Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Reading; ALIEN and ALIENS: NO EXIT

Listen to Stephen King, from Danse Macabre:

"Much of the sex in horror fiction is deeply involved in power tripping; it's sex based upon relationships where one partner is largely in control of the other; sex which almost inevitably leads to some bad end."

"I refer you, for instance, to Alien, where the two women are presented in perfectly nonsexist terms until the climax, where Sigourney Weaver must battle the terrible interstellar hitchhiker that has even managed to board her tiny space lifeboat.  During this final battle, Ms. Weaver is dressed in bikini panties and a thin T-shirt, every inch the woman, and at this point interchangeable with any of Dracula's victims in the Hammer cycle of films in the sixties.  The point seems to be, 'The girl was all right until she got undressed.'"

And in a footnote at the bottom of the page, King says:

"I thought that there was another extremely sexist interlude in Alien, one that disappoints on a plot level no matter how you feel about women's ability as compared to men's.  The Sigourney Weaver character, who is presented as tough-minded and heroic up to that point, steps out of character at the scriptwriter's whim by going after the ship's cat.  Enabling the males in the audience, of course, to relax, roll their eyes at each other, and say...'Isn't that just like a woman?'"

That was written circa 1980 and times have changed, of course, but it seems to me that he was stereotyping the men in the audience.  I'm a man and I think I would have gone after the cat as well, and I don't think less of the character for doing so.  But King raises some points worth discussing.

I recall enjoying that entire movie, especially the end segment, and the part where she stripped down to her panties heightened the tension, made her more vulnerable.  Movies (and novels) do this all the time either in symbol or in narrative.  Such scenes are appeals to the animal side of us, and our animal side is a part of the human condition--and hence a part of our Art.  We can deny it and suppress it, but it is still there.

Sigourney Weaver's part is indelible because it is like the part of Sally Fields in Norma Rae.  She is the individual against the monster, and that monster has its obvious twin in the Bureaucracy.

Like comic relief, such scenes seem to me worthy components of our literature, if accomplished either in metaphor or as non-melodramatic and essential parts of the plot.

The fact that she ultimately survives--she and symbolic cat alone--is a more significant signal of her abilities than the fact that she spent some time looking for the cat--which, to this member of the audience, suggested in a literary way that she was getting herself together, gathering up that part of herself that wanted to hide from the monster rather than face it.

Should we be embarrassed about nudity in art in general, or about enjoying that vision of Sigourney Weaver in her undies in this particular work of Art?

I don't think so.  The driving force in the original Alien--and in such sequels as B. K. Evenson's novelization of Aliens: No Exit--is always the Individual's stance against Bureaucracy, humanity against the psychopaths.  I wish some of them were better written, but I really admire their pillorying of corporate corruption on behalf of the existentialist, labor, and the powerless mass.

Speaking of beauty, I read Judy Collins' new memoir this week, and it is grand.  A personal history of a musical great and her time.

The lady is frank about her sexual exploration when young.  Always something of a liberated woman, she saw the nudity on her album cover as a positive thing then, and she sees it that way now.  In a recent interview, the Denver Post asked her to name her greatest accomplishment.  "Being with the same man for the last thirty-three years," she said.  In her book she says that she has never cheated on him and has continued to love him entirely, eternally, always. 

B. K. Evenson, by the way, knows something of the evils of bureaucracy first-hand.  A Mormon himself, he was the author of The Open Curtain, which was critical of some of the Mormon Church's historical policies.  He was also the author of some Cormac McCarthy crit-lit before his writing cost him his job at Brigham Young University.  According to the notes of Aliens: No Exit, he then became the director of the Creative Writing Program at Brown University.   

Sunday's Halloween Eve Ramblings

Well, for teenagers, Halloween weekend is an excuse to throw a party, usually rumored in advance to become what we used to call a make-out party, which meant what our parents called necking.  I'm not sure what they would call it today, but whatever it is, it likely won't be nearly as innocent.

There used to be the occasional hayride too, the parties and hayrides always turning out to be better chaperoned than you had imagined.  Still, a chance for fun and romance.

The Sunday morning comics today were full of Halloween.  Hi & Lois found his old vampire costume.  He put it on and imitated Dracula for his kid--who considered him lame, of course.  Hi says to his wife, I thought kids today were into vampires.  Lois says, not their father's vampires.  The next scene shows a kid looking like the vampire hero in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga.

Also today, Dennis the Menace decides that kids in adorable costumes get more candy than those in scary costumes.  There is truth in that assumption.  And so now teenagers prefer the sexier bad boy costumes, and I suppose that too is only natural.

We listened to this week's Garrison Keillor Show today, which usually touches on Halloween during October.  This show's highlight was a cover of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" sung by Stephanie Davis and GK himself.  Lovely song the way they sing it.

If a couple were to appear at our door at Halloween today as a young Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo, would anyone recognize them?  Grandparents, maybe.  Or great-grandparents.  I read Judy Collins' new autobiography this week. Mighty fine it is, with much about Dylan and the other singers of that era.

This evening we watched Masterpiece Mystery's last adaptation of Kate Atkinson's quirky circling mysteries, the last and best part ending fittingly at Christmas time.  The music throughout the three novel/movies was American country/folk in keeping with the musical preferences of her protagonist detective.

Thanks to the olderthanelvis blog  for a rundown of the soundtrack, here:

The Case Histories Soundtrack:Case Histories, part 1
Iris DeMent — Let the Mystery Be
Mary Gauthier — Mercy Now
Nanci Griffith — Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
Lucinda Williams — Sweet Old World
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss — Your Long Journey Home

Case Histories, part 2
Iris DeMent — I'll Take My Sorrows Straight
Mary Gauthier — Mercy Now
Gillian Welch — Paper Wings
Iris DeMent — Trouble

One Good Turn, part 1
Lucinda Williams — Bus to Baton Rouge
Eliza Gilkyson — Calm Before The Storm
Public Enemy — Fight the Power
Gillian Welch — Paper Wings
Eliza Gilkyson — When You Walk On

One Good Turn, part 2
Kylie Minogue — 2 Hearts
Lucinda Williams — Blue
Eliza Gilkyson — Calm Before the Storm
Gillian Welch — Paperwings

When Will There Be Good News? part 1
Zero 7 — Destiny
Lori McKenna — Drinkin' Problem
Doris Day — Let It Snow
Mary Gauthier — Mercy Now
Gillian Welch — Paper Wings

When Will There Be Good News? part 2
Mary Gauthier — Mercy Now
Gillian Welch — Paper Wings
Kris Delmhorst — Since You Went Away
Joan as Police Woman — The Magic
The xx — Vcr
Macy Gray — Winter Wonderland

Atkinson's detective gets beat around more than any other detective in memory since James Rockford in The Rockford Files.  And Rockford fans, don't miss J. Kingston Pierce's terrific new interview with James Garner, at this link.

The gang of black clouds
that had slipped into town under cover of darkness
now loitered on the horizon like unemployed ghosts,
impatient already for the night
when they could begin their Halloween pranks.

The lightning from the night before
now hangs upside down in the mountains
like a recharging bat,
waiting out the day in electric slumber.

Below, a scavenger wind runs the frosted fields,
ribbed and mangy and terribly lonesome
for its buddy the bat up there,
snoring sparks in the tree limbs..."

--Ken Kesey, Sometimes A Great Notion

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Grimm, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Earworms of the Day

Last night we watched the new television crime show/fantasy entitled Grimm, thematically linked to Grimm's Fairy Tales, and last night's episode featured Red Riding Hood.  It was symbolic/literary and darkly quirky funny and we laughed out loud a few times.  A child's tale made adult fare.

It opened with a jogger listening to "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics on her I-Pod when she is violently attacked and killed.  Two policemen investigating the case comment on the song, which later gives the killer away when he is humming it.  The song is later reprised in the Marilyn Manson version, which turns some of the lyrics grisly and into the first person point of view of the killer.

Back when it first came out, I used to use the Eurythmics version as a part of my jogging soundtracks, but once they started playing Marilyn Manson's version of it, I could no longer abide the song, which is just too creepy.  See Wikipedia's explanation of it at this link.

Still, this was only a Halloween show, just in fun; and, as Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, Robert Louis Stevenson's Mr. Hyde and the mythic wolfman are the same thing, they represent animal side of human nature.  In Grimm, some of the wolfmen have the free will to change.  Though constantly tempted, they refrain from eating people, always in recovery like reformed alcoholics.

Another earworm today is "Lil Red Riding Hood," by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.  It too takes the point of view of the wolf, but in this version, Red Riding Hood is not a child but a mature woman.  The object of this old-fashioned wolf, as in the wolf whistle of that time, has never been rape and murder, but simply seduction.  In those innocent days, that was considered bad enough.  Bad.  Baaad.  I mean, baaaad.

I still like the music today as it rattles around in my head, even though the lyrics bump into accrued political correctness and the constant self-admonition that wolves were never my thing, not even on Halloween.

The next song is Warren Zevon's "Werewolves In London," link, with its own driving piano and wolfish howls.  It is overtly the most violent of the three songs named here, but at least the story is told in the third person.  More violent but less creepy.  And comic book violence too, more darkly funny than chilling.

My mind goes back to the Freudian and literary analysis of the Red Riding Hood legend.  See:

Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

James Whitcomb Riley Mamie's Little Red Riding Hood, told like Uncle Remus.

The politically correct version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Wickipedia Red Riding Hood.

The next earworm is "The Highwayman,"  first by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.  An existential reincarnation song of sorts.

Then the lovely romantic version of the Alfred Noyes poem sung by Loreena McKennitt.  If you've never heard this one, you're missing something special.  Not a party song, this is one that needs close attention, so that when she sings the ta-ta-tlot, ta-ta-tlot softly, you can imagine the hoofbeats in the distance.

As far as Halloween costumes go, the highwayman has always been much more my style than the wolfman.  I've always been clean-shaven but I've always worn my hair a bit long, enough so that I would be obliged to forgo the french cocked-hat of the costume, as they are usually designed for someone with a smaller head or with less hair.  Besides, I'm cocky enough.

Not that we're dressing up for Halloween these days, but if we did, I'd settle for the rear end of this horse costume, just as long as my sweet wife is up front.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE GHOST HUNTERS by Deborah Blum

Today's forgotten book is Ghost Hunters: William James And The Search For Scientific Proof Of Life After Death by Deborah Blum, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  The James family is central to the evolution of the modern ghost story, and this is an eye-opening account of that history which unfolds like a detective novel.

"I ain't afraid of no ghost."

The source of that quotation, repeated in the theme song from the movie Ghostbusters and its sequels, was the cartoon character, Goofy, and it originated in the Walt Disney movie that I discussed earlier this month, Lonesome Ghosts.  Other borrowings from that cartoon are also apparent.

But the movie, Ghostbusters, has its source in a book by the grandfather of one of its stars, Dan Aykroyd, who wrote the foreword for the 2002 hardcover edition of A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters by Peter H. Aykroyd with Angela Narth.  And that book had its source in the experiences of the family during the mass hysteria of spiritualism that swept much of western society during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The spiritualism movement is mainly a crime story, based mostly upon swindle and con artistry and showmanship, frauds preying upon the gullible and those in need of spiritual assurance of an afterlife.  It gained in popularity after some leading Darwinists began denouncing religion.

The movement has faded away and spiritualism is now taken as a form of entertainment on a level with professional wrestling.  There are still books published promoting spiritualism, but the books debunking them are never far behind, greater in force and respectability--Joe Nickell's The Real Life X-Files, for instance, which I read long before I picked up a copy of Deborah Blum's magnificent work.

After reading Blum's book, I realized how nearly every other book on the subject was too biased one way or the other.  That the truth was somewhere in-between.

It is much like the more recent flurry of books on religion.  On the one side, you had the fundamentalists, on the other side came such books as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Fortunately, the severity of bias in these books inspired a responding flurry of middle ground books decrying their excesses and putting the arguments for spirituality in an intelligent perspective--books such as David Berlinki's The Devils Delusion and Chris Hedges' I Don't Believe In Atheists.

Deborah Blum's work is non-fiction, but there is narrative tension aplenty.  There certainly was for this reader who knew little of the history featured here.

Not only is Deborah Blum's work my choice for Forgotten Book of the Week, it is the only ghost book with a permanent spot on my most-beloved shelves.  A keeper.

I can think of no better Halloween read.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Should We Kick The Ghosts Out Of Crime Fiction?

Fat chance of that happening.  But there are many among us who want their cake without ice cream, their scotch without soda, and their mysteries without haints.

Many avid readers of Ed McBain expressed dismay whenever the author wandered into the twilight zone, as in his novel Ghosts--which was meant as a sort of a Christmas gift to his readers.  I recall one reader who swore off McBain after reading it, who demanded some kind of warning label on any novels touched by the ecoplastic fingers of the surreal, like a red S on the spine of the book.

Over at author Declan Burke's excellent blog the other day, he wrote upon this regarding the novels of John Connolly:

"...John Connolly has refined the supernatural aspect of his earlier Charlie Parker novels, so that he’s now using the gothic tropes to go after a far more profound effect. There’s a scene in THE BURNING SOUL in which Charlie Parker comes downstairs in the middle of the night to find his TV on, cartoons playing, this in the midst of pursuing a case in which a young girl has been abducted. It’s a chilling piece of writing, certainly, but what it suggested to me was that Connolly wasn’t simply invoking ghosts and suchlike, but going after a far more subtle quality, attempting - successfully, in my opinion - to verbalise a sense of otherworldliness that is neither supernatural nor religious, although you could argue that it has a spiritual dimension."

"Maybe that’s just me, and maybe I should lay off the Kool-Aid while reading John Connolly, but I honestly think that viewing such aspects of his work, particularly over the last three or four novels, simply as ‘supernatural’ is to miss out on a far more delicate process of investigation that lies somewhere between a rationalising philosophy and an instinctive grasping after the ineffable."

No apology is necessary for Dr. Connolly's series protagonist, haunted by the past and especially by the deaths of his wife and daughter.  Our best fiction has always gone after the transcendent.  If the author doesn't overtly supply the transcendent, the reader has to read between the lines and supply it himself through a personal interpretation.  Otherwise, at least to this reader, the book seems flat, just ink upon paper, a broken mirror with no reflection.

Charlie Parker ruminates; he has a gift for soliloquy.  Readers with a similar experience or an evolved empathy will always understand.  This isn't real; it is fiction, a cerebral performance; the lessons taught here are always in metaphor.  Actors upon the stage.  Three witches enter, stage left.

A bit earlier this month, I blogged about Stephen King's Danse Macabre, quoting him on the Halloween "Tarot cards," the archetypes of the vampire, the wolf man, and others.  He says he excluded the Ghost, the most powerful Halloween Tarot card, from his discussion because the archetype of the ghost trumps everything and "spreads across too broad of an area."

King says, "The archetype of the Ghost is, after all, the Mississippi of all supernatural fiction," and it must be discussed at length because no particular novel can carry all of its varied implications.  Ghosts are a part of us, often natural things upon which we project supernatural roles.

Indeed, we can be haunted by the past, which no longer exists; we can also be haunted by our suppressed guilt, for our acts or failures to act; we can be haunted by our suppressed animal nature, haunted by suppressed desire, haunted by missing loved ones, and haunted by the denied certainty of our pending deaths.  In our literature, all of these things can easily manifest themselves as ghosts.

Ghosts are a part of us, even if we're staunch materialists who deny any spiritual attribute.  As Stephen King points out, we may not consciously believe in ghosts but they are a central part of the myth pool, that body of fictive literature in which all of us, even the nonreaders and people who do not go to films, have communally bathed."

We're ghosts ourselves.  We appear and vanish.  Take a look at your own self.  Who are you?  Let's peel the onion.  Let's take away those things which were temporarily given to you by happenstance and will, sooner or later, be taken away forever.  Beneath every layer, there's another layer, until we get down to the flesh and bones, our rags of light.

That's still you in there.  But now let's disconnect that part of the brain which holds the memories of the past.  You recover to walk and talk, as many stroke victims do, but you can't recognize anyone or remember the past.  You don't know your spouse, nor can you remember that you have children.  Is your self still yourself?  Does the you that's you still exist?

And should you have another stroke and become functionally brain dead, where have you gone?  Is that still you in the body you have lived in for so many years?  Then the material body perishes completely, and what is left?

As Stephen Dobyns' had it in The Wrestler's Cruel Study, we may peel the last layer of the onion back and find "only wind and a dark place."  Ghosts ourselves.  No real thing.  Spiritual entities, alien to this material vale, having a temporary illusionary physical experience. 

Perhaps.  I believe it myself.  But to materialists in this vale, ghosts we are, no matter how you slice it, and the mystery remains.

Ghosts stand for the mystery.  Ghosts are what's left when everything's gone, without observers to calculate the zero representing nothing.  Ghosts are the beginning before the beginning, the unknown something from out of the void.  The question is:  Why does existence bother to exist?  Or if you prefer, why would a Holy Ghost bother with the animation of clay?  Perhaps ghosts are lonely like God--or like Walt Disney's lonesome ghosts. 

Ghosts can be even more than that, of course.  The ghost is the joker in the deck, a wild card in the life of the imagination that can shapeshift to play a role in any hand, regardless of the other cards dealt.  Angels, devils, messengers, guardians, doppelgangers, revenants, lost wanderers, benign observers, comic relief, lovers, crazies, harbingers, etc.

Ghosts multitask; they are the uninvited voices of our subconscious, the dim articulations of our dreams, the black magic at the end of realism, the hound of heaven we think we hear up ahead howling in the future--lost in the cloud of unknowing.  Perhaps a ghost takes a hand in quantum theory, or perhaps as an accomplice in Godel's system without the system that can logically explain the system.

Ghosts can even appear in mystery novels.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Walt Disney's LONESOME GHOSTS: A Literary Interpretation

Walt Disney's Lonesome Ghosts first appeared on Christmas Eve in 1937.  It featured a trio of ghostbusters, the relatively cerebral Mickey Mouse, the emotional Donald Duck, and Goofy, the most id-dominated of this particular trinity.

It is not exactly mind, spirit, and body in the form of most trinities discussed in this blog, but remember that this is not only fiction, it is a cartoon.  Let's be thankful for what we have.

The three are asleep, but their advertisements, the signs on the wall, tell us that they are ghostbusters, with hourly, weekly, or monthly rates.  Business is not just slow, it is non-existent.  I should point out that I like my non-existence with a hyphen to distinguish it from nonexistence, implying nothing with the zero removed.  We are only dealing with a hyphenated subjective void at the moment.

Anyway, the three dream while the lonesome ghosts seek them out--just because they are lonesome, naturally.  Lonesome nothings which don't really exist.  The ghosts call them complaining of ghosts in their house, which of course is logical.  All three ghostbusters are astonished by the sudden perception of real customers, though really the only customers are ghosts and hence unreal.

They arrive at the haunted house with an assortment of material means to battle spiritual entities:  A shotgun, an axe, a club, and a butterfly net.  All of which humorously backfire in due course and are used on themselves in several delightful we-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-us scenes.

The ghosts constantly mimic the ghostbusters.  In this beautiful scene with Goofy and the dresser mirror, Goofy tries to outsmart himself, his mirror image.  This is something like the pantomime Groucho and Harpo Marx had done four years earlier in the movie, Duck Soup.

The harder the ghostbusters try to hurt the ghosts, the more they hurt themselves.  This reverberates in the sudden climax of the film, as the ghosts laugh at the foibles of the ghostbusters until they begin to take themselves seriously, causing them to fear ghosts too.  They then run away (from themselves).

The lesson here is the same as in Peter Straub's classic Ghost Story, which I reviewed earlier this month.  The ghosts are us, that part of us we sublimate and deny.  The truth is, WE ARE THE LONESOME GHOSTS!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Medium vs. the Mentalist?

Medium versus The Mentalist?

After several years, Medium was cancelled, despite good ratings.  The Mentalist is not a good substitute.

The Mentalist couldn't do without ghosts either.  Ghosts are his foils, red herrings to eliminate, tricks of dark light to illuminate and dispel.  Folks wait through the barrage of commercials for him to finally put the got in his gotcha, a logical ending, no inconclusive waiting for Godot.

As for Medium, writers come and go, some episodes were very good and some were terrible, but for at least a couple of its years on the air, it was one of the best-written and most literary crime shows to be found.  The Halloween shows were always good, and I wish they would rerun them.  I remember the one featuring Elvira.

To solve crimes in life, give me a logical detective.  For fictional media entertainment, give me MediumThe Mentalist is sometimes smart, but Medium was more often wise.

Medium also had a more ironic sense of humor, and The Mentalist never approaches the transcendant of humanism, even in the best episodes that I've seen of it (and we do not bother seeing every episode now).  This lack is glaring at times, making its protagonist seem very shallow indeed, empty, an ego in a void, without any love other than an obsessive love of the past and an illogical need for revenge.

The mentalist/protagonist lives in denial of his ghosts.  He is haunted by the past.  Where is the past?  It doesn't exist.  It's gone.  Yet the mentalist is obsessed with it and, worse, in denial of his obsession.  These days, show after show now, the writers have him projecting revenge while simply exposing the con artists who pretend to be psychics, usually in a banal plot linked with kidnapping and murder.

Badly written fluff.  The cliched repetition is getting old, fellas.  It is high time the mentalist got smart, got real, and took stock of himself.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Best Literary Halloween Horse: Washington Irving's GUNPOWDER

Hey, my wife and I owned horses for years and we still consider ourselves to be horse people; and I used to follow that remark with the news that I would once again be the rear end of the costume next Halloween.

Some things never change.

My favorite horse when I was six years old is still my favorite Halloween horse.  Walt Disney's show opened slowly.  He would go to his library and return with some big old volume and open it.  Then the television program would finally begin in earnest, right after the crummy commercial, when he showed us the title:  Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

To me, this was what Halloween was all about, candy aside:  Ichabod and his horse being funny, scared out of their wits one minute and laughing themselves silly the next.  Only to be scared once again and in hysterical flight from the headless horseman through the dark woods.

Later I read the story.  Disney had improved upon almost everything, but that horse, Gunpowder, still had significant and endearingly comic potential.  Washington Irving wrote:

"The animal he bestrode was a broken-down plow horse that had outlived almost everything but his viciousness. He was gaunt and shagged, with an ewe neck and a head like a hammer. His rusty mane and tail were tangled and knotted with burrs; one eye had lost a pupil and was glaring and spectral; but the other eye had the gleam of a genuine devil in it."

"Still he must have had fire and mettle in his day, if we may judge from his name, which was Gunpowder."

There are two versions of the Walt Disney classic, the full version and a hokey abbreviated version with some of the best Gunpowder plot scenes removed and the snipped version repackaged with some more toady fare with dubious Halloween connections.  Also the narration differs greatly.  Be sure to get the original full version.

Likewise, there are different versions of the music.  I certainly enjoy Bing Crosby's voice but the jazziest, scariest, funniest, most adult, most delightful rendition of the Headless Horseman theme song was released back in the day by Jean Stafford.  We listen to it every year on our Halloween soundtrack:

"You can't reason with a headless man."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Charles Beaumont's NIGHT RIDE and Other Journeys and Jazz

The title story in this collection--first published in March, 1960--is neither very sinister nor very fantastic.  Some of the others in here fill that bill nicely and were adapted into episodes of The Twilight Zone.  Nay, the story "Night Run" is better described as gritty noir, and in my opinion, it is the best piece of fiction that Charles Beaumont ever published during his entire career.

Here's the opening, narrated by the trumpet player in a jazz band:

He was a scrawny white kid with junkie eyes and no place for his hands, but he had the look.  The way he ankled past the tables, all along by himself; the way he yanked the stool, then, and sat there doing nothing; you could tell.  He wasn't going to the music.  The music had to come to him.  And he could wait. . .

The kid's hands crawled up and settled on the keys.  They started to walk, slow and easy, taking their time.  No intro.  No chords.  Just, all of a sudden, music. 

The music is the blues.  The kid plays with the band, and the band plays jazz, but the kid turns everything into the blues, deeply felt and infinitely sorrowful.  He doesn't hit all the notes, just the right ones.

The kid swung into some chestnuts, "St. James Infirmary" and "Bill Bailey."  But what he did to them was vicious.  St. James came out a place full of spiders and snakes and screaming broads, and Bailey was a dirty bastard who left his woman when he need her most.  He played "Stardust" like a boy scout helping a cripple across the street.  And you want to know something about "Sweet Georgia Brown"?  Just another seedy hustler too tired to turn a trick.

Beaumont's narrator goes on to describe the kid's methods, an impromptu college course on the blues, replete with the bebop slang of the 1950s.  The band's signature tune is "Night Ride," but the only horse the kid has anything to do with is heroin.  Like many of the blues artists of his time, his personal life is a nightmare, caught in the vortex of addiction, spiraling downward.  His only outlet is the piano.

The first plot twist is that, after the kid falls in love again, his new lover helps him to regain balance in his life.  But then his deeply felt blues talent starts to dry up as well.  With a normal life, he can still be a journeyman musician, just not one of the greats.  There are plot twists after that, but I'll not spoil it for you.

I also recommend Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.  As if picking up exactly where "Night Ride" left off, Dyer's jazzy descriptions of jazz zing with colorful metaphors and snazzy similes.  He creates amazing riffs on the lives and music of jazz greats, including Art Pepper, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Duke Ellington.

I read Dyer's book back when it first came out.  I touted it to everyone, amazed that it didn't immediately become a bestseller.  I can recall first reading Raymond Chandler as a kid, being charmed by his figures of speech.  That memory arose soon after beginning this book, as Mingus's "bass marched everyone along like a bayonet in a prisoner’s back.”  Monk “played each note as though astonished by the previous one,” often leaving the feeling that “the song seemed to have turned inside out.”

These are not rare examples; Dyer does this stuff page after page.  Although the prose is rich, the cream on top is balanced by a sense of timing, insights that make you shake your head in wonder, and that beauty offset by the deep tragedy of its players, strung out on drugs, riding the nightmare too.

But what a beautiful book!