Darkness Visible: When the Question is Whether Life is Worth Living
William Styron, (June 11, 1925 – November 1, 2006)
"Dying is easy. Comedy
Darkness Visible: When the Question is Whether Life is Worth Living
William Styron, (June 11, 1925 – November 1, 2006)
"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.--Edmund Kean, (4 November 1787 – 15 May 1833), celebrated Shakespearean actor
Preamble-January 18, 2015
It is 1:20am cst. My thoughts swirl over the important content of Styron's brief memoir originally delivered as a lecture in Baltimore, 1989. The information contained in this little volume is too important to trust to hastily dashed off thoughts, without the benefit of careful consideration. So a night's sleep is called for. And, truthfully, to consider how much of myself I choose to reveal within my review of Styron's story. For much of what he has to say, also applies to me, as it does to many among us. Yet, I am not unaware of the stigma brought about by confession. My inclination is truthfulness leads more to seek help. I did. It has made all the difference. For I emerged from darkness, once again to see the stars. There is much joy in the night sky, but a terrible loneliness in the dark, without even a match to strike to hold to a candle's wick.
The Heart of the Matter-January 25, 2015
It has taken considerably more time than one night of good sleep to bring myself to write an adequate review of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. For I did not stop with this brief but brilliant account by William Styron. I continued on to with Reading My Father by his youngest daughter, Alexandra Styron, an absorbing, intimate memoir detailing what it was like to be William Styron's daughter in good times and in bad. The bad included not only the time Styron so articulately described in this work, but in his continuing battle clinical depression. His battle did not end with the publication of Darkness Visible in 1990. Rather, Styron was revisited by "the black dog," the "dark river," "the abyss," a number of times before his death in 2006. No, Styron did not die by his own hand. He endured cancer of the mouth, and died of complications from pneumonia. A review of Reading My Father will follow at some point, hopefully in the very near future. As I type, a copy of William Styron, A Life by his biographer James L.W. West III is at the right corner of my desk. Yes, I am making a study of Styron's life and his works, a number of which I have read at this time, but not all of them. Many, some published posthumously have a great bearing on Styron's life view, his state of mind during some of the most difficult points in his life.
There was something else I had to give considerable thought to before writing this review. I indicated that in my "hastily dashed off thoughts" now appearing in what I have called the Preamble to the main body of this review. Those of you who have read my reviews know that I have often included personal details of my life. This will be the most personal review I have ever written. Not only will you read of Styron's thoughts on the nature of depression, but you will learn of mine, something that I struggled to hide for many years, quite successfully, until, I, too, slid off the edge of the world in much the same fashion as did Styron. It is not so much that confession is good for the soul, but that with each voice speaking about the debilitating anguish of depression, perhaps those who do not understand it will not view those who suffer from it weak human beings, would be shirkers of responsibility, or simply spineless beings. Styron did much to dispell that stigma. However, many people who share those misconceptions, quite frankly do not read William Styron. I have come to wonder if they read much of anything. I also have a few things to say about the pharmaceutical industry and the manner in which they pitch their products in endless streams of mindless commercials.
On Darkness Visible as a work of Literature
William Styron wrote an extraordinary document. It draws on literary allusion after allusion. Note the very source of its title. Paradise Lost by John Milton. For its subject matter it is remarkably succinct, a mere ninety pages. It is remarkable for its clarity. Styron is remarkable for his revelation of his illness, it is the taking off the mask that those battling depression wear so well, for so long. Styron reveals his self medication with alcohol, perhaps an addiction, though he never calls it alcoholism. Yet he reveals that he frequently wrote under the influence of alcohol and could not do so without a fluent flow without the aid of alcohol. At the age of sixty, the mere taste of alcohol resulted in pure revulsion. He was devastated by insomnia night after night. He discloses that he was an auto-didact. He was a master at self-diagnosis. Before seeking psychiatric help he had pondered over the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, what I call the ultimate cookbook containing all the diagnostic recipes for disorders large and small for psychologists and psychiatrists. To further complicate matters, though Styron does not admit it in Darkness Visible Styron was a hypochondriac extraordinaire. We can thank daughter Alexandra for that information.
Styron cracked apart in 1985 on a trip to Paris to accept the Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca, awarded for his lifetime achievement in producing works reflecting on great humanism. The award was offered by the wife of his French Publisher. Del Duca had published Styron's first novel Lie Down in Darkness in 1953, and had published each of his ensuing works. It was to be a day of festivities. However, Styron had already sought an appointment with a psychiatrist in New York. The prize was $25,000.00. Immediately after the award was presented, Styron in an absolute panic, immobilized by anxiety, told Madame Del Duca he could not attend the luncheon being held in his behalf. Which drew an angry "Alors!" With arms thrown high. Styron, even in his frozen state, apologized, did recognize his gaffe and told her he had a problem psychiatrique and that he was sick. Apology accepted. Styron and his rock, wife Rose, suffered through the luncheon, Styron unable to choke down hardly a bite. A flight on the Concorde the next morning began a rigorous pyschiatric treatment. Ultimately hospitalization. Styron seriously contemplated suicide.
So. Some central thoughts from Darkness Visible, each of which I hold to be absolutely true, which I will interlace with my own confessions, the devil take the hindmost. The names of some of my principal players have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, for there are both.
“Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self--to the mediating intellect--as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode, although the gloom, "the blues" which people go through occasionally and associate with the general hassle of everyday existence are of such prevalence that they do give many individuals a hint of the illness in its catastrophic form.” --William Styron
No words have come so close to describing what it feels like. "You're just down in the dumps. A little time, you'll feel better in no time." Time passes, there's no change. "This moodiness of yours is getting old. Snap out of it. Do you think it's pleasant being around you?" No, I didn't think it was. "If you're not happy here, go somewhere else. If you do, I'll take you for every cent you've got."
My first marriage. Twenty-six years. Many years were loveless. We had two children. When my son graduated from high school, I left work early one day, gathered clothes together, the kids came home to find me packing. I explained their mother and I couldn't get along anymore. It wasn't their fault. Nor was it their mother's. She was a good woman. I would never say a bad word about her.
The divorce took two years. My former wife fought all the way. I was an Assistant District Attorney. There was a limited pot of money. There would always be a limited amount of money. It took two lawyers to convince her of that. Even then, I gave her everything, keeping my books, records, fishing equipment, and camping equipment. Everyone leaves their own legacy. She alienated by children by blocking every phone number I had access to. The children in my photographs of them never grow older. My son married. I had told him when he and his wife had a child he would understand what it meant to be a father, perhaps we would be reconciled someday. We did for almost two years. His mother gave him fits, his wife told me. We are once again estranged. My daughter has never reconciled with me. She has a child I've never met. I was first told I was dealing with depression during my divorce.
One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience- one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.”-William Styron
I became an Assistant District Attorney in 1979. Several factors led to that. Two women who had cared for me as a child had been murdered. One by her husband. The other by her son. I had loved each of them. Later in law school, as a law clerk in the District Attorney's Office, two young men robbed a Mom and Pop grocery store. The father of two students with whom I had attended school throughout my life was murdered. His death changed their lives forever. I would become a righter of wrongs.
I have been one acquainted with the night. I have walked out in rain—and back in rain. I have outwalked the furthest city light. Robert Frost
Within six years I was a specialist in prosecuting child abuse. I was bestowed somehow with a high degree of empathy. It can be a gift and a curse. I became known as Mr. Mike. I had a unique ability to talk with children. I became known as Mr. Mike, first by children, then by police, social workers, and the name stuck. I was called in to interview very young children who had witnessed their fathers kill their mothers. I became a protector of mockingbirds.
The caseload was relentless. I was a man capable of great tenderness mixed with the ability to turn mean. I was described as a lawyer who had an uncanny ability to connect with a witness on the stand. I often worked late into the night in trial preparation. My former wife complained I cared about other people's children more than my own. She could not understand it when I told her I knew ours were protected but the others were not.
I was and remain haunted by the eyes of the dead, particularly the eyes of dead children. I have flashbacks at times.
What Styron said about being expected to smile,is true. I wore a mask. Exceptionally well. I was a cop's DA. My best lawyer friend resorted to a John Wayne phrase calling me "a man with a lot of hard bark on him." I could exchange gallows' humor jokes with the most jaded Homicide Investigator.
Although our office had an on-call system, Investigators usually called me. Frankly, I was very, very good at my job. I was a fine trial lawyer. I lost very few cases. I did lose control of my emotions more than once on closing argument before a jury and cried. I considered it a weakness even when the jury convicted.
During all my years as a prosecutor I lost count of the number of crime scenes I attended, the number of dead I saw, the number of autopsies I witnessed, the exhumation of a dead child I obtained an order for, and the subsequent re-autopsy.
I had no outlet to talk about my work. My former wife did not want to hear about it. "It was too depressing." Yes. I guess it was.
“When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word "depression." Depression, most people know, used to be termed "melancholia," a word which appears in English as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. "Melancholia" would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a blank tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferent to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.
It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated --the Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer -- had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted for such a dreadful and raging disease. Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” ― William Styron
Our pharmaceutical industry does nothing to indicate the seriousness of clinical depression. It's a simple as just adding a little pill to help the anti-depressant you're on. And all delivered in a seconds long cartoon commercial. What kind of message does that send to people who have never dealt with the condition, those who have just had the commonplace blues.
Looks serious, doesn't it?
And where are the men in those commercials? Alright, so the statistics show women report depression more than men. How about, women are more forthcoming and truthful in reporting depression. After all, that male ego is such an impediment to admitting to what is viewed as a weakness. Interesting that according to the American Foundation for Suicide in 2012 over 78% of suicides were committed by males while slightly over 21% were committed by females.
Since Darkness Visible
William Styron was repeatedly prescribed Halcion by more than one physician for his insomnia. Halcion was banned in Great Britain in 1991 on the basis of its connection to depression and possible suicidal behavior. The FDA still allows its prescription in the United States. The drug is currently the subject of litigation in various jurisdictions.
Considerable progress has been made in pharmacology for the treatment of clinical depression since Styron published Darkness Visible.
Why I'm Still Here
I fell off the edge of the earth twice. Call it a crack up. Call it a nervous break down. Throughout my life I have been consumed by the fear of failure. Formerly the Director of a Not for Profit Corporation, I was placed under a degree of stress I was incapable of handling. I had long been associated with the program as a board member. The President of the Board had succeeded in removing two Directors preceding my taking the position. When that President initiated the same tactics against me, I became frozen by anxiety, incapable of focus, unable to function. Men closely identify themselves with their work. The loss of what they do is essentially the same as the loss of their identity. That was the case for me. Did I consider whether life was worth living anymore? Yes, I did. Clinical Depression is a chemical imbalance. Restoration to health requires a combination of psychological therapy and psychiatric pharmacology. I was fortunate to find the right combination.
I entered a second stage of crisis after being my mother's care giver during her final illness. It was a long hard death for her. I very unrealistically thought I could help save her life. I lived in a state of denial. She finally was hospitalized in intensive care for a month. The end was inevitable. The morning she died, I found myself lost once again. What was left for me to do. An adjustment of my medications was necessary. Within two months, I had found myself once again.
Each time I considered life wasn't worth the living, one thing kept me from taking the final step. It was the same thing that kept Styron alive. For him, it was the effect it would have had on his family. For me, it was the effect it would have had on my mother and my wife, the lovely woman with whom I found happiness relatively late in life. The second time, my wife. I have seen too many people devastated by the suicide of a loved one. But it took the right help to make me remember that. The help is there.
A child may ask, 'What is the world's story about?' And a grown man or woman may wonder, 'What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we're at it, what's the story about?'
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too -- in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite changes we might impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?
John Steinbeck, Chapter 34, East of Eden, 1952
I originally posted an abbreviated review of this novel on January 14, 2014. Fourteen of my friends liked it. And I appreciate that. However, I got to thinking about it, this novel and the man who wrote it. I initially rated One Foot in Eden Three Stars. Why? Because I had read Rash's novel Serena before this one. Bottom line, I penalized Mr. Rash because he had become a better writer since he had written this book. Then that quote from Steinbeck kind of rolled over me, as it has many times. Mr. Rash, you did well. Those three stars are now four. And my good friend, Diane, is sighing, thinking, "This is going to be a long one." Well, not too long.
When I was a child I asked that question, "What is the world's story about?" We all do. Haven't you? Through the years I have lived I have come to believe Steinbeck was right. "A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?" That's hard truth.
It comes down to making a lot of choices, right or wrong, well or ill. Then there are those times when you just don't have a choice. Nothing's in your control. Like who you are, what you look like, where you were born. Your mother and your father made you, put you here. Somebody raises you. Maybe your mother and your father, maybe not. You do what you do with what you've got, where you are.
I think Rash read East of Eden. More than once. Because this is a novel about people caught in a web of good and evil. It's about the choices they make, the things that haunt them, and the questions a child grows to ask.
It is August, 1952. Oconee County, South Carolina. Oconee comes from the Cherokee word "Ae-quo-nee" meaning "land beside the water." Soon the land around Jocassee will be under water, flooded by South Carolina Power to generate hydroelectric energy. Every mother's son and daughter will be driven off the land their families have held since the 1700s. Even their dead will be dug up and moved above the flood plane. It will become a place lost forever. The people who live there have no choice.
Botanist Andre Michaux discovers the very rare Oconee Bell Flowers in 1788 at Jocassee at the head of the Keowee River. Today, it's at the head of Jocassee Gorge at Devil's Inn State Park, SC.
Holland Winchester will not live to see his home flooded. He will be murdered. Or, is it murder? Is it a maelstrom of uncontrollable emotions that explode into violence leaving a child to be born who will someday grow to ask "Where is my father?"
Or, is it sometimes better to let the dead bury the dead? Jocassee after the waters rose.
Is there the possibility of forgiveness? Ron Rash will have you thinking about it. For a long time.
Here's what I had previously said. I don't always get it right the first time.
January 14, 2015
Review to Follow: Very, very briefly: I actually picked up my reading at page fifty of One Foot in Eden a few minutes after midnight this morning. The pages whipped by in a swirl of carefully constructed multiple narrators. This is the first novel by Ron Rash. In a rare situation for me, I had read later works by Rash. Generally, I read an author from their initial novel and watch their writing develop. Had I begun my reading of Rash's novels with this intriguing read, I would have been incredibly impressed. However, having read Serena, a novel produced by Rash at the peak of his power as a writer with even more promise to come with yet a forthcoming novel, One Foot in Eden emerges as a bit rough around the edges. Rash fills out this compelling read with the elements of a crime novel, what has come to be known as Grit Lit, and the eerie nature of supernatural presence, a classic Southern Gothic ingredient. As Salieri blithely dismissed Mozart's music being comprised of "too many notes," Rash may have combined too many ingredients in a compelling read that is uneven in spots, trying to fit into all possible subgenres of contemporary Southern fiction. That three stars surprises me. To be fair, let's kick it up a notch to 3.5.
A more detailed review should follow. For Rash admirers, this is a must read. The sense of place is incredibly done. Rash knows the hills of South Carolina, its people, and strikes to the heart of the destruction of community and environment by the creation of damned reservoirs, covering once living residences of whole communities and leaving areas filled with tradition and heritage lost forever. This is one that lingers in the mind. And will leave the reader haunted on multiple levels.
January 16, 2015
There, now. I'm sorry, Mr. Rash. Some of those hastily scripted notes ring a little hollow to me now. Thank you Mr. Steinbeck....more
Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: Resurrection in the Blues
Special thanks to University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Ms. for making this available thrUntil You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: Resurrection in the Blues
Special thanks to University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Ms. for making this available through netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Six members of the L.S. Earll family were brutally murdered in Calcasieu Parrish, Louisiana, in February, 1902. On August 14, 1903, Albert Edwin Batson was executed in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Court Seat for the Parrish. He was twenty-two years old. He was hung from the gallows. He shouted "Goodbye" as the trapdoor opened beneath him. Sheriff John Perkins pulled the lever. It was his first time to execute a man. The knot wasn't quite right. The fall didn't snap Batson's neck. He dangled, twisted, and choked. It took him twenty minutes to die.
Albert Edwin Batson, 1881-1903
It was easier to hang a man in 1903. Quicker, too. Batson had been the handy man on the Earll place. They were rice farmers who had moved to Louisiana from Michigan to live a wealthier life. And they had. L.S. Earll had banked $700.00 from his rice harvest. L.S. had his own home on the farm he shared with his wife and three of his children. His son, Ward, lived in his own home located a short distance away. Both L.S. and Ward had a goodly amount of livestock on the place, too.
Batson was tried twice and convicted twice. Sentenced to death twice. He had two lawyers appointed to represent him. Well known lawyers. Of course, criminal law wasn't their specialty. They were better at drawing up a deed, a contract, or drafting a will. They did a good job, though. They got their young client's case reversed on appeal after the first conviction on an evidentiary ruling. They launched a review by the Pardon Board to have their client's sentence commuted to life in prison after the second conviction. Two out of three members of the review committee thought the evidence was too flimsy to hang a man. But the third member was from Calcasieu Parrish. His people thought a hanging was due. His opinion carried the day with the Governor and Albert swung. Until he was dead, dead, dead.
It was a sensational two trials. The murders were ghoulish. Gory. Bloody. Six members of one family wiped out. Bludgeoned. Blasted with a shotgun. Throats slashed ear to ear. The trials brought reporters from around the country.
As always, once somebody swings, life goes on. People forget. Everybody seems to have forgotten Batson. In 1910 a fire burned down most of Lake Charles, including the Courthouse, taking whatever records of Batson's cases had ever existed. Nobody knows what happened to the records at the appellate level. They were just gone.
But cases like Batson's have a way of coming back. In the 1930s, the WPA had projects all over America, putting people to work. The Lomax brothers were in Louisiana collecting folksongs. Their collected works are in the Library of Congress today. In 1934 they met Stavin' Chain, the performing name for a blues musician, Wilson Jones, a black man with a black string band. Those bands don't exist much anymore. The Lomax brothers recorded a number of songs played and sung by them. One was the Batson Ballad. It had thirty-five verses. The refrain was, "Mama, I didn't done the crime."
Just as people forgot about Albert Edwin Batson, folks seem to have forgotten about the Lomax brothers and Stavin' Chain, and the Batson Ballad. Strange, though. These things have a way of coming back.
In 2008, an Englishman interested in American Folksongs, contacted Danielle Miller a librarian at the Genealogical and Historical Library for Calcasieu Parrish in Lake Charles wanting to know more about the Batson Ballad. Miller started digging. She found enough information to discover the song was based on a real event. She dug further and found enough information to make her wonder about the ballad's refrain. What if Batson "didn't done the crime?"
At the time of Batson's trials there were no rules on jury selection in a capital murder case. No limits. The District Attorney could pack twelve men on a jury who were committed to hanging a man on circumstantial evidence alone. That didn't cease to be the case until the United States Supreme Court rendered its opinion in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968). 1968? Yep.
Now, don't go thinking that this is a book for lawyers because I put up that fancy dancin' legal citation up there. This is a bone chilling read. It will appeal to lovers of historical fiction as well as non-fiction. This is one that will make the short hairs stand up at the back of your neck. Poor Albert Edwin Batson. Two juries couldn't see past their own noses. The sentencing judge screamed out "Until you are dead, dead, dead," at his first pronouncement. The second time, perhaps having been a bit more circumspect in watching the flimsy evidence unfold, that's the reason spectators had to lean forward to hear him whisper the same words.
In the end, the outcome was the same for Batson. He was truly dead, dead, dead. Funny thing. The sheriff that hung him? He said that young man never looked like a killer to him. You know? He just may have been right. It's enough to make you think about your opinion on capital punishment. Even a grizzled old retired career prosecutor. Like me.
READ THIS BOOK.
Wilson Jones, "Stavin' Chain", 1934
Listen to Stavin' Chain sing the Batson Ballad. For those curious, a stavin' chain is a tool used to bind the staves of a barrel together until the metal band is applied to hold the pieces together.
The universally applied rule for the use of circumstantial evidence is that it is perfectly admissible as long as it points to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. If it is explainable by any other reasonable hypothesis, it is the jury's duty to acquit. One Earll son survived the blood bath on the Earll farm. Fred Earll claimed he lived in Iowa. No existing record indicates a person by that name was a resident of Iowa at the time the six members of the Earll family were killed. Just food for thought. ...more
Blanche on the Lam, Barbary Neely, First Ed., St. Martin's Press, New York, New York, 1992
Barbara Neely, Social Activist, and Author, born 1941, Lebanon, Pennsylvania
Still hoping to find an employer willing to pay for a full service domestic instead of the bunch of so-called genteel Southern white women for whom she currently did day work. Most of them seemed to think she ought to be delighted to swab their toilets and trash cans for a pittance."
Blanche White, a savvy and independent black woman finds herself in Farleigh, North Carolina, living with her mother and the two children she had promised her sister, Valerie, dying of breast cancer, she would raise and see to their well being. It's not an easy life.
This is not the life Blanche had planned for herself. She never intended on marrying. Children weren't in the picture. A practical woman, she knew her services as a full time domestic were valuable. Up north, in New York, she had earned a good living. But that was before her sister died and she made a promise she was committed to keep.
About Farleigh, North Carolina. I didn't find it on the North Carolina map. Perhaps Ms. Neely changed the location to protect the guilty. However, other North Carolina locations are bantered about without concern. For Neely's purposes, the name suffices, establishing Blanche the domestic, a resident of the South, whose importance is of little note to the white citizens of the community, authoritarian, social or otherwise.
Farleigh was still a country town, for all its pretensions. The folks who lived here and had money, even the really wealthy ones, thought they were still living slavery days, when a black woman was greateful for the chance to work indoors. Even at the going rate in Farleigh she'd found no black people in town who could afford her--not that working for black people ensured good treatment, sad to say.
Things really turn sour for Blanche when she's arrested on warrants for bad checks. Checks she wrote for groceries to support her niece and nephew, counting on her employers making good on her payday. However her employers decided to take a powder, uhm, vacation, to Topsail Beach, or some other likely vacation spot.
Blanche ends up before a Judge who got up on the wrong side of the bed, mistakenly reads her record, and becomes indignant to find her before the Court a fourth time. Thirty days in jail, plus restitution. It crosses one's mind how anyone makes restitution while incarcerated.
Blanche panics. Away from her children, yes, she's come to look on them as her own, for thirty days? The County's liable to come calling and her children will be in the State Foster Care system. At the first opportunity when a brouhaha breaks out in the courtroom, Blanche goes on the lam.
That's when things get interesting. Blanche was scheduled to take a placement through an employment service. What better way to go into hiding working for wealthy white folks. And Blanche only thought she was in trouble.
One Cranberry Way. A week long job. Time to figure out how to handle this check problem. Get a lawyer. That's what she should have done.
The occupants of One Cranberry Way are the Carter family. Aunt Emmaline is the family matriarch. Who would have thought it? She parlayed a $50,000.00 inheritance from her late husband into a fortune in the stock market. Do we need a reminder that money is the root of many evils?
Niece Grace's parents are dead. She's a likely heir upon Emmaline's death. She is married to Everett, a villain from the point of being introduced into the cast of characters. Grace is his second wife. His first was murdered. Having a cast iron alibi, Everett, reaps the benefit of wife One's legacy. But that money is gone.
The other likely heir is Mumsfield, cousin to Grace. Mumsfield is the most sympathetic character in the novel. With a diagnosis of Mosaic Mongolism, Mumsfield functions quiet highly. Derided constantly by Everett, Mumsfield is drawn to Blanche who treats him kindly.
Blanche intuitively recognizes that Everett and Grace mean to gain Aunt Emmaline's estate. If appointed Mumsfield's guardians, Emmaline's fortune is at their disposal.
Blanche and Mumsfield share a kind of invisibility in the Carter household. A black domestic and an adolescent deemed incapable of understanding the manipulations of Aunt Emmaline going on underneath their noses are things that Everett and Grace are confident will not be unraveled before the money is safely in their hands.
However, events take a turn toward violence. Everett and the Sheriff apparently are at odds of serious import to one another. Blanche overhears a sharp interchange between the two. The following morning, the radio news carries the story that the Sheriff committed suicide the previous night, driving his car over O'man's bluff.
Old Nate, the long time Carter gardener, drops by the kitchen to talk to Blanche over a cup of coffee.
"Hear about the Sheriff?" He asked her without a 'Hello' or 'How are you?' He didn't even wait for Blanche to answer. 'Shame, ain't it?' he added. But the huge grin that turned his face intho that of a much younger, more carefree man didn't match his words. It was probably events like the sheriff's death that got her slave ancestors a reputation for being happy, childlike, and able to grin in the face of the worst disaster. She could just see some old slaver trying to find a reason why the slaves did a jig when the overseer died.
But Blanche knows there are things better ignored.
It would be better to forget about the sheriff's visits, his conversations with Everett, and the limousine rolling silently down the drive that shouldn't be a problem. She had plenty of experience not seeing what went on in her customer's homes, like black eyes, specks of white powder left on silver backed mirrors, cufflinks with the wrong initials under the bed, and prescriptions for herpes. She was particularly good at not seeing anything that might be dangerous or illegal. But as good as she was at being blind, there were certain things she couldn't overlook.
However, the sheriff is only the first to go. The body count increases. Will Blanche herself leave her job safely? And what about Mumsfield? Who's to take care of him. Or will she "be murdered over some white people's shit that didn't have a damned thing to do with him?" It would be easier to skip town and head to Boston, lose herself back up North. Send for the kids when it was safe. But things just happen to fast.
Neely knows how to spin a yarn. This is not your conventional mystery. Rather, Neely relies on building characterization of the main players in this tale of a family divided by its greed for the family fortune. The dialog is sharp. Blanche is a refreshingly savvy investigator, though a reluctant one. Interwoven into a well plotted story is a starkly honest portrayal of black anger in the face of a heritage of white oppression.
It's no spoiler that Blanche survives. This is the beginning of a series. Neely's debut drew the attention it deserved. The Agatha Award for Best First Novel, 1992. The Andrew Award for Best First Novel, 1993. And the Macavity Award for Best First Novel, 1993.
The novel's ending may leave some readers conflicted. Be warned. I won't reveal anything more than to quote the old saw, "Two wrongs don't make a right." I leave it to the reader to determine how the conclusion of this novel strikes them.Blanche on the Lam: A Blanche White Mystery
To state there is no racial divide in our country would be specious at best. Neely clearly establishes the suspicion with which the races warily eye one another. There's an infinite degree of sadness that this divide seemingly has no end.
This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.
-T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, 1925
Emily St. John Mandel, born 1979, Comox Canada
Station Eleven, First Ed., Pan Macmillan, London, UK, 2014
The night civilization collapsed Arthur Leander missed it. He was performing in his final role as King Lear on stage in Toronto, Canada. During the performance he clutched his chest, collapsed, and died. He was only fifty-one. A paramedic in the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, attempts to perform CPR to no avail.
On stage is eight year old Kirsten Raymonde, an actress playing one of Lear's three daughters as a child. Leander had questioned what children were doing in a production of Lear earlier. Kirsten liked Arthur. He had given her two comic books. Chapters One and Two of Station Eleven. She will keep them with her always.
The Collapse is just hours away. A flight from the Georgian Republic is scheduled to land at Toronto International. The passengers carry the Georgian Flu strain. The incubation period is incredibly quick. By the time their plane touches ground, all will be taken to a Toronto Emergency Room.
An Emergency Room physician calls Jeevan Chaudhary, warning him to get out of the city. The incubation period is two to three hours. Nothing will stop this flu. Already medical staff are falling ill.
“Jeevan was crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness that Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.b>
The Georgian Flu is an efficient killer. The mortality rate is 96.6%. Attempts to evacuate are futile. The world as we know it ceases to exist.
First the televised news broadcasts end. Sometimes there's a blank station signal. At others, static. No radio stations can be received. Cell phones no longer operate. The internet is gone.
It's the truly inconsequential things that are noticed first.
“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
But the longer the collapse the more tenuous life becomes. A young girl runs screaming through an airport terminal asking anyone for Effexor. She is in withdrawal.
“No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.”
After three years, any fuel not used has become stale. No engine will crank. Lines of empty useless vehicles line the highways.
There is no Canada, no United States. There are no borders, no boundaries. In places there are no laws. No mercy. It is difficult to determine whether people are human or feral beasts.
Civilization exists in isolated pockets. Little conclaves of people along the shores of the great lakes. Along these shores travels three caravans of musicians and actors. They comprise "The Traveling Symphony." Their personal identities are not so important as their positions in the symphony. They are known as the Conductor, the Clarinet, the Tuba, the Second Guitar. It is twenty years after the collapse. Among the players is Kirsten Raymonde, on stage when Arthur Leander collapsed and died of a heart attack. She still carries the Station Eleven Comic Books.
“All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.”
The Symphony toured those little pockets of civilization performing Shakespeare one evening and musical concerts on the next. It was those things the survivors of the collapse appreciated. The towns' reception of the Symphony was good for its members, too.
“SOMETIMES THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night.”
It is at this point that Emily St. John Mandel creates something marvelous by departing from the typical post-apocalyptic milieu. That is precisely what disappoints some readers of this novel. For this is no typical post-apocalyptic novel. Mandel takes us much deeper into questions of human nature and questions of responsibility, the consequences of our acts and our failure to act. Some of what we take for granted as a normal part of today's society is enough to make you squirm. Did I really do that? Maybe I should have? See clearly, Lear.
Intertwined with the story of the Collapse Mandel leads us through the life of Arthur Leander from his days in Toronto as a student actor when he became friends with free-spirited Clark, who wore his head half shaved, the other half died in some outrageous color. Clark was openly, happily gay. And Arthur freely danced with him in Toronto bars.
We watch Arthur's climb to fame as an actor. He marries Miranda, a girl from his home town in Western Canada. She is involved in an abusive relationship with an artist, Pablo, who has sold paintings for big money. However, the money is gone and so is Pablo's muse. Miranda becomes Arthur's rescue. Miranda, too, is an artist. Their marriage seems the perfect match. Arthur's roles grow more and more prestigious. Miranda is engaged in a graphic arts project, a novel, Station Eleven. Miranda shuns the spotlight in which Arthur is required to shine. Their lives do not belong to them. Arthur is pursued by the paparazzi, one of whom happens to be Jeevan Chaudray.
Miranda and Arthur's marriage calls to mind the ancient myth of Hero and Leander. Although Miranda is no Hero, she paints one. And, for this purpose, we shall call Arthur Leander. Leander in the beginning gladly swam the Hellespont to be with Miranda. However, this Leander finds Hero no longer holds her lamp aloft for him and he looks elsewhere. It is a sad commentary on marriage. One repeated all too often these days.
Arthur will leave Miranda for Carol, whose beauty as an actress is renowned in Hollywood. They will have a child, Tyler.
Arthur's eye will stray to a third wife, with Carol taking son Tyler to Israel, where Arthur seldom sees him.
When Arthur takes the stage for his final performance as King Lear, the third marriage has failed and he's involved in a dalliance with the young child wrangler attending to Kirsten and her two child co-stars.
During the course of the years Miranda completes the first two chapters of Station Eleven. She gives two sets of her work to Arthur. Arthur has decided he has too many possessions. He's in the process of giving things away. Ironically one set goes to Kirsten, the other to Tyler. Each will cling to those copies. But each will interpret them far differently.
Not only does Arthur Leander play Lear, a mad King who needs to see more clearly, he is a modern Leander who attempted to swim the Hellespont once too often. As Christopher Marlowe wrote:
Some swore he was a maid in man's attire, For in his looks were all that men desire, A pleasant smiling cheek, a speaking eye, A brow for love to banquet royally; And such as knew he was a man, would say, "Leander, thou art made for amorous play. Why art thou not in love, and loved of all? Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall."
Hero and Leander, 1598
Miranda is informed of Leander's death while she is on assignment half way across the world, before the lines go dead. Old friend Clark and second wife Carol end up in an airport in Severn City. We follow Jeevan through his struggle to survive. Tyler is with Mother Carol in that airport. Kirsten and the Symphony are headed to Severn City. Their lives will diverge, converge, and intermingle throughout the course of the novel. Their connection with one another becomes a mystery set in a post-apolyptic background. Who lives? Who dies? Intriguing? Absolutely.
Within any post-apocalyptic novel, one expects the strong to overcome the weak. Mandel does not depart from this part of the formula. As the Symphony comes to St. Deborah by the Sea, on the shores of one of the great lakes, they encounter a town overtaken by a religious cult led by "The Prophet." This fanatic believes that he and his followers have been saved for a purpose. Any who do not follow him are a part of darkness, unworthy of being saved. When the Symphony departs the town, they unknowingly carry with them a stowaway, a young girl named Aubrey, underage, whom the Prophet has claimed as another wife.
What the Prophet perceives as the Symphony's kidnapping of his bride leads to a climactic chase and confrontation between good and evil.
Station Eleven is a must read. Rightly chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award, this novel is the most engaging read I've encountered in 2014. Five Stars. Unquestionably.
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an en
Silent Night in No Man's Land: Christmas, 1914
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an end to war I dreamed I saw a mighty room The room was filled with men And the paper they were signing said They'd never fight again
And when the papers all were signed And a million copies made They all joined hands and bowed their heads And grateful prayers were prayed And the people in the streets below Were dancing round and round And guns and swords and uniforms Were scattered on the ground
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an end to war
Ed McCurdy, 1950
Christmas Day, Flanders, 1914
Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago-Pete Seger, 1955
There are no poppies blooming in Flanders' fields. It is winter. The ground has been churned to mud. Perhaps the last time anyone saw the poppies bloom was before the great war began in August, before the leave began to turn. When there were still trees.
Where have all the soldiers gone? Long time passing Where have all the soldiers gone?
It is nearing Christmas, 1914. Since the great war began a million soldiers have died. When will they ever learn? The generals, the Field Marshalls. Once again, the deadly efficiency of new weapons has overcome the outmoded tactics of previous wars. The soldiers on the front lines pay the price. Generals and Field Marshalls die in bed. It does not seem they ever learn. They do not pay the price.
I am seventeen. About to graduate High School. We have our Senior Banquet. I wear a blue blazer, pink shirt, white trousers, white bucks. I am thin, too thin, perhaps. The class song is "Those were the days." Mary Hopkins voice hauntingly floats over us all. We all sing with her.
Once upon a time there was a tavern Where we used to raise a glass or two Remember how we laughed away the hours And dreamed of all the great things we would do
Those were the days my friend We thought they'd never end We'd sing and dance forever and a day We'd live the life we choose We'd fight and never lose For we were young and sure to have our way. La la la la...
I thought I would do great things. I would become a history professor. I had scholarships to the University of Alabama. If I didn't get drafted and sent to Vietnam.
We didn't think much about it. It hadn't touched us much. Jennifer's brother was shot down, flying a Phantom F-4. We didn't know why she went screaming down the halls when the principal called her out of class till later.
That business about the tavern. I had sneaked some Strawberry Hill out in the country. Didn't smoke. Had a 1963 Olds Rocket 88 with a big back seat. Never got past second base. But it was sweet. Someday. Maybe, if I didn't get shipped home in a box. We did have student deferments.
What if they gave a war and nobody came? Why then the war would come to you!-Bertolt Brecht, 1930
Although Weintraub is a historian down to his toes, he has written a moving account of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Weintraub leaves the reader reeling with a series of evolving and ever more powerful emotions as he unveils this riveting history. The truce comes alive through the words of those who were there. The truce lives in the letters and diaries of Englishmen, Scots, Germans.
This is a tale of sadness and hope. The men who recount these strange days in the midst of war are able to recognize the humanity in one another that exists no matter one's language, origin, or government. It is all the more amazing because it occurred almost sua sponte, as the result of the actions of the men in the trenches, of their own volition, something that sent shudders up the ranks of authority to the centers of their governments.
Christmas Eve, 1914
The Garwhal Rifles, a Regiment of Indian troops, noticed a line of lights appearing atop the German trenches across from them. They were the candles on Christmas trees. Earlier one of their number had written home, "It is more than horror, it is the end of the world." Though they did not have Christmas trees, the Indians thought the lights reminiscent of their Diwali, the "Festival of Lights." Strange, but there was a peacefulness about it all. In their Diwali, it was a time of forgiveness, new beginnings, and a time for the exchanging of gifts. For a short time, they would see all this happen.
"Thus, Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time...I told them we didn't want to shoot on the Second Day of Christmas, either."--from the diary of Kurt Zemisch, 134th Saxons
"I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."
Signs appeared above the trenches on both sides of the lines. "Merry Christmas." Carols were sung. Troops poured out of the trenches and met in No Man's Land. They shook hands. Exchanged souvenirs, gifts, newspapers. The rain that had turned everything to mire had stopped. It turned cold and clear. There was a hard freeze. War took a holiday.
Christmas Day, 1914
It continued the next day. Christmas day. In different ways. Some units helped one another bury their dead. In other areas, men continued to mingle freely, exchanging gifts. There were seemingly incredible small world moments, an Englishman recognizing his former German barber who had been called home to serve the Fatherland. Regimental histories recorded soccer matches occurring in No Man's Land.
Footers, English and German, play the game
Boxing Day, The Second Day of Christmas, 1914
The truce remained in full force, though the upper echelons were beginning to rumble.
"Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?"-Private Henry Williamson, Age 19, London Rifle Brigade
German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment and British soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment meet in no man's land, December 26, Boxing Day, 1914
Letters, uncensored at the time, were sent home. The letters were forwarded to newspapers where they were reprinted. The Christmas truce became public news.
Might the "Truce" be the beginning of the end of the war? It might have been. But, as we know, it was not. Strict orders were passed down from the highest command of all powers that any form of fraternization would be strictly disciplined. Any soldier found in possession of material belonging to another power was subject to punishment.
Not all soldiers and officers at the front during the Christmas truce of 1914 approved of it. No one should be surprised that the young Adolph Hitler did not. Hitler, a Corporal, had been awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class by Kaiser Wilhelm personally. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the occasion as the happiest day in his life. Regarding the "Truce," Hitler said, "Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor left at all?"
By New Year's, 1915, the Christmas truce was effectively over. It would continue until November 11, 1918. The death toll of combatants was four-thousand-six-hundred per day.
August 31, 1970
Well, come on generals, let's move fast; Your big chance has come at last. Now you can go out and get those reds 'Cause the only good commie is the one that's dead And you know that peace can only be won When we've blown 'em all to kingdom come-Country Joe McDonald, 1965
I turned eighteen on August 31, after I graduated from high school. My grandfather told me we had somewhere to go that morning. "Where," I asked. We were having coffee at the kitchen table. He shook his pack of Camel unfiltereds in my direction. His signal he had something to say. I took the cigarette that popped out the end of the pack, pecked an end of it on the placemat to pack the tobacco down and lit it with my Zippo.
"Well, Son, first we're gonna get you a haircut."
"I've been working. All summer. Like you wanted."
"Yes, you have. Stuck it out. All the men say you worked hard."
"So, what's up?" I knew what was up.
"You get your draft card today. Not going down there like a hippie."
It was the only fight we ever had. I got my hair cut. Got my draft card. Was always opposed to the war. My hair grew back and over my collar. I joined the Student Mobilization Committee. There's a yellowing photograph of me on the cover of the college paper on the steps of the old Student Union during a protest. I'm with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A curious mix, some thought. But I was never against the soldiers.
As to the Class of Seventy, in due time, the war began to touch it. The lonely ones. The outcasts. The guys on the top row at the pep rallies. The ones on the smoking court. The fellows that didn't give a flip about their grades that took the vocational courses because they never planned to go to college. No deferments for them. First to go. Their names are on the wall in D.C. and on the monument downtown in front of the Courthouse.
Me? I was a fortunate son. Even though I was no Senator's son. I did not become a history professor, but a lawyer. I remain a student of history.
When will we ever learn? Probably never. But we can hope.
Why not Five Stars?
It's a beautiful read. One that will haunt the reader, linger in the memory long after the final page is turned. BUT...Weintraub engages in a lengthy chapter, "What if?" This chapter dulls the impact of the narrative that precedes it. It is an exercise in alternative history. What if a peace had been reached as a result of the Christmas Truce? While such exercises can fuel many a speculative conversation, we can hypothesize from now till death do us part. Would a Germany reaching a peace that left it in substantially all of the territory it occupied have prevented the Third Reich? We'll simply never know. The acts of those who were participants in the Christmas Truce should not be diminished by an anticlimactic exercise in speculation.
So....4.5 Stars. Highly recommended.
For a Magnificent Film about the Christmas Truce, I highly recommend "Joyeux Noel" which my wife and I watch each year.
Gatsby Among the Locusts: Stewart O'Nan's Novel of Fitzgerald in Hollywood
A copy of this novel was provided by Viking Adult through Netgalley in exchaGatsby Among the Locusts: Stewart O'Nan's Novel of Fitzgerald in Hollywood
A copy of this novel was provided by Viking Adult through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This novel will be published January 13, 2015.
"There are no second acts in American lives," F.Scott Fitzgerald, found among his notes to his last, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon.
Stewart O'Nan has written a compelling novel of the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his years in Hollywood. Told in a series of episodes, both in the days of the "Golden Age of Hollywood" and in flashbacks of Fitzgerald's memories of his life during the Jazz Age with his Southern beauty, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, O'nan captures the portrait of a man who recognizes the passage of an era, whose literary works no longer hold the public's interest. Fitzgerald knows he is a man past his days of creativity. His marriage to Zelda is shattered by her madness. Years of hospitalization in the best private hospitals have bankrupted him. Their daughter, Scottie is due a proper education. Only the best prep school will do. The tuition is beyond his financial capability.
Fitzgerald is living beyond his financial means, drawing advances on stories unwritten. The novel promised to Max Perkins is a year past due, soon two years past due. Long time agent Harold Ober has not lost faith. He has become Fitzgerald's banker, loaning him money to keep him afloat. It is Ober who finds a slot for Fitzgerald at MGM Studios in Hollywood. It could be Fitzgerald's salvation or his undoing.
Fitzgerald knows that everyone is gambling on his staying sober. His alcoholism is at the root of his problems. Gin is at the root of his weakness. Seagram's. That's his brand.
Hollywood is at it's peak of creating the American dream. Fitzgerald's old friend Irving Thalberg is dead. L.B. Mayer has taken the helm and Fitzgerald joins a crew of elite writers who have hired on out west beneath the iconic Hollywood sign. Aldous Huxley has amazed with his script for "Pride and Prejudice." And Fitzgerald finds himself among many of the members of the Algonquin Round Table. Dottie Parker wistfully attempts to draw him into a tryst for old time's sake. But Fitzgerald resists, riddled with guilt, thinking of his long lost Zelda, back in Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.
Even the Round Table moved west for "Ars Gratia Artis," they thought.
Fitzgerald is lured by his Algonquin pals to join them in the Garden of Allah, a hotel surrounded by a number of Villas. Here are Dorothy Parker and her husband of convenience whose sexuality lures him elsewhere than Dorothy's bed. There's S.J. Perelman, a host of others. Humphrey Bogart and girlfriend "Mayo" are intriguing companions. Surprisingly, Bogart finds Fitzgerald a swell fellow. Bogie's a literate man. He especially appreciates "Gatsby." However, the gang at the Garden are a great temptation to Scott. The booze flows freely during the parties around the pool. Sticking to Cokes is tough. Being on the wagon when nobody else is, well--that's a constant challenge.
The Garden of Allah, 8152 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, California
The studio is generous. Fitzgerald has a six month contract. The weekly checks finally begin to build up a balance in the bank account. Creditable projects come his way. However, Fitzgerald learns that this new Hollywood is a fickle thing. Projects that are spun with initial glowing press releases die quickly on the vine. They won't sell to the public. Fitzgerald draws paychecks for projects never completed.
Enter a beautiful young woman, Sheila Graham. Fitzgerald is fascinated. She bears a striking resemblance to the young Zelda. He wonders why no one can see that resemblance but him.
Sheila Graham, Fitzgerald's lost Zelda
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, Yes, I can see the resemblance.
What ensues is an intense and complex love story. Graham is an enigma. Engaged to the Marquis of Donegal, Fitzgerald is curious why Graham continues to show interest in him. Her true history emerges in bed. Lots of skeletons rattle in Hollywood. She was born Lily Shiel, a child of the London slums, raised as a star of the burlesque stage in London, exhibiting her body to men who paid to see it. She had married an officer, John Graham, returning from the Great War. She said he was unable to consummate the marriage. She broke the engagement to the Marquis, terrified her past would be revealed.
She kept Fitzgerald at a distance. Especially as his failures as a screenwriter grew. His attempts at sobriety failed. She insisted on his taking "the Cure," an arduous, painful process. She moved him from "The Garden," first to Malibu, then to Encino, both "West of Sunset" Boulevard, the location of the Garden.
Scott's trips to visit Zelda also wore on the relationship. Scott was constantly riddled with guilt. Yet, they always returned to one another. Both had an irresistible carnal appetite for the other.
During his romance with Sheila, Scott continued to keep his promises to Zelda to spend vacations with her and to ensure visits to Zelda from their daughter Scottie. The relationship between Zelda and Scottie was a tempestuous one. Zelda, at times, was merciless in her criticism of Scottie, her appearance, lack of grace, and her resemblance to Scott as opposed to Zelda. Naturally, Scottie grew to where she attempted to avoid any visits with her mother. Scott mediated between the two of them, acting as the great appeaser, negotiating with each of them, assuring each of them that both loved one another. Scott introduced Scottie to Sheila. The two got along famously. Nor did Scottie condemn her father for seeking another relationship.
Fitzgerald was put on "Three Comrades" drawn from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It would be his only screen credit. Ernest Hemingway emerges to encourage Fitzgerald to use the film to warn the world to the growing danger of fascism. Fitzgerald's treatment is masterful, including shots of Hitler's diatribes, marching Nazis, flags and drums bearing swastikas. However, Mayer, has those scenes shot again, removing all overt scenes of Nazism removed from the picture at the insistence of a German cultural attache. Hooray for Hollywood.
O'Nan depicts Fitzgerald's spiraling Hollywood decline in unflinching, spare, lean prose. A contract unrenewed. Days as a freelance scriptwriter. Fitzgerald moved from project to project. Fitzgerald, uncredited, punching up dialogue for Vivien Leigh on Selznick's "Gone With the Wind." It is the last hurrah.
Yet, perhaps, Fitzgerald, banished from the Hollywood lot, is finally Fitzgerald's redemption as a writer. These are the days of the Pat Hobby stories, the stories of a drunk screenwriter in Hollywood. The days of the essays that become "The Crackup." And, finally, "The Love of the Last Tycoon." True. Bernice was long past bobbing her hair. Fitzgerald finally recognized that. He was a writer on the return, recognizing, finally, the Jazz Age was over. As always, one wonders what might have been. O'Nan helps us explore that question.
O'Nan captures not only the decline of an iconic American writer, but the decline of world civilization into the conflagration of the Second World War. As with O'Nan's other novels I have read, this is the work of an accomplished writer who immerses the reader in the lives and times of another era with the skill of a master. O'Nan is an author whose each work should be anticipated with the sense of excitement and new discovery. He never disappoints. West of Sunset is O'Nan's fifteenth novel. Highly recommended. ...more
The Cockroaches of Staymore, First Ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, New York, 1989
Donald Harington, December 22, 1935-November 7, 2009
All God's critters got a place in the choir Some sing low and some sing higher, Some sing out loud on a telephone wire, Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they've got now--
Bill Staines, 1966
Cockroaches of Staymore is my third visit to Staymore, Arkansas. With each visit, I have been sad to leave it. I have wished that I could Stay More, as its inhabitants are known to implore you to do. not that they genuinely mean it. It's a recognized courtesy in that little community, a compliment you pay to the value you attach to the members of your community and your guests to it. If you stop and think about it, not many of us have that attitude towards our company these days. We don't say it, but our silent thought is, "When the Hell, ya'll gonna get home? Time's a wastin'. The wife's not too sleepy. The supper's done. I might just get lucky tonight. Too bad, buddy, if it's not in your stars tonight. Well, ever dog has his day. Too damn bad if this ain't yours." But we keep that to ourselves. Humans have a way of reading our unsent signals though. The way we cut our eyes, look at our watch. Cut the volume up a little on the TV. Mutter a little something about needing to get an early start on tomorrow's day. And before you know it, the party's over.
But in Staymore, well, in Staymore, things just move at a little slower pace. It's nice. Folks just never make you feel like you're being hurried along. That's nice. Don't you think?
I discovered Staymore, Arkansas, and its creator Donald Harington as a result of reading an issue of Oxford American Magazine, the Journal of Fine Southern Writing. Harington was recognized as the winner of the Oxford American's first Lifetime Achievement Award for Southern Literature in 2006. Oxford American and its fine staff have frequently put remarkable works in my hands. I owe it to them for connecting me to Donald Harington.
My first visit was what I believed to be the first Staymore novel, Lightning Bug. I knew immediately I had fallen into the hands of a master author who held me spellbound, the creator of a world in which I longed for, to live in, to escape to, to never leave. My review is here. Lightning Bug.
I quickly realized that it was easy to establish the order in which the "Staymore" novels were published. Almost simultaneously I discovered that the plots of the dozen or so tales do not flow chronologically from a historical perspective. If you've not ventured into Harington Country before, I'd actually recommend you start with The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks. For here are the origins of the very founding of the town, its early history, and its earliest residents. For background on Staymore, here's my review. Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks.
When William nominated Cockroaches of Staymore, my immediate reaction was Trail Members visiting Staymore for the first time would possibly think Mr. Harington had taken a trip with Carlos Castaneda or Timothy Leary. In the most benevolent light, first time Harington readers would view him as a man whose cheese had slid from his biscuit. I am ever indebted to my good friend Jeffrey Keeten who acquainted me with this expression. It has frequent application. I appropriate it with proper attribution--of course.
After all, this is a book about cockroaches. Or, as these critters are referred to--roosterroaches. "Cock" has such negative connotations in polite society, roach society, that is. Though, sex is a very naturally received fact of life among them, both male and female. And the intricacies of the courtship are quite...intricate, shall we say? Ah, pheromones do make things much less complicated. Much more natural. Shall we say spontaneous? Among us human kind, spontaneity can be such a squelching factor in these days and times. How does your calendar look tonight? Not good. Is tomorrow good for you? Uhm...We have dinner with the .... then. OH.
Of course, I lived through what I'm told was a sexual revolution completely oblivious of one having taken place. Late bloomer. Well, you can't go home again. So it goes.
And we silly humans. Has anyone figured out why Man and Woman are in separate bath tubs in those Cialis ads? Oh. And those little blue, purple, and yellow pills that the ads tell all us guys over forty that we probably need? The average act of roosterroach coitus takes three hours. Uhm...and males roosterroaches have three, uhm...you know. And they don't have to go to the emergency room if those thingies are uhm...inflated in excess of three hours. Don't anybody get titillated out there.
But this is what we're talking about people! Would you read a book about these?
American cockroach, Periplaneta americana, one of the oldest life forms on earth. They have been with us forever.
Be honest. You have a flyswatter in your home. Right? There's that can of RAID under the kitchen sink. You've laughed at the RAID commercials. You like your Orkin Man. You are not an organic gardener. Bugs make your tomatoes ugly. You believe in better living through chemistry. Down at the lawn and garden center you are known as "Ortho Man." You know that's you. You think Donald Harington's a Nutcase!
But, my friends, for you are all my friends, I must disabuse you of your preconceived notions, your biases, your prejudices. You are wrong.
This is something, I know, not easily accepted. So, we will take this in little steps. Consider it an exercise in gentle desensitization.
First, think of that little photograph above and think of those two insects being in love. Betrothed to one another. They're singing a little song.
Oh, we don't know what's coming tomorrow Maybe it's trouble and sorrow But we'll travel the road Sharing our load side by side
There now. Think about it. Now, we're going to take a little break to let all of you think about this. Actually, I'm being threatened with my life by the Queen and Cousin Kathleen, who is much like the Queen. Together they are they who must be obeyed. And we shall continue this upon my return to FREEDOM!
Having sung, "Let my people go" numerous times, only to be ignored or given baleful stares, I am free. Cousin Kathleen is busily packing. Her flight out leaves this afternoon. I do hate to see her go. Really, I wish she would stay more. I have told her so. She has replied in kind that the Queen and I should just fly back to Dallas with her and stay there a spell. We finally wound the discussion down with the general agreement that we would do this again real soon. That's true Staymoron style.
So, back to Harington's highly original and inventive Cockroaches of Staymore. These critters, you will discover, are quite like us humans. Actually, Harington probably used them as an example to us, pointing out just how foolish we men and women can be.
The world of the roosterroaches in inexorably intertwined with that of the humans of Staymore. And the roosterroaches have taken on the class structure of Staymoron society. Each of the little critters is a familiar of the former human residents of Staymore.
At the high end of roosterroach world are the Ingledews, just as it was in the human society of Staymore. It was the Ingledews that founded the town after all. And all the other former residents of Staymore have their roosterroach doppelgangers.
However, things are not as they once were in Staymore. The town, once teeming with its citizens is now abandoned except for the presence of two humans. One is a man, an outsider, Larry Brace, living in "Holy House" as it is known to roosterroach society as encouraged by Brother Chid Tichborne, the Reverend Frockroach who preaches the Gospel of Joshua H. Chrustus, Son of Man. Man is no less than Larry Brace.
It's only natural that the roosterroaches worship Man. For it is on the refuse of Man on which the roosterroaches survive. Religion can get right complicated. Brace's house is Holy house because he, uhm...drinks alcohol. A lot of it. And when he is far gone in his liquor, when he sees a roosterroach skittling across the floor to what they call the cooking room, he pulls out a revolver and lets off a round or two. So, Man's House is Holey because Larry has shot it full of holes. In the process, Larry's wild stray rounds may blast away an unfortunate roosterroach. Tichbourne explains that the departed has "gone West," been "Raptured," and gone to live at the Right Hand of Man.
Frankly, Brace has become a rather undependable "Lord." Tichbourne thinks of changing worship from that of Man to that of Woman. The other human residing in Staymore is Sharon, the granddaughter of Latha, former Postmistress of Staymore, owner and operator of the town's General Store, and the heroine of Lightning Bug. Sharon lives in Latha's former residence which she shares unknowingly with the Ingledew roosterroaches. The Old Squire has a cabinet in the kitchen, where the best victuals in Staymore are to be found. His son, Sam, has taken up quarters in an eight day clock overlooking Sharon's bed. Sharon's home is known to the roosterroaches as "Parthenon."
Sam Ingledew is an exceptional roosterroach. Consider him as a non-Chrustian, an Existentialist. Sam refers to himself as Gregor Samsa. Ring a bell? For all his self perceptions, Sam has managed to fall in love with Sharon and wonders what it might be like to make love with her. That would be quite a metamorphosis. To linger over Sharon's face as she sleeps, he has lived in the clock too long. The chimes of the clock have made him deaf. Once again, Harington inserts a bit of himself into his own novel. Harington lost his hearing almost completely at the age of twelve. He has previously appeared as such characters as "Dawny" in Lightning Bug where he was hopelessy in love with Latha.
Leda and the Swan, Giovanni Rapiti: Stranger Metamorphoses have happened. Right?
The pickings for roosterroaches in Holey House are becoming slim. Man has become an unpredictable provider. Frockroach Tichbourne develops a scheme to convince lowly Jake Dingletoon that he is in fact an Ingledew, entitled to claim kin to the Old Squire and Sam Ingledew. If Tichborne can insert Dingletoon into Parthenon, generous, but slow witted Jake will open Parthenon to all the roosterroaches of Staymore.
Harington artfully interweaves the roosterroaches' lives with those of Larry and Sharon. Roosterroach society is divided when Frockroach Tichborne decides to worship Woman instead of Man. And Tichborne will stop nothing short of "INSECTICIDE" to put his plans to take over Parthenon in place.
Two worlds, insect and human, begin to swirl out of control. When Larry shoots himself in his gitalong-er-leg, can the roosterroaches save him? Can they get word to Sharon?
Did you ever think an IBM Selectric Typewriter could be a thing of value?
What's a white mouse doing in Staymore?
Oh...and for all you doubters in Joshua Crust--read Cockroaches of Staymore to learn about the biggest and baddest of all roosterroaches, the Mockroach. He'll put you in mind of Uncle Screwtape. You know. The Uncle who wrote all those letters to his nephew.
While I was quite melancholy at the beginning of this quirky novel to find Staymore abandoned by the human characters I had come to love, I became enchanted by the world Harington created in the society of the roosterroaches. The little critters are more like us than any of us would care to admit. And Harington uses them to point out all the foibles, weaknesses, strengths, and the best of what it is to be human.
Cockroaches of Staymore could easily turn out to be my favorite of Harington's Staymore novels. This is a brillianty sharp work of humor and satire that skewers class structure, religion, politics--you name it. However, it's too early to tell this novel will be my favorite visit to Staymore. I have nine more journeys to make to that magical place. Harington has written the most original anthropomorphic work since Aesop's Fables