Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday's Smattering of Books Recently Read

The trinity in literature seems to be everywhere, a human universal inherited from the ancients.  We usually quote Emerson, as here, regarding this, and we delight in discovering such trinities as the furies in literary works, old and new.

Body, mind, and spirit.  Child, adult, and parent.  Id, ego, and superego.  A tool of interpretation with many variations, many parallels.

Peter Matthiessen, on page 41 of The Snow Leopard (Penguin Classics): "One "I" feels like an observer of this man who lies here in this sleeping bag in Asian mountains; another "I" is thinking about Alex; a third is the tired man who tries to sleep." Matthiessen tells the same tale three ways in his Pulitzer-winning Shadow Country (Modern Library Paperbacks), divided into three parts but all are one.

Robert Penn Warren showed the three "I" viewpoints in different ways in his greatest novel All the King's Men, as in this passage:
"It was like the second when you come late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you can lean and pick it up, but don't open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there's an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddle up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what's in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn't want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing."
"The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it, would save him for another time. There's the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know."
When we read a novel and identify with the protagonist and feel the emotions of the novel, we do so with one "I."  When we observe the protagonist, reflecting on the novel, interpreting its meaning, we do so with a different "I."

The Lust for Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror, and Violence by Jeffrey A. Kottler (2011), 310 pages, including notes, bibliography, and index.

Jeffrey A. Kottler, PHD, "is a practicing psychologist, professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of more than seventy-five books, including the New York Times bestseller, The Last Victim: A True-Life Journey into the Mind of the Serial Killer."

Too often less of an argument than a survey of the way our culture is entertained by violence, The Lust For Blood is good but for my taste a bit too windy and too circumspect (as if to go easy on the pop, soundbite audience) to forcefully answer the question that the subtitle poses.  Dr. Kottler concludes:

"It is indeed the fear of death, the need for stimulation, and instinctual aggression that are at the core of our fascination with violence. There may come a day when human beings no longer require such stimulation in excise of our demons and purge ourselves of hostility. In the meantime, we live in the prisons of our own making, defined by our personal codes of honor and morality, as well as the choices we make for how we entertain ourselves."

I like what he says, but of course the need for stimulation and escape is also caused by repression, the denial of death.

Such entertainments as Reservoir Dogs and The Wild Bunch are briefly discussed. When, in the sub-chapter discussing these two, Cormac McCarthy gets mentioned, it is not Blood Meridian that gets quoted, but instead The Road.  And Dr. Kottler too separates the "I" of the observer from the "I" of the vicarious protagonist:

"Sam Peckinpah, who laid the groundwork for the violence in cinema of his generation, heartily agrees with Tarantino. In his films Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, the public outcry only fed greater interest. Audiences appeared to clamor for the privilege of paying money to be horrified. Peckinpah claimed his films were actually antiviolent since they portray human behavior at its most base, primitive, and awful. 'And yet there's a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we're all violent people, we have violence within us."

"As previously mentioned, there is also a control element to the experience of viewing such films. You have the power at almost any moment to moderate the level of arousal you are feeling. If you become too terrified by what is happening on the screen, you always have the option to remind yourself that it is only a movie. Look at your watch. Close your eyes. Sneak a peek at your phone. Stretch. Reorient yourself. It's not real. It's not happening to me."

"If, on the other hand, you are feeling bored and disengaged from the film and want to ratchet up the excitement, then you can pretend that it is real. Jump in with both feet. Imagine that it's you who is running, hiding, or fighting. What would you do in this predicament?"

"This happened to me recently while attending a horrifying and disturbing movie about the end of the world as we know it. I think at one point I started to shut down because I was so freaked out. I kept looking at my watch and yawning. I started thinking about the set design and the camera angles, admiring the acting, wondering about how the special effects were designed. I was in perfect control--or so I thought at the time."

"But with an hour left to go, feeling restless and bored, I thought, What the hell, and slipped back into the narrative without my seatbelt attached. The film became so real for me that when the lights came back on, I was still there. I couldn't stop crying and couldn't even explain to my son why I was so upset."

"The film was The Road , based on Cormac McCarthy's story about a father's legacy to his son in a post apocalyptic world. I couldn't stop thinking about what I would do in such circumstances, what I would do to survive and protect my own family against marauding killers. And I couldn't stop crying because, for me, even a week later, the movie hadn't yet ended; I was still living it."

"Did I get my money's worth from an entertainment experience that still haunts me and invades my dreams and fantasies? You betcha. But I also lost control and I'm still paying for it."

Lately I've been preoccupied with Stephen Greenleaf novels.  I began back at his first novel, Grave Error, and studied all of his novels straight through again.  I read them mostly with my observer eye this time, noting the nuances, the language, the little things, and recalling my first experiences of immersing myself into these novels, one by one, gladly forking over hardcover prices as soon as they appeared.  Greenleaf was a stylist too, with a wonderful sense of humor.

Stephen Greenleaf said (in the interview at this link) that his first novel was as much like those of Ross MacDonald as he could get it ("I'm surprised he didn't sue me.").  His narrator was mostly impersonal consciousness making its way into the case at hand, with no ego to get in the way of observing others.  As the novels progress, Greenleaf's protagonist/first-person narrator develops more and more of his own identity and personal motivations.  The great attraction of these novels (for me, at least) was his civilized voice.  Unlike so many private eyes, he wasn't a self-interested capitalist, nor a macho tough guy, nor a Sherlockian puzzle solver.  He was a seeker, a blue-collar social critic, reflective, introspective, and humble.

A lawyer himself, Greenleaf mostly made fun of lawyers in these books.  Tanner points out an occasional exception, including an old friend he goes to see in Past Tense.  The lawyer's office had been totally redecorated since the last time Tanner was there, with everything now in the western motif.  Tanner asks his friend, why the change?

"Cormac McCarthy," his friend says.  Tanner says that his friend acted surprised that he even knew who McCarthy was.

I had to laugh out loud when I first read that passage, back when Past Tense came out in 1998.  That same year McCarthy came out with Cities of the Plain.  McCarthy had won the National Book Award but was still a relatively unknown recluse back then--except to a core of loyal readers.  I remember going online to the Cormac McCarthy Society Forum and posting that excerpt there.

Stephen Greenleaf's books were always a special treat for this reader.  Highly intelligent and written in a sparkling style, they were always well reviewed as such.  But they didn't sell well.  Greenleaf tried different things and different publishers, but finally after  sixteen novels (fourteen Tanner novels and two stand alones), Greenleaf reluctantly quit writing and went back to lawyering.  He still doesn't even have his own wikipedia page.

Forgotten?  Not by his core of loyal readers, and good gosh, we miss him.  In his last novel, Ellipsis, he said goodbye to his readers with a satire on the publishing industry--before his own ellipsis.  This novel is written with his usual humor and asides and it also includes some special little things that you have to read very closely to catch.  I think I'll devote a Friday's Forgotten Book blog to it soon.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Glendon Swarthout's SKELETONS

Glendon Swarthout's SKELETONS, Double Day & Co, Garden City, New York, 1979.  This was the first and last adult mystery by Swarthout, who had already written The Shootist, Where The Boys Are, They Came To Cordura, and other fine novels.

I read it in first edition hardcover and laughed and marveled at Swarthout's quirky plot twists and word play.  It seems a bit dated now, but only because many of the things in here have been copied by others.  For instance, I believe that it was Swarthout who in this novel first coined the phrase "a pregnant pause," which has since entered common vernacular and which Wikipedia now uses to describes the comic pauses of comedians Victor Borge, Jack Benny, and Johnny Carson, among others.
Below is the epigraph from the first edition, a stylized quote from William Faulkner:
    The novel is a mystery wrapped in a kooky soap opera mixing well-researched historical western lore with madcap twists and turns, time out of time.  The protagonist is an author of children's novels trying to win back his ex-wife by solving the murder of her second husband.

It was optioned for a movie, to be directed by Wes Craven, but the deal fell through and the rights are now the property of the Swarthout estate.  Here's the opening of the novel with a couple of the finer paperback covers once advertising its motifs of skeletal time. 

I love GOOD and hate EVIL.
One thing I get a bang out of is reading aloud to a roomful of middle-aged children, ten to fourteen. I need to see how they react. What makes them laugh or cry, what grabs and engrosses them.
I was about to read a few pages, but first I had to set the stage.

“How many of you have flown?” I asked. Of the seventeen in the room, sixteen raised hands. Not surprising in New York. “Okay,” I said. “Now, how many have ever seen a fly on a plane?” Two raised hands, a few made faces. “Well, probably most of you have, and never thought about it. Next time you fly, notice. Usually you’ll see a fly or two hanging around the galley, where the stewardesses prepare meals. And why do flies fly? Why, because they enjoy travel, just as you do. And think of it--all a fly has to do is look at a schedule, decide where he’d like to go, pick his flight, fly to that gate, buzz aboard, and away he goes. No X-ray, no hand-luggage inspection. Free. And first-class, too, because the food and booze are better.
The phone rang.
I went weak. Tyler Vaught.
“Wrong number,” I said.
I hung up on her, resumed. “Excuse me, kids, just my ex-wife. Where were we? Oh yes. I suppose most of you have seen JFK. Well, the next time you go out there, go to the TWA terminal, stand in the center of the big room, and look up near the ceiling, in the northeast corner. If you have good eyes, you’ll--“
The phone rang.
“Jimmie, this is Tyler.”
“I know.”
“Max is dead.”
A pregnant pause.
“Well?” she said.
“Well what?”
“Say something.”
“It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
“You bastard.”
“Tyler, what am I supposed to do? Fall apart? So the sonofabitch is dead. Good night.”
“No, wait. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver. In Harding.”
“Harding? What in hell was he doing in New Mexico?”
“Well, it’s a long story. But one night I happened to tell him about Harding--you know, my grandfathers, the gunfight, the trials, 1910, 1916, and--“
“Oh no. Not that again.”
“And he got very excited. You know Max. He thought there might be a book in it. So the next day he flew out there. That was four days ago. Now he’s dead.”
“You’re breaking my heart.”
“Jimmie, why I called. His body’s being flown in from El Paso tomorrow. Someone in the family must sign for it--airline regulations--or somebody authorized by the family, and turn it over to the mortuary. Well, his dear old parents live in the Bronx and they’re on their knees--Max was an only child. So they’ve authorized me to meet the body and sign for it tomorrow afternoon and Jimmie, I don’t think I can do it. Alone. Jimmie, will you go with me?”
“Hit-and-run, huh? Sorry I wasn’t the driver.”
“I hope they total his coffin the way they total my luggage.”
“Jimmie, I need you. I can’t--“
Adios, Tyler.”

I hung up on her again and readdressed my fidgety audience. “Where were we? Oh yes. Up near the TWA ceiling you’ll see a crowd of flies. Well, they’re the jet set, the pro international travelers--TWA goes everywhere. This crowd hangs around between flights and exchanges information on the best airlines and the best hotels and so on and the most-traveled of them all is Frisby. Frisby is a really worldly fly. He’s just returned from Italy, is recovering from jet lag, and thinking about having a look at Africa next. There’s a midnight departure from Kennedy to Nairobi via London. And as our story begins-- the pages I’m going to read to you--Frisby’s asking his friends about visas and inoculations and safaris and--“
Suddenly I didn’t feel like reading, didn’t need a roomful of kids. Tyler would call again, she never quit, and I wanted to be alone to think of different ways to say no when she did.
“Bug off, you little buggers,” I said to them. “A man’s dead and I’m not in the mood. So get lost and good-bye.”
They disappeared.
Imaginary children of course. I wish I were happily married, with my own progeny to read to, but alas, I probably never will be. Or have my own progeny. I live in an apartment on East Seventy-third, between Fifth and Madison.


This is a tag-along to Patti's Friday's Forgotten Book Series to be found at this link.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Let Us Talk Calmly About Violence

class warfare: aggravated class conflict.  Roundly condemned by many a politician who actually supports it, as long as it's being waged from the top down. --Norman Solomon, The Politician's Dictionary of Buzzwords,

There's a new book out on the violence of 1877, which unfortunately I do not have, so instead I'll tell you about Robert V. Bruce's magnificently comprehensive but little known gem entitled: 1877: Year of Violence.

Self-interested competition in the free market is a good thing as a whole, keeping prices low while at a level to still encourage their manufacture.  As in the game of Monopoly, however, when big businesses are allowed to squeeze out the smaller businesses through monopolies and cabels, the game continues until only one is left, thus collapsing the game for everyone, as monopoly money converts once again to the paper that it is and loses all value.

The government's role should be to keep the game going by keeping the playing field level.  Power corrupts and the powers of the economy need to stay separate lest they become corrupted.  Just as the federal separation of government power is necessary, the separation of economic power is essential.  Unfortunately government now allows the de-facto collusion of price fixing and monopolies and other manipulations while increasingly preventing the collective bargaining of labor and consumers. 

Adam Smith warned of the tendency of big business to conspire to manipulate the market and artificially raise prices while squeezing out the small businessman and the people who work for them, that a true lassez-faire economy "would quickly become a conspiracy of businesses and industry against consumers, with the former scheming to influence politics and legislation."

This is happening again.  The corrupt are too powerful to stop.  They have again made lassez-faire principles into a cause, a false immortality project.  The violence, when it arrives, will again come from above rather than below, from the strike breakers rather than the strikers.  Because the true believers, in the Eric Hoffer sense, are on their side.  We learn from history that people seldom learn from history.

Wednesday's Western: Alan LeMay's THE SEARCHERS

It would not be accurate to say that I'm an expert on the John Ford western, The Searchers, but I am very well read in the critical literature that has discussed it as well as the Alan LeMay novel upon which it is based.  Still, books related to both the movie and the book continue to appear and often surprise me.

There is a slight difference in tint between the 1954 first edition dustjacket and that of the Sears Bookclub Edition.  The dustjacket is usually described as mustard yellow or mustard brown.  The words at the bottom of the dustjacket front are from LeMay's epigraph.  The book first appeared abridged and serialized in The Saturday Evening Post under the title, "The Avenging Texans."

My annotated list of peripherals and references for THE SEARCHERS is here.

A good row of pictures of the movie cast is here.

The source of this picture of the mug, given by John Wayne to other members of the cast and crew back in 1956, is at the excellent "50 Westerns of the 50s" blog which is here.

The movie Ethan Edward's doubting "That'll be the day," by the way, inspired Buddy Holly to write the song by that name, and not the other way around.  It was not a commonly used catch phrase until after both the movie and the song appeared.  It has now passed out of vogue, although Carla Jean Moss, the wife of Cormac McCarthy's protagonist, used it in No Country for Old Men, published in 2005 but set in 1980.

Alan LeMay wrote a number of other westerns prior to The Searchers, but none of such high historical and literary quality.  The bookclub insert coupled it with Daphne Du Maurier's Mary Anne: A Novel as its two main selections.  The four-page synopsis gives away a lot of the ending of the book:
"What Mart and Amos couldn't know, however, was that Debbie, when at last they faced her, would prefer death to freedom.  For the girl they found at trail's end was no longer the child of memories, but a matured, defiant beauty, reared by the tribe as one of their own.  She was even, according to tribal custom, soon to be wed to a young brave.  To Debbie, the strangers were blood enemies and she turned on them with bitter fury.  In that climactic moment, Mart and Amos had to make a decision that could mean life or death for the three of them."

Of course, the ending was greatly changed and made more politically correct in the movie, and while I like it both ways, I greatly prefer the more historically accurate version in the book.  It is a documented fact that almost all captives of Native American nations, later given the choice to live red or white, chose to return to the red way of living.  Forcibly taken back, most of them ran off to rejoin their red families again at the first opportunity.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Guns Over Fireplaces: Wendell Berry's WATCH WITH ME

I love good first sentences, opening lines, opening images, opening paragraphs.  Ones that, after you have finished the book, you can look back on and see the entire work foreshadowed there, the spirit of the novel distilled and divined.

We tire of cliched or hackneyed opening lines, the "if only I had known" or "if this small thing hadn't happened, the whole thing would have been different" openings.  Although some otherwise very good books, exceptions, open that way.  Whatever the opening approach, I try to keep an open mind and listen as if the author were telling the story in person.

Stop me if you've heard this one, they'll say.  But we're conscious of the need of the teller to tell this story, and so we listen yet again.

Regarding opening images, Chekhov's Gun Theory  is often cited, the notion that if a gun on a fireplace is described in the opening, someone in the story should later be thinking about firing that gun.  A generic rule with many exceptions, but a good one.

The little known masterpiece that immediately comes to mind is Wendell Berry's pastoral epic in the form of a novella, Watch with Me.  But the gun is not shown in the opening paragraph.  Instead we see what's really important to the story at hand, and what's really important to humanity in a mythic and universal context.

The opening paragraph is a description of a farmer's workshop, with forge and anvil and vise, where he mends things, harness or shoes or whatever needs mending.  Sometimes he goes there to putter, sometimes just to sit and think.  The concluding sentence of the opening paragraph says that the double doors of the shop admit "a fine flow of light."  It seems mundane, and you won't see the significance in the opening until you reflect back on it.

Berry's farmer protagonist becomes alarmed at the threat that an otherwise harmless cow snake poses to his hatching chickens.  He goes to the house and returns with his shotgun, now loaded.

Chekhov's gun theory now comes into play.  A neighbor stops by to talk, a well-known eccentric commonly known as Nightlife, whose impaired vision through thick glasses sometimes confused nighttime with day.  Nightlife unexpectedly grabs the loaded gun and walks off with it. 

This character is afflicted with what we today call autism or Tourette Syndrome, and his marginalism is described in tolerant 1916 terms, long before there was such a diagnosis:

"Nightlife was an oddity, and no one could quite account for him.  His mind, which contained the lighted countryside, had a leak in it somewhere, some little hole through which now and again would pour the whole darkness of the darkest night--so that instead of walking in the country he knew and among his kinfolks and neighbors, he would be afoot in a limitless and undivided universe, completely dark, inhabited only by himself."

"From there he would want to call out for rescue, and that was when nobody could tell what he was going to do next, and perhaps he could not tell either."

Berry's protagonist, with a mixture of alarm and responsibility, then sets out after Nightlife, trying to find a way to get the gun from him without making him angry enough to shoot himself or somebody else.  Thus begins this epic novella, epic because it begs to be read slowly and because it is so much larger than the sum of its parts.

The story is set in 1916, and the book was first published in 1994--but the story is a timeless masterpiece.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Eye of the Tiger by Wilbur Smith

THE EYE OF THE TIGER by Wilbur Smith, first published in 1975.  On  its face, this is a crime novel, an adventure story, a light hearted romance with a love story too.

When I first read it, it was as if the protagonist had stepped out of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not (Scribner Classics), in a delightful way.  For although this is also a charter fishing boat tale, and although the protagonist is similar to Hemingway's Harry Morgan (played by Humphrey Bogart in the film), he is not so cynical but rather more light-heartedly existential.  A jaded, sardonic Bogart could not have played Wilbur Smith's protagonist.

My wife and I recently listened to the abridged audio book, and it was very good, but there is nothing like the first reading of the novel.  It was published in 1975, in an era of unparalleled sexual and economic freedom.  Art Bourgeau, in The Mystery Lover's Companion (1986), called it Smith's masterpiece, "possibly the greatest adventure novel ever written."

The novel garnered a large international readership and ardent fans who sponsered special editions, but still not much respect.  And while there have been many fine movies made of Smith's other novels, this one never made it to the screen.  Sylvester Stallone bought the movie rights, and it looked as if he cast himself in the lead, but somehow the movie fell through.

One cannot read the title of the book now without thinking of the rock song, written and sung by Survivor for the soundtrack of the Sylvester Stallone movie, Rocky III.  You should read Jim Peterik's story behind the writing of the song at this link.  I sometimes ran to that song back in the 1980s, and I can conjure up the sound of that tiger's heartbeat any time.

Wikipedia, at this link, shows the amazing number of parodies, covers, and influences the song has had over the years.  There are a number of fine covers available for free at youtube, mostly by trios or even a full orchestra.  Igor Presnyakov, while nothing to look at, generates amazing sounds in his solo version on acoustic guitar, at this link.

And if you've a hankering for some other charter boat novels, you might like my list at Amazon, at this link. 

This is a tag-along, one of many contributions to the Friday's Forgotten Book series, here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday's Western: Walter Van Tilburg Clark's THE TRACK OF THE CAT

The Track Of The Cat (Western Literature Series) is highly recommended as a western of magnificent beauty.  Clark's lyrical style and descriptive iconic images take the breath away.  The plot concerns the repressed sexuality of a western family mirrored and expressed outwardly in a seige of natural elements, snow and wind and a mythic panther stalking in the night.

The dustjacket of the first edition had the right idea, with with the cat, a symbol of the wild and of the primitive side of human nature, in outline.  For Walter Van Tilburg Clark did not want the cat shown because he wanted it to remain the primitive conceptualized. He disapproved of the scene in the movie version of The Track of the Cat, where a small and yellow mountain lion is indeed shown, dead, killed by the third brother at the end of the movie.

Clark wanted it to remain a parable. The trinity of brothers representing archetypes: the idealized spiritual brother, the materialistic brother, and the younger brother living the middle way, resisting both extremes.  Spiritual man, mental man, animal man.  Spirit, mind, and body.

As in The Ox-bow Incident, Clark wanted to show that, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."  I recommend the University of Nevada Press edition, which has Clark's comments on this in the afterword.

The spiritual brother is best, yet his idealism makes him weak and he is the first to give up his life. The materialist brother is more powerful yet his own ego consumes him. The youngest brother learns from both and goes on being.

The cat represents the primitive that is out there and yet is within us too and it must be recognized and dealt with. Sexual desire, fear of death and nothingness, and our spiritual nature denied by materialism--these too are well represented in the stifling atmosphere of the book and the movie.

Clark wanted the cat to be referred to as a black "painter," not as a yellow mountain lion as it is shown in the movie.

Several critics assumed that the author meant the black painter to be the same as the white Moby Dick, but that wasn't the case, although the materialist brother could be likened to Capt. Ahab, both fundamentalists seeking to kill and finding self-destruction, killers who kill unaware that they are killing themselves.

But Clark's sympathies, as he wrote, are very much with the cat. Asked his religion, Clark said several times that he believed in a spiritual naturalism. He was spiritual without organized religion, without being denominationally religious.

I recommend Jackson J. Benson's biography of Clark, The Ox-Bow Man: A Biography Of Walter Van Tilburg Clark (Western Literature Series), as well as Max Westbrook's Walter Van Tilburg Clark, which contains Clark's philosophy of sacred naturalism.  Westbrook has a lot to say about the literature of sacred naturalism and the other authors who fit in this same engaging category.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday's Transcendental Movie: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a highly acclaimed movie that spins trinities in parable and speaks of man's inhumanity to man and of the redemption in forgiveness.

The main trinity evolves with Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones's character) as the spiritual man, Melquiades Estrada as the mental man, and with Mike (Barry Pepper) as the mind-numb border patrolman.  They are spirit, mind, and body.  Mike is shown as being especially narcissitic, with a masturbating scene and another love-making scene with his beautiful wife which might as well have been masturbation.

Mike mindlessly shoots and kills Melquiades Estrada and buries him in an effort to cover up the crime.  The body is discovered and buried for the second time in the town cemetery.  The cover-up that occurs mimics a real incident of this nature upon which Guillermo Arriaga wrote his novel (upon which the movie is based).  Melquiades Estrada has thus been buried twice.   

The plot then is driven by the promise Perkins had made to Melquiades Estrada to see him buried in his own village.  Thus the movie becomes a tribute to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which is driven by the same motive--with the same results.

The trinity then evolves.  It is present, past, and future; father, son, and holy ghost; for Melquiades Estrada is then the eternal past, shown only in flashback, while Norton and Perkins are the present and future.  Perkins, the surrogate father, is teaching Norton, the son, of his ties to the common humanity of things.  At one point, he drags Norton through a river, in symbolic ritual of baptism.  The closer they get to the third burial, the closer Norton and the ghost of Melquiades Estrada become until they are inseparable.

They never do find Estrada's actual village, but at this point of realization all villages are one and true forgiveness is universal.

Melissa Leo is excellent as a part of the Eternal Feminine trinity in the movie.  She followed this with Frozen River and The Fighter, for which she is nominated for an Academy Award.  Levon Helm played an excellent supporting part, just amazing.  And Dwight Yoakam was surprisingly good.   

The movie was well reviewed everywhere, but my favorite review of it was Roger Ebert's, at this link. Very early on, Ebert had pointed out the connection to William Faulkner and the high quality of the movie in general.  Famous novelist Stephen King, in Entertainment Weekly, said of the movie, "Tommy Lee Jones channels Cormac McCarthy...and it works."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cormac McCarthy's SUNSET LIMITED on HBO

This week's debut of the Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel Jackson starred play garnered mixed reviews.

The "novel in the form of a play" is part My Dinner with Andre part the bridge scene in It's a Wonderful Life (60th Anniversary Edition).

R. Bull is credited with that cover showing a stylized human face on the universe, which is fitting for this play on the human condition, two suns in the sky as eyes for the two ways of seeing, the old testament and the new, Yahweh and Elohim, yin and yang, the material and the spiritual.

Of course, the work that Sunset Limited really begs comparison to is Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot.  The characters are always going somewhere but never getting anywhere, perpetually hung in the same dilemma.

Lois Gordon, in her marvelous work, Reading Godot, illuminates this dilemma, but it up to the individual to solve this riddle for himself.  My other favorite study of this is Paul Foster's Beckett and Zen: A Study of Dilemma in the Novels of Samuel Beckett (Wisdom East-West Book. Grey Series)Past, present, future.  Body, mind, spirit.  Father, son, and holy ghost.  Superego, ego, and id.  McCarthy's early style was Faulkner, the middle style was Hemingway, and the late style is Beckett.

Sunday's Random Notes: A Day For Gratitude

Thanks to Pattinase (Patti Abbott) and her terrific blog, here, and to J. Kingston and the Rap Sheet, here, and for Megan Abbot's take on Rita Hayworth, here.  Thanks to all the fine authors and other folks at Friday's Forgotten Book sites for their recommendations, including:

Joe Barone
Paul Bishop
Paul Brazill
Bill Crider
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards
Cullen Gallagher
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
K.A. Laity
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/Tina Karelson
Todd Mason
Kevin McCarthy
Eric Peterson
David Rachels
James Reasoner
Ron Scheer
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple

I'm mighty thankful for the new and old books on my to-be-read shelf, including:
Howard Fast, the author of Spartacus, Freedom Road, Citizen Tom Paine, and so many other works, wrote this book of Zen stories in his old age.  He says:  "After a lifetime of writing fiction, I find it more engaging to clothe whatever philosophy and conclusions that my life has brought me in stories the primarily entertain."
This is today's recommended book on books.  A brand new gem, published in January.

Saturday's Best Book Diary: Scientists Study Spiritual Experiences

Dr. Kevin Nelson is a world renown neurologist who currently is a professor at the University of Kentucky.  His new book, published last month, is one of the very best yet on the scientific examination of the spiritual experience.

It is 326 pages, with generous end notes, cited references chapter by chapter, and a complete index.  Close examination of near-death experiences are often the subject, and Dr. Nelson has over thirty years experience investigating them.  This book is for those who also enjoy reading the works of Antonio Damasio and Oliver Sacks and Joseph Le Doux.  It is science but presented in a form that makes it easy for general readers to comprehend.

One of the cases he could have discussed (but didn't) was that of Harvard trained brain scientist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who experienced a massive stroke who wrote of her unexpected spiritual experiences in a memoir entitled My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey.  Like the scientists mentioned above, Dr. Taylor has appeared on the Charlie Rose Show and the interviews are well worth watching.  I especially enjoy Rose's continuing series on the advances in brain science.

Which reminds me again of the light in Cormac McCarthy's metaphysics, a light dismissed by many critics, but always there dim in the darkness.

In Elizabeth Francisca Andersen's discussion of SUTTREE (A string in the maze: The mythos of Cormac McCarthy), she notes:

"...Suttree's altered states are rendered with a precision that demands close attention. Garry Wallace has written that, in a casual conversation with mutual friends, Cormac McCarthy said that he felt sorry for me because I was unable to grasp this concept of spiritual experience. He said that many people all over the world, in every religion, were familiar with this experience. He asked if I'd ever read William James's THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. His attitude seemed to indicate that in this book were the answers to many of the questions posed during our evening discussion."

"In reply to a letter Wallace wrote months later to follow up, Wallace reports that McCarthy went on to say that he thinks the mystical experience is a direct apprehension of reality, unmediated by symbol, and he ended with the thought that our inability to see spiritual truth is the greater mystery."

"Following up on these hints, William C. Spencer has produced an essay on the altered states of consciousness portrayed in SUTTREE...Spencer convincingly argues that through his newfound cosmic or mystic superconsciousness, SUTTREE moves beyond his felt duality to a sense of universal unity, and he thereby gains control over his fear of death..."

The feeling of universal unity is one of the most common denominators among those having the near-death experience.