Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident, The Archer, & The Question Mark

An Ox-Bow

Congratulations to Ox-Bow and all of his connections, winners today of the Preakness Stakes.

As luck has it, I was just reading the current issue of Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (May, 2013), which features Walter Van Tilburg Clark's 1940 novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, certainly an American classic:

  • "Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else, and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones."
  • "You can't go hunting men like coyotes after rabbits and not feel anything about it. Not without being like any other animal. The worst animal." - Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident
  • Thomas Cox's THE OXBOW (1936)  Note the question mark.

    The ox-bow of the title refers to a geographical phenomenon (where, in the novel, the hangings take place), which has nuances of "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats.  The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

    It also alludes to Thomas Cox's famous 1836 painting, The Oxbow, which illustrates the division between nature and civilization--at least pastoral civilization.  The oxbow circles creating a question mark between them.  The birds wheel and circle too.

    The division can be seen as Aristotle vs. Plato, or as Apollo vs. Dionysus, or as control vs. anarchy, as men act cowardly in their vain attempt to prove their courage, their manliness.  The mob misappropriates for itself a monopoly on virtuous masculinity and castigates all opposition as unpatriotic weakness and femininity.
    The Ox-Bow of a noose

    Sunday, May 12, 2013

    Louisville, H. L. Mencken, and The Great Gatsby

    The new movie of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is opening soon and its connections have been making the rounds on the television talk shows.

    Once again, Louisville's historical connections with the novel and its author are in the the news.  See this link, and this one, and this one.  This last week, KET showed a documentary about Newport, Kentucky and its Mafia connections, including the story of lawyer/gangster George Remus--who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby.  Or so they say.

    When I was young, I loved the novel the first time I read it without really understanding why--except I that I could identify with that male narrative voice.  Over the years I've read much of the critical literature on the novel.  Like Lois Tyson's essays, "You Are What You Own" and "What's Love Got To Do With It?"  Indeed, later critical readings had me questioning whether the idea of love in here was a superficial possessive love or genuine unconditional love.

    The movie adaptations are hard for me to watch, despite the eye candy of the different actresses who have played Daisy.  The plot is jarring without the meditative palliative of the prose.  I know the book by heart, and perhaps it is the great clanking inevitability of what happens that puts me off.  The Robert Redford/Mia Farrow movie strikes me as spectacularly beautiful but profoundly sad, a Kentucky Derby party when the favorite pulls up lame and is found to have broken its legs.

    Still, in my opinion, the novel itself is great because it contains the right amount of mature reflection, the right mixture of recalcitrance, universal ambiguity, and human compassion.  It is a much more mature work than This Side of Paradise, which was a young man's novel, witty and clever but less wise, more materialistic than humanistic.

    Predictably, critic H. L. Mencken, who had championed This Side of Paradise, turned against The Great Gatsby.

    From Charles Angoff's memoir:

    "Mencken once asked me to accompany him to a New York hotel where F. Scott Fitzgerald was staying.  I looked forward to meeting Fitzgerald, for while I had not taken him very seriously as a writer, I had a persistent curiosity about him.  I told Mencken as much as we walked to the hotel.'

    "As usual, you're crazy, Angoff,' he said.  'If you had said The Great Gatsby was poor stuff I'd agree with you.  There Scott is writing about people he doesn't know anything about.  At best it's only an overlong short story, but This Side of Paradise is really something, my boy, and when your children start shaving you'll realize how right I am.  But by then I'll be in heaven or in a Trappist monastery, and you won't have a chance to apologize.'

    ". . .Fitzgerald greeted us warmly.  He had been drinking and was hardly able to stand up straight.  He tried to embrace Mencken, who was obviously annoyed by this attempt at intimacy.  Mencken then introduced me:  "Meet Angoff, my private chaplain."

    "Fitzgerald and I shook hands.  Mencken then said:  "Don't say anything dirty about the Virgin Mary or call the Pope a dope or discuss Cardinal O'Connell's children.  You see, Angoff is an unfrocked priest and is living with an escaped Polish nun--she smells like a smoked ham--but deep down both of them are still very devout Catholics."

    "Fitzgerald did not seem amused.  He offered us drinks.  Mencken noticed a copy of Spengler's The Decline of the West on a table.  "So you're reading that swill," he said.'

    "That's not swill, Henry," Fitzgerald said.  "That man is a thinker."

    "Bosh," said Mencken.  "You talk like Knopf, who published the stuff, and who probably hasn't read it."

    "Have you?" asked Fitzgerald.

    "Merely glanced at it.  A fellow like me knows when to stop reading.  Isn't he another one of those Socialist swine?"

    "He's no Socialist," Fitzgerald said quietly as he fondled half a glass of straight whiskey in his hand. . .He walked up and down the room, in silence.  Then he said:

    "Henry, I got another idea for a novel going through my head.  Have a lot of it written up.  It's about a woman who wants to destroy a man, because she loves him too much and is afraid she'll lose him, but not to another woman--but because she'll stop loving him so much.  She decides to destroy him by marrying him, but gets to love him even more than before.  Then she gets jealous of him, because of his achievements in some line that she thinks she's also good in.  Then, I guess, she commits suicide but she does it the way all people, all women, commit suicide, by drinking, by sleeping around, by being impolite to friends, and that way.  I haven't got the rest of it clear in my head, but that's the heart of it.  What do you think, Henry?"

    "Well, it's your wife, Zelda, all over again," Mencken said.
    Zelda Fitzgerald

    Fitzgerald sat down, swallowed some of his drink, and then got up and paced back and forth.  Without looking at Mencken, he said:  "That's the dumbest piece of literary criticism I have ever heard or read."

    Mencken said nothing.  Fitzgerald continued.  "You know, Henry, sometimes I think you're no literary critic at all.  I don't know what the hell you are, but you're no critic, that's sure. . .You don't know what a writer goes through, what he fumbles for, you don't know the grace he searches for.  And, goddamn it, you have no compassion.  Of all the times to mention Zelda to me.  Of all the goddamn times to mention her."  He sank into his chair and burst into tears.

    Mencken stood up, muttered, "I'll be seeing you," and he and I walked out.  As we returned to the office he told me, "Scott will never amount to a hoot in hell till he gets rid of his wife."  

    Friday, May 10, 2013

    Friday's Forgotten Book: Don Winslow's THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE

    Sometimes the first book I read by an author will have been their best, making me somewhat disappointed in every other book by this author that I subsequently encounter.  Sometimes it works the other way.

    You would think it logical that authors start out as amateurs and imitative and develop their craft as they age, that a natural arc would build toward a peak of their abilities.  This did not happen with F. Scott Fitzgerald and it didn't happen with the topic author of the day, Don Winslow.

    Earlier this year, I did a reading survey of surfing novels and movies, which included rereads of Winslow's The Dawn Patrol (2008) and The Gentleman's Game (2009).  I read them very closely, wanting to see more, but my opinion of them did not change.  They are YA tinged, comic-book inspired, near-beer novels--Don Winslow lite.

    I was taken aback once again when I got into Don Winslow's amazingly well-written thriller, The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006).  I included this book in my reading survey because I thought it might be an early version of Dawn Patrol, a surfer's detective novel.  Although the protagonist is an old surfer and lives near the beach, this turned out to be something else, and written on a much higher level.

    Make no mistake, The Winter of Frankie Machine is still a genre crime thriller, and also a Mafia hitman novel.  My admiration for this tale goes against many of my long-held biases.  I spoke out against the cliche of Mafia novels before they became popular--that is, not only before the television series, The Sopranos, but long before the 1969 publication of Mario Puzo's The Godfather (which, against all my predictions, turned out to be a great novel).  Back in 1967, I had said that the Mafia stereotype was finally done after the comic cliches in John Godey's A Thrill A Minute With Jack Albany.

    I was wrong.

    So much of fiction depends upon the way the story is told.  Craft or magic, I can't always decide.  The Winter of Frankie Machine opens like a surfing novel, letting us get to know (and like) the protagonist, who gets his moniker from that older crime novel, Nelson Algren's The Man With The Golden Arm.  We don't learn of Frankie Machine's Mafia past until later, and we then like him enough to forgive him for being a cliche.

    It is an amiable deception.

    One of the cliches of crime fiction is the plot device where the hunter becomes the hunted.  Yet we know that life works exactly this way, that when we look into the abyss, it looks back at us.  Here's a bit of Frankie Machine's discussion of that:
    Frank Sinatra played Frankie Machine

    "A connection develops between hunter and prey.  Guys deny it as airy-fairy bullshit, Frank thought, but they all know it happens.  You track a guy long enough, you get to know him, you're living his life, one step removed, and he becomes real to you.  You try to get inside his head, think the way he thinks, and if you succeed at that, in a strange way you become him."

    Another cliched plot device of the thriller, at least according to thriller author John Lescroart writing in Mystery Readers Journal, is that the corruption in the crime novel always goes up to "the highest levels of government."  Well, isn't that often the way it works in real life too?

    Listen to Frankie Machine:

    "Garth and the other S&L guys would get themselves saving and loan operations, make unsecured loans to themselves and their partners through shell corporations, then default on the loans and drain their S&Ls of all their assets.'

    "Identical in shape to your classic Mafia bust-out, Frank thinks now, except we only managed to do it with restaurants and bars, maybe the occasional hotel.  These guys busted out the whole country to the tune of $37 billion and Congress hit up the working guy to pay for it.'

    "The whole S&L house of cards eventually came tumbling down, and Garth and a few of the others did some time polishing their short games at various Club Feds, and the senators and congressmen  who had been on the boat, literally and figuratively, got on CNN to proclaim what a disgrace it all was"

    "...You could take the Crips, the Bloods, the Jamaican posses, the Mafia, the Russian mob, and the Mexican cartels, and all of them put together couldn't rake in as much green in a good year as Congress does in a bad afternoon.  You could take every gang banger selling crack on every corner in American, and they couldn't generate as much ill-gotten cash as one senator rounding the back nine with a corporate CEO.'

    "My father told me that you can't beat the house, and he was right.  You can't beat the White House, or the House of Representatives.  They own the game and the game is fixed, and it isn't fixed for us.'

    "...the government wants to shut down organized crime?  That's hysterical.  The government is organized crime."

    Tuesday, May 7, 2013

    Cormac McCarthy, Folksinger: Tuesday's Forgotten or Little-known A/V

    Cormac McCarthy is not an uncommon name, at least in Ireland, since the days of the historical Cormac McCarthy who was presented with the Blarney Stone by Robert the Bruce hundreds of years ago.
    Cormac McCarthy, new CD: Collateral
    These days, beyond the famous American author by that name, we have a less-known folk singer named Cormac McCarthy, who has New England roots and often sings of the working poor.  The songs on his newest CD (entitled Collateral) are outstanding and make a good soundtrack for Ron Rash's Nothing Gold Can Stay.

    The material is sometimes literary and poetic, “the wink of a roadkill crow,” the vocal delivery is folk-blues and solid, the musical arrangements are splendid. The lyrics are not included in the liner notes, but McCarthy’s voice is strong and clear at the right volume. You hear every word.  His voice compares favorably with that of Gordon Lightfoot.

    The lead piece is “Gotta Keep Movin” which conjures up some words that novelist Cormac McCarthy has written: Nothing ever stops moving. This song also has a lyric line from Satchel Paige’s six rules of life, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining.”
    What’s gaining, of course, is the hound of heaven or the hound of hell--Death either way, as in Suttree.

    This is reprised in what I think, first time through, is the best track on the CD, “You Can’t Outrun The Hounds,” which, with its upbeat guitar, would make a good addition to anyone’s running soundtrack.

    Not that there is a bad track on this CD. As I say, the last time I listened to this man was back in the days of NAPSTER, and I wasn’t impressed then. But on this CD, the production seems highly professional, kind of a universal blue-collar sound.   I plan to listen to the whole thing several times.   Some of the tracks are noir, of lives lived in quiet desperation.

    Gotta Keep Movin'
    The Working Poor
    Cadilac Man
    Back When I Worked on the Railroad
    The Crossroads
    On a Night Like This
    You Can't outrun the Hounds
    Walking on Solid Ground
    Jailhouse Bound

    Here's a good link:

    Monday, May 6, 2013

    Ron Rash, Charles E. May, Southern Gothic,

    Since Firsts Magazine presented their feature on Ron Rash last September, I've been reading some of his short stories and, for the most part, I've been very pleased with them.

    This week we saw Silver Linings Playbook on DVD.   Nice performances by the two leads who team up again in the movie adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena, which has been filmed but not yet released. Due in September, I think now.

    Jennifer Lawrence as a Lady MacBeth?

    Serena is a modern Lady MacBeth minus the hand-washing, so it will be worth watching to see how Jennifer Lawrence plays it.   Ron Rash has a feel for the working poor, the corrupt rich, and the complicity of shared weaknesses.   Serena became his most widely known novel, but he has made a name for himself with his stories, which sometimes can be described as country/southern noir.

    Professor emeritus Charles E. May, whose lifelong pursuit of excellence in the short story resulted in several fine books, discusses Ron Rash’s new collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay, at this link:

    And don’t miss fellow Cormackian Tom Conoboy’s praise of Ron Rash at these links:


    Name the ten best short stories you've ever read.  It's a difficult task, like trying to name the ten best songs you've ever heard.

    If you've read as many stories as I have, it can't be done.  The best you can do is to name ten best stories which are personal favorites right now, while acknowledging the fact that there are many more ambitious, acclaimed, and possibly better written stories at large.

    We can't help but think of those classics we have read again and again with adjacent biographical, historical, and critical works at hand. Works like James Joyce's "The Dead," Jack London's "To Build A Fire," and Anton Chekhov's "The Lady With The Pet Dog."  We can't pick between Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River" and "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," so we'd include them both.

    You might disqualify such fictional works such as Joseph Conrad's "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness" as novellas rather than long short stories.  You might disqualify such film transformations as Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," otherwise long among my personal favorites.

    Two of my favorites are certainly not well known--but they should be.  They are Richard Russo's short story, "Horseman," which I blogged about at this link, and Stephen Dobyns' "A Happy Vacancy," the lead story in his collection entitled Eating Naked.

    I've reread "Horseman" several times now, and I can see the horseman of the title in different ways.  For one thing, he is the guardian between our real selves and the selves we try to project outwardly to the world.  Or he may simply represent our real, hidden selves.  This seems to fit with the way author George Saunders and literary scholar and author Charles E. May discuss the art of the short story (see this link).

    "A Happy Vacancy" starts out as a satire about an academic poet in the James Dickey mode who takes himself and his poetry far too seriously.  One day he is killed when a large pig suddenly falls out of the sky and crushes him.  The circumstances are explained, and the subsequent comic reactions of the academic community are satirized, but then the story strikes an entirely different cord and its meaning deepens.

    As I say, the opening of the story is ironic, but the narrative then reveals the vacant emptiness of that very irony as the poet's widow, Harriet, emerges as the protagonist--giving the story a surprising minor key and a major lift.

    Harriet's life changes.  She comes to realize that the ironic humor bantered by her husband and about her husband were both forms of judgment, as was his former seriousness:

    "She thought of her husband's seriousness, how he wore it like a garment.  Most often his laughter had been ironic or sarcastic or superior.  His laughter had been judgmental and, as a result, all his laughter had been serious. . ."

    She leaves the college to work in a hospice. There, she escapes her former life while working on herself.

    "Seriousness, said Harriet, often exists as something we want to show other people.  We want others to think us serious, which suggests a fear of not being sufficiently respected, of not being taken seriously.  What does seriousness get us?  It neither delays our deaths nor makes them easier to bear."

    A doctor at the hospice, after listening to her arguments, asks, "What is the opposite of seriousness?  Frivolity?"

    "Most literally, perhaps, but I think the opposite of such a seriousness is love, because love accepts all possibilities, whereas seriousness only accepts what it sees as correct.  Perhaps I work at the hospice for purely selfish reasons.  I work to improve the quality of my love."

    "That seems pretty serious," the doctor says.

    "I'm not against seriousness.  I'm against the earnestness of seriousness.  I want to go beyond it.  I want seriousness to be an  element in my life and not its reason for being."

    The story ends after a conversation Harriet has with one of the patients at the hospice, which evokes laughter:

    "It was neither a guffaw nor the hysterical shriek of nervousness.  It was the laugh of someone whose seriousness had been overthrown, the laugh that erases every other concern."

    A place beyond irony or the material illusion of ego, a happy vacancy, you might say.  A cold and a broken hallelujah maybe, but a hallelujah still.

    "And doesn't this sustain us?  Doesn't it provide the strength to let us bear up our burden and continue our mortal journey?"