Tuesday, 17 July 2018


Path Of Blood opens with Ali, a young jihadi, struggling to record his suicide video. He is distracted by his comrades, he wants coffee, he is to all intents and purposes a class clown brought to the front of the classroom to recite a lesson for which he is not prepared. Ali struggles to read the script written for him; he doesn't seem to understand it; in fact he doesn't seem to understand. In April 2004, Abdul al-Mudyaish carried out a bombing aimed at the Traffic Directorate in Riyadh.

The footage of Ali was a small part of a horde of jihadi home-movies captured by Saudi security services which makes up the bulk of Path Of Blood—the only additional material is police and other video shot in the aftermath of terror attacks, during police assaults on jihadi hideouts, and Saudi leaders on inspections or meetings. It is presented without narration or commentary, and it provides a mesmerisng look inside the world of Islamic terror at the very heart of Islam itself, Al Queda's war on the House of Saud, which Osama Bin Laden ordered in 2001, and which has been being fought since at least 2003.

Since 2001, the West has been focused on Islamic terror as it strikes at western targets. It has launched invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and seen much of the Middle East crumble into chaos. Yet in the heart of Islam, Saudi Arabia, from where most of the 911 terrorists came, the threat is just as great. Where we see the Saudis subtly propagating terror elsewhere, they also face a fundamentalist assault from those who see them bending to the will of the West.

At the heart of this paradox lie these young men—drawn to the simple answers fundamentalism offers, drawn to the excitement of violence, drawn to the camaraderie of the jihadis. The parallels with various fundamentalist and nationalist organisations in the West is not hard to draw, especially as the footage in Path Of Blood shows their thrill at fighting the repression of Saudi security, their conviction that theirs is indeed a holy war. It also shows with chilling starkness, their manipulation: when a young jihadi is chosen for a suicide mission, we are struck by the detachment of the leaders sending him, not themselves, to die.

There is an element of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight here too. These kids are not worldly wise, they are just kids. We watch their drive to a training camp in the desert, like boys off to summer camp, and the thanks they give to Allah for the beauty of the setting. When they arrive the camp is a quagmire pelted by fierce rain, the tents ill equipped to cope with the muddy morass. As we watch the final raid on oil storage facility, the car with the bombs is about to run out of gas short of the target. We half expect the driver to ask if he needs to fill the tank.

This does not mean they are not dangerous. Such lightness contrasts sharply with the violence and destruction we also see. But by turning the terrorists into real people, Path Of Blood makes clear that these youngsters are victims themselves, while raising the painful spectre that their attraction to the cause is inevitable under our present circumstances, and likely to increase.

I was reminded more than once of the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman—for the way the producer/director Jonathan Hacker leaves the viewer free to make up his own mind, but more for the careful way in which the story, and the options, are presented. As with Wiseman, he does not moralise, he presents material which requires that you moralise, and as with Wiseman, the audience comes to see the problem lies deeper, it's more systematically ingrained in the situation, that we are led to, or like to, think. This is a remarkable, bravura piece of documentary making, a must-see for anyone concerned with the problem of terrorism, which should be everybody.

Path Of Blood is on show at Picturehouse in London

Saturday, 14 July 2018


My friend Michael Goldfarb has posted an excellent essay on his FRDH (First Rough Draft of History) podcast. It's called Civility and the 'Paradox of Tolerance' and it's worth a 12-minute listen before you proceed here because I will be talking about some of its points (not spoilers, exactly). Anyway you won't find many people weaving together Newt Gingrich, Sarah Sanders' dinners, Karl Popper and the Sidney Lumet movie The Hill in such an entertaining, and chilling, fashion. You can link to the website here.

Back already? Michael's jumping off point was an essay on Politico, the Sporting News of False Equivalence, by Rutgers professor David Greenberg. As Michael says, Greenberg warns about the 'last time' the left got uncivil, pointing to a 1970's bomb explosion which killed members of the Weather Underground in New York. You can read the piece here if you must. How this equates to a mother berating former cabinet member and arch-grafter Scott Pruitt at his latest expensed dinner, or the owner asking Sarah Sanders to leave a restaurant, or diners forcing Mitch McConnell, in his mom jeans, to skedaddle from his night out, is only the peak of the piece's fatuousness. In terms of incivility we could point to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Nixon's October Surprise, the Chicago Eight trial, Nixon's plumbers, Watergate, the intelligence scandals of the 70s, Reagan's October Surprise, Iran-Contra, militia bombing federal facilities or shooting it out with federal marshals, assassinations of abortion-providing doctors, and other acts of political incivility that pre-date Newt Gingrich's arrival in Congress to fight the second civil war.

Michael and I have had this discussion many times: I like to trace the modern Republicans back to the Goldwater fiasco in 1964, but more importantly to the Civil and Voting Rights legislation which brought about a re-balancing of American politics. Formerly, each party had its moderate wing; the Dems also had the racist southern Dixiecrats, loyal to hating the party of Lincoln. The Republicans had the John Birch, Ayn Rand, cowboy money faction who got Goldwater the nomination. When civil rights brought black people the vote, the Dixiecrats moved swiftly to the Republican party: all the right-wingnuts were now in the same canoe. And yes, it took them until Gingrich, and the 1994 shut down of government, for them to begin to understand what they had.

You wouldn't get any of this from David Greenberg, and I knew why. 15 years ago or so I reviewed a book of his, Nixon's Shadow, for the TLS. The books was about the way Nixon was portrayed in media, and I reviewed it for the mess of selective assumption, historical blindness, false equivalence, and twisted values that it was. The editor who commissioned the review loved it, but it was spiked by the then-editor of the TLS, who as it turned out was also an unreconstructed Nixon-supporter. They do survive. The review appeared in the late lamented political magazine Lobster, but when I started this blog I reprinted it here, and you can find it here. It will give a decent idea of why Michael found the Politico essay so irritatingly off-base.

We are living in an age of determinedly minority government. I am used to it in the UK, but in America
gerry-mandering, voting repression, and the onslaught of propaganda disguised as news had led Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times to make a compelling case about seeing the growth of a fascist state.  You can find that here; it's worth a read.

Michael, through Karl Popper, asks how far we should extend tolerance to the intolerant. In 2016 I screamed in frustration as Obama sat still and allowed Mitch McConnell to sideline his nominee for the Supreme Court. I wanted him to force a Constitutional crisis, bring events to a head, stand up to the intolerant. As I read O'Toole, I was reminded I am reading a book called The Trial Of Adolf Hitler right now; it's about the beerhall putch and the trial that followed, and it is all about the tolerance of those who didn't feel the threat about which O'Toole is writing.

Anyone listening to Michael quote Popper: "for it may turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument. They may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive" and not thinking of Trump, Fake and Fox News, has been living in a cave. The kind of things like Greenberg's Politico piece are the other side of the coin, seeming rational, but encouraging a 'tolerant' acceptance of the intolerant. This must not be allowed to happen. 

Thursday, 12 July 2018


Justin and Aaron are brothers who escaped from a UFO cult when they were younger. They are living a dead-end life in menial jobs when they receive an old VHS tape which comes from the cult, and implies the 'ascension' for which they were waiting is about to happen. Aaron, the younger brother, is intrigued, and wants to go back to investigate, 'just for a day', as if he were more than curious, maybe homesick. Justin, the older, is the one who engineered their escape, and never wants to return, but as protective he is of his brother, so too is he concerned not to turn this perhaps innocent desire into some bigger resentment.

When they arrive, it is as if nothing has changed, including the people who seem no older than when they left. They are welcoming, if in occasionally confrontational ways. It's run like a commune, it's almost self-sufficient (they make and sell beer) and they have a very groovy red weed to smoke. Aaron is entranced, especially by Anna, who denies sending them the video while Justin remains suspicious, but agrees to extend their stay, a day at a time. Until things start to get really weird.

The Endless is a low-budget film that I suppose should be called horror, but like the best horror it is not about shock, but about other things. What makes it fascinating is the fact that it was directed by the two stars, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, written by Benson, and shot by Moorhead. Since the core of the story is the filial relationship, the closeness of the actors is obvious, but what is really important is that The Endless relies on ambiguity, and the way the script and the camera work dovetail so nicely helps make that ambiguity work.

I haven't seen either of their first two films, but apparently this one exists in a similar universe to tetheir first, Resolution, with cast members reappearing in similar roles, while their second film, Spring, is described as being Lovecraftian, and that sort of dark fantasy is one of the ways you can read The Endless. Is it a modern thriller about a hive-mind commune/cult? a paradoxical Twilight Zone style sf story? An H.P. Lovecraft kind of essay in hidden evil? Or all those things?

At times it can wander, like an overlong Twilight Zone episode, and repition is necessary to the story. Usually we are kept guessing and intrigued. The leads are good: Aaron had a Ron Howard kind of innocence about him while Justin is somewhere on the Giamatti/Gyllenhall scale. Tate Ellington is creepily nice as the cult leader: we could be in The Witness at first; while Callie Hernandez adds just a hint of danger to an excellent turn as the innocently seductive Anna. The directors keep things moving add dark humour, and work very hard and intelligently to keep you guessing by giving you visual clues, mirrored images and scenes, and yes, ambiguities. It feels like a bigger-budget film, but more importantly it feels like a more thoughtful film, and I'm going to seek out their earlier work. It's dropped a bit beneath the radar since its release in the UK, but it's certainly worth your time. I predict this is going to become a cult film in both senses of the word.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018


Oliver Knussen has died, and I have been listening to and reading tributes to him.  I was also listening to some of his works: the Third Symphony (1979), which may have been the first of his I ever heard, in my early years in London, and the lovely Ophelia's Last Dance (2010), which, as it turns out, was originally started in 1974, a melody excluded from that Third Symphony. You can listen to that here as you read this.

I've always liked Knussen the composer more than loved him, but listening to Huw Watkins playing solo piano on Ophelia's put me in mind of Elliott Carter, whose work I do love. This should not be too surprising: Knussen's first composition teacher was John Lambert, who like Carter studied under Nadia Boulanger. What is more noteworthy, if not surprising, is how energetically Knussen promoted Carter's work. As a conductor he has recorded virtually all of Carter's orchestral works, and always with a keen feel for their heart as much as their composition.

I went to a couple of birthday celebration concerts  for Carter in London, his 80th and 90th, if I remember correctly, each time thinking this would be a remarkable last chance to see him in person. But I also went to the Barbican in January 2006, for one of the BBC's 'Get Carter' concerts, and heard Knussen conduct the Clarinet Concerto and the brilliant Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano and two chamber orchestras. I seem to recall Knussen introducing the show on stage, and Carter at 98 indicating his approval. I also recall how the movement of the players reflected the movement of the sounds--something which helped my companion appreciate what she first heard as cacophony.

But as I said, Knussen had a rare understanding of  Carter. Two years after that Barbican concert, Carter turned 100 (the photo above come from his 100th birthday concert in New York) and Knussen wrote an appreciation which began:

    Elliott Carter, 100 in December, was born the day after Messiaen, but he sounds younger - his music has yet to sink in. It bears comparison with Beckett’s plays: phrases, meaningful in themselves, relate to each other only in their simultaneity. Rhythms are spasmodic, while held chords of vibrant beauty colour kaleidoscopic scenes that are rich with turbulent activity.

As I wrote this I listened to Knussen conduct Carter's Concerto For Orchestra with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, you can find it here, the famous concert where a storm raged outside while the music which Carter said as inspired by Saint-John Perse poem 'Vents' (winds) played on. And Knussen, looking for all the world like a cross between Orson Welles and Chuck Blazer, never missed a beat. It reminded me that Knussen was a child prodigy, composing and conducting when he was just 15. Carter was more of a slow developer, but he lived to be 103, and was composing almost til the end. Knussen died much to soon; his own music and his wonderful appreciation for the music of others will be sorely missed.

Sunday, 8 July 2018


I've had the sad pleasure of writing Steve Ditko's obituary for the Guardian; it's online now here and should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, but there is so much else to say about Ditko that I could not get into the word limit, and that would probably be considered too esoteric for the Guardian readership.

Ditko's work in those 50s Atlas/Marvel comics and elsewhere was a great honing ground for his later super-hero work.  See the illustration left; he would have made a fine illustrator for Edgar Allen Poe or HP Lovecraft. The expressiveness of his faces, no matter how stylised, was the key to his success with the early Spider Man, as I wrote, but it was not just Peter Parker's hesitant teen--it was Aunt May's worry and Jonah Jameson's bullying bluster. His villains registered enjoyment of their evil--it's how one as absurd as the Green Goblin could work (see also The Creeper).

Ditko also drew other Marvel heroes: his Bruce Banner emphasizes the Peter Parkerish nature of his wimp personality--this was not Superman combing back his spit curl and putting on a pair of smart-guy glasses. I would have liked to discuss the difference in Spider Man after Ditko left and John Romita took over: Romita's faces are more perfect; his women actually beautiful. His Peter Parker was more of a heroic figure before he becomes Spider Man. Romita, who came to Spidey from Daredevil, was adept enough with action, but something more primal was lost. Of course the books immediately increased in popularity. It reminded me of when the underrated Don Heck took over from Jack Kirby on The Avengers; Heck's work reminded me of John Prentice on Rip Kirby, in the Alex Raymond school: his faces were cleaner, and his action more subdued.

And of course there was nothing like Dr Strange, which quickly became my favourite Marvel. I made the point that youngsters thought Ditko must be tripping when he drew the comic, and nothing was further from the truth. By the way, the Guardian using 'hippy' for 'hippie' is one of their bizarre 'style guide' decisions: the guide appears to have been written by someone who spent the Sixtys (sic) locked in a teletype room trying desperately to save received English from American encroachments. Correcting a neologism? What next, yuppy as the singular of yuppies? 

Charlton Comics ran out of Derby, Connecticut, not far from where I grew up. They were one of the town's big industries in the dying Housatonic Valley (Wham-O, makers of Frisbees and Whiffle Balls, were another, in Shelton) and they were in the comics business mostly to keep their printing presses busy. But they were a great proving ground for talent--the story is that Ditko introduced Dick Giordano to DC, where he eventually became the editor. Some was local talent, like the great Batman artist Jim Aparo, who came from nearby Hartford, and the amazing Joe Gill, who wrote twice as much as Stan lee twice as fast. Charlton was also the place where my college buddy Wayne Howard, who had been an assistant to Wally Wood, worked and became the first artist to get a name credit in the title.

The Question remains one of my favourite comics characters, especially before he went over the top: he predated the Pauline Kael/Dirty Harry 'fascist' controversy. I remember Mr. A from Wood's Witzend, to which I subscribed, and I found it funny in a strange way--thinking perhaps Ditko had gone off the rails. This was before I realised there were actually people who took Ayn Rand seriously, which was just before those people starting trying to control the world.  The Question has appeared in DC's animated Justice League TV series; a movie is frequently rumoured. Dennis O'Neil did a nice job with an update of Ditko's series; I think it's time I wrote a Question novel.

The Jonathan Ross BBC4 documentary is a good one, even if Ross' smugness at not revealing anything Ditko said to him irritated me at the time and still does. You can find it on You Tube here. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman's contributions make it work, but there's also nice stuff from Jerry Robinson and Stan Lee, as well as a couple of later Marvel staffers.

Trying to divide the kudos for Marvel's success is pointless, though we might have wished the financial rewards to fall to Kirby and Ditko as they deserved. John Romita, in the Ross doc, makes the point that Ditko wasn't really interested in money; like a ranch hand he wanted an honest day's pay for his work.

For all that Kirby and Ditko and others may have shouldered the lion's share of the creative burden at Marvel, it was Lee's ability to sense out the market that drove the company forward, that attracted and kept casual fans as well as those entranced by the remarkable work of great artists. Ditko in many ways is the greatest of them, certainly the most mysterious, and most enigmatic. RIP

Saturday, 30 June 2018


Two stories dominated political news this week in the United States, which I was able to watch from the inside as I made a family visit, and from the inside their effects seemed to be interpreted in a curiously backward logic, which speaks to way politics is played in America.

On Tuesday, not far from where I was staying, a 28 year old woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, scored an amazing upset in the Democratic party primary for New York’s 14th Congressional district, defeating Joe Crowley, a 20-year incumbent who was considered the front-runner to replace Nancy Pelosi as minority leader in the House, and who, at 56, was at least 20 years younger than the three Dems higher than him in the party hierarchy.

The next day, 81-year old Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, effective at the end of July. Though he seemed to be tacking well to the conservative side in recent years, Kennedy was still considered the ‘swing vote’ between right and left on the nine-member court. His resignation gives President Donald Trump the chance to appoint another young die-hard rightist, in the mould of Neil Gorsuch, whose impact after being nominated last year has already been great.

The Kennedy resignation seems timed to allow Trump to make an appointment before the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who when President Barack Obama tried to fill the seat opened by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, flat-out refused to provide the Senate’s ‘advice and consent’ as prescribed by the Constitution, thus holding the seat open until Trump could select Gorsuch, immediately announced he would this time fast-track the process. Commentators opined that the rush would be to avoid Republicans losing their majorities in an anti-Trump landslide in the mid-terms. Many of the them pointed to the Ocasio win as a sign the country was turning left.

That analysis missed the biggest point about Ocasio's win, the difference between national and local politics, particularly in today’s America. Because on the national level, Democrats would need a massive swing away from Republicans, estimated by pollsters at between eight and ten per cent nationally, to merely eke out a slight majority in the House of Representatives. This is due to the dual effects of systematic gerrymandering and intense voter repression, whose roots can be traced to the Republican focus on local politics in the 2010 midterm elections. By making huge gains in state legislatures, the party was able to dominate the redrawing of Congressional districts in the wake of the 2010 US census. By drawing districts that lumped likely Democrat voters together, they ensured their majority in the House, even when they polled fewer votes nationwide in Congressional elections.

Meanwhile, those same state legislatures were busy passing laws requiring government-issue photo ID in order to vote, and concocting schemes to defeat non-existent voter fraud by setting up registration checks designed to fail people who rented, moved, or simply wouldn’t check what looked like junk mail. With Justice Kennedy voting with the other four right-wing judges to allow virtually unlimited political spending, those who could vote were increasingly influenced by local advertising closely coordinated with national aims.
After ignoring the Ocasio campaign (the New York Times, which after al is her local paper, never ran a single article about her, though she did get mentions in election round ups), the national media jumped onto her victory to illustrate their own narratives, tied to national politics.

Ocasio had worked for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Presidential primaries, so pundits either characterised her win as the beginning of a revolution for the Democrats, proving a rleativelt radical agenda could energise their voters or else as another futile gesture which would fail on the national stage because moderation is what they see as the only means of defeating Trump. Neither view was accurate, because it overlooked the local story.

Joe Crowley was a powerful man in Congress, a successful fund-raiser (he had outspent Ocasio by a 10-1 factor even before the final two weeks of campaigning) for the Democratic national committee, and for himself and his lobbyist brother. He came up through local politics in his New York City borough, Queens, which also produced Donald Trump. He was known locally as ‘The King Of Queens, but his congressional district aslso included parts of another New York borough, The Bronx, and after 20 years in Congress, he was perceived as not representing the interests of that part of his constituency.

Ocasio capitalised on that perception. She produced a virtually homemade campaign video (you can link to it here) which went viral with over 300,000 hits in its first day. It emphasied her own roots in the community and Crowley’s distance from the voters in his home near Washington. She articulated policies which may have seemed Sandersesque to the national media, but resonated with a community of working class people, many of them immigrants. Arguing for free university education in the city may seem radical today, but it was the reality in New York for decades before Reaganomics changed our perspective of the world. Beneficiaries of the city colleges included former Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, author Frank McCourt, designer Ralph Lauren, polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, General Colin Powell, novelist Mario Puzo, artist Barnett Newman and many more, often themselves the children of immigrants. What was seen as necessary then is seen as radical now.

The circumstances of Ocasio’s victory cannot be replicated across America. She won a primary where fewer than 30,000 voters turned out against a complacent candidate who, for all his power was very much vulnerable. She herself will likely be more vulnerable than Crowley in a heavily-Democratic district where she may not be able to enthuse Crowley supporters. Her campaign was based on providing a strongly articulated platform that was a real alternative to big-spending politics as much as to Republican policies or indeed Trumpism.

Nationally, the Democratic party has been content to present itself as a kinder, gentler alternative to the Republicans. This is a significant difference, and it can appeal to a wider audience when articulated effectively. But underneath its appeal is the famous dictum attributed to Bill Clinton when asked where the left would go if his ‘third way’ was not enough of an alternative. ‘Where else are they going to go?’ There will not be a horde of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes arguing with passion and courage a progressive programme and attracting those voters in the centre besieged with heavy media spending portraying them as radicals, nor will there be minority and immigrant voters battling simply to get registered and be allowed to vote. 

Following Crowley's defeat, Trump tweeted that he lost because he hadn't been respectful enough to his president. Missing the point is endemic in the American Beltway establishment, reinterepting every hiccup in their punditry's estimation in a way that will reinforce their previous convictions. Their picture of the centre fails to recognise how far to the right it has been shifted in the past four decades. The lesson of Ocasio-Cortez is not that a determined, energetic and attractive young self-proclaimed socialist is necessary to shift that paradigm within which 'liberal' is perceived as a smear. But it requires what Ocasio called the courage to stand up for the values which even a hesitant electorate can see are necessary to combat not just Trump but the modern, Koch Brothers Tea Party Christian Fundamentalist Republican Party, should it survive Trump, rather than empower him to some Erdogan-like President for Life status. Even though a look through history shows that most Supreme Court justices are Republicans when appointed, in the past many of them became bastions of liberal democratic values. Earl Warren had been Republican governor of California when Japanese were intered in concentration camps. Hugo Black had once belong to the KKK. And so on. The odds of Trump appointing anyone who might be considered a 'swing vote' by even the most accomodating mainstream pundit, or who had any human proclivity to slide that way, are very small indeed.

The mid-term elections in November will be above all a test of the nation’s acceptance of Trumpism. But it will also take place in the shadow of the nation’s quiet acquiescence to a sea-change in the political landscape. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a ripple in the waters. But the appointment of another Gorsuch, or worse, to the Supreme Court, could be the start of a right-wing tidal wave.

Friday, 29 June 2018


Robert Parker wrote four westerns starring Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, starting with Appaloosa, which was made into an excellent film whose adaptation was co-written, with star Ed Harris, by Robert Knott. Blackjack is Knott's fourth continuation of Parker's series, and probably the best of the bunch.

You can find my reviews of the two of those previous novels here at Irresistible Targets. I wrote before that Knott was restrained a bit by the characterisations built up in the film,
which was a shame because it was Parker's sharp contrast between Hitch's perceptive narration (much like Spenser's first person in the detective novels) and Cole's western silence that delineated the story even more than the characters themselves. This problem continues: Knott lacks Parker's ability to allow Hitch to sketch in quickly the characters of supporting players, a shame in this book because the characters have the potential to be hugely entertaining, particularly Boston Bill Black, a gambler and gunman accused of a brutal murder, Valentine Pell, a gunman with a surprising past, and Daphne Angel, the muse of a great hotel/saloon/casino/brothel going up in Appaloosa.

But what is most problematic is the loss of the edginess in the relationship between Virgil and Allie, which lay at the core of Appaloosa. Allie is the polar opposite of Spenser's Susan. Just as Virgil is love struck but opposed to Spenser in his inability to deal with his obsession with Allie, Allie is incapable of being fully independent, and it's her lack of attachment to Virgil when his presence as anchor is drifting that made her a source of constant tension. Here they seem to have settled into a sort of unsatisfactory domestic bliss--but it also seems pretty clear that Knott is building a future conflict into the story.

Blackjack is actually more of a murder mystery than a western, made more difficult because the murder occured in Denver and there were no witnesses. There are scenes of courtroom drama, and unusual behaviour from the local judge which is never really explained. It's resolution is not quite unexpected, but the motivation and casuality are; they are very modern in their execution. Which also reminds me that there are a number of times when modern discourse interferes with the western setting: I doubt if 'meaningful relationship' or Ms. were part of the 19th century.

Knott keeps the story moving well, introduces a nice, if not fully delineated suporting cast, and gets enough out of the Hitch-Cole dynamic to make Blackjack a diverting, if not compelling, read.

Blackjack by Robert Knott
Putnam, US$9.99, ISBN 9781101982525

Tuesday, 26 June 2018


Peter Guillam is living a calm retirement at the family homestead in Brittany when he is summoned back to London, and reminded of his ‘lifelong duty to attend’ his former masters at MI6. At the Stalinist monolith that now houses the Intelligence Service, he is asked about an Operation Windfall, and learns that the children of the agent Alec Leamas and the English woman, Elizabeth Gold, are in the process of suing the Service, and him, for causing their deaths at the Berlin Wall.

What follows is Guillam’s account both of his interrogation and his remembrance of the events of another operation, concerning an agent, code named Tulip, who was part of a network in East Germany run by his friend Alec Leamas, the best agent he ever knew. Both take place amidst the growing realisation that MI6 has been penetrated at a high level by a Russian mole.

Just as much as Guillam is giving us a legacy of any number of spies, so John Le Carre is presenting his own legacy of spies, a reflection on the secrecy and building of false characters and pretend emotions that are so much a part of his own trade as a writer, as well as those of spies. The two stories, the hunt for information about the past by the service and Guillam’s own recollections which he keeps as much as possible secret, particularly his own emotions, just as he had to do when he was an active agent, and with just as much distrust of where emotions might take him. The two stories intersect, but they also move away from each other, not least because of the way the business has changed. This is symbolised by the buildings: the stark facelessness and crushing architectural weight of Artillery House against the ramshackle Circus, or the safe house still run Millie McCraig; or by the face these modern bureaucrats are unable to do a simple effective search or cope with what used to be called, in the days before electronics, tradecraft.

The story is LeCarre as sharp as ever, in fact, it’s as if the old LeCarre has been, like Guillam, ‘recalled to life’ as Dickens would have had it. But what makes it work is the contrast, the way the service has itself changed positions, and the way the operations are revealed so skillfully through a combination of truth and lies, as in all of LeCarre’s best work. Those familiar with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold will have some idea of where it is all going, and a much better picture of some of the later details of the story, whereas those aware of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will know the deeper background of what is going on. Neither is necessary, of course, but the awareness adds depth. In this sense, we might consider A Legacy Of Spies a valedictory work, as anyone who saw LeCarre’s interviews around publication might surmise.

There is the paradox of age. Guillam appears to have been born in 1931, like LeCarre himself, and LeCarre's house in Cornwall is a sort of mirror image of Guillam's in Brittany. Guillam is writing his story sometime around 2010, which would make him 79, still fit and active and full of sharp-edged memory. But how old Jim Prideaux, Millie McCraig and yes, George Smiley are is a matter of some debate, and they all seem as sprightly as ever. But remembering LeCarre’s own age as he writes this novel, those who make age a sticking point may well be missing the point.

Because it is Smiley’s appearance, at the end, which strikes the note of legacy the strongest, and the nature of what the current agents might call a ‘mission statement’ might surprise some readers, because of its overtly telling stance aimed at modern Britain’s politics. But behind it is the memory of the tragedies, the lost lives, the miscalculations involved in all those years of playing the game. Smiley’s legacy may have been a failure to actually leave a lasting legacy, and LeCarre is sensitively aware that neither Smiley nor he were granted the perspective to see the long term effects of what their business accomplished, or didn’t. LeCarre’s work has been a marker in the world of spy fiction for almost six decades, his peak still barely matched. This novel reminds us of his legacy, and becomes a major part of it.

A Legacy Of Spies by John LeCarre

Penguin £8.99 ISBN 9780241981610

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Friday, 15 June 2018


Francois Ozon has a playful fascination with ambiguity, something film allows, if not encourages, in its story-telling. L'Amant Double (Double Lover) revels in its ambiguities, which are multi-layered and expansive: the entire story may be one thing or may be another. Or bits of each.

Chloe (Marine Vacht) is a beautiful but insecure ex-model, suffering from intense abdominal pain from no apparent source. She's retreated into a job as a museum guard, and the film opens with her hair being cut, as if to remove her female allure, and render her sexuality ambiguous. She begins seeing a psychoanalyst, Paul (Jeremie Renier). She seems to be making progress, but Paul needs to drop her as a patient because he is falling in love with her, and they begin an affair. Paul is very much in thrall to Chloe's beauty, while allowing her vulnerability space to exert her control over him. It all seems to progress, until she discovers Paul uses his mother's name, and has an identical twin brother, who is also a psychoanalyst. So she begins seeing Louis, and almost immediately is drawn into another affair, one in which she is dominated.

There is nothing particularly challenging here: in fact it's very much phallo-centric in the sense that as Louis dominates Chloe, she is freed, as it were to dominate Paul, and phallo-literally as we shall see. Renier's good at making the two brothers recognisably different; his Louis is very much hard-bodied, contrasted with Paul's crunchy preppy BCBG self, softened by jumpers and moony gazes. But simply take off Paul's smart-guy Clark Kent glasses and he turns into Louis' sexual Superman. You can't help but think Ozon is amused by all this: Paul can't stand Chloe's cat Milo ('my baby' she says—remember the stomach pains); while Louis has a very rare breed of chat—'un chat unique' he says, which if you don't know French is a pun because le chat is French for what Donald Trump grabs. These tortiose-shell felines are usually female, but males with three colours are always twins, xxy as it were. You see the point?

That's droll, but the film's funniest moment may be when Paul proposes to Chloe in a restaurant. As they walk home, she looks in a shop window—ah, the audience thinks, the ring?--and goes into a sex shop for a dildo. That night she pegs Paul, who despite his protestations of innocence, seems remarkably comfortable with the whole business. L'Amant Double didn't win any prizes at Cannes, but if the Adult Video Awards in Vegas have a best foreign strap-on gong, Vacth will be in the frame.

The most obvious antecedent for L'Amant Double is David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, with Jeremy Irons as the twin shrinks and Genevieve Bujold as the insecure patient. Ozon's nods include Cronenberg's fascination with biological function: after the opening a scene of Chloe's hair being cut we go immediately to an extreme close up of a vagina held open by a speculum. We are confronted with a mind/body dilemma, which obviously is what Chloe needs to sort out, and like Ozon's twins, we the audience will have to try to figure out what it is. You can see, especially in some of the design and use of colour, Brian de Palma's Body Double, and that same sense of the exploitation that begins with our gaze on Vacth's elusive beauty: another of Ozon's amusing scenes has Vacth, feeling liberated, walking across the museum floor with her most aggressively alluring power-swivel cat-walk walk. Remember 'le chat'?

And of course there is Hitchcock, and Vertigo. It seems to be trying hard enough that in some ways the best comparison for Ozon might be the Coen Brothers, whose work delves in genre remakes, hommages, and increasingly, commentary. This is intensified by the production design by Sylvie Olive, especially the dual sets of the twin shrink's flats. In fact another of the movie's funniest moments is realising the parallels between the consulting brothers: by now you can probably figure from the stills which is Paul and which Louis. Ozon's constant framing of double-images, mirrors, reflections in rainy windows and even characters, with Jacqueline Bissett playing both the mother of a girl with whom the twins were once involved and Chloe's own mother.

This is apparently based on a suspense novel by Joyce Carol Oates writing as Rosamond Smith, though very loosely indeed. But that question of genre is crucial here, even to the basic point of Oates using a second identity for her delve into thrillers. Ozon might have gone back and absorbed Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock before making this movie, studied the approach to dealing with audience expectations in genres, and one wonders in the end if perhaps it is too knowing, too detached, or if he's simply playing with that idea. He even inserts the Chekovian pistol, as if to nod knowingly to the viewer. But even when she is the penetrator we wonder. Is Chloe their victim? Is she ours? Vacth's beauty is in a sense too perfect and cold; her vulnerability is never more convincing than her allure. Think of the detachment Vacth showed in Ozon's Young and Beautiful (2013), and wonder where the audience is supposed to take this. Bisset's presence suggests a more straightforward kind of anger, a Fatal Attraction kind of moment, which is another way this film teases it might be heading. In one sense Ozon asks questions he really has no intention of answering, and in the end the explanations are as ambiguous as the questions. But beyound cinematic reference, imagine the Coen Bros. if they were French strutcuralists. After all, as Foucault formulated it, 'saying yes to sex is not saying no to power'. Ozon's film is almost perfectly constructed around this paradox, as is Vacth, and that seems to be the point. It is a cinematic hall of mirrors, and at its centre is Marine Vacth, as if she were Ozon's Tippi Hedren for the supposedly sexually empowered 21st century.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018


It's 1937 and Dieter Merz is the ace of the Condor Legion, flying the new Messerschmidt 109 against Russian planes in the Spanish Civil War, called Der Kleine, the Little One. Toward the end of that year, Tom Moncrieff, an ex-Marine fluent in German, and trying to make his father's estate in the Highlands into a shooting resort, is recruited by a shadowy part of British intelligence, to gather information about the Germans and their plans regarding the Sudetenland.

It's 1938, and Dieter, having been injured seriously in a crash, is a celebrity and has been sent to Japan to gather information about Japan's aerial strength. He meets Keiko, the sister of a Japanese flyer, who is able to nurse his cracked bones back to health. Meanwhile Tam is in Czechoslovakia with the wife of a Jewish Czech refugee, trying to gauge how strong the push back against a German advance might be.

Graham Hurley is one of Britain's most under-appreciated thriller writers. His series of Faraday and Winter were as good as any of the British lonely detectives, helped by the uneasy balance of the two main characters, and their picture of Portsmouth depended on Hurley's pin-point characterisation, built on an empathic understanding of even the worst of them. Now he's turned his hand to thriller set around World War II, of which Estocada is the third, which provides him with more chances to challenge that ability to define venal characters, and to explore their ambiguities. His portrayals of Goering, Ribbentrop and Hitler himself catch edges of each man that aren't typical, but bring them to life in a completely non-mythic way.

The plot, of course, brings Dieter and Tam together, in Berlin , still in 1938 but with war on everyone's minds. But in Estocada (a word Dieter picked up in Spain, meaning the matador's death-strike on the bull) the focus is the way this impending conflict affects the lives of those involved. Not just our dual protagonists, but their friends, the victims they encounter, and especially those they love.

Behind the usual tense questions and rushes against time you'd expect from a thriller, and the dangerous spy turf of Nazi Germany, the heart of this book is the question of just how committed one can be, how necessary it may be to have something more powerful than oneself in which to belief and for which to live and die. Like many of Hurley's novels, regardless of their milieu, this is a book about compassion and human values. As such it gets beneath the usual tropes of his latest genre, and is an engrossing read.

Estocada by Graham Hurley
Head Of Zeus, £18.99, ISBN 9781784977894

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

Friday, 8 June 2018


Here's what Donald Trump accomplishes by telling reporters he's 'considering a pardon' for Muhammad Ali, who since his conviction on refusal to be drafted into the Army was overturned, and thus needs no pardon least of all from draft-dodger Trump, "ol heel spurs".
1. Diversion: he's headed up to G7 where he will stand out like a clown at a funeral. Ali is sure to get headlines. Especially because:
2. The White House reporters will likely fail to know, and thus point out, that Ali's conviction was overturned. When they do find out, they will not report this as a Trump gaffe, but as if the fact Ali does not need a pardon is 'the other side' of the story and
3. As those who understand what this means weigh in, the distraction will grow even bigger while
4. Some of those who idolize Ali and don't realize the offer is a scam will think Trump is actually OK on equal rights issues, and of course
5. Those considering flipping on Trump when they're indicted by Mueller will be noting the Prez is in a pardoning mood....while
6. No reporters will question the hypocrisy of criticizing (mostly black) athletes who kneel in protest during the national anthem while pardoning a man who resisted the draft and refused to fight an immoral war...


Thanks to satellite imagery and an ISIS group leaving their phones on a little too long after a massacre in a Syrian village, MI6 has been able to track, and identify, at least by voice, the leader of the terrorist cell, whom they call Black Cube. They have established he and his sidekicks are in Greece, presumably on their way to northern Europe, and some new attack. But there is a witness to the Syrian slaughter, a 13 year old boy who is also in Greece, having survived a boat wreck when a dolphin saved him and a baby he was carrying. MI6 want to get to the boy, code-named Firefly, before ISIS do, and they approach a former agent, Luc Sampson, Arabic speaking of Lebanese extraction, who's now 'finding people' for a private intelligence company.

Firefly is Henry Porter's sixth thriller, but the first since 2009's The Dying Light; you can read my review of that here. That was a deeply layered dissection of Britain's burgeoning surveillance state; this one is a more straightforward book, a chase story, but one told from two points of view. As you follow Sampson's pursuit of Firefly, you're also drawn into Firefly's own pursuit, of the safety of Germany, which is threatened by the killers pursuing him. And though this might sound high-concept and plot-driven, what makes the book work is the way it treats its characters.

Sampson is the kind of resourceful but modest hero British agents are supposed to be, but what makes the story interesting is the way he has to fight past bureaucratic interference, not least from MI6 itself. But Firefly, or Naji, to give him his name, is every bit as resourceful as Sampson, with a lot less to work with, and of course, with the handicap of being only 13. But he is a boy genius, and has plenty of experience of dealing with danger on the ground.

Porter is a journalist by trade, and one of the very best to turn to thriller writing since Gerald Seymour wrote Harry's Game. As with Seymour, it is the realism of the background details, the intelligence procedures, the international agencies and their functioning, the in-fighting among government branches, and the chaos on the ground that really drives the story. And as we follow Naji from Turkey to Lesbos and through the Balkans, the realism of that background helps brings the characters to the fore; not just our two protagonists but a supporting cast both threatening and appealing.

In 2008, Porter published a young people's fantasy novel, The Master Of The Broken Chairs. It's plain from Firefly that he has the ability to create not only a convincing child hero, but to convey even more convincingly the point of view of that child forced to grow up rapidly, and in the worst possible circumstances. After that, a secret agent with a heart of gold or a beautiful English-educated Greek child psychologist in the refugee camps are pieces of cake.

Firefly by Henry Porter
Quercus £14.99 ISBN 078178470491 This review will appear also at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Wednesday, 6 June 2018


My essay on the 50th anniversary of the RFK assassination is on the LRB Blog, you can link to it here. It's a little different from the one I originally wrote. Partly in layout: I led with the John Stewart quote, then explained who Stewart was. But mostly in detail: I went in to a little more description of the three assassinations I mention, to draw out their similarities, but I can understand why LRB wanted to keep
the focus tighter on the story of that campaign as well as the what ifs had Bobby not been murdered.

The RFK assassination is in many ways the most perplexing of those three. On the face of it, the evidence of conspiracy is the most obvious, but in most ways it remains the hardest to prove. I had started to write a separate essay recapping where we stand, and another drawing the parallels in the modus operandi in all three murders, recurring themes of conspiracy and cover up, as it were. But each time I got bogged down in the minutiae of what remains a conundrum for most people.

My suspicion of Bobby was real at the time. My lack of enthusiasm for Humphrey was just as real. By 1970, and in the wake of the student strike, the futility of protest began to tempered by what seemed democratic political progress; eventually George McGovern would use changes in the primary and convention process (spearheaded by his campaign manager, Gary Hart) to capture the Democratic nomination. McGovern was the man who had stepped forward to lead the 1968 delegates already won by Bobby; that he and Eugene McCarthy could never reach an accommodation that would raise a viable challenge to Humphrey is, in a nutshell, the most lasting legacy of Bobby's death.

McGovern's nomination in 1972 was probably the high point, or the last high point, of Sixties protest. McGovern, of course, would be trounced by Nixon in the '72 election; no October Surprise was necessary, though the Watergate break-in, like Russian interference in 2016, was swept under the carpet until well after the election results were known. When Nixon was finally toppled, there was no danger a McGovern would replace him.

I probably should also have added a line about the idea that Bobby was convinced his brother's killing had been the result of conspiracy. He would have known who the likely suspects were, and where to look for them and their accomplices. That in itself may have put the target on his back.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018


My obituary of the astronaut Alan Bean is up at the Guardian online now; you can link to it here. It is scheduled for the paper paper tomorrow. It also contains a nice video about Bean's paitings, and wonderful stills of him on the moon and of the Apollo 12 crew. It was bittersweet for me to be remembering Bean, because I did Dick Gordon's obit for the paper last November, and Bean's were some of the best quotes in that piece, and also because in my original copy I mentioned Bean's painting, 'The Dream', in which Gordon was pictured on the moon, which he never did walk on. But the paper cut that bit; if you're curious you can link to it via this blog by punching the link here.

Oddly enough, I hadn't noticed when the Gordon piece appeared, but the Guardian's style sheet writes NASA as Nasa. They do not, however, write Usa for the United States of America. My experience everywhere else has been that acronyms containing or serving as Proper Nouns are capitalised. But the paper has an odd attitude toward caps: in my copy once, North America was changed to north America: when I pointed out the former was a continent and the latter Vermont, Minnesota, Montana and the like, I was met with a shrug.

Otherwise, Bean's obituary is pretty much as written, again except for the closing. I would have mentioned that of the Apollo 12 crew Pete Conrad died in a motorcycle crash in 1999 and Gordon died last November. But since the paper had cut their mention last time, I went for a different ending this time:  

With Bean's death, only four of the twelve men who walked on the moon remain: Buzz Aldrin, Charlie Duke, Harrison Schmitt and Dave Scott.

It too was cut. 

Saturday, 26 May 2018


My essay about Philip Roth went out yesterday on the BBC Radio 4 obituaries programme Last Word. You can find it on the IPlayer here (it's the second item on the running order). When I pitched it to the programme the piece was titled "Philip Roth And The Great American Novel", but I was then asked to make it a bit more of an obituary: the extra material required some cutting, but it still ran a bit long. The producer, Neil George, had found the quotes he'd like to include; one of them as it happened, I'd already written into the script. He re-ordered a little of the material, and cut a few bits. But it worked nicely, I thought, as it was broadcast.

What follows is the final original script, with the obituary-additions included. I've marked some of the bits that didn't make the final cut in brackets. There were also some things I either cut from my first draft or didn't include because it was not a literary essay, or the discussion would have run too long, so I've included them as footnotes.


Philip's Roth's literary career coincides nicely with my own adult reading life, and it was probably with adult reading in mind that sometime in 1969 I grabbed a copy of Portnoy's Complaint, his first book whose explicit frankness about sex, especially masturbation, made it a huge best-seller. It was also funny, but as a teen-aged student of literature I was not impressed. As the son of a Jewish mother myself, it may have cut too close to the  bone. (Audio: from Portnoy)

Soon after, I saw the film Goodbye Columbus, and went back to read Roth's 1959 novella which inspired the movie. Again funny, but also a sharp-edged dissection not just of Jewish families, but of the American Dream they pursued. It's about assimilation, snobbery, money and its uses. About the class structure of education and its value. It reflected Roth's own childhood in Newark's Jewish Weequahic section, contrasted with the ritzy suburb of Short Hills. And it's about love and sex. You didn't need a Jewish mother like mine to see how Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin's relationship was doomed. (1)  (Audio: Roth on GC).

In 1973 Roth published The Great American Novel. It wasn't. Set it the world of baseball, it wasn't even the Great Baseball Novel; {Bernard Malamud, Mark Harris and especially Robert Coover had beaten him to that}. But in its exuberance and self-conscious over-kill it was parodic comment on the burden of what Norman Mailer called 'the great bitch on one's shoulder', that feeling that any American writer, to be 'great' had to write THE book. Mailer battled the ghosts of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but even  conceded Moby Dick was American writing's Great White Whale. Roth seemed to be saying he would not chase that whale. And Joseph Heller had already written Catch 22. (2)

{Roth's Jewish comic act, a harsher Woody Allen, became less captivating}. (3) Critics castigated him as a self-hating Jew, pigeon-holing him in a literary ghetto. But his characters, striving for assimilation, transcended that. I could see easily, in Roth's Jewish fathers, echoes of my own Swedish dad, like Roth's the son of immigrants. Roth left Newark to attend the Waspy (white Anglo-Saxon protestant), Bucknell Colege. He went on to the University of Chicago, then became one of the first products of university writing programmes. (4)

He used the material of his life, and the lives of those he knew, as grist for his mill. His unhappy first marriage to Margaret Martinson; her tragic death later in a car crash. He was a novelist. He wrote. His writing, for better or worse, came first, subsumed his life.In the Seventies he created a fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman and retreated into solipsism, taking his scalpel to writing itself. He never sought public acclaim, like Mailer or Gore Vidal; he didn't deal in journalism. But didn't The Great American Novel need to address a stage bigger than the writer's office or the neighbour's wife's bedroom? (5)

In The Counterlife in 1986, something changed. Roth took apart a story about Zuckerman, and told it from myriad angles. It seemed to free him to unleash Sabbath's Theatre, a bravura celebration of his own so-called faults. It won him his second National Book Award 35 years after Goodbye Columbus.

He was 62. In the space of 15 years he published 11 consistently fine novels. (6) When Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, he could not have imagined this unprecedented run of autumnal success. The themes were familiar, his life was still material. His turbulent marriage to the actress Claire Bloom led to her writing a memoir, which Roth answered with vitriol in I Married A Communist. But he was also looking outward. In Operation Shylock the self-hating Jew turned the story of a Philip Roth impersonator in Israel into a riff on Jews making Europe great again. 

But the more he got away from himself, the better he got. In American Pastoral, his greatest novel, he created Swede Lvov, an answer of sorts to his almost exact contemporary John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom. The Swede's success in pursuing the American Dream gets tragically ambushed by the Sixties. I recognised Swede's daughter Merry as an alternate world version of Brenda Patimkin; I'd known women like her. Then In The Plot Against America, Roth created an alternate America, which many now see a prophetic.

Sex, Death and America are the great themes of American literature; Roth now wove them together. He transcended his own story, but that 'big book' never came. I don't think he intended it to. But to my great surprise and pleasure, his late novels Indignation and The Humbling came full circle back to the America of Goodbye Columbus, as if it were unchanged, except the writer. (7) And his final book, Nemesis, returned to the days when polio threatened, randomly, as death always does, all of us children.

No writer prepared us so well for his passing. (Audio: Roth on retirement) Announcing his retirement, Roth said he'd like one last big idea. But he didn't need a Great American Novel as validation. Nor a Nobel Prize, after Bob Dylan pipped him (8). As he also said, he'd done the best he could with what he had. And that was great in itself.


(1) You could tell by the casting! Richard Benjamin gets Ali MacGraw? Get outta here. The same year she played Jewish here, McGraw also played Italian in Love Story, which subsumed Goodbye Columbus. But this time Waspy Ryan O'Neil gets the ethnic girl. So she dies. Mike Nichols should have directed Goodbye Columbus.
(2)  I left out the comment on other baseball novels because it was off-topic, but you really should read Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, which was published in 1968 and which I am sure influenced Roth's book. I'm also sure Roth's book was a parody, not of the literature itself, as much as the quest. It's better than many people affect to believe. He throws a lot in, like Melville, but the Patriot League isn't quite the Pequod. But I don't think he was actually trying to write TGAN; though most of the critics assumed he was. I also don't believe he came close in those early years. Also, I'm not saying Catch 22 actually is the Great American Novel, though it may be the best of its generation. 

(3) The Roth/Allen comparison is obvious: Roth was a novelist who used Jewish comedy, Allen a comic who wrote stories as well as writing and directing movies. We could argue for pages about which came first, Roth's novel The Breast or the breast section of Allen's movie Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (both in 1972). Certainly Portnoy had opened the door. But there's another link: Richard Benjamin. Actually Mia Farrow. After breaking up with Woody, Mia 'dated' (as they say) Roth--their houses in Connecticut were probably not that far apart. Mia then published a memoir of her own, shades of Claire Bloom. That year, Woody's film Deconstructing Harry, a more vicious and Jewish riff on Bergman's Wild Strawberries  featured a Philip Roth-like novelist who makes barely disguised fiction out of his life. And Benjamin, who starred in the movie of Portnoy's Complaint as well as Goodbye Columbus, got cast as one of Harry's alter-ego characters, Allen's version of Roth's Zuckerman if you will. Meow.

(4) Roth taught at a number of the early creative writing programmes, and his early stories (which as best I can see have never been collected) appeared in literary magazines (and political ones like Commentary) before making the jump to Esquire and the New Yorker.

(5) One could try an essay on the way creative writing programmes tend to write about writers and teachers somewhat disproportionately and how Roth reflects this. 

(6) This was the hardest part of the essay to write. I'm convinced about the turning point, but the next two books Deception and Shylock, are really still working out bits of The Counterlife. It may have just been aging, the acquisition of gravitas. Look at the contrast in his photos. Up to this point I'd agree with those who find Roth's work repetitive, not challenging, very much inward looking. It had its moment. But starting with Sabbath's Theatre I'd argue each of his novels is brilliantly controlled (even the seeming chaos of Sabbath's, and his status as a major writer (as opposed to one known for Portnoy) is cemented by them.

(7) Indignation is a campus novel, set in the early 50s, with all the class differences and sexual double-standards of Goodbye Columbus. Although The Humbling offended some readers when its aging actor protagonist has an affair with the lesbian daughter of two of his friends, the way 'Mike', the woman, feels compelled to hide the relationship from her parents reminded me one last time of Brenda Patimkin. I also didn't address the misogyny of which Roth stands accused. Here the accusation might be 'self-hating man', because he is so straight-forward about the men's weakness and fear of women, and the way it is inculcated in them. This may be a more generous analysis than some would give.

(8) First Arthur Miller, then Roth. Though I'm not sure his world view is Nobelesque, in the sense of the kind of idealism Alfred sought, but then, was Pinter's? I wonder if Joni Mitchell will pip Margaret Atwood?

Friday, 18 May 2018


Although Tom Wolfe was in many ways the poster boy for 'The New Journalism', and appreciations of him focused on his revolutionary writing style, Wolfe's classic journalism, and indeed his fiction, was informed equally by the unlikely fact that he had earned a PhD at Yale University in the then-newish field of American Studies. During the war, Yale's American History department was the prime recruiting source for the OSS, and after the war the American Studies programme, concerned less with history than with American civilization, appears to have been no different for the CIA. Rather than go into academe, Wolfe went to work on the Springfield (Mass) Union, then straight to the Washington Post and reporting from revolutionary Cuba. Connect the dots.

American Studies would appeal to the CIA, who were funding all sorts of arts and literary projects, trying to establish the value of American life. Wolfe's doctoral thesis was on the CPUSA's Depression-era League Of American Writers, and in later years Wolfe would link the sociological concerns of his writing to his study of Max Weber's 'Status Theory', an interesting combination for a writer who was anything but leftish. But it's easy to see its fruits at the heart of a couple of the early pieces that made his name. The most famous are 'Radical Chic', about the conductor Leonard Bernstein's cocktail party for the Black Panthers, and 'Girl Of The Year', about society wild child Baby Jane Holzer. Were you to read only these, you might picture Wolfe, the Southern Dandy dressed in trademark planter couture, solely as a gadfly in the social scene, a reportorial version of Gore Vidal or even Truman Capote.

Where many of the so-called new journalists got involved with the people they wrote about, making the story about themselves as much as their subjects, Wolfe remained apart. Instead, he used his prose style to draw the reader in, as if in place of himself, recreating on the page that feeling of 'being there', as Jerzy Kosinsky would say.

But what gave Wolfe's work its muscle was not socio-economic analysis, nor typographic FLAMBOYANCE!!!,  but the mythic aspect of American literature which he gleaned in his studies: the way the American hero, 'hard, isolate, stoic and a killer' in D.H. Lawrence's words, was self-made, tested as an individual, and fleeing from the encroachments of avaricious society. In Wolfe's eyes, Junior Johnson, the stock-car racer who learned his trade evading Federal agents while carrying his father's bootleg whisky to market, was indeed 'The Last American Hero'.

Although not actually the last. For Wolfe he was the forerunner of Chuck Yeager, the test-pilot with the Right Stuff. Just as Johnson was subsumed by the growth of corporate NASCAR racing, so Yeager gave way to corporate NASA, who insisted on total control of their astronauts.

This vanishing American hero (to use Leslie Fiedler's phrase) recurs in variations even as Wolfe reports on America civilization becoming a more and more bizarre beacon for the rest of the world. I was still in my early teens when I devoured The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (1965), his first collection. The title story is about two car-customizers, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth and George Barris 'King of the Kustomizers'. As a kid I knew nothing about Baby Jane Holzer, but despite having only slightly more interest in cars, I devoured the pictures of hot rods in Rod & Custom magazine, built plastic models of Big Daddy's cars like the Beatnik Bandit. Wolfe's story is about the way Kustom Kulture in Kalifornia seeks a freedom unavailable in, say, Detroit, or even New York. It's also about the battle between designers, one creating art without thought to functionality, the other building artistic works one could actually drive. It's a theme repeated in Wolfe's 1981 polemic against modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House.

In 1965 I was already listening to the disc jockey Murray the K on 1010 WINS in New York. Wolfe's essay 'The Fifth Beatle' portrayed Murray less as a leader of the nascent counter culture than a frenzied self-promoter, the 'king of the hysterical disc jockies' , though those of us who listened knew the hysterical crown actually belonged to 'Cousin' Brucie Morrow, whom Murray replaced on WINS. Ironically, two decades later, after the publication of Bonfire, first serialised in Rolling Stone, Norman Mailer called Wolfe 'the hardest-working show-off in the literary world', in effect a novelistic Murray the K. The ensuing feud with what Wolfe called 'my Three Stooges', Mailer, John Updike and John Irving concerned the quality of his fiction, which Wolfe self-flatteringly described in terms of the social realism of Zola, Dickens, Balzac and Dreiser. In his riposte to the Stooges, 'Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast' Wolfe argued writers should be focused on 'the material' of American life, not their own talent. Funnily, the two novelists he cited were Joseph Wambaugh and John LeCarre: early Wambaugh was everything Wolfe may have thought Bonfire to be, and a good counter to Updike, but LeCarre's spies moved in a world very much apart from the billion feet, especially the billion American feet.

Although Irving might be said to be the most self-consciously Dickensian of Wolfe's Stooges, and Updike the most obvious opposite of what Wolfe wanted to do, the feud with Mailer is paradoxical, if not in their fictions (though Mailer's mythic takes in, say, An American Dream or Why Are We In Vietnam? are as full of American Studies as Wolfe, and former originally was serialised in Esquire!) then in their non-fiction. We think of the New Journalism as being defined not only by flamboyant writing like Wolfe's, and by less flamboyant long-form, and by the insertion of the writer into the story, which was very much not Wolfe's MO. It was however, Mailer's, or did you miss the point of Advertisements For Myself? He did it in the third person (something he learned reading Henry Adams at Harvard, probably in American Studies!). Wolfe himself credited Gay Talese's 'Joe Louis At 50' as opening his eyes, while some of the new journalists, say, Jimmy Breslin, were working in the style of great columnists--bringing the freedom of the column to their reporting. The point is that, in non-fiction, this was very much a shared enterprise, without the back-biting. But when we entered into the realms of fiction, all bets were off. Could Wolfe have dug back into his own past and written anything like Mailer's vast novel about the OSS and early CIA, Harlot's Ghost (whose promised part II never appeared)? To do so might have required Wolfe's own presence; Mailer, in this case, was playing the observer.

But his critics felt the difference between Wolfe's material and his 'talent'. It goes back to Wolfe's writing his way out of the diffidence of being an observer. Perhaps there is his own element of class involved. His family had money; if he were not in the CIA he might possibly have been supported by them. In Bonfire he captured the sense of the greed-driven Eighties perfectly, his involvement with the characters almost matched the ones about which he'd reported. But that was because they were the Ivy League elite, the ones who had once gone into the CIA, and cover jobs in journalism, but now were busy being a different kind of Masters Of The Universe, by moving money and living large. But after Bonfire, away from the types he knew well, his three later novels revealed the limits of observation as opposed to creation, most famously in I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), in which Wolfe very much wasn't his black woman from a poor background who attends an elite university. He was expanding an observation about an issue in society into a framework he was unable to fill convincingly.

Wolfe's most famous book remains The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), chronicling his travels across America on an LSD-fuelled trip with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, including Neal Cassady and the Grateful Dead, a journey that also spawned parts of Hunter Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels. Kesey of course is best-remembered today for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1962) a moving novel about an issue of sorts, but more tellingly a daringly-constructed and written study of an individual hero's battle with society. That was also, more obviously, the theme of Kesey's now-neglected second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion (1964), the tale of the Stamper logging family's battle against unionzed loggers in Oregon. Although it is very much rooted in realism, the characters often speak in first-person monologues, like a new journalist's patter. I think of Paul Newman, as Hank Stamper in the final scene of the film adaptation, riding down the river like Huck Finn, straight out of your American studies class, flipping a middle finger at the world.

Wolfe of course remained aloof from the merriest of the Pranksters' pranking. But it's hard not to think that in Kesey and his rebellion against the norms of Sixties society, and his return from the West to the East on his bus, Wolfe saw his most crucial themes laid out for him, in one psychedelic, tie-dyed pattern. That he could never reproduce this in his fiction should not come as a surprise. After all, after the Magic Bus, neither could Kesey.