Tuesday, 25 August 2015

MAGNOLIA, YOU SWEET THING (a poem): SPRINGSTEEN, ANNIE & ME

Forty years ago today, Born To Run was released, and Bruce Springsteen would soon be on the cover of Time magazine. It was just before that album came out, some time in July 1975, that my high school friend Bryan and I took a trip up to Tanglewood, in the Berkshires, to hear Springsteen, outdoors, in a crowd of maybe 1,200 people. My college roommate Berman, who grew up near Asbury Park, had introduced me to Springsteen's music when I taught at Georgetown Visitation Convent School and stayed with him while he was in law school.

Along with us on the trip was the Annie of this poem, whom I'd met while I was teaching summer school at Wesleyan. I'd met Tom Disch, who was also teaching there, on the bus up to Middletown, and I sat in on his class, which Annie was taking. As it happened she was at Trinity, where Bryan had studied, and they knew each other a bit, I think. Anyway, for me it was coup de foudre, and I recall talking her into seeing the Boss. I also recall she drove us, in a Beetle. Of course it didn't last. In August I moved to Montreal, to do a masters at McGill. I finished the poem in September, and it was published in 1976, titled 'The Morning After,' in a nice magazine called En Passant, which if I remember right was published in Delaware.

I collected it in Chump Change, which was the final Northern Lights chapbook, in 1991. Oddly, although it was the Springsteen anniversary that prompted my reprinting the poem here, the new title came to me a couple of weeks ago (it's from JJ Cale's song, obviously). I suspect I was remembering, without realising it, another 40th anniversary. And having just moved house again, I found this old photo above, Annie & Bryan and Tanglewood in the summer of '75.




MAGNOLIA, YOU SWEET THING

Old women force smiles & ask if it is hot enough for me.
Magnolia is still in heat; she attracts a crowd
Of suitors. It makes her nervous, having to deal with
Their anxieties. Eight in the morning & already
The dew has burned away. It will be as bad as yesterday
When I went crazy with the heat, or something.
The rest of the city is still asleep, sweating, except
For those watchers, and the panting dogs.
Annie sleeps, still.
I chase away
The puppie's would-be lovers; she doesn't seem
To miss them at all. She fetches sticks until symbolism
Begins to bore her. Chews one to splinters.
As we walk home
My feet start to stick to the pavement. Maggie waves
Her tongue in surrender. Mine feels tired too.
It is getting hotter. On the landing I look at
The neighbour's paper: three humans killed in Hartford
Last night. Not counting us. Someone will be murdered
Today; they will make tomorrow's paper. I will not
Be here to read about them.
Magnolia gets cold
Milk in her bowl. Annie wakes, leaves the bed,
Kisses me the way she clears the kitchen table
For her breakfast. If I were saner I would still be
Sleeping. The heat gets worse. It cannot last.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

LEV A.C. ROSEN'S DEPTH

Simone Pierce is a private eye in New York City, only this is a New York populated only in the tops of buildings which poke above a flooded east coast—the polar ice caps have melted and the city is an island cut off from the now-distant mainland, in effect what we know as Middle America is all that has survived. Simone's got two jobs, one a seemingly routine tail of a wayward husband, the other escorting a Spanish museum curator around a number to the city's tallest buildings, to see what may lie underneath the water. Then the husband she's tailing turns up dead, and her former police colleagues like her for the killing.

Lev Rosen's dystopia isn't unique, but using the setting for a detective novel is a nice touch: there's an innate darkness in the cold water that surrounds the remains of the city, giving the atmosphere, dare I say it? depths of noir. Rosen also uses it in the way the best dystopian fantasies are supposed to: as comment on our present day. Not just the ecological, but more importantly, the social: New York has always been an island home to those who don't fit into the mainstream of society, as well as the HQ for said mainstream: now it's somewhat different, isolated almost completely from a doctrinaire reactionary and puritanical fundamentalist government on the mainland. That Simone's best friend happens to be the mayor's top assistant, as well as part of one of the city's wealthiest families, gives her an interesting entree into both side of the equation.

The setting is remarkably consistent, if the future itself doesn't always catch up: for example devices like mobile phones don't seem to have progressed as far as they seem to have in just the past couple of years, much less a longer time, and you might assume surveillance would be far intensified from the levels it is now. The story itself starts to get very entangled, to the point it needs a somewhat cozy kind of parlour scene to explain things; this is magnified by the character focus being very firmly on Simone: and not always presenting a full-enough picture of those being investigated.

In fact, Depth reminded me of two rather disparate books. The story itself played out like Harper, the movie version of Ross MacDonald's The Moving Target. I kept seeing Paul Newman as Simone, or vice versa. But for the combination of dystopian sf and hard-boiled noir, Rosen may have produced the most satisfying mix since Richard Paul Russo's much uner-valued Carlucci series. Although Rosen delivers a powerhouse set-piece climax, the story does drag in the middle, but there is a lot of depth in Depth, and Simone's return would be welcome.

Depth by Lev AC Rosen
Titan Books £7.99 ISBN 9781783298631

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


Monday, 17 August 2015

ROWDY RODDY PIPER: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Roddy Piper, the wrestler and actor, is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can link to it online here. As you'll see, the last few grafs were mostly lost, in the time-honoured tradition of cutting from the bottom, but a few small points were lost along the way: I've expanded my original copy slightly to give slightly more detail than I imagined the Telegraph's audience would expect.

There is a danger in doing wrestling obits, trying to decide which pieces of biography are real and which are 'works', because the wrestling business is itself a work. Yet its denizens do come to believe in it: in a sense they are marks for their own work, and Piper no less than many others.

I also ignored the drug scene. Piper never had the genetics to become a muscle-freak, but I would not doubt that he used steroids. His recreational drug use became a matter of public record, and controversy, at least twice. I don't know if I'd add him to the long list of stars of the 80s and early 90s who've died young, but he's close. He gave an interview a few years ago in which he said he did not expect to reach 65--it was why he continued working, because he worried he would never be able to collect his WWF pension. I included that in my first, but then edited it out. It resonates with me still.

As it happened, I had shown my 11 year old son They Live just a couple of weeks before Piper's death. Nate was surprised; he'd liked the movie and liked Piper. I found him less convincing than I remembered (I hadn't seen it since it was released) but thought the movie might be even more relevant today. I also would have liked to have mentioned the incredible marathon fight scene with Keith David, which remains awesome but seemed more of a distraction thirty years on!


I think I was just about 11 when I first got into wrestling, the old WWWF from New York and Washington. It's a shame there's nothing as comparatively straight-forward for Nate to come to now. But Piper was one of the men who enabled that change of direction.

Here's the copy I filed to the Telegraph, slightly amended:

ROWDY RODDY PIPER:


'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, who has died aged 61, was a key performer during the explosion of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF—now known as WWE) to massive popularity in the 1980s. Considered by many the greatest 'heel' (or villain) wrestler ever, Piper sold his 'beserker' persona, capable of anything in or out of the ring, to gain credibility in an age dominated by steroid-fuelled muscle-men. More importantly, his ability to perform on microphone and camera meant he could create instant hatred with opponents and audiences alike, thus stoking the flames of money-making feuds. He was equally successful as a 'babyface' (or good-guy), often billed as hailing from Scotland, and entering the ring wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes. 'Only people who can't draw money need belts (ie: championship titles)', he said. 'The only thing I need is a great opponent'.

His talent led to a second career on screen, though he never matched the success of his second leading role, in John Carpenter's excellent science fiction B movie, They Live (1988). Equipped with glasses that reveal aliens who have taken control of earth, Piper, armed with a shotgun, enters a busy bank and announces, 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum!'

Born Roderick Frederick Coombs April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and descended from the secretary of state of the Confederate States of America, Piper had a fractious relationship with his father, at one time a member of the RCMP. He was expelled from junior high school for carrying a switchblade, and eventually ran away from home. He was only 15 when he made his wrestling debut in Winnipeg, against Larry 'the Axe' Henning. He made his entrance playing bagpipes, as 'Roddy the Piper', which quickly was shortened into his ring name.

At 19 he was wrestling full-time in California. NWA Hollywood promoter Gene LeBell taught him judo, and recognising his heel ability staged a feud with Mexican-American Chavo Guerrero and the entire Guerrero wrestling clan which, with its racial stereotyping, did huge business. At its peak Piper lost his hair versus a hair match to Chavo, and had his head shaved. This was followed by a 'loser leaves town' match, ith Piper leaving LA. But he returned, in disguise under a mask, as 'The Masked Canadian', wrestling as Chavo's tag-team partner, until he double-crossed the Mexican and started the feud again.

He moved to Don Owen's Pacific Northwest promotion, and eventually settled in Portland, Oregon. He feuded with 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair in Mid-Atlantic before joining the fledgling World Championship Wrestling, Ted Turner's cable-television showpiece, in 1983. For the first time he played face when two heel wrestlers he managed turned on announcer Gordie Solie. He then reunited with Flair at Jim Crockett Promotions, turning villain again before leaving for the WWF. In his final match for Crockett, at Starrcade, wrestling's first pay-per-view broadcast, Greg 'The Hammer' Valentine broke Piper's eardrum during a dog-collar match, causing a permanent loss of hearing.

The WWF was going national, and supremo Vince McMahon gave Piper an television interview segment, Piper's Pit, where he smashed a coconut over the head of 'Superfly' Jimmy Snuka, mocking his Polynesian heritage, and starting another huge feud. But nothing matched 1985's 'War To Settle The Score', which saw Piper take on Hulk Hogan in a special aired on MTV, with Cyndi Lauper, Capt. Lou Albano, and the A-Team star Mr. T in Hogan's corner. This set up a tag-team at the first Wrestlemania, with Piper and 'Mr. Wonderful' Paul Orndorff against Hogan and Mr. T. Which led to Piper and Mr. T's boxing match as part of Wrestlemania II; Piper lost patience and body-slammed Mr. T senseless; losing the match by disqualification.

Piper established a unique role, able to take long absences, yet return to big events successfully, often interacting with mainstream celebrities, most notably when he hosed down right-ring talk-show host Morton Downey Jr at Wrestlemania V. This helped his burgeoning film career, which saw his first leading role in Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988) another sf film in which he needs to rescue (and impregnate) some of the women who now run the earth but have been captured by mutant frogs. His later career was mostly confined to straight-to-video action films, but in recent years he'd played in the two Canadian Billy Owens fantasy films, a nostalgic wrestling film, Fancypants (2012), and the self-explanatory Pro Wrestlers Versus Zombies (2013).

Meanwhile he moved between promotions, including independents, capitalising on nostalgia. In 2005 he was inducted into the WWE's Hall Of Fame. He was treated successfully for Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2006, but resumed wrestling. He had predicted in a 2003 interview he would not reach age 65, blaming his lifestyle, and needed to continue earning. In 2009 he, Snuka, and Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat lost a handicap match to Chris Jericho at Wrestlemania XXV, and at Wrestlemania XXX, in 2014, Piper, Orndorff, Hogan, and Mr. T came together to bury the hatchet. He recently started a revival of the Portland Wrestling show, featuring his son Colt, whom he trained.

In 2013, Piper he and Kitty appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap with Flair and his girlfriend; Piper had been best-man for the first of Flair's four marriages. The programme featured his Oregon home, though he also lived in Hollywood. Piper died after a heart attack, in Hollywood, 31 July 2015. He is survived by Kitty, Colt, and four daughters. Ric Flair called him 'the most gifted entertainer in the history of pro wrestling'.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

MEMORIES OF FRANK GIFFORD

Remembering Frank Gifford brings back a lot of memories. I worked with him at ABC Sports, including once doing the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final with punter Dave Jennings as his 'expert' colour. Jennings messed up his standup three or four times and then when he finally got it right, Giff messed up his, so we had to tape again. That was a hoot. I was with him for many years at Kitzbuehl, once along with Kathie Lee soon after their marriage...he was one tired announcer! The estimable Mike Rosen, former editor of Sport magazine, was along to write for him, like a third wheel on a honeymoon. I recall my mother telling me about Kathie Lee bragging about their sex life at some golf tournament ABC was covering; I believe that was the Friday a couple of my colleagues and I celebrated our promotions by destroying Caramba  before returning to an empty office.

Gifford was a big part of the most iconic NFL game ever; he was the fallen warrior in the most iconic NFL photo ever, and the only sports star I know of to be the focus of one of the great American novels of the 20th century (Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes) and he was everything Exley worshipped, and more, and less.

He was probably a better player than people remember now, though of course his career suffered because of underuse early, under Steve Owen (corrected as soon as Jim Lee Howell became head coach and hired Vince Lombardi to run the offense) and because of the way carries were shared in those days and Lombardi didn't pass all that much to backs. He's still remembered primarily as the victim of Chuck Bednarik's tackle, and maybe for not getting a crucial first down in that 1958 championship game--he always insisted he'd made it but wasn't given the spot.

It struck me that his career followed closely Kyle Rote's (that's Rote, number 44, in the Bednarik picture). Rote was an even bigger college star, at SMU, as a tailback. He became a running back, then switched after injury to flanker, just as Gifford did. Rote, like Gifford and Charlie Conerly (who became a Marolboro man, did a lot of advertising when New York's Mad Men discovered the NFL in the late 50s (and his son Kyle, Jr. became a pro soccer star in the early NASL). Joe Morrison, to an extent, followed that pattern too.

On the downside, it was the professionalism of his approach when he presented NFL on C4 in 1986 that eventually inflicted the Vicious Boys on us, perhaps the first, and a very prescient, attempt to turn the sport into reality TV. He introduced British crews to the idea of wearing shorts and sneakers out of vision, with a jacket and tie above. He was a longtime ABC Sports host, and oh yeah, he was the referee between Howard Cosell & Dandy Don Meredith on MNF when it was the best NFL on TV. But he was basically a professional, subdued announcer--like his Giant's teammate Pat Summeral, but without as good a voice.

I remember an interview with him, I think it was in Esquire but it might have been Sport. He was asked about regrets. Gifford said 'you know, I was a quarterback in college. The Giants had Charlie Conerly, so they moved me to halfback.' The interviewer said, 'oh, so you wanted to play quarterback?' and Gifford replied, 'no, you don't understand. You see, I was a quarterback.'

That bittersweet regret, from a man who seemed to have everything, has stayed with me ever since. RIP Giff.

RICHARD SCHWEIKER, LIBERAL REPUBLICANS, AND JFK

Last week I couldn't get any papers here to take an obituary of Richard Schweiker, best-known as a liberal Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, but his career is fascinating for two reasons.First, he represents the last-gasp of the now virtually extinct 'liberal' wing of the Republican party. That wing, which was largely eastern, and which you might argue represented old Yankee money, was dominant in the party up until after the JFK assassination. They were the ones Time magazine idolised, and hence got a lot of respect in the household where I grew up, even though my parents were strict FDR Democrats. 
Even the Republican rabid right, represented by Robert Taft of Ohio, was relatively moderate on social issues despite being vehemently anti-union and pro-business, while always pushing a militaristic foreign policy. The Republicans could occupy this political middle ground because the Dixiecrats, southern Democrats, were the far-right on social issues, specifically civil rights.


Goldwater's nomination in 1964 was the first break-through of the 'Cowboy', new-money: more triumphalist greedy,a defense-industry-dominated turn right. He lost heavily to LBJ, but Richard Nixon, basically an older-style Republican at heart, but brought along by the new breed from California, realised the southern states were there for the taking after LBJ got the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed. He approached this 'southern strategy' with coded reference to states rights, and by the time Reagan sought a second term, the 'solid south' was solidly GOP.
Schweiker was the prototype liberal Republican swimming against this flow. Although he inherited his family wealth (oddly, his liberal Republican counterpart in the state house in Pennsylvania, William Scranton, was also a child of inherited privilege) he possessed a keen social conscience, what the British might think of as noblesse oblige. The Republicans were full of them: Rockefellers, Chaffees, Cabots and Lodges, even Bushes. Representing some very wealthy Philadelphia suburbs as a congressman, then out-polling his party to win a Senate seat, he supported civil rights and Medicare, opposed Vietnam, and voted against Nixon's Supreme Court nominations of Haynesworth and Carswell, the Alito and Thomas of the 60s.
In 1976 Reagan, looking to balance the prospective Republican presidential ticket, announced Schweiker as his potential running mate. In this too-long running age of Don Ron's hagiography we forget Reagan started out as a 'liberal' and went with the flow of money and power to the right. Looking at Schweiker and the Great Prevaricator exchanging a reverse Republican high-five makes me think Richard Dreyfuss would play Schweiker in a bio-pic (with Will Ferrell or Dan Ackroyd as Reagan). But Reagan actually remained committed to some social programmes, just as Nixon had, which today's greed-is-good upwardly mobile tea partiers would rather forget. They forget about his raising taxes, and his major recession too, but tant pis. More on this in a moment.
The second key thing about Schweiker was that he and Gary Hart headed the Senate's Church Committee's investigation in the role of the CIA and FBI in the investigation of the JFK assassination, and their conclusions, that the agencies had deliberately lied to, withheld information from, misled and misdirected the Warren Commission, created a firestorm. I'd recommend reading Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation (here's a link to my obit of Fonzi from the Independent in 2012). Schweizer had hired Fonzi, a Philadelphia journalist, as an investigator for the Church Committee; the book details among other things the interference by the intelligence agencies in the House Select Committee's JFK investigation which sprung from the Church and Pike reports. 

In May and June of 1976 Schweiker went public with his and Hart's conclusions. A few months later Vice President Gerald Ford, a Warren Commission member who was later shown to have been leaking the commission's workings to the intelligence agencies, managed to hang on to the nomination; he lost to Jimmy Carter and four years later when Reagan ran, Bob Dole was his VP. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, though we all know what happened to Gary Hart's presidential aspirations.

By coincidence, or not, Schweiker's voting record moved significantly to the right for the next four years, and in 1980 he did not contest his Senate seat. In 1981 Reagan appointed Schweiker secretary of Health and Human Resources; for the next two years he enacted many of the cuts Reagan had promised to Social Security, welfare, Medicare and the like, but can be said to have held them back from the draconian measures Reagan's backers were expecting. He left in 1983 to become head of the American Council of Life Insurance, a typical game-keeper to poacher move in the Beltway.
Ironically, Schweiker's Senate seat was taken by Arlen Specter, on the surface another 'liberal' Republican (he switched from Democrat to Republican in 1965, then switched back at the end of his career in 2009 while facing severe threats from the right--he then failed to get the Democrat nomination for the Senate in 2010). Specter's voting record was always on the Republican spectrum; you might say he played a liberal to placate an electorate used to that. But more telling, given Schweiker's principled stance on the JFK assassintion and the intelligence community, Specter's greatest claim to fame is as counsel to the Warren Commission, where he invented the 'magic bullet' theory to explain away the idea that Kennedy and John Connally were hit, as Connally believed, by separate shots. If that were the case, there would be too many bullets for one assassin to have fired. Specter's stroke of genius saved Warren and has sparked criticism and argument for the past six decades. You might argue, in our post-Santorum era, the Keystone State deserves another Schweiker.


Monday, 3 August 2015

THE NFL IN MOURNING: MY JULY AMERICAN FOOTBALL COLUMN

While I was vacationing in Sweden and Denmark, my Friday Monthly Tight End column went up at nfluk.com, you can link to it here. It's a little essay about three NFL greats who died in July: Oakland Raiders' quarterback Ken 'Snake' Stabler, Detroit Lions' tight end Charlie Sanders, and Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger. Three greats who made three very different impacts on the game...

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

RAGNAR JONASSON'S SNOW BLIND

Ari Thor Arason is a trainee policeman who on an impulse accepts a posting in Siglufjordur, in the far north of Iceland. He leaves his medical student girlfriend behind in Reykjavik, and arrives in the small and isolated village, once busy with the fishing industry but now just a sleepy bywater, where he is told 'nothing ever happens'. Of course, within weeks there are two corpses – one a famous writer found dead at the foot of the stairs of the local theatre on the eve of an amateur production, the other a woman living with the man playing the lead in that production, discovered almost naked, bleeding red into the newly-fallen snow.

Ragnar Jonasson's novel is very much a traditional murder mystery, closer to Yrsa Sigurdardottir than Arnaldur Indridason, which gains much from the isolated setting, in which a whole town is trapped, in effect, by the snow. Amateur dramatics and murder in an isolated setting make it sound very Agatha Christie, but as with Sigurdardottir it's the nature of the people in their isolated society, a world of extremes of light and darkness, that perhaps makes difficult the shadings of gray. It's a tangled web, with each character's back story suggesting more knots, and the past is woven deeply into it: thefts and murders, abuses and illicit loves: sometimes it seems as if no one in this Icelandic milieu possesses a life free of serious damage. And that includes Ari Thor, whose relationship with his girlfriend seems unlikely to survive the great distance, both real and metaphoric, between them.

Ari Thor is an oddly unfinished character, which may suit his relatively naiveté, but it stands in sharp contrast to the more telling bits of exposition the various suspects and victims receive. There's a fascinating dynamic between him and his boss, Tomas, whose live and let live attitude sometimes seems to take on a more sinister connotation, and sometimes seems almost comic: casting him in the film version is an amusing exercise.

In some ways, because Ari Thor 'solves' both deaths, but doesn't get a full measure of justice, this becomes the story of his adjustment to a world much different from the 'big city' of Reykjavik; an adjustment which was at the heart of Indridason's Erlendur series too. The novel's end leaves that story unfinished....

Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson
translated by Quentin Bates
Orenda Books £8.99 ISBN 9781910633038

Thursday, 23 July 2015

E.L.DOCTOROW: THOUGHTS ON MY FRONT ROW DISCUSSION

I was on BBC Radio4 Front Row yesterday, discussing E.L. Doctorow with Samira Ahmed. Although I was saddened by his death, it was a privilege to be able to convey some of my enthusiasm for his work, and for him as a person, to a wider audience. You can link to that broadcast here; our segment starts about 16 minutes in, but really it's worth listening right through from the start, it's that good a programme.

Doctorow's work is always about relations of power—whether class, financial, racial, physical or whatever, and how the imbalance of those relations is at the core of the American experience, if not the core of the American Dream. It is always about the problems of America, the way those at the bottom experience the City on A Hill. It's easy to miss, because the stories themselves are so engrossing, the characters so well drawn: his historical figures blend with his invented ones, reinforcing his insistence that he was not writing historical fiction. Take The March, published when he was 74. It's as good a Civil War novel as anyone had written in a long time, but at heart it's about the way, even before the war was over, the rebellious southerners were being welcomed back into the fold, and the newly 'freed' slaves were being found a status not much different from slavery.

I met Doctorow once, at a debate organised by the New Yorker (with whom I was on good terms at the time, though never good enough to sell them anything) and the Sunday Telegraph at Cheltenham Ladies College, probably about 25 years ago. I was standing by myself at the pre-debate reception, and two guys standing next to me drew me into their conversation. 'Hi, I'm Joe, this is Ed,' one of them said, and a few seconds later I dissolved into fan boy status as I realised I was talking to Joe Heller and Ed Doctorow. It was one of the finest half-hours I've ever spent: the discussion never got near literary gossip; it covered real topics, and had mobile phones been invented I would even no be bombarding you with selfies.

Doctorow was maybe the last of the politically involved novelists from the time writers of fiction (and excellent non-fiction) were considered important pundits, rather than the screeching beltway hacks who now populate the airways and leech into print. He was younger than Vonnegut, Mailer, or Vidal, but like them he accepted a public presence. He and his Kenyon classmate Paul Newman helped keep the Nation, America's pre-eminent left-wing weekly, afloat for years, and Doctorow contributed many fine essays to it. And like Mailer, and Roth (who is two years younger) he may the last of that generation of novelists educated in New York's public schools and then WASPy private colleges. I mentioned on Front Row that Doctorow's academic career reads like a character from a Philip Roth novel (Marcus, from Indignation, actually).

What was important from Doctorow's time at Kenyon was his study with John Crowe Ransom, one of the godfathers of 'New Criticism'. There's an interesting essay to be written about how New Criticism's analysis of Modernism helped generate Post-Modernism. Mailer and Vidal followed the modernist greats, with Vidal picking up a post-modern sort of irony; but Vonnegut and, with less flash but more variety, Doctorow, clearly embraced a post-modern sense of narrative. I mentioned how Doctorow's narrative strategies changed with each book: Loon Lake, perhaps the most extreme example, might be compared with John Hawkes.

But it was Doctorow's sense of history that inevitably defines his writing. John Updike hated Ragtime, saying Doctorow was 'playing with helpless dead puppets...in a gravity-free faintly sadistic game'. But I can't think of a writer less sadistic to his characters. One often has the feeling the author wishes the characters could be something other than what they are, but that what they are is simply too powerful, too real, to change. The famous story about staring at a portrait of J.P. Morgan by Edward Steichen to 'research' his character rings absolutely true. It's also why I like his first novel, Welcome To Hard Times, so much. Many of the obituaries repeated the line that the book started out as parody, but even were that Doctorow's original intent, his sense of parody became one of deconstruction. I look at the book as a precursor to Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, and Berger's novel as a sort of precursor to Doctorow's bigger novels. The film of Welcome To Hard Times isn't great; Burt Kennedy's scripts were always better when someone else directed them, but you can see Henry Fonda gets what the book was about. In passing, it's odd how that great wave of post-modern novelists: Heller, Doctorow, Vonnegut, Mailer, Berger, Barth, Pynchon, were etither ill-served or served not at all by Hollywood. I sometimes wonder if too many of Doctorow's novels end in melodrama and violence, and if those genre novels he edited at NAL did affect him, but it occurs to me that an imbalance of power in society is almost always enforced by violence, and protested by violence. Hard Times is about what happens when society is ill-equipped to deal with rampant evil; that's a classic western trope, but Doctorow's idea is that it is really endemic in our society.


I mentioned the New Criticism; Doctorow was a fine editor at New American Library and Dial Press. His obits mentioned the big names he edited, everything from Mailer and Baldwin to the unlikely pairing with Ayn Rand. But Ed Brubaker wrote today about how it was Doctorow who commissioned Jules Feiffer's The Comic Book Heroes; the first serious study of comics, and one that looked wryly at the America those early super-heroes represented. I mentioned to Samira that World's Fair might be my favourite of Doctorow's novels, and I spoke of the sense it gives me of the time in which my parents grew up; but I realised too that part of my pleasure in that book is the way our knowledge of what became of the world since then burnishes the memories of 1939. It was published in 1985, as if to say, look what we came out of, look at how high our hopes were, and now you want to turn the clocks back to the age of greed?

I ought to explain as well that I don't consider Waterworks his best novel, but in its style and structure it may be his best piece of prose writing. I haven't even mentioned Billy Bathgate or The Book Of Daniel, either of which might head many people's list of favourite Doctorow books, but we do mention them in the Front Row talk. I recommend his short stories too, and especially his essays, which approach literature and politics with the same caring that he shows his fictional characters. He gave a graduation address at Brandeis, and when the college edited the copy for its magazine, The Nation published it in full. It was almost a Jeremiad, an effort to remind the students of the world they were about to enter, and remind them more of what they could bring to it with the learning they had just received. Couching his words in almost literary theory, but using an uncharacteristic vituperative approach, he talked about how we were seeing a 'national regression to the robber baronial thinking of the 19th century—nothing less than a deconstruction of America...as if we were not supposed to be a just nation, but a confederacy of stupid murderous gluttons.'

Monday, 20 July 2015

MARK STRAND: THE LOST TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

I wrote the following piece in early December for the Daily Telegraph, but for some reason it didn't appear in the paper immediately, and then it just drifted onto the spike. I was never taken with Strand's poetry, though I did enjoy his book on Hopper. But researching his obit made me appreciate some of the convergences between his life and his work. I was particularly fascinated with the idea he studied with Josef Albers, and then moved from art to poetry via Wallace Stevens: as if placing a cube in Tennessee...

Mark Strand, who has died aged 80, once said 'Poetry tries to lead us to relocate ourselves in the self.' Relocate seemed to be the key word for Strand, who has died aged 80. In his often spare but always elegant poetry, Strand seems to be looking at the world, and at himself, from the outside. 'The poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world,' Strand said, and at his best he achieved the paradoxical success of bringing readers closer to the very worlds from which he felt distanced and alienated.

That sense of dislocation may have begun in childhood. Strand was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island 11 April 1934. His father's work took the family to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montreal before moving to Philadelphia, where Strand started school as an outsider, speaking English with a heavy French-Canadian accent. His father's new job with Pepsi-Cola took the family to Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, but the young Mark returned each summer with his mother to St Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, and memories of that seacoast and its pine forests reverberate through his work. Still feeling less than comfortable with English, he intended to become an artist. While earning a BA from Antioch College (Ohio) he spent a summer an assistant to the Mexican muralist David Siquieros, painting 'the kind of art I learned to despise while I was working at it.' He moved to Yale, taking a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree studying under the painter Josef Albers. The contrast between Siquieros' social realism and Albers' abstract focus on the language of paint itself might be seen as template for Strand's later poetry.

While at Yale he immersed himself in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and began to move away from painting, placing poems in the New Yorker. A Fulbright grant took him to Italy to study 19th century poetry; when he returned he took a creative writing MFA at the University of Iowa, America's most prestigious programme. In 1965 he received another Fulbright, to teach in Brazil. His first collection, Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964) was published by a small press in Iowa, but in 1968 the influential editor Harry Ford at Athaneum published Reasons For Moving, establishing Strand as a major voice. He moved to New York and taught at Columbia, Brooklyn College, Yale and Princeton. There he became close to Richard Howard, Charles Wright, and Charles Simic, poets whose work incorporated elements of surrealism, what Wright and Robert Bly labelled 'leaping poetry'. But Strand's closest affinity might be with John Ashbery, particularly in their shared roots in painting.

He published three more collections whose titles are revealing: Darker (1970), The Story Of Our Lives (1973) and The Late Hour (1978), as well a long prose poem about immortality, The Monument (1978) and translations of the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade. But following publication of his Selected Poems (1980) he gave up writing poetry for a decade. 'I didn't like what I was writing; I didn't believe in my autobiographical poems,' he said. He moved to the University of Utah to teach and wrote three childrens books, a collection of essays on art, The Art Of The Real (1983) and a monograph on the artist William Bailey (1987). That year he also received a MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant'.

Strand marked his return to poetry with the 1990 collection A Continuous Life, and spent a year as America's Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. His new publisher was Alfred Knopf, a relationship which survived an argument over reissuing The Monument labelled as prose. Dark Harbor (1993) received the Bollingen Prize, and in 1994 his monograph on Edward Hopper was a magnificent exercise in affinity, as Strand's minute breakdown of Hopper's paintings speaks of the waiting, the sense of time, and the position as observer of the poet in his own poems.

His 1998 collection, Blizzard Of One, received the Pulitzer Prize, deservedly so as it was perhaps his finest work. It includes the long meditation 'Delerium Waltz', reflecting on life as a waltz 'we think will never end'. He followed with the surprisingly brighter Man and Camel (2006), New Selected Poems (2007) and this year his Collected Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award.

Strand died 29 November 2014, of liposarcoma, at his daughter's home in Brooklyn, to which he was moving back after living in Madrid. His two marriages ended in divorce, and he is survived by his partner Maricruz Bilbao, his daughter Jessica and son Thomas.
'Poetry tries to lead us to relocate ourselves in the self,' Mark Strand once told an interviewer. Relocate seemed to be the key word for Strand, who has died aged XX. In his often spare but always elegant poetry, Strand seems to be looking from the outside, at the world and at himself. 'The poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world,' he said, and at his best Strand achieved the paradoxical success of bringing readers closer to the very worlds from which he felt distanced and alienated.

That sense of dislocation may have begun in childhood. Strand was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island 11 April 1934. His father's work took the family to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montreal before moving to Philadelphia, where Strand started school as an outsider, speaking English with a heavy French-Canadian accent. His father's new job with Pepsi-Cola took the family to Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, but the young Mark returned each summer with his mother to St Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, and memories of that seacoast and its pine forests reverberate through his work. Still feeling less than comfortable with English, he intended to become an artist. While earning a BA from Antioch College (Ohio) he spent a summer an assistant to the Mexican muralist David Siquieros, painting 'the kind of art I learned to despise while I was working at it.' He moved to Yale, taking a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree studying under the painter Josef Albers. The contrast between Siquieros' social realism and Albers' abstract focus on the language of paint itself might be seen as template for Strand's later poetry.

While at Yale he immersed himself in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and began to move away from painting, placing poems in the New Yorker. A Fulbright grant took him to Italy to study 19th century poetry; when he returned he took a creative writing MFA at the University of Iowa, America's most prestigious programme. In 1965 he received another Fulbright, to teach in Brazil. His first collection, Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964) was published by a small press in Iowa, but in 1968 the influential editor Harry Ford at Athaneum published Reasons For Moving, establishing Strand as a major voice. He moved to New York and taught at Columbia, Brooklyn College, Yale and Princeton. There he became close to Richard Howard, Charles Wright, and Charles Simic, poets whose work incorporated elements of surrealism, what Wright and Robert Bly labelled 'leaping poetry'. But Strand's closest affinity might be with John Ashbery, particularly in their shared roots in painting.

He published three more collections whose titles are revealing: Darker (1970), The Story Of Our Lives (1973) and The Late Hour (1978), as well a long prose poem about immortality, The Monument (1978) and translations of the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade. But following publication of his Selected Poems (1980) he gave up writing poetry for a decade. 'I didn't like what I was writing; I didn't believe in my autobiographical poems,' he said. He moved to the University of Utah to teach and wrote three childrens books, a collection of essays on art, The Art Of The Real (1983) and a monograph on the artist William Bailey (1987). That year he also received a MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant'.

Strand marked his return to poetry with the 1990 collection A Continuous Life, and spent a year as America's Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. His new publisher was Alfred Knopf, a relationship which survived an argument over reissuing The Monument labelled as prose. Dark Harbor (1993) received the Bollingen Prize, and in 1994 his monograph on Edward Hopper was a magnificent exercise in affinity, as Strand's minute breakdown of Hopper's paintings speaks of the waiting, the sense of time, and the position as observer of the poet in his own poems.

His 1998 collection, Blizzard Of One, received the Pulitzer Prize, deservedly so as it was perhaps his finest work. It includes the long meditation 'Delerium Waltz', reflecting on life as a waltz 'we think will never end'. He followed with the surprisingly brighter Man and Camel (2006), New Selected Poems (2007) and this year his Collected Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award.

Strand died 29 November 2014, of liposarcoma, at his daughter's home in Brooklyn, to which he was moving back after living in Madrid. His two marriages ended in divorce, and he is survived by his partner Maricruz Bilbao, his daughter Jessica and son Thomas. As he wrote in Blizzard Of One, in the poem 'A Piece Of The Storm':

A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed.
That's all there was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

THE COLOURS OF CHLOE: A POEM (AFTER EBERHARD WEBER)

I wrote this poem in January 1977, in my hometown of Milford, Connecticut. I had left Montreal in late November '76, having completed my master's thesis in August, to avoid having to register (and pay) for another academic year. I was about to fly to London with Theresa. I can't say I ever imagined I would stay more than a few years.

The title, of course, comes from the title song of Eberhard Weber's first ECM record, which was one of my favourites in the tiny flat Theresa and I shared on Lorne Avenue, and I'm sure I set my simple stereo up on my parents' porch, listened, and wrote. I may have been looking at Maya Weber's cover painting while I did. And it may have been the last thing I wrote before I arrived in England.

It seems it was published in something called Chock, which may have been the same as the Chock Freesheet, in October 1979. I've probably got a copy of it in storage somewhere. But this is its first appearance since then, 35 years ago...


THE COLOURS OF CHLOE      (Eberhard Weber)

Why is she sleeeping
           underneath
the rain

while her cello sits
unbowed just out of
the shadows
                         cast aside
by a cypress, reaching down
to touch her?


                         She surrounds
               the sunset in
                                       her eyes.

The path of her dreams can be
followed on her face
                                     by anyone
                who drifts by
& happens to look.

As slowly as the music lures
her back to consciousness

she sees a spectrum
rising, below the horizon

the redness of angry
sky, crackling louder
than the cold blue of crying

          than a yellow straw forgetting

colours

broken in the wind.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

RICHARD LANGE WINS THE CWA SHORT STORY DAGGER: A JUDGE'S TALE

The Crime Writers Association awards dinner June 30th was great fun, and I was privileged to attend as one of the judges for the Short Story Dagger award. It was my first experience of judging, and it was a long slog, with shall we say, an avalanche of stories from all different published formats--including one, Neil Gaiman's 'The Case Of Death And Honey' which we had been sent and all liked but then discovered had actually been entered for the Dagger the previous year!

Eventually Laura Wilson, our chair Ayo Onatade, and I each submitted long-lists of about 12 stories. I collated them, and it quickly became obvious that our short list had created itself. Two stories appeared on all three of our lists, three on two of the lists, and in correspondence we found the Dashiell Hammett story was on one long list (mine, as it happens) but had just missed the other two. It became our sixth story, and I was grateful to see it in print in what is a very fine collection for anyone keen on the progression of detective fiction from cosy to hard-boiled.

This was our short list, with the descriptions I wrote for the CWA's releases:

Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane 'Red Eye' (from Face Off, published by Sphere) Connelly's Harry Bosch travels from LA on the red eye to Boston to arrest a suspect his cold case file has turned up, and finds Lehane's Patrick Kinsey on a stake out of the same suspect. A tale whose understatement brings out the sharpness of both authors' handling of character, highlighting the differences between the two detectives in order to reveal their ultimate sameness at the core.

Dashiell Hammett 'The Hunter' (The Hunter & Other Stories/No Exit Press): In this story a detective who might be seen as a variation on Hammett's famous Continental Op uses ruthless bullying to try to get a confession, and in Hammett terms, something like the truth. This story, never published in its time, reminds us that the essence of hard-boiled is not cracking wise, ready violence, or blazing roscoes, but the world view which seeks solutions for their own sake, even though solving the crime does not necessarily bring society or its citizens (or its detectives) any closer to satisfactory solutions for their lives.

Richard Lange 'Apocrypha' (Sweet Nothing/Mulholland Press): An ex-convict called B works as a security guard in a jewellery store and lives in an LA flop house, where a couple of would be players who mock him as 'McGruff the Crime Dog' plan to rob his store. Lange reveals small bits of B's character with off-hand remarks about his past, but it's the fatalistic view of life, and the dark clarity with which it is drawn, that make this a subtly powerful neo-noir story.

Richard Lange 'Sweet Nothing' (Sweet Nothing/Mulholland Press): Richard Lange's stories of Los Angeles lie somewhere between Charles Bukowski and George Pelecanos. In 'Sweet Nothing' Dennis is a drug addict who's lost almost everything, including his children, and is trying to make himself respectable again. He shares an apartment with Troy, who weighs 450 pounds, and works as a manager in a Subway store. One night he meets a woman whose daughter is on life-support at a nearby hospital, hit by a car while jaywalking. Lange's characters are simply trying to get by in a world which sometimes seems casually antagonistic; this story is a very brightly lit piece of LA darkness.

Stuart Neville 'Juror 8' (OxCrimes/Profile Books): If you remember 12 Angry Men you will recall Juror 8, the older man with his own business who is the first one persuaded by Juror 9. But, asks Neville, what if Juror 9 weren't such a noble Henry Fonda, but more like the Fonda of Once Upon A Time In The West, and what if the boy accused of stabbing his father to death actually was guilty?

George Pelecanos 'The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us' (OxCrimes/Profile Books): In 1930s Washington DC, Greek immigrant Vasili is just starting his climb to the American Dream of success, and the one non-Greek friend he makes in his restaurant job turns up dead. Pelecanos' story is, like much of his writing, about the values of work and family, the struggles of little people in a world where those values aren't always followed. Vasili is written with such honesty the contradictions become plain, even in his own attitudes, but at heart he is a man of honour, and this is a dark look about what it means, or meant in those days, to be a man.
The two stories that appeared on all three long lists were 'Apocrypha' and 'The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us'.  When we met for lunch to decide the winner, it wasn't an easy decision, hence the commendation as runner-up for the Pelecanos, but in the end we were probably influenced by the overall quality of Lange's collection, the quality of the second-nominated story, 'Sweet Nothing', which is sweet nothing at all like the winner, and indeed, just passingly a 'crime' story at all, and the freshness of the voice.

What was fascinating to me was the similarity between our two finalist stories. Both are tales of men of low status working in jobs they feel lucky to have, whose choice of whether to act to do what they perceive as being right runs the risk of losing their job, if not creating the kinds of problems with the law and with the unlawly, that vulnerable people always face.

There was a small debate about 'The Martini Shot', the title story of George Pelecanos' first collection. I thought it was an impressive story, but there was some discussion whether it actually ran too close to novel length (which didn't bother me).  In the US, awards for novellas (indeed sometimes 'novelettes') are common but I don't see that as necessary. In the event there was also some discussion about the sex scenes in this one, whether they were necessary to the story and whether they distracted from it. But it should be noted Pelecanos came close to having two stories on the short list too. 

But Richard Lange was a new name to me, and having discovered his work was compensation enough for judging the award, even before the dinner. It was richly deserved, and you are advised to read him.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

LAWLESS: BRUBAKER & PHILLIPS' CRIMINAL CONTINUES

Tracy Lawless has spent 18 months in the hole; locked up in a military prison, no contact with the outside world. Then he's handed the personal effects left behind by his brother, murdered nine months earlier; news the Army kept from Lawless. Two days later, he's gone: headed back to the city to avenge his brother's death, because that's what guys like him are supposed to do.

The brothers grew up in crime, and Tracy knows that if he tracks down Rick's last crew he's likely to find the killer. So he makes a small heist of his own, and infiltrates the crew without anyone knowing. But huge burn scars from his soldier time in the Middle East make him easy to identify. And the crew is preparing for a big heist, and of course there's a woman too, who happened to be his brother Rick's girl.

The beauty of this installment of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips Criminal series isn't so much the noirish setting, which Phillips' dark art gets well-night perfect, nor the relentless pace of the story, which Brubaker takes through twists combined with the usual noirish inevitability. But what makes it really stand out is the way it shifts times: flashbacks to the Lawless childhoods, to Tracy's Army service, and the story of why he's behind bars at the start, and of course the caper which he intends to use as the stage for his revenge. They segue smoothly, but what's impressive is the way the stories mesh together, providing characterization and motivation that makes precise sense, even down to Lawless' names. And it connects, in the end, with previous chapters of the Criminal story.

Being noir, nothing works out as planned, not relationships, not revenge, not the noirish femme fatale, and of course not the heist. But the ending is perfect noir, and there aren't many writers around, in any medium, who get it as well as Brubaker does. This series moves from strength to strength.

Criminal Volume 2: Lawless
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Image 2015, £10.99 ISBN 9781632152039