Monday, August 30, 2010

And in this pulpit . . .

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Last week was William James week over at the Second Pass, and I contributed a post on the section in James’s Varieties of Religious Experience that deals with ghostly presences. If you’re a ghost story fan, that portion of the Varieties, though brief, is well worth seeking out: it offers up a number of accounts of visitations by sources James deemed reliable, most of them of the vague presence variety, but some more clearly embodied, the best--so creepy in its inexplicable, specific strangeness that it seems designed to drive the visitant mad--being,
the figure of a gray-bearded man dressed in a pepper and salt suit, squeezing himself under the crack of the door and moving across the floor of the room towards a sofa.
The mention of James’s inquiries into religious feeling give me the thinnest of excuses--all I need, being a blogger--to bring together a couple of very entertaining accounts of sermons I read this weekend.

First, from Brady Udall’s moving, funny novel The Lonely Polygamist (2010), which Second Pass proprietor John Williams reviewed well for the Barnes & Noble Review back in May, this memory, from the polygamist of the title, of an early encounter with story of Jonah:
He had first heard it one sticky fall morning at the Holiness Church of God in Jesus’ Name, sitting in the rough cypress pew next to his mother. The Reverend Marvin J. Peete had been cycling through his weekly routine, which involved warbling snippets of gospel standards into the microphone with the husky whisper of a nightclub crooner and then suddenly barking out terrifying declamations of Repentance! and Apocalypse! and Blood of the Lamb! But on that day his voice lowered and he began to tell a story about Jonah, the man who had disobeyed God and as a result had been swallowed by a “great and terrible fish.” . . . [He] liked . . . the description of Jonah’s time inside the whale, which was spent, according to the reverend, praying and singing canticles while perched on a giant kidney under festoons of intestines and trembling stalactites of whale mucus. Reverend Peete might not have had a solid grasp of marine mammal anatomy, but he made up for it with his descriptions of the glistening liver upon which Jonah made his bed at night and the wash of spiky and tentacled sea creatures, dead and alive, foaming around the prophet’s legs while he implored the Almighty for mercy. It took three days, apparently , for the great fish to tire of having his kidney used as a bean bag, and when Jonah was vomited up on the beach, Reverend Peete nearly gave himself in to an apoplectic fit with the glory of this moment. He cried, “Oh, Jonah! God’s reluctant servant! Look at him there, washed up on that foreign shore! Half blind and tangled up in seaweed and whatnot. And that horrible smell? It’s Jonah, people, covered with fish parts and digestive juices and so forth.”
Not much on the religious front ever registered when I was kid: I’m a fair hand with the Bible, but belief was never, I think, to be my lot. Yet I do think that slime-soaked delivery of the story of Jonah would have been much, much more likely to pierce my adolescent consciousness than the immaculate ejection favored by your average children’s Bible illustrator.

And now, for a more cynical look at the Sunday lesson, I’ll turn to James Lees-Milne, from his memoir, Another Self (1970). Lees-Milne was raised on a family estate, and his father was in a lingering feudal sense the head of the local church, which was on the Lees-Milne’s land. The father’s true church, if he had one, was the horse track, a place that the vicar made frequent, barely oblique, denunciations of from the pulpit:
The victim would visibly squirm in the manor pew. Not satisfied with this awful warning the Vicar would after a pause give the answer in a voice so like my father’s as to be an unmistakable imitation, “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” All my father could do was shake his head. In that way the Vicar won the first round.
But Lees-Milne’s father got his own back when it came time to do the day’s Bible reading, which he got to choose:
On one occasion in a particularly vindictive mood he announced, “Here beginneth the 36th chapter of the Book of Genesis, verses 1 to 43."

After transfixing the Vicar in his turn with a steely eye, he started off: “Now these are the generations of Esau, who is Edom. Esau took his wives of the daughters of Canaan; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah the daughter of Annah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite; and Bashemath Ismael’s daughter, sister of Nebajoth. And Adah bare to Esau, Eliphaz: and Bashemath bare Reuel.” On and on he droned. This was what he called enjoying his pound of flesh. First the farmers’ wives, then Miss Empey, although so devout, then the schoolmistress dropped off, and last of all the servants from the manor at the risk of a severe reprimand after the service. Not so the Vicar. He shifted, took off his pince-nez, cleared his throat, and puffed out his cheeks to no avail. My father droned on.
Yet another reminder that even for a nonbeliever, the Bible can make a pretty good weapon--there’s no bore like a Begat bore.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Delighting in the young Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford’s novels seem to have been designed specifically for a lovely summer night; they’re back-steps, cocktail-in-hand, end-of-work-week novels, light as air and wonderfully fun. I was pleased to learn recently that Vintage has returned a batch of them to print, to join The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, which they’ve long had available. The two Love novels are unquestionably better books: their voice is more distinct and individual, and both their comedy and their gentle satire feel more organic and natural than in the other books, which betray the distinct influences of the other comic writers of the period, in particular Wodehouse and Mitford’s good friend Evelyn Waugh. But to be reminiscent of those two is no sin, and fans of either would likely enjoy Mitford’s work.

Last night’s reading was Wigs on the Green (1935), Mitford’s third novel, and the only one never reprinted in her lifetime. It was left to languish for the sake of Mitford’s relationship with her sisters: its portrait of nascent British fascists struck a bit too close to home for Diana, soon to become Mrs. Oswald Mosley, and Unity, who would fall under Hitler’s spell and eventually attempt suicide rather than face the thought of war between England and Germany.

This many years later, the gentleness with which Mitford portrays the fascists takes a bit of getting used to: much like Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode, they are regarded as merely another offshoot of basic English eccentricity, very strange but without any hint of danger. Nancy herself, in a letter to Evelyn Waugh in 1951, wrote,
Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as funny or as anything but the worst of taste. After all, it waswritten in 1934, I really couldn’t quite have foreseen all that came after.
Fascists aside, however, the novel does offer plenty of charms.

It is built around a visit by a pair of very Wodehousian bachelors to a small village, in search of heiresses to woo--which offers much room for witty, drily 1930s dialogue about men and women, love and marriage, and fidelity (or its lack). My favorite exchange is this one, which finds one of those bachelors trying to talk Poppy, a woman he has fallen for, into leaving her husband for him:
”You can’t keep me,” said Poppy,” in the comfort to which I have been accustomed.”

“Same to you, my angel.”

“I dare say, but wives aren’t expected to keep their husbands.”

“I never could see why not. It seems so unfair.”

“Not at all. The least the chaps can do is provide for us financially when you consider that we women have all the trouble of pregnancy and so on.”

“Well, us boys have hang overs don’t we? Comes to the same thing in the end.”
That same bachelor, revealing even more clearly his feckless amorality, elsewhere offers his fellow fortune hunter this unforgettable piece of advice:
”There are times, my dear old boy, when love has got to take its proper place as an unethical and anti-social emotion.”
A line that could have come straight out of Waugh, no?

With that, I'll leave you to your weekend. May you spend it reading an author as delightful as Nancy Mitford.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

People who liked this book also liked . . .

I wrote recently about some hints that Donald Westlake embedded in A Jade in Aries (1970) that he was the person behind the “Tucker Coe” to whom the book was credited. Now that I’ve seen the dustjacket from the original cloth edition of the previous Tucker Coe novel, Wax Apple, which I picked up from the library this week, I realize that Random House certainly wasn’t trying very hard to keep Coe’s identity a secret. Take a look at the back of the jacket:

"If you’ve enjoyed this Random House mystery don’t miss Donald E. Westlake’s Somebody Owes Me Money"

What’s odd about this is that it’s not at all clear that someone who enjoys a Tucker Coe novel would enjoy Somebody Owes Me Money. The Coe novels are serious and straightforward, focused on the ways that the brooding, disgraced cop at their center finds himself again and again drawn out of seclusion by his empathy and sense of justice. Somebody Owes Me Money, on the other hand, is one of Westlake’s funniest books, a near manic comedy that is driven by a wonderfully distinct narrative voice that declares itself right in the opening line: "I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent." On top of that, while the Tucker Coe novels are some of Westlake’s few straightforward mystery novels, with clues and a solution and all that, in Somebody Owes Me Money, Westlake was so unconcerned about the plot that he left it unresolved--at least, that is, until recently, whenHard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai asked him about it. As Charles explained in an interview a while back,
When I pointed out that Somebody Owes Me Money ended without ever resolving the central plot thread of someone owing the narrator money, Don graciously penned a few new lines to tie off the loose end.
Much as I love Somebody Owes Me Money--which you should read, if you haven’t--I think Random House would have been better off suggesting The Sour Lemon Score, which had also just been published. That still wouldn’t have gotten Westlake’s name onto the jacket, of course, but it would at least have been one step closer.

A final note: check out the last paragraph of the descriptive copy for Somebody Owes Me Money:
[It] pratfalls onto the scene, joining Donald E. Westlake’s earlier comic capers to show that crime can be capital fun and the world owes us a laughing.
“Owes us a laughing”? Is that a phrase that anyone has ever actually used, or is this a case of a Random House marketing lackey on deadline just making something up? We copy writers have been known to do that . . .

Monday, August 23, 2010

“The quantity is naturally indefinite,” Or, Prohibition and its discontents

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Earlier this summer I read, all in a rush, Daniel Okrent’s wonderful history of Prohibition, Last Call, and ever since, I’ve been taking note of mentions of the ban in the books I read.

First, there’s John O’Hara, in The Girl on the Baggage Truck (1960), looking back on that period:
All this was thirty years ago, as remote-seeming to many people today as the Gay Nineties had seemed to me. New York now is as different from New York then as New York then was from London. The one pervasive factor in all our lives was Prohibition, which made lawbreakers of us all and gave a subtly conspiratorial, arcane touch to the simple act of dining out. Even that was phony, for there were only a few speakeasies which you could not talk your way into, where you had to be known.
Apparently it wasn’t so easy in upstate New York--at least if this scene from Edmund Wilson’s gin-soaked novel of bohemian life in 1920s New York, I Thought of Daisy (1929), is accurate:
“I’m sorry that I can’t offer you a drink--but the only things we can get around here are apple and alcohol, and both of them are vile. We’ve finally come to the conclusion that it’s really more considerate to the guests not to offer them anything at all!”--“We hoped you might bring something with you,” said Daisy, looking up with her sweet candid smile. She was dealing out white plates around a table in the middle of the room. I apologized for not having thought of it. “We never think of it ourselves--if you can believe me,” Pete insisted. “It’s almost impossible to get any kind of decent liquor--in New York or anywhere else--and the kind of drinks that you can get just don’t interest me!” I agreed with him heartily and added that the trouble with New York was that everybody there drank far too much bad liquor. “That’s why we came to the country,” said Daisy. “We decided that it was that or the drunkard’s home!”
The British never quite understood the very American experiment that was Prohibition, and who better to flaut the law than Winston Churchill? William Manchester, in his biography of Churchill, The Last Lion (1983), quotes a diary entry from Winston’s son, Randolph, from a trip to America with his father in 1929:
We are now in the ship bound to Seattle, American soil and Prohibition. But we are well-equipped. My big flask is full of whisky and the little one contains brandy. I have reserves of both in medicine bottles. It is almost certain that we shall have no trouble. Still if we do, Papa pays the fine and I get the publicity.” Papa would have been hit by both; he had a case of brandy in stone hot-water bottles.
On a later trip, in 1932, an auto accident--Churchill was hit by a car as he crossed 79th Street at the edge of Central Park--provided the perfect pretext for his doctor to, as Manchester puts it, rescue him
from the hardship of Prohibition with a note on his stationery: “This is to certify that the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits, especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters [slightly over eight ounces].”
That white lie, and its malign effects, was the sort that John O’Hara had in mind when he launched into a fire sermon on the period in his novella Imagine Kissing Pete (1960):
We had come to our maturity and our knowledgeability during the long decade of cynicism that was usually dismissed as “a cynical disregard of the law of the land,” but that was something else, something deeper. The law had been passed with a “noble” but nevertheless cynical disregard of men’s right to drink. It was a law that had been imposed on some who took pleasure in drinking by some who did not. And when the law was an instant failure, it was not admitted to be a failure by those who had imposed it. They fought to retain the law in spite of its immediate failure and its proliferating corruption, and they fought as hard as they would have for a law that had been an immediate success. They gained no recruits to their own way; they had only deserters, who were not brave deserters but furtive ones; there was no honest mutiny but only grumbling and small disobediences. And we grew up listening to the grumbling, watching the small disobediences; laughing along when the grumbling was intentionally funny, imitating the small disobediences in other ways beside the customs of drinking. It was not only a cynical disregard for a law of the land; the law was eventually changed. Prohibition, the zealots’ attempt to force total abstinence on a temperate nation, made liars of a hundred million men and cheats of their children; the West Point cadets who cheated in examinations, the basketball players who connived with gamblers, the thousands of uncaught cheats in the high schools and colleges. We had grown up and away from our earlier esteem of God and country and valor, and had matured at a moment when riches were vanishing for reasons that we could not understand. We were the losing, not the lost, generation. . . . We knew everything, but we were incapable of recognizing the meaning of our complacency.
Given such an anomie--to say nothing of the booze that underlies it--it’s no surprise that O’Hara can be relied on in the matter of hangovers. In Appointment in Samarra (1935), he presents a memorable account:
He had felt physically worse many times, but this was a pretty good hangover. It is a pretty good hangover when you look at yourself in the mirror and can see nothing above the bridge of your nose. You do not see your eyes, nor the condition of your hair. You see your beard, almost hair by hair; and the hair on your chest and the bones that stick up at the base of your neck. You see your pajamas and the lines in your neck, and the stuff on your lower lip that looks as though it might be blood but never is. You first brush your teeth, which is an improvement but leaves something to be desired. Then you try Lavoris and then an Eno’s. By the time you get out of the bathroom you are ready for another cigarette and in urgent need of coffee or a drink, and you wish to God you could afford a valet to tie your shoes. You have a hard time getting your feet in your trousers, but you finally make it, having taken just any pair of trousers, the first your hands touched in the closet. But you consider a long, long time before selecting a tie. You stare at the ties; stare and stare at them, and you look down at your thighs to see what color suit you are going to be wearing. Dark gray. Practically any tie will go with a dark gray suit.
And with that, it’s time to toss back a chaser of water, with a toast to Aristotle, who I believe liked to say, as cocktail hour approached in ancient Athens, “All things in moderation, my friends--including all things in moderation.”

Friday, August 20, 2010

Using technology, I wrote this post two days before it appeared!, Or, Oh, the present!

{Photo of me at the Piknic Electronik by rocketlass.}

I have been accused, in my day, of being a bit of a fuddy-duddy. A stick-in-the-mud. Even when I was in college, I was known, only half in jest, as an old man. You might think that five years of blogging--of embracing the new!--might change that perception, but . . . no. Not really. After all, I still don’t generally carry a cell phone.

Even I, however, think that the lament below, by the ever-entertaining Charles Lamb, on the disappearance of the sundial--the sundial!--is a bit much:
What a dead thing is a clock, with its ponderous embowelments of lead and brass, its pert or solemn altar-like structure, and silent heart-language of the old dial! It stood as the garden god of Christian gardens. Why is it almost every where vanished?
Yet when he moves into particulars, I find myself falling under the spell of his argument:
If its business-use be superseded by more elaborate inventions, its moral uses, its beauty, might have pleaded for its continuance. It spoke of moderate labours, of pleasures not protracted after sun-set, of temperance and good-hours. It was the primitive clock, the horologe of the first world. Adam could scarce have missed it in Paradise. It was the measure appropriate for sweet plants and flowers to spring by, for flocks to pasture and be led to fold by. The shepherd “carved it out quaintly in the sun;” and, turning philosopher by the very occupation, provided it with mottoes more touching than tombstones.
Even as someone who has no trouble closing the laptop in favor of hours with a book, I have to admit to finding Lamb’s vision of the slowly moving hours of past days compelling.

Yet--to bridge, however temporarily, distant past and ever-rushing present--surely even Lamb would have been enchanted by the implicit combination of romance and doom that is a clock tower, as in “September 3, 1943,” from Amanda Laughtland’s Postcards to Box 464 (2010):
Most everyone goes through
the Ferry Building, riding boats or rails
in all directions. Smoking,

waiting, men check their watches
against the clock tower.
And even if one can’t imagine his reaction to a clock tower, surely Lamb--though known for his buoyant temperament--would have at minimum agreed with the sentiment of the concluding lines of Laughtland’s poem:
. . . Some ways

I like it here, and again I don’t.
Or, as a good friend once put it in a song lyric, “I’m in love with the modern world / till I stop to think about it.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dipping into "the higher gossip," Or, Time to read James Lees-Milne

In the Barnes and Noble Review this week, Michael Dirda writes in praise of English diarist James Lees-Milne, whose many volumes of diaries and one volume of memoir, Another Self (1970), Dirda argues, belong on the short shelf of masterpieces of “the higher gossip”:
Their pages are packed with amusing anecdotes, erotic adventures, moral observations, lyrical evocations of the past, bits of biography, encounters with unusual people, and glorious descriptions of nature, art, places, and society. These are, in short, works that recreate a time and a place, while also plunging us deep into a tattered human heart.
I’ve only ever glanced at Lees-Milne, but the passages that Dirda draws out of his diaries are entertaining enough to guarantee that I’ll give him a more serious read.

It seems a fitting, as a coda to Monday’s post about sex and vulgarity, to highlight some of the spicier bits that Dirda quotes. Like this scene, from Lees-Milnes’s memoir, in which his mother, about to turn him loose at boarding school, realizes that he should probably be told about sex:
'Which reminds me,' she added, in a rather portentous and uncharacteristic tone, 'your father would wish me to give you a little, just a little piece of advice. About life generally.' She paused, and then suddenly corrected herself. 'On the whole, it might be better if you asked the headmaster to explain all about the disgusting side of it.' And then to herself and half aloud, she added 'Not that I myself have ever found it exactly that.'
Or this, from the diaries:
Dined with Charles Fry [a director of the publishing house Batsford's] back from the States. He drank seven whiskies and soda while I was with him between 7:30 and 10:30. He is violently pro-American and anti-English. He said he had been away eleven and a half weeks and slept with forty people during that time.
I find hints of Powellian characterization in that description, reminiscent of some of the lines in Powell’s notebooks--which is perhaps not surprising, as the two were contemporaries and ran in not dissimilar circles of upper-class artists, writers, and hangers-on.

Lees-Milne turns up in Powell’s own journals in a handful of places, a couple of them interesting enough to pass on. First, there is an entry describing a luncheon with Lees-Milne and his wife, Alvilde, on August 20, 1987, before which Powell had just finished re-reading the Diaries, as a counterpoint to the letters of Rupert Hart-Davis and Lord Lyttleton (which Dirda, by the way, also praises). Writes Powell,
He has less of Rupert’s practical grasp of how people react in relation to the arts, books, or journalism, though often acute in the Diaries about individuals’ social behaviour, with which he came in much amusing contact among owners of more-or-less stately homes.
Later, Powell notes that he
quite misjudged Jim’s reaction to my having reread (I think for third time) and enjoyed, all his Diaries. I supposed he would be greatly interested in small points in them I brought up, but he scarcely noticed these, only saying something like, “Oh, how could you wade through all that?”
Which jibes with a telling observation Powell made a couple of years later, in July of 1991, following another lunch:
He is oddly uninterested in his own life, which I noticed when he lunched with us.
If true, that would put him at odds with other masters of “the higher gossip” from Dirda’s list--such as my longtime favorites Casanova and Boswell--but would help explain his apparent attention, appreciated by Powell, to the oddities of others.

Before I hie myself to the library in search of some Lees-Milne, it seems right to leave you with some lines from Powell’s notebooks that I suspect Lees-Milne, with his broad experience of people, would have appreciated. First, a sentiment that surely anyone dealing with the superannuated super-wealthy would agree with:
The actual existence of other people gets on the nerves of some individuals.
Then, to bring things back full circle to the topic of love and sex, a line from Lees-Milne’s assessment of Emily Bronte,
It is unfulfilled love which intensifies passion.
--which, Powell might add, also has the benefit of keeping the lover from ever realizing that:
All love affairs are special cases, and yet at the same time each is the same case.
An argument that, for all his narcissism and self-regard, I think even Casanova would find congenial.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Keep your pants on!, Or, Mr. O'Hara regrets to inform you that he'll be late for lunch.

I fear that Friday’s post on swearing may have dragged my mind temporarily to the gutter, for, on reading the following passage in Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of John O’Hara, The Art of Burning Bridges, my first thought was that I had to share it with you folks:
Eventually [John] McClain was shocked by his roommate, when he returned home from the Sun with a young woman to pick up O’Hara for a lunch date. Having forgotten the engagement, O’Hara greeted the couple wearing his underpants, instructed them to wait while he concluded an ongoing chore, and, without closing the door to his bedroom, wrapped up a performance--theatrically strident--of lovemaking. He had partners aplenty, and each was destined to learn from O’Hara the names and preferences of the others. Such narratives, even more than the knowledge of his promiscuity and his frequent contagions of the clap, tempered the devotion of the women he pursued during the McClain period.
Now, to each his own, but if you were to show up for a lunch date to find such a performance underway, would you not count it as a de facto cancellation of the date? And therefore not wait it out? How excruciatingly uncomfortable those minutes must have been . . .

Which reminds me of a line from the oral biography of George Plimpton, George, Being George. In the middle of a batch of accounts of Plimpton’s--and, apparently, everyone’s--freewheeling sex life in the early 1970s, his friend Fayette Hickock says,
When I think about George going to orgies,, I think of him not as leering with his tongue dangling out, but just as George as George. Like, okay, wow, let’s see where this is going to take us.
Elsewhere in the book, Gay Talese describes 1970s America as “the most sexually permissive place in the history of the world,” which, by what feels like an almost medieval association of opposites, makes me think of Adam Thirlwell’s discussion in The Delighted States of an anthology of Laurence Sterne’s writing called The Beauties of Sterne that was published in 1782, after Sterne’s death:
The writer of the “Preface” to The Beauties of Sterne expressed sadness that the “chaste lovers of literature” had been “deprived” of the possible “pleasure and instruction” to be derived from the works of Laurence Sterne--since they could not risk encountering the “obscenity which taints the writing of Sterne”: “his Sentimental Journey, in some degree, escaped the general censure, though that is not entirely free of the fault complained of.” The purpose of The Beauties of Sterne was therefore to give the reader an expurgated version of the works of Laurence Sterne. But this is not an easy task, to expurgate the work of Laurence Sterne--because it is not easy, turning an unserious novel into a serious extract.
That said, much of what offended in Sterne in 1782, while still entertaining, looks relatively mild these days--and what is more fun in Sterne, anyway, is his more subtly sexual matter, much of which, Thirlwell points out, escaped the censor:
Sterne was exploiting the fact that sexual vocabulary does not quite exist; it mimes the ordinary vocabulary of sexuality. A person can talk about sex while pretending to talk about niceness. A person can talk about sex without ever mentioning sex: the point of flirting is its utilitarian benefit, is that it allows for deniability.
Much, much more fun than O’Hara’s boorishness, no? The martini as opposed to the Jager Bomb, in a sense.

To close, a poem from a man who would not have stinted at Jager Bombs--so long as there was quantity--any more than he balked at public lewdness: Lord Rochester. Here, however, he drops his vulgarities in favor of a flirtatious subtlety, as he attempts to put over a not-particularly-convincing denial of unfaithfulness:
Love and Life

All my past life is mine no more;
The flying hours are gone,
Lie transitory dreams given o’er,
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.

The time that is to come is not;
How can it then be mine?
The present moment’s all my lot;
And that, as far as it is got,
Phillis, is only thine.

Then talk not of inconstancy,
False hearts, and broken vows;
If I by miracle can be
This live-long minute true to thee,
‘Tis all that Heaven allows.
In other words, as Shaggy once said, “It wasn’t me.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

If Saturday night’s all right for fighting, can Friday night be all right for cursing?, or, Oh, no--another &*@#@(! blog post!

Though I’ve never claimed that this is a family blog--you thousands of teenage fans hear that? Time to leave here and go back to Pingu!--I do tend to refrain from swearing most of the time. It’s just not part of my writing voice, so I don’t do much of it in print.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate some blue language, a bit of salt with my substance, especially when delivered by a master. {Scroll down on that one to the bottom of the post for July 8, 2000. You’ll be glad you did.} And over the past ten days, I’ve encountered a handful of oddities relating to swearing that have led to this batch of not particularly well-connected notes.

1 It started with an entry in Kinsgley Amis’s idiosyncratic, chatty style and usage guide, The King’s English (1997). The entry, “Four-letter words,” included this passage:
I have forgotten when I first said or made a character say fuck in print, but no one seemed to notice or care, any more than they did when my son Martin used the word several dozen times in one page in a novel published in 1978.
The swipe at Martin reminded me of a footnote to a piece Martin wrote about J. G. Ballard back in 1997: he noted that Kingsley would give a writer one bad book before giving up on them. “His son,” Martin wrote, “he gave two.” If, however, Kingsley was counting swear words in 1978--Success, it must have been--then it seems he subjected himself to at least three of Martin’s novels before bagging it.

2 All of which makes me unable to resist sharing an incident from Zachary Leader’s biography of Kingsley that I first noted a couple of years ago: once when Kingsley fell asleep on a beach, his wife wrote on his ample stomach in lipstick,
One Fat Englishman. Will Fuck Anything.
A writer for the Literary Review who reviewed the biography characterized Kingsley’s guiding philosophy in terms that match those in vulgarity and ethos both:
If it moves, fuck it. If it doesn’t, drink it.
It almost makes Martin’s protagonist in The Rachel Papers seem upstanding and honorable.

3 Earlier in the week, profanity played a part in a crucial series between the then first-place Cincinnati Reds and my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, who trailed the Reds by one game as they entered the series. Asked before the first game whether a sore leg might keep him out of the game, Reds second baseman Brandon Philips had this to say:
I'd play against these guys with one leg. We have to beat these guys. I hate the Cardinals. All they do is bitch and moan about everything, all of them, they're little bitches, all of 'em. I really hate the Cardinals. Compared to the Cardinals, I love the Chicago Cubs. Let me make this clear--I hate the Cardinals.
This, as you might have expected, got the Cardinals a bit fired up, which resulted in a bench-clearing brawl in Tuesday’s game--and, more important, a masterful sweep of the series by the Cards.

None of which would merit mention on this blog, had the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s deputy managing editor not gone to the trouble a few days later of explaining why the paper decided to print the quote as uttered, swear words and all. The explanation is interesting, as is editor Steve Parker’s note that a search of the archives returned hundreds of uses of the word “bitch” in recent decades--which surprised me (and, it seems, him), given how squeamish American newspapers are about swearing.

Newspapers like the Cincinnati Enquirer, for example, which riddled Phillips’s quote with so many evasions that it begins to sound like they’re a kid telling the teacher about somethind bad they heard Brandon say on the playground:
I hate the Cardinals. All they do is (b-word) and moan about everything, all of them, they're little (b-words), all of 'em.
None of which, however, matches up to the bowdlerization once performed on a quote from Cardinals reliever Steve Kline--it’s Item #3 in this post.

Oh, and Brandon Phillips? He went 2 for 14 in the series. Oops.

4 The only suitable way to end this post is by sending you to this Wikipedia entry, which demonstrates yet again, should you still need to be convinced, the useless glory that can result from the combination of free time, obsession, and the Internet.

Have a great fucking weekend.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Westlake by any other name---or make that many other names

After yesterday’s post about Parker, I thought you might an amusing passage I encountered today in A Jade in Aries (1970), the fourth of the five novels about disgraced copy Mitch Tobin that Donald Westlake wrote under the name Tucker Coe. Coe’s bio in this book reads:
A self-made conglomerate, Tucker Coe is a subsidiary of a writer better known to most readers under a different name, perhaps his own. A man who constructs his own walls for his own reasons, Mr. Coe lives with his family in the American Northwest and is currently at work on several projects, including a further expedition by Mitchell Tobin.
But savvy readers, if they hadn’t figured out Coe’s identity already, would surely have realized it after this big hint, which appears late in the novel:
Marty came on the line after a minute, and I said, “Hello. How are you doing?”

“Don!” he cried. “Good to hear from you!”

I said, “This is Mitch. Mitch Tobin.”

“For God’s sake,” he said. “Hiya, Mitch. You sound just like Don Stark. You don’t know him, do you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I never realized it before,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Ethan Iverson, in his indispensable annotated checklist of Westlake’s novels, writes that the Coe books, along with the four novels Westlake wrote as Samuel Holt,
are the only conventional private eye murder mysteries in the Westlake canon. It’s not surprising they are under pen names; Westlake was suspicious of the form. . . . The Coes and Holts are probably really only for Westlake completists, but they will make good reading for anyone who likes to try to “beat the detective” and solve the murder mystery before the hero does. The always-honest Westlake leaves the clues in plain sight; rather to my surprise, without trying, I solved a few of them myself.
I’d give the Coe novels, at least, a bit more credit than that: they’re not first-rate Westlake, but anyone who appreciates his lean, clear prose and his sympathetic eye for the odd, surprising, yet rarely inexplicable ways that people choose to live in this world will find plenty to like in them.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Parker purloining paperbacks? Preposterous!

My local bookstore, the 57th Street Books branch of the Seminary Co-op, has begun posting the winning stories in their Parker flash fiction contest, for which I served as one of the judges. Congratulations to Ryan Garms, whose "The Rare Book Score" took third place, and to Anders Runestad, who swiped second with "The Bookstore Heist," both of which are now up at the store's Front Table blog.

Keep an eye on the Front Table for the winning story later this week--and if 150-word semi-comic heists aren't enough to sate your need for crime, you can pick up the three newest Richard Stark reissues from my employer, the University of Chicago Press, Deadly Edge, Slayground, and Plunder Squad. In a great new foreword to the books, Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai describes them as marking a new plateau in Richard Stark's career to that point. Considering the number of times I gasped out loud while reading them, I can't disagree--along with the upcoming Butcher's Moon, this is as good, and as dark, as Parker gets.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Lew Archer chats up a receptionist

John O'Hara having set me to thinking about the openings of books last week, I was pleased to find that Ross Macdonald's The Goodbye Look (1969), which I turned to this morning, has a great one.

Macdonald's novels don't mess around in their initial pages: Lew Archer nearly always has a case afoot within moments of the opening lines. But this one is even better than usual, offering a sampler of the qualities that make Archer such a compelling narrative voice--perceptiveness, natural sympathy, humor, and an openness to friendliness despite a lifetime's knowledge of the seamier side of human relationships:
The lawyer, whose name was John Truttwell, kept me waiting in the outer room of his offices. It gave the room a chance to work me over gently. The armchair I was sitting in was covered in soft green leather. Oil paintings of the region, landscapes and seascapes, hung on the alls around me like subtle advertisements.

The young pink-haired receptionist turned from the switchboard. The heavy dark lines accenting her eyes made her look like a prisoner peering out through bars.

"I'm sorry Mr. Truttwell's running so late. It's that daughter of his," the girl said rather obscurely. "He should have let her go ahead and make her own mistakes. The way I have."


"I'm really a model. I'm just filling in at this job because my second husband ran out on me. Are you really a detective?"

I said I was.

"My husband is a photographer. I'd give a good deal to know who--where he's living."

"Forget it. It wouldn't be worth it."

"You could be right. He's a lousy photographer. Some very good judges told me that his pictures never did me justice."

It was the mercy she needed, I thought.
Later in the novel, Macdonald has Archer directly address his most salient quality: that of being a good listener, someone to whom people feel compelled to talk, more or less honestly and emotionally, to him with very little prompting:
We went down together in the elevator. In its automatic intimacy she said:

"I've spilled all my secrets. How do you make people do it?"

"I don't. People like to talk about what's hurting them. It takes the edge off the pain sometimes."
When people talk, Archer listens. Sometimes he judges, but mostly he listens, and in listening acknowledges that we all are frail and mistake-prone. In that, he's our ideal self, the one we always tell ourselves we want to be, simultaneously reminding us of our constant, vague wish to be better to those around us and of the risk--the emotional costs--of actually doing so.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Visiting graves with Neil Gaiman

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I wouldn’t consider myself quite a Neil Gaiman fan: though I have enjoyed a lot of his work, I often feel that it could be just a bit better, that he could push his ideas and his prose alike a bit more and turn what is never less than an interesting, fun story into something more closely approaching genius.

That said, I really enjoyed The Graveyard Book, which is a ghost-and-ghoul-filled homage to Kipling’s Jungle Book. Midway through it is an example of the one thing Gaiman does best: offer an answer to an inexplicable question we’ve never quite realized we’d had, such as, “Why is there a Tube stop named Angel?”; “Where do all those strange doors and stairwells and such in the Undergound go?”; and “Why is the House on the Rock in the middle of nowhere?” Given its title, you won’t be surprised that the question answered in The Graveyard Book has to do with cemeteries:
One grave in every graveyard belongs to the ghouls. Wander any graveyard long enough and you will find it--waterstained and bulging, with cracked or broken stone, scraggly grass or rank weeds about it, and a feeling, when you reach it, of abandonment. It may be colder than the other gravestones, too, and the name on the stone is all too often impossible to read. If there is a statue on the grave it will be headless or so scabbed with fungus and lichens as to look like a fungus itself. If one grave in a graveyard looks like a target for petty vandals, that is the ghoul-gate. If the grave makes you want to be somewhere else, that is the ghoul-gate.
Needless to say, your instincts are right: you should stay away from the ghoul-gate. Unless, that is, you like being menaced by ghouls.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Pour yourself a bit more of John O'Hara's soda-water. It'll be good for what ails you.

On Monday I quoted the opening paragraphs of one of the three novellas that make up Sermons and Soda-Water (1960), which, when I happened across it last week while on vacation, almost instantly made me a John O’Hara fan. Given how strong an impression the openings of the three novellas made on me, it seems right to also share the first paragraphs of the other two in the set.

Here’s the opening of the novella that leads the set, The Girl on the Baggage Truck:
When I was first starting out in New York I wrote quite a few obituaries of men who were presumably in good health, but who were no longer young. It was the custom on the paper where I worked that a reporter who had no other assignment was given this task, which most reporters found a chore but that I rather enjoyed. The assistant day city editor would tell you to prepare an obit on some reasonably prominent citizen, you would go to the office library and get out the folder of the citizen’s clippings, and for the remainder of the afternoon you would read the clippings and appropriate reference books, and reconstruct a life from the available facts, keeping it down to forty lines or whatever length the subject’s prominence had earned. One time I had to look up Jack Smedley, one of the richest oil men in the United States, and I discovered that his folder was so slim that you could have mailed it for the price of a two-cent stamp; while a Bronx politician of almost the same name had six bulging folders that cluttered up my desk. Later, when the two men died, the rich man was a Page One story all over the world, and the Bronx politician got thirty lines halfway down the column on the obituary page. You got what in more recent times was called a sense of values.
It’s not as richly descriptive or evocative as the section from We’re All Friends Now that I quoted Monday, but even in this more modest form the tone and the prose work together to present a distinct voice: straightforward, experienced, knowledgeable, unsentimental, and wry. You want to trust this voice.

Then there’s the opening paragraph of Imagine Kissing Pete, which quickly and clearly introduces the web of relationships, commitments, gossip, and betrayals that are at the heart of O’Hara’s picture of the upper class at midcentury:
To those who knew the bride and groom, the marriage of Bobbie Hammersmith and Pete McCrea was the surprise of the year. As late as April of ‘29 Bobbie was still engaged to a fellow who lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, and she had told friends that the wedding would take place in September. But the engagement was broken and in a matter of weeks the invitations went out for her June wedding to Pete. One of the most frequently uttered comments was that Bobbie was not giving herself much opportunity to change her mind again. The comment was doubly cruel, since it carried the implication that if she gave herself time to think, Pete McCrea would not be her ideal choice. It was not only that she was marrying Pete on the rebound; she seemed to be going out of her way to find someone who was so unlike her other beaus that the contrast was unavoidable.
All three novellas are written from the perspective of a man in his mid-fifties who, driven by various events in his present life, is thinking back on his late twenties, and they are pervaded by the melancholy and loss natural to such reflections. That feeling finds its clearest expression in this passage from Imagine Kissing Pete, which follows the suicide of an acquaintance, Julian English, a few weeks after the narrator, then in his youth, had seen him at a party:
I was shocked and saddened by the English suicide; he was an attractive man whose shortcomings seemed out of proportion to the magnitude of killing himself. He had not been a friend of mine, only an acquaintance with whom I had had many drinks and played some golf; but friends of mine, my closest friends in the world, boys-now-men like myself, were at the beginning of the same kind of life and doing the same kind of thing that for Julian English ended in a sealed-up garage with a motor running. I hated what I thought those next few days and weeks. There is nothing young about killing oneself, no matter when it happens, and I hated this being deprived of the sweetness of youth. And that was what it was, that was what was happening to us. I, and I think the others, had looked upon our squabbles as unpleasant incidents but belonging to our youth. Now they were plainly recognizable as symptoms of life without youth, without youth’s excuses or youth’s recoverability. I wanted to love someone, and during the next year or two I confused the desperate need for love with love itself. I had put a hopeless love out of my life; but that is not part of this story, except to state it and thus to show that I knew what I was looking for.
Longtime readers will instantly see why I was drawn to this passage: it’s driven by the same concerns that animate so much of Anthony Powell’s writing, the question of how one moves through time, what markers and labels and acknowledgments one allots its various stages, how one fights or accommodates its demands. An inevitable byproduct, I suspect, of even the most pleasant vacation with one’s parents, wife, siblings and their spouses, and nieces and nephews, is a growing awareness of time and its cruelly diminishing elasticity, and to happen across such a reflection on those matters in the midst of such inescapable thoughts was, in some ways, a reminder of why we read at all: for all of Plato’s insecure chiding, these shadows on the cave wall do instruct by their example, do enlighten even as we know they are art rather than life. Our lives and our world are not the ones O’Hara or Powell depict, and yet, looked at in just the right way . . .

Monday, August 02, 2010

"Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter / Sermons and soda water the day after."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I made an wonderful, unexpected discovery while I was on vacation last week. As I was browsing in a pleasant used bookstore, Black River Books, a set of three lovely little matched hardcovers caught my eye--and mere days later, I think I may now be a John O’Hara fan.

I’ve never been strong on midcentury American authors--the Anglophile in me tends to win out when it comes to that part of the century--and O’Hara is someone I might simply never have gotten around to. But all it took was reading the first page or two of the three individually bound novellas that make up Sermons and Soda-Water (1960), and I was hooked. Try the opening of the third one, We’re Friends Again:
I know of no quiet quite like that of a men’s club at about half past nine on a summer Sunday evening. The stillness is a denial of the meaning and purpose of a club, and as you go from empty room to empty room and hear nothing but the ticking of clocks and your own heel taps on the rugless floor, you think of the membership present and past; the charming, dull, distinguished, vulgar, jolly, bibulous men who have selected this place and its company as a refuge from all other places and all other company. For that is what a club is, and to be alone in it is wrong. And at half past nine on a summer Sunday evening you are quite likely to be alone. The old men who live there have retired for the night, sure that if they die before morning they will be discovered by a chambermaid, and that if they survive this night they will have another day in which their loneliness will be broken by the lunch crowd, the cocktail crowd, and the presence of a few men in the diningroom in the evening. But on a summer Sunday evening the old men are better off in their rooms, with their personal possessions, their framed photographs and trophies of accomplishment and favorite books. The lounge, the library, the billiard and card room have a deathly emptiness on summer Sunday evenings, and the old men need no additional reminder of emptiness and death.

There’s a clarity and confidence to O’Hara’s prose here that I find remarkably bracing, the sure first-person voice conveying the desolation of the empty club so clearly that this long-gone bastion of midcentury manhood and privilege rises around you, smelling of leather and hair tonic and stale tobacco.

That lean clarity is maintained throughout the three novellas, and its straightforwardness and seeming simplicity are incredibly seductive, to the point where I could imagine them being dangerously influential for a writer of fiction. O’Hara’s sentences make me want to write like that, all adornment stripped away or skillfully hidden within an overtly utilitarian syntax. In his introduction to the three novellas, O’Hara wrote that his increasing age convinced him to leave these stories short, rather than try to spin them out into full-length novels. “I want to get it all down on paper while I can,” he wrote, and that urgency, that need to remember and commemorate and explain and understand, comes through in every sentence. It makes you ache for the simple fact that the past is lost forever, and it makes you admire those who try to save it for us despite.