morena Baccarin, a Brazilian-born childhood friend of Danes. America really is the melting pot of opportunity! The returning soldier/wife's afffair with best friend when she thought he was dead subplot is Homeland's attempt at soap opera interest, but it never crackles—except when Brody and Carrie get it on in the back seat of a car—it's like a 50s teenager movie too!

Meanwhile, the domestic front is addressed in the person of a wholesome American woman, radicalised by a childhood in the Mid East with her oil-company employed father, who lures an otherwise assimiliated professor of Arab descent over to the dark side. America is a very dangerous place, even if you ignore the kind of American-on-American violence that is the staple of network TV. And (digression here) speaking of violence, how about the violence perpetrated against the audience when a network television 'hour' is a programme of barely 40 minutes long.

But in the end, the focus is on Danes, and she does disturbed as well as any actress around. Her ability to externalise internal torment is a masterpiece of control. Carrie's psychosis is a specific reaction to the 911 attacks—she feels she should have stopped them, and saved America, she feels compelled to try to stop the next round. It has, literally, driven her crazy, and driven her into a permanent state of battle against the shadowy enemy that, it is never suggested, may be exaggerated by her own disease. The assumption is that America, like Carrie, is walking a tightrope from which they could topple at any time. Perhaps Showtime should have called it 'My So-Called War'.