Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wednesday's Western: Bruce Holbert's LONESOME ANIMALS

LONESOME ANIMALS by Bruce Holbert. This is the Best Literary Western of the Year–so far.  I read it a second time and see more in it now.  Hey, that's a good sign.

Nice blurry dustjacket picture of a lone rider at the top of a ridge, back and white. The inside front dustjacket flap notes say “in the vein of TRUE GRIT and BLOOD MERIDIAN.” The rear dustjacket flap identifies the author as a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The three blurbs on the back are from Christ Offutt, Elizabeth McCracken, and Max Phillips:

“prose poetry and violence…a study of morality in a world that has lost its morals…dark and beautiful….part Western, part detective story, altogether brilliant. With the authority of myth, it is a book obsessed with justice and history…”

“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story.” –John Steinbeck

“Strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” –Joseph Conrad.

This is the best western I’ve read this year so far, on a par with Coal Black Horse or The Shootist, say.  In the vein of True Grit and Blood Meridian?  It falls far short of that hyperbole, but it is a gothic western, more on a par with Richard Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster.  In fact, it is a parable beyond any single comparison, much to its credit.  It seems very roughly historical/autobiographical, and parts of it are very nicely written indeed.

If gothic westerns are your cup of java, you’ll find this one refreshingly bleak, no oxymoron intended. There is dark humor here, too, and gothic mindless violence, just because that's the way of things.

I like the title, Lonesome Animals, which is from the Steinbeck epigraph. I wish the author had included the whole quotation, which is:

A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—

“Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”

Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death. These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.
The second epigraph, the Joseph Conrad quote, is from Heart of Darkness.  Holbert, now a teacher himself, says that he was first turned on to literature by the gifts of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Fine horses to ride in on.   

The first two lines of Lonesome Animals are: “There was, even in Russell Strawl’s time, the myth of the strong silent man of the west. The reverse was closer to the mark.”

Holbert writes obliquely here. What’s the opposite of the strong silent man? The man who is silent, not out of stoic self-control, but because of his brooding guilt for what he has done, for what he is.

“His facility to stash heart and soul in a saddlebag and his man’s inability to do the same separated him from his prey; there was little human in it. Yet Strawl believed the state of every mind was thus and saw it as the central truth around which each man orbited, not considering the possibility that the star that held him in its gravity may not be a star at all, but a black planet and he a trivial moon, circling it.”
Bruce Holbert

Strawl becomes famous for the Box Canyon Massacre:

"The Box Canyon Massacre took place neither in a Box Canyon, nor was it a massacre. A family of Methow with no reputation for trouble left the reservation to pick huckleberries in the Okanogan foothills. A cattle rancher named Doering accosted the spindly group as they crossed his rangeland. The Indians quickly agreed to divert along a county road. The rancher, though, being German, possessed a bit of the Hun, and he shot the old grandfather who spoke for them in the shoulder. Horses reared and riders fell and, in the melees, the rancher broke his neck against a tree stump, and his straw boss’s thigh took a bullet–likely from Doering’s rifle, facts would later determine. The Doering widow, however, insisted it was murder, and the superintendent of police summoned Strawl to clear it up.”

Strawl sets out to bring them in peaceably, but of course he winds up destroying them all, hence the massacre. Killing that which you either love or are trying to save is a recurrent theme in this novel. After Strawl’s wife gives him what he takes to be a word of sass, Strawl brains her with a skillet full of eggs. The murder is covered up because the Government needs Strawl’s services as a manhunter, so you see why Strawl’s silence is full of guilt.

Merle Haggard could do the movie soundtrack.  Clint Black could have, back when his songs were full of narcissism, before he found out how to love.

What comes to mind is the Spike Jones’ parody of that Mills Brothers tune, “You Always Hurt The One You Love,” using "love" in the selfish possessive sense.  Maybe sung by Roger Miller.  The code of the west but with a gothic egocentric naturalism.  Men will be men, heroic in their anti-heroism, and women will be gone, or at least Antigone.  Strawl’s sidekick is his adopted Native American mystic son, Elijah, but here the last word in lonesome is "me."

The author reveals in an on-line interview that he killed a friend of his when young, much to his regret, and that there was another homicide in the family. The rear dustjacket flap says that he “grew up at the foot of the Okanogan Mountains” and that his great-grandfather was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of the Grand Coulee.

So perhaps the brooding parables are home-grown.

Gothic westerns are few and far between and, as I say, this is the best western novel I’ve read this year so far. Not a great novel as we’re always expecting when one is compared to Blood Meridian, but still likely a Spur Award contender, if there's any justice in this world.

Strawl would have his doubts.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Transcendental Tuesday: Intelligent Books Dept.

New on our shelves is Marilu Henner's Total Memory Makeover:  Uncover the Past, Take Charge of Your Future.  Like most celebrity books, this one contains a good deal of hype; however, there are still ideas in here worth considering.

Veteran actress Henner has recently become more famous due to her being featured on 60 Minutes as one of a dozen documented cases of near-total memory, with a talent for remembering every day of her life.  No doubt this ability is congenital, not learned, but the book argues that people can improve their memory and thus better themselves, which is not so far fetched at all.

That the human brain can sometimes develop new circuitry has been argued by most of our leading neurologists such as David Eagleman (Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, 2012).  We owe what little free will we have, he argues, to that circuitry that can develop in the prefrontal cortex that allows us to put the brakes on our instinctual compulsions.  Free will as a free won't.

It has long been known that some autistic and brain damaged people can develop alternate circuitry in the brain to eventually make themselves more highly functional if not autonomous.  This is the subject of another new book we highly recommend:  The Woman Who Changed Her Brain:  And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young.  We should not underestimate our neuroplasticity. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Julie Krone's Back, Audrey Hepburn's Neck, North By Northwest

Julie Krone: Strength and balance.

Julie Krone became the first woman jockey ever to win a Triple Crown race in 1993, and she was the first in Racing's Hall of Fame.  This year Rosie Napravnik has a good chance on a colt named Mark Valeski, now on track for the Belmont Stakes. Both women have ranked with the best of their contemporaries, and both happen to be highly attractive.
Julie Krone's neck

Audrey Hepburn

I recall the outcry, back in 1990, when Julie Krone's bare back was featured on the newspaper, Racing Action, along with a headline story announcing her return to riding after a layoff due to injuries.  Not a good example for the children, letters said.  Relax, others said--you'll see more skin any day at the beach.   
Robyn Smith Astaire

Actually, there's no good reason why a woman jockey can't also have a career as a model.  Robyn Smith Astaire, actor Fred Astaire's widow, held down both careers successfully for many years.

Julie Krone's neck, in the picture, seems as photogenic as Audrey Hepburn's famously elegant neck, to which the title of Alan Brown's novel at right refers.  The novel generally concerns the Japanese fascination with American film stars.

Of course, I like Audrey Hepburn's neck too, but if we had to pick just one necking scene, it would be the train scene with Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in North By Northwest.  

The tension of this scene is increased by the punctuation of dialog in the form of witty innuendo, between kisses:

Tell me, why are you so good to me?

Kendall: Shall I climb up and tell you why? I've been's not safe for you to roam Chicago
looking for this George Kaplan you've been telling me about. You'll be picked up by the police the moment you show your face. It's such a nice face, too.
Don't you think it'd be a better idea if you stayed in my hotel room while I located him for you and brought him to you?

Thornhill: I can't let you get involved. It's too dangerous.

Kendall: I'm a big girl.

Thornhill: Yeah, and in all the right places, too.

Kendall: You know, this is ridiculous.  You know that, don't you?

Thornhill: Yes.

Kendall: I mean, we've hardly met.

Thornhill: That's right.

Kendall: How do I know you aren't a murderer?

Thornhill: You don't.

Kendall: Maybe you're planning to murder me, right here, tonight.

Thornhill: Shall l?

Kendall: Please do.

Thornhill: Beats flying, doesn't it?

Kendall: We should stop.

Thornhill: Immediately.

Kendall: I ought to know more about you.

Thornhill: What more could you know?

Kendall: You're an advertising man, that's all I know.

Thornhill: That's right. What else do you know?

Kendall: You've got taste in clothes, taste in food....

Thornhill: And taste in women. I like your flavor.

Kendall: You're very clever with words. 

Kendall: You can probably make them do anything for you. Sell people things they don't need, make women who don't know you
fall in love with you.

Thornhill: I'm beginning to think I'm underpaid. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The 1924 Kentucky Derby: Black Gold vs. Big Oil

The story of the 1924 Kentucky Derby is celebrated, after a fashion, in the 1947 movie, Black Gold, starring Anthony Quinn.  It is also the subject of Marguerite Henry's excellent YA novel, Black Gold.

But the story has never been framed the way it happened, against the backdrop of greed and violence against the Osage Nation, of the greater manipulation of markets by Big Oil.  The race is a parable for what was happening on a larger scale.

In the 1924 Kentucky Derby, the rivalry was between Big Oil tycoon Harry F. Sinclair and his high-priced colt, Bracadale, versus the independent horsewoman, Rosa Hoots, and her homebred dream horse, Black Gold.

Oil had been discovered on Osage land, and the newspapers talked about her $12,000 allotment, but it was nothing compared to the massive wealth of Sinclair and his big oil company.

Derby Day, 1924, broke with black clouds hanging over the track, threatening rain.  A brisk breeze made patrons feel uncomfortable.  The horses lined up, but Earle Sande, jockey of Bracadale, caused some trouble at the start.  Bracadale led after a quarter mile, and opened a three-length lead after a half.  Black Gold broke well but was taken back.  The official race chart shows him fifth after the quarter and sixth after the half.

The reporter for the Louisville Daily Courier said that Black Gold was hit hard, "almost knocked over the rail," which was the cause of his taking back.  Another newspaper reported only that he was "knocked off stride."  The other papers made no mention of a collision, but say only that he was taken up, "causing his backers to lose heart."

Historians such as Peter Chew have since interviewed all the principal players, and what happened is this:  Earle Sande broke out of the gate quickly on the outside.  Black Gold, who had drawn the inside post position also broke well, but Sande angled Bracadale all the way across the track and slammed into Black Gold.  A newspaper man thought that Sande and some of the other riders were purposely trying to prevent Black Gold from winning the race at all costs.

But whatever troubles occurred, it was not enough to stop Black Gold in a courageous stretch run that won the race by a half-length in front of a blanket finish, with Bracadale officially two heads and a nose further back in fifth place.

Earle Sande, rider of Bracadale, claimed that he had been third, not fifth, and it appears from the movie clip and the pictures of the finish that Sande was correct.  However, as one newspaperman noted, Sande may have been unofficially disqualified from sharing in third place money due to his foul against Black Gold.  The official result was that Bracadale finished fifth and Sande was Suspended for ten days after the race.

Rosa Hoots was presented with the winner's gold trophy and over $50,000.  But in the decade to follow, her family lost nearly everything.  Someone even broke into their house and stole the Kentucky Derby trophy and the family pictures.  Black Gold broke his leg in a race in New Orleans, was then put down and buried in the infield at Fairgrounds Racetrack.

Rosa Hoots died at the age of 70 in 1938.  Her descendants included her grandson, Richard W. Freeman, of Garland, Texas.  Mr. Freeman was in Louisville at the 1924 Kentucky Derby, an infant in the arms of his mother.  When researching my second book of American Indian genealogy, Indian Blood II, I contacted him, and he generously supplied me with his genealogy, which I then extended a bit and published with the rest of my work.  I provided him with pictures of Rosa Hoots and of his mother holding him, pictures I printed out from the microfilm of the old newspapers.

During his lifetime, Mr. Freeman resisted the injustices forced upon his people.  During the Eisenhower administration, an ill-advised forced assimilation policy was conducted by the Government.  Many tribes were forced abruptly off the reservations to take up residence in big city ghettos where they languished and despaired.

At the time, Mr. Freeman seemed a lone voice in the wilderness, but he set about persuading others--Senator Barry Goldwater, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, and others with clout.  As an ambassador of his people, through his hard work enlisting allies, Mr. Freeman helped to put an end to this destructive policy.

After Indian Blood II was published in 1995, we kept in touch, and we continued to exchange Christmas cards up until the year he died.  One year, when Churchill Downs held an Old Kentucky Derby Day of sorts, he had a family reunion in the club house and arranged passes for my wife and I to join them.  His family presented him with a replica of the 1924 Kentucky Derby trophy, which he then donated to the Kentucky Derby museum.

He was a very good man.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Happy Derby Day!

Rosie Napravnik

Yesterday's Kentucky Oaks winner, Believe You Can, was ridden by Rosie Napravnik, the first woman jockey to win the race.  She finished up the track in last year's Kentucky Derby on Pants On Fire, and her mount for today's race withdrew--awaiting the Belmont Stakes, it would seem.

Still, she's a top rider at the age of twenty-four and she will probably have other chances in future years.  Her post-race interviews show her to be articulate and experienced with the press, an asset to the racing game.

There are only so many plots in literature, and if you narrow it down to horse stories, the basic plots are few indeed.  This year's movie, War Horse,  is much the same as Will James' Smoky the Cowhorse or, for that matter, Anna Sewell's Black Beauty.  I enjoyed the movie Dreamer better than Secretariat because, although both were saving-the-farm yarns inspired by "true stories," so many of the untruths and embellishments of the movie Secretariat are known to me.

It always seems to me that the truth would make an even better story, less saccharin and more complicated, yes--but also less cliched and more substantial.

That's true about the 1947 movie, Black Gold, as well.  Starring Anthony Quinn and Katharine DeMille, the movie was "suggested" by the story of the 1924 Kentucky Derby winner, Black Gold.  But the real history is far more interesting.  I'll talk about it in my next post.

Friday, May 4, 2012

An Analysis of THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD by Adrian McKinty

Roger Moore, in his autobiography, says that he always thought that the James Bond character should be perpetually glib.  Moore disagreed with many of the more serious lines he was scripted to say.

There's a scene in the film, Thunderball, then played by Sean Connery, where Bond perceives that he is about to be shot while on the dance floor.  He quickly whirls his dance partner around so that she takes the bullet.  Then he manhandles her body to the side and drops it back into a chair at a table where others are sitting.  He looks over at them, smiles reassuringly, and says, "Do you mind if my friend sits this one out?  She's just dead."

If you don't see the humor there, you can stop reading this review.  The outlandish unlikelihood of this actually happening does not detract from the humor.  The scene aptly illustrates what the James Bond movies were about--at their best.  Death was all around and a constant object of Bond wisecracks, and the movies turn to gimmicky crap whenever they take life or death too seriously.

Which brings me to Adrian McKinty's protagonist, Michael Forsythe, in The Bloomsday Dead, who should be seen in the same spirit.  Forsythe is an existentialist with a strong survival instinct and a dark sense of humor.  The wry humor in his nonchalant observations endears him to the reader despite the outlandish Bond-like slapstick in the plot.

This is the third and final novel of the author's Dead series, which began with Dead I Well May Be and continued with The Dead YardThe Bloomsday Dead takes its name, epigraph,  time-frame, and chapter titles from James Joyce's works, including Ulysses--which of course takes many of its own plot lines and symbolism from Homer's The Odyssey.

McKinty's novel opens with references to Ulysses and naturally closes with them.  In between are a number of allusions often in a humorous context.  On a plane he finds them showing the Coen Brothers' own tribute to Ulysses/Odysseus, O Brother, Where Art Thou? 
The Sirens in O Brother Where Art Thou?

Forsythe is well-read, and his musings often involve the classics, such as in this paragraph:

"The Atlantic, heaving silent and black five miles below us, and I dreamed of it, of words and things, of whale boats, barnacles, eye-patched Irish men, Leopold Bloom in and out of Dublin pubs, Starbuck and Scotchy and Siobban, all of them missing, and Ishmael's rescuer, the devious Rachel, seeking out her lost children, but only finding another orphan."

Of course that orphan was floating precariously atop a coffin, the knowledge of death deep in Moby Dick, as it should be.  McKinty has Forsythe on hand in Dublin for the 100th Anniversary of the original Bloomsday and he sees the parade of Joycean  characters.  But from there he travels to McKinty's own Northern Ireland:

"Sunshine in Dublin.  Rain in Belfast.  How could it be otherwise?  Each place within the city colorized by the greasy empire of Belfast rain.  Every timber, stone, neck, collar, bare head and arm.  The dull East Ulster rain that was born conjoined with oil and diesel fumes and tinged with salt and soot. . .That air redolent with violence and blood.  And everywhere the reminders of six years of sectarian cold war, thirty years of low-level civil war, eight hundred years of unceasing, boiling trouble and strife."

"They say the air over Jerusalem is thick with prayers, and Dublin might have its fair share of storytellers, but this is where the real bullshit artists live.  The air over this town is thick with lies."

The plot of the novel is driven by the love/hate relationship between Forsythe and Bridget Callaghan, who is described in mythic terms, for indeed at times she is the Eternal Feminine, an earth mother who is both creator and destroyer, and at other times she is more pointedly the mother country, an Ireland divided or united by strife or peace.

If you didn't see any deeper levels, this might seem a bit like that Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie movie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Any slapstick?  Yes.  Any outlandish melodramatics?  Yes.

But is this novel worth your time?

Definitely, yes.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tra la, It's May, the Racey Month of May

What a lovely time of year.  Last week in Lexington, they held the Rolex Three Day Event for hunter/jumpers, always a grand spectacle.  The Kentucky Derby Festival is in full swing, and last Saturday they held the Mini-Marathon, in which we've run several times.

Of course, then it wasn't much of a race, more of a moveable feast, runners on parade, a social occasion.  They gave away class race shirts, with Pegasus featured on the front and with no advertising.  We jogged through Iroquois Park, then down Southern Parkway past Churchill Downs and the race finished in downtown Louisville.  Those were the days.

Since then, they've changed the course, and now the race draws 12,000 people and brings $5 million dollars to the area, or so they say.  We still treasure our shirts from the old days.

The Kentucky Derby is on Saturday, day after tomorrow.  The field looks wide open with many solid contenders, including last year's two-year-old champ, Hansen, a handsome almost-white colt.

Out in Spokane, Washington, on May 6th, they run the Lilac Bloomsday race, which draws over 50,000 entrants.  The race was founded by author Don Kardong with James Joyce's Ulysses in mind, but somehow the race was moved up some forty days from June 16th.  Some of the Bloomsday runners dress in Joycean attire, or so I hear.
Bloomsday Runners

Both the Kentucky Derby Mini-Marathon and the Bloomsday event sponsor posters as well as shirts, and some of them are quite good.  In Dublin, they honor Bloomsday with a 5K race on the beach, though I doubt that it draws such a crowd.  A fictional race or parade of this sort is described in Adrian McKinty's thriller, The Bloomsday Dead, which I'll review in my next post.