Tag Archives: Don Winslow

Four (not Miles Davis’s)

11 Jul

 

 

 

Heretics by Leonardo Padura

 

We’re now at the halfway point of the summer and, to quote Beatle (it pains me to think that there are people who don’t know who he is) George Harrison, “life goes on within you and without you…” Reading being part of the thing that goes on within you. As there is a yearly onrush of pre-season beach/summer reading list/listicles one might expect an imminent outbreak of reading across the land—which honestly has escaped my attention—though I would be curious to know what was actually being read. I think I had an entry in the summer reading derby but it is a few weeks later I (understandably?) missed a few fine novels. An oversight I correct here and now.However I am omitting the book that to me is the most important novel of the year—Heretics by the Cuban novelist, Leonard Padura, The combination of being set in Cuba and using the infamous SS St Louis incident (  in 1940, 900 hundred Jews fleeing the horrors of the Third Reich were denied entry to Cuba and sent back to Europe.) Heretics is a big book with many pages and travels the world and the centuries making a bit off the beaten track for our domestic reading public.

 

On the other hand,  the quartet of  novels I am lauding below are both well=wrought and accessible

 

 

 

 

You Belong to Me -Colin Harrison

 

Harrison is a writer who I came across almost thirty years ago when he was fiction editor at Harper’s.  Since then I have read with pleasure most of the eight novels he has written.  This new tome (coming eight years since his last) is set in contemporary Manhattan. It displays Harrison’s commanding understanding of the various life forms that accrete to the Universe’s center of ambition which results in some terse and mordant social commentary.This, as well as a propulsive plot and a fascinating protagonist, pasted me into my seat,  reading it straight through (you know, the “within you ‘ thing).

 

Megan Abbott’ opines,

 ‘Harrison loves his schemers, especially the high-stakes New York City variety, and his exuberance for plundering financiers, money-grubbing heirs and double-dealing musclemen for hire is the fuel that propels “You Belong to Me.” At the center is Paul, whose comfortable lifestyle comes from his boutique law practice but whose passion lies in obsessive rare map collecting…”

The story that follows is deliciously twisty and, intermittently, startlingly violent. With such a wide cast, its many characters risk feeling like types, or even stereotypes, but Harrison attempts to give most of them a moment in the sun: an explanatory back story, a convincing moral justification, even a Rosebud moment. “Everyone had a private journey,” Paul observes, “and no one was ever completely known by anyone. *

 

 

* Megan Abbott’s  explication of You Belong To Me

 

The Force Don Winslow

 

If you come  to this new novel by Don Winslow unaware of his  body of work, then make it a point of at least looking up the press on his magnum opus , The Power of the Dog and its second part The Cartel (Winslow has apparently set himself the task of a part 3) which unpack the web of complicity that is the thing called the War on Drugs. The Force is set in New York City and the title refers to the New York City Police Department. I doubt you have ever read a procedural like this one (Princes of the City comes close). In a brilliant introduction to the story the book’s epigram quotes, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely,

 

“Cops are just people, ” she said irrelevantly.

They start out that way, I’ve heard.”

 

 

 

Prussia Blue Philip  Kerr

 

I came to Scottish-born writer Philip Kerr by reading one of his stand-alones A Philosophical Investigation about 30 years ago. It was only later that was drawn in and hooked by Kerr’s Third Reich era Berlin Homicide detective  Bernie Gunther of which there now exist eleven volumes. I have been pleased to chat *with Kerr on a  few occasions in which I found him to be as entertaining as was reading his stories.  Serendipitously I across Jane Kramer’s smart article on Prussian Blue the most recent in The Gunther Saga.  Among other of her  elucidations—

I never knew how hard it was to describe a thriller, especially one in which fact and fiction blend so seamlessly, until I sat down with “Prussian Blue.” Thrillers are thorny gifts for critics.  With a great thriller, the important thing is to tell the story while never giving anything away, certainly not who did it and, in the case of a Gunther thriller—densely populated and always dizzyingly complex—the logic by which our redoubtable protagonist finally gets his man.

The best thrillers share some of that depth and density. They are really social histories, disguised in nineteenth-century-novel form, though often with a bit of late-twentieth-century nouveau roman thrown in, perhaps to signal the sensitive self-searching of some of their toughest sleuths. They paint what could even be called ethnographic portraits of societies in which particular kinds of crimes consistently appear and of the people who tend to commit those crimes.

 

*My first chat with Philip Kerr

 

 

 

 

Isadora Amelia Gray

 

Based on reading her stories in Gutshot, that Amelia Gray chose to examine the life of Isadora Duncan after Duncan suffered an unimaginable personal was something unexpected. But put surprise that down a lapse in my understanding of the growth of a young writer. If you are  expecting a window into the famous dancer’s art you will be disappointed as Gray’s focus is Duncan’s post-tragedy life

Gayle Brandeis gushes* (with justification)

 

…She [Gray] brings her characteristic wit and observation and sense of the absurd to this novel. As with her other books, it is divided into fragments — each chapter almost a work of flash fiction or prose poem unto itself — but it is the most deeply sustained of her books to date, the most epic and ambitious. It is a brutal novel in many ways, completely unrelenting in its depiction of pain, yet that makes it exhilarating, too. Gray is a fearless writer, a writer willing to look into the most profound darkness and find strange, compelling music there. I started out reading this book wishing I had written it; I finished it deeply grateful Gray had.

 

 

* Gayle Brandeis writes on Amelia Gray and her newest novel...

 

 

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On the Beach…Summer Reading

21 Jun

 

 

 

New York Daily News 1954

 

 

It appears I have lost the fire in my belly as the media attention to the well -worn rubric  ‘summer reading’ has come and gone> And unlike times past,  I have not excoriated the whole damn herd of literary commentators for this vacuous listicle-inducing category. Despite years of an inability to take seriously this meaningless category, it is clear that my meager efforts to staunch this yearly silliness have failed.

 

So, I am joining the herd … with some modification. While I am certain that my recommendation can be read on the beach and/or during the summer. I also positive that they can be read, in the bathroom, while waiting interminably at the Motor Vehicle Bureau (or at any government agency) or basically anywhere  there is ample light and a place to plant oneself out of the fray

 

 

 

 

 

The Force- Don Winslow

This new offering by Winslow may replace his important epic novel The Power of The Dog (and the sequel The Cartel) as his magnum opus. Set for the most part in that other country, the US-Mexican border such was its vivid depiction of the spider’s web of worldwide complicity in the so-called War on Drugs much like any good John LeCcarre story there is an abundance of truth packed into this fiction. In the new opus, Winslow has focused his ample powers of observation and narrative skills on the workings of and the psyches and pathologies of an array of characters of the New York Police Department— kind of  Prince of the City on steroids. When I received my copy I  was vexed by what I saw as blatant hyperbole best selling by thriller writer “Intensely human in its tragic details, positively Shakespearian in its epic sweep – probably the best cop novel ever written” —   After I read  the novel  I could understand Child’s enthusiasm ffor this story*

Heretics Leonardo Padura

Cuban novelist iPAdura is probably best known for his noir quartet featuring Havana homicide detective Mario Conde, which the Spanish have produced as a four part series as Four Seasons in Havana. Certainly entertaining, I was more impressed by his novel The Man Who Loved Dogs which followed the life of  Leon Trotsky’s assassin, with particularly heart-rending episodes set in Hitler’s dress rehearsal for  WWII, the Spanish Civil War. Now comes his new creation Heretics a story that radiates from the infamous incident surrounding the May 1939 voyage of the ocean liner St Louis with 937 ‘stateless’ Jews to Havana, radiating forward to 2007 and  traveling back in time a few centuries with fascinating tangent about a Rembrandt painting that ends up in a Polish stetl.  More revealing (as in real) about the perfidy of the Cuban officials in 1939 (and the later travails of Cuban exiles in Miami) than any documented history could provide, Heretics manages to convert  a few hundred years of history into a story, accessible and intelligible without an excess of factual data…And remember, much takes place in the  US amusement park, Havana…

 

 

 

 

Ancient Minstrel Jim Harrison

 

The recently departed Jim Harrison a true meat eating literary lion produced a series of volumes peculiar to him, three novellas ( you don’t know what a novella is?) tomes. This posthumous volume features as its entitled piece, a fairly accurate portrayal of Harrison and exhibiting him as the observant, good-natured, ravenous and droll to hilarious good fellow. You laugh *I’m not sure about crying), you smile, you ponder, you marvel. All the wonders of a well-turned page can evoke…

 

Augusttown Kae Miller

 

Jamaican-born poet and a well-travelled resident of Brixton London Kei Miller,  provides radiant snapshots and thumbnails of post-colonial village life proximal to Jamaican capital, Kingstown. It’s long on Race and Place, which for literary citizens of the world have great value…

 

 

 

 

There Your Heart Lies Mary Gordon

 

 

I think Mary Gordon has written eight novels but this is the first that I have read. Ostensibly I was drawn to yet another recent narrative set in the perilous center of the Spanish Civil War.To which, not sufficient attention is paid. There are numerous interesting plot twist and turns but the portrayal of the 90 year old Spanish Civil War veteran and her grandchild and their relationship is quite plainly, seductive.

 

 

 

Who Killed Pier Barol Richard Mason

South African born and London resident, novelist  Richard Mason completes his triptych about low-born Dutchman Piet Barol and his struggles to rise to the moneyed upper class. Set in pre-WWI  South Africa, Barol is a clever and multitalented con man who meets and marries a woman equally as talented and bent. This story takes you into the bush and into the lives the land’s original people at a time when they are beginning to suffer the depredations of what would soon become apartheid and genocide. Barol is a shrewd reporter on the class and racial conventions and his prose from the point of non-human sentients is a wonderful leap of imagination (something that Jim Harrison and the recently departed Brian Doyle did well with).

 

 

 

The Bones of Paradise Jonis Agee

 

A mystery and a history not set  in the favorite locale of Western writers— unacknowledged third nation that exists around the USA Mexican boundary—this narrative is set in a western state called Nebraska. All the major players are represented —Whites, Mexicans, Native Americans, Nomads Emancipated Women. Set ten years  after the US Army’s Seventh Cavalry’s infamous  massacre known as  Wounded Knee , Jonis Aggee’s great storytelling places the reader in the still wild  19th West and clears away some of the view obstructing mythology…

 

The Crossing Andrew Miller

 

Though I don’t  recall ever reading a review or a mention of an Andrew Miller novel in a US medium, I have without understanding why,  picked- up some of his novels in the past and been pleased that I did. I especially enjoyed Pure set in France in the late Eighteenth century witb character tasked a very unusual mission. His new opus, ostensibly begins with Scenes from a marriage but gracefully and seamlessly transits to a solo oceanic sail. Not having sailed  farther than the ocean around Manchester (MA ) harbor, lacking any particular interest in sailing or oceanic conveyance  I was still transfixed by the  by the vigilance and energy required to cross an ocean in a small ship. The last novel that I recall which had oceanic sailing as a vantage point  was Robert Stone’s.Outerbridge Reach— a story of one Stone’s troubled characters  involved in a world circumnavigating ship race

 

 

Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World by Jorge Zepeda Patterson , Adrian Nathan West (Translator)

 

Despite Mexico’s  proximity (as Mexican’s intone, “So far from God and so close to the United States”) and various Latin BOOMS and BOOMLETS, Mexican novelists are just beginning to get recognition in USA.Imprints such as Deep Vellum and Restless Books are making valuable contributions and this award winning (in Spain)  does  for human sex trafficking and  hybrid modes of corruption what Winslow’s The Power of the Dog did for the narcotic drug  (Wall Street/Cartel industrial complex) industry. One would hope (against hope ) that the increasing presence of this pestilential activity in  contemporary crime stories (see Season Three of John Ridley’s American Crime would occasion some serious efforts by world’s power structures.But much like PEACE, there is no money in eradicating human trafficking. I leave to you to figure out what this quirky title is about.

 

 

So Much Blue Percival Everett

 

As such things go, I was unaware of writer Percival Everett until I saw mention of him in one of the early 2000’s  literary web sites, unfortunately saddled with the inelegant rubric  ‘blog .  Manned by a delightful mind whose name escapes me, The Minor Chord , The Major Fall was a many levels above the jejune unfiltered gibberish to which media careerists claimed the Internet gave license. It was resonantly valuable to me as I have been delighted to read most every thing Everett has written since. And at least once a  companionable conversation that you can find on line and anthologized in Conversations with Percival Everett. I came  across a  lucid  essay on Everet’s new novel by Jesse McCarthy. Here’s a snippet**

 

  In a characteristic Everett move, Kevin’s race is only glancingly evoked in the novel. The first overt mention of it unsurprisingly comes from The Bummer, a character in the El Salvador section who is the walking embodiment of crude explicit racism. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you’re a nigger,” he warns. When Kevin’s son Will asks him what he wanted to be when he was growing up, we learn that Kevin had an uncle Ty who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, an illustrious heritage deflated by the knowledge that “Uncle Ty was a fucking asshole.” One of Everett’s great achievements has always been his unassuming portrayal of characters that defy the grotesque strait-jacket of racialized characterization, which so much of American fiction (or American culture in general) simply can’t give up. But racial invisibility is as pure a fantasy as racial stereotype…

 

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  1. http://don-winslow.com/books/the-force/

2. https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/sad-and-boujee/

Jess Walter on Beautiful Ruins and Other Stuff

15 Aug

 

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

I sit down with the author of The Financial Lives of the Poets to talk about his latest novel, how to survive in Hollywood, the ins and outs of contemporary publishing, and that unheralded Paris of the Northwest, Spokane.

Novelist Jess Walter, a proud son of Spokane, Wash., belongs to an increasingly rare literary species—an author of six novels, the best known being The Financial Lives of the Poets, without the benefit of a college writing program. Instead, Walter brings an abiding passion and freshness to his chosen profession that is exhibited to wonderful results in his newest novel, Beautiful Ruins.

The response to Beautiful Ruins has been justifiably exuberant. Highly regarded novelist Richard Russo writes, “Why mince words? Beautiful Ruins is an absolute masterpiece.” As a novel that covers over 50 years with a handful of major characters, it is fertile ground for the wide-ranging conversation that follows. Walter and I chat about Spokane, the history of his attempts to write Beautiful Ruins, mystery novels, Hollywood, the Witness Protection Program, Judith Regan, making movies, Don Winslow’s The Power of The Dog, and the proverbial “much more.”

This was my first conversation with Jess Walter but undoubtedly not my last.

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Robert Birnbaum: You’ll sign a baseball. And then an agreement that you will never sign another baseball.

Jess Walter: Really? All right.

RB: We want to appreciate the value of my son’s autographed baseball collection.

JW: That’s great—this will be my first baseball.I have signed a breast before.

RB: Really—were you a musician?

JW: It was just a talk. I think it was a lark, but I was more than happy to do it.

RB: How big was the breast?

JW: The part I saw was pretty substantial. I didn’t see the whole thing. It was just across the top.

RB: Permanent?

JW: Yeah, it was a Sharpie of some kind—some are washable. She thought it would be funny. I signed her friend’s book. I think she was surprised that I said yes.

RB: And here I thought writing was such a mild and uneventful profession.

JW: It tends to be. That’s why the breast and now the baseball will stand out. Two landmarks.

RB: When your son tells someone his name, what’s the first thing they say?

JW: In Spokane a few people know that his dad’s a writer. I don’t think anyone pays much attention.

RB: My son’s name is Cuba—I have observed all his life that he will say his name and people will first say, “Huh?”

JW: Yeah, right.

RB: So I am surmising that they are not believing what they heard.

JW: My son’s name is Alec.

RB: Who is Brooklyn?

JW: Brooklyn is my daughter.

RB: You called a girl Brooklyn?

JW: I did, yeah.

RB: So what’s the reaction?

JW: I was a dad at 19 before I’d been on an airplane, before I had ever been east of Wyoming. I had never been to Brooklyn, and my girlfriend at the time thought it was a neat name, and I remember—

RB: You mean the child’s mother? You could refer to her as such.

JW: I was a teenage pregnancy statistic. We were married for a brief time. Now we are very amicable. And Brooklyn now has her master’s degree from the University of Montana, in English. She’s 26—a great kid.

RB: Where is she?

JW: In Montana, Missoula. She is an adjunct, teaching there. I do remember an editor in New York saying, “Did you know Brooklyn? Did you like it there?” I answered, “No, we had never been there. It was just a name we picked.” And then she asked what year was it. I told her, 1985. She said, “You were aware Brooklyn was a slum, weren’t you?” “No, I just thought it was a nice name.”

RB: What does your daughter think?

JW: Every kid wants to be Debbie or Steve when they are young. They want a really common name. And they hit an age when they are happier with it. It’s probably like you said about childhood; you don’t give it second thought.

RB: I think Cuba has always been fine with it.

JW: It’s a great name. My other two kids are 12 and 15 and we did not name them Yonkers and Staten Island—they’re Ava and Alec. Have you read T.J. English’s book,Havana Nocturne?

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RB: It’s about the mob in Cuba—I know of it.

JW: I have never been to Cuba, but it seemed to capture the feel of the place. He’s great. I really like his stuff. He covers the Whitey Bulger kinds of stories. I like what he does, at least in that book, which is rooting it to the place—make it more than just the salacious details. It really becomes endemic of the time and the place.

RB: I like biographies that do that—who cares what the subject ate for breakfast as a child?

JW: Yeah, set it in the world. Exactly.

RB:Beautiful Ruins would not be a story that one would just stumble on.

 

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JW: (laughs)

RB: It’s complicated. And you manage to cover a wide time frame—close to 50 years. Was the decision to write this novel just what came to you after your last novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets?

JW: No, no. It’s so funny when you go out on book tour. I always feel a little like I am testifying before a Senate committee. I always think of that key Watergate question:What did you know and when did you know it? Because tracing the root, especially of a book like this, is so many blind alleys, and it was a maze to write it. I started in 1997. It was the second novel I attempted—I had another failed novel. I was in Italy. My mom was dying of cancer. We went to the Cinque Terra. I invented this little town, and in my mind it would be a sort of book, a kind of magical realist story in which nobody could die of cancer there. So this young woman would arrive there, about my mother’s age. This young man was there. I was writing organically so I didn’t really know who those people were. And I wrote until I ran out of gas, as young writers often do. I set it down, I wrote another book. Picked it up and set it down and wrote another book. And this happened five times.

RB: When you did this, did you add to it?

JW: I would start from the beginning. I would tear it all the way. I would think, Here’s what I did wrong, and I would write until I ran out of gas. I’d finished a draft of it in 2008, and I knew it wasn’t right. By then it had grown to cover Hollywood and these ideas of art and fame. And the characters had become so rich and alive to me, and the expanse of their lives had become enough that I wanted to capture it in some way. That made sense, but also took into consideration all that I was learning as I was growing up. I am sort of self-taught as a novelist, and so I don’t think I had the chops in 1997 to finish a book that took place in so many times, that had so many characters. So 2008 I finished a draft. I read it and realized it wasn’t quite there. I gave it to a good friend of mine who is an English professor and he said, “It’s really not quite there.” So I started writing The Financial Lives of the Poets almost as a palate-cleanser, to get the taste of this book out of my mouth, to write something quick and straightforward, with one character that takes place in a short amount of time, four days. And I work that way. Right now I am working on two novels and finishing up a book of short stories. I can work on two or two different things, and if I have any superpower, that’s it. I can shift from one thing to another and that way hopefully avoid writer’s block.

RB: The characters came alive for you—you’ve lived with them a long time. So now the book is done, now what?

JW: It’s funny that I phrased it that way. It’s one of my pet peeves when authors say that. One of the problems when I first tried to write this book, I fell for the old writer’s trick—you create these characters and they act on their own. When I do that my characters tend to watch a lot of TV.

RB: (laughs)

JW: Open another beer. They act a little bit like my brother. They don’t engage in the dramatic narrative that I would like them to. So, especially in this book, much of the novel is a kind of architecture, trying to figure out, Where does this piece go? What happened to these people over that amount of time? But during that time, especially when you set a book down and come back to it, there they are. You don’t have to create them. You know them a little more. And now you infuse them with the things you’ve been feeling and thinking about. And so when—the characters Dee and Pasquale were alive to me in that sense since 1997, and yet I didn’t quite know them. I would find out things about them. I’ve lived in Spokane my whole life. Spokane, Wash.

RB: There’s another Spokane?

JW: There is another Spokane. I only say “Washington” because some people won’t know where the one Spokane is. But to have lived in the same place my whole life—it’s not surprising then that Pasquale is infused with this desire to go out into a larger world. So those kinds of things would work their way in to the characters. And it was a slow process. At no point when I would give up on the book would I think, Well, I’ll come back and finish this. I would think what every writer does. Which is, That one is probably just not going to work. Maybe I’ll salvage some bit of it for something else. So when I finished that draft in 2008 and then wrote Financial Lives, I took nine months away from it, almost a year, which is hard to tell young writers because it seems as if you go away from it you won’t be able to reanimate it. I heard a painter one time say, “I can go back to a painting as long as the paint hasn’t dried.” And writers, a lot of times you go back to it and the paint is dry. You can’t make your flowers into trees.

RB: I remember Frank Conroy telling me he lost the first draft to a long novel and so he wrote it again. And years later he found the lost draft and it was not much different than the one he rewrote.

JW: Close and better. I think the same process happens when you step away. When I would go back to it I could see the flaws as clearly as if they were drawing mistakes, perspective mistakes. What I saw were the flaws. Again, this is subject to layers of subjectivity, gone forever. So every time I would go back to the beginning. Not a sentence exists from the 1997 version, I’m sure. I doubt there is even a sentence from the 2008 version.

RB: Was Richard Burton in the story originally?

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JW: Cleopatra was in it from about 2002. I’d had my first experiences in Hollywood. When you come up with a beginning that catches you in that way, you’re asking yourself, “Who are these people?” When I realized she [Dee] was an actress the next thing was, “What’s she doing in Italy?” So I read some biographies and histories of 20th Century Fox, which had an incredible description of the disaster that was Cleopatra. When I got to that part about Burton and Taylor having this affair, and 20th Century Fox worried that it was going to ruin the film, and them realizing that it would help it break even: I felt, Oh my God, this is the birth of every reality show, of every kind of Paris Hilton kind of sex tape fame idea we have. That it doesn’t matter if you screw up: It matters that your name is in the papers. That was around 2002. So I started researching Burton. First, I didn’t know he would work his way in to the novel. He sort of hovered—

RB: Then why would Dee come to this isolated place?

JW: When I start writing, often I will just have a vision. I’ll write to that vision and then I figure it out. I think every writer has all these knobs on their stereo, treble and bass and balance. And for me, the two that I pay the most attention to are character and thematics. Characters invested with some sort of [pauses, searching] ache, some humanity and drive. They want something. Often they are haunted by their inability to get by.

RB: That’s one of the pleasures of reading this book. The characters are sympathetic—even Dean, who is a schmuck.

JW: When I wrote his chapter [Dean’s memoir]—this doesn’t get mentioned as much as it should, but fiction writing is an act of empathy. And when I wrote in his voice, I thought, he believes he is doing the best for people.

RB: It’s hard to read a story where the writer doesn’t like his characters.

JW: I think people will assume that that means that the characters can’t be flawed. And to me it’s the opposite; they need to be flawed. The difference is we can tell an author who condescends to his characters, who gives them these flaws but treats them as if they are beneath him or her in some way. I think of that as a male characteristic of authors. I don’t know why. And it’s not.

RB: You want to view women as maternal and empathetic.

JW: Maybe, right.

RB: The character Bender, when did he get added to the cast?

JW: He was along pretty early. And I didn’t know who he was and he came about for this very odd reason. I had invented this sixth village, Porto Vergogna; it takes place in the Cinque Terra, and so I invented a sixth village, Port of Shame. It was playful and fun and if you have been to Italy there is not a lot of understatement. It’s a big brash macho culture. The words “Hotel Adequate View” made me laugh every time I thought of it, so I needed a reason for why the hotel was called the Hotel Adequate View. And I imagined some American writer holding forth on the topic of inflation in the currency of language, and how hyperbole was going to be the death of us all, how everything could not be the most beautiful view. So that became Alvis Bender. He changed over time. He was a big brash travel writer for a while. For a while he was a wine writer.

RB: And then he became an automobile dealer.

JW: Yeah. Who couldn’t write.

RB: Do you think he couldn’t write? The one chapter he wrote (you wrote) was pretty good. And that was a very sweet part of the story. That the one chapter was all that was needed to tell that particular story.

JW: Imagine, again, you have been writing this book and you have invented this guy and he has written this chapter and that’s all he can do. And you are writing a book, which at that point you don’t know if you’ll ever finish. So I felt very much Bender, like in my inability to make more of this except for this great beginning I had.

RB: About 15 years in the making. Now that you are done with it, are you done with it? There can’t really be a sequel. Some writers are writing prequels—Don Winslow, Edward Falco. (laughs)

JW: It’s part of a tetralogy—no. When I am finished with a novel I tend to think those characters—this was the arc of their lives, especially this book, which really is shaped by their entire lives. It has a sweep that my other books don’t. The way I always thought of this book was that I was carrying these characters around in my hands, gently. And they went through such hard times. I have a writing journal where I write my ideas, and in that journal I tend to focus on the very small, really small details, and try to step back and get a larger picture. So for The Financial Lives of the Poets I wrote, “This is that part of the roller coaster where you are right on the top, when you meet and then it’s all a descent. I want to end the novel in a descent.” So that was the shape for me. In this one I felt like I was gently carrying these characters, and then I wrote, “In the last chapter I want to just throw them out on the table and have everything spill out in this flood of the present, of the moment.”

RB: It is a lovely ending.

JW: So in that way I felt like I was done with them. I carried them for 15 years now they are free. Those metaphors or shapes are so helpful in my journal because they allow me to step back.

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RB: I have read some of your other novels—Citizen Vince and Land of the Blind. I have always like that Erasmus quote [“In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”—ed.]. I was surprised to see that you wrote two novels using Caroline Mabry.

JW:  I was a dad very young and I started working at a newspaper; I always wanted to be a novelist but had no training whatsoever. And I was writing a lot of failed attempts at fiction. For seven years I sent out short stories and got them all rejected. I used to call them “manila boomerangs.” I would send out the manila envelope and they would come flying back. So I tried to write Beautiful Ruins and couldn’t quite get around it. And so I wrote my first published novel, Over Tumbled Graves—I told myself I needed to teach myself how to write a novel and in a form that I can get my arms around, and so I chose the crime novel. It’s not your typical crime novel. The whole novel is structured like The Waste Land. It’s filled with homages to that poem. It’s like an English grad student with his hands on a serial killer. Land of the Blind was my second book. I wanted to wrap a coming-of-age story up with some procedural elements. At that time, I am still feeling like I am teaching myself how to do this one book at a time. And that one, it was kind of thrilling, to feel like you are getting better and you are learning and that you are able to do things.

RB: One of the reasons genre fiction is looked down upon is because there are so many series. Phillip Kerr mentioned to me that even the good writers, like Raymond Chandler, tend to write one or two too many.

JW: I think the market can ruin many a great writer. And I like crime fiction. I like good crime fiction. And to write a book a year—now authors are writing two books a year.

RB: James Patterson must be like Damien Hirst. Does he write all his own stuff?

JW: I won’t deign to speak for any other writer. But I know I couldn’t publish a book a year and have them be that great.

RB: Elmore Leonard comes out with about a book a year.

JW: He hits for about as high an average as anyone. But I wait and see if one sounds like one of the good Leonard books. His lower bars are still pretty high. There are some readers for whom—and I remember encountering this when my first few books came out and were called crime novels—they would say, “Well I knew who did it on page seven. “

RB: (laughs)

JW: And so for some readers, and it’s not many, it’s more like a crossword puzzle they are hoping to solve. There can be those economic pressures to produce more and make more. That said, there are great crime novels—I think of novels by Richard Price, who in Clockers managed to write a social novel wedded with a crime novel that is brilliant.

RB: I also liked  his novel Samaritan.

JW: It was good too.

RB: Colin Harrison writes literary crime novels.

JW: He’s great. Laura Lippman had a book a couple of years ago—What the Dead Know—that I thought was brilliant. Megan Abbott writes some amazing stuff. Ken Bruen, the Irish writer, a kind of noir Irish poetry. There are a number of crime writers whose work I really like.

RB: But there is still a crime fiction ghetto.

JW: But it’s an opposite ghetto—they make all the money.

RB: (laughs)

JW: Look at the bestseller list. It’s not full of literary fiction.

RB: You get the respect and they get the cash.

JW: Over time the really great stuff—James Cain, there are a lot of places that teach Cain and Chandler and Hammett, not out of deference to pick one crime novelist, but because that stuff influenced writing as much as anything. Camus wrote The Stranger to try to mimic what he loved about The Postman Always Rings Twice. That had such a huge effect. So the stuff will weigh out.

RB: Have you read Georges Simenon?

JW: I haven’t, but I’ve heard good things.

RB: Me neither. He wrote 200 or 300 books.

JW: As a reader I have always had a problem with the series. Because after the 10th murder, don’t you stop going to that library—even if the librarian can solve the crime?

RB: I find the writing gets lazy and predictable. Chandler didn’t wear Marlowe out but came close. I mentioned him before, Philip Kerr does fine with a Nazi-era Berlin homicide detective, Bernie Gunther.

JW: He does, but those novels feel bigger. They talk about a time and a place. They don’t feel formulaic. Michael Connelly’sThe Lincoln Lawyer—that was just such a great opening.

RB: Then he came out with a few more and put Harry Bosch together with him in at least one novel. I thought The Poet was the best thing I read by him, and then, of course a few years later he has a sequel to it.

JW: When I see a series I want to know the one I need to read. And a lot of readers aren’t that way. And again, anyone who gets people to read their books—I don’t think you can fake those things. If, with no one looking, you were to make a list of the 10 books you loved the most, that’s the wheelhouse you’ll arrive at. I’d put a Vonnegut on there, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I might put The White Album by Joan Didion. I don’t know what else I’d put, but you could find the DNA of the things I am trying to do as a novelist. Anyway, with Land of the Blind it was an accidental sequel. I was writing the story of this guy and I had this idea of a confession, a reverse confession. Every crime novel starts with the body; what if instead you have the killer and you have to find the body?

RB: That’s the one I read. But when I noticed that the woman cop was in a previous novel, I also noted that she was not central to the story.

JW: I feel like for me, the characters have a book. And my other characters recur. Alan Dupree shows up in a couple of novels and then has a bigger role in Citizen Vince. Vince from Citizen Vince shows up in a really brief cameo in TheFinancial Lives of Poets. Almost just a walk-on.

RB: Is this like William Kennedy’s Albany books?

JW: I love those.

RB: You could be the glorifier of Spokane.

JW: This will break me of that. I love Kennedy. I would put Ironweed on my list. And The Flaming Corsage. I love what he did. Because I am from that place I imagine a bigger fictional world and go as many other places as I can.

RB: So what’s next?

JW: A book of short stories coming out next year—not the rejected ones. And I am working on two novels. I don’t know which one will take over. The one that I am furthest along on is a comic novel—

RB: These others weren’t?

JW: Yeah, I didn’t mean to say that part. I grew up in the West on a family cattle ranch. I have never written about that, so it’s about a guy who grows up on a suburban cattle ranch.

RB: Did you live in Hollywood?

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JW: My first book was made into a CBS miniseries, The Siege at Ruby Ridge. And for a kid who had never been anywhere it just swept over me. I worked on the script a little bit, but it was another screenwriter. It was a fascinating process to see, but I wanted to learn to write scripts in case they came for any of my books again. I wanted to be able to take a shot at that. So I taught myself to write scripts, read a bunch of books on screenwriting. Sold a couple. They weren’t made. And then I just adapted TheFinancial Lives of the Poets. And it’s going into production supposedly in November.

RB: Who’s in the cast?

JW: Jack Black. And Michael Winterbottom, the British director, is directing, and they are filling out the rest of the cast. They are in pre-pre-production.

RB: It’s a film that requires no special effects or car chases—

JW: It’s an indie film, low-budget.

RB: Acting and storytelling?

JW: I hope. That’s the script I wrote. We’ll see. So in that time I had some Hollywood dealings. For me, it was really more about the idea of the place. I didn’t put many of my own stories in. Although I have had a couple of producers that worked with [them] call me and ask if they could have some of my reality TV show ideas.

RB: (laughs)

JW: I said, “You do realize you are playing right into the satire?” And the guy said, “I am totally aware of that.” (both laugh) Hookbook was the idea he really wanted. I told him he could have it.

RB: You may regret giving it away.

JW: Yeah, my movie will gross $11. I will be watching Hookbook on reruns.

RB: Anyway, you’ve not been tempted to live somewhere else?

JW: I never said that.

RB: What’s it like living in Spokane?

JW: It’s a very different place. It’s a great place, it’s resurgent. Any place that you grow up and then you don’t leave—you grow up on the left bank of Paris and you think, Oh, what a provincial shithole this is. But being a dad so young, and having to put myself through college, and then work at a newspaper to support a child from the time I was 19 until I was 28. That’s the time you normally leave—I couldn’t afford to. The first in my family to go to college. People tended to stick around and a get a job in the aluminum plant.

RB: You worked a newspaper for a long time—why did you need to go to school?

JW: Yeah, well—

RB: There’s your education.

JW: It turned out to be. The guy who wrote Land of the Blind was at a different place then I am at now. We talked before about not having perspective on your childhood. You can’t have perspective on the things that you don’t have, either. In Citizen Vincethere is a nakedly autobiographical scene of Vince sitting in Union Square watching NYU students, thinking, What do they have I that I don’t have? Is it breeding? Is there something I’ll never have? I wanted to get to that place. I wanted to be a literary novelist. I wanted my name to be up there—that was my dream. And I thought, You can’t get there from where I am. You can’t get there from Spokane. But back to the question of Spokane—since then the downtown is revitalized. It has this booming art and writing scene. And music scene. My kids are in great schools. We have a great house. We have a great life there. I travel so much and there was a moment when I woke up and realized: It’s kind of a gift to be from someplace and to have roots there and a connection there. I spend time in Hollywood tinkering with things and on the road and I kind of don’t mind being from there now.

RB: How close were you to Ruby Ridge?

JW: It was just over the border in Idaho, about an hour and a half. That’s how I ended up covering it for my newspaper. My daughter is about three hours away in Missoula, which is a gorgeous place.

RB: How far from the Canadian border?

JW: An hour and 20 minutes. There are three ski hills that my son and I can be on within an hour from my front door. There is a river that goes just below my house that has the best fly-fishing hole. It is an incredible place for nature. And like a lot of cities where downtown real estate suddenly gets cheap, the artists can actually afford the artists’ lofts. It’s a little isolated, still. There is a part of me that, if all my ships come in, I may have a place in Spokane and a place somewhere else. But that would have to be a lot of ships.

RB: I am reading that Rust Belt cities are being revitalized also.

JW: Spokane has more in common with Rust Belt cities than the classic Pacific Northwest cities—Vancouver, Portland, Seattle. In that I-5 corridor, those are boom/bust towns. And they have great booms. Spokane tends to be steady—always looking for the next big thing. It’s poorer. It’s more blue-collar.

RB: What did you say, there was a big aluminum plant?

JW: Yeah, my dad worked for Kaiser Aluminum, which had a huge plant there. It was mining and timber money and they needed banks—so it’s also a drain for all that surrounding area in Idaho and Montana. It was kind of a fascinating city when Dashiell Hammett went there as a Pinkerton, because all the miners would come there on the weekends. It was filled with brothels. Brothels and flophouse hotels. So the downtown still has these great old buildings that now have painters and funky downtown folk living in them. And like a city like Pittsburgh, its second life is becoming more interesting.

RB: There is something to be said for originality—

JW: And authenticity.

RB: But not when it’s so, so easily manufactured.

JW: I remember going to Seattle when I was young and we would go to these bars where fishermen hung out. Now they’re not there. And the thing I’ve always liked about Spokane is that it’s authentic. I can still go to a diner that’s a diner. I can still go to some blue-collar places. There are parts of it—the worst thing my dad can say about anything, and I don’t even think he knows what it means, is “yuppie.” “Oh, that place has gone yuppie,” which to him means that they have raised the prices $2 for no good reason. Whatever that authenticity is, going back to a 1950s nostalgia—which I am not saying is better—is what it was.

RB: This quest for authenticity also becomes silly to the point of losing meaning.

JW: Well, that raises the impulse to satirize in fiction—to draw attention to the absurdities that underline them a little bit, and let them go.

RB: Have you thought of writing a political novel? Do you pay attention?

JW: Oh yeah, I am very political. To me Citizen Vince was a political novel, from the consumer’s point of view.

RB: Vince turned out to be unflinchingly moral.

JW: I knew a couple of guys in the Witness Protection Program—I discovered them in Spokane. That’s how the novel came about. Spokane is a place where they send people in that program.

RB: There’s no mob there?

JW: Part of the book explains the process, which is to look for a place that is big enough where they can blend in. Spokane had a big Italian and Irish community, because of the railroad, and all these jobs so you could blend in. You could open an Italian restaurant or pizza place and no one would think twice. And there was a federal office there. And no organized crime. You couldn’t fall back in with the goodfellas again.

RB: No drugs?

JW: Oh no, there is everything. There wasn’t their brand of organized crime. All crime has similar organizations.

RB: Chinese gangs? Or Guatemalan gangs?

JW: Like every city, Spokane has immigrant populations, but when I created Vince I knew he couldn’t be the sort of—he had to have a depth that most mobsters don’t. I gave it to one of the mafia guys when I was done and had him read it. He said, “I was at a game at Gotti’s place on Mott Street and you fuckin’ nailed that. I thought I was fuckin’ there. You got the language. You got everything. That’s just what a wildcard Gotti was. I loved it. And those are my complaints about Spokane: The women are ugly and the pizza is horrible. My only fuckin’ question is, why would that mook care about voting.” (both laugh) “Well, Angelo, that’s kind of the whole novel.” For that book to be interesting to me and be a political novel, I had to make that kind of displacement that could open you up in a way.

RB: Vince was pretty much against type all the way through.

JW: He was. I always saw him as an affiliated guy, a kind of tagger-on, hanger-on, and that’s how Ray dismisses him. Ray is disappointed to find out this guy isn’t even anybody. So that was the only way I could make him—I couldn’t make him a connected guy and still have him care about architecture and voting. Again, the neighborhood I grew up in, I had four buddies and I am the only one who graduated from high school. So what if I hadn’t? What if I had fallen in—what if instead of growing up in Spokane it had been some neighborhood in New York? We all knew those guys we were friends with them at a certain age. For me it was to send that guy on that path and then see where he ended up.

RB: How long has Cal Morgan been your editor?

JW: He was my editor when he was at ReganBooks. My first novel came out in 2001.The Zero was the first one to come out in paperback at Harper Perennial.

RB: Was that one of the first post-9/11 novels?

JW: I was at Ground Zero doing a ghostwriting job for Bernard Kerik.

RB: (laughs)

JW: So that’s how that novel came about—from the things I witnessed.

RB: Before or after his fall from grace?

JW: Oh, before. My publisher was Judith Regan, and she said, “You should work on this book,” and I was trying to write Citizen Vince and trying get to know New York cops for that stretch of the book. She said, “I just signed a New York cop, come help him with his autobiography.” I said, “I don’t want to do a ghostwriting job.” And she said, “No, he has pages. You’re a glorified editor.” So I came in, met him, and happened to arrive five days after. You asked if I was political. The book is very political, very much about the invasion of Iraq, and so it is very much a response to felling like my country had gone insane. I had gone a little insane with it. So it’s a much more allegorical novel. I am also the proudest of it because structurally it does things I hadn’t tried before.

RB: I lost my copy on an airplane.

JW: I’ll have Cal send you another one. We use them as coasters at my house.

RB: (laughs) In one of your books you acknowledge Judith Regan, who by reputation is something of a madwoman.

JW: Um, Judith used to say, to her credit, “If I were a man I’d be a character. Because I am woman they call me a bitch.” Judith was my first-ever publisher. She always told me, “Just write what ever you want. Don’t worry about the market. You’re an incredibly talented writer, you write what you want and I’ll find a way to get in print.”

RB: That’s very commendable.

JW: For a young writer, right.

RB: For any writer.

JW: So that’s my personal loyalty to her. I also think she was very shrewd. Brilliant about what the culture wanted.

RB: I don’t think she did television well.

JW: Right. The other thing people might find surprising about Judith, I think she is one of the people with the most integrity—in dealing with me and telling the truth as she saw it. That doesn’t mean that she couldn’t be difficult.

RB: What are the burdens of dealing with the book business—you have five or six novels now?

JW: Six novels and one nonfiction book.

RB: Is a lot asked of you outside the writing?

JW: I have had the kind of career they say you aren’t supposed to have anymore, [sales] growing with each book, and working with the same editor, and this book may hit the bestseller list. But for the most part my books sell steadily. The Financial Lives of the Poets sold as many copies six months after it came out as it did when it first came out. My books tend the gain readers over time. So publishing has been—

RB: “Bery, bery good to you.”

JW: Kind to me in a very naturalistic, easy way. I was not a prodigy, but at the same time my books have always been reviewed well. Being a finalist for the National Book Award brought some attention, and then I have always gotten the attention that makes me feel humbled and incredible fortunate. And for the business, by the time I finish a novel I am ready to talk about it. Fifteen years is a long time to carry this around. Because I have had to teach myself how to do this and march my way through, when people want to talk about my book I am excited. It’s kind of an honor.

RB: What about the sheer hard work of travel? The horrors of flying?

JW: You should look at my schedule. My book tour ends and then I start doing events. I love to travel. In the fall I am doing five book festivals and seven or eight universities, and if a bookstore wants me and I can get there, I’ll try. I am fascinated by the stuff. It’s turned out to be my life’s work. And I enjoy and don’t take any part of it for granted. And to even get a book tour now is not easy.

RB: I haven’t noticed a diminution of authors coming through Boston. Less bookstores, of course.

JW: You are probably seeing more writers from the East Coast. More regional tours.

RB: Probably.

JW: I’ve been to Paris, Italy, and the UK as an author. And Belgium. I would never have been to Europe—in the place I grew up you didn’t spend the summer in Europe; you got to go to Montana sometimes. I’m still this kid—I see a plane fly over my house and I think, I get to be on that soon.

RB: How many languages for Beautiful Ruins?

JW: Sold in three so far. Citizen Vince is 21 or 22. Some of the others are 14 and 15.

RB: What about the movie of Beautiful Ruins?

JW: Yeah, it’s always possible. It’s got some challenges. It’s a period piece and takes place over such a large span, and Hollywood tends not to like films that are self-referential. But that said, I have had a little bit of interest so far. It takes so long for that process—Citizen Vince was almost a film three times. Rick Russo wrote an amazing script for it. He had a producer—Rick has been supportive every step of the way.

RB: He’s a really good guy.

JW: Oh, he is such a good guy and such an amazing author. At one point I had wanted to adapt Citizen Vince, because I first thought of the story as a film. I tried to write it as a script, and when the producers optioned it they said, “Well, we want Russo to do it.” The way I looked at it—you have a kid, you see these things as a kid—you have a choice of your kid going to Richard Russo University or Jess Walter Community College. But that has come so close and they are never dead. They can take 10 to 12 years to make it the screen. Financial Lives has actually had a pretty smooth path, and it will be three or four years.

RB: I thought the trick was to find a young star, Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, and convince him that he is the protagonist of the novel.

JW: The studio system, which is what we think of as “Hollywood,” is in such a strange position that if it doesn’t appeal to a 19-year-old boy they are not going to make it.

RB: (laughs) Right.

JW: But because of that, this undercurrent of indie films is coming back. And so there is a lot of room for your $5-million to $10-million movie.

RB:John Sayles says even if you get a film made the problem is the competition for screens in the country. There are limited amounts.

JW: Here’s what they did with The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is an $8-million movie: They presold all the foreign rights; they’ll sell it to one of the premium cable channels.

RB: So they get the back end covered.

JW: I don’t do this, but there is someone penciling out that if Jack Black is in it and Michael Winterbottom, who has an indie reputation, makes it, we get it on this number of screens and sell it in these 10 countries and sell at a premium channel, [and] we are guaranteed X. So here’s your budget. And if we film it here, where they have tax breaks—so somebody is penciling all that out. Thankfully it’s not me. My math doesn’t go that high.

RB: [John] Sayles is saying it is getting harder and harder for him. The problem is getting screens, getting exhibited.

JW: What’s the last movie you went to?

RB:A Separation, an Iranian film.

imgres.jpg I have a theater nearby that shows those kinds of films. But Sayles’s latest, Amigo, didn’t screen there, or as far as I know anywhere in Boston.

JW: And there is more competition for those screens that show those films—in Spokane for years the art house cinema was closed, so your choices were the new Transformersmovie. Every once in a while I would get fed up and say, “If we don’t get an art house cinema, I’m leaving,” and then it would open. And here’s the problem if it’s going to be available [on Netflix or cable] in three weeks: Most adults are patient; kids aren’t.

RB: Explain the phenomenon of why, when Apple releases a product, there are long lines?

JW: I don’t know. That may be a generation beyond me.

RB: I remember when the Beatles or the Stones or a big group released an album, people would line up outside stores, waiting for hours.

JW: Technology is our rock and roll, in a way. It’s sad. It probably has the transformative power but it doesn’t have the whiff of rebellion.

RB: It more has the stench of institutionalized conformity.

JW: Mechanization.

RB: Am I dreaming? Is Rick Russo doing a sequel to Nobody’s Fool? Did I imagine this?

JW: I think you did.

RB: Imagine it?

JW: No, you read it somewhere. I think he is. It’s not his next book. He has a memoir coming out.

RB: If it were someone else I’d scoff. Don Winslow just did a sequel to Savages. And by the way, his The Power of the Dog was a tremendous book.

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JW: Yes, yes. The funny thing is we equate popularity with value and yet we know better. Other wise Nora Roberts would have the Nobel Prize. And Fifty Shades of Grey would be—but I think if people have read Winslow they know that The Power of the Dog is a great book.

RB:I search-engined it and I did not find one major review of The Power of the Dog.

JW: My introduction to him was at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. I walked in and they put it in my hand and they said, “You have to read this.” To have enough books out now that people have their favorite. They will say, “It’s good, but it’s no X.” And it’s not always the same X. If I am at a grad program it’s going to be The Zero. If I am in my hometown it’s going to be Citizen Vince. If it’s somewhere else it’ll be Beautiful Ruins. There are those uptown problems, and the problem of being compared to yourself is a very good problem to have.

RB: Here’s another new wrinkle—Winslow wrote a Trevanian book. Edward Falco wrote a Godfather prequel, and Ace Atkins wrote a Robert Parker/Spenser novel. I don’t get why that makes sense. Did the Chandler reader want to read Robert Parker doing Chandler?

JW: I suppose some portion of it does. It’s probably an homage to the writers that informed them. I remember the Kilgore Trout novel that came out—Venus on the Half Shell, by Philip José Farmer. At the time Vonnegut was crushed by it, because he was so easy to mimic. I’d say it might be the fifth best Vonnegut novel, or not far off. It’s a fine line between homage, parody, and consumer opportunism.

RB: Maybe your next move ought to be a self-parody.

JW: Too easy. I do it every day.

RB: How does your family look upon you as a writer, on what you do?

JW: All my kids share a love of reading. Everyone thinks his or her kids are brilliant. But my kids are brilliant. My older daughter—we always shared books, talked about which books to read. So close in every way but especially in that way. She went to India to do relief work one summer. I was so proud of her, and my ex- and current wife, we are all really close. She wanted just enough books that she could carry in her backpack—five paperback books that she could throw away when she was done. I packed them tightly in her bag and she went off and we didn’t hear from her for days. My wife and ex were grief-stricken, Oh, what’s happened? Finally she makes it to a phone and calls and reaches me. A scratchy line, “Hello, hello. Dad, it’s Brooklyn. I’m fine. I just finishedOne Hundred Years of Solitude and it’s so amazing.” And we talked about the book for the next two minutes. And the line goes dead. And I’m smiling, and my wife says, “How is she?” “She loves One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Both women wanted to kill me.

RB: I remember exactly where I was when I started to read that book in August of 1972.

JW: I read it in college. I would have a little break afternoons and my wife would go to class and then I would watch our baby. I would take her to the park and she would lie on my chest and nap and I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. So to have her call from India to say what a beautiful book it was—so I gave her Beautiful Ruins. This was a kid who now has gone to college and gotten her master’s. When she took a Melville survey I read Melville alongside her—she was doing the thing I had always dreamed of, going to grad school and studying these great books, you know? And she called and said, “[Beautiful Ruins] is the book I always wanted to read.” It melted my heart. My other kids are great readers too. My middle daughter is reading it now so I will get her appraisal when I get home. As a dad that’s Mickey Mantle stuff. It’s pretty great.

RB: Well, thank you.

JW: Thank you.

Peter Guralnick and the Man Who Invented Rock And Roll

9 Feb

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

While renowned chronicler of American music Peter Guralnick made his bones with his seminal two volume study of cultural icon Elvis Presley ( of whom I was not a fan) when I came upon Guralnick’s Dream Boogie *: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (of whom I am an immense fan) I suspected we might be kindred spirits. So, when I received his recent opus on Sam Phillips , I  arranged to meet with him. As it turns out, among other things, we both place value on and enjoy digressive conversation (which I think is redundant, as I view real conversation to be inherently digressive.) In any case, what follows is that chat (hopefully the first in an ongoing series), which is, as you may suspect, a peripatetic journey through mid century American music and much more. 

 

Sam Phillps by Peter Guralnick

Sam Phillps by Peter Guralnick

 

 

Robert Birnbaum: Would it bother you— I really don’t like to pose people. Do you mind, if while we’re talking, I take your picture ?

Peter Guralnick: As long as I’m not eating, or dribbling.

Robert Birnbaum:Yes.

Peter Guralnick:Or drooling.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) I’d like to get the drooling photo.

Peter Guralnick: Everybody wants that.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s the money shot, that’s what they said to me. People Magazine said, “Get Guralnick drooling and there’ll be lots of money for you.”

Peter Guralnick:I’ve looked at some of your other interviews, they’re really cool.

Robert Birnbaum:Thank you.

Peter Guralnick:The people you talk to… and you even talked to Don Winslow

Robert Birnbaum: I  introduced him and spoke with him in front of an audience at [Brookline] BookSmith.

Peter Guralnick: What a great writer, [author of]  The Power of the Dog.

Robert Birnbaum: I like both that one and the new one, The Cartel

Peter Guralnick: I don’t know, The Cartel didn’t grab me quite as much, maybe it’s because  I couldn’t follow it as well.  But The Power of the Dog —man, that just knocked me out. How about Kem Nunn? You’ve got to read The Dogs of Winter.

Robert Birnbaum: Ok, today’s the 17th of December. I’m talking to Peter Guralnick.

Peter Guralnick:It’s not the 17th.

Robert Birnbaum:Well, lets pretend it’s the 17th. What day is it?

Peter Guralnick:The 15th.

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum:(laughter)You have to be picky about it.

Peter Guralnick:No, ordinarily I wouldn’t know.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m talking to Mr. Fussy here.

Peter Guralnick: If you ask me any other day, I wouldn’t know, but I do know today.

Robert Birnbaum:See, I even have a date book and I don’t know. Well, whatever the date is, I’m talking to Peter Guralnick. And we are rolling. You spend part of the year in Nashville at Vanderbilt, are you still doing that?

Peter Guralnick: Yeah, I’m going back this year, this is the 11th year I’ll be teaching Creative Writing spring semester there. It’s been great. It’s kind of misleading that Little, Brown wrote that, “He divides his time.” I said, “Well, that sounds okay,” but really I live around here and I teach creative writing at Vanderbilt spring semester.

Robert Birnbaum:Is Vanderbilt separate, like many colleges, from the community? Is it a little island unto itself? When you’re at Vanderbilt can you see where you are in the town?

Peter Guralnick:You’re pretty much in the middle of things. I’d say my largest range of association is, not just within the music community, but within the larger community. I’m certainly friendly with people at Vanderbilt, but the larger community is very accessible and you’re right in the middle of it. I’m not sure that Vanderbilt chooses to be in the middle of it, but they are.

Robert Birnbaum:Compare life in that town, to life in New England for instance. Big cultural difference?

Peter Guralnick: I can’t.

Robert Birnbaum: You just don’t spend enough time?

Peter Guralnick: What it is, is that my life in Nashville the teaching is like running a camp. I think it’s total immersion, in a self-sustaining community. It’s been very rewarding working with the students, both under-graduate and graduate. But, because of the fact that I’m living in town, living on the edge of town you might say. I go out all the time, I see people, I meet people.

Robert Birnbaum: Catch live music?

Peter Guralnick:I go out to hear live music all the time. Whereas, basically when I’m at home, at least for the last 20-25 years, I’m writing. I’ve always been writing, but the point is I live an hour outside of Boston.

Robert Birnbaum: No distractions.

Peter Guralnick:There are no distractions. And in Boston music starts later and later. In Nashville you can go out and you can catch a  9:00 set, you might even catch two sets and be home by 11:00, because you’re only 15 minutes away.

Robert Birnbaum:Well,everyone wants, inquiring minds want to know. Is the Sam Phillips book—I’m not sure it’s a biography. Is the Sam Phillips book like an penultimate project for you? Is everything else going to be anticlimactic after this?

Peter Guralnick:No. I always said, I never set out to be a professional biographer.

Robert Birnbaum:Are you a professional biographer?

Peter Guralnick:No. I’ve always wanted to write something different,to continue to write something different with each book. I started out to be a writer, when I was a kid. When I was eight or nine years old. I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a baseball player. I have no professional concept of either.

Robert Birnbaum:If you’re at spring at Vanderbilt, you watch very good baseball [Vanderbilt  has a very good baseball program]?

Peter Guralnick:I don’t much like watching. I love to play. I played baseball until I was 48 and then I ran into a tri-focal crisis. Now, I just play tennis. I’ve played sports all my life, it’s been a great source of reward, satisfaction and friendship. A great source of friendship.

Robert Birnbaum:You were talking about writing.

Peter Guralnick: I wanted to be a writer. The music came about just because – I mean, I wrote my first novel when I was 19, I published a couple of collections of short stories when I was 21 and 22. But I started writing about music during this same time period – the whole point was purely, entirely, simply to tell people about this music that I thought was so great. The opportunity came about when the underground press started popping up – Crawdaddy! started in ’66 or ’67,  Boston After Dark began around the same time, and then there were the blues magazines in England. People who knew me couldn’t help but know how much I loved the blues, so they asked me if I’d like to write about it. How could I say no? Just to have the opportunity to put the names of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley in print….But just to square the circle, to go back to your original question,  I think as I continued on this path that I had set out on first with Elvis, I guess I saw the Sam Phillips almost as the third in the trilogy of biographies. That wasn’t how I started out, but that’s how I eventually came to see it. I can’t conceive of writing another biography, not out of any disaffection, or disillusionment with it, but because I’ve spent the last 27 years writing biographies. Now I’m going to go back to writing short stories.

Mister Down Child by Peter Guralnick

Mister Down Child by Peter Guralnick

Robert Birnbaum:Not a novel?

Peter Guralnick:Well, maybe.The last novel I wrote, which is either the 10th or the 11th, has been stuck in the middle of third draft for a long, long time. So I want to go back to it, see if it’s worth finishing. It may well not be and if it isn’t I’m going to be doing the stories, then I think I’ll go on to another novel.

Robert Birnbaum:There isn’t another, forget about musical, there’s not another figure, cultural figure  or person that you are interested enough in to investigate their life?

Peter Guralnick:There is, but not that I want to write the book. I read the review of the John le Carre biography in the Times today. Which I was quite interested in. As I think you know by now, I don’t read biographies much, I don’t read non-fiction much. I thought that would be an interesting subject to explore. I would have loved to have written a biography of Willie Mays. That was something I thought about a lot after finishing the Sam Cooke. Then I just realized it would be like starting all over again, I had no contacts. I had no access to that world. It would be a matter of persuading people who had no idea who I was, that I was somebody worth talking to.

Robert Birnbaum: You’d have to persuade him that you were worth talking to.

Peter Guralnick:Then it turned out somebody else was working on the book. That actually wasn’t what discouraged me, I had already decided I couldn’t do it.

Robert Birnbaum: Is there a musical figure, character that deserves a biography that no one has written about?

Peter Guralnick:There are hundreds.

Robert Birnbaum:Name a few of them?

Peter Guralnick: Merle Haggard, has had a lot of books written about him, but I think no great biography. He’s one of the great creative artists of our time. Somebody like Alice Munro, deserves a great artistic biography. There are many writers like that. Somebody like, Charlie Rich would be a tremendous subject for a biography, but probably it would not be one that could be sold.

Robert Birnbaum:How could a Sam Phillips biography be viewed as having commercial potential? ? Especially as the cultural literacy window has narrowed so much.

Peter Guralnick: Five years.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s right.

Peter Guralnick:Is that being generous?

Robert Birnbaum:I was going to say 7-10, but five sounds about right. I asked people, in fact I even asked my physical therapist who’s 30. I started naming names, both current and 15-20 years. I said, “I’m reading a book about Sam Phillips.” “Who’s Sam Philips?” She didn’t even know there was a singer named Sam Phillips.[1]

 

Peter Guralnick:I wanted to say one thing. After I finished the Elvis biography I would run into people who’d say, “Now, you’ve written about the King, who would be a worthy subject?” I would say, “Anybody.” I would say that this is a matter of human dignity and human worth. It has nothing to do with fame, it has nothing to do with celebrity.  I’ve spoken many times about a friend of mine, Irving Roberts. He did – and this isn’t even the beginning of all that he did – he did all of the maintenance work and construction and, oh, just everything that needed doing, including good advice, at camp. His  father built the camp that my grandfather started and that I later ran. I couldn’t even begin to describe all of Irving’s talents and skills –  he’s one of the most interesting people, one of the most brilliant people, one of the most inventive people, one of the most resourceful and compassionate people I’ve ever met. He would be a great subject for as biography!

Robert Birnbaum:Uncle Silas would have been a worthy subject.

Peter Guralnick:That’s true. In other words, this ranking of the worth of subjects to me is, I’m not saying you’re doing it, but it’s anti-democratic. In a way that only a true Trumpian could understand.

Robert Birnbaum:The point is, you’re lucky to be affiliated with a publishing house that has somebody like Michael Pietsch, whose really an editor and a book person.

Peter Guralnick: Michael Pietsch [2]is the best friend I’ve ever made in publishing. In all the years I’ve been in publishing, I’ve made good friends, but he is the best friend I’ve made.

Robert Birnbaum:The introduction he wrote, the tip in he wrote to the advanced reading copy was, I think appropriate, do you think somebody else would have bought this book?

r.

          Peter Guralnick: Cal Morgan at Harper, but he just left Harper. You know, he published Jess Walter[3].

          Robert Birnbaum: I love Beautiful Ruins.

          Peter Guralnick:Oh, all of his books are great. Every one is different.

Robert Birnbaum: Has anyone written about Howlin Wolf, in a good way?

 

 

Peter Guralnick:There’s a biography of Howlin Wolf that’s a wonderful accumulation of so much great stuff.  Mark Hoffman wrote it, Mark and James Segrest. [4]It’s great that they did it. That’s a book, you wanted to ask me, is there a biography I would have liked to have written? I would have loved to e write a biography of Howlin’ Wolf, but I talked myself out of it, I thought it was too late. But Mark and James Segrest went out and found all these people, contemporaries of Wolf,  friends, family, everything. So, you know, I’m not ranking or regretting – I mean, as Solomon Burke said to me a number of times, “Bile will consume you.” You never want to go there if you can help it!

Robert Birnbaum:Did he make that up?

Peter Guralnick:I think so.

Peter Guralnick: He also said, “Who is it that’s Pete the Writer when he’s alone in his hotel room at night.” He was pissed off at me, mildly pissed off at me at the time. I sign all my letters that way now, Pete the Writer In his Lonely Room. No, I mean, they went out and did something that I didn’t think could be done. That was a book I would like to have written. My own biography of Howlin’ Wolf, I mean. Satchel Paige [5]is another person I would have loved to have written about. I pitched the story on Satchel Paige to Rolling Stone, while he was coaching out in Oklahoma. He was coaching third base in a rocking chair. I figured, how could it miss? But Rolling Stone  didn’t see it that way.

Robert Birnbaum: Are there pictures of that?

Peter Guralnick:I’ve never seen any.

Robert Birnbaum:There’s got to be. How could somebody not.

Peter Guralnick: On the internet, anything. Even if it didn’t exist, it does exist.

Robert Birnbaum: I agree with you, I think that’s right, but that’s not the way the book industry works. That is to say they do need subjects with high name recognition.

 

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick:Well, look, after Elvis – and this is just an exemplary tale (no bile) – after Elvis, I was looking for a new agent and I talked to 16 or 17, I think. I told them my next book was going to be about Sam Cooke, and every one of them said, “Big mistake. Bad career move, after the King.” Then they suggested things which they said could bring a great deal of money, and I believed them and I said, “Yes, but I’m writing about Sam Cooke.”

Robert Birnbaum: Let me bless you for that. First of all I don’t read biographies and I don’t usually read musical biographies. But, I loved Sam Cooke. I’m from Chicago, I love that book. Thank you for the book.

Peter Guralnick:This is what happened to me, I’ll say to you that the 18th agent that I spoke to was David Gernert, and he said, “This is really cool.” And he went out and sold it, and that’s what I did. But it involved a conscious recognition on my part. That I was reducing my market share with each book, enormously. And, you know, it’s no big deal, but I was writing the books I wanted to write. And I can honestly say I’ve never written about anybody that I didn’t want to write about. Every single person I’ve written about is somebody I’ve written about out of admiration.

Robert Birnbaum:And love.

Peter Guralnick: And love.

Robert Birnbaum:You loved Sam Phillips.

Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

Peter Guralnick:Yeah. Loved Sam Cooke too, even if I didn’t know him. The point is, my concept is that, I want to write as much as possible from the inside out. I’m not interested in being an arbiter of fashion, I’m not interested in providing judgments. I’m interested in providing an open book and to some extent, by doing it, I discovered  that writing biographies provided me with  a landscape that offered as much potential as the fictional landscapes that I had been focusing on.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me pause you here. Your conversation with Mark Feeney,  [6] you’ve come to see non-fiction as, “As giving me the opportunity to create these great characters on this expansive plane and populate this world. Because, I came to see it in each of these books, the facts we’re given but not the story. The characters were extraordinary people who developed out of ordinary circumstances. We live in a society that seeks judgement so much of the time, that seeks a bottom line that so often distorts the complexity of reality. Whether it’s Elvis or Sam Cooke, or Sam Phillips, I’m interested in what motivates them, their aspirations, their hopes, their dreams, their disappointments, their inner life. Not a catalog of their achievements.” I think deep down that’s what people want to really read. 600 pages of facts about what a guy had for breakfast when he was seven and what his sex life was at the age of 70 maybe more information than a reader wants.

Peter Guralnick:From my point of view the ideal is to write a book as interesting as the person. To write a book, in the case of Sam Phillips, in which it’s not just the main characters but the cultural milieu that provides the focus. It’s the supporting cast, it’s people like Tom Perryman, in the Elvis book who is out there in Gladewater in East Texas. Out there in Gladewater, he’s the program director and a DJ, and he sees something in this 19-year-old and promotes Elvis on for the first time outside of Memphis and the Hayride. The point is this is a man of imagination, he’s a man that’s looking to get ahead on his own. He’s a man looking towards the future. He doesn’t play a big part in the book, but there are so many people like that.

 

Robert Birnbaum:It’s that old democratic thing, ideally everyone has a story. There’s a story with everyone, you can find multitudes of people that would make an interesting story and book. Getting back to this craft of talking about people, I like biographical essays. Which concises someone’s life, somebody who knows the person and that can speak eloquently. I have read a few [ your books], David Hadju’s book on Billy Strayhorn.[7] Nick Tosches’s and a couple of his books,. I didn’t really like his Dean Martin. But he put him into cultural context. He doesn’t just about the details of the person’s life, a lot of which is mundane,  and banal. I don’t think many people capture that, is it because the publishers  look for hagiographic tracts or exposes  on popular artists.

Peter Guralnick:I think you’d have to expand your definition, it’s not just the industry, it’s academe, it’s the academy. Which is also looking for facts and for instance some of most acclaimed biographies, well, leaving aside, let’s say, a book like Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” which is a masterpiece of portraiture and a masterpiece of describing the climate of the time – well, look, I don’t want to get into anyone in particular, but sometimes these books just pile up, they just pile on the facts, as if they were writing a PhD thesis, or a glorified school paper. You’ll read something and you’ll be struck by it, and then the next paragraph will reinforce it, the following paragraph will drive home the point even more. You say, “I get it, I get it” – you know what I mean?

t, the following paragraph will drive home the point even more. You say, “I get it, I get it” – you know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum: I mean, four volumes on someone’s life. Didn’t Dumas Malone write six volumes on Jefferson? But what I was going to say, by now its sort of a cliche for me, my feeling is that novels like Gore Vidal’s, “Lincoln,” and “Burr” – I felt that I learned more about Lincoln in Vidal’s novel, “Lincoln ” than I did in reading any texts and any description of him.

Peter Guralnick:I thought those two were wonderful novels. But so was Henry and Clara.

Robert Birnbaum: Tom Mallon. Henry and Clara. That’s a great book.[8]

Peter Guralnick:Isn’t that a terrific book?:You can see what I read.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ve been talking to Tom for years, since I discovered that book.

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

 

Peter Guralnick: I just read the Reagan and I read the Nixon before that. To me Henry and Clara

Robert Birnbaum:It’s a brilliant idea. To take a great event and take it from the side, then see what it did to these characters. It’s like writing a novel about a people who were in the grassy knoll. Tom Boyle wrote something about McCormacks era, Colonel McCormack’s era, Riven Rock.[9]

Riven Rock by TC Boyle

Riven Rock by TC Boyle

 

 

Robert Birnbaum The woman [Katherine McCormack] that McCormack’s son married turned out to be a really fantastic woman who ended up at MIT. I think they’ve named buildings after her. I guess what I wanted to get to was, a few years ago the notion of creative non-fiction was introduced and people like to argue about it. I guess, I think that the dividing line, between fictional narrative and non-fictional narrative is blurring. In many cases you can tell a story better and you can argue about what the facts are, but you can tell a story better by introducing elements that are not necessarily factually correct.

Peter Guralnick: I’m not sure. I wouldn’t make that division, I wouldn’t draw that distinction. I think in many ways the characters, the real-life characters that you run into in anybody’s life, that I’ve run into in the stories of Sam Cooke or Sam Phillips or Elvis Presley, are just as compelling. You have all these ancillary characters whose stories in their own way are just as compelling. I think the two essential elements, different elements but in the end fusing into the same thing, are the focus on character and the focus on story. The point is that in terms of narrative, you have to have this narrative momentum. Which is an invention like Hemingway’s dialogue, like slapback, the repetitive-echo device that Sam Phillips employed to such wonderful effect, it’s an invention to make the real realer. Without that narrative momentum you’re just dead in the water. You attempt to get an overview, but you have to recognize that the overview you’re getting is entirely different from the overview another writer, or the reader, might bring to it, or that that person sitting over there might get from another angle. Each of us, given the same set of facts, the same set of interviews, the same set of quotes, the same set of everything, would create an entirely different book.

Robert Birnbaum:I would amplify that, by saying that it’s also the case, that if I read this book a second time, or if you wrote the book a second time there would be differences.

Peter Guralnick:There would absolutely be differences. It’s how the weather is. The point is, I mean,  that I used to think, in terms of writing fiction, what I had for breakfast, something that might be in the news, whatever was in the air, started you off in a completely different – or somewhat different – way.  I mean, it struck me early on, when I first started writing. I started writing every day when I was around 15. I read the Hemingway interview in the Paris Review where he said that –

Robert Birnbaum:He wrote 1000 words a day or something like that?

Peter Guralnick:He wrote every day, he wrote for a certain amount of time. I thought, man, I don’t think that I can write as well as Ernest Hemingway. But I can at least write every day, I think I can write 1000 words a day. It may be shit, but I can commit myself to that. And I did, from the time I was 15, pretty much for the next 30 years. I mean, I could get in at 3 o’clock in the morning, I might have to go to work at 9 – when I was in college, I might have an early class – it didn’t matter. I was going to get up early to write.

Robert Birnbaum:What’s the feeling like when you’re doing that? What do you feel like?

Peter Guralnick:Frustration. Frustration. So much of the time what you’re writing just doesn’t make it, it isn’t any good.

Robert Birnbaum: And you know that when you’re writing it?

Peter Guralnick:Well, not so much if you’re involved in ongoing work. What I was doing for the most part, at the start anyway, was doing beginnings of things which never panned out. Later on, when I was committed to ongoing work, whether it was a novel or a book, it got easer. But I can remember sitting down every day to write the profile of Johnny Shines in “Feel Like Going Home” –  I remember specifically how overwhelmed I was by all the material I had, and how could I convey the essence of what I wanted to say? That was one of the few stories, that and Charlie Feathers in “Lost Highway” –

 

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick

 

Those two times, it wasn’t that I had more facts or more information than I did on anybody else, but I remember feeling a sense of hopelessness that I could ever boil this down to create the portrait that I had in my head. The finely etched portrait! Then, finally, I guess the dam just broke. But that’s different from what I was talking about before , in high school and the first couple of years of college, starting fresh every day, and then having to start fresh again the next day, because what I’d written the day before just didn’t go anywhere, it was, like, scribbling. I suppose it isn’t that different from what all of us face all the time, from what I know I still face, certainly. The idea of starting – you have a blank piece of paper, a blank screen and you sit there and nothing comes. You start to write and you say, “This is terrible, this is ridiculous.” You force yourself to keep going and at the end of the day you have 600, 800 words.

I used to do it in notebooks, I would just turn the page. I didn’t crumple up the pages. You turn the page and you start something else the next day. That’s entirely different from working on a novel, or continuing with ongoing work. To me the whole point of what you’re looking for in any creative act – and creative act can encompass just about anything you commit yourself to fully in life – the whole point is, you’re looking for that moment when you’re lost in what you’re doing. You have applied everything that you know and in some ways you’ve cast it out and you are going just on autopilot, because you’re lost in the act.

Robert Birnbaum:Contemporarily. I guess that’s being in the zone, I guess.

Peter Guralnick:In the moment, in the zone. It’s what Chet Baker [10]talked about when he said, “Let’s get lost.” I mean, if I write for three and half, four hours, say, which would be my ideal time, although lately I’ve been writing in much longer stretches, because of the exigencies of life – but if you write for three or four hours and get five or ten minutes in which you’re just completely lost, that’s what it’s all about.

Robert Birnbaum:Against the background of frustration, occasionally you get that high of feeling something good has happened?

Peter Guralnick:Yeah. Again, I think I’m misleading you a little, because I don’t mean that writing the Sam Phillips, writing about Sam Cooke or Elvis day after day, I mean, certainly I could get stuck at certain points, but that was not the same kind of frustration that I might feel –

Robert Birnbaum: You had a goal.

Peter Guralnick:Right. I had a goal. And if I wrote something – if I wrote 5000 words that I committed myself to, I thought, This is fantastic, and then I decided it merely repeated action or themes that I had already developed, I was prepared to throw it out. Well, to save it in a file of lost moments anyway!

Robert Birnbaum:How big was the original manuscript that you turned in?

Peter Guralnick:The same size.

Robert Birnbaum: How big was the manuscript that you worked on before you turned it in, or did you just pare it down as you went?

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick: As I went. The idea of re-writing, I used to write three discrete drafts. Of everything that I wrote pre-computer. The first draft was long hand. Second draft I typed out from the manuscript, changing as I went along, , the third draft I typed out from the beginning, every single page. Now, I feel like it’s almost inescapable that you’re re-writing all the time. I save, if you could see my hard drive – I save all the different versions and variations. When I finished the Sam Phillips, it was the book that I wanted to write. From the beginning, for example, I knew that there needed to be this turn, there needed to be this personal element that would gradually intrude and then take over, change direction over the last third of the book. It was kind of like recognizing with Elvis, not too long after I had started writing, that it was going to have to be two volumes. That the story took place in two entirely separate acts and that after his mother died, it was as if the curtain came down. What followed was a different story, with a different person involved. With Sam Phillips, I knew from the start, among other things, because I didn’t want to pursue a linearity which in no way did justice, either to Sam as a character, or to the fact that the last 40 years of his life were spent pursuing things that were not of intrinsic narrative interest. Not just to the reader, but to me. I didn’t want to write about, he acquired a radio station, sold a radio station. He built a radio tower.

Robert Birnbaum:He called Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs.

Peter Guralnick: Well, yeah, that’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about exactly, I wanted to create a narrative structure that was as entertaining as what Sam wanted to create in the studio. Which meant blowing up strict linearity, giving much freer rein to anecdote and above all to digression.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me ask you. If an FBI profiler looked at Sam Phillips life and maybe used your book. Would there be a more contemporary diagnosis of his psychological profile?

Peter Guralnick: I feel as if, what I want to write is something which is a sufficiently open book that every reader can come away from it with his or her own impression. I feel with each of the books I’ve written, there were necessarily points at which you think, I’m just not going to get there. “There” meaning, it’s never going to come into focus, I’m just getting too far out on a limb. But then, with each of the books and even the profiles, at some point it snaps into focus. All of a sudden I see the person, it seems like I see the person whole – I mean, that sounds reductive, but I see the person as a dynamic character. If I’m writing about Johnny Shines or Charlie Rich, I’m suddenly able to zero in on to what I want to focus on, what I want to bring out. And I would hope that the discerning reader, or the non-discerning reader, might find something entirely different. The portrait of Colonel Parker in “Careless Love,” for example, is intended to be a nuanced portrait. One in which I actually take a countervailing view of both the Colonel’s role and character.

Robert Birnbaum:A more generous interpretation.

Peter Guralnick:His intellectual brilliance, his imaginativeness, his humor, and his insecurity. Many people have said to me, “Boy, you really nailed the Colonel as the son of a bitch that he was.” That’s fine with me, for them to see it that way. But I want to portray something different, I want to portray a multifaceted person.

Robert Birnbaum:You’re not interested in concise judgement, you want the pictures. Let somebody else say what they are. Was it your quote or somebody else’s quote that said, “Phillips was an impenetrable mystery.” I can’t remember.

Peter Guralnick: I don’t remember.

Robert Birnbaum:You probably didn’t say that, I don’t think you said that.

 

Peter Guralnick: No. It’s the same way in which people I know, I was with people sometimes who were either offended by Sam, the kind of defensive maneuvering, or preventive maneuvering that he did. The preambles that he would deliver before you even started the interview – it really didn’t matter, because when you got down to it, he was going to say whatever he was going to say, and you could say whatever you wanted to say, there weren’t going to be any holds barred.

Robert Birnbaum:How many hours did you spend with him, do you think? Do you have any sense of the amount?

Peter Guralnick: No. Hundreds.

Robert Birnbaum:On tape?

Peter Guralnick: On tape, I would say several hundred. We did a documentary in 1999, and that really, actually, for one thing I think it brought us closer. Everybody says, “Oh, you were friends with Sam for 25 years.” I wasn’t. It took a long time – and there were lots of stages to pass through along the way. As he said to me, and I’m sure you picked up on this in the book, he said, “My son Knox loved you from the minute he met you – but I didn’t.” I mean, he could say things, and some people might think, Well, did you feel intimidated? Insulted? But I had no basis to be insulted. I’m just interested in Sam’s reaction, whatever my personal feelings might be. And it’s not that I don’t have personal feelings – that I can’t be enormously gratified at times, or disappointed at others. But you really have to take the view that it’s all phenomenological – Pete the Writer, as Solomon Burke pointed out to me, is different from Pete the Person.

Robert Birnbaum:It’s understandable to expect that if you spend that much time with someone and you connect the project to love and admiration.

Peter Guralnick:But, I wasn’t saying that to him. Sam prided himself on his ability to read people. He said to me, kind of to explain his withholding of approval, or love, or whatever, from me over that period of time, “Well, I know you had your doubts about me for a long time.” And I’m thinking, “Boy, talk about projection! I was sold on you from the minute we met.” But that was okay. The point was, as I worked on the Elvis biography, and I interviewed Sam a good number of times and came to know him better. I would say during that time, we became friendly, not friends exactly, but friendly, friendlier. Then during that time period, Knox and I began to talk to him about doing the documentary. Which is something he wanted more than anything in the world, but to which he kept saying no for 6 or 7 years—

Robert Birnbaum:He wanted to do it, but he said, no?

Peter Guralnick:He said, no. I came to realize when we finally did it, the reason that I think he said no, was because he was so committed, with any project that he involved himself in, there was just no holding back. Shooting the documentary meant three, four months of doing nothing but that. I think that’s what he was reluctant to commit himself to. There was no drinking, there was nothing but the project. To some extent it involved an extremely challenging attempt at reigning himself in, which he wasn’t altogether successful at. There was no attempt to influence the outcome – I mean, he was disappointed that his nephew, Phillip Darby, wasn’t in it, because Phillip had been so instrumental in setting everything up in Florence, and he did a great interview, too. But other than that, there may have been some things he didn’t like about the show, but there was never any issue.

Robert Birnbaum:Was he being interviewed by other people when he came back into public life after ’79?

Peter Guralnick:Totally.

Robert Birnbaum:What was your sense of those conversations, was he as frank and honest with them, with everybody as with you?

Peter Guralnick::I think so. And, you know, the thing was, in the aftermath of doing the documentary. I think that’s when we really became good friends. I mean, you know, everything operates on the eleemosynary principle

Robert Birnbaum:Which principle?

Peter Guralnick:Eleemosynary. It’s my father’s favorite word, my father is 99 now, and he always used the word, ‘eleemosynary’ from the time I was a kid, but at the age of 90 he came to feel he had been misusing it all those years. But I’m going to stick to the way he always meant it.

Robert Birnbaum:What does it mean?

Peter Guralnick: It’s doing well by doing good.

Robert Birnbaum:              [inaudible 00:44:02].

Peter Kind of, I guess so. It’s why Sam for example, I don’t think I used the word in the book – I’m sure I didn’t – but when Sam was trying to persuade Jules Bihari, the oldest of the Bihari brothers, who had Modern Records, and then Leonard Chess, too, that they had to pay the black acts, and pay them well – they had to pay them for their songs as well as their performance, the argument that he used was that it was only by paying them, by recognizing their worth financially, as well as in the respect that they accorded them, that they would give the artist a sense of true self-worth, self-empowerment and get out of the artist the best that he or she had to offer. And, in the process, sell more records.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Can we talk a little bit about post-racial music.  There was a Viagra commercial or Cialis that had a Howlin Wolf song behind it.

 

Peter Guralnick:Yeah, right. Elvis, too.

Robert Birnbaum:To me that’s astounding.

Peter Guralnick:  One of the great benefits of having Tivo, or I guess any DVR, but I’m sticking with Tivo, is not seeing the ads. But really what we’re talking about here is the ultimate commercialization, or Disneyification, or commodification of – well, of everything. Everything is just grist for the mill – the mill, I guess, being the marketplace, the infomill, the way in which we are distracted, or distract ourselves – from what? I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s Beethoven or Picasso or Howlin’ Wolf – it just comes down to trivialization, it reduces everything to the ironic wink. It denigrates the whole idea of intrinsic worth.

Robert Birnbaum:I think we’re past that, I think I’ve told you it’s past that.

Peter Guralnick:We’re way past it.

Robert Birnbaum:Right, but I do always think of when I hear that. I remember hearing a Charlie Mingus, “Goodbye Pork Pie,” in a Volkswagen commercial. My first thought was, I tried to  imagine the meeting, the creative meeting, “Oh, wait what kind of music, what are we going to do here?” Then some 25 year old, who just discovered Charlie Mingus goes, “Why don’t we play this,” and they go, “Yeah, that’s hip.” Without just even acknowledging that this guy was a masterful musician, that he created some of the best music of our time. Just throw it in behind a Volkswagen ad.

 

We’ve got to assume the commercials are about making people stupid anyway.

Peter Guralnick: Oh, I don’t know, I’m not just talking about commercials – really you’re talking about capitalism, you’re talking about the commodification of everything. But, you know, I’m not trying to offer any great judgments on this. I mean, I’m not the arbiter of taste. To tell you the truth, the first time this started happening on TV, I’ve got to admit I was kind of thrilled. I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible” – man, to see Wolf’s image in a Levis ad, or to hear him on a soundtrack, even if it was the soundtrack for a commercial, I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible!” because it seemed in a way, I know this is really silly, it seemed like he was being embraced by mainstream culture. But, I’ve gotten over that.

Robert Birnbaum:If it was being embraced, his records, his recordings would be sold out and there would be docudramas about his life. But getting back to Sam Phillips, what I wonder about is, his goal, his mission, or his hope was that this music would drop the barriers between races –

Peter Guralnick: At the end of his life he was saying, he believed that music had the power to stop wars. I think that this would be a further extension of this vision that he had, one that I wish were the case. I can’t say that I altogether endorse it, that I can see it altogether. Wish I could.

Robert Birnbaum:Music’s always been a powerful force in my life. I’m always listening to music, there are times when it takes me to places that nothing else does, so I think it’s probable. But, I don’t see that, maybe for a lot of people some music sometimes does that, but I don’t know that I see music as the cleansing elevating force. What I wanted to say was, this notion that there’s divide between white people and black people on music, that never made sense to me. I guess what the music corporations didn’t get was that there was always an audience.

Peter Guralnick:There was always a crossover too. If Jimmie Rodgers is the father of country music and is in essence a blues singer. There’s a certain irony in that, isn’t there? I mean, crossover always existed, but it was like segregation being the law of the land –I mean, it may have been the law, but in fact it was a total denial, an attempt to deny the way that things actually were. That in the South in particular blacks and whites were living cheek by jowl, that you have a history of mixed race that goes back forever, and that the majoritarian culture never was willing to acknowledge, from slavery on.

Robert Birnbaum;Plus, I’m sure a lot of white people, for their entertainment went to backwoods juke joints.,

Peter Guralnick:I don’t think so.

Robert Birnbaum:You see it in the movies every once and awhile, some white kids end up at some  black ….

Peter Guralnick:This would be really extraordinary. I don’t think Howlin Wolf and B.B. King saw too many white kids. The one thing I’d say is that you can’t dismiss the historical context, the fact that black and white music were separated commercially, in the way that they were sold, in the way that they were accounted, right up until the advent of Rock and Roll

Robert Birnbaum:The advent of ‘rock and roll ‘ coincided with the advent of teenagism.

Peter Guralnick: This is the way it’s come to be seen.

Robert Birnbaum:Maybe that’s retrospective.

Peter Guralnick:I’m not convinced that that’s actually what it was. I mean, Ray Charles was not a teen artist, but he was very accessible artist, as well as being a very profound artist, just like Louis Jordan in a much slyer, more ironic way before him (and he was one of the few who actually reached a pop audience, like the Ink Spots, or the Golden Gate Quartet, I suppose, in the ‘40s). I’m not sure it had anything to do with the teen audience, their popularity, they were looking to be popular artists like Frank Sinatra, at first on the r&b charts, but then when the charts really opened up, on the pop charts, too.

Robert Birnbaum:Do you know the story of Ray Charles going to, playing Birmingham Alabama. He had a white Jewish guitar player. Do you know the story, it’s in the, “The Wrecking Crew,” the book[11] ? There’s a white Jewish guy whose in the Wrecking Crew, but Ray Charles liked him so much he hired him for his band. They’re playing a gig in Birmingham, the State Troopers are in front of the venue, where they’re unloading. They get on the bus and they’re looking and they see this white guy.This guy starts speaking pseudo-Spanish. So it was okay if he was Spanish.

Peter Guralnick: I hope with curly hair.The point was that, the music had the potential to break down barriers all along. And what Sam foresaw, was that the power of the music, the scope of the music, just the grandeur of the music would break down those artificial categories. As it turned out, it didn’t happen exactly the way the he foresaw it, but it did in effect happen. Not because of Sam alone, or Elvis either, obviously, it was something that was in the air, to which they contributed enormously.

Robert Birnbaum:Why do people want to say that Rocket 88, was the first Rock and Roll song?

Peter Guralnick:I think it probably goes back to Paul Ackerman, the editor of Billboard, as far as I can tell he was calling it the first rock ‘n’ roll record early on, maybe as early as 1956-57. I mean, really, you could point to “Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening” just as well. But if you’re talking about “Rocket 88,” basically, I think it’s because of the propulsiveness of the rhythm, because of the subject, maybe it was because of the lead guitar and the sound that was coming out of that guitar as a result of the amp being busted. (To Sam, that was an original sound.) To me it just seems to capture the spirit of the age, in its rawness, its exuberance, its brashly optimistic post-war mood. But again, I don’t know that it was aimed at the teen market at all when it first came out. In retrospect, it came to fit the definition of teenage music that was imposed on rock ‘n’ roll – as much as a commercial label, a marketing tool, as anything else. And in a way I think that was the least important part. I mean, think of someone like Fats Domino – what makes him a teen artist? I don’t think he was. He was a blues singer, he was a rhythm and blues singer, he was a pop singer. I mean, to begin with, he was a huge R&B star, and as a Rock and Roller he became a huge pop star, with a uniquely lovable appeal.

 

Robert Birnbaum:Are we seeing a eternal return with the adoption of Rap music by white kids? Or, identification with?

Peter Guralnick:

Peter Guralnick: Oh, I suppose so – but that’s always been true. There’s always been an exchange of cultures, ever since the invention of the radio and the phonograph, ever since you had these tools for mass dissemination. I mean, there are no more purely isolated cultures, although there are certainly regional strains. I remember, one time David Evans took me to see R.L. Burnside at his home, it seemed like it was somewhere out in the woods, somewhere around Coldwater or Holly Springs, Mississippi. And he just rolled back the rug, took out all the furniture, and people came and danced to this incredible, driving music – and it was all R.L. Burnside and his sons. It was original, as Sam might have said. But even in this isolated situation, the music you heard was heavily tied to the commercial music R.L. Burnside grew up with – I mean, it wasn’t isolated at all. The point is he’s playing music that actually is tied directly to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but he’s not impervious to other influences, too. Nobody is. When I talked to Howlin Wolf and I said, “Where did you get your howl from?” he says, “Jimmie Rodgers.” I’m writing down “Tommy Johnson,” or I’m thinking, “Mississippi Sheiks,” and he’s saying, “Jimmie Rodgers” – you, know, the Singing Brakeman, the “father of country music.” He was very insistent on it. So you never know. I mean, you have somebody like, Bobby “Blue” Bland, being equally influenced by the sermons of Aretha’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and Perry Como. Cultural theft is such a misunderstanding in so many ways, because you have cultural exchange going on all the time – in all directions. If you’re talking about monetary theft, there you’re describing capitalism and to some extent, you’re talking about the theft of what they earned from people who simply don’t know contractual language, the language of business, both blacks and whites, blacks more so certainly on a broad societal basis, but there’s no question that in the music business hillbilly artists, kids, neophytes of every sort have been just as disadvantaged and stolen from on that basis. To get past that, you might have to overthrow the whole capitalist system.

Robert Birnbaum:I worked in record stores. I worked for an independent record promoter in Chicago for a couple of years. I worked for a record company. My sense of it always was, it was one of the filthiest, most corrupt businesses, I couldn’t think of anything more corrupt. Maybe the movies with the Hollywood bookkeeping system…

Peter Guralnick:I would argue that if you’ve worked in other areas of business.

Robert Birnbaum:They were just as dirty?

Peter Guralnick:Many of them, sure. My father who has been a physician all his life and at 99 is still fighting for a better system, a single payer system, a system that puts the patient at the center of the treatment, rather than on the sidelines. I’m not saying he would endorse this view –  but I think you could find the same kind of financial manipulation within the medical field. Look at all the doctors who are called to order, or called up on their overcharging, on their misuse of the system. I feel like when there’s a profit motive, and it is in essence the primary one, it will tend to misplace a certain sense of priorities

Robert Birnbaum:I agree with you, but I think what I’ve noticed is that there were less regulation of the systems, so that for instance if you are an independent distributor and you wanted to get a record played, boxes of records would go out your back door over to the radio station.

Peter Guralnick:It was less regulated in a sense, but surely after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, how much more regulated….

Robert Birnbaum:By regulation I don’t mean that kind of regulation. I just mean there wasn’t that much book keeping, loosey-goosey, expense accounts were pretty. When I worked for a record company people, my colleague promotion men. —when they went to a conferences or  prom tours they would charge watches to their hotel room.

Peter Guralnick:I’m not arguing for them, or for that system. I’m only saying, how many more millions were squandered in similar ways, but magnified beyond imagination, on Wall Street, by the whole financial system –

Robert Birnbaum:In the main I would agree with you. If there’s a profit motive, your contractor’s going to try and rip you off, it’s not even that it’s ripping off. They understand the game is to maximize whatever money they can and if they have to gain that system. That’s legitimate really.

Peter Guralnick:All my life, this is from the example of my father and my grandfather, I’ve tried to find people that I can work with on a handshake basis. Which would be everybody from Michael Pietsch, down to the plumber or the carpenter or the electrician. Whom I value as highly as anybody. I’m looking for those people, people like that, and I’m looking to act that way myself.

Robert Birnbaum:What I’m hearing and what I’m sensing, is that your father and your grandfather were people who actually lived by certain moral imperatives —that this was part of their conversation, their approach to life.

Peter Guralnick: It was always part of the conversation. It was always – not the subtext, it was the conversation itself.

Robert Birnbaum:Which is  glaringly missing from everyday life.

Peter Guralnick: It’s the conversation I always tried to have with my kids. It’s the conversation I try, however limited it may be, that I try to have with my grandchildren and that my kids have with their children. I’m not trying to prescribe anything for anybody else, but to me, I don’t know anything else. I don’t know how people can be led to vote. You just want people to be able to think for themselves.

Robert Birnbaum:What is that Jewish maxim, “You save a life, you save a universe.” Something like that. That’s, I think ,the way it is. We have to end this, but I think we should talk again and maybe I’ll take a drive up to Newburyport when the weather is nice. I usually don’t even leave my zip code , but I could take a drive up north. Anyway, this was enjoyable.

Peter Guralnick:I feel like I misled you, I took you down too many divergent pathways.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s what a conversation is,isn’t it? Well, thank you.

###########

ENDNOTES

* Dream Boogie is also a poem by Langston Hughes which he reads here

1) Sam Phillips, singer

2) Micheal Pietsch,NPR interview

3)  Jess Walter, my conversation with

4) Howling Wolf biography

5) Larry Tye biography of Satchel Paige

6) Mark Feeney interview with Peter

7)David Hadju, one of my conversations with

8) Tom Mallon , my latest conversation with

9) TC Boyle/ Riven Rock

“Stanley McCormick, youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper and founder of what was to become International Harvester, was confined for most of his adult life on a grand estate not far from where I now live. Shortly after his marriage to Katherine Dexter, a socialite from Boston (and the first female graduate in the biological sciences from M.I.T.), he suffered a mental breakdown that manifested itself in extreme hostility toward women, his wife in particular. He was diagnosed as a “schizophrenic sexual maniac,” and locked away in Riven Rock, the family estate. Katherine nonetheless remained married to him all his life and never stopped looking for a cure to his condition. What many readers have found interesting here is that the most outlandish developments, like those in The Road to Wellville, adhere very closely to reported facts, proving once again that pure invention is no match for the truly bizarre and sad ways in which we organize our lives. That said, this is a love story, grand, depressing, and, I hope, ultimately touching. It is also morbidly funny.”

10) Chet Baker, Lets Get Lost trailer

11) The Wrecking Crew The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret  by Kent Hartman

“In Los Angeles in 1960s-70s, if you wanted to record a chart-topping track or album, you called in the crack session musicians collectively known as the Wrecking Crew. Consisting of artists unknown outside the music industry, like drummer Hal Blaine and bass player Carol Kaye, as well as those who would go on to recording fame of their own, such as Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell, the Wrecking Crew was the West Coast’s cream of the crop of session players, backing top-notch hit makers Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and many more. Hartman (marketing, Portland State Univ.), who has worked with many well-known recording artists including Hall & Oates, Three Dog Night, and Lyle Lovett, tells the group’s definitive story with a music industry insider’s insight and enthusiasm. The only other work on these behind-the-scenes pros is Blaine’s Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, which is more narrowly focused on the experiences of the stalwart drummer. Verdict: Recommended for readers interested in popular music and the music industry, particularly West Coast pop and classic rock.” ―Library Journal

There is also a documentary called the Wrecking Crew. Here’s the trailer

 

The Only Meaningful Summer Reading List

17 Jul
One  Bookshelf with photo of dead Cuban-American novelist [photo: RB]

One Bookshelf with photo of dead Cuban-American novelist [photo: RB]

My long battle with lists as journalism is obviously quixotic—which is not to say I am surrendering. I suppose some lists may be better than other others. Which does not include the ones that fall under the silly rubric of ‘summer’ or ‘beach’ reading (See Norman Mailer’s take on that silliness). My own opinion is that the only list that can be legitimately entitled summer reading is one of stuff actually read. Here’s an edited version of my Summer 2015 read books

The Kind Worth Killing   by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing
by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel by Peter Swanson

A well told take on Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train—an excellent cat and mouse thriller set in the Boston area

My Sunshine Away  by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away
by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Set in Baton Rouge in the summer of 1989, when fifteen-year-old Lindy Simpson is victim of a horrible crime, late one evening, near her home. A faqux summer idyll that keeps you guessing.

The Rocks by Peter Nichols

The Rocks by Peter Nichols

The Rocks: A Novel by Peter Nichols

Set in Majorca, one of The Balearic Islands off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, The Rocks is a double love story told in reverse over 60 years (2012 -1948). An engrossing ensemble of characters ranging from teenagers to octogenerians act out their lives and passions against the vivid land and seascapes of the Mediterranean and Morocco.

The Girl on the Train  by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Boring and trite

All the Old Knives   by Olen Steinhauer

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Stenhauer belongs in the same class as John LeCarre and Charles McCarry. In this novel two CIA case officers stationed in Vienna who had been lovers meet six years after a hostage crisis and each tries to resolve who compromised the mission…

.

Palace of Treason  by Jason Matthews

Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews

Palace of Treason: by Jason Matthews

Matthews’s Red Sparrow introduced the notion of Soviet sexual espionage and the character (now) Captain Dominika Egorova of the Russian Intelligence Service (SVR). This follow up has Egorova trying to balance her complex relationship with her CIA handler (she is working for the CIA revealing the inner workings of SVR and the Kremlin), Nate Nash, with trying to stay alive in the shark pool of Putin’s governance. I suspect Matthews’s will run of steam in what I assume is an ongoing series

The Cartel  by Don Winslow

The Cartel by Don Winslow

The Cartel: A novel by Don Winslow

Read the Power of Dog also—don’t take my word of it. Read the press Winslow has received.And then there is Winslow believes …

fiction is a more powerful tool than journalism for understanding the devastation in Mexico. “As novelists, we have license to imagine people’s emotions and psychology and views of the world. I think that I can bring people closer to a story,” he says. “Journalism can give the facts, but fiction can tell the

Charlie Martz and Other Stories   by Elmore Leonard

Charlie Martz and Other Stories by Elmore Leonard

Charlie Martz and Other Stories: by Elmore Leonard

I never thought I would write this but this is not the stuff you want to read by the masterful Leonard. I suspect you haven’t read all of his body of work —that’s where I’d go…

Secessia by Kent Wasom

Secessia by Kent Wasom

Secessia by Kent Wiscom

This novel, set in the Confederacy’s largest city New Orleans, May 1862 as it is occupied by the Union Army lead by General Benjamin “the Beast” Butler. The story alternates between the perspectives of the five characters twelve-year-old Joseph Woolsack, his mother, Elise, his father, Angel, Cuban exile Marina Fandal,Dr. Emile Sabatier, a fanatical physician and not least, General Butler, who is charged with the task of overseeing an ungovernable city. This quintet’s interlocking relations are played out against the roiling Gothic madness and chaos of war-torn Louisiana. Wiscom’s prose helps the narrative keep its edge.

Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky

Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky

Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky

Ribowsky deifies the great Otis Redding in this bombastic hagiography and is fearless in opining on matters large and small. But early encounters with such opinions as Sam Cooke’s stage show was “bombastic”and that the Monterrey Pop Festival of 1967 was attended by record company “lice are a turnoff.

 Grace by Calvin Baker

Grace by Calvin Baker

Grace by Calvin Baker

I loved Baker’s novel Dominion. Here he risks banality with this story of 37-year-old Harper Roland recently retired war correspondent, searching for “enduring love.” Dale Peck effusively opines…

Calvin Baker…works in a rarefied strain of literature whose practitioners include Faulkner and Morrison, Calvino and Cormac McCarthy: allegorists whose stories are tinged by parable and psalm even as their sensibility remains keenly attuned to the avant garde. Grace is a tale of existential isolation juxtaposed against a sense of interpersonal connection that borders on the Brahmanic…a book so universal and timeless you could almost believe it had been unearthed from a medieval crypt, even as its critical but always compassionate observation of human folly positions it squarely within the increasingly fractious…postmodern world.

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

Former CIA operative Charles McCarry is a well regarded espionage novelists with an ouevre that includes his compelling Paul Christopher series and his prescient stand alone Shelley’s Heart. His latest opus opens in Buenos Aires when a nameless American “Headquarters” (CIA) black op agent and the daughter of a famous Argentinean revolutionary commence a star-crossed affair.The American is burdened with his commitment to avenge his father who was tragically wronged by Headquarters. The Latina’s father and mother were among the victims of Argentine military, reportedly victims of that countries unique contribution to “counter terrorism”—being thrown out of an airplane flying over the Atlantic Ocean. As one frequently discovers in the world of espionage very little is at it appears and The Mulberry Bush‘s protagonist after a successful stint hunting terrorists in the Middle East now must do battle with his own employers. Needless to say, McCarry knows how the game is played and tells it well.

Interview with Charle McvCarry

Same Old New Thing or Same New Old Thing

25 May

Young Elephant Playing on The Beach [photo: John Linde]

Young Elephant Playing on The Beach [photo: John Linde]

You’d think that by now someone (not necessarily a clever someone) would have come up with a rubric having a little more pizzazz than the tired old equine that is regularly beaten around this time every year—beach read, summer reading. Personally, I have run out of fresh ideas of how to mock this empty category but as this annual light literary lifting does speak to the existence of the demand for such froth. – Thus I would feel remiss, as a responsible literary journalist, in ignoring,

A Game of Their Own  by Jennifer Ring

A Game of Their Own by Jennifer Ring

A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball by Jennifer Ring Softball so early cuts girls out of hardball it appears to be a little acknowledged that some women actually play and compete both nationally and internationally. In fact, Team USA captured a bronze medal at the fourth Women’s Baseball World Cup in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2010. Jennifer Ring, political science mentor at the University of Nevada, Reno( Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball)via interviews unpacks the previously unobserved history of women in baseball as well as making clear the challenges facing women hard ball players—the the relentless pressure to switch to softball as well as lack of support.

The Note Book  by Jeff Nunokawa

The Note Book by Jeff Nunokawa

Note Book by Jeff Nunokawa I am quite certain that this book may be one of the more unusual books I come across in the near term (additionally there is The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Notebooks to this very short, short list) Princeton English mentor Jeff Nunokawa has been has posting brief essays on the Internet every single morning for the last eight years. This tome is something of a loose anthology of 250 of the most “powerful and memorable” of these essays, many augmented by various images originally posted alongside them. Nunokawa often begin with a quotation from writers such as —George Eliot, Henry James, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, or James Merrill and so on. Structurally, this collection (for lack of a better word) offers a purposeful incompleteness—allowing endless revision of the entries into this inadverdant journal). As the good professor advises early in his almost opaque introduction—go to the text, pick any item, in any order. Holding this virtual weave together is its creator’s sense of alienation. He offers:

The hunger for a feeling of connection that informs most everything I’ve written flows from a common break in a common heart, one I share with everyone I’ve ever really known.

The Notebooks  by Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat & Larry Warsh Although I viewed the young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat as a sympathetic figure (an addict and young suicide0 it took me two decades to gain an appreciation of his paintings and point of view.Through August 23, 2015 the Brooklyn Museum exhibits Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat’s (1960-88)Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks. The exhibition curated by Dieter Buchhart guest curator with Tricia Laughlin Bloom,is described here:

From 1980 to 1987, he[Basquiat]filled numerous working notebooks with drawings and handwritten texts. This facsimile edition reproduces the pages of eight of these fascinating and rarely seen notebooks for the first time.The notebooks are filled with images and words that recur in Basquiat’s paintings and other works. Iconic drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts share space with handwritten texts, including notes, observations, and poems that often touch on culture, race, class, and life in New York. Like his other work, the notebooks vividly demonstrate Basquiat’s deep interests in comic, street, and pop art, hip-hop, politics, and the ephemera of urban life. They also provide an intimate look at the working process of one of the most creative forces in contemporary American art. The notebooks are filled with images and words that recur in Basquiat’s paintings and other works. Iconic drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts share space with handwritten texts, including notes, observations, and poems that often touch on culture, race, class, and life in New York. Like his other work, the notebooks vividly demonstrate Basquiat’s deep interests in comic, street, and pop art, hip-hop, politics, and the ephemera of urban life. They also provide an intimate look at the working process of one of the most creative forces in contemporary American art.

Fellow 90’s celebrity painter Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat provided rich snapshots of downtown Manhattan’s art scene in the time of Warhol along with an impressionistic thread of the young artist’s short life https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeTT9XYesnw And the recent documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child filled in some blanks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTbykf5Fpl0

Sweet Mary Jane: 75 Delicious Cannabis-Infused High-End Desserts  by Karin Lazarus

Sweet Mary Jane: 75 Delicious Cannabis-Infused High-End Desserts by Karin Lazarus

Sweet Mary Jane: 75 Delicious Cannabis-Infused High-End Desserts by Karin Lazarus As legalization train gains speed the book publishing business will no doubt follow with an outpouring of pot inspired titles.

From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires  by Grete Stern &  Horacio Coppola

From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires by Grete Stern & Horacio Coppola

MOMA’s Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola is the first major exhibition (May 17–October 4, 2015) to focus on the German-born Grete Stern and the Argentinean Horacio Coppola, two leading figures of avant-garde photography As MOMA”S site points out,”The couple effectively imported the lessons of the Bauhaus to Latin America, and revolutionized the practice of art and commercial photography on both sides of the Atlantic by introducing such innovative techniques as photomontage, embodied in Stern’s protofeminist works for the women’s journal Idilio, and through Coppola’s experimental films and groundbreaking images for the photographic survey Buenos Aires.” The exhibition catalogue features a selection of newly translated original texts by Stern and Coppola, and essays by curators Roxana Marcoci and Sarah Meister and scholar Jodi Roberts.

Divine Punishment  by Sergio Ramirez &  Nick Caistor

Divine Punishment
by Sergio Ramirez & Nick Caistor

Divine Punishment by Sergio Ramirez, translated by Nick Caistor The benighted Central American nation of Nicaragua is a land of poets and baseball and the home of writer Sergio Ramírez , who served his country as Vice President under the beleaguered Sandinista regime. He is known for Divine Punishment, which Carlos Fuentes opined, the quintessential Central American novel.Ramirez used a famous criminal trial —the alleged murders in 1933 of two high society women and his employer by a social-climbing bon vivant named Oliverio Castañeda to examine Nicaraguan society at the brink of the first Somosa dictatorship. As the publisher describes ” Passion, money, sex, gossip, political intrigue, medical malpractice and judicial corruption all merge into a novel that reads like a courtroom drama wrapped in yellow journalism disguised as historical fiction posing as a scandal of the first order.”

 I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan

I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan

I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan Seemingly cartoonists are increasingly (or at least New Yorker cartoonists ala Rox Chast )creating memoirs mixing their offbeat experiences and points of view with their signature drawings,in Kaplan’s case family outings and life at home-road trips, milk crates, hamsters, ashtrays, a toupee, a platypus, and much more.The following video illuminates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfowzpAKqUg

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World   by Eduardo Galeano

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
by Eduardo Galeano

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World by Eduardo Galeano With the recent passing of the great Uruguayan author, soccer fan and social justice activis,t Eduardo Galeano the world has lost one of its most eloquent and humane critics of the regnant social order. His major works Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent and his Memories of Fire Trilogy should be must reading for anyone aspiring to some level of social consciousness. But perhaps as an introduction. The publisher describes Upside Down:

In a series of mock lesson plans and a “program of study” Galeano provides an eloquent, passionate, funny and shocking exposé of First World privileges and assumptions. From a master class in “The Impunity of Power” to a seminar on “The Sacred Car”–with tips along the way on “How to Resist Useless Vices” and a declaration of the “The Right to Rave”–he surveys a world unevenly divided between abundance and deprivation, carnival and torture, power and helplessness. We have accepted a “reality” we should reject, he writes, one where poverty kills, people are hungry, machines are more precious than humans, and children work from dark to dark. In the North, we are fed on a diet of artificial need and all made the same by things we own; the South is the galley slave enabling our greed

Eduardo Galeano and my  beloved Dalai Labrador, Rosie [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Eduardo Galeano and my beloved Dalai Labrador, Rosie [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Here’s Eduardo on Democracy Now https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shTJosdsM_0

A Narco History  by Carmen Boullosa &  Mike Wallace

A Narco History by Carmen Boullosa & Mike Wallace

A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” by Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace There is no more an intractable problem than the so called war on drugs or narco terrorism or whatever ever you choose to call the homicidal (but murder on a massive scale). Even the fundamental racism built into the American system offers the possibility of redress in a few generations. Mexican novelist Carmen Boullosa (she has written 15 novels,the latest isTexas:The Great Theft )Pulitzer Prize winning historian and a co-founder of the Radical History Review Mike Wallace concisely survey this debacle that has now killed well over 100,000 people. They even offer a solution. There is no shortage of literature that spotlights the Drug war and the separate foreign country that is the Mexican American border. Don Winslow’s magnum opus The Power of the Dog reads like John Lecarre with it plausible take on the complicity of the CIA and DEA,The Vatican, Wall Street, US organized crime, The Mexican Government and security agencies, Columbian Leftist guerillas—did I leave anyone out? Winslow’s long awaited follow up The Cartel is soon to be published (with a film version not far behind) The late Charles Bowdon made a career (in a good way) of spotlighting the deepening abyss of the Borderland. His bibliography is a rich wellspring of information and insights into this dark subject and a good place to start is Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields In Roberto Bolano’s epic 2666, that novel’s middle section “The Part about the Crimes” (some 200 pages) is a litany of the women murdered in Ciudad Jaurez in one year. And Teresa Rodríguez’s The Daughters of Juarez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border chronicles this deadly mayhem Former Boston journalist Al Giordano has done the thankless work of focusing on this ‘story’ for years at The Narco News Bulletin Here’s report that is as good as fiction:

The current scandal over Colombian narco-traffickers paying prostitutes to provide sex services to DEA agents has an even deeper footprint in the agency than the current head of the DEA has conceded, court records stemming from past DEA operations reveal.

My Fight / Your Fight  by Ronda Rousey &  Maria Burns Ortiz

My Fight / Your Fight by Ronda Rousey & Maria Burns Ortiz

My Fight / Your Fight by Ronda Rousey with Maria Burns Ortiz Touted as the “the toughest woman on Earth” former Olympic judo medal winner Rousey tells her story.As these things go, its a good one. Ronda is a fighter. She competes in MMA (that’s mixed martial arts) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ed_IA79GTPk She’s big (as in celebrification). She’s smart. Here she talks with male chauvinist pig: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3o2OrCpO-k She appears to speak from the heart. Here with Mike Tyson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3QidHQTKy0 And the camera loves her. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meOZsbuM8BQ She’s going to be really big.

The Power of the Dog

24 Mar
The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

A few years back I came across a novel, Don Winslow‘s’ The Power of the Dog , that as I reread it over the past weekend, retained the same power to engage and excite as I felt on my initial take. And back then I so enjoyed Winslow’s Drug War magnum opus that I have since read most of his oeuvre. All were competently written but falling short of the potency of The Power of the Dog. I suspect that Winslow has exponentially enlarged his audience by two film adaptations— one of them, of his 2010 novel Savages directed by Oliver Stone:

and the other for an earlier (1997)novel The Death and Life of Bobby Z.

My first reading of Winslow’s Drug War saga in 2005 reminded me of the revelations about drugs for guns shenanigans by the CIA reported by Gary Webb (portrayed by the film Kill The Messenger). It had all the plausibility and verisimilitude of John LeCarre’s depictions of security agency corruption, rogue agents and free lancing spooks, incompetence and inter-agency squabbling as well as the complicity of major institutions such as the Church,left wing guerillas,foreign governments and of course the Mob. It is a rich array of criminal activity that skillfully blurred the lines of an already soft boundary between what is right and what is legal — a dichotomy that seems only considered in the breech.

As a first rate crime story, The Power of the Dog is peopled with complicated protagonists, seriously committed to their agendas and well represented by dialogue and conversational riffs as captivating as you might find in a George Higgins or Elmore Leonard yarn. All of which make for a propulsive narrative arc that travels smoothly from the first page to the 500th.

The Cartel by  Don Winslow

The Cartel by Don Winslow

The good news is that Winslow has written a sequel(The Cartel)that follows the drug war up to the present — which if it follows in the first installment’s path will be a fictional true account of objective realities (in the same way that Lincoln and other novels in Gore Vidal’s Empire Series were. Additionally, Shane Salerno is writing a script with Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg (all of whom who worked with Winslow and Stone on the Savages script). Arcel is directing. Salerno is producing and and the film may be out by year’s end.

Autobiography /Memoir in 365 Parts (7.0)

17 Mar
Beny : The Power of the Dog [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Beny : The Power of the Dog [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

17 March 2015

After being formed in the crucible of the great metropolis of Chicago, Robert Birnbaum moved to Boston in 1973 spurred a brief romantic interlude in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. He has come to eschew the soul- sucking, vampiric trappings of modernity —he does not fly,eat in fast food troughs, tweet, selfie or wear a sports team jerseys(though he is a hard-wired Cubs fan). He opines that he baseball cap is one of the United States’s greatest contributions to civilization. He opines that Don Winslow’s magnum opus crime story The Power of the Dog is a textbook analysis on the so-called War on Drugs. He has lived in the Boston area which he considers a cosmic psych test except for a brief interval is South Coastal New Hampshire .

The Thrill Is Gone

8 Jul
Chandler wrote thrillers?

Chandler wrote thrillers?

The term ‘thriller’ was no doubt coined to describe a certain kind of genre fiction when car chases, high body counts and unlikely crimes and perpetrators were the stuff of ‘whodunits’. Roller coaster rides may be thrilling. Fireworks may be thrilling. And there are many pleasures to be derived from reading, thrills are not some that I can identify.’Thriller’ has become a term of art that, it seems to me, has outlived its usefulness.

There is a territory of the fiction landscape that deals with espionage, so-called ‘black ops’ (when did we realize that there were such things?) and cloakroom politics that has given good reason to remove it from under the implicitly deprecating rubric, ‘genre fiction’. No doubt commercial considerations influence the perpetuation of these categories (where, for instance, various titles are displayed at your small but mighty local bookstore) — but no one should be misled about the serious import and value of these narratives.

Our Man In  Havana by Graham Greene

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana and The Comedians) was my first inkling that fiction revealed real truths about the real/practical world. But I came upon his novels after I had been fed a diet of Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate) and Fletcher Knebel (Seven Days in May) and the Terry Southern classic, Dr Strangelove. So the various plot twists and exigent conditions (the US Army drugging its men with hallucinogenics) of these ‘thrillers were improbable fictions.

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer

Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer


Years later when reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer used some purported CIA espionage gambits in his narrative—in Berlin where the US dug a tunnel attempting to intercept Soviet communiques and in Miami where all manner of tricks and games were employed in the US’s anti -Castro vendetta. These things (exploding fountain pens, CIA/Mob collaborations) no longer seemed far fetched.

Our Tailor in Panama by John  le Carre

Our Tailor in Panama by John le Carre

John Le Carre’s Our Tailor in Panama was my introduction to this master novelist (Philip Kerr avers that Le Carre is the one author guaranteed immortality based on his accurate depiction of the dark and spooky world of security and spying agencies). That book is clearly an homage to Greene’s Cuban adventure and it reifies the deluded and self perpetuating nature of the world’s secret services.And it served to change my perspective of some fictional worlds( just as I began to see Gore Vidal’s Empire series as more descriptive of American history than any history texts I had read.)

SHELLEY'S HEART BY  Charles McCarry

SHELLEY’S HEART BY Charles McCarry

Charles McCarry‘s Paul Christopher series and his stand alone Shelley’s Heart (which uncannily portends the debacle of the 2000 presidential election) depicts the tools and strategies of spy-craft as well as highlighting the amorality of spooks of all stripes. I chatted with McCarry ( A former CIA agent) a few years ago:

RB: There is a sense, and it is reiterated in your novels, that the Cold War struggle against the Russians and Communists was very affirmative for the intelligence community and that there was an absolute faith they were on the right side. And after the Soviet Union collapsed there was great self-congratulation. Somewhere in Old Boys you write, “They did a lot of good in the world, little of it except through stupidity and inadvertence.”

CM: I don’t remember saying that. Some of it by inadvertence at least. I never met a stupid person in the agency. Or an assassin. Or a Republican.

RB: No Republicans? [laughs] Are you serious?

CM: I’m serious. They were, at least in the operations side where I was, there were wall-to-wall knee-jerk liberals. And they were befuddled that the left outside the agency regarded them as some sort of right-wing threat. Because they were the absolute opposite, in their own politics.

RB: Isn’t there something about a secret police that is inconsistent with our notions of democracy?

CM: To begin with, they are not secret police.

RB: That’s the perception.

CM: They have no police powers. They can’t arrest anybody. They can’t kidnap people.

RB: They have no domestic jurisdiction.

CM: That’s right. Except in the case of Operation Chaos, which was presidentially mandated, I doubt we have very much unless they were chasing Russians or Chinese. But, of course, the thing that drives our society and has for a long time is a kind of paranoia that everything is a conspiracy. These guys were all nice boys who went to Yale and wouldn’t hurt a fly—in their own view.

RB: Those were not Republicans?

CM: No. I tell you I literally never met a Republican in the CIA.

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

As a culminating moment in my awakening Don Winslow’s magnum opus The Power of The Dog a well wrought tale of the drug war(s) and the complicity of government agencies, the Vatican, multi national corporations, South American revolutionaries in corrupt and illegal practices removed any doubts I had that there were many innocent players in world’s geo political grand opera (except, of course, the People)

So now we are inundated with dramas (Homeland, House of Cards, West Wing, 24 Hours) that simulate perpetual war/security state world. And, if you haven’t seen the excellent BBC 7 episode The State Within you will find a “fictional” treatment of vested interests contriving to bring the USA to war with
Kyrgyzstan in manner closely resembling the Iraq Debacle.

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Of course there are also books being written, some published, that investigate and explicate the shabby nature of American Exceptionalism. Greenwald’s account of the Snowden case i sone an there is also Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

There is also a documentary of the same name that is raises important and legitimate questions to which few journalists are pursuing the answers.

Noam Chomsky, steadfast critic of the American Security State, has the last word here in an essay published at TomsDispatch

… What about the security of the population? It is easy to demonstrate that this is a marginal concern of policy planners. Take two prominent current examples, global warming and nuclear weapons. As any literate person is doubtless aware, these are dire threats to the security of the population. Turning to state policy, we find that it is committed to accelerating each of those threats — in the interests of the primary concerns, protection of state power and of the concentrated private power that largely determines state policy.

Consider global warming. There is now much exuberance in the United States about “100 years of energy independence” as we become “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — perhaps the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.

That illustrates very clearly the nature of the concern for security, certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism: the fate of our grandchildren counts as nothing when compared with the imperative of higher profits tomorrow.

These conclusions are fortified by a closer look at the propaganda system. There is a huge public relations campaign in the U.S., organized quite openly by Big Energy and the business world, to try to convince the public that global warming is either unreal or not a result of human activity. And it has had some impact. The U.S. ranks lower than other countries in public concern about global warming and the results are stratified: among Republicans, the party more fully dedicated to the interests of wealth and corporate power, it ranks far lower than the global norm

Currently reading Station Eleven by Emma St John Mandel (Knopf)

Raymond Chandler is Still Dead

30 Oct
The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

I bow to no man nor woman in my appreciation of the great crime novelist Raymond Chandler. He wrote a handful of great stories which had the added feature of being wonderfully cinematic (or in the case of the Big Sleep not—which didnt make that film any less enjoyable). But as Philip Kerr (author of the Bernie Gunther series) observed in a chat with me, “…I am mindful of the reality that most crime writers write one or two, if not more, too many. And they flog it to death.”

I agree with Kerr, though I think that by their nature most serials run out of gas pretty early (with some exceptions,Kerr.so far among them.) John Banville, whose fiction I have enjoyed— even his nom de noir Benjamin Black’s Quirke novels. And now some one has resurrected the literary blasphemy of having Banville/Black write a Phillip Marlowe novel, The Black Eye Blonde (Henry Holt). In my recall, this gambit (calling it an idea doesn’t feel correct)was previously attempted when, as the story goes, the Chandler Estate “commissioned” Robert Parker to pen (or was it to complete?) a Chandler novel, Poodle Springs

Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler (and Robert Parker)

Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler (and Robert Parker)

Now this zombification of successful genre writers is apparently a burgeoning enterprise. Don Winslow wrote a prequel, Sartori, to Trevanian’s Shibumi. Ace Atkins has now published 2 Robert Parker /Spenser novels and Michael Brandman has taken up the Robert Parker/Jesse Stone series. And William Boyd has taken up Ian Fleming’s Bond with Solo (Harper)

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

I did read Black/Banville’s Chandler mimicry and if you haven’t and don’t intend to read the old master (or see the wonderful Robert Altman version of The Long Goodbye) then by all means have at it. It will entertain and generously viewed it is a competent homage. And there is no crime in that.

Currently reading Umbrella by Will Self (Grove Atlantic)