Monday, 31 March 2014

DAVE EGGERS AND CONNECTICUT: HEARTBREAKING WORK WITH THE LITERARY GPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 March 2014

ELMORE LEONARD'S ROAD DOGS: AN OBJECT LESSON IN CRIME WRITING

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 28 March 2014

THE 10 TOP DEFENSES IN NFL HISTORY: MY FRIDAY MONTHLY TIGHT END COLUMN

I write a weekly column for nfluk.com during the American football season, called Friday Morning Tight End, a play on Peter King's Sports Illustrated Monday Morning Quarterback and Gregg Easterbrook's ESPN Tuesday Morning Quarterback cols. In the offseason, it becomes Friday Monthly Tight End, and this month's column takes off from one I wrote for the online magazine Gridiron, about the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' and their defense. (Note: originally I'd linked to the nfluk web site for the article, but it, along with most of my work for them, seems to have disappeared there). So here it is as I originally wrote it:

THE NFL'S TOP 10 DEFENSES:
 
After Seattle's dominant defensive performance against what was the most formidable offensive team in the NFL, there was a rush to list the Seahawks among the all-time great defenses. In the current issue of Gridiron magazine, I compared them with the two great defenses of the past decade, the 2000 Ravens and the 2002 Bucs, and the most salient point was the way both those teams had their best players, and they were great players, at the key positions for their defense.

Along those lines, I thought to go back and pick the top 10 defenses of all time, keeping that criterion in mind. It's hard to compare statistics, because of the ways the game has changed. The 2000 Ravens allowed nearly 30 yards less per game than the 2013 Seahawks, but Seattle led the league and Baltimore was only second. In the late Seventies, easing the blocking rules and introducing the five-yard 'chuck' area on receivers opened up the passing game, and of course the modern game is even more open. So what follows is relatively subjective, based on the mix of personnel and scheme. But I don't have many surprises.

The close runners-up included the team I think might be the best comparison with the Seahawks, the 77-78 Broncos, whose lineup has a few borderline HOF players (Lyle Alzado, Randy Gradishar, and Tom Jackson) but was built around the schemes of Red Miller and Joe Collier, which influenced Bill Belichick's 3-4 schemes; Belichick's 90 NY Giants, with the four-man linebacker group of Lawrence Taylor, Henry Carson, Carl Banks and Gary Reasons; the 08 Steelers, which may have been Dick LeBeau's best group, the 63 Bears (Doug Atkins, Bill George, Joe Fortunato, Ed O'Bradovich and a great four-man secondary: Richie Petitbone, Rosey Taylor, Dave Whitsell and Bennie McRae) and maybe even the 58 Giants. But here's my top 10:

  1. Dallas 71: The Doomsday D was built around two Hall of Famers DT Bob Lilly and CB Mel Renfro, MLB Lee Roy Jordan, who's borderline HOF, and two very good players, DT Jethro Pugh and LB Chuck Howley, the only Super Bowl MVP from a losing team. I rate them above the '77 version, which still had Lilly, plus Randy White, Too Tall Jones, and Cliff Harris, but I often wonder if Tom Landry's strict reliance on his containing scheme may have held some of the players back.
  1. Miami 71-73: The players fit the scheme; Bill Arnsbarger's '53' was designed around hybrid DE/LB Bob Mathieson. MLB Nick Buoniconti is the only HOF player, but their safety pair of Jake Scott and Dick Anderson was excellent, Manny Fernandez was a prototype move DT and Bill Stanfill a fine DE. Plus they went undefeated with Doug Swift, from Amherst College and cut by the Montreal Alouettes, starting at LB. They allowed 11.8ppg during that three-year span; hard to pick the best of the three. This is one of the teams that remind me a lot of the Seahawks.
  1. LA Rams 75: Like the Cowboys, this Rams' D had one HOF DT left over from another great line, in Merlin Olson. Although the Fred Dryer, Jack Youngblood, Larry Brooks line may not quite match up to Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy, and Rosey Greir, the 75 edition also had Isiah Robertson at MLB and Nolan Cromwell and Dave Elmendorf in the secondary.

    7. Green Bay 62-67: Actually this is another team where it's hard to pick between multiple seasons. I'd choose the '66 version. HOF DT Henry Jordan had retired, but they still had five HOF players: DE Willie Davis, OLB Dave Robinson, MLB Ray Nitschke, CD Herb Adderly, and FS Willie Wood, three of whom would be in the top five alltime at their positions, and DE Lionel Aldridge, LB Lee Roy Caffey and CB Bob Jeter.
    6. Minnesota 69-71: These Vikes replaced the Pack as the NFL's best defense, built around the Purple People Eaters, arguably the best front four ever.: HOFers Carl Eller and Alan Page plus Gary Larson and Jim Marshall. FS Paul Krause is in the HOF, LB Wally Hilgenberger is another borderline case, and CB Bobby Bryant was very good. They held teams to 9.9ppg over that three-year span.
  1. Kansas City 69: The AFL pioneered a number of defensive features that became commonplace, not least the use of a nose tackle in even fronts, which was Chuck Noll as defensive coordinator in San Diego with Sid Gillman, and The Big Cat, Ernie Ladd played the nose. This was the best defense in the AFL's short history, and oddly, they were better even though Ladd, who'd joined them in 1968, and gave them a deep tackle rotation, missed the season. It didn't matter, because the starting tackles were HOFers Buck Buchanan and Curly Culp, Culp was the prototype of the smaller nose tackle who used leverage (he was a champion wrestler) to stuff the gaps. Bobby Bell, to my mind one of the two greatest OLBers ever, and MLB Willie Lanier are both in the HOF, Jim Lynch was excellent at the third spot. Emmitt Thomas had replaced Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson, and Jim Marsalis was the other corner, FS Johnny Robinson to me is HOF worthy as well.

    4. Tampa Bay 02: There aren't much better fits of personnel and system; the Bucs' best players played the key spots in the Tampa 2 defense: Warren Sapp at under tackle was unblockable when he wanted to be, and this was one of the seasons he wanted to be, while Derrick Brooks was perfect at SLB. CB Ronde Barber is a likely HOF pick, and SS John Lynch at the third key spot, is borderline. The addition of DE Simeon Rice made double-teaming Sapp more dangerous, and MLB Sheldon Quarles and NT Booger McFarland had replaced Hardy Nickerson and Brad Culpepper with no decline. Dexter Jackson and Brian Kelly had their best seasons in the secondary.
  1. Baltimore 2000 The Ravens case rests largely on the brilliance of Ray Lewis, who was certainly the best defensive player in the NFL for a number of years. Dick Nolan's defense was based on having two huge tackles, Sam Adams (much underrated as a NT) and Tony Siragusa, clogging the middle and keeping blockers off Lewis. In later years the Ravens would switch to a 3-4, and Lewis would have a rougher time making plays, having to absorb more blockers himself, but they added Ed Reed behind him. Their supporting cast would be better remembered if so many of them hadn't had careers lessened by injury; OLB Peter Boulware was a first-rate pass rusher, and corners Duane Starks and Chris McAllister both looked like they would become stars. Jamie Sharper was a fine linebacker, Kim Herring a banger at SS, and DEs Rob Burnett and Mike McCrary rarely faced double-teams because of the mess being made in the middle. They had 'only' 35 sacks but grabbed 49 take aways (Seattle had 44 and 39 respectively).
  1. Chicago 85: I don't need to tell British fans about Da Bears, but with their championhip Dyou have another system, Buddy Ryan's '46,' devised around the versatility of one very good player, safety Doug Plank (the prototype for the SS in a Tampa 2) who'd been upgraded in '85 to Dave Duerson. There were two HOF DEs in Dan Hampton and Richard Dent, a HOF MLB in Mike Singletary, two very good OLBs (Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall) another fine ball-hawking safety (Gary Fencik) and CB Leslie Frazier. Steve McMichael was very good for a short time, and the Fridge, in relatively good shape, held his own as a space-eater. They moved Hampton inside on passing downs too
  1. Pittsburgh 1976: This is another tough pick between multiple great seasons, but it's hard to argue against a team that built to coordinator Bud Carson's strengths so effectively. You probably know the names, a line with Mean Joe Greene, LC Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, and Dwight White, and behind them Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Andy Russell at LB. Mel Blount is a HOF corner, Glen Edwards was a fine free safety, and JT Thomas and Mike Wagner were very good at the other spots. They have five HOF players, and a couple of borderline cases who won't get in because of the cast around them. The Steelers' offense collapsed in 76, but this D allowed only 28 points in their last nine games to finish 10-4, and beat the Colts before losing to Oakland in the AFC championship.

Where would Seattle fit in? They have two players (Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman) whom you might say are on HOF paths with their careers, in that each is clearly the best or one of the top 2-3 at his position. Kam Chancellor, whom I thought was the Super Bowl MVP, is a very good player, and I'd put Bobby Wagner and Michael Bennett in the same category, and Red Bryant when he's at his best. That's not as impressive on paper as most of the teams above, but Seattle has exceptional depth, which they use to keep linemen fresh and to vary schemes, and their personnel is fitted perfectly to what they want to do, so the limitations of players like Bruce Irvin (who still has star potential) Chris Clemons or Cliff Avril become big strengths. In a few years people could be trying to pick which year's Seahawks' D was the best of an excellent bunch.


Thursday, 27 March 2014

LAWRENCE WALSH: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

THE BLACK EYED BLONDE: JOHN BANVILLE'S BENJAMIN BLACK'S RAYMOND CHANDLER'S PHILIP MARLOWE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Friday, 14 March 2014

IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS: THE 700TH POST

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 March 2014

JACK KEROUAC, THE HAUNTED LIFE, AND BIRTHDAYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

The force behind The Haunted Life, and The Town And The City, is clearly Thomas Wolfe. You can see in moments of Wolfe's breathlessness the beginnings of the stream of consciousness that would become On The Road. For all the importance of the meeting of minds between Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Carr at Columbia, none of them ever really adhered to the principals of 'The New Vision', their early manifesto. Indeed both Ginsberg and Kerouac worked their way through older models (Whitman and Wolfe) quite plainly; their creative group was driven primarily by the mix of personalities, not theoretics.

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

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

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

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

JOE MCGINNISS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the journalist Joe McGinnis is in today's Guardian, and online (you can link to it here). McGinnis is an important figure on two fronts: The Selling Of The President 1968 might be said to have iniated the era where politics morphed into a dog and pony show for television, and where political journalism (particularly that of broadcasters) became dedicated to showing politicians were not as good at performing as the so-called commentators. Obviously this was not necessarily McGinnis' intention, and the moves to 'democratise' the system, moving it away from bosses in smoke-filled rooms to primaries and
'super Tuesdays' exacerbated this. But the sad truth is the revelations in McGinniss' book did nothing to stop the Nixon landslide in 1972, and the '72 campaign produced a number of classic bits of political new journalism, not least Hunter Thompson's Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail.

I would have liked to go into more detail (I did slightly, but I over-wrote the piece and it did need to be trimmed somewhere) about McGinniss actual path as a journalist. To an extent he followed the classic romantic path--huge success young followed by leaving the trade to write a novel. Dream Team was very revealing, not least in terms of the breakdown of his first marriage, a topic he returned to more journalistically in Heroes.

The move to true crime may have come about by chance, but again he was ahead of the curve, and Fatal Vision can be said accurately to have opened the floodgates for true crime genre. It became a sort of mini-franchise for McGinniss: the similar titles, the accumulation of access, the sometimes controversial conclusions (in Cruel Doubt, for example, the step son and his two friends accused of the murder were said to have been influenced by an addiction to playing Dungeons and Dragons).

I never bought Janet Malcolm's theses, first that McGinnis was somehow beyond the moral pale--but it is easy to look at The Last Brother as some kind of revenge against Teddy Kennedy for having been McGinnis' hero back in the Seventies. In that he reminds me Boston sportswriters, from Ted Williams' nemesis Dave Egan to today's Dan Shaugnessy, who possess a kind of urge to cut heroes down to size coupled with a very Irish sort of revenge gene.

The other side of Malcolm's argument was that there wasn't any definitive truth, a sort of structuralist excuse that doesn't quite work in the case of a murder trial. McGinniss may well have betrayed Jeffrey MacDonald's trust--was he justified by a honest belief in his guilt, or did he, as Erroll Morris suggests, try to bend things toconvince himself and us of that guilt? One thing that was lost in the obituary was the suggestion that MacDonald's story of a hippie house invasion was very similar to the Manson family's Tate-LaBianca killings, which had just happened.

Finally, as I mention, McGinniss came full circle with Rogue, whose major point may be that today politicians are somewhat smarter about allowing access. Its subtitle was Searching For Sarah Palin, and in a way it was another kind of return, if you look at his fourth book, Going To Extremes, as being a self for himself. But in writing Rogue, McGinniss became almost a parody of himself: he knew full well that Palin was a marketing construct whose selling would put Nixon's to shame, but he was denied the kind of access that had made his career in both The Selling Of The President and Fatal Vision. So he rented the house next door, and in effect issued an invitation to Sarah Palin to welcome him in. That, of course, never happened, and McGinniss was reduced to repeating the same kind of gossip that passes for online journalism in today's politics.

Of course the main irony was that Palin's selling to America was being orchestrated by Roger Ailes, now head of the 'fair and balanced' Fox News, the same Ailes who built Nixon in 1968, and whose cynicism and contempt for the electorate were made clear in that book. It makes you wonder what might have happened had not McGinniss instinct and Leonard Garment's naievite not come together, or Jeffrey MacDonald's trust not been so misplaced, or had the OJ Simpson trial, in which Simpson's defense was another exercise in marketing, but one to whose access McGinniss was denied, not turned out differently. Would McGinniss have been a different, or better political columnist, or a superior sports writer, as he later books suggest he could easily have been? Or indeed something more?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY, & THE OSCARS

This year's Oscars see a number of good, but not great movies, battling for prizes, and one of the the best battles will come in the best actor category, where Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey would appear to be the presumptive favourites, overshadowing what might be Christian Bale's strongest performance in years, a popular comedic turn by Leonardo DiCaprio, and a valedictory trip for the inestimable Bruce Dern. And that's not even considering the snub for Robert Redford's almost wordless carrying of All Is Lost. Maybe it's because Tom Hanks got there first?

Dallas Buyers Club is a picture built around McConaughey's performance, and much of that is playing against Jared Leto, who seems odds-on favourite for the supporting actor statuette. But behind those two star takes, it's easy to miss the fact that there isn't much of a movie there, more like the embryo of a TV movie of the week.

McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, an electrician and rodeo hanger-on who contracted HIV and set up his 'Buyers Club' to circumvent regulations that prevented patients first from getting AZT, which was being trialled, and then, after AZT was approved but found by many patients like Woodruff to be ineffective, from getting other medicines that would help fight the disease's symptoms.

The film has two story arcs. One is Woodruff's own coming to terms with the disease, and with the opprobrium, from his friends and from the general public, most of which stems from the idea that they think of him as gay, which he isn't. This is something resolved through his relationship with Leto's Rayon, a pre-op transexual also HIV positive, and his own gradual acceptance of the wider community. This one works brilliantly—McConaughey's Woodruff's catches all the bigotry, the violence, and the insecurity in the character, and perhaps the most moving scene in the film is when Rayon dresses as a man to visit her father, a banker, and beg money to help Ron's business.

But the other arc, the Buyer's Club itself, is more problematic. The story becomes a steady cycle of Ron getting bad news, fighting it, running afoul of authority, briefly outsmarting authority, and then losing again. This repeats until Ron finally loses his court case against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but is welcomed back to his clinic as if he has won. The villains in the piece are doctors, customs agents, and the FDA, and while the film shows their motivation in protecting their profitable control of medication, it skates around the more interesting issue of how Ron actually functioned. The film realises this; it ends with Ron finally riding a bull, and the metaphor is clear—he was engaged in a struggle, for life as well as for success against authority, that was much like riding a bull: the aim is to stay on as long as you can, but few can stay on forever.

He uses disguises to smuggle drugs, and he plays fast and loose with the idea of his business. But early on in the movie, we've seen that Ron is a hustler—he welches on a bet at the rodeo, and fakes his own arrest to get away from the guys he has cheated. The film never deals with much ambiguity in Ron's Club; how much of it is a hustle? There is no question he uses Rayon as his entry point, so to speak, into the HIV community, and there are some scenes with him in disguise as he smuggles, but overall the story becomes one of Ron turning into a good person through his struggles against the disease.

You can see the TV movie aspect most clearly in the casting of Jennifer Garner, paled into seriousness by makeup, as a composite figure of doctors opposed to the establishment's monopoly focus and control of AZT. She also exists as a love interest of sorts (watch the movie's trailer) to remind the audience that Ron isn't really gay. There's also a fine small bit by Griffin Dunne as the outcast doctor in Mexico from whom Ron learns of and sources alternative treatments.

But the focus of the film is on McConaughey's performance, and it is formidable. Oscar loves actors playing characters with disease or disability; Oscar loves characters on the 'right' side of issues; Oscar loves actors who make impressive changes in their bodies to play a role (and occasionally accepts prostheses as well). All of which bodes well for McConaughey—but isn't meant to belittle his performance. He gets the smaller parts of the character in subtle ways, the bow-legged walk, the inflated swagger, the deflated frustration. Oddly, though, this may not even be his best performance of the year, though it is the most attention-getting and that may be his biggest Oscar trump card—McConaughey is very hot, and very good right now.

Ejiofor has the advantage in playing the lead in just the sort of movie whose worthiness Oscar also loves, and the smaller advantage of taking the Oscar voters by surprise. Which again is not to demean his performance, which is Oscar worthy, as much to point out that handicapping an award for something as subjective as 'best actor' relies on analysis of the more subjective elements influencing Oscar voters.