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May 18, 1993
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCuller's Portrait of the Faces Behind the Masks
Thanks to a good friend, Jeff Keeten, now residing with Dorothy...more The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCuller's Portrait of the Faces Behind the Masks
Thanks to a good friend, Jeff Keeten, now residing with Dorothy and Toto,too, in Kansas, I've learned I am only gently mad. It was a relief to discover that. Because my self-analysis has been that I'm excessively obsessive when it comes to the love of books. After having taken his recommendation to read A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes, my soul is somewhat rested.
However, there remains the fact I have, excuse me, had four copies of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I absolve myself for the first, it was a Bantam paperback picked up at the now defunct college bookstore, Malones. That paperback cost me lunch that day, even though at the time Krystal Hamburgers were only 25 cents apiece. For those not familiar with Krystals, they are much akin to White Castle. They are little, square, and served on a steamed bun, grilled onions,smashed down onto the little thin patty, and given a squirt of cheap yellow mustard. There are still days when I've got to have a Krystal. But they're not a quarter any more.
The paperback was read and re-read. Somewhere through the years, it vanished, perhaps the victim of a garage sale during a period I call my former life--BD, i.e. before divorce. I hope it least went for the cost of a Krystal, but I doubt it.
Lonely Hunter was not the first McCullers I read. Professor O.B. Emerson, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, The University of Alabama introduced me to Ms. McCullers through The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories. That one cost me a sack of Krystals, too. That's all right. From my current waist line, it doesn't appear I missed too many meals.
Dr. Emerson was a little banty rooster of a man, coal black hair, brilliantined to a shine that reflected the fluorescent lights of the class room. He considered McCullers essential to his curriculum in his Southern Literature course. From my first exposure to McCullers, I was hooked. The little man with the loud colored bow ties, outfitted in seersucker suits and a sporty straw hat made me a convert for life.
After graduation, Professor Emerson and I would converse via telephone from time to time. He was gleeful to learn that The Execution of Private Slovikhad been made into a movie for television in 1974. I heard him click on his set and the ice cubes rattle in his Wild Turkey, his bourbon of choice. In my mind, I could see him with his books shelved floor to ceiling, all arranged, not alphabetically, but by coordinating colors of dust jackets. It was an aesthetic matter. I didn't understand it, and I took art. He was less impressed with the big screen adaptation of The Klansmanin 1974. Both were novels by Hartselle, Alabama author William Bradford Huie. Professor Emerson was a big Huie fan. He shared one thing in common with Huie. Both had received death threats from the Klan and had crosses burned in their yards--Huie, because of his novel, Emerson because he had Justice Thurgood Marshall over for dinner one night. It was Professor Emerson's proudest moment in life. He gloried in telling the tale.
Since Professor Emerson introduced me to Carson McCullers, this review is for him. He died while I was out of town, some years ago. I missed his memorial service. I don't even know where he is buried. But I owe him much, because he imprinted me with a love of Southern literature. In some ways, I picture his life as one of loneliness, not unlike the characters you frequently encounter in the works of McCullers.
But, I digress. I was supposed to be telling you about The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I'm getting there. We Southerners are prone to digression. It's a manner of story telling in these parts.
My next copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the edition pictured. I bought it to read aloud to my wife, not the first one, the current and last one. I got it right this time.
The second copy was justified by love. Love justifies a lot. I just gave that edition away out of love for two of whom I call my honorary children, William and Nancy Roane. William is the director of a short film called "Old Photograph." It should premiere this spring. I play a hard shell Baptist type preacher in charge of a home for wayward girls. The screenplay was a collaboration between William and his younger sister, Nancy. I think they are two of the most brilliant and engaging kids I've met. He's going through the Fulbright rounds, a senior at Oberlin, and she's in her first year at Oberlin.
Nancy is a natural writer. Her story, "Everyone knew Ruby," has been published. I've read it. It's good. Everyone only thought they knew Ruby. They found out they didn't when she committed suicide. It is William's next film project.
I asked if either of them had read McCullers. Neither had. The central theme in Nancy's story echoes that in McCuller's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. While celebrating Christmas and New Year's with them at a lunch, a few days ago, I presented them with my copy, inscribed with two quotes from the novel. “The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.” The other was, “All we can do is go around telling the truth.” Then I encouraged the Roane siblings to give the Coens a run for their money. I think they can.
My third copy of Hunter is a beautiful slip-cased reproduction of the first edition from the former First Editions Library. I understand that Easton bought the company and that as copies in the series are sold, they will not be reprinted. Find this one, if you can. It's just a beautiful book to hold in your hands.
Finally, I had to have the complete McCullers. I highly recommend Carson McCullers: Complete Novels: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter / Reflections in a Golden Eye / The Ballad of the Sad Cafe / The Member of the Wedding / Clock Without Hands
Although biographical influence is often scorned as a means to literary criticism, I don't think it is possible to fully explore some works without some knowledge of the life of the author. That's definitely true of Hunter.
Carson McCullerswas born February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia, the daughter of Lamar and Marguerite Waters Smith. Her birth name was Lula Carson Smith. She dropped the Lula around 1930. Her life was relatively short. Having a bout of rheumatic fever during her high school years affected her health until her death caused by a cerebral hemorrhage on September 29, 1967. Her life was spent in fits of creativity marred by acute episodes of depression. A good portion of her life was spent in a wheel chair.
It does not come as a surprise, when you become familiar with McCuller's life that her literary works were filled with the unloved, the outcasts, and misfits. Nor is it any surprise that her works revolve around desperate attempts to form loving relationships and those relationships in which the lover's pursuit is one that remains unrequited.
Carson began taking piano lessons at an early age. Her original plan was to become a concert pianist. You can find this experience as the basis for her story, Wunderkind.
McCullers was a wunderkind until struck with rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen. She gamely continued through school to graduate at age seventeen. She intended to go to Juliard. She never made it there. She began taking creative writing classes at Columbia while working menial jobs.
While in New York she met Reese McCullers whom she fell in love with too quickly and they married. Divorced once. Married twice. He was an alcoholic, prone to depression and ultimately committed suicide, wanting Carson to die with him. She refused, although she had attempted to commit suicide on an earlier occasion, alone.
Shortly after their first marriage, the McCullers traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Reese found work. There, McCullers wrote Hunter. It was published in 1940. McCullers was twenty-three. She was a literary wunderkind. The book was an instant best seller, hitting the top of the market in sales. Critical reception was mixed.
McCuller's title comes from Fiona MacLeodin her poem "The Lonely Hunter," found in From The Hills of Dream Threnodies Songs and Later Poems. MacLeod wrote:
"O never a green leaf whispers, where the
It is 1931. The setting is a small mill town in Georgia.
McCuller's initially entitled the novel, "The Mute," as the central character is John Singer, a deaf mute, who can truly only communicate with his room mate, a Greek named Spiros Anastopolous. They have been companions for ten years, Singer working as a silver engraver in a jewelry store, and Anastopolous working in his cousin's fruit stand. John and Spiros can communicate through signing. However, Spiros becomes sick, a changed man, engaging in irrational behavior. His cousin commits him to an insane asylum. Singer is left alone, unable to communicate with anyone.
With his companion gone, Singer moves into the Kelly family's boarding house. Mick is a gawky adolescent, unable to recognize the changes occurring in her body, unable to recognize what adolescents haven't yet done, the initiation into sex. She wants to be a musician, she wants to play the piano. Essentially she wants anything that she doesn't believe she can achieve until she begins to compose her own songs. It is with Mick that McCullers addresses the universal awkwardness of the coming of age.
Singer no longer makes his meals in his apartment. Now, he takes his meals at Biff's New York Cafe. Biff's wife Alice dies and he is now alone.
Jake Blount is a customer at Biff's. He is a labor organizer, an agitator. He is a Marxist. Blount drinks to excess. After meeting Singer, he speaks to him at length, incapable of understanding that Singer can't talk back. After becoming too drunk to navigate his way home, Singer walks him back to his room for company and to give Blount a place to stay for the night.
Dr. Copeland is a black physician, disappointed that his children have not become educated but have been satisfied to take the menial jobs available to blacks in the South at that time. He is angry at whites, with the exception of John Singer who had once offered him the kindness of lighting his cigarette. Singer is the only white man who has ever shown him courtesy of any kind.
The novel shifts from point of view, character by character. But Singer is always the central figure in McCuller's novel. Biff, Jake, Copeland, and Mick, all begin to regularly come to Singer's room where they confide their deepest feelings to him. Each feels that he understands what they say and feel. But he does not, nor is he able to communicate his longing for his former companion.
Each of the characters who rotate through Singer's room wear a mask, rarely disclosing what they feel to anyone. It is only to Singer that they reveal their true feelings. It is safe. Who can Singer tell? Singer is almost the priest in the confessional.
While each of the four have found their confidant, Singer grows more alone as he visits Spiros in the asylum, only to find that his friend has become more seriously ill with each visit. Spiros' death will be Singer's unraveling.
Oddly, as Singer unravels, the confessing quartet begin to turn to others and bring them into their lives. Biff turns to his wife's sister, Lucille. Blount and Copeland find a common cause in discussing issues of race, politics, and class struggle. Mick and a young Jewish boy, Harry Minowitz, find first love after a swim in a nearby pond.
(view spoiler)[None understand that after Singer learns his friend Spiros has died in the asylum why Singer would ever commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Each thought they knew him so well and that he knew each of them. (hide spoiler)]
In East of Eden,John Steinbeck wrote, "Perhaps the best conversationalist is the man who helps others to talk." John Singer did that very well.
In the years since its debut, Hunter has steadily grown in stature for what is now recognized as its brilliance. The novel is number seventeen on The Modern Library's list of 100 greatest novels of the twentieth century. Time Magazine listed it on its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Richard Wright, in reviewing McCuller's first novel wrote:
"Out of the tradition of Gertrude Stein's experiments in style and the clipped, stout prose of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway comes Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. With the depression as a murky backdrop, this first novel depicts the bleak landscape of the American consciousness below the Mason-Dixon line. Miss McCullers' picture of loneliness, death, accident, insanity, fear, mob violence and terror is perhaps the most desolate that has so far come from the South. Her quality of despair is unique and individual; and it seems to me more natural and authentic than that of Faulkner. Her groping characters live in a world more completely lost than any Sherwood Anderson ever dreamed of. And she recounts incidents of death and attitudes of stoicism in sentences whose neutrality makes Hemingway's terse prose seem warm and partisan by comparison."
So, Professor Emerson, this review is dedicated to you. I don't have any Wild Turkey, but forgive me as I lift this shot of Gentleman Jack in my toast to you. I miss you.
Yet, as McCullers said,“There was neither beginning nor end to this sorrow. Nor understanding. How can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?”
EDIT: This novel was selected as a group read for the goodreads group "On the Southern Literary Trail" for April, 2012. It is shared for the benefit of the group, and, hopefully to draw interest to a novel that deserves to be read.
Founder and Moderator
1. The Carson McCullers Project http://www.carson-mccullers.com/html/...
2. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr
3. The Lonely Hunter from From The Hills of Dream Threnodies Songs and Later Poems byFiona MacLeod
4. A Review of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Richard Wright http://www.carson-mccullers.com/html/...
5. A Timeline of the Life of Carson McCullers http://www.carson-mccullers.com/mccul...
Edit: This review is presented for benefit of members of Group On the Southern Literary Trail["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Notes are private!
Mar 16, 2012
Apr 29, 2012
Dec 09, 2009
Absalom, Absalom!--William Faulkner's Novel of the Death of the Old South
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and w...more Absalom, Absalom!--William Faulkner's Novel of the Death of the Old South
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son! Second Samuel, 18:33, King James Version
Interestingly enough, Absalom, Absalom! and Gone with the Wind were both published in 1936. Both were novels of the Old South. However, while Margaret Mitchell chose to romanticize that society, William Faulkner removed any element of fanciful romance from the story revolving around the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a man with a design to found a patriarchal dynasty, but who lost everything in his attempt to do.
Faulkner originally titled his novel, "Dark House," but as he wrote his complex story adopted the story of King David and his son Absalom as a more appropriate fit with the figure of Thomas Sutpen and his family. This was a novel that Faulkner struggled with through false starts, interruptions with his work as a screenwriter for Howard Hawks, and the death of his younger brother Dean who died in a plane crash in 1935. Further, his initial submissions to his publisher were returned to him as being confusing and incapable of being understood.
Faulkner's premise for Sutpen's story is no one person is capable of knowing what truth is. History is an amalgam of documentation, memory, and the telling of it. One lawyer colleague of mine has as his motto, "Perception is reality." For the reader of "Absalom, Absalom!" it is quite similar to being a member of a jury, listening to the testimony of multiple witnesses, weighing their demeanor, their testimony, their biases and prejudices, viewing the exhibits, and ultimately, as a group determining what is the truth of the case tried before them.
Faulkner had his characters and story in mind. His problem was how to tell the story of Thomas Sutpen and the lives of his children which occurred in the past by characters in the ostensible present of the novel. Among his working papers was a flow chart showing the sources of information and the basis of how his characters knew what they did. At the top was Thomas Sutpen, originally named Charles. From Sutpen, a line flowed to Rosa Colfield, who would be Sutpen's sister-in-law. Another line flowed to the right to General Compson, his only apparent friend, to his son Quentin Compson II. In the center at the bottom of the working page is Quentin Compson III, whom we originally meet in The Sound and the Fury. Quentin is linked to Sutpen by his direct connection to Rosa Colfield who tells the story from her perspective, and from information passed down to him by his grandfather and father. Quentin emerges as the central thread from whom we learn the "evidence" of the case of Thomas Sutpen. Then, in a masterstroke of structure, Faulkner provides the reader with Quentin's Harvard roommate, Shreve McCannon, an outsider, a Canadian, who provides questions and his own interpretation of the information Quentin provides him.
In essence, Faulkner's structure is much akin to eating an artichoke, peeling the delicate leaves from it, nipping the tender flesh from the base of the leaves, until we reach the unveiled heart, the ultimate delicacy, or in literary terms, what the reader discerns to be the truth.
Thomas Sutpen appears in Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, in 1833. He is a mystery. He is a man without a past, without a lineage. Nor is he forthcoming about where he has come from, or the source of his wealth that allows him to purchase one hundred square miles of land from Old Chickasaw Chief Ikkemotubbe. With him, Sutpen has a band of wild negro slaves who speak in a language unknown to the inhabitant's of Jefferson. Sutpen also carries with him a French architect who will design and direct the building of Sutpen's big house.
This information is provided by Rosa Colfield, the sister of Ellen, whom Sutpen courts in peremptory fashion. Referring to Sutpen as man-horse-demon, Rosa reveals her biases and prejudices against Sutpen. For it develops that prior to her death, Ellen had put the responsibility of protecting her children, Judith and Henry, when she is no longer alive. Sutpen will curtly propose to Rosa to become his second wife, but she will leave after being insulted by Sutpen for reasons that will be made considerably later in the novel.
Not only is reading "Absalom" a bit like dining on an artichoke, it is also very much like peeling an onion, layer after layer. Through Grandfather and Father Compson we learn that Sutpen had come from the mountains of western Virginia, from a poverty stricken family. Sutpen is turned away from a Tidewater Virginian's front door by a slave. This rejection will deepen Sutpen's desire to be as rich as any man. Sutpen becomes an overseer on a Haitian plantation. He puts down a slave revolt. He is awarded for bravery by being given the plantation owner's daughter in marriage. However, he puts her aside upon discovering that her complexion is not the result of a Spanish mother, but a black descendant. Not only does Sutpen put her aside, but his son by her. The thought of a marriage of miscegenation does not fit in with Sutpen's design to be landed gentry in Northern Mississippi.
Sutpen's downfall is foreshadowed by the appearance of Charles Bon, enrolled as a student in law at the infant College, Oxford. Bon becomes fast friends with Henry, who idolizes the elegant older man from New Orleans. That Bon meets Judith during a visit to Sutpen's plantation is inevitable. Sutpen's wife, Ellen, considers Bon to be Judith's future husband. However, it would appear that Bon has more desire for Henry than Judith. The homoerotic electricity of the relationship is palpable, though neither man ever indicates the occurrence of a sexual act.
The coming Civil war prevents resolution of Bon's relationship with Judith. Henry and Bon join the University Grays formed at Oxford and head to war, with the belief that all the South held that defeat was impossible. Sutpen also went to war as a General. His bravery is never at question. However, as a result of a talk with Henry regarding Bon, Henry repudiates his position as heir to the Sutpen holdings. Nevertheless, although he say he does not believe what his father has told him about Bon, which is never directly revealed to the reader, Henry hope that the war will resolve the issue of Bon's marriage to Judith. Perhaps the war will remove one or both of them, making any confrontation unnecessary. But it does not.
Is Charles Bon the son of Thomas Sutpen? How will Henry resolve the propriety of Bon's marriage to Judith since the war left them both survivors? And what of Thomas Sutpen's fate? What will come of Sutpen's One Hundred when it becomes part of a conquered nation? What secrets do Thomas Sutpen's house still hold that Rosa Colfield demands that Quentin ride with her to that dark house before he leaves the South to become a student at Harvard?
"Absalom, Absalom!" is Faulkner's pivotal novel of the death of the Old South. In it he leaves no doubt that he considered slavery to be the institution that condemned it and destroyed it. Shreve McCannon, the outsider, the neutral observer, the Canadian, astutely observes that the descendants of those that once held no freedom would rule the hemisphere.
Faulkner's opinion of "Absalom, Absalom!" was, "I think it's the best novel yet written by an American." Random House, headed by Bennet Cerf, was excited by the novel, stating on the jacket that it was Faulkner's most "important and ambitious contribution to American literature." The novel was released October 26, 1936.
Typical of literary criticism of the time, Faulkner remained their favorite whipping boy. Clifton Fadiman, writing for The New Yorker/ said the novel was consistently boring, that he didn't know why Faulkner wrote it, and that he didn't understand it. Harold Strauss, writing for the New York Times said that "its unreadable prose should be left to those who like puzzles." Faulkner's Early Literary Reputation In America by O.B. Emerson, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan (1984)
What the critics of the 1930s did not recognize was that Faulkner had discovered modernist techniques already used by Woolf, Conrad, Kafka, and Joyce. Today, typical analysis of "Absalom" is that its sole competitors in contemporary American literature are Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. William Faulkner: American Writer: A Biography, Frederick R. Karl, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, New York, 1989, page 582.
I'd say Karl is right. And as for prose for people who like puzzles, think of peeling all those leaves off that artichoke. That succulent heart, dipped into drawn butter is worth the work.
Notes are private!
Mar 16, 2012
Mar 22, 2012
Dec 09, 2009
Apr 01, 1997
The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War: Howard Bahr and Franklin, Tennessee
Some times I do not think I shall live to be very old--but should it be...more The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War: Howard Bahr and Franklin, Tennessee
Some times I do not think I shall live to be very old--but should it be God's will for me and any come to me and ask how it was in the old War times, I will say--that there was really no victory, and no defeat. There were only brave men.
--Bushrod Carter's Commonplace Book
November 16, 1864"
Howard Bahr, 1946-
Howard Bahr was born Howard Hereford in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1946. Bahr is his stepfather's name. Both his father and stepfather are deceased. However, his mother lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where Bahr teaches creative writing at Bellhaven College.
Tall, distinguished in appearance, Professor Bahr has been on the quiet side when I've met him at book signings. However, he's led an interesting life, and is quite the story himself.
After four years in the Navy, a portion of it in combat in Vietnam, Bahr returned to the States, working as a brakeman on a railroad on the Gulf Coast. He enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1973. He became the curator of Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, in 1976, holding that position until 1993. It is not surprising that Faulkner is among his favorite authors.
During his Ole Miss years, Bahr obtained his BA and Master's degrees in English, teaching literature at the University. Although he began a doctoral program, he did not submit a dissertation. Thinking his career at Ole Miss had reached a dead end, he took a position at Motlow State in Tennessee, teaching literature and creative writing.
While at his new teaching position Bahr wrote The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War. Getting it published was another story.
The Historical Context
General John Bell Hood, Commander, Army of Tennessee
John Bell Hood, who had fought at Gettysburg with Lee, witnessed Pickett's Charge, but learned nothing from it. Wounded by an exploding shell he lost the use of his left arm for the remainder of his life. At Chickamauga he lost a leg, amputated just below the hip.
He had pursued courtship of a Richmond belle, Sally Buchanan Preston, known to her friends as "Buck." She repeatedly turned Hood's efforts at courtship aside. Before his transfer to the Western theater of the war, she reluctantly agreed to marry him. The wedding never occurred.
Hood had taken the command of the Army of Tennessee from Joe Johnson who had defended Atlanta using trenches and breastworks. His troops had loved him for his value of their lives.
Hood was a different animal. He was aggressive to the extreme. He despised fighting on the defensive. His objective was to cut off Union troops under the command of General Schofield from uniting with General George H. Thomas, known as the "Rock of Chickamauga" for his stand at that battle on September 19, 1864.
On the night of November 29th, Schofield's troops quietly crossed the exhausted Confederate lines without being discovered, moving on to take the heights of Franklin, Tennessee.
Upon learning that Schofield had eluded him, Hood became enraged the following morning. He would launch a frontal assault at Franklin, Tennessee. He had eighteen divisions of troops, almost 20,000 men.
"When he explained what he meant by 'make the fight'--an all out frontal assault, within the hour--consternation folllowed hard upon doubt by his lieutenants that they had hear aright. They too had looked out over the proposed arena, and could scarely believe their ears. Attack? here? headlong and practicallly gunless, against a foe not only superior in numbers but also intrenched on chosen ground and backed by the frown of more than sixty pieces of artillery?", Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, vol. III, p. 666, Random House, New York, 1976.
Bushrod Carter's War
He was born in Cumberland, Mississippi, in 1838, and baptized at the age of eleven months in the Church of the Holy Cross. He attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford and was educated. He had a love of books and poetry, having been taught by his cousin Remy that without poetry the heart was empty. When the war came he immediately enlisted in the Cumberland Rifles with his pards Jack Bishop and Virgil C. Johnson. He had fought in every engagement entered by the Army of Tennessee. Yet, though he was but twenty-six, his beard and mustache were streaked with gray.
"His own side--that is, the Confederate States of America, which existed for Bushrod only as a vague and distand, and rarely generous entity--had provided him a first-rate Enfield rifle with blued barrel and a rich, oily stock into which he had carved his initials...[H]e was not a sharpshooter; Bushrod preferred to leave his targets to chance."
Through all the fights, Bushrod was uncomfortable, preferring to call his enemies as "The Strangers." In the assaults, he did not look up, nor did he think about what was happening, nor did he know what he did during battle. It was only later that he would remember what he had done. He would rather not remember it.
Now, it is November 30, an Indian Summer day that hunters back home would dream about having. Unlike earlier times he is wishing it is this time tomorrow. He is waiting for something to happen.
Often in battle he thought there was another Bushrod Carter who took his place who did those things he did not want to remember. At times the other would speak to him. He heard it now.
"All a-tremble over things that ain't happened yet, that might not happen atall. I won't have this, won't have it. Now, listen. Listen--
Bushrod shut his eyes tight, and in the dark behind his eyes arose a vision: the battlefield, the tangled breastworks of the enemy floating closer and closer, what had been life's endless prospect shrunken to a few yards of brittle grass. And the Departed! The Departed rising from the earth like blackbirds, by the hundreds, by the thousands, groaning and chattering, disappearing forever into the smoke--
That was Hawthorne said the voice. Remember what he said. The black flower. Let the black flower blossom as it may--"
His pards are as they always are. Jack, the cynical one. Virgil C. the clown.
"'This is all folly,' Bishop went on, 'and I for one am inclined to forego the whole thing. See those trees yonder?' He swept his arm toward the river. 'They will make this whole end of the line bunch up toward the center, and it'll be a fine day for hog killin, won't it Bushrod, old pard?'"
"'If you are killed, said Virgil C., 'can I have your watch?'
'No!' said Bishop. 'I have told you a hundred times, that watch was give to me by my mother, and I intend to carry it even unto the grave.'"
The army formed up at the McGavock family place, Carnton Plantation. The breastworks are visible a mile and a half away over clear plain. It is a killing field.
It is over around two a.m. Jack was right. It was a good day for hog killin. Bushrod is buried beneath the dead seven and eight deep at the Strangers' breastworks. He is rescued, and carried back to Carnton. He has been struck in the head with the butt of a musket. The tip of a finger has been shot off. But he is alive.
At Carnton Bushrod will be cared for by Caroline McGavock's cousin Anna. Each have known love and lost it. Perhaps they have one more chance.
The Long Road to Publication
Howard Bahr submitted "The Black Flower" to several publishing companies. All rejected it. Ultimately, The Nautical and Aviation Pulishing Company of America, Baltimore, Maryland, published the novel as part of a project to launch a series of historical fiction. The novel was largely overlooked and rarely reviewed.
In 1998, Henry Holt and Company, New York, published "The Black Flower" as a new work in a trade paperback edition. Robert Wilson, reviewing the novel for the NYTimes wrote:
Howard Bahr's first novel was published in hardcover last year by a small press in Baltimore, but despite being nominated for several awards it escaped the attention of most reviewers and readers. Now appearing in paperback, it's being republished as if it were new. The success of ''Cold Mountain'' certainly has something to do with this, since ''The Black Flower,'' like that surprising best seller, is, as its subtitle reminds us, ''A Novel of the Civil War.'' Let me promise right now not to compare Bahr's bold effort with ''The Red Badge of Courage,'' ''The Killer Angels,'' the film ''Glory'' or a certain public television documentary. Forget Margaret Mitchell, Shelby Foote and even Charles Frazier. Bahr's novel is too eccentric and too uneven to support such comparisons. And at moments it's almost too good to support them."
Wilson particularly found Bahr to write with a post Vietnam ferocity, establishing the malignity of war and its pointlessness, calling "The Black Flower" a deeply moral novel. Indeed it is.
The Reviewer Wraps Up
Just how good is "The Black Flower?" It was nominated for The Stephen Crane Award, and won The Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College and The LSU Michael Shaara Award for Civil War First Fiction. It was also nominated for the the Sue Kaufman First Fiction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition, the novel was chosen as both a Book-of-the-Month Club and a Quality Paperback Book alternate. It was also considered a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998.
I have walked the terrain of Franklin. I've been to Carnton, the Carter House Gin. It is small wonder that among Civil War historians the Battle of Franklin is frequently called the Pickett's Charge of the West. Surveying the ground, Hood's "lieutenants" were correct. So was Bushrod's cynical friend, Jack Bishop. The very lay of the land would funnel the army into a trap where they were subjected to enfilading fire.
The Killing Field at Franklin
Bahr wrote a significant novel regarding the futility of war. In stark and at other times, dream like, prose, he reminds us that there is no glory in war. As Bushrod tells us it is hard to tell the difference between winning and losing.
The McGavock Family Cemetery
Just walk through the McGavock Family cemetery at Carnton. You'll agree.
For another perspective on "The Black Flower," see my friend Jeff Keeten's review at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... .
Notes are private!
Nov 23, 2012
Dec 14, 2012
Dec 09, 2009
Jun 30, 1992
In My Father's House: Ernest Gaines' Novel of Living with One's Past
Ernest Gaines Walks Near his Birthplace
"In my Father’s house there are many dwel...more In My Father's House: Ernest Gaines' Novel of Living with One's Past
Ernest Gaines Walks Near his Birthplace
"In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?"--John 14:2, NRSV
"About a month ago I was talking with a newspaper man--a man who's covered executions all over the South. Not just here in Louisiana--Texas, Mississippi, Georgia--all over. He's seen fifty, sixty of them. Most of them, black men. Said he never heard one called daddy's name at that last hour. Hear mama called, heard gran'mon, nanane--Jesus, God. Not one time he heard daddy called." Reverend Phillip Martin
First Edition, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1978
Where Ernest J. Gainesportrayed the long struggle for freedom in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman displaying the strength and courage of African-Americans in Louisiana, concluding with the active emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, Gaines turns to the personal tragedy of one man, Reverend Phillip Martin, the revered advocate for civil rights in the small town of St. Adrienne, following the death of Martin Luther King. Phillip continues to carry the flame.
With King's death, many blacks and whites have come to feel that the movement is over. However, Reverend Martin refuses to accept that as long as any injustice remains in his town. That injustice is in the person of Albert Chenal, a Cajun store owner who refuses to pay his black workers a fair wage.
Chenal Friday is approaching. Reverend Martin, the President of the St. Adrienne Civil Rights Committee will lead his people in a demonstration to either make Chenal treat his workers fairly or shut him down. Among the leadership of the committee is Mills, a deacon of the church, who once worked for Chenal's father. Mills knew that the older Chenal raped any black woman he found presentable. However, he never spoke out, out of what he shamefully admits was his own cowardice. Each of the committee identify with his cowardice with the exception of Reverend Martin and his young assistant Jonathan, the associate pastor, who has only been a member of the movement for eight years. As Martin is, he is fearless. But he lacks the wisdom of knowing what he is up against.
But Chenal Friday will not occur. For Reverend Martin is a man who has led two separate lives. For the past fifteen years, he has been a leader among his people. He has brought about positive change in racial relations in St. Adrienne. He is married, with two children. He is a paragon of strength, character, and courage.
However, Martin is haunted by a past in which he has made mistakes. Before he found God and his voice as an advocate for his people, Martin had fathered three children by a woman, Johanna, on the old Reno Plantation. Denying responsibility for his family because of his immaturity and his perceived lack of opportunity, Martin sent his children and their mother away. The last time he saw them was when his running buddy Chippo Simon took them away from the plantation in a wagon. Although he well remembers Johanna's name, he cannot even remember the names of his children. And he has eased his conscience over the mistakes of his past by the sacrifices he has made for his community.
Gaines, in a deeply introspective novel, examines the effects of the past on present. He asks whether there is ever a point when one's public actions counterbalance one's private sins.
The pivotal event occurs in the first chapter when a thin young black man shows up on the steps of a boarding house claiming to be Robert X, "one of them," a Black Muslim. The landlady, Virginia, is suspicious of the young man. Yet her conscience will not allow her to turn him away. Where will he go, if she does, she asks herself. Virginia recognizes that something is wrong with the young man, but he is resolute in maintaining silence in response to her questions.
Over the coming days, Robert X is frequently seen walking the streets of St. Adrienne. At times he is sitting on the back of Reverend Martin's church. At others he is seen standing across the street, watching the Reverend's house. When asked why he is St. Adrienne, his only answer is that he is there for a conference, that he is to meet a man.
Robert X attends a party a Phillip Martin's home with two young teachers who have been recruited in the upcoming demonstration against Chenal. Martin catches the young man staring at him and intuitively knows he is his son. As he crosses the room to acknowledge him, he falls. Immediately surrounded by concerned members of the committee, he allows a pharmacist to explain that the Reverend has exhausted himself. Martin does not refute the reason for his collapse.
Over the next few days, Martin will fail to reveal the reason for his collapse, not knowing how to disclose his past. Essentially he denies his son three times as Peter denied Christ.
Only when he receives word that his son has been picked up by the Parrish Sheriff, Nolan, does he take action. Going to see the Sheriff, Martin offers to pay bail for the release of his son. Nolan is surprised that the good Reverend has had a family out of wedlock. Nolan knows of Friday's plan to demonstrate against Chenal. He refuses to take money for bail. He will release Martin's son only on the condition that Martin put a stop to the Chenal demonstration. In a moment of personal weakness, Martin makes the deal.
On obtaining his son's release, they can share no conversation. Ultimately Robert tells Martin that he has come there for revenge for what Martin had allowed to happen to his family by abandoning them.
"Revenge? Phillip asked him. "Revenge for what?"
By evening word has spread through members of the Civil Rights Committee that Martin has betrayed his people's cause for reasons of personal interest. A quorum of the Committee votes Martin out as President of the Committee.
Speaking with his wife, Alma, Martin says:
"What brought my boy back here, or what sent him back here I'll find out in Baton Rouge. That's important to me. I want to reach my boy. Waht I did this morning it seems like it's wrong to lot of people, but if he was in that jail right now, and that was all I had to offer, I'd do it all over again. I've paid some dues in this town, some heave dues. Your life's been threatened, my children's lives been threatened, mine been threatened. All because I kept pushing for the people out there. Crosses burnt on my lawn, my house been shot in, my church been shot up--all because I kept pushing for the people out there. Well, this morning I pushed a little bit for myself, and I don't care what the people think."
Martin sets out on a search for his old friend Chippo Simon. Only Chippo might have been in a position to have seen his family. Martin must know what happened to his family in order to repair some form of bond with his own son whose name he cannot even remember.
Martin finds Chippo who reluctantly tells Martin the story of what happened to his family after he had sent them away. It is Chippo who tells him the name of his children and that Robert is actually Etienne. The things endured by Johanna and her children are almost to painful to tell. And it is a story that brings Martin's past crashing around his years.
I have deliberately excluded the details of what happened to Martin's first family. I will only say that the consequences of his past actions are not yet complete, and that Martin must question his reputation, his present life, his current family through the eyes of a man fully cognizant of what he has done throughout his life. Gaines drives home the point that a man's integrity in the treatment of family, no matter when sired, is a factor figured in to the action of public leadership and one's own self esteem.
Ah, Phillip, if only you had told Etienne, when he needed to hear it, you had many rooms in your home--for him.
This is the fourth novel by Gaines I have read. With each work, I am drawn to his novels more strongly than before. As with each of his books I have read, I recommend In My Father's House without reservation.
Rating: A solid 5 Star read(less)
Notes are private!
Dec 25, 2012
Dec 28, 2012
Dec 25, 2012
Jun 08, 2004
Beloved: Toni Morrison's Novel of the Cost of Freedom
First Edition, Beloved, Alfred Knopf, New York, New York, September, 1987, Winner of the Pulitze...more Beloved: Toni Morrison's Novel of the Cost of Freedom
First Edition, Beloved, Alfred Knopf, New York, New York, September, 1987, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1988
The task of the Underground Railway has been made more difficult. It is 1850. As a part of the Compromise of 1850, our Nation, in yet another effort to stall a War Between the States, has passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A Federal Officer is subject to a fine of $1,000.00 if he fails to aid a slave owner in returning an alleged runaway slave to the property owner's jurisdiction. All that is necessary is an owner's sworn affidavit that the alleged runaway is his property. Those, such as members of the Underground Railway, are subject to a term of imprisonment of up to six months and a fine of $1,000.00 for rendering aid to an alleged runaway slave.
Beloved is Toni Morrison's novel based on the Margaret Garner case. In 1856, Margaret, her husband, Robert Garner, and children crossed the Ohio River from Boone County, to Cincinatti, Ohio. When slave catcher's attempted to round up Margaret's family, she attempted to murder her children, succeeding in killing one child, by cutting her throat with a butcher knife. Margaret's defense attorney attempted to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Act by having his client tried for murder in the State of Ohio. The effort was unsuccessful and Margaret and her family were returned to Kentucky.
The Garner family was transported South on a steamboat, ironically named "The Liberator." After colliding with another ship, both Margaret and her other daughter were thrown overboard. Margaret's daughter drowned, for which Margaret was happy to know her daughter would not be returned to a life of slavery.
The Garners were sent to friends of their owners in Kentucky to New Orleans where they disappeared from all records. Robert Garner was located in 1870 by a reporter of a Cincinnati newspaper. Garner reported that Margaret died of typhoid fever in 1858, imploring him not to remarry in a state of slavery, but wait until he could marry in freedom. Margaret Garner became known as the Modern Medea.
"The Modern Medea" by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, 1867
Garner's is a tough story. Morrison made it tougher in "Beloved."
Sethe is Margaret Garner's fictional counterpart. Sethe did not end up in New Orleans, but was subsequently released from jail and returned to her home in Cincinnati. Eighteen years after murdering her child, Paul D, one of the men who had worked as a slave on the Kentucky farm, has entered Sethe's life as lover and potential husband. But, Paid Stamp, a former worker for the Underground Railway, shows Paul D the original newspaper clipping concerning the case. In denial, Paul refuses to recognize the drawing of Sethe in the paper as being her and approaches her with the article as if it were a joke.
"I did it. I got us all out...Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own. Decided. And it came off right, like it was supposed to. We was here. each and every one of my babies and me too. I birthed them and I got em out and it wasn't no accident. I did that. I had help, of course, lots of that, but still it was me doing it; me saying, Go on, and Now. Me having to look out. Me using my own head. But it was more than that. It was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing about before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I love em more after I hot here. Or maybe I couldn't love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn't mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon--there wasn't nobody in the world I couldn't love if I wanted to. You know what I mean?"
Paul D is beginning to see what Paid Stamp wanted him to understand. Sethe continues to explain,
"I stopped him," she said, staring at the place where the fence used to be. "I took and put my babies where they'd be safe."
Paul D's response comes as no surprise. "What you did was wrong, Sethe...You got two feet, Sethe, not four."
But was she wrong? How many mother's never knew if their children lived to adulthood, of if they did, what they looked like? The spirit of "Beloved," Sethe's slain child serves as a force to remind Sethe and Paul D of their lives in slavery. Perhaps it is not Beloved's spirit that haunts them, but their own repressed memories.
Toni Morrison has broken my heart twice with this novel. There is no doubt that she will yet again when I read it once more.
In her acceptance speech for the Frederic Melcher Award for Literature in 1988, Ms. Morrrison said “there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she continued. “And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”
On Sullivan's Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, there is a bench placed by the Toni Morrison Society in July, 2008. It commemorates the port of entry for over forty percent of all sixty million and more African-Americans brought to this county in bondage. (less)
Notes are private!
Sep 05, 2012
Sep 16, 2012
Dec 16, 2009
Jan 01, 1958
Jan 13, 1994
Breakfast at Tiffany's: Truman Capote's Novella of Love or Something Like It
"If she was in this city I'd have seen her. You take a man that likes to...more Breakfast at Tiffany's: Truman Capote's Novella of Love or Something Like It
"If she was in this city I'd have seen her. You take a man that likes to walk, a man like me, a man's been walking in the streets going on ten or twelve years, and all those years he's got his eye out for one person, and nobody's ever her, don't it stand to reason she's not there? I see pieces of her all the time, a flat litle bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight--...
So it is we know that Holly Golightly is gone, that she's been gone for years. And she had her effect on Joe Bell, the bartender at that little place down on Lexington Avenue in the Big Apple.
Yeah, there's Joe's place. Look hard enough, it's one of those little places tucked away. You probably can't see it. One of those Yellow Cabs is hiding it. Yeah, Joe had it bad. Most men who knew her did, unless they just wanted to use her. There's always that niggling little thought on the nature of what love really is. That it is pure and natural or that it can be purchased. Anything is possible, after all, because everything is negotiable.
Truman Capote first published Breakfast at Tiffany'sin the November, 1958 issue of Esquire Magazine.
It was considered too obscene for Capote's usual sources for periodical publication, Harper's Baazar and Mademoiselle. After all, it's open to question as to whether Holly is a prostitute. And being a woman who speaks her mind, she wishes she could have a bull dyke for a roommate because they make such excellent housekeepers. Such language would never do, so it was off to Esquire. Random house followed suit, publishing "Tiffany's" as a novella.
What man hasn't known and loved a Holly Golightly. I have. I lost her. She was hit and killed by a drunk driver--hit her on the wrong side of the road. It was head on. She never had a chance. She was driving home on a Sunday evening, after dinner with her parents, her adopted parents.
She shared several characteristics with Holly Golightly. She didn't know her real parents. She enjoyed men. Her hair was that shining perfect blond with bands of white that made her always look as though the sun shone directly on her head and hers alone. She liked her men older, too, like Holly. Maybe it was being adopted, not knowing where she came from, not knowing where she truly belonged.
But Holly Golightly had taken a new identity, running away from Tulip, Texas, married at the age of fourteen to Doc Barnes, a veterinarian. Her real name is Lula Mae Barnes, just as Capote's mother's name had been Lillie Mae Faulk before she took a more sophisticated name, Nina, after she married Cuban business man Joe Capote.
I attended her funeral, one of so many, her male coterie. But it was when the minister pulled out a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit and began to read from it that I was stunned. For I gave her that book, in the hope, the dream that she would realize if you love anything enough it will become alive. She kept that book all the many years we were apart. Perhaps on some days she thought of me. I know that I still think of her and on some days, like Joe Bell, the bartender, I see bits and pieces of her as I walk the city streets, especially when the sun illuminates the gold, the white, the platinum of a feminine head of hair as if it showed on no other person on boulevard, no matter how bright the sun.
Oh, you say Holly Golightly was a brunette--like Audrey Hepburn. Well, that was Blake Edwards' idea of what Holly Golightly looked like. But it wasn't Capote's idea who should play her. It was Marilyn Monroe. No question. It was that blonde hair, almost platinum. But Capote only sold the film rights. He maintained no control over the direction or production of the film.
Capote was such a wonderful dancer. I can still remember photographs of him swirling Marilyn across the dance floor.
But Lee Strausberg told Marilyn playing Holly Golightly, a prostitute, wouldn't be good for her career. Monroe turned down the role for "The Misfits." It would be her last film. But that's another story.
History took its course. Henry Mancini composed "Moon River" for the score. George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn had chemistry. Following its release in 1961, Edwards' work became one of the iconic American films. However, it bears little resemblance to Capote's work, although Audrey Hepburn is stunning in that little black dress.
It was not uncommon that movies made from Faulkner's books premiered in Oxford, Mississippi. One, to Faulkner's chagrin, bore so little comparison to his original work, when called to the stage to make opening remarks, Faulkner said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the film you're about to see bears absolutely no resemblance to the book I wrote from which the title of this film was taken." He walked off stage and out of the theatre. I can't imagine Capote taking that approach, he was still connected to a famous film that led to further sales of his work. Perhaps it was that desire for fame that ultimately destroyed Capote.
Of course, in the novella, the young writer is unpublished. Holly takes it upon herself to make him famous by introducing him to her Hollywood agent. In the movie, Peppard is a kept man, whose, shall we say, sponsor, is played by Patricia Neal, who is known to Holly as 2E, the lady's apartment number. And, of course, the movie ends happily ever after with George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn embracing in the rain and having found "Cat" whom Holly had kicked out of the taxi cab.
But Capote tells Holly's view regarding love, or whatever feeling she is capable of describing as love.
"Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell," Holly advised him. "That was Doc's mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can't give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they're strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That's how you'll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You'll end up looking at the sky."
Truman Capote considered Holly Golightly his favorite character. I think he was right in his feelings. Of course, Capote, has said that the narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany's was gay. In fact, it has been repeatedly surmised that Holly Golightly is the literary embodiment of Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles. What divine decadence. The movie would never have ended the way it did, had Capote maintained creative control.
Let's just say this one will always touch a nerve in me. This one is for all the Holly Golightlys in the world and the Joe Bells who have the sense to listen to them, and I offer it with all the heartfelt sympathy I can muster for those who can't understand what it means to love a wild thing.
Notes are private!
Jun 13, 2012
Jun 17, 2012
Jan 01, 2010
Jan 21, 1994
A Confederacy of Dunces: John Kennedy Toole's Novel of What it Means to Miss New Orleans
Miniver cursed the commonplace...more A Confederacy of Dunces: John Kennedy Toole's Novel of What it Means to Miss New Orleans
Miniver cursed the commonplace
After twenty-five years, I've closed my original Evergreen copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. I've reached the last page once more. It appears more battered than when I last read it. It's still good. I hated to see it end again.
Hmmmm...hang on. We've got company.
"Oooooweee. That dude down at the Levy Pant Fact-o-ree an' his wife with them funny blue glasses of hers done got me an A-WARD for doin' the Poleeces a favor cleanin' up this bar down on Bourbon called de Night of Joy. WHOA! An' dat Mrs. Levy done took me on as a projeck an send me back to school. Ooooweee! So I don't work for less than no minimal wage no more. I got air condition and a transistor radio an' I read this poem up there at the top o this page an I wrote it down in one of them tablets the big guy in that green hat like so much."
"That sound jus like him. WHOA!"--Burma Jones, former porter and janitor, The Night of Joy Bar, Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
Whatever happened to Burma Jones and all the other memorable character's ofA Confederacy of Dunces is anybody's guess. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide in 1969, never seeing his novel in print. The story of the publication of the book is as fascinating as the novel itself.
John Kennedy Toole was born in 1937, the son of John and Thelma Toole. Although a Catholic, he was educated in the public schools, as opposed to the parochial schools. Perhaps that's where Toole began to learn the dialect of New Orleans known as "Yat." He graduated high school at the age of sixteen, graduated with honors from Tulane in 1958, and had a Masters from Columbia in New York in 1959. He was working on his doctoral studies when called up for military service in 1961 and was stationed in Puerto Rico. It was there that he began the novel that would win him the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1981.
Toole returned from military service to his home city where he taught at St. Mary's Dominican College, Loyola's sister college, finishing his novel there. In 1964, Toole sent his manuscript to Simon and Schuster in New York. Senior Editor Robert Gottlieb worked with Toole through the year, resulting in many revisions. But Gottlieb ultimately told Toole by December the book was about nothing and dropped the project.
Until his death in 1969, Toole spiralled into alcoholism and depression. Towards the end of his life he became paranoid and delusional, believing that others were attempting to steal his book. At the age of 32, Toole committed suicide by sealing himself inside a garage, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Toole's mother, Thelma submitted her son's novel to six publishing houses. All rejected the novel. She dogged Walker Percy's footsteps, literally pushing the manuscript into his hands, asking him to read her son's novel. Percy reluctantly agreed, but upon completing the read recognized that he had read something great. Through his efforts, the novel was published by LSU Press. The rest is history.
What is it that intrigues people about this book? What is it that makes some people despise it? Those readers familiar with New Orleans readily recognize that the city comes to life in Toole's novel. So do the myriad characters. The city districts, streets and stores are readily recognized. The unique accents of New Orleans multi-cultural population sing from the pages of this book. Those who have not been there cannot recognize the city and cannot believe such people exist. But, oh, they do.
Those readers who cannot abide the book inevitably find Ignatius Reilly the source of frustration. He is no hero. He has no ambition. He is content to be provided for by his mother and whatever Fate or Fortune brings. He is slothful, spoiled, and lazy. He rants at the perversion of modern society, but wants its conveniences.
His afternoons find him before the flickering screen of the television as he screams at...
Each evening he attends the movies, eagerly awaiting his favorite film star's latest feature.
He is banned from attending further screenings at the Old Prytania Theater after screaming the picture is an ABORTION!
But he returns to a downtown theater to catch her next feature and is HORRIFIED that she may end up in bed with her leading man!
Ignatius Reilly is a man at odds with the modern world. He is drawn to it, but repelled by it. As was Miniver Cheevy, he was born too late. And he definitely called it fate, or at least the work of the fickle Goddess Fortuna, of whom Boethius, the last classical writer wrote in Ignatius's favorite book, The Consolation of Philosophy. As Walker Percy wrote in his foreword to the novel, Ignatius is an irascible Don Quixote jousting against the windmills of a world of which he would rather not be a part. He seeks to impose his own medieval philosophies on a city that would have it be Mardi Gras all year long. That's not going to happen in New Orleans.
Ignatius is forced into the outside world to get a job to pay off the costs of an automobile accident his mother had after a bit too much to drink in the Night of Joy bar that will figure prominently in the story. So Ignatius will find himself at work in the Levy Pant Factory in charge of filing, accompanied by Office Manager Gomez who doesn't manage much of anything, and Miss Trixie, long past retirement age, who would much rather be retired. Ignatius, a natural saboteur, soon finds himself unemployed. Next, he finds himself a street vendor of Paradise Hot Dogs, waddling along his appointed route, eating more of his ware than selling them.
Behind all the blare and bluster he exhibits, Ignatius is a bundle of insecurities, having left New Orleans only once in a traumatic trip to Baton Rouge where he might have had a teaching position but for his willful refusal to grade his students' papers. This gets him back home to the safety of his room, where he wiles away his time writing his magnum opus on his philosophy of life.
It is not that Ignatius hasn't had his chance at love, Myrna Minkoff, that "little minx" as he calls her, has attempted to bed him on more than one occasion, while they both attended college in New Orleans. However, Ignatius has firmly protected his virginity, taking matters in hand for necessary relief, but leaving himself celibate.
Myrna has gone back to New York and is constantly engaged in social protests of one form or the other. Her relationship with Ignatius continues by correspondence. She is relentless in her argument that he needs to free himself from his cloistered room, his mother to whom is too closely tied and find true freedom through just one cleansing natural orgasm. And his minx constantly hints that she is freed in this manner time and again through the interesting male individuals who attach themselves to her social causes.
Meanwhile, as Ignatius fails to bring home the bacon to pay off her accident costs, Irene, the doting mother is persuaded by her friend Santa Batagglia and her possible suitor Claude Robichaux that Ignatius has become insane. Irene begins to think that the only way to save Ignatius from himself is to have him committed to a hospital for the mentally ill.
Toole rolls to a tumultuous literary climax. All the characters with whom Ignatius has come into contact come together in a night of comedic chaos that may well determine Ignatius' fate. Will it be involuntary commitment to an asylum, or will it be freedom? Toole combines comedy and tragedy in an unforgettable novel that does make a reader laugh out loud and feel true pity for the man for whom Fortuna's wheel spins an unpredictable course.
Oooooweee! I'm all outta Dr. Nut. I got no Paradise Dogs. Just gonna have to pour me a Dr. Pepper and have me a Nathan's Dog. WHOA! All this writin's enough to turn a man into a vagran'.
FIVE FOR FIVE, Still crazy after all these years. (less)
Notes are private!
Feb 20, 2012
Mar 09, 2012
Jan 01, 2010
All the King's Men: Robert Penn Warren's Spider Web
"It all began, as I have said, when the Boss, sitting in the black Cadillac which sped through the...more All the King's Men: Robert Penn Warren's Spider Web
"It all began, as I have said, when the Boss, sitting in the black Cadillac which sped through the night, said to me (to Me who was what Jack Burden, the student of history, had grown up to be) "There is always something."
First Edition, Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1946
If you're expecting a fictional recounting that serves as a short cut to T. Harry William's masterful biography of Huey Long this isn't it.
But Williams does have something to say that pointedly echoes the themes Warren wove into a masterpiece of American politics.
"I believe that some men, men of power, can influence the course of history. They appear in response to conditions, but they may alter the conditions, may give a new direction to history. In the process they may do great good or evil or both, but whatever the case they leave a different kind of world behind them.", p.ix, Preface, T. Harry Williams, Huey Long,Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
That Willie Stark is a stand in for Huey Long, Robert Penn Warren frankly admits. I was fortunate to find the Thirty-Fifth Edition of the novel, published in 1981. It contained a new, and very informative introduction by Warren.
Warren did not originally envision this work as a novel, but as a tragic drama entitled "Proud Flesh." Warren ended up putting that manuscript away. He realized that he had focused on a man of power rather than those few people who are always surrounding that man of power, and in writing "All the King's Men," Warren focused on the "Greek" chorus to whom he had not given proper voice in his originally conceived work.
So, there we have the title, "All the King's Men," the chorus that relates the rise and fall of Willie Stark. For all great men have an inner circle, some of whom are as vague as phantoms, performing the will of the King and they will perform that will whether it be good or evil. But all the King's Men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Warren proposes the question of whether those minions are mere pawns or whether they recognize the consequences of their actions and accept responsibility for them, and if so can they find redemption for the evil they do, even when it is couched in terms of doing good. Willie Stark, the Boss, is a practical man. So, politics is a dirty business. He tells us,
"Dirt's a funny thing, come to think of it, there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt.">
Jack Burden is a one man Greek Chorus that tells us the story of Willie Stark. And it is Jack Burden who provides the moral center of the novel. In one long narrative voice, Jack, a child of privilege, intrigues us relating the present and the past, not only Willie's but his own. Willie's rise is rather straight forward. As Williams tells us in Long's biography, Willie appears on the Louisiana scene in response to conditions of the Great Depression, which seemingly provided the fuel for Populism common to that era.
Jack comes from a level of society that comprised the previous leaders of Louisiana, a class who would forever be opposed to a man of Willie Stark's origin and philosophy. He is the friend of Adam and Anne Stanton, the children of the governor preceding Stark. His mentor is Judge Irwin who advised and influenced Jack from his youth. His father, Ellis Burden, the "scholarly lawyer" is a good friend of the Judge. His mother is beautiful, poised, and confident.
So, why would Ellis Burden walk out of his law office one day to become a street evangelist? But Jack's mother has no problem keeping a stream of husbands in her bed. It's enough to make a fellow a little cynical. Rebellious, too. Rebellious enough to go to State University and study history.
Jack has a future. He's working on his doctorate, studying the papers of an ancestor named Cass Mastern. The papers of Mastern serve as a mirror of Jack's life. But Mastern, who betrayed a friend by having a love affair with his friend's wife, lives the rest of his life with the knowledge of that betrayal. It is Cass who writes in his journal,
The world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping."
The long and the short of it is that our actions have consequences and we owe a responsibility for the consequences of our actions. This is a premise that Jack would rather reject.
Rather, Jack grasps on to the theory of the "Great Twitch," a world in which the actions of people are no more controllable than the muscles of a frog's leg twitching in response to an electrical impulse. However it is Cass Mastern who was correct. In rejecting his ancestor's journal, Jack becomes the cynical, wisecracking news reporter assigned to cover Willie Stark's first gubernatorial election. It is Jack Burden, along with savvy political advisor Sadie Burke who tell Stark he's been duped into running to split the vote of the opposing candidate to bring about the win by yet another politician.
It is that campaign that transforms not only Willie Stark into a Kingfish lookalike, but transforms Jack into Stark's most trusted fix it man. "Maybe not the Judge." Oh, yes, even the Judge. And so it is that a chain of consequences begins to be unveiled, each the result of a deliberate, undeniable action.
Even the death of Willie Stark is a consequence of one of the Boss's improvident decisions. As Warren wrote, "The end of man is knowledge but there's one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it would save him."
Willie's death comes about, not from an assassin who believes him to be a dictator, but for a very personal reason. Nor will I even resort to a spoiler alert. I'm simply not going to tell you, because I want you to read this book.
And what of Jack? I will share the final sentence, and I remind you that Jack is the narrator.
"Go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time." Perhaps Jack Burden has come to terms with his ancestor, Cass Mastern.
To say this is a masterpiece about American politics is true. But it goes much further than that. It is a reminder that the past is the father of the future. They are inevitably inseparable.
THIS IS A MUST READ. I'd give it a 10 if it were allowed.
Notes are private!
Jul 22, 2012
Jul 30, 2012
Jan 01, 2010
Oct 15, 1992
My literary group, On the Southern Literary Trail, is discussing this story by story. My review will follow our completed group discussion.
In brief, F...more My literary group, On the Southern Literary Trail, is discussing this story by story. My review will follow our completed group discussion.
In brief, Flannery O'Connor still amazes me after having read many of these stories multiple times.(less)
Notes are private!
Oct 03, 2012
Oct 04, 2012
Jan 01, 2010
Nov 06, 2012
Nov 13, 2012
My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Place to Browse, Read and Shop--The Literary Stalker's Ultimate Reference
Perhaps you are among the "ge...more My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Place to Browse, Read and Shop--The Literary Stalker's Ultimate Reference
Perhaps you are among the "gently mad," a term coined by Nicholas A. Basbanes, the author of the magnificent book, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. Basbanes eloquently offers solace to those among us who suffer from that gentle illness. I take it as a comfort, because at times I am quite sure I have passed beyond the ranks of the merely gently mad. My thanks to my goodreads friend Jeff Keeten for introducing me to the works of Basbanes. An overview of this work is available at http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/79... .
A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion of Books, First Ed., First Prtg
As I have frankly admitted elsewhere, I am a literary stalker. Harmless, of course. I'm a pacifist for the most part.
There are those whose works I must have. The copies of their works must be pristine, neither slanted or cocked. Nothing other than a first printing will do. I must meet the authors of these marvelous works. An impersonally signed edition simply will not do. I am somewhat snobbish in addition to having descended to the covert art of stalking. You may read of my exploits concerning my tracking of Clyde Edgerton here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....
The Unsuspecting Clyde Edgerton
Of course, there are far more subtler methods of obtaining the coveted signed edition--The Book Festival, The Book Tour, The uncertain order from an unfamiliar Bookseller on line, a rather less than comforting gambit. This leads to the oft mis-graded edition, the inscribed, rather than signed edition. I frankly do not care for a volume inscribed "For your birthday Betty, Best Wishes Renowned Author who has no idea in Hell who Betty is and is unlikely to share a slice of cake with said Betty. There is the tried and true method of relying on your goodreads friends to have your editions signed if you get there's signed. This has been the Sullivan/Keeten approach on occasion. But at the end of reasoning through all the methods considered more rational, one must resort to less conventional methods.
The inevitable conclusion is that we and our own beloved authors have only so much time on this earth. Time's winged chariot, and all that unpleasant business.
Then I found the ideal literary stalker's weapon, excuse me--reference source placed in my hands. Bless Ronald Rice, the editor of this especially useful and beautiful little book. It bears such an innocent and gentle appearance, too. Just look at it. Little would one realize that contained within the pages of this literary stalker's manifesto are eighty-four, yes, count them, essays by the poor unsuspecting authors revealing their favorite places to browse, read, and shop. Yes, the actual locations of these businesses are contained in this book. And these bookstores and their owners have a special place in the hearts of these writers. They show up there a lot. Yes, this is the ultimate stake out manual for those in search of the signed edition.
For you, oh fortunate reader, the bookstore of your favorite author could be in your own city. Or in a location within the distance of a brief drive. Or, you could hook up the GPS and set out on the ultimate quest. Eighty-four authors, eighty-four bookstores, eighty-four cities. Confess. You've always believed in the quest for the Holy Grail. Here's your ticket to ride.
Me, I have my eye on Purple Crow Books, Hillsborough, North Carolina. That happens to be the favorite books shop of Lee Smith, on whom I've had a crush since high school when she was a reporter at the Tuscaloosa News. I still consider her a most beautiful woman. And, by the way, Hillsborough happens to be the home of twenty-seven North Carolina authors. Well, I'm headed in that direction on December 21st, 2012. I'm on a quest.
First you read the essay, then you google the store. Voila!
Why, Ms. Smith. Imagine meeting you here! Would you like a cup of tea? We met at Jake's in Homewood. Yes, you signed my copy of Fancy Strut
Oh, I have my first signature. It is Rick Bragg, signature only, on the title page, purchased at his and my favorite bookstore, "The Alabama Booksmith," in Homewood, Alabama. And, it is my bookstore, too. I had my favorite bookseller, Jake Reiss, sign it, too. Consider having your favorite booksellers signing the sections on their marvelous shops. After all, what would we do without them, too?
This is a solid Five Star Reference for great bookstores. Keep this one in your suitcase as you travel. You just never know who you might meet. (less)
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2012
Dec 09, 2012
Dec 08, 2012
Jan 01, 1992
Sep 06, 2005
Bastard Out of Carolina: A Reader's Personal Reflection
“People pay for that they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become....more Bastard Out of Carolina: A Reader's Personal Reflection
“People pay for that they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And the pay for it simply: by the lives they lead. - James Baldwin” --From the epigraph to the novel.
"No one knows what goes on behind closed doors."
It is hard to swallow, hard to believe, stories such as the one told by Dorothy Allison. The world would be a much prettier and more pleasant place if we did not have to believe things of the nature related by young Ruth Anne Boatwright, known to her family as Bone.
But this I know is true. These things have always happened. They have happened from time immemorial. I do not believe that it was the idea of Lot's daughters to lie with their father in his drunkenness. Rather, when a man's wife is a pillar of salt, he has needs which must be met elsewhere.
In the basement of the Monroeville, Alabama, County Courthouse, the old Courthouse, are the records dating back to its construction. I visited there. I asked permission to examine the records. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, I found cases of incest and carnal knowledge of a child under the age of twelve in the huge red leather bound docket books, the parties long dead.
I was an Assistant District Attorney for twenty-eight years. In the mid-1980s, with the breaking news of child abuse cases occurring across the United States, I was assigned to handle those cases. Actually, I volunteered for it. I had no idea of the world I was about to enter.
The Judicial system was ill equipped to answer the problem of child abuse cases. Juries were uncomfortable with the facts that poured out like a stream of sewage. It was a world of children with knowledge for which they should have no basis. Abusers who should have been protectors. Mothers who should have been the first to protect their child from the man in their lives. But the abusers were abusers and the mothers were not supportive of their children.
I was the Courthouse Santa Claus. I had the ability to talk with children. I was willing to work with social workers who were more like police officers and police officers who could have been mistaken for social workers. It was the beginning of a multi-disciplinary approach to handling child abuse cases. We learned as we went. Child by child.
Through the years, I became known as Mr. Mike to the children whose cases I took to court. The name stuck with social workers and police officers. I developed a reputation of winning those cases.
And I was called the meanest man who ever stepped into a courtroom when I was able to carve a Daddy Glenn into little pieces on cross-examination. The television cameras were often there for the verdict. The crime beat reporter was there.
I was asked how I handled the cases without them getting to me. Naturally, I lied. My response was they did not. If I allowed the cases to get to me, I would not be an effective advocate for any child. I imagine my lies were fairly transparent, as I sometimes bared my emotions uncontrollably in summation. I could only say there are some things that should make a grown man cry.
The truth is, keeping the lid on your emotions takes a tremendous toll. These were the cases you did take home with you at night. These are the children whose faces I can still see, whose voices I can still hear to this day. And there are the eyes of the dead, the glazed eyes in little bodies on steel gurneys in emergency rooms, on whose faces I still imagine I see, sometimes surprise, sometimes resignation.
Often I wondered how those children who lived might have grown up. What they would have said. What lives they would have lead. I read Bastard Out of Carolina when it was first published in 1992. Dorothy Allison became the voice I had been looking for. It helped me understand better the Bones of this world, the Anneys, and the Daddy Glenns. In a way this book became an unholy bible for me in the preparation of cases.
Understand, I did not set out to write about myself, although it may appear otherwise. I wrote this as I did to encourage anyone who has not read this book to do so. I wrote this for anyone who has read it, as a speaker for children, that what you have read in the pages of Dorothy Allison's book is true.
I write this in appreciation for the courage required and the emotional toll taken by Dorothy Allison to tell this story.
Finally, this is for all the Ruth Ann Boatwrights in the world. There are so many of you. I know that you are not trash. I know that you are not all poor. I know some of you make yourselves unattractive in the hope you will be left alone. I know some of you will run away from home. I know that some of you will excell in school and some of you will not. But most important, whatever has happened to you, it was not your fault. And I write this in the hope that one day you will believe this even if you do not today. Know this is true. There is always someone there to listen.
And for all the Daddy Glenns out there? It's not the 1950s anymore. Somebody's gonna get you, sooner or later.
For those who are looking for a more traditional review, I heartily recommend those of Jeff Keeten at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... and Larry Bassett found at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... .
Notes are private!
Oct 26, 2012
Jan 01, 2010
Oct 05, 2009
Oct 01, 2010
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: Thoughts following a second reading
"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home a...more Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: Thoughts following a second reading
"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house."
Read that first sentence. What? It doesn't grab you? Keep reading. It's like that long slow climb up to the peak of that first drop on the roller coaster. Hear the click of the chain pulling you to the top? After you hit the top, you're in for a ride.
First came this mean little collection of a novella and nine short stories.
Then came a dark novel bringing the Alabama Clarke County range war to life.
And when I thought Franklin had gotten the mud, the blood and the beer out of his system, he turns Rumpelstiltskin upside down with a malicious little dwarf named Smonk.
I've been a Tom Franklin fan since the publication of his first book, "Poachers." The novella title piece in that anthology won an Edgar Award. He is a master of Southern Gothic. His prose is lean, mean, yet frequently is laced with a lyricism that borders on poetry. Franklin can write violence of so fierce a nature that his mild looks make you wonder where he finds the source of the ferocity in his stories.
Franklin is one of the most amiable authors I've met. Soft spoken, with an easy smile, you look at him and wonder how the Hell he comes up with stuff that makes you shudder.
So having said that, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter seems to have been produced by a different writer. This is a kinder, gentler Franklin, though the occurrence of violence is present in his latest, it is not what you might have come to expect from him.
The violent acts in Franklin's latest are not what you would see in a Sam Peckinpah film, it is more reminiscent of the murders committed in Fritz Lang's classic film "M." Franklin should find a wider audience with "Crooked Letter" by leaving some of the horror to the reader's imagination.
Franklin tells a story of two boys, one black and one white, who grow up together only to show up on opposite sides of a murder case. Larry Ott was suspected of murdering a girl who disappeared when he was fifteen. After all, it was Larry who took her on a date to the drive-in. She never made it home. As we say these days, Larry was a person of interest. But no body was ever found. No corpus delicti, no case.
But through the years when anything untoward has gone on, Larry has built up a collection of search warrants. "You understand," the Sheriff tells him. Ever the compliant one, Larry nods while the Sheriff goes about his business.
Now another young girl has gone missing and Ott is the usual suspect. As a child, Silas Jones lived in a hunting cabin owned by Larry's father. Now Silas is the Constable in town and will become involved in the investigation of the latest disappearance.
While Larry has always been the goat, Silas has always been the hero. No two guys ever turned a double play the way "32" Jones and M&M could. Jones went on up to Ole Miss playing ball. M&M became your friendly dope dealer.
After an injury ends Silas' sports career he comes home to his job as Constable. Everybody still loves "32" Jones. Somebody doesn't love M&M and killed him. Silas finds his body beneath a swirl of vultures. Then there's that rattlesnake someone put in a young woman's mailbox. Silas has more business than a man with a badge wants.
Then, damn it, somebody's gone and shot Larry Ott. The Sheriff thinks Larry did it out of remorse for the crimes he has committed. His guilt must have finally got to him. Larry is hovering between life and death in the hospital. Silas processes the crime scene; but then begins picking up Larry's mail and feeding the chickens. He's waiting for Larry to wake up. He has something to tell him.
What strange bond holds Larry and Silas together, yet keeps them apart? The secret lies somewhere in the past. Franklin deftly weaves their story with chapters alternating between the present and the past.
This is an extremely satisfying work of contemporary southern literature. Read it. Then give yourself a little time and read it again. It is even stronger the second time around.(less)
Notes are private!
Jun 11, 2012
Jun 13, 2012
Oct 17, 2010
Apr 05, 2005
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro's Examination of Science and Morality
It was a warm spring afternoon, late in the semester. The windows of Ten Hoor Hal...more Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro's Examination of Science and Morality
It was a warm spring afternoon, late in the semester. The windows of Ten Hoor Hall were open. The swarms of honey bees could be heard, hard at work in white blooms bursting from the hedge of abelia that ran across the front of a concrete and brick neo-classical building that housed the history, philosophy, and speech departments on the Campus of the University of Alabama.
That was the day I determined not to pursue my intended career as a teacher of history, the cause of more than one day of regret through many years. Dr. Robert Johnston was rushing to the close of the second semester session of Western Civilization. The day's lecture concerned the end of World War II. Behind me the sonorous snore of a campus athlete vibrated through my skull. At the base of the lecture hall, Dr. Johnston was emphatically explaining the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. It was at that moment I decided to pursue another field of endeavor where those I sought to serve did not sleep through the performance of my service. My ego has shrunk by several sizes since that day. There are definitely those times when I wished my clientele would nap while I accomplished my job.
But, even as I had decided to steer a different academic course, something happened to make me lean forward, watching Dr. Johnston's reaction to another student's question, who had dared interrupt his lecture. One simply didn't do that. Dr. Johnston was the flood of knowledge. Our job was simply to sit there as sponges and absorb the wisdom he imparted.
"Dr. Johnston?" A timid voice tremulously floated through the hall.
"And...What's that?" Johnston's prominent adam's apple bobbled above his regimental striped bow tie. It was blue, gold, with distinctly white diagonal lines dividing the broader bands of color. Dr. Johnston was retired United States Navy. His specialty was United States Naval History. Actually, he was a legend in the academic field.
"It's me, Dr. Johnston!"
"I see that. What is your question, young woman?" His dark eyes seemed to penetrate the petite speaker.
"I was just wondering?"
"Yes. Get on with it. Get on with it. Speak up, young woman. So the rest of this class that is awake can hear the discussion that grows from this interruption."
"Sir, do you think it was morally right that President Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?"
I watched Dr. Johnston's chest expand as he swallowed a mouthful of air. His lips pursed. His hands dropped from the lectern to his sides. His shoulders slumped. He appeared to grow smaller as his usual ramrod straight posture seemed to collapse upon itself. He appeared to be looking at his notes, but he wasn't. The answer wasn't in his notes.
He raised one hand, fingers touching shirt front, tie, and eyeglass frame, as he formed his response.
"Morality. Was it moral? Was it right, in other words?" His words trailed off. His stare was at the exit doors to the hall. He was somewhere else. He was perfectly still until I noticed the slightest sway of movement. For Dr. Johnston was no longer in 1971, he had returned to September, 1945. Dr. Johnston had assumed his sea legs stance on the unsteady deck of a naval ship.
"I was on a troopship, a transport, carrying hundreds...hundreds of American boys, some of them younger than any of you in this room. We were bound for Honshu. We were headed for the home islands of Japan when we heard the war was over. Over at last. I would never carry another mother's son to die on some God forsaken piece of dirt that had no strategic or tactical value. God, the Marines. The Marines. Peleliu, Tarawa, Iwo, Okinawa. Moral? Ask the dead. If you can find them, ask the living that were on those troop transports. I can't answer your question. Each of us has to answer it. This class is dismissed."
Dr. Johnston's response is one I've heard from many sources on many issues regarding the morality of a particular decision of historical import. It is the ethical principle of utilitarianism. We can thank the likes of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill for the principle of the greatest happiness theory. It's been ages since Philosophy 101, but those names ring a distinct bell.
Yet, I also think of another professor, this one of Law. Jay Murphy was my favorite professor, though he only taught me one course--Labor Law. Professor Murphy was a Buddhist. One day he had traffic blocked on University Boulevard, bent over, hands palm out, as he looked intently down at some small object on the asphalt. It was a caterpillar. The Buddhist professor was adamant that the caterpillar would get safely where it intended to go. Even the life of a bug was precious to him. After all, given time, that caterpillar turns into a butterfly. There are two sides to every question.
So, that brings us to Kazuo Ishiguro and his acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go short listed for the Booker Prize in 2005. Turn the last page, and if you're not too stunned by the power of Ishiguro's words, you'll find that the author was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954. Although it's impossible to know the origin of an author's work, unless he has directly addressed the subject, I had to wonder if this magnificent book was Ishiguro's response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If not that, Ishiguro does directly raise the issue of the potential of science to cross over the boundaries of morality. Or, on its most simple level, Ishiguro simply decided to turn the genre of science fiction on its ear, showing what might be accomplished in an over laden field of books, many of which should never have seen the light of day.
Ishiguro definitely surpasses that simple level. At the minimum, this is a novel that questions the morality of advancements in science and technology. At the optimum, it addresses the very issue of the use of weapons of mass destruction that in fact exist, though sometimes just can't seem to be found anywhere. Further commentary on the second war against Iraq ceases here.
It is especially difficult to review a work of this magnitude without resorting to spoilers. Where necessary, the appropriate alerts will be posted.
Ishiguro's plotting is deceptively simple, using the perspective of Kath H., a student at an exclusive boarding school, Hailsham. In three sections, spanning early student days to young adulthood, Kath tells of life at school, after graduation, and her career choice. Kath focuses on her continuing relationship with two fellow students, Tommy and Ruth.
Hailsham is an environment especially suited to enhancing creativity in their students. Whether it be painting, music, drawing, poetry, or prose, students were encouraged to create works of art. Periodically a woman known to the children only as Madame, comes to Hailsham to select works of art which leads the children to believe their work is placed in a special gallery. To have one's work selected by Madame is a coveted honor. Additionally, the children participate in exchanges of one another's art, vying for what they consider to be the best.
Kath's attention is called to Tommy because of his frequent outburst of temper. Tommy is targeted by other students for his lack of creativity and the fact they know every button to push to launch him into a fit of rage. Tommy confides in Kath, much to her discomfort, for being seen as his friend could affect her own relationship with her fellow students.
But when Tommy's behavior gradually begins to change until he exhibits no further rages, he is no longer the target of bullies. There's no challenge anymore. Tommy provides no reaction other than to shrug and walk away from his would be tormentors. Ishiguro's portrayal of bullying is masterful.
Ruth is the central figure around whom Kath and Tommy revolve. Ruth is a would be leader, a believer that each of them is special and that a special future awaits each of them because of their status as Hailsham students. Ruth is self-centered, selfish, manipulative, and a master at the art of triangulation.
As Kath, Tommy and Ruth move into later adolescence, it is Ruth who will become Tommy's sexual partner, for reasons unrelated to love for Tommy. Kath's normal sexual urges are twisted by Ruth to be evidence of abnormality, and that Tommy, whom she uncouples from, would never view Kath as a partner because of what amounted to sleeping around. Tommy will only consider her a friend, not a mate.
Ishiguro takes his title from an imaginary song, "Never Let Me Go," sung by an imaginary cabaret singer which is on a cassette tape Kath buys at one of the periodic sales held at the school, when the children are allowed to buy things with tokens earned from their creative work. In one instance that becomes central to the question of the nature of Hailsham, Kath dances to the song while holding a pillow against her, as if she were holding her own baby. She turns to find Madame standing in the doorway watching her. Tears stream from Madame's eyes. Madame rapidly turns and departs without explanation, a continuing mystery woman whose comings and goings at the school have no apparent reason to the children.
The growing horror of the fate that awaits the children of Hailsham is created by the simple straightforward delivery of Ishiguro's chosen narrator, Kath. It grows readily apparent that something waits for each student in the future.
Why do no parents ever visit at Hailsham? Why are the teachers called Guardians as opposed to teachers? Why is Hailsham located in a remote area of England with no visible traffic zipping back and forth?
At Hailsham, the children are told their fate, but not in a manner which is understood. The management of Hailsham is a network of deceit, lies and manipulation. The children have no baseline of behavior outside the walls of the school to know otherwise. The language in which the Guardians address the children is reminiscent of Orwell's "double-speak" in 1984.
"Never Let Me Go" is the most appropriate title for the song Kath loves but does not understand. It is Ishiguro's perfect title for this compelling novel. For the forces that drive Hailsham have no intention of any of its students gain freedom. Ever.
(view spoiler)[The secret of Hailsham is one of ultimate selfishness of which any society should be ashamed. No parents come to the school because each of the children is a clone. They are walking, living organ banks, raised to be donors for others. The identity of the recipient is unknown, although Kath and Tommy learn that it is a practice that is accepted by the populous of the UK. An entire nation has accepted the price of the lives of others on the premise that clones, in fact, are mere shadows of real people. The children of Hailsham were meant to be raised in the shadows. It's a fact that anonymity covers a multitude of sins. Isn't it easier to drop a bomb from an incredible height and never see the destruction on the ground, compared to hand to hand combat? It always has been. It always will. Now, a human sits at a controller, as if simply playing a video game, navigating an unmanned rocket bomb to its intended target. At quitting time, mission over, the gamer goes home to whatever life they live outside the office. Hailsham was actually an experiment to show that clones are as human as any child created from the collision of sperm and egg. That's what society doesn't want to know. (hide spoiler)]
Each of us faces questions on a regular basis. Will we do something simply because we have the ability to do it? Or do we weigh the consequences of the possible against the cost of the act?
I must return to that warm spring afternoon in 1971 as I listened to Dr. Johnson. My beloved Uncle celebrated his 21st birthday at Hickham Field. He never spoke of what he saw that day. He island hopped across the Pacific. He never spoke of what he saw. In September of 1945, he was on a troop ship headed to the home islands of Japan. I've often wondered if Dr. Johnson was an officer on board that transport.
I think of Robert Oppenheimer on the morning of July 16, 1945, at the Trinity Test of the first explosion of the atomic bomb in a desolate area of New Mexico. Afterwards he said he thought of the words from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
With Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, a man born in Nagasaki, reminds us that any action, no matter the reason, has a price. The question is, "Is it worth it?" Each of us has to answer that question.
For, Robert Johnston, Professor, Department of History, The University of Alabama; Jay Murphy, Professor of Law, The University of Alabama School of Law, Woodrow Gaskin Burke, beloved Uncle, teacher and friend, all of whom had to answer the question in his own way"
Notes are private!
Dec 19, 2011
Jan 07, 2012
Dec 01, 2011
Apr 12, 1999
Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, A Reminiscence for the Living
It is slightly after 12:30 a.m. But I am not sleeping. I have just completed A Pr...more Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, A Reminiscence for the Living
It is slightly after 12:30 a.m. But I am not sleeping. I have just completed A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan. Rarely have I read a novel that I am compelled to review immediately upon completing it. But this is one.
Much has gone on in my personal life since a killer tornado passed through our town, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27th. Shortly afterward, my mother developed a serious case of pneumonia. Although the pneumonia was cured, she was immediately diagnosed with emphysema. A spot on the lung in an x-ray, which might have been a mere shadow was cancer. Next she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. The diagnoses were numbing. However the prognosis was good. She was released from the hospital on a relatively small amount of oxygen, small enough to allow her to travel about with one of those portable units that you've perhaps seen people walking around with, nothing more than what you might see in a stylish shoulder bag.
In August, my mother had her second bout of pneumonia. She came home with an oxygen concentrator delivering nine liters of oxygen per minute. Our traveling days were over. I promised her that she would remain in her home as long as possible. My wife and I moved into my Mother's home. From August till now, I put my law practice on hold. I am an only child. The duty of being the primary caregiver was mine and mine alone.
The oncologist said that it appeared the radiation treatment had done its job. When she returned the end of this month, she expected to find nothing but a small amount of scar tissue. We were all optimistic.
Last week, something was obviously wrong. The shortest walk, even tethered to nine liters of oxygen wasn't enough to keep her from being physically exhausted. I got one of those small flyweight wheelchairs to get her from den to bath and bedroom.
On last Thursday evening, my mother began to choke. She was gasping for breath. Although she had stubbornly insisted that she would ride out this long journey at home, she told me to call 911. The front of the house was reflected in reds and blues from the emergency vehicles that parked alongside the front of the house and filled the driveway.
It was a trip by ambulance to our hospital. It was a long night in the emergency room. About 3:30 am. she was admitted to the acute stroke unit. It was not that she had a stroke, it was the only monitored bed available in the entire hospital.
On Saturday, she was moved to a regular respiratory floor monitored bed. I was glad. So was she. Visiting hours were limited to only thirty minutes every four hours on the stroke unit. On the floor, my wife and I, my aunt and two of her grandchildren were able to keep her company.
But, I couldn't help but notice that what had been 9 liters of oxygen was now 15, an incredibly significant increase. Yesterday, about 8:25 am, mother was admitted to intensive care. The fifteen liters were not holding her.
The irony of the situation is that I had begun reading O'Nan's "A Prayer for the Dying" that very morning. I carried it with me to the hospital during the long visiting hours.
I read sporadically through the day. A day of hospital visiting is not conducive to uninterrupted reading. Most of the day passed in conversation with my mother as her breathing allowed. But when I came home that night, I was immersed in O'Nan's novel about a small Wisconsin Township called Friendship.
It begins on a beautiful summer day. It is 1866. The American Civil War is still fresh on the minds of the citizens of Friendship. Jacob Hansen, himself, a veteran, who fought extensively in the Kentucky campaigns, has returned to Friendship where, seen as a natural leader, he is the town constable, undertaker and deacon of his church, where he frequently fills in as preacher.
Jacob carries out his duties with great satisfaction over a job well done. He has a happy home life, married to the beautiful Marta, and the proud father of their young daughter Amelia, who has just gotten her first tooth.
1866 is a year when it is still not unusual to see veterans of the war looking for their next meal, or next place to sleep. When Jacob is summoned to a nearby farm of a bee keeper, his attention is first diverted to the drone of the bees and the keepers industry in gathering honey from the hives, raking the sweet from the combs rich with the golden treat. It is a beautiful day, blue skies, bright sunshine, with dots of clouds scudding across the sky in the hot summer breeze.
The bee keeper calmly tells Jacob that there is a deadman behind the hives down in the woods. One of his sons will carry him to the body's location. Jacob immediately recognizes him as one of the many wandering veterans homeless,bivouacking wherever he can find a spot. Jacob notes that his pockets have been turned inside out. One of his few belongings, a tin cup, frequently issued to troops is readily recognized by Jacob.
The farmer and his children all deny having touched anything. But Jacob suspects that the bee keeper who has lost his wife recently would not be above picking the pockets of a dead soldier to search for anythng of value. Jacob notes the odd coloration of the dead soldier's skin and the presence of blood about his nose and lips. Doc Cox must take a look at the dead man. There's not a mark on his body.
Jacob enlists one of the bee keeper's sons to carry the body into the Doctor's Office. Jacob drops the soldier's tin cup. The youngest child "Bitsy" politely hands Jacob the cup. On the ride into town, Jacob spies the body of a woman in a pasture. Upon checking on her, she is alive, but mad. She is obviously a resident of the Colony outside of Friendship, run by the Reverend Grace. Rumors abound around Friendship concerning the possibility of lewd behavior of the women residents there, with the Reverend Grace as their satanic leader in all possible improprities.
Upon arriving in town, the dead man and the mad woman are placed into the care of the local Doctor. The Doc rapidly diagnoses the soldier's deat as being caused by diptheria. At that time, diptheria was a dreaded disease, highly contagious, that spread like wild fire. The Colony resident also shows signs of infection as well. The Doctor cautions Jacob not to drain the body for preservation, but to bury it, not exposing himself to any possibility of infection. Yet, Jacob, out of his respect for the dead, properly drains the soldier's body, filling him with formaldehyde to properly prepare the body for burial.
Jacob continues to enjoy his idyllic life with Marta and daughter Amelia. However, it is evident that Diptheria is spreading rapidly throughout Friendship, its source unknown. Marta begs Jacob to allow her to take Amelia and seek safety with relatives in a nearby town. But Jacob reassures her that all will be well and cautions her that it would serve as a poor example to the Township were he to allow his wife and child to seek safety elsewhere.
Soon, Jacob is dealing with a full blown epidemic of Diptheria, resulting in the quarantine of the town--no one leaves and no one comes in.
What begins as an idyllic summer day turns Friendship into Hell itself. Although Jacob's personal life may disintegrate around him, he will continue to perform his duties as constable, deacon and undertaker.
Interestingly, each of Jacob's honorable judgments lead to more dire circumstances for the people of Friendship. Jacob's effort to do the honorable thing lead him from being beloved of the town, to despised, as he enforces the quarantine. Tension mounts as a wild fire burns out of control towards Friendship. Jacob must save those untouched by the sickness and leave those infected to the flames. It is a decision that will tear him apart.
This afternoon, I presented my mother's living will to the nurse's station directing a do not resuscitate order on her chart. My mother's primary physician met with us to tell us that all that could be done had been done. Mother reiterated no ventilator, that she did not wish to prolong her illness. I shared a special friendship with my mother. She always rode shotgun on my rambling day trips no matter how boring it may have been for her. Those trips ended in May of 2011. I will miss them greatly.
Any work of an author is a living thing. It serves as an interaction between author and reader. O'Nan will never have any idea of how he spoke to me of bravery, duty, responsibility, love and sacrifice. Nor will he ever know how I have come to appreciate the growing loneliness of Jacob Hansen. I am thankful for the comfort of the company of my wife. But I owe Stewart O'Nan a debt of gratitude. It is in this interaction between reader and author that books continue to live long after they have gone into print. It is this connection between reader and writer that gives life to books and causes them to breathe.
For my Mother, Ann M. Sullivan, August 27, 1935 till time stops. Prl(less)
Notes are private!
Jan 15, 2012
Jan 16, 2012
Jan 15, 2012
May 30, 2006
Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston's Novel of an Independent Woman
"Dat's all right, Pheoby, tell 'em. Dey gointuh make 'miration 'cause...more Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston's Novel of an Independent Woman
"Dat's all right, Pheoby, tell 'em. Dey gointuh make 'miration 'cause mah love didn't work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."
"Lawd!" Phoeby breathed out heavily, "Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus' listenin' tuh you, Janie. Ah ain't satisfied wid mahself no mo...Nobody better not criticize yuh in mah hearin'."
I express my gratitude to Members of the goodreads group "On the Southern Literary Trail" for having made Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston novel one of our reads for December, 2012. A number of readers have indicated they read this novel at least once a year. It is highly probable that I will join their ranks. For it has already joined my list of favorite books.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
Zora Neale Hurstonpublished Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. Consider it a marvel for its time. For it is clearly the first feminist literature by a black author about a woman in search of herself, her voice, and love on her own terms.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, First Ed., J.B. Lippincott, 1937
Janie Crawford is Hurston's protagonist. Her road to independence is a difficult one. At the age of thirteen, she recognizes the attraction of the opposite sex for the first time. However, her grandmother warns her that sex is a trap for a black woman and only a temporary pleasure. Love, Nanny says, is "de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dat's just whut's got us uh pulln' and uh haulin' and sweatin' and doin' from can't see in de mornin' till can't see at night."
To Janie's horror, Nanny has arranged a marriage to for Janie to Logan Killick, a farmer with a home and sixty acres of land. To Nanny, who had been a slave, Killick represents security for her granddaughter, who was a child of rape. Nanny's daughter had been raped by her school teacher, lost herself in a bottle and disappeared. To Nanny, Killick is Janie's ticket to rocking on the porch while Killick provides for her.
Janie assents to her Nanny's wishes. Killick, at first, does cater to his young bride. She is a beauty, with thick hair that hangs down her back. Her breasts, buttocks, and legs would attract any man's attention. However, Killick prefers a helpmate rather than a bedmate. He tells Janie he is going to leave home for a day to buy a mule. He intends to put Janie behind a plow to help him plow his land.
Enter Jody Stark, a dapperly dressed man, big, handsome, and carrying the promise of sexual romance. He would never put Janie behind a plow. She is a woman to be waited upon. Stark lures her to leave Killick and marry him, also tempting her with travel to Eatonville, Florida, a town built by and for black people. Janie did not consider Stark her ideal, thinking ""he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance."
Eatonville, Orange Co. Florida, was the first town founded by blacks following the Emancipation in 1863. It was incorporated in 1887. Zora Neale Hurston grew up there.
Only after Janie has married Stark does she consider the eroticism of their relationship in the bedroom, believing "from now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom".
Stark becomes a store owner, buys additional acreage for the town and is ultimately elected mayor. He depends on Janie to operate the store while he politics around town. But he does not expect her to have a share of the political podium. Worse, he becomes jealous of Janie after he sees a constituent reach out to softly touch the braid of hair hanging down her back, of which Janie is not even aware. Thereafter, Jody orders Janie that she must conceal her hair under a head rag in public. Nor is she to speak publicly on the issues he deals with as mayor.
There is no more flower dust or springtime sprinkled over everything. There is no bee for her bloom. She is only freed by Jody's death from kidney failure, a problem he sought to treat through an herb doctor although Janie had sought a medical doctor for him. Janie is left a wealthy widow.
Janie finds that flower dust and springtime over everything with Tea Cake, a man twelve years younger than her. However, time has been kind to Janie Crawford Killick Stark. Tea Cake Woods tells her that her age makes no difference to him, that she is the only woman for him and for her he will give her the keys to the kingdom. Tea Cake is the charmer, the joker, the musician, the blues singer, and the wandering gambler. He is Janie's route to adventure. She is his willing companion every step. When he proposes they head south to the Glades to grow vegetables, Janie wants nothing more.
Lake Okechobee and the Glades
But even Tea Cake is subject to jealousy when it comes to Janie's beauty. The Turners' have a restaurant in the Glades. Mrs. Turner, a light skinned black, is drawn to Janie for her light complexion. She scorns Tea Cake for being too black and offers to introduce her brother to Janie. Janie's not interested. But when Tea Cake gets word that Mrs. Turner is up to introducing someone to take his Janie away from him, he beats her, where the marks show. He frankly admits she had done nothing, but it was necessary that others, especially the Turner's knew he had control of the situation.
Hurston's novel builds to a tempestuous climax as a hurricane approaches the Glades. The bean crop is coming in. The pay is $8.00 a day. Tea Cake says they would be fools to leave. They ignore the lines of Seminole Indians walking to the east away from Lake Okechobee. I will only say that Hurston takes her title from the fact that those who remained in the face of the hurricane, listening to the winds swirling around their farmers' shacks were watching to see if their walls and roofs would withstand the force of God. No spoilers here. This is a book that you have to read.
Ironically, Hurston's magnificent novel was rejected by literary critics, particularly those male members of the Harlem Renaissance. The most stinging criticism came from Richard Wright who claimed Hurston had created a work which portrayed blacks in a manner to allow whites to laugh at them, particularly using realistic black idiomatic dialog. Neither Wright or his contemporary male authors recognized Hurston's accomplishment of portraying one woman's journey to independence. Perhaps that aim was no more important to them than it was and remains for many men.
During her career Hurston obtained two Guggenheim Fellowships and produced additional novels Jonah's Gourd Vine, Moses, Man of the Mountainand works of black folkways: Mules and Men, and Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. She also published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.
Zorah Hurston fell into obscurity by 1950. At the time her last short story was published, she was working as a maid. She worked at menial jobs, and as a substitute teacher. Ultimately she was drawing welfare benefits when she suffered a stroke and was placed in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She died January 28, 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest.
Alice Walker began teaching "Their Eyes Were Watching God" in her classes in 1971. In 1973, with the help of a colleague, Walker discovered Zorah Hurston's grave and had a monument erected.
Zorah Neale Hurston's final resting place
"“Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves.”
Highest possible recommendation.
Also, see Jeff Keeten's and Steve Kendall's fine reviews at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... and http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... respectively
Notes are private!
Nov 23, 2012
Dec 07, 2012
Nov 23, 2012
Apr 04, 2005
Jul 10, 2010
Extremely Loud and Incredbily Close: Jonathan Foer's novel of love, loss, and memory
There are events that leave an indelible stamp on us for a great p...more Extremely Loud and Incredbily Close: Jonathan Foer's novel of love, loss, and memory
There are events that leave an indelible stamp on us for a great portion of our lives. This happens from generation to generation.
Ask those living at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor where they were and what they were doing, they will be able to tell you the answer. Similarly, ask me where I was when I heard John F. Kennedy was shot, I can tell you.
Ask what I was doing when the attacks of 9/11 occurred, I can tell you. I had arrived at work at the District Attorney's Office. My chief side kick with whom I was working prep for a trial, ran into the grand jury room and said turn on the television. I did. What I saw was something I could not accept.
Jonathan Foer goes far past the point of remembrance. Foer drops you into the shoes of 8 year old Oskar Schell. For him, 9/11 is not simply an event which he will remember for its historical significance. It is an event he lives daily because he lost his father that day. And the event is brought home to him, for he has a cell phone with his father's messages sent from the twin towers that day. This is a secret he keeps from his mother, for he wants to protect her from the pain of those messages. It is an incredible burden for a child to bear.
Oskar is left with a gamut of guilt and fears, resulting in a state of vicarious traumatic response to his father's death. His grief is all the more palpable because he is extremely gifted and incredibly cursed with an intelligence far more gifted than children his age.
Oskar shared a bond with his father, who fostered that intelligence, by devoting great attention on his son, gently lulling him to sleep at nights by reading him the New York Times and circling the errors they found in red ink. His father challenged Oskar's intelligence by setting up questions for Oskar to solve, leaving clues amounting to a trail of breadcrumbs leading him to a solution of the problems he designed for him.
Or did he? Did his father actually do this? Or is this something which Oskar has perceived in his mind alone?
The action of this novel occurs a year after the fall of the Towers. Oskar is still dealing with the traumatization of his father's loss. In an effort to keep the memory of his father close, Oskar frequently hides in his father's closet where the scent of his father's shaving still lingers in his mind, if only in his mind.
A bundle of memories and his fears cripple Oskar in his dealings with others, especially his schoolmates, whom are not affected by the fall of the Towers as Oskar is. Nor does Oskar perceive his mother to be as deeply affected by the loss of his father. She has a new friend, Ron, who becomes a frequent visitor to the apartment. Oskar hears their laughter in the living room, as he hides in his father's closet. At one point, typical of a child, he tells his mother he wishes it had been her who died that day. It is something a child would say, intentionally hurting the remaining parent, then immediately struck with the hurt he inflicted on his mother whom he loved without question.
There are strong clues that while Oskar is undoubtedly a prodigy of intelligence far beyond his years, that Oskar just might suffer from more than childhood fears. Is it that Oskar is afflicted by Asperger's Syndrome? A look into the Diagnostic Services Manual--I believe we're in the fifth edition of that psychological cookbook, now, reveals that this is a distinct possibility.
Oskar is enveloped in a net of pattern and design, a characteristic shared by children with this diagnosis. He is awkward in his social interactions. Nor does he seem to grasp the results of his actions in social settings. Play on words which Oskar finds hilarious are lost and misunderstood by those around him. Oskar's behavior in filling daybooks with events that have happened to him, including other tragic events occurring before and after 9/11 take on a ritualistic quality, echoing some of the characteristics shared by those diagnosed with Asperger's, which is considered a sub diagnosis of autism. It is a matter of degree, not an exclusion from that diagnosis.
That Oskar is unaware of the consequences of his behavior on his teacher and his fellow students is clear. In graphic detail, he explains the results of the bombing of Hiroshima, sharing a video interview with a survivor of the first use of an atomic bomb against a civilian population.
That Osckar's last name is Schell is a clever device used to great benefit by Foer. For Oskar is a veritable Chambered Nautilus consisting of impenetrable chambers of secrets revealed only by gently bisecting the shell of a nautilus.
Oskar's mother carries her son to be counseled by Doctor Fein, who is anything but fine in his ability to reach Oskar and release him from all the fears held within him, brought about from his father's death.
It is only through Oskar's discovery of one last mystery he believes was left him by his father to solve, that Oskar begins to live outside himself and become engaged with people outside his immediate family that just might allow him to move forward from the prison of the loss of his father.
Quite by accident, Oskar spies a blue vase on the top shelf of his father's closet. Stacking his works of Shakespeare in his father's closet, Oskar stretches to reach the vase, only to tip it off the shelf, shattering it on the floor of the closet. It contains a key, with an envelope. Written on the envelope is the word "Black" written in red ink.
Oskar determines that the answer to his father's last mystery is the key and someone named Black. Although the number of locks in New York City is mind shattering, Oskar, a child of the internet, decides to track down all the Blacks in New York City in an effort to find the secret of what the key opens.
It is this journey, if anything, that will allow Oskar to move beyond the death of his father and live his own life.
Foer, in a display of brilliance, introduces us to Oskar's grandmother and the grandfather, Oskar never knew. Thomas Schell, for whom Oskar's father was named, also is trapped within the memories of another terrible incident in Human history, the firebombing of Dresden. The elder Thomas, although once capable of speech, can no longer speak a word, but communicates by writing in blank day books. He disappeared before the birth of Oskar's father.
We learn of the elder Thomas's history through his letters to his unborn child and through his life with Oskar's grandmother, who lives in an apartment building across the street from Oskar. Oskar and his grandmother communicate by walkie talkies at all times of the day and night.
It is through the writings of the elder Thomas Schell that we experience first hand the horror of living through one of the great acts of inhumanity against man--the fire bombing of Dresden during World War II by the Royal Airforce and the United States 8th Airforce from February 13-15th, 1945. Those events leave Thomas Schell a man forever changed.
The beauty of Foer's novel is the answer he provides in the resolution of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. We recover from the tragedies of our lives through the bonds we share with others. This is the ultimate beauty of life.
While some critics, and some readers, find Foer's novel, manipulative and cloyingly sweet, I find it an affirmation of life. To paraphrase Faulkner's Nobel Acceptance Speech, it is through reaching out to others that not only are we able to endure, it is the way we prevail.
This is a solid 6 Stars literary masterpiece. If it makes you cry, take joy for the fact Foer reminds us we are human, not only capable of acts of inhumanity, but also capable of acts of great love and forgiveness.(less)
Notes are private!
Jan 19, 2012
Jan 29, 2012
Jan 19, 2012
Sep 15, 2009
The Hunter, Donald Westlake aka Richard Stark writes the first Parker Novel
I wrote an absolutely brilliant review of The Hunter: A Parker Novel last n...more The Hunter, Donald Westlake aka Richard Stark writes the first Parker Novel
I wrote an absolutely brilliant review of The Hunter: A Parker Novel last night. Trust me, it really was. Then it simply vanished. The laptop hiccuped and all those wonderful words went off to where good words go to die.
Richard Stark was a guy I had never heard of until I joined goodreads group Pulp Fiction. Donald E Westlake, I had heard of. I was in Junior High School when I read Fugitive Pigeon. It was a stitch, although it was probably a good thing the Mum didn't monitor my reading that closely.
Now comes another confession. I find myself doing that a lot these days. I (shhhhhh....) have a Nook. I'm basically a cheapskate about some things. That way I can save up and by signed first editions.
About being a cheapskate, I chose Nook over Kindle because I can take that little Nook to a brick and mortar B&N and read a book for free for an hour at a time per day. Yes. FREE. Of course, I buy a cup of coffee, sip on that, and check out the scenery passing by. Tuscaloosa is a college town. The University of Alabama typically supplies a bounty of beauty to Playboy's "The Girls of the SEC." I only know that from what I read in the news. I stopped reading Playboy for the interviews a few decades back. Of course, I say that with a completely straight face.
We are in a false spring. It has been unusually warm for January. The daffodils are popping as are the paper whites, snow bells and the like. The Saucer Magnolias and the Mock Orange bushes are completely confused.
Yesterday was the perfect afternoon to head over to B&N, have a coffee and finish off Parker in The Hunter. Finishing off Parker isn't the proper terminology. The series extended over 45 years, the last Parker, Dirty Money, appearing in 2008, the year that Westlake/Stark died. The University of Chicago Press began reprinting the Parker series that same year, and Westlake gave a helluva interview regarding his writing, with some particular points on his creation of Parker.
The Hunter came out as a Pocket Book in December, 1962. Christopher Lehman Haupt, an astute reviewer for the New York Times picked up that something special was going on when he reviewed it in January 1963. He waxed eloquently on the virtues of the novel and said that this debut novelist was no new voice. This novel had to be the work of a seasoned crime writer. Of course, he was right. It was Donald Westlake, the seasoned writer, hiding behind the pseudonym of Richard Stark because he was already under contract with two other publishers under different names.
" When Bucklyn Moon of Pocket Books said he wanted to publish The Hunter, if I’d help Parker escape the law at the end so I could write more books about him, I was at first very surprised. He was the bad guy in the book.
How did Westlake make it hard for the reader? Merely calling Parker the bad guy in the book is an understatement. Parker is completely amoral. He is a heist man. And he will kill you to keep what he steals. He is relentless, ruthless, and remorseless.
To simply call Parker a thief doesn't encompass the degree of violence the man can inflict. If your idea of a heist caper is Topkapi and you like your thieves smooth, suave, and svelte cat burglars as Cary Grant in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief, or urbane and witty as David Niven, in the original Pink Panther, Richard Stark is not your kind of author and Parker is not your kind of thief.
Hold the champagne and caviar. A cold beer and a bloody burger is more appropriate fare when reading Richard Stark.
Yes, Parker's debut is a heist caper. We meet him as he's entering New York City in search of his wife Lynne and a man named Mal Resnick. Why? They took something of his and he wants it back.
Westlake/Stark plays with plot in the manner of Quentin Tarentino in Pulp Fiction. The plot line jumps from present to past and back again before the full why is revealed. And The Hunter is a quick brutal read. A few coffees and a few hours here and there at B&N , you're done. It's not even like Chinese food that leaves you hungry in a few hours. The end of The Hunter draws you immediately to the next, again, all yours for free with your trusty Nook and a few hours to spare. You will feel that you're as guilty of under tipping as Parker consistently does with every meal he takes. I'm not worried about it.
What is it that has fascinated so many readers about Parker? He is the anti-hero. Some critics have defined him simply as the perfect non-hero. It's a question of degree. Evil is relative. Parker is a hardworking professional stiff. Mal, his cohort in crime is a Syndicate man. The Syndicate is an insidious network of goombahs holding one another up for the greater good of the chiefs up the line who prefer to call themselves "The Organization." It's rather like cheering for Rudolph Hess to cut a separate peace with England and kick Hitler's legs out from beneath him.
Then there's Parker's prep, method, logic, and thoroughness in carrying out any plan he makes. He's careful. And this time, he has the element of surprise on his side. Everyone involved in the heist where Parker was set up by Mal is either dead or believes Parker is dead.
Parker will stop at nothing to get what belongs to him. He'll even take on the whole Syndicate, the Outfit, as the mob's soldiers call it.
Women? Oh, they notice him. It's the hands they notice first. The face that appears to have been chiseled out of concrete. The veins that bulge and ripple beneath his huge hands, women instinctively know are made for slapping. But they're also indicative of something else bulging with rippling veins beneath his slacks that sends a shiver up their skirts. As Westlake says, Parker is a man who will fall on a woman like a tree. Sexist? Yes. Chauvinistic? Yes. Shamelessly so. But face it, I've known many women who were attracted to the Parkers out there. After all, I did direct a domestic violence shelter. And this behavior is another aspect of what makes Parker the unlikeable character he is.
The 2008 Westlake interview provides further insight into the fascination for Parker's violence.
"Question: Most of the characters who get hurt in these novels are tastelessly dressed, arrogant, dim, lazy or fussy; they whine about their wives, and they definitely don’t appreciate hard work. Parker may not abide by most moral codes, but whenever a character behaves like a complete jerk, his or her life expectancy goes down. Why is this?
And Parker knows how to lean on the incompetents.
It's coming on mid-afternoon. The wind's down, rain's gone, and the temperature is rising into the 70s. It's about time for a cup of coffee. Think I'll have it over at Barnes & Noble. I've got a bad case of early spring fever.
Let's see. Next on the list--
The Man With the Getaway Face. That's it. All mine.
Some of my more erudite compadres have been pondering weighty literary matters from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Me? I think I'll hang around down here on the low road for a while. After that coffee, I think I'll head over to a classic 1940s road house called the Oasis. The neon cactus is pretty at night. The juke box is loaded. The waitress calls me "Hon." The beer is cold and the burgers are bloody. Yeah. I got friends.(less)
Notes are private!
Jan 20, 2012
Jan 25, 2012
Jan 20, 2012
Jan 01, 1971
Jul 01, 1982
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: Ernest J. Gaines' novel of the long journey to freedom
A Note from the incomplete reader
The Autobiography of Mi...more The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: Ernest J. Gaines' novel of the long journey to freedom
A Note from the incomplete reader
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was originally published by Ernest J. Gainesthrough the Dial Press in 1971. A second printing followed in 1972.
The Second Printing
However, it was not until 1974 when Gaine's novel was filmed as a television movie that sales mushroomed with the issue of the mass-market Bantam Paperback tie-in edition. The movie aired on CBS. Cicely Tyson played the title role from approximately age 23 to 110. The production garnered nine Emmy Awards, including Best Actress for Ms. Tyson.
Cicely Tyson portrayed a century of the life of Miss Jane Pittman
I was a first year law student when "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" first aired. I was twenty-two years old. But it was thirty-eight years later, as a sixty year old man, before I read the novel. It was the Bantam movie tie-in edition I read, after checking it out of my local public library.
Now that check-outs and check-ins are digitized, it is no longer possible to see how often a book has been checked out, or when it was read. But you can still tell from the condition of a book when it has passed through generations of hands. That little paperback was one of the first paperback editions. The spine was loose, bowed from having been placed down many times, and the cover had a distinct curl indicating one or readers had been cover and page benders, turning what had been read to the back of the volume. Previous readers had dog-eared the pages. Others had underlined passages, some times in pencil, some times in ink. Inevitably the same passages had been marked more than once, starred, underscored in different colors, but clearly having some impact on many readers.
But I was not one of them. I was born and raised in Alabama. No book by an African-American author appeared as a part of my curriculum through high school. While I was raised by my mother and family to "Sir" and "Ma'am" any person, no matter the color of their skin, neither had they ever been exposed to African American literature of any sort. It was only in college that I was introduced to Charles W. Chestnutt,briefly, by my favorite literature professor O.B. Emerson, during his Southern Literature Course which I took in 1973.
I knew of the injustice suffered by Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird and idolized Atticus Finch because he fought for justice for an innocent man. I read The Confessions of Nat Turner, was furious at the thought of slavery, but wondered why the story was written by a white man, William Styron. It occurred to me to ask if I were a literary racist.
It was during my work as an Assistant District Attorney working child abuse and domestic violence cases that Alice Walkerbegan a literary awakening for me with The Color Purple. Then came Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Natasha Trethewey. I began to assuage my guilt over my ignorance of an entire culture's literature.
But I wondered where were the male writers? Surely there was someone other than Chestnutt. Oh, I could read Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass. I have their books. But I wanted someone more contemporary. And then, thanks to a member of our goodreads group On the Southern Literary Trail there he was. Ernest J. Gaines.
Ernest J. Gaines, an author I'm grateful to have discovered
My reading of Gaines has not followed my usual practice. I've read him as I've found him. First came A Lesson Before Dying, then A Gathering of Old Men, and now The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Each has affected me deeply, but I chose to share my thoughts regarding Jane Pittman because of the magnificent voice of the protagonist and the sweep of history seen through the eyes of one person, with the assistance of those who shared parts of their lives with her and lived around her.
Gaines structures his novel as a series of interviews of Jane Pittman conducted by an unseen and unnamed teacher of history. The "Teacher" emerges much as Homer does in The Odyssey, calling on Jane Pittman to tell of her personal odyssey to freedom from the final days of her life as a slave during the American Civil War up to the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s.
A Note From The Teacher
"I had been trying to get Miss Jane Pittman to tell me her story of her life for several years now, but each time I asked her she told me there was no story to tell. I told her she was over a hundred years old, she had been a slave in this country so there had to be a story..."
From the Interviews of Miss Jane Pittman
The Teacher told me he wouldn't take no for an answer. So I asked him when he wanted to get started. He had one of those recorders. One thing led to something else. Sometimes I wasn't able to remember. But there were all those of my people around me who were my memory when it was gone. The Teacher said it was all our story. I guess it was.
When you are born a slave like I was you don't own anything. Not even your ma'am and Pap get to name you. The Mistress named me Ticey. I didn't start out as Jane Pittman.
It was near the end of the war. The Secesh come through. Mistress told me to take water out to them. One boy said if it was up to him, he would let the niggers go, but it wasn't up to him.
Then the Yankees came on following the Secesh. It was a Yankee soldier gave me his daughter's own name, Jane Brown. He told me after the war to come see him in Ohio. When Mistress called me Ticey, I told her I wasn't Ticey anymore, I was Jane Brown. She had Master hold me down and she beat me with a cat-o-nine tales an' put me to work in the fields.
I don't even know what happened to my Pap. I barely remember my Ma'am. They killed her when I was bout five.
It was more than a year after the war Master told us we was emancipated. We could stay but he couldn't pay us nothin'. But we could work on shares. It was slavery all over again. About half of us left. Big Laura you'd call the leader. She carried her baby daughter. I watched after her boy Ned. We didn't know where we was goin' or how we was goin' to live. We only knew we were free at last.
Then one day the Patrollers found us. They was like the Ku Klux. They killed ever one of us except me n' Ned. I had been able to keep him quiet. I found big Laura. Them men had even killed Laura's girl child.
I made up my mind I was gonna get to Ohio no matter what. Ned, he took two stones, flint stones from his Ma'am. He carried them with him wherever he went. I guess it was his way of remembering his Ma'am. But I think ever time he struck them rocks together what he was makin' was the spark of freedom Laura had wanted for him n' ever body else.
Each day we walked. But we was still in Luzanna. I hung on to finding freedom in Ohio until one night we came up on the house of an old white man. He had been a sailor at one point in his life. He had maps ever where in his house. He told me I'd have to cross Mississippi or up through Arkansas n' I might take my whole life gettin' to Ohio. He told me he could be Secesh or he could be a friend of my people. You know I think he was a friend of my people. He could jus' as easy told me sure you take on off for Ohio.
So I decided to stay in Luzanna n' find my freedom there some day. I took work on a plantation. Ned was in a school. I never looked on Ned as mine until his teacher had him read his lesson to me n' I was so proud of him I loved him as if he were my own.
The only good that come to my people after the war was when the Beero showed up. We were freed men and women. But it didn't last. The North made up with the South, and those northern businessmen came down South to make money with the white businessmen. It was slavery all over again.
A Branch of the Freedmen's Bureau
The years went on n' Ned went off to Kansas to find an education. I took Joe Pittman, the horse breaker on the plantation as my husband. I couldn't have chilren of my own. The doctor said I had been beat so bad when I was still a slave I had been hurt inside.
There was no horse Joe couldn't break. A big rancher hired him to come out to Texas n' made Joe, a black man, his head horse man. But there's always a horse a man can't break. I lost Joe. N' from then on I was just Miss Jane Pittman.
I went back to Luzanna. My Ned came home from Kansas. He was full of ideas. He had been down to Cuba in that Spanish American War. He talked about not holdin' with the Booker T. Washington sayin' that the black people needed to stay off from the white folks, work hard and stand on there on. He took after the ideas of Frederick Douglas n' said that this world was for all folks black n' white. He was a teacher. I still remember hearin' him talkin' to the chilren on the plantation. He said, "This earth is yours and don’t let that man out there take it from you."
Booker T. Washington
Now there was a Cajun named Albert Cluveau. He would sit on my porch n' talk. He'd drink tea with me, n' we'd go fishin together' sometimes. Albert would talk about killin' like it was nuthin'. Albert told me if Ned didn't stop his teachin' n' leave, he'd been told to kill him. N' he said he'd do what he was told to do.
Ned wouldn't leave. Even knowin' he was going to die. One night Albert Cluveau met my Ned on the road n' shot him through the chest with a shot gun. Black people have had to fight for whatever they ever got. Ned would never quit. But I sure miss him.
There was more wars. There's always wars. I thought after all our young men fought the Germans n' Japanese things might be changin'. There was even a black man played baseball for the Dodgers. I never missed Jackie Robinson when he was playin' for the Dodgers. But things hadn't really changed.
Miss Jane's favorite ball player, Jackie Robinson
We had a young man named Jimmy. He was the son of sharecroppers on the plantation. We all thought he might be The One, who would grow up n' make a difference for our people. We wanted him to make a preacher or a teacher.
Jimmy went off to school. He got in with young Fred Shuttlesworth and that young preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. They sent him back home to us. He told us we hadn't even begun to fight in Luzanna.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jimmy asked us all to meet him at the Courthouse the next mornin', gonna get us some civil rights. I plan on goin'. He reminds me a lot of my Ned. But Albert Cluveau's been long dead. I'm not sure if I'm 110 or I'm a 111, but freedom's been a long time comin'.
Miss Jane at the Courthouse
The Incomplete Reader Wraps Up
Ernest J. Gaines filled The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with so much historical content, and the voice of Jane Pittman carried such a sense of truth, that upon its original publication, many people thought the novel was non-fiction. Gaines said,
"Some people have asked me whether or not The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is fiction or nonfiction. It is fiction. When Dial Press first sent it out, they did not put "a novel" on the galleys or on the dustjacket, so a lot of people had the feeling that it could have been real. ...I did a lot of research in books to give some facts to what Miss Jane could talk about, but these are my creations. I read quite a few interviews performed with former slaves by the WPA during the thirties and I got their rhythm and how they said certain things. But I never interviewed anybody."
Well, he could have fooled me. Ironically, as I finish this review, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" is on the television. I am watching it thirty-eight years after I first saw it. It is good. However, it cannot match the power of the seamless narrative of Gaines' powerful novel.
As for that battered paperback I checked out of our library, I've bought a new trade edition to go on the shelves. It will be a clean slate for others to begin underlining the passages they love and to make their own notes. Periodically, I'll check on that book and see how things are coming along. There's still a lot of life left in the story of Jane Pittman. For us all. Thank you, Mr. Gaines.
A New Book For the Library
Notes are private!
Nov 06, 2012
Nov 01, 2012
Jul 12, 2011
The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock's tales from a ghost town
“Just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters...more The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock's tales from a ghost town
“Just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?
I learned that there are monsters among us at a fairly young age. On a bright spring morning around 1971, I was riding to Foster's Alabama, with a high school friend. There was a car, off the road, and stuck in a ditch.
John said we should pull off and help. But something didn't look right about it. One man stood at the front of the Caddy. Another stood by the trunk. As we approached, the man by the trunk looked at me. There are some people who have nothing behind their eyes. There is no conscience, or soul there, if you will.
I screamed at John to drive, even reaching to shove the steering wheel over to swerve us back on the roadway. It was a bit of good fortune.
Everyone loved Buddy Copeland, a big fireman, who was driving his pickup to go fishing on the Black Warrior River that morning. He had a winch on his truck. Being Buddy, he pulled over to help get the car out of the ditch. When they found him, it appeared he had decided to snack on a ham sandwich before heading on to fish. A blood soaked bit of it lay on the passenger seat by the door where the gun blast had blown it from his mouth. The men who killed him were named Turk and Alexander. They had no love for Buddy. He must have seen the body of the banker in the trunk of the Caddy they had hi-jacked earlier that morning. I watched their trial.
I grew up to hunt men and women who had no conscience, no soul behind the eyes. I was an Assistant District Attorney for almost 28 years. Unlike a lot of ADAs who swaggered around with their badge and a gun on their side, I carried a gun because of need.
Although most of my police friends favored a 9mm, I preferred a Walther PK .380. I was trained to shoot by the best shots in law enforcement. "Don't be a hero. Shoot for center body mass. Double tap. Shoot to kill. You don't, they'll kill you." I was a cop's ADA. I was good at it. I played to win. If I didn't think you were guilty, I refused to take the case. I backed up an officer during an investigation more than once. It was an honor.
My job was not done from a clean office. I went to the scene. I worked cases where sons killed parents for crack money, men shook babies to death, and jealous ex-husbands killed their ex-wives in front of the kids. The baby killer is on death row. When they slip him the needle, I'll be there as a witness.
Don't let Donald Ray Pollock fool you. Knockemstiff is a real place. It's a ghost town now. The nice name for the place is Shady Glen. Look at an Ohio Map from 1919, you won't find it. Look on a 1940 map, there it is. Pollock ought to know. He lived there before heading to Chillicothe to become a laborer at a paper mill for more than thirty years. After that he got an MFA and began to write. His first book is, you guessed it, Knockemstiff. Sherwood Anderson's advice to William Faulkner was good. "Write what you know." Otherwise, we might never have known about Yoknapatawpha County.
I've known places like Knockemstiff. I worked two homicided that ended up on Tuscaloosa's side of the County Line that separated us from Walker County. What began in Walker County ended up down on the Tiger Mine Strip Pit Road. It's a lonely place, where the maggots do their job if the body's not found soon enough.
As Pollock tells us, law enforcement didn't show up much in Knockemstiff. Neither did Walker County Law like to escort Tuscaloosa ADAs up on their Beat 10 road. It was a rough place. The people didn't trust outsiders. I took my own cop friends with me when I had to interview witnesses on Beat 10. They weren't any happier about it than I was.
The Devil All the Time begins idyllically enough. Willard Russell has survived war in the Pacific Theater in WWII. He's on his way home to Coal Creek, West Virginia to his parents home. But a stop in Meade, Ohio, leads him to a diner, the Wooden Spoon, where he meets a waitress named Charlotte. She's a woman he can't forget.
Although he returns to Coal Creek, he finds his mother has picked out a bride for him. Helen is an unattractive young woman. But Willard's mother had promised Helen's mother she'd look out after the poor thing when Helen's mother died.
Willard can't forget Charlotte, returns to Meade and marries her. They rent a house up in the hollers of Knockemsstiff from a cuckolded lawyer. They are happy. Willard and Charlotte have a son, Arvin Eugene. All's well until Charlotte gets the Cancer and Willard constructs an altar out of a fallen log. He and Arvin pray aloud there at the log for Charlotte's recovery. But their prayers are unanswered.
Willard must believe in an Old Testament God. If the prayers don't work by themselves, God must require blood sacrifice. Dogs, sheep, and larger game are strung up and bled to cover the prayer log in an offering satisfying to God. But if God is anywhere around, he's not in Knockemstiff.
Disconsolate from Charlotte's death, Willard cuts his throat at the prayer log, leaving Arvin Eugene an orphan. When Arvin reports his father's death to Deputy Leo Bodecker, he takes him to the bloody clearing in the woods.
"'Goodamn it, Boy,what the hell is this?'
Arvin is sent to live with his grandparents back in Coal Creek. It seems he has a new sister, Leonore. She is the daughter of Helen, the woman Willard's mother had wanted him to marry.
Helen had taken up with a travelling preacher, Roy, who was accompanied by a paraplegic guitarist named Theodore. After Leonore's birth, Roy becomes convinced that if he could bring someone back from the dead, the audiences at his revival would grow by leaps and bounds. God must have been on vacation again. Leonore is just as much an orphan as Arvin Eugene. They come to view one another as brother and sister. Roy and Theodore take it on the lam after the Lazarus routine fails to take.
Years pass. Leo Bodecker, now sheriff, has a new set of problems on his hands. His sister Sandy is peddling her ass out of the restaurant where she waitresses. It seems his old opposition, the former Sheriff is rallying support for a new campaign. Sandy is complaint number one. Leo has got to do about his Sister's indiscriminate exercise of her sexuality, which is bounteously generous. The problem seems to be solved when Sandy settles down with Carl Henderson, a real shutterbug, who whisks Sandy away from town on extended vacations to add to his portfolio.
But there are no easy solutions in The Devil All the Time Carl's idea of a vacation is to wander the back roads picking up hitchhikers using Sandy as his bait. His favorite line of photography is taking photographs of Sandy in the arms of their unfortunate hitchikers, whom Carl dispatches with proficiency, documenting the whole sordid mess on film, developing his work in a private darkroom.
Meanwhile, down in Coal Creek, Arvin Eugene, protector of Leonore, discovers that the new Preacher had rather administer to the youngest of his congregation, including Leonore. When Pastor Teagarden impregnates Leonore, he rejects her, moving on to younger and more attractive congregants.
If God is present anywhere in he finds himself the incarnation of Arvin Eugene, who is packing his father Willard's Luger 9mm pistol, which he had traded for his own Nambu pistol taken as a souvenir ln the Pacific. Fleeing from Coal Creek, following meting out the Lord's vengeance on the misguided Reveverend, Arvin begins the long hitchike back to Knockemstiff.
In an almost incredible symmetry, who should stop to give him a lift but our happy serial killers Sandy and Carl. Arvin Eugene may be the most handsome model, the couple has ever scored. But Arvin is alert and most rescue himself from the shutterbug two which will not endear himself to sheriff Leo Bodecker.
Bodecker and Arvin take one last walk to the prayer log. Whether God is present, or the Devil laughs at one more triumph, the reader must discover for himself.
Pollock is a remarkable new voice in American literature. While he obviously shares comparison with Flannery O'Connor, none of O'Connor's theology is readily apparent in Pollock's work. Rather, picture William Gay decked out in clean carpenter's overalls, and read Provinces of Night or, among the most grotesque, Twilight. Here are the darkest aspects of Cormac McCarthy, and Tom Franklin as seen in Poachers.
Once again, in Donald Ray Pollock we have a novelist who writes that there are monsters among us and that to the monstrous, the norm is simply montrous.(less)
Notes are private!
Jan 28, 2012
Jan 28, 2012
Jan 01, 2001
May 21, 2001
There's no need stretching this out. Daniel Woodrell is a Hellaciously good writer. The Death of Sweet Mister is a fine dark read told through the eye...more There's no need stretching this out. Daniel Woodrell is a Hellaciously good writer. The Death of Sweet Mister is a fine dark read told through the eyes of a thirteen year old, Morris Atkins, better known as Shug, and, you guessed it, Sweet Mister.
Once again, Woodrell sets his story in the Missouri Ozarks, often called "Little Dixie." Woodrell paints his setting with the strokes of a master. His characters come alive through dialog that cuts sharp and true.
I'm going up the country where the water tastes like wine
The Atkins family consists of Shug, mother Glenda, and Red. There is little doubt a paternity test would determine Red didn't plant the seed that produced Shug. Red has nothing but contempt for the boy. Red's blatant sexuality with Glenda hurt Shug, and in his mind, hurts his mother as well. This could well be Woodrell's tale of Oedipus in the Ozarks.
Red is an incompetent criminal, spending more time on parole, than free of any kind of supervision. He's in the joint, on parole, or headed back to the joint. Perhaps that's why he wonders when he had the time to conceive Shug.
Fat boy! You dumbshit. I'll knock fire from your ass, dig?"
..."Red, Red, my God, don't talk to our son that way--you'll get him twisted."
"Our son, my ass."
..."I wish I could add none of this happened "
The Atkins secure housing in the caretaker's shack at the town cemetery. They live there in exchange for tending the grounds. But it's Shug who does the work, mowing the wide expanses with a tractor and a small lawn mower for the tight spaces. Red is out with his buddy Basil scoring all the dope they can. Glenda spends her days in an alcoholic fog, sipping on her "tea," a mixture of rum and coke.
The Green, Green, Grass of Home
Red's not so dumb. He realizes that one more bust will send him back to the pen for a very long time. The solution? Recruit Fat Boy. He's a Juvie. If he's caught, nothing will happen to him. All he has to do is to get Shug to keep his mouth shut if he is caught. And Red's a pro at that. Dig?
Shug begins his life of juvenile crime. He burglarizes the houses Red points out and steals the drugs. Red has a convenient business associate, Patty, a nurse who knows who is dying at home and on heavy medication. She's a business associate with fringe benefits. Shug confronts the dying in their homes and takes their medication, always leaving several doses. At times, Red questions the amount Shug brings to them, but he's smart enough to shrug and say that's all there was.
"Well you might see me tonight with an illegal smile
The inevitable happens. Shug is caught by an old man with bone cancer, but alert enough to call the police. Red is nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs and takes Shug fishing, threatening him with his life if he squeals on him and Basil.
Meanwhile, Glenda has met Jimmy Vin Pearce, a professional cook down at the Echo Club. Glenda is one of those women men turn to stare at. She has Jimmy's attention. Jimmy's shiny green Thunderbird has Glenda's. "Don't you think Jimmy would make a good Daddy," she asks Shug. "No. I think Daddies stink."
It's a big bright green pleasure machine!
Red disappears. The shack looks as though Hell broke through it. Shug looks through the shack, expecting to find bodies in the bedroom. But all he finds is a skillet with red hair stuck to it.
The Death of Sweet Mister is a rush from start to finish. Each and every voice Woodrell creates rings with authenticity. Most surprising is how deftly Woodrell handles the first person narrative of Shug. His loss of innocence is palpable as the pages turn.
Daniel Woodrell is a literary gift. His are no simple stories with happy endings. These are harsh portraits of the rough side of life and the unique people who carry the burdens of the lives they lead, some by choice and some by force.
Notes are private!
Oct 19, 2012
Oct 23, 2012
Oct 19, 2012
Jun 01, 2005
The Night of the Hunter: Davis Grubb's novel of the Sociopath in the Pulpit
“Not that you mind the killings! There's plenty of killings in your book, L...more The Night of the Hunter: Davis Grubb's novel of the Sociopath in the Pulpit
“Not that you mind the killings! There's plenty of killings in your book, Lord..” --Preacher Harry Powell
Let't get right down to it. Davis Grubb wrote a Southern-Gothic classic when he created The Night of the Hunter. It was his first published novel, appearing in 1953. Charles Laughton filmed Grubb's novel, which premiered in 1955. Laughton's masterpiece was added to the National Film Registry in 1992. It should be there.
It is the Great Depression, sometime in the 1930s, along the Ohio River border of West Virginia. Times are bad. Families are disrupted. It is not unusual for children to roam the roads looking for food and shelter wherever they can find it. And men, who would not otherwise have done so, do desperate things.
Traditional ballads tell of the times.
TIMES ARE GETTING HARD, BOYS
Ben Harper, husband to Willa, and father to ten year old John and four year old Pearl, walks out of the hardware store in which he works, determinedly enters the bank across the street, successfully robbing the bank of $10,000.00. But he kills the teller and the bank president in the process. Ben makes it home in time to stash the money in a clever hiding place, swearing his two young children to tell no one, not even their mother where the money is. It's a heavy burden to put on a ten year old boy. Pearl hasn't a clue to the significance of the oath she has sworn. Then, young John Harper watches his father carried away by the law.
Telling where the money is hidden might save Ben Harper's life, but he's not buying it. He's guilty. And he is sentenced to hang by the neck till dead.
Ben's lawyer tells him there's hope for clemency if he coughs up the money. The answer is no. Willa, with a glint of greed in her eye, begs Ben to tell her where the money is, on her last visit with him on the eve of his execution. Ben tells her the money will drive her headlong to Hell.
Ben's cellmate is Preacher, serving s stint in the pen for auto theft. He begs, wheedles, and cajoles Ben to reveal the hiding place. Ben still refuses and takes his secret to his death on the gallows. The hangman said he kicked for a while before he went still. He shudders at knowing he executed a man with a wife and two children.
Preacher is Harry Powell, a sociopath of the highest order. "Is it twelve, or is it six," he questions himself. For Harry is not just a simple car thief. He's the murderer of any number of widows into whose affections he has talked his way in. A man of the cloth. A man of God. Who could be a more perfect suitor. Well, it's not Harry Powell, whose character is based on the true case of Harry Powers, dubbed "The Lonely Hearts Club Killer," who swung from the gallows in Moundsville, West Virginia, in 1932.
What kind of childhood did Harry Powell have to cause him to hate women with the vile abhorrence he held for them. Why was every woman the Whore of Babylon? Harry works his way into the homes of widows and murders them for the small amounts of cash stashed in the sugar bowl on the dining room table. He will preach a revival here and there and pass the hat for enough money to keep him alive until God tells him it's time to kill another woman.
Grubbs writes at breakneck pace. Preacher Harry is out of the penitentiary a month after Ben Harper Swings. He's in Ben's home town in a matter of days. Willa, given a mercy job at Icy and Walter Spoon's Ice Cream Parlor, is no match for Harry's smooth talking ways. And he's so good with the children. "My little lambs," he calls them. Pearl, who has no real memory of her father has no problem calling Preacher "Daddy." John sees through Harry for what he is. Harry's out for the money and he'll get it at any cost. It's not much of a spoiler to say Willa doesn't have a long and happy second marriage, not after she overhears Harry asking Pearl where is the money.
With Willa out of the picture, Harry has the children at his mercy. It is easy to divide and conquer when dealing with a ten year old and a four year old. It is easy to lock John into his room while he wheedles the secret of the money's hiding place from Pearl.
That Grubb has a ten year old outwit the wily psychopath might be a real stretch of the imagination, Grubb pulls it off without a hitch. Pride does go before a fall. The Preacher underestimates the determination instilled in young John Harper by the promise he made to his father to guard Pearl with his life. Thanks to John, the children escape. It's a ride down the Ohio River in his father's old skiff in which he and his father had run trot lines in better days.
It's on that run down the river that the children encounter Rachel Cooper, the most finely rendered character in the novel. Rachel has long been widowed and on her own. Even during the Depression she is self sufficient, selling eggs and butter. And if there are such things as Angels, Rachel is one of them. She's taken in three children, tossed into her lap by the harsh economic times. If there's room for three chicks, there's room for five. John and Pearl have a new home.
But it is inevitable that Harry will track the two children down. John sees him at a distance and hears him singing. "Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning. Leaning on the everlasting arms." Just as John saw through the Preacher's false broadcloth coat, so will Rachel. It's only a question of whether good or evil will win.
This is a remarkable work of literature. The prose is flawless. Grubb drops you into the minds of each of the characters, even that of Harry Powell. It is a place in which you don't want to linger, but linger there you will. And Grubb compels you to stay there until he's ready to release you from his artful grasp.
Grubb grew up in Moundsville, West Virginia. He saw the effects of the Depression on his own parents. His ancestors had lived there for over two hundred years. He drew on his childhood experiences to create the world he wrote of in The Night of the Hunter. He remembered well. He wrote well. And in no other work did he write as well of social corruption through the misuse of religion and the disruption of the family as he did with this short jewel of a novel. Read it. Read it more than once. Watch how he put it together. It's just that damned good.
Charles Laughton may have gotten the glory. But there would have been no glory without Davis Grubb. Nor would Robert Mitchum ever have had his unforgettable role, with the words love and hate tattooed across the backs of his fingers.
"These letters spell out the Lesson of Life,boy! boomed Preacher with a cozening and unctuous geniality. Shall I tell you the little story of the Right-Hand-Left-Hand-the tale of Good and Evil?
Ah, yes, dear hearts, that's some mighty fine writin'!
"The Serial Killer of Clarke County," http://www.webcitation.org/62gVgIQbm
"Davis Grubb," Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library, http://www.wvwc.edu/library/wv_author...
"In Their Own Country, Davis Grubb," West Virginia Center For the Book, http://wvcenterforthebook.lib.wv.us/I...(less)
Notes are private!
Feb 24, 2012
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Jan 31, 2012
Gathering of Waters: Bernice L. McFadden's Embrace of the Seen and Unseen
"I am Money. Money, Mississippi...
Listen, if you choose to b...more Gathering of Waters: Bernice L. McFadden's Embrace of the Seen and Unseen
"I am Money. Money, Mississippi...
Listen, if you choose to believe nothing else that transpires here, believe this: your body does not have a soul; your soul has a body, and souls never, ever die."
It is unusual that I continue to be so haunted by a novel that I take days before I attempt to review it. But, I dare say, many a reader may find themselves under the same spell so artfully cast by Bernice L. McFadden.
Gathering of Waters takes its title from the Native American name for Mississippi, "many gathering of waters." McFadden reminds us that the Native Americans driven from their home and the Africans brought to the State by white men as slaves both believed in animism, the idea that souls inhabit all objects. Money, itself possesses a soul that follows three generations of its citizens from the 1920s into the Twenty-first Century.
Good and evil are palpable forces that inhabit the souls of those people. McFadden swirls through a history of violent and turbulent events beginning with the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. It is there we meet August Hilson, a minister, his family and a young girl, Doll, possessed by the spirit of Esther, a whore, whose throat was cut while plying her trade.
Doll's mother abandons her when she fails to exorcise Esther's spirit from her daughter's body. She gives her to August Hilson to raise. As Doll enters adolescence, Esther surfaces to seduce August. His wife divorces him. He marries Dolly who bears him two children, Paris and Hemmingway.
The Hilsons become homeless as a result of the Tulsa riots. During two days of violence, the Greenville District, known as the Black Wall Street of America, was burned to the ground. Over three hundred Blacks were murdered.
June 6-7, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma
August is summoned to Money, Mississippi, to pastor a church on Nigger Row. It is their salvation. However, August is horrified to discover a bite mark on Doll's upper thigh when her nightgown creeps up while she sleeps. Doll, possessed by Esther, has taken not only a black lover, but a white lover, as well, Cole Payne, a grocer who welcomes both black and white customers.
In 1927 Mississippi was struck by the great flood. On the bank of the Tallahatchie River, Money was caught in its path. August is swept away as he delivers his Good Friday sermon. Doll is not at church. She is in the arms of Cole Payne. As the gathering of waters rushes over Money, Doll is pulled under the water and Esther needs a new home.
After the flood
In the aftermath of the flood, two young men are rescuing survivors and pulling the dead from the river. They pull the body of a young boy, J.W. Milam from the water. At the funeral home, as the mortician prepares to embalm the boy, J.W. is resurrected. Esther lives on.
Hemmingway has a daughter, Tass. When Tass asks who her father is, Hemmingway tells her she is her mother and father. I leave it to the reader to discover Tass's paternity.
Money watches the Hilsons and the Bryants through the years. It is the summer of 1955. A young man from Chicago, Emmett Till, has come to Money to visit his grandparents. It's love at first sight for Tass and Emmett. But we know how that story ends.
Emmett Till at age 14
Emmett Till let out that infamous wolf whistle. McFadden tells us that Carolyn Bryant heard the whistle and asked Emmett to repeat it. J.W., the half brother of her husband, Roy Bryant, witnesses the whistle. He's a mean drunk, and confronts Carolyn and Roy. "Nothing? A nigger whistling at you is nothing?" Emmett's fate is sealed.
Where Emmett Whistled
Money simply recounts the kidnapping and killing of Emmett on August 24, 1955, the not guilty verdict at the trial of Milam and Bryant, and the audacity of Milam to brag of having committed the murder in an interview with Look Magazine. We learn the bitter taste of double jeopardy and rage over the injustice. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/sfe...
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam
Tass marries, but always remembers Emmett. She moves to Detroit with her husband who works in the automobile industry. Following her husband's death, she returns to Money, to one final gathering of waters. It is 2005. Hurricane Katrina is churning in the Gulf of Mexico.
McFadden draws her cautionary tale to a stunning conclusion that still brings a lump to my throat. That may well be your reaction, too.
Jesmyn Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Salvage the Bones, wrote in her New York Times review of Gathering of Waters,
"...McFadden works a kind of miracle — not only do they retain their appealing humanity; their story eclipses the bonds of history to offer continuous surprises...
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/boo... , "Washing the Wounds," February 10, 2012, Sunday Book Review, New York Times.
McFadden beautifully reminds us of this:
Whether you have embraced this tale as truth or fantasy; I hope you will take something away from having read it. I pray that you will become more sensitive to world around you, the seen and unseen. As you go about your lives, keep in mind that an evil act can ruin generations, and gestures of love and kindness will survive and thrive forever.
That's good advice to remember long, long, after reading McFadden's haunting work. "Gathering of Waters" has earned every bit of praise it has garnered. Read it and pass it on.
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Aug 10, 2012
Aug 12, 2012
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Jan 01, 2006
Jul 20, 2010
Winter's Bone: Daniel Woodrell's Tale of When Blood is thicker than water
When I was a boy we had no Interstates. The car was not air-conditioned. A tr...more Winter's Bone: Daniel Woodrell's Tale of When Blood is thicker than water
When I was a boy we had no Interstates. The car was not air-conditioned. A trip from Tuscaloosa to North Alabama was a twisting, turning drive through mountains and steep valleys as you drove into the northern part of the County. We traveled early to avoid the afternoon heat. The mists rose up from the valleys making the mountains look as though they grew out of clouds. My grandfather would comment on the smell of the working stills hidden in the country we passed through. Although prohibition had ended decades before, many counties, ruled by Bible thumping Southern Baptists and Methodists voted to keep their Counties free of liquor. That Jesus turned water into wine seemed to have little influence on them.
North of Tuscaloosa Co., Alabama
When I became a man and a career prosecutor, violation of the prohibited liquors statutes were few and far between. As time passed one drug after another became the most desired. But nothing compared to methamphetamine and it's staying power, and the growing volume of cases that crossed my desk.
I've met cookers, dealers and users. Users tell me that Meth gave them the greatest sex they ever had and they kept looking for the same big bang with each time they used.
I just can't get no satisfaction...Before and After on Meth
That land up north of the County is still there, though I usually bypass it by taking the Interstate now. And I can't remember the last time I was in a dry County. But that country up there sounds a lot like the setting of Winter's Bone. The people up that way are a lot a like, too. They don't talk much, especially if you're the Law or you work with the Law. I worked two killings where the bodies both ended up on the Tiger Mine Strip Pit Road. It's a God forsaken place. And by the time you find a crime scene, any car involved has been stripped and burned, and the blow flies and maggots and just about anything that walks crawls or flies has turned what was a living human being into a mess of stinking goo. That trick of putting Vick's in your nose works a little bit, but the smell of death gets into your hair, mustache, and clothes.
There's always the guilty and always the innocent. It's the innocents that got left behind that always worried me the most.
In the early Meth days, cookers hadn't got their chemistry down real well. It wasn't unusual that a cooker blew himself and his lab sky high. The place stunk to high Heaven. Not even we knew how dangerous the fumes were when we went into one of the places. But in my line of work you developed a black sense of humor. Dang. Another one got it wrong. No file to open. Breaks your heart, don't it. Yep. Sure does. Reckon he's playin' his harp. Naw. He's tunin' his fork.
After a meth lab explosion
Daniel Woodrell has written a book that I identify with on a number of levels. It's my first Woodrell. But it won't be the last. And I won't forget this book for a long, long time. Frankly, I didn't think I needed to read about a Meth cooker. However, by page four I realized Woodrell didn't care about the cooker anymore than I did. This is about the innocents that get left behind and how they must get by, if they manage to get by at all.
And this is when Woodrell hooked me:
"Walnuts were still falling when Ree saw him last. Walnuts were thumping to ground in the night like stalking footsteps of some large thing that never quite came into view, and Jessup had paced on this porch in a worried slouch, dented nose snuffling, lantern jaw smoked by beard, eyes uncertain and alarmed by each walnut thump. The darkness and those thumps out in the darkness seemed to keep him jumpy. He paced until a decision popped into his head, then started down the steps, going fast into the night before his mind could change. He said, 'Start lookin' for me soon as you see my face. 'Til then, don't even wonder."
In a few terse sentences, Daniel Woodrell has introduced you to Jessup Dolly. Dolly is telling his seventeen year old daughter, Ree, goodbye. Dolly is a man on the run. He's the best Meth cooker in the Missouri Ozarks. The law has caught up with him. Jessup has done one stretch in the pen. He doesn't want to do another. He's out on bond, putting up his family's home and timberland. He has a court appearance in a week. He doesn't tell his daughter they're going to lose their home.
Jessup leaves behind a wife, either insane or in an advancing stage of dementia, two boys, and his seventeen year old daughter Ree. When you're a meth cooker's daughter you grow up hard and you grow up fast. Ree left school at sixteen to care for her mother and two younger brothers, Sonny and Harold.
No gas for the chainsaw? Ree chops wood for the potbelly stove with the ease of a lumberjack. No food on the table? Ree can bark a squirrel flattened against a tree limb with a .22 bullet. She rarely misses. Ammunition costs money.
Ree's got plenty of family. Jessup's brother, Tear Drop, named for a penitentiary tattoo, the Miltons, and the Halsam's. Pretty much everybody is kin through some degree of marriage or cousins, removed by generation or not.
Ree is a woman in an adolescent's body. She has satisfied her sexual curiosity, exploring pleasure with her girl friend Gail Lockrum. She knows how to kiss, but is disappointed with her first kiss with a boy when she asks for his tongue and he responds, "Yuck." Her first experience is with a doper friend of her father, Little Arthur. He gave her mushrooms and told her it would make her sandwich taste much better. She feels all ooey gooey and wonders if she had only imagined it until she found her panties ripped. Yeah, a doper's daughter grows up hard and fast.
When the bondsman comes looking for Jessup at the house, he tells Ree Jessup Dolly had signed away their home and land. Ree is determined to find her father in the week she has before his court date.
On her search, Ree descends into the dark secrets of her Ozark people. Blood is not always thicker than water. Thump Milton, the patriarch of the Milton clan will not help her and tells her to abandon her search. Sonny Blond Milton's extent of help is to offer to take in her younger brother Sonny, but not Harold. Seems there was a reason for Sonny being named Sonny, born while Jessup was away in prison. Ree thought Sonny never looked that much like Daddy.
Winter swirls through the mountains and valleys of the Missouri Ozarks. Ree must take shelter in a cave. An Ozark snow storm will chill you to the bone. She realizes that either she must find her father alive or dead or her family may end up living in one of those caves.
You can feel the cold in Woodrell's prose.
Yet, even Uncle Tear Drop will not help her. He takes her to a cabin destroyed by fire, a meth lab destroyed by a cook's mistake. He tells her that Jessup died there. But there is no proof of death.
Something is terribly wrong. Kin doesn't kill kin except for thievin' and...No her Dad wouldn't ever do that.
Ree is a heroine, courageous, responsible, and willing to do anything to save her family. Her father must be dead, but she needs proof. As Ree is caught up in swirling violence, frankly, my Dears, I didn't give a damn if he was dead. The guilty always leave the innocent behind.
Daniel Woodrell knows the Missouri Ozarks. He was born there, grew up there, and lives near the Arkansas line still. Winter's Boneis his eighth novel. Five of his novels have been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. I've got some catching up to do. So, Mr. Woodrell, keep writing. I'm going to be gaining on you.
Daniel Woodrell's lastest book is The Outlaw Album: Stories(less)
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Oct 11, 2012
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Dec 01, 1993
Sep 28, 1997
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Sep 26, 2012
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Jan 01, 1975
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks: Donald Harington's History of Stay More, Arkansas
THE STAY MORON'S OATH
Do you solemnly swear that country lif...more The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks: Donald Harington's History of Stay More, Arkansas
THE STAY MORON'S OATH
Do you solemnly swear that country life is
not only more peaceful than city life but
more likely to last into contented old age?
That strictly speaking, a “moron” is simply
a person preferring to keep to the age span
between seven and twelve years?
That it is possible to remain this age for all
of one’s long life?
That this is a good age for the hearing or
reading of stories?
That a good story is the sweetest way to
escape from the ordinary life?
That nothing is to be gained by leaving, that
the greatest of all decisions is staying?
That “more” means until you’re good and
ready to leave, at least not before supper
and ideally not before breakfast.
Then I, with the authority vested in me by
The Grand Architect of the Universe, do
hereby pronounce you citizens of Stay More,
with all the rights and privileges and pleasures
As administered by Donald Harington
Donald Harington, Born: December 22, 1935, Little Rock, Died: November 7, 2009, Springdale
What? You're not prepared to take this oath? You're not prepared to part with your iPhone 5? You've never wanted to get away from it all?
Big Creek Valley, Newton County, Arkansas
You're sitting there scratching your head, asking yourself, "What the Hell is this, anyway?" Well, I'll tell you. You knew I would, didn't you?
Contained in that oath is the philosophy of Donald Harington as he set out in his Stay More novels. There are twelve of them, with The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks actually being the third written by Harington.
You must understand that Harington did not write the novels in chronological sequence. We were first introduced to the town of Stay More in Lightning Bug, published in 1970, which was followed by Some Other Place. the Right Place.
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks is Harington's complete history of Stay More beginning with its earliest white inhabitants and carries us to the present. Here is the genealogy of Stay More beginning with two brothers, Noah and Jacob Ingledew who have left Tennessee because a man couldn't say "Darn" without being sermonized by some meddlesome preacher.
The story is told by an omniscient narrator, an unnamed architectural historian, who structures his tale through individual chapters devoted to the various structures erected throughout the history of the town. Now, how this historian knows the intimate details of the people who occupied each of these structures is not explained.
One might almost believe that this historian was there from the beginning, an observer so to speak. I leave it to the reader's own interpretation. I will only say that one of the consistent techniques that Harinton uses is a reference to the future in the concluding chapter of his novels. For Harington knows the disappointment of loving a book to the degree one doesn't want to see it end.
Harington frankly admits that "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" was inspired by his reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. In an interview with Edwin T. Arnold, Harington said:
"A dissertation could easily be written on the parallels between the two books. But at the time I wrote TAOTAO I didn't know what "Magic Realism" was. For that matter, I'm not sure I yet understand it. I admired what Garcia Marquez had done and wanted to emulate it, but I took pains to make sure that everything which happened in TAOTAO was possibly conceivable, believable. There are no flying carpets in TAOTAO nor any blood running endlessly down the street. So the "magic" of Garcia Marquez might be missing.
Harington's novel of Stay More is a tour de force of folklore, myth, and legend that mingles with that of the United States. Brother Noah is visited by Johnny Appleseed who helps him plant an apple orchard. In the years that follow, Noah, the perennial bachelor, becomes the favorite of Stay More's children whom he treats with candy apples when they visit him to listen to his stories.
And wouldn't you know it? Jacob Ingledew invents baseball at the very moment Abner Doubleday is credited with inventing the game at Cooperstown, New York.
Yet, while the history of Stay More may parallel that of America, Stay Morons are content to live by the old ways. They are firmly against "PROG RESS," as they call it. As Harington tells us,
“'Stay More' is synonymous with 'Status Quo' in fact, there are people who believe, or who like to believe, that the name of the town was intended as an entreaty, beseeching the past to remain present.”
Yet, change is inevitable, appearing in the form of Connecticut peddler Eli Willard. Willard sells the Ingledew brothers the first clock in Stay More. Over the years he brings whale oil, leading to a decade of light. He brings scissors for the women, pocket knives for the men, resulting in the fine art of whittling.
But there is also sinister change on the horizon, when Willard shows up with all manner of firearms. While Stay More has been a type of Eden, the American Civil War is looming. Jacob Ingledew is sent to the State Capital to determine the issue of secession. Of course, Ingledew is the only delegate to vote against secession, knowing that war will destroy the harmony of Stay More.
Arkansas is divided. However, Jacob returns to Stay More and does not relay the fact that war is coming, successfully keeping his town at peace for two years.
The Confederacy has a unique way of recruiting troops, however. Virdie Boatwright travels the countryside "raising" troops, by rewarding free sexual favors to any men who enlist with the Confederate Arkansawyers. She is quite successful. Even Jacob, who is recruited twice by Virdie, is tempted to join the Rebels.
Harington swings from comedy to tragedy as Arkansas is drawn into the war of brother against brother, with Jacob remaining a Union Man. Noah joins the Confederacy. As we are told at various times, the tale of Stay More is not always a happy one.
We travel through the generations of the residents of Stay More, the Ingledews, Dinsmores, Stains, Chisms. They are all here, including characters from the previous novels. Harington captures all the foibles, joys, and sadness of life. Oh, yes. If this hasn't piqued your interest, just know that the men and women of Stay More are a hard loving, libidinous bunch.
Caught with a lingering cold, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks kept me company for over two weeks. Reading Donald Harington is as comforting as a warm blanket, a good hot toddy, and the love of a good woman, not necessarily in that order.
I took the Stay Moron Oath after reading Lightning Bug. I have an idea if you enter these magic pages, you will, too.
As Jacob told his first visitor, an Indian named Fanshaw, who speaks perfect English, "Stay More. Hell, you just got here."
For those interested, my review of Lightning Bug is here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...(less)
Notes are private!
Dec 28, 2012
Jan 12, 2013
Dec 28, 2012
Apr 14, 1998
The Moviegoer: Walker Percy's Novel of "If That's All There Is"
Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's...more The Moviegoer: Walker Percy's Novel of "If That's All There Is"
Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is--Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
If Walker Percy's The Moviegoer ever hits the screen, I'm sure Peggy Lee singing "Is That All There Is" will be on the soundtrack. And, if Binx Bolling is there to see it, I wonder if he'll recognize himself.
Not in the mood for a little Camus? No Jean Paul Sartre? Well, "The Moviegoer" probably won't be your cup of tea either. It's existentialism Southern style, starring Binx Bolling a member of the well bred Bolling clan from Felicianas Parish, you know, Audobon's Happy Land, where America's best known ornithologist killed his specimens in order to paint them, and for some reason was dismissed more than once by well bred families whose daughters he was tutoring, or something or other.
It's not that Binx hasn't had significant events occur in his life that made him wonder what's it all about. After all, his father, committed suicide. Then there was that nasty little police action in Korea, during which he and his squad got caught in a tangle of barbed wire while being surrounded by Red Chinese troops blowing those bugles. It's all a bit disturbing.
After his excursion to the Orient, Binx heads home to New Orleans, where the family has now settled. Strong willed Aunt Emily who has served as his guardian sends Binx off to college, sure that he has a purpose filled life ahead of him. However, Binx, the classic fraternity man, drifts through college without obtaining a single honor.
Binx settles into professional life as a small time stockbroker in New Orleans. Although he is welcome to live in the family home in The Garden District, he kicks over the old family traces and rents an apartment in the Gentilly district, filled with Arts and Crafts bungalows and raised cottages.
Our anti-hero is much happier sitting in a darkened theater, content to while away his time watching the flickering images on the screen. He studies the movements and gestures of Gregory Peck and has Akim Tamaroff down to a tee. Catching William Holden strolling through the French Quarter is a highlight of one particular day in his life.
Binx tells us,
“The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.”
In addition to movies, Binx finds brief moments of solace in sex. Being a stockbroker requires a secretary. He has a string of them all named either Linda or Marcia. Acting Gregory Peckerish, Binx is quite adept at bedding his secretaries who have the essential interchangeable body parts along with their interchangeable names. However, brief moments of happiness only turn into a general malaise.
Binx is on some indefinable Search for some indefinable purpose. After all, if one is not on to something, one is in despair. Kierkegaard had a few things to say about that.
The action in "The Moviegoer" takes place during one week of Mardi Gras, when the entire city takes on an identity of its own, giving the novel a background of the absurd.
During that week, Aunt Emily will attempt to persuade Binx, about to turn thirty, to consider going to medical school. She will pay all expenses. He will have the studio behind the house with total privacy to pursue what she offers as a purpose filled life.
Is this the end of Binx's Search? There is the complication of cousin Kate, Binx's female counterpart to whom he proposes marriage. She, too, is on her own Search, having lost her college love in a car wreck years ago, lost in despair and depression with a predilection for a hand full of Nembutal. While half-heartedly wooing Kate, Binx is pursuing his latest secretary, Sharon. All in all, Binx is a bit of a cad, seeking the momentary pleasure as opposed to a lasting pleasure filled life.
"The Moviegoer" is a bitter pill to swallow. However, it is a masterpiece of loneliness that each of us has experienced at some point in our lives. Brilliantly written, this is a novel that deserved the National Book Award given in 1962. Percy has earned his slots on The Modern Library List of 100 Novels and Time Magazine's Greatest 100.
Now, that's done. Ah, yes. Peggy Lee. I think I'll break out the booze and have a ball. It's rather early. Perhaps I should make that a Bloody Mary. One for me. One for you.
Save this one for a rainy day Monday. Don't they always get you down?
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Aug 21, 2012
Aug 26, 2012
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Sep 06, 2012
The Yellow Birds: Kevin Powers' Novel of Young Men at War
Why the title, The Yellow Birds? Kevin Powers took it from a traditional marching cadence tha...more The Yellow Birds: Kevin Powers' Novel of Young Men at War
Why the title, The Yellow Birds? Kevin Powers took it from a traditional marching cadence that's been around a long time.
A yellow bird
with a yellow bill
was sitting on
my window sill
I lured him in
with a piece of bread
and then I smashed his f**king head.
Yellow birds in step
I can add little to what my friend Jeff Keeten has said about this powerful and terrible beauty of a book. While I read it first, and recommended it to him, you won't find a better review of it than his. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
Kevin Powers wrote from experience. After graduating from high school he joined the Army and was shipped to Iraq at the age of seventeen. He was a machine gunner in Mosul and Al Tafar. You know, two little towns that remained hot spots after President George W. appeared on an aircraft carrier replete with banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished."
Powers follows Private John Bartles, twenty-one, Private Daniel Murphy, eighteen, and their battle hardened Sergeant Sterling through Sterling's tough basic training and a brutal campaign in Al Tafar. Boots on the ground are worn by the young. Sterling is twenty-three.
Bartles meets Daniel's mother upon their graduation from basic training. She asks him the impossible--to keep Daniel safe and bring him back alive. Bartles makes a promise he cannot keep. Sterling immediately knocks him to the ground warning him never to make such a promise when war is involved.
In Al Tafar it is difficult to know who your enemies are. Bartles thinks about the kids to whom they throw candy today they may be fighting in a few years.
God, are any of 'em wired?
After George W. Bush declared "Mission accomplished" in 2003, we lost four thousand men and women. It was not a piece of cake. It was not a walk in the park. The people of Iraq did not meet us as liberators. There were no weapons of mass destruction. And the Big Green Machine is gone. To what end?
Kevin Powers has been likened to Erich Maria Remarque. This is a book that should be read by every American. For one has to wonder how many more war memorials does a nation need. How many more graves must be dug at Arlington?
"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."--Wilfred Owen
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Sep 22, 2012
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Apr 17, 2012
A Land More Kind Than Home: The Debut Novel of Wiley Cash
Wiley Cash takes his title from the final lines of You Can't Go Home Again by Thom...more A Land More Kind Than Home: The Debut Novel of Wiley Cash
Wiley Cash takes his title from the final lines of You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. The epigraph Cash chose sets the tone of the work that follows.
Something has spoken to me in the night...and told me I shall die. I know not where. Saying:
Cash skilfully spins his tale through three distinct points of view: Adelaide Lyle, an elderly lady who provides the history and background of the story, serving as moral conscience of the story; nine year old Jess Hall, the portrait of innocence lost; and Clem Barefield, sheriff of Madison County, North Carolina for twenty-five years. First taking office in 1961, Barefield sets the events in the story in 1986.
Madison County is as far west in North Carolina as you can get, butting against the border of Tennessee. Marshall is the County seat. A patchwork of deep wooded valleys and steep mountains, tobacco farmers in the western region of the state produce burley tobacco on farms hewed out of land more reminiscent of a network of roller coasters than agriculture.
Marshall, NC, County Seat of Madison County
Folks in the Appalachians are God fearing. Passing through, if the Spirit moves you, you won't have a problem finding a church. But I'd recommend steering clear of churches in old grocery stores and gas stations, especially if the name of the church ends in the words "in Signs Following." Folks put their faith on exhibition by handling serpents, drinking strychnine, and handling fire to see if it'll burn'em.
Inside a Church of Christ With Signs Following
Now, you take the church in this book. It didn't start out that way. Once upon a time it was the French Broad Church of Christ in a real cburch with pews and a steeple, headed up by Pastor Matthews. But the cancer got him back in 75. Then along comes this fellow from out of nowhere, name of Carson Chambliss.
It didn't take long for about half the congregation to up and leave when Chambliss took over pastoring. Without half the congregation, the bank took the church and sold it to the Presbyterians. That was fine with Chambliss who moved the church down to the old grocery store and papered the windows so nobody passing by could see what was going on inside that building.
Chambliss put up a sign by the road at the edge of the parking lot and changed the name to River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following. Now, you remember what I told you about those churches ending their name in Signs Following. Underneath the name of the church he painted Mark 16: 17-18. That's those verses that say you got faith you can pick up serpents, drink poison, and the Holy Ghost will keep you safe.
"I'd seen people I'd known just about my whole life pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them. Holy people, too...that hadn't ever acted like that a day in their lives. But Chambliss convinced them it was safe to challenge the will of God."
I'm nine and my brother is eleven. His name is Christopher but everybody calls him Stump. He's never said a word. He's bigger than me but I'm the leader. We live with Mama and Daddy. Daddy grows tobacco. When he hangs it in the barn and it dries out it smells so good.
Stump and I get in trouble with Mama when we snoop. There's things we shouldn't know about. One day Stump and me were outside and heard the noises Mama and Daddy make sometimes when we're told to go outside and play. Stump climbed up on the rain barrel but it wasn't Daddy in there making those noises. I saw Mama's preacher leave the house and he looked at me and Stump. I didn't tell Daddy about the noises.
On Sunday Mama went down to the church like she always does. Daddy doesn't go. Instead of leaving us at Sunday School with Miss Adelaide, Mama took Stump with her. I wanted to go, but she wouldn't let me. Only Stump. She took him to night church, too. I don't know what happened. But Stump died. Daddy got so mad at the men from church that brought Stump home he hit them and hit them.
Twenty five years next month. That's how long I've been Sheriff here in Madison County. My grandfather was Sheriff over in Henderson County. And my father farmed apples there. Hendersonville, Flat Rock, they're little more than an hour away, but living here is as close to living in a different world as you can get, no matter how old you get.
People here are different. They're superstitious. Know the old mountain ways. Religion is so thick in the hills and hollers up here you can stir it with a stick. But I haven't had a reason to set foot inside a church in more years than I can count, especially after my son Jeff died. It's not natural for a man to outlive his son. Jeff and Ben Hall were friends, good friends. Ben settled down, married, became a good farmer, a good provider.
There's calls you get that don't amount to nothin'. Then there's those you get you can't forget. My wife Sheila handed me the phone and it was Robby, my Deputy, telling me Ben Hall's boy Stump was laying dead up at Adelaide Lyle's house. Killed in that damned church over on River Road.
Sheila told me not to let things get out of hand. There's some times though you can't keep from gettin' out of hand. Specially when that damned crazy preacher Chambliss is at the bottom of things. How the Hell does a boy get killed in a church? Why in the Hell do you kill a child who is incapable of speaking a word?
Wiley Cash can write. He can tell a story. Cash began A Land Before Time while a graduate student in Louisiana. His mentor, as he worked on his dissertation, was Ernest Gaines. What an opportunity!
Ernest Gaines--I love me some Ernest Gaines' Books
Everyone seems to love this book. Cash is one of the new darlings of the publishing world. His interview with Vanity Fair is entitled "Author Wiley Cash on Being the “Justin Timberlake of American Literature." http://www.vanityfair.com/online/dail...
The dust jacket gleams with blurbs to the point you'd think this book came wrapped in stars. Clyde Edgerton said it would knock your socks off. Gail Godwin said it was like stepping into a Greek tragedy. Ernest Gaines' blurb is a little bit more interesting. Although it begins with a glow it dims to a weak glimmer. "I think this could be the beginning of a long fruitful career."
In an interview with Brad Wetherell in Fiction Writers Review Cash said he got the basic idea of his plot from a newspaper clipping about a young autistic boy being smothered during a healing ceremony in a store front church in Chicago. Cash wanted to move it South to North Carolina. http://fictionwritersreview.com/inter...
I wish I could love this book as many reviewers and readers seem to. However, as well as Cash can cause the reader to keep turning the pages, he leaves some mighty big gaps in his story.
How was Chambliss chosen as the new minister at the ill-fated church? How did Chambliss manage to convert a Church of Christ into an unquestioning foot stompin', snake handlin' strychnine drinkin' fire handlin' bunch with such ease?
Sure, this is a work of fiction. But even writers of fiction might do a little research about an area in which so much documentation exists, such as the Holiness Church movement. Bottom line, there are few converts to serpent handling. These churches, found up through Appalachia, consist of small congregations which include descendants of the original founding members. They don't grow into practicing churches overnight. Cash should read Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington.
Cash is being touted as the next Tom Franklin. Sorry. Franklin never left so many gaps in a story. I think Ernest Gaines is right. This book could be the beginning of a fruitful career. Or it could turn into a series of incredulous stories. The choice is Cash's.
I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading this book. I rate it a 4 for the prose, a 3 for the plot with an over-all 3.5. Hallelujah!
UPDATE: Chosen as a group read by members of On the Southern Literary Trail for August, 2013. http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/6...(less)
Notes are private!
Sep 22, 2012
Sep 26, 2012
Sep 22, 2012
Oct 29, 1991
The Hamlet: Faulkner's Novel of the Snopes Trilogy
Reviewed by V.K. Ratliff
Things were right quiet down at Frenchman's Bend. No, not up at the old Sutp...more The Hamlet: Faulkner's Novel of the Snopes Trilogy
Reviewed by V.K. Ratliff
Things were right quiet down at Frenchman's Bend. No, not up at the old Sutpen place. This down south an' east of town.
Ever man knew how things worked. It wasn't the best place to live. Old Will Varner owned about ever thing worth anythin'. Most of the men farmed their cotton on shares on land owned by Varner. But a man could make a livin' on shares and have a roof over his head which he most likely paid Varner for. An when they made their crop Varner ginned it. An they got their shares. Their credit was good at Varner's store, too. An' that come out of their shares, too.
Now, I remember the day Ab Snopes come to the Bend. I had knowed him since I was eight years old. He had been around Yoknapatawpha all the way back to the War Between the States, him and Granny Millard dealing in mules, mostly the same mules over an over. The whole mess soured that man.
Ab come into town an' that darn fool Jody, Old Will's son went an' rented to Ab. Rentin' to a barn burner isn't good business. Never has been. You can ask Colonel de Spain in town. Course, nobody ever proved Ab done that. Jody's eyes got big as saucers when I told him what he'd gone an' done.
But Ab weren't the worst of it. It was that son of his, Flem. An Flem got hired on as clerk down at the store. Kinda a type of fire insurance if you get my meanin'.
Then those Snopeses come crawlin' into the hamlet like cockroaches out of the woodwork. Except it was more like those locusts Moses called down on Egypt.
That Flem. He had a head for money. Better than Jody an' as good as Will Varner. But he was like that catarrh that fills up your chest when you have the ague. You hawk an cough an it's stuck there until you can finally hawk it up. Then even when you spit it out you still taste it. That was Flem.
Nobody could beat Flem. An' he even done away with credit at the store.
Will Varner had a daughter named Eula. Pretty thing. Don't think she knew the effect she had on men, not for a while until all the boys come around. An then it was the older ones showed up. She had more movin' parts on her than a woman should be allowed. And when she comes up in the family way, it's Flem that marries her. An it's off to Texas.
There's a lot more you'll find out about those Snopeses. An I'm ashamed to say me an Henry Armstid an Bookwright without knowin' it made it possible for Flem an that crowd of cousins of his to head to Jefferson. Good ole V.K. that everbody likes, noddin', smilin', sellin' sewin' machines on notes, tellin' tall tales. An everbody would just laugh an laugh. But there's nuthin' to laugh about no more.
All that greed, all that's dishonest an untruthful's headin' into Town. Gawdamighty what have I gone an done? That Flem, thinkin' a little tie an a white shirt an money can make a man respectable. I'm goin to have to watch him an all them. It's what I turned loose. Sholy.
Notes are private!
Aug 02, 2012
Aug 10, 2012
Aug 02, 2012
Nov 01, 1995
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Dennis Covington's Adrenaline Rush
King James Version (KJV)
15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world...more Salvation on Sand Mountain: Dennis Covington's Adrenaline Rush
King James Version (KJV)
15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
19 So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.
20 And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.
I had intended to read this book for some time, but had just not gotten to it. I picked it up after reading A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. Cash's book dealt with a mean snake handling preacher. But being a work of fiction, the background on the practice of picking up serpents was lacking.
Mark 16:18 in action
There, now. That ought to have your attention. It certainly got Dennis Covington's. Covington will tell you that he has lived life on the edge and is an adrenaline junkie.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1948, Covington was raised in the almost middle class community of East Lake. Although drafted during the Vietnam War he was stationed state side in Louisiana. Following his hitch in the service, Covington obtained his BA in English from the University of Virginia in 1970. He obtained his MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop under the tutelage of Raymond Carver.
So far that sounds relatively tame. However, Covington wanted to go to a war. The only one available at the time was the Civil War in El Salvador. He and a photographer friend wrangled press credentials from the NY Times. Covington made a dozen trips to El Salvador in 1983, ending up in a number of situations that could have cut his bibliography rather short.
In 1991, Glenn Summerford, a serpent handling minister in Scottsboro, Alabama (yes, that Scottsboro, as in The Scottsboro Boys) was looking to change wives. However, his church doctrine dictated that divorce would prevent his continuing to preach. He decided to become a widower. After getting good and liquored up, Brother Glenn took his wife Darlene's sweet little hand and shoved it into a box of rattle snakes. She was bitten once. Glenn decided he needed to cover his tracks and forced Darlene to write a suicide note dictated by him as he held a gun to her head. When Darlene didn't die from the first bite, he forced her hand back into the box of snakes and she was bitten again. Glenn continued to drink, watching Darlene and waiting for her to die. Luckily, Glenn passed out. Darlene got to a phone, called her sister and told her to get an ambulance up the road with no lights or sirens. Darlene lived. Glenn Summerford was tried for attempted murder.
And that began Covington's journey, journalistic and personal. He was assigned to cover Summerford's trial. Summerford was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in the state penitentiary.
Darlene and Glenn Summerford on the cover of Serpent And The Spirit: Glenn Summerford'S Story by Thomas Burton
After covering the trial, Covington decided to continue his story, following members of the church without a preacher. Covington is accepted by members of the congregation and begins an odyssey from church to church from Alabama to Kentucky. In search of spiritual ecstasy, Covington crosses the line from journalist to convert.
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia is a harrowing read. Covington provides a history of the Holiness Church movement begun by George Went Hensley. Sources indicate Hensley began the practice of serpent handling between 1910 and 1913. The movement spread through coal mining towns throughout Appalachia and remains actively practiced today, although it is subject to prosecution in each state with the exception of West Virginia.
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia was a National Book Award Finalist in 1995. The book was awarded the 1996 Boston Book Review's Anne Rea Jewell Non-Fiction Prize. Since 2003 Covington has taught creative writing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. His most recent book is Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws and the Demise of an American Dream. Covington is married to Alabama author Vicki Covington. He no longer picks up serpents.
Update 5/30/2013: Suggested as a possible group read for Pulp Fiction http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/5... under discussion of genre "Country Noir." I call it "Grit Lit," as a number of authors and other readers have dubbed it. (less)
Notes are private!
Sep 28, 2012
Oct 03, 2012
Sep 28, 2012