Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An Analysis: OLD RIVERS by Walter Brennan/Tuesday's Forgotten Film or A/V


Walter Brennan himself needs no introduction, as the Academy Award winning actor distinguished himself in many roles.  I especially admire his performance as Humphrey Bogart's drunken sidekick in a role based on a character in Hemingway's To Have And Have Not.

In April of 1962, Walter Brennan came out with the recording of Old Rivers, which became immediately popular and ranked in the top ten of records played, even though it was unlike anything else on the charts in the age of baby boomer rock and roll.  It was a deceptively simple performance, but there is magic here:

How old was I when I first seen old Rivers?
I can't remember when he weren't around
Well, that old fellow did a heap of work
Spent his whole life walking plowed ground.

He had a one-room shack not far from us
And well, we was about as poor as him
He had one old mule he called Midnight
And I'd trailed along after them.

He used to plow them rows straight and deep
And I'd come along near behind
A-bustin' up clods with my own bare feet
Old Rivers was a friend of mine.

That sun'd get high and that mule would work
Till old Rivers'd say, ''Whoa!''
He'd wipe his brow, lean back on the reins
And talk about a place he was gonna go.

He'd say, one of these days
I'm gonna climb that mountain
Walk up there among the clouds
Where the cotton's high
And the corn's a-growin'
And there ain't no fields to plow

--- Instrumental ---

I got a letter today from the folks back home and
They're all fine and crops is dry.
Down at the end my mama said, ''Son
You know old Rivers died.''

Just sittin' here now on this new-plowed earth
Trying to find me a little shade
With the sun beating down 'cross the field I see
That mule, old Rivers and me.

With the sun beating down 'cross the field I see
That mule...old Rivers...and me.

Why is this magic?

Well, first, it is magic because it poetically and quite correctly posits the temporal material in the eternal.  The consciousness of the narrator can see old Rivers even though old Rivers has vanished.  When Walter Brennan speaks that last line, there are magic pauses and a breath between "that mule," "old Rivers," "and me."
The sun is eternal, the earth is eternal, but flesh and blood vanishes like an old man's voice on the wind.  We have it but we have it not, for it passes.  The narrator becomes old Rivers, and so do you.

The eternal is also before you in the old man's name, Rivers.  "Even if baby boomers weren't conscious of the allusion to the song, Old Man River, their unconscious probably heard it:

Old man river,
That old man river,
he must know something,
but he don't say nothing,
he just keeps rolling
he keeps old rolling along.

He don't plant taters
and he don't plant cotton
and them that plants 'em
is soon forgotten
but old man river,
he just keeps rolling along.

You and me,
we sweat and strain,
body all aching and racked with pain.
Tote that barge, lift that bail,
get a little drunk and you land in jail.

Life gets weary.
I'm sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin'
and feared of dyin'
but old man river.
he just keeps rolling along.

Paul Robeson sang it in Showboat, but Bing Crosby's version (singing with Paul Whiteman's orchestra) was popular.  Then, too, also mixing the temporal with the sun and "that eternal river," there was "That Lucky Old Sun," made popular first by Frankie Laine, but later recorded by such as Ray Charles and Kenny Chesney:
Up in the mornin'
Out on the job
Work like the devil for my pay
But that lucky old sun got nothin' to do
But roll around heaven all day.

Fuss with my woman, toil for my kids
Sweat till I'm wrinkled and gray
While that lucky old sun got nothin' to do
But roll around heaven all day

Dear Lord above, can't you know I'm pining, tears all in my eyes
Send down that cloud with a silver lining, lift me to Paradise

Show me that river, take me across
Wash all my troubles away
Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do
But roll around heaven all day

Send down that cloud with a silver lining, lift me to Paradise

Show me that river, take me across
Wash all my troubles away
Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do
But roll around heaven all day

Not everyone liked Old Rivers, to be sure.  Disc-jockeys who are now either dead or old people themselves made fun of the elderly back then, and there were parodies galore.  One said:  "When the sun would get high, old Rivers would too."

Yet the universals still ring true beyond words to those mature enough to confront their own mortality and to reflect back on their lives.
Walter Brennan made other recordings but none matched the magical authenticity of his performance of Old Rivers.  For me, the only things that come close are his inspired renditions of Mark Twain's stories, The Blue Jays and The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wherever I Wind Up by R. A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey

This is a very intimate autobiography of professional baseball pitcher R. A. Dickey, winner of the Cy Young Award in 2012 and just recently traded from the New York Mets to the Toronto Blue Jays.

As a baseball book, it is unique in several ways.  Unlike the landmark baseball books of the past--Jim Brosnan's The Long Season, his sequel, The Pennant Race, and Jim Bouton's much more bawdy classic, Ball Four--Dickey's Wherever I Wind Up is personal and in greater detail provides his history and career in relationship to R. A. Dickey, the family man.

Dickey is also a religious man and there is much talk of God.  The word "sin" never appears, but he spends a lot of time praying for God to keep him on the right track, to show him the way.  He stops short of praying to win, but he seems to have a sense of entitlement, which some might see only as confidence.

A batch of pictures are included, including the cute one of a very young Dickey trying to seal a kiss from his future wife, Anne, then in the seventh grade.

Apparently journalist and author Wayne Coffey is to be credited for the fine pacing in this autobiography, and it is a splendid piece of creative non-fiction.  Dickey's prospects rise and fall but reach bottom after a crisis in his marriage--at about the time he finds himself near death at the bottom of the Missouri River.

I watched the news conference he had in Toronto yesterday.  He said that he got better as a pitcher as his form improved as a man of conviction and responsibility.  Dickey had some trouble buttoning his new Blue Jay top, but otherwise he came off solidly enough, an old guy, gifted with the wisdom of years, but also very self-effacing.  I wished they had let his wife speak.

Baseball buffs will enjoy his frank discussion of knuckleball mechanics, and young players might learn a thing or two from it.  The rear dustjacket picture shows his grip on the ball.

Many baseball people pass through the narrative as they passed through his life, but unlike many other baseball books, no one is denigrated in here.  Dickey says that he has never taken performance enhancing drugs, and I believe him.

R. A. Dickey versus Stephen Strasburg, the Baffler Vs. Rocket Boy--Wall Street Journal

The funniest scene takes place on a subway where Dickey hears others talking about the pending match-up between Dickey and the ultra-hyped flame-thrower Stephen Strasburg, the Baffler vs. Rocket Boy.  None of his fellow passengers recognized him.  He even saw one man looking at the Wall Street Journal editorial cartoon above.

I remembered the game well, as I watched it on television.  It will be interesting to see how Dickey performs this year.  I suspect he'll be even better.  His honesty makes us want to root for him all the way.

Adrian McKinty's COLD, COLD GROUND

Despite the high acclaim given to his novels, Adrian McKinty has yet to break out in these United States.  He has appeared on several intelligent 2012 Best of the Year lists for Cold, Cold Ground, including:

1.  Random House author Tony Black's list. A very interesting list, half of which I had not heard mentioned elsewhere.  Link.

2.  Cold, Cold Ground also made the top five list at the Crime Fiction Lover's blog: link.

3.  Cold, Cold Ground made the top five list at the excellent book blog, Crimepieces, link.

4.  Recently Peter Rozovsky wrote an article for Philly.com listing Adrian McKinty among his favorite authors and least known (in the United States).  Link. 

5.  Cold, Cold Ground makes author Cary Watson's best list at this link.

6.  Cold, Cold Ground makes noted author Declan Burke's best of 2012 list at this link.

7.  Cold, Cold Ground makes the top five over at the BiteTheBook blog at this link.  A very nice review here.

8.  And, of course, Cold, Cold Ground shared top spot of my Best Thriller list, (link), and reviewed it here.

These are by no means the complete lists of those who have thus far read and regaled the novel, but a sampling of those I've encountered and can now recall.  In Europe, where Adrian McKinty is better known, there are a great many independent reviews touting the book in newspapers and other media such as Eoin McNamee's excellect review from The Guardian here...

I don't have McKinty's new book yet.  It is a sequel entitled The Sirens In The Street, available now in parts of Europe and it will be released in the United States soon.  The opening of the book is linked from the the author's website, and it is compelling:  Link. 

As for my other crime novel pick of 2012, Max Allan Collins' Target: Lancer was not released until the end of November, and  so it got a late start--too late to appear on many lists although early reviews are gushingly positive.

Over at the At The Scene of the Crime Blog, one of the new discoveries listed there was Max Allan Collins (link).  I too discovered Collins with Target: Lancer, quite by accident.  I'd tried him before and had mistakenly written him off as a  Mickey Spillane clone.  It turns out, the man has been writing novels in various styles, one of which has the highly intelligent and civilized tone of the private investigator in Target: Lancer.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Stephen Greenleaf's BOOK CASE: Friday's Forgotten Book

A brilliant manuscript arrives at a publishing house, but unfortunately, no one knows who wrote it or whether it's fact or fiction.  Private detective John Marshall Tanner has been invited to a writer's party, where the publisher wants to hire him to track down the origin of the work.
Here's the opening to Book Case:

"I'm not certain whether the affliction originates in genetic dis-inclination or in environmentally induced aversion, but I've always been more of a recluse than a celebrant.

Most of my lies have been uttered to evade the sticky dangle of a social occasion, and most of my alcoholic intake has been consumed to ease me through those festivities I'd been too timid or unimaginative to avoid.

As a result, parties and I pretty much parted ways early in the decade, when staying home with Malamud or Mahler or Montana began to seem preferable to most of the alternatives that came my way. . .

So it was distinctly out of the ordinary for me to be parading my hard-won nonchalance on the fringes of a handsomely refurbished loft on the trendiest corner south of Market, with something called the Sunday Punch sloshing over the rim of the plastic glass that had been foisted on me the moment I arrived, as I waited for my host to find time to tell me why I'd been invited to spend an evening with half a hundred guests who were far too young to have been confronted by life's more vicious vicissitudes, at least not the sort that made my own little ledge of the world a precarious perch.

As out of place as a parent at a prom..."
Book Case Book Cover - Stephen Greenleaf
That's the first few lines of Stephen Greenleaf's private-eye novel, Book Case, published back in 1991.  I easily identify with Greenleaf's series protagonist, John Marshall Tanner, who was a recluse but not a complete recluse, an introverted guy (as the opening shows), but it is not humanity that he shies away from--just the opposite.  What he despises is the plastic phoniness and hypocrisy of these party people.  Tanner isn't out of step with humanity, but rather, the neurotic money-and-celebrity-worshiping popular American culture is out of step with the better angels of humanity.

Some time ago, I selected Greenleaf's last novel, Ellipsis, as my forgotten book of the week.  I turn to him again today, because my mood seems right.

Before I published my Best Novels list for the year, I tried again to tackle that book which seems to be on the Best Novel list of everyone else--Gillian Flynn's Gone GirlI found Flynn's protagonists insufferable psychopaths.  I knew from the hype that there were twists and turns galore, yet the more I read, the more I felt uncomfortable doing so, this during the Christmas season of the Fiscal Cliff, where it is hard enough to escape the greed and commercialism hyped repeatedly in the media.

So I gave up on it again, and I turned to Stephen Greenleaf's John Marshall Tanner, my own idea of a civilized voice.  Introverted, yes, but not anti-social, just not high-society social.

This last month I've also read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking, a best seller now in its nineteenth printing.   I liked it, but I wished it was less pendant and more comprehensive.  The extrovert/introvert divide is not nearly as important as the empathetic/psychopathic divide.  Loners are often loving, compassionate people, and the love between them can run deep.

Anneli Rufus, author of Party of One:  The Loner's Manifesto, says that "one of the public's biggest misconceptions is that loners care nothing for love," and she cites her own marriage to her fellow loner and husband.  If Susan Cain has read Anneli Rufus's excellent book, she fails to cite it.

Greenleaf's John Marshall Tanner is an unmarried man who has his faults, but he is constantly searching for love, for goodness, for authenticity.  His narration is one that you, the reader, can trust.

Stephen Greenleaf quit writing novels due to lack of sales, but meanwhile, Gillian Flynn's wildly hyped and wildly successful Gone Girl has been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon, who will star in the movie.
Author Gillian Flynn and Reese Witherspoon