Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On The Floor

George Pelecanos stepped in and revived the genre of Crime Fiction by writing, in fact, Westerns set in D.C. He has always been an unabashed devotee of Westerns (check Amazon for his list of favorites, many of which get a mention in his books), and uses its narrative structure to explore the moral choices his characters are trying to stare down, or avoid making altogether. Often the question becomes, "Who here can afford to be the hero?"

This question lingers in The Night Gardener, the latest Pelecanos to hit the paperback shelves. Other questions surface as well: where does character come from, and how does it assert itself. But Pelecanos is also pushing his own genre into some uncharted waters.

"How do you solve a murder?" asks one of his protagonists at book's end. "Tell me. 'Cause I'd really like to know." There is an existential ambivalence about the larger forces at work in the lives of his characters' and their city. On the face of it, I'd say it looks as if Pelecanos' tenure inside the writers' stable for The Wire has stretched him as a writer. If this is a western, it is more akin to the work of Charles Portis.

I follow this guy's writing career because he's always catching me off-guard, even when he's scratching the narrative itch. And Pelecanos' abilities, prodigious to begin with, just keep growing.

Speaking of Westerns, while visiting the larger fam in Winnipeg this summer, I noticed my first Louis L'Amour sitting on my brother's book shelf. I pulled it and read it in one sitting. Lots of fun to be had: I believe L'Amour wrote on the fly, no notes or plotlines to get in the way of the flow of words. Consequently, when his hero gets cornered, it feels as if the poor dude is really cornered. L'Amour then resorts to the pulp-writer's bag of tricks and pulls one out at random -- a new character to the rescue, an escape route hitherto unseen by the hero (along with the reader), etc.

Actually, as I was reading the book I couldn't help thinking how similar its physics were to that of most First Person Shooter video games. In the first 30 pages, the hero loses his horse, his guns, his boots, his wagon and his wife. Against all odds he eludes capture and staggers back to the fort -- but not until he's searched through the charred ruins of his wagon and retrieved a secret stash of gold sovereigns. A few pages later, the hero guts a baddie with a few lead slugs to the belly, then walks out of the bar to check his horse, then walks back in again. The corpse has disappeared along with any conversational trace that there's been a very public homicide. Some readers might consider this a narrative glitch committed by a careless writer, but this happens so frequently that it becomes clear this is actually one of this genre's Laws of Physics: Dead Baddies Disappear.

Reading L'Amour again I was reminded that there are writers we turn to because we've grown to love their voice. And certainly that's the appeal to James Lee Burke's latest Dave Robicheaux novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown. I mean, sure, I read it for the story: I certainly wanted to see how Dave marshaled his demons to vanquish some larger, darker foe. But more to the point, I wanted to hear what Burke thought of the Katrina catastrophe.

I don't think I'm spoiling it for anyone if I say, Burke is really, really PISSED OFF! He can't get over the stink of death and filth that covers the streets of New Orleans. And he rages against the systemic corruption that practically pounces on the beleaguered survivors, exchanging money in a foul smelling daisy-chain that leads right to the Oval Office. Burke's biblically-tormented heroes would love it if such apocalyptic disasters purged the streets of corruption, but that simply doesn't happen. People who are already struggling with a bad lot in life are forced to go through much, much worse.

As for the story, I'll just say that, after a run of novels that followed an all-too predictable course, it's gratifying to watch Burke stretch his own format. The last two books have been pleasant surprises, varying significantly from the norm. Goes to show you what a pro is capable of when he keeps his nose to the grindstone -- or word processor. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hey, Nineteen! It's The Monks of Fall

The Nick Adams Society turns 19 this year. This is our final year at Lovesick Lake. The cottage has been sold, no doubt to someone intent on knocking it down and building something enormous in its stead. It remains to be seen just where the next NAS location is, or if we reconvene at all.

I'm bringing a bottle of 18-year-old Talisker, a single malt I'm partial to (regular readers will note that I tend to favor malts with a relatively clean finish -- though a bottle of Laphroaig is always a welcome sight).

Cheers. Here's to turning 19.


Some years back, when I still worked at the bookstore and was experiencing a patch of tough sledding, I used to eat my lunch then head around the corner to the downtown cathedral. They opened their doors to the public from noon to two. I'd steal in, tiptoe to a pew somewhere near the middle, then sit down and take deep breaths.

The first time I entered the sanctuary, I had the bizarre sensation my scalp was being stretched like Silly Putty toward the arches. It was a little nerve-wracking the first time, but I calmed down. With every successive visit that sensation became less and less pronounced. Two weeks later, the sanctuary was simply a place where I could breath with greater ease than I could elsewhere.

The cathedral was built in the Gothic Anglican tradition. I was all set to pontificate on the differences between this sanctuary and the evangelical protestant sanctuaries I was more accustomed to. Lots of material to explore in these home-town meeting houses, to be sure: the wall-to-wall carpeting; the nearly-universal color scheme that favors autumnal browns; the ever-present banners with a cross, a crown and a dove; the fetish for technology over functionality (video! digital video! video digital streaming!!) etc. etc. I've never had that "Silly Putty feeling" in a Mennonite or evangelical sanctuary, and I figured it was a physical response to the surrounding aesthetic. Except...

Except the only other time I experienced this sensation was two years later in California, when I first walked through the doors of .... an enormous Barnes & Noble. Yup: my first exposure to a stadium-sized bookstore.

Make of it what you will, 'cos I haven't figured it out yet.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Fall is typically a gnarly time for me. I read The Revelation of St. John The Divine in the fall of my 12th year, and I don't think I ever really recovered from that. Confront a healthy, cared-for child with historical record, and he will imagine himself into the scenario and come up with ways to deal with it. Confront the same child with prophecy, and all bets are off.

When read existentially, the Revelation presents itself as a future history. The gods are very much alive, but they are not well; they are, in fact, rabid. Their Father is unrolling the final scroll of history, and He's going to deal with this scourge for once and for all, but it never really sounds as if His chief concern is with humanity. In fact, the significance of humanity is actually somewhat questionable.

This canvas has no space for a developing ego to assert/insert itself. Adolescents aren't prepared for that sort of “paradigm shift.” There is nothing to shift to: it's a paradigm eviscerator.

I couldn't snap out of my panic. I paced the house. I stayed awake, trying to hatch some sort of escape plan. I worried my parents. I generously shared my torments with my younger siblings. One night, my mother finally had enough of this. She ordered me out of the house and to the church basement, where my father was holding a Bible study.

I crept in and took a seat among the grown-ups. No-one seemed to think this was strange — they continued their conversation as if I were one of them. I can't recall the text being discussed, but it was generating questions from these men and women. I gradually got a picture of adults who were worried for family members: children, parents, distant relatives. Adults who didn't have complete control over their environment and who were anxious.

It was a strange night, but it calmed me down. I loved the fact that these adults — grown men in their suits and ties, women with an imperious sense of humor — were uncertain. I didn't feel so alien and utterly alone, which was proving to be my chief source of anxiety.

This was my first experience of sanctuary. It happened in a church, so that's one significant reason why I still go.

Friday, September 14, 2007

King Defends Rowling While Tilting At The Literary Novel

Talent is never static, it's always growing or dying, and the short form on Rowling is this: She was far better than R.L. Stine (an adequate but flavorless writer) when she started, but by the time she penned the final line of Deathly Hallows (''All was well.''), she had become one of the finer stylists in her native country — not as good as Ian McEwan or Ruth Rendell (at least not yet), but easily the peer of Beryl Bainbridge or Martin Amis.

The rest is here.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tangentially related...

I'm a little surprised at the momentary flap the chattering classes are in re: Mother Theresa's letters. You'd think there was something new revealed in their contents. Hardly: first of all, their contents have been common knowledge among Catholics for some time (I first encountered them here). Secondly, the Dark Night of the Soul and the Absent God are in fact hallowed institutions within the Catholic scheme of things, and have been for centuries.

Preoccupation with this woman's tenacious service, despite the sudden and irreversible truncation of her ecstasies, strikes me as a uniquely Protestant American fixation. There is no shortage of African, South American and Asian Christians who know exactly why she did what she did, and was who she was. In fact, there are probably any number of people in North America who know, too: we're just not in the habit of listening to them.

Here's me in the corner, searching for my religion

I was asked if I would teach Sunday school. I explained to the minister that I didn't really believe in God, but I couldn't live as though I didn't believe in him. I found life intolerable without God, so I lived as though I believed in God. I asked him, "Is that enough for you?" -- Madeleine L'Engle in an interview, re-citing a moment from her Crosswicks Journals.

I'm too tentative a creature to articulate my own religious convictions, such as they are, with ML's clarity. My fall-back position in these matters is to wave my fiction and say, "Here's my statement of faith." But lately I've been having trouble moving ahead with my fiction -- I feel somewhat stranded between fictional outposts. Perhaps a few forays into the realm of memory and impression might yield a way forward in my fictive journeys.

First stop: the church.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six Years Ago

I finally went for a walk, around the corner and north of town, to look at the cornfield. My neighbor was hosting a birthday party for her granddaughter -- balloons, a few streamers. There were five or six kids at her house. They were lining up on her porch, taking turns trying to drop wooden clothespins into a mason jar. The music of children's shouts and laughter.

I got to the field and looked over the nearly golden sea. The sun was setting and it was getting cool. A half-ton truck came slowly around the corner and crept toward me. The driver's window was rolled down. He was a man in his 60s, a farmer. We nodded to each other.

"You see the news today?" he asked.

"Yes I did."

He put the truck in park, but left the motor idling. He was looking at the field, too.

"Quite the thing," he said. And it was.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle, RIP

Madeleine L'Engle has died at the age of 88. I remain fond of the Time Quintet and The Crosswicks Journals; when I first read them, I felt like I'd been given permission to breathe. Our first daughter was named after her.

Post Script, Sept 17: I'm gratified to see the New Yorker has finally made this profile of Madeleine L'Engle available on-line. It isn't quite the hagiography that other profiles have been, and it's certainly not the hagiography that L'Engle herself was prone to write. But neither is it the character assassination that some of L'Engle's readers make it out to be. In fact, I think it brings forward the sort of background detail that makes her fiction more compelling than it appears at first (uninformed) glance. I'm thinking particularly of A Live Coal In The Sea.

Also: a salute from Laurel Snyder. "To compare L'Engle's universe to the stuff cluttering the post-Harry Potter marketplace is to compare a unicorn to a goat with one horn sawed off" -- nice! Via KtB.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On The Platter

I have friends who are absolutely bonkers over Richard Thompson -- his music, that is. I'd get CDs for my birthday (always welcome) and give them a spin, but I never quite caught his appeal. There was no denying the man's musical virtuosity: he's one of those rare singer-songwriters who'll move the song to either side of the 12th fret, and I can't think of anyone else who bends a note to quite the same degree (well ... Robbie Robertson, but what's he done for us lately?). But the man's vocal delivery frequently dipped below cool into a little too cool.

And who could blame him? Half his songs explore the inner lives of freaks and geeks who are bent on alienating everyone within spitting range. What person in his right mind wants to get close to, for instance, the young, angry, befuddled, would-be Casanova who's taken all his erotic leads from porno ("Read About Love")?

Then I saw him perform on stage -- just the man and his guitar. Thompson is a guy who loves an audience, and he knows how to keep them listening. His songs, even the sad ones, were a lark, and he usually acknowledged the raucous applause he received with, "Ah, but you're a wacky bunch!" This throw-away flaming of Kenny G. pretty much captures the mischief I experienced.

I picked up Live From Austin, TX, and wasn't at all sure what to expect. It's markedly different from my single-concert experience: he has a band backing him up, for one thing. He also reins in his more impish impulses, and delivers a very polished and professional performance. The "cool" factor is back, but I don't mind. In fact, I can almost see why he has fans who follow him around on tour. Almost.

Janiva Magness, on the other hand, is a very different performer. I've raved about her before, and played Do I Move You? at the cafe for three months running. Blues Ain't Pretty is pulling me deeper into the cult of Janiva. I can't muster the emotional distance to describe Magness's style, unless I summon Thompson as a counterpoint: when Magness sings, there is no distinction between the singer and the song. That makes for quite a heady experience, particularly when combined with guitar stylings that seem soaked in beer and cigarette smoke (courtesy of Kid Ramos and Kirk Fletcher). I love it, and very much hope to see the woman perform live.

Richard Thompson's site is here. Janiva Magness's site is here. And this is her MySpace page.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Paying For Technology

After the passenger window got replaced, after all those freakishly square shards of glass had been vacuumed up, after all the stuff -- maps, Archie Digests, Harry Potter CDs, serviettes, Chickadee magazines -- was back in its proper spot, we were left with the impression that nothing had been stolen. Even my sunglasses were still there, forcing me to finally admit they were scuffed and stylistically passé beyond redemption. If we could just overlook the inconvenience and expense of replacing the broken window, we could almost laugh about it.

Weeks later we figured out what was missing: the iPod, and that useless widget that fits into the cigarette-lighter.

My wife was saddened -- it had been my gift to her, and she made extensive use of its comforts during business trips away from the family. There was no question it would have to be replaced, but I'd become jaded enough toward the brand that I wasn't beyond considering the competition. I couldn't help noticing an alternative that sold for $200 less than my wife's former iPod, and offered as many features as the iPod that sold for $100 more. A difference of $300 is not insignificant, but I had to admit it didn't quite have the iPod's sex appeal -- also not insignificant. I ran it by my wife, who shrugged and said, "As long as it has the music, I'm fine with it."

It does, plus a few things the iPod did not have, including videos of our daughters. And it's a great deal friendlier toward Linux users than Apple is. Hoo, boy -- I very quickly learned how easy it is to bork-up an iPod. Apple's customer service techs ("Geniuses," they call 'em) are, on the face of it, a forgiving bunch. The guy who served me hooked up the device to his computer, cocked an eyebrow and said, "Curious: the software seems to have been tampered with. I'll just restore that for you..." He did, and threw in a few bonus tracks to boot. Bon Jovi, Toto, one or two songs from Flashdance -- even Milli Vanilli. He certainly knew how to hurt a guy. Just one more reason to go non-Apple for round II.

So far, I'm happier for the change; we'll see what my wife makes of it when she attends a conference in Chicago in a couple of weeks. She's too busy (and far too practical) to care, but rumor is there's a new iPod model coming down the pike. Will it wow like the phone did? Frankly I'm too busy and practical to care.

Other music-technology links: can Rick Rubin save big music? My take: he's got an uncanny ear for what people want to hear, but it remains to be seen if he's got a similarly revolutionary approach to its tech-delivery.

iPhone? ho-hum. Ubuntu phone? Hm. I'd like a closer look, please.