Tag Archives: Elmore Leonard

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

Good Poh-leece

16 Jun
Lincoln Park, Chicago. 1968

Lincoln Park, Chicago. 1968

Growing up in Chicago I had many occasions to witness the Chicago Police Department in action. From corruption scandals to the infamous Red Squad to the police riots in August of 1968 to the murder of Fred Hampton and a number of personal interactions in between, I formed an inchoate sense of police and no coherent thoughts about how policing big cities should be undertaken. Add to this pastiche, my long standing appreciation of crime stories by the likes of Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Ed McBain and others and after all these years I am beginning to grasp some of the intractable dilemmas attached to crime and policing and the mine field that is US law enforcement. Not to dwell on this at the moment but these conundrums are what make crime stories so rich in drama…

The second season of True Detectives has two very high benchmarks with which it competes. One being, its first riveting season and the second,the universally lauded and extolled urban drama set in the cauldron of Baltimore’s racial divide , The Wire— especially now that the new blu ray edition has stimulated new conversations about its lofty literary status. One understated notion that is regnant in the Wire is that of being “good police” as in the statement that He/She is good police.” And we observe that in the case McNulty among other of the detectives one can be an alcoholic, ruin their marriage and exhibit numerous signs of dysfunction but obsessive focus on solving cases trumps almost everything.

Having watched the first three episodes of True Detective 2, its hard not to think of the genius pairing in the 1st season of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detective partners—which is not how the new narrative unfolds.In the new 2nd season, the three poh-leece who meander into the main plot and central crime (one loses count of all the felonies committed by everyone from the street up to corporate suites and city hall offices. In this case Colin Farrell is Ray Velcoro a detective in the City of Vinci (even I know that ‘vinci” is latin for I conquered),Rachel McAdams is Ani Bezzerides a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective and Taylor Kitsch plays Paul Woodrugh a motorcycle cop for the California Highway Patrol. Toss in Vince Vaughn as a latter day Macbeth and you have the drama’s main players. It should not go unmentioned that the Mayor of Vinci is played with great gusto by Richie Coster in scene stealing moment, he rivals a riveting scene in Bugsy where Harvey Keitel playing the LA mobster Mickey Cohen goes off Warren Beaty’s Bugsy Seagal.

I suppose ahead of the imminent HBO broadcast of True Detective‘s 2nd season on Father’s Day (a holiday I would still like someone to explain to me), gainfully employed typists are doing their jobs by announcing and opinionating on Nick Palazotti’s new creation. From where I watched, the story continues to spotlight the damaged and troubled men and women tasked with solving our society’s most awful crimes—many that sink way below even the Reptilian.As always a vision from which it is difficult to turn away…

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.

Addendum (to Best Best Books 2014)

24 Nov

Ever wonder about the bench marks for making it on to lists that are part of the annual literary clusterfuck? I don’t—but as you may, have a look at LARGE HEARTED BOY’S good work in building a list of ‘Best Books’ lists to judge whether the clusterfuck rubric fits. I do think it might be worth while for one of those sabermetric types to see how many books on the list have been published before August of the current year.There in may lie the answer to why so many lists have the same seven titles.

Given that by nature lists are exclusive, it would seem a natural consequence of making a list to mentally (as in one’s own mind )continue to enlarge past one’s public cutoff point.

So, is this a new list? A new and improved version of the initial list? Think it matters? Anyway. Here’s they are, more great books

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

McSweeney's Issue 46 - Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America edited by Dave Eggers

McSweeney’s Issue 46 – Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America edited by Dave Eggers

McSweeney’s Issue 46 Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America by Dave Eggers (Editor)

Shadow Government   by Tom Engelhardt and Glenn Greenwald

Shadow Government by Tom Engelhardt and Glenn Greenwald

Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World by Tom Engelhardt and Glenn Greenwald

The Deluge by Adam Tooze

The Deluge by Adam Tooze

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze

In Paradise  by Peter Matthiessen

In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Dirty Wars  by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill

The Divide by  Matt Tiabbi

The Divide by Matt Tiabbi

Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse

Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse

Take This Man: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s:

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s:

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s: Fifty-Two Pickup / Swag / Unknown Man No. 89 / The Switch: (Library of America #255)by Elmore Leonard, Gregg Sutter (Editor)


Billy WIlder's Headstone [photographer unknown]

Billy WIlder’s Headstone [photographer unknown]


22 Sep
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

Literary journalism must, I suppose by definition, appeal to a marginal and as it is often claimed, shrinking audience. Thus it apparently behooves its practitioners to offer up a variety ofarguable and contestable theories so as to attract an audience and whatever follows from that. Recently, I came across a reference to an article by Salon senior editor and literary eminence gris’ Laura Miller claiming that “today’s most exciting crime novelists are women.” A stance, it can not go unsaid, I found so silly that I had to try to read the offending column for both its reasoning and to double check that a critic as eminent as MS Miller actually claimed its byline.

Firstly, the writers she singles out are certainly a talented gaggle (she did leave out at least two very talented women (Laura McHugh and Attica Locke, who are at least the peers of Miller’s anointed.)On the other hand, perhaps Miller felt that naming four writers made her case.

Secondly, MS Miller is a savvy and experienced and no doubt intelligent commentator who one would expect would understand the dangers of using superlatives like ‘best’, ‘greatest’, ‘hottest’ in literary conversations (except when preceded by a personal possessive). What then is one to make of the phrase ‘most exciting crime novelists are women’? It is the case that women writers of all stripes are given short shrift in the main organs of the literary arena (every once in a while a diligent and enterprising writer will spend time breaking down the percentage of reviews by gender at the The New York Times and the New Yorker>.So if MS Miller is trying to level the playing fields in some way I suppose one ought to commend her. On the other hand her claim does do a disservice to the other writers who are doing fine work in the disrespected category of genre literature (genre seems to be synonym for ‘non literary’).Now I will stipulate that often the crime series like John D MacDonald’s Travis Magee, Robert Parker’s Spenser novels or even Micheal Connelly’s Harry Bosch’s novels (Parker is among the deceased writers now undergoing a kind of reductio ad absurdum by being written by living writers)are seem formulaic and predictable. It should be noted that Baltimore’s gift to story telling Laura Lippman, does her best work not with her series but with her stand alone novels

Attica Locke [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Attica Locke [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

So in the name of all that is fair and decent in the world, here’s a short list of fine crime story writers: John Lawton(Sweet Sunday, Then We Take Berlin),George Pelacanos, Benjamin Black, Edward Delaney(Broken Irish), Stuart Neville, Jo Nesbo, James Lee Burke,Tom ROB SMITH, Elmore Leonard(Out of Sight),Charlie Huston(The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Sleepless), Thomas Perry(Butcher’s Boy, Sleeping Dogs), Philip Kerr
(A Philosophical Investigation), Olen Stenhauser, Ace Atkins, Charles McCarry (The Miernik Dossier Shelley’s Heart), Attica Locke (Black Water Rising), Charles Smith(Men in Miami Hotels), James Ellroy (Underworld USA trilogy), Tom Bouman(Dry Bones in the Valley), John Fusco(Dog Beach),Robert Stone(Death of the Black-Haired Girl)and Don Winslow(The Power of the Dog).

Robert Stone circa 2013 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone circa 2013 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)

“Try to Leave Out the Part that Readers Tend to Skip” -Dutch Leonard

18 Jul

Newton Minnow, who was the Federal Communications Commission chairman when John Kennedy was president, condemned the young medium of television, as a vast “wasteland”. That may still be true but there are significant outposts of intelligent and well told narratives that encourage continued interest. And its does seem that there is burgeoning of high quality series that followed (arguably) in the footprints of The Wire and the Sopranos. Recently, HBO’s True Detectives and FX’s The Bridge have have melded accurate casting and acting with convincing characters and transparent dialogue. Complemented by great montage, Nic Palazatti’s True Detectives and Patrick Summerville’s apt adaption of the Swedish series The Bridge are deep and powerful dramas.

I don’t think I had ever heard of We network but the trailers that were aired to promote their new crime series The Divide, stirred my interest and the headlines I scanned in reports on the show, had me watching my video box at the appointed time.I am pleased that I did, as this story had an excellent beginning— evidencing many earmarks of a seamless and stirring crime story. I could, I suppose blather on with critical visual jargon but for your’s and my ease, I would opine that lawyer-to-be with a big-chip-on-her-shoulder Christa Rosa played by Marin Ireland it is the role and the actor that powers this narrative train.

Marin Ireland as Christine Rosa in the Divide

Marin Ireland as Christine Rosa in the Divide

I have watched innumerable shows in which Marin Ireland was part of the cast— her role in The Divide (not to be confused with Matt Taibi’s new opus or the post nuclear attack drama) was the first time I noticed her protean attributes. By moments, she is lovely to gaze at, and seductive, radiantly innocent, brittle, bleached out and haggard,sharp tongued and direct that encapsulates an engaging blend of Don Quixote, Joan of Arc, David, the Goliath killer and Rosanlind Russell in My Gal Friday.Which is to say, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Marin Ireland as Christine Roza in The Divide.

Marin Ireland as Christine Roza in The Divide.

The whole ensemble is convincing in taking on on a common crime story plot line—litigating (the Innocence Project is the model for the group looking into capitol cases) for a man on Death Row, some three weeks before his scheduled execution. As an aside , A State Within that superior BBC series handled the execution theme with great alacrity, nimbly shoe-horning it into the overall weave of the Iran war-like conspiracy that drives that narrative.

I recently noticed that the New York Times is regularly devoting coverage to these kinds (FX, HBO, Netflix) of shows which strikes me as a new level of journalistic pandering.

A couple of clinkers in the debut episode of the Divide— a news announcer is reporting on the forthcoming execution as “the first execution in Pennsylvania in the 21st century.” This is the kind of news coverage (of which I am more and more conscious)that has me saying an emphatic, “So what?”

Freddy Nietzsche

Freddy Nietzsche

And prefacing the show with a Nietzsche epigram (white type reversed out on a black screen) and subsequently having a character (a convict) quoting the testy Teuton is suggestive of a profundity that no crime series that I can recall has attained (though True Detectives come close).Better to cite Yogi Berra or Dutch Leonard as a marker of things to come.

Currently reading Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America by (Harper Design)

Gabbing with Lewis Lapham circa 1999

29 Jun
Lewis Lapham (photo: TK]

Lewis Lapham (photo: TK]

Lapham Quarterly’s editor Lewis Lapham was born in San Francisco in 1935 and was educated at Yale and Cambridge Universities. After graduating college he worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and later for The New York Herald Tribune. His second stint as Harper’s editor began in 1983 where in 1995 his monthly essays won a National Magazine Award for their “exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity”. He was the host and executive editor of Bookmark, a weekly PBS literary program broadcast between 1989 and 1991 (which he still complains shouldn’t have been taken off the air). His books of essays include, The Wish for Kings, Money and Class in America, Fortune’s Child, Imperial Masquerade, Hotel America, The Agony of Mammon: The Imperial Global Economy Explains Itself To The Membership in Davos, Switzerland and Waiting for the Barbarians.

I sat down and chatted with Latham in 1999 on the occasion of the publication of Lapham’s Rules of Influence: A Careerist’s Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation. I, then as now, find Lapham’s citation from T. H. White’s Once and Future King,as Merlin offers young Prince Arthur a cure for melancholy a resonant truth:

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then-to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never dream of regretting.

In what follows Lapham and I chat about celebrity, the state of journalism, the teaching of history, Yale University, Michael Thomas and illiterate CEOs and more.

RB: Is this book a change in strategy for you?

LL: Yes, but it’s not a deliberate change. It’s an accidental change in strategy. I had signed a contract five years ago, with Random House, to write a large book on Yale University. On what happened to Yale in the second half of the twentieth century—Henry Luce’s American Century— and use Yale as a stage in which to talk about the change in American order of values. And that was planned as a…

RB: Tome?

LL…tome. I actually went up and taught a class at Yale for a year in the English Department. I took a train every week. I’ d go up there and use it for my own purposes, to get to know the students but also to use the library and begin to do the research. And then it got so unwieldy, that I couldn’t do it and do the magazine at the same time. So I wanted to work off the contract. I wrote a column in the magazine, three or four years ago, that had some of these notions [rules of influence] in it. It had an invented professor in it as a device. Suddenly I got called up by 6o Minutes asking if they could put the professor on the show. I had to explain there wasn’t any professor. They were shocked. Three publishers also called wanting the name of the professor. So I thought what the hell, I’ll write a short book on it. I owe Random House two books to make up for the advance for the Yale [book]. They took this one and another yet to be named. So I’m going to be working off my debt for the next(laughs)…two years. So, that’s how it came up. It came up because of the response to the column and also because of my debt to the publisher.

RB: And what happens to your ‘Yale as metaphor’ book?

LL: Probably nothing. The only thing that could happen to that is…I’ll never write that tome because the scholarship is beyond me. I began to talk to people and the more I talked the more difficult and complicated it became. And I would have to stay two years in New Haven, talk to a lot more people. I’d asked to see the correspondence between [Yale] Presidents Griswald and Brewster in the sixties. And they brought me boxes. They would fill this floor. You’re up against that kind of thing. I conceivably could write a short essay, thirty thousand words. Maybe. Random House is not interested in that.

RB: They’re not interested?

LL: No, they were interested in…well I don’t know..

RB: The big book..

LL: They wanted a big book. Now, that was Harry Evans. He’s left. So, if this thing has any success. Maybe they will entertain the possibility of a thirty thousand word essay which I might be able to pull off. As long as it doesn’t pretend to too much. The tome was going to have to be large and ambitious and therefore you open yourself up to every conceivable kind of attack.

Lapham's Quarterly Collector's Set Vol. I

Lapham’s Quarterly Collector’s Set Vol. I

RB: I’m going to make some assumptions here but why would Random House think that a book on Yale would be commercially viable? That all Yale graduates would buy it? Is it possible there is a pure motive here and that a publisher simply wants to provide useful information to the world?

LL: I made the deal with Harry Evans when he was running it[Random House]. Evans is a very split character and his attitudes about the American Establishment…he comes from a mining family in Wales. He has all of the class suspicions of the Protestant elite in New York. On the other hand, he loves this country and he loves money and he loves glitz. There are contradictions in Harry. Which is one of the things that makes him a charming guy. When I first started to think about it, Beno Schmidt was then the president of Yale, and the place was in uproar. Light planes were flying over the campus towing signs saying, “Schmidt Happens.” The graduate students were on strike. The junior faculty was complaining that Schmidt was no scholar. Schmidt was trying to reduce the budget. It was a mess.

RB: He went from there to work on the Edison Project with Chris Whittle?

LL: Yeah. And he resigned. He told The New York Times before he told the trustees. Looking at it from the outside, the simple line of the story was “a once glorious bastion of Protestant morality and wealth descends into the pit of corruption and multi-culturalism…courses in pornography”. And Harry loved that plot line. He thought it would sell. Of course, the more I found out the harder it was to maintain the clarity of that line. I mean, yeah some of that is true but there are a lot of other things that are also true. When was the University any better? The more I got involved in the history of Yale…you could have said a lot of the things that are now being said , you could have said in mid nineteenth century. And there’s always the saving remnant. And the saving remnant is the students. And a few faculty guys. But that’s always the way it is. So it got more interesting but it got less polemical. Meanwhile, Harry had moved on…

RB: To his new position.

LL: (laughs)… to his new position. So, that’s in limbo. I don’t know if they would be interested in an essay on it. I could conceivably could write a book on the social history of golf. Which might satisfy them[Random House] because there is clearly a market. That’s a commercial possibility.

RB: No one’s done it?

LL: No, no one’s done it. There’s a book on golf every year. That’s probably gonna be my next book.

RB: Why have the book and magazine industries become large subject matters of their own? Why is there so much interest in the ‘inside baseball’ stuff on book and magazine publishing?

LL: I don’t know. I don’t understand it. I don’t know who the audience is, for example, for [now defunct]Brill’s Content. It would never occur to me to read that magazine. I don’t want to know. I’m willing to read The New York Observer and that’s about it. That’s like the shiny sheet, like the Gossip Gazette. It is the world of the Court. In other words, it becomes the Hall of Mirrors and they become preoccupied with themselves. And a form of self promotion. They are all like the court people, they’re insecure. Trying to make themselves more than, I think, should be made of them. It’s self absorption. And I honestly don’t know who the hell is interested in it beyond those of us that are in the racket or in the same maze. I don’t think it sells. I can understand Hollywood people selling. I mean Vanity Fair works because Graydon[Carter, editor of VF] makes sure Nicole Kidman or someone like her is in every issue or on every cover. That gives you lovely photographs…I can understand that about movie stars. But I can’t really care about Peter Jennings. Or William Safire’s love life is not one that I’m following closely. Its the emphasis on the self. It’s self absorption.

RB: Is it possible that once someone’s name appears in type and they some how move up into celebrityhood than it no longer matters what the original instance of their celebrity was? This is a farfetched example, Peter Jennings might be a celebrity to some people who don’t know who he is?

Lapham's Quarterly, Collector's Set Vol. II

Lapham’s Quarterly, Collector’s Set Vol. II

LL: Yea, its possible. He might become part of the repertory company. One of the minor divinities sitting around on Mt. Olympus with…that’s of course the premise of George magazine. (Laughs)

RB:(also laughs) Politics without the policy?

LL: Yea, politics with nothing but the celebrity part of it, nothing but the gossip part. No politics in it at all. But you may be right. You reach a certain magnitude of celebrity and it doesn’t matter any more. You are ‘Peter Jennings’. It seems to me that the media people are the seediest of the lot. I can understand it with sports figures. I can understand it with uh…Business guys keep trying to do this too. Become the great lord of creation…poor Mortimer Zuckerman is constantly hoping be anointed. He never quite makes it. I don’t understand why. He’s in print all the time and he’ll show up at any television camera….

RB: Charley Rose will have him on his show as a commentator…

LL: Charley Rose…yea, so. There was a period there when corporate CEOs were actually appearing the ads. Thy were trying to sell their tire or their house, airline…

Lapham's Quarterly, Collector's Set Vol. IV

Lapham’s Quarterly, Collector’s Set Vol. IV

RB: Remember Rula Lenska? She was the most obvious TV commercial person —I had no I idea who she was…

LL: I agree with you. I mean, “Hi, I’m whoever…” McCluhan makes the point in Understanding Media, that with the electronic medium, television, the actor takes precedence over the act. It becomes personality, it becomes celebrity. Then there is the illusion of immortality. Because you can be in four places at once. You can be in New York, but on cable in Mexico City. And some movie you’ve done your in Africa…

RB: Celebrity doesn’t take place in rea time.

LL: No. I can remember walking into a party at [George]Plimpton’s. One of Plimpton’s sixties’ parties. And it was the super model of the day, someone like Verushka. Here was Verushka in the room. And it was set up with tv cameras that were in several rooms. So I could be in the room with Verushka and I could see her on the closed circuit tv. And there was also an ad that was running had appeared. Then she had some small part in a movie and that was playing too. It isn’t real time and therefore it becomes like Mt. Olympus, the Immortals. Omnipresent. Traveling effortlessly. Because you never get a sense of how they got to Mexico City or got to the summit conference. They’re just there. Godlike. It has that kind of an element to it. So people who crave that seek that kind of limelight and the public apparently…its like the ancient Greeks, when the wood nymph or the stream or the tree was supposed to have a trace element of divinity in it. You can think of People magazine as our little woodland shrine. A small temple. Or GQ. Look at all the magazines that are now doing this. The New Yorker. GQ. Esquire. And so on. People believe that to be next to celebrity or to be next to someone of great wealth is to be, for the moment, anointed. I can remember when I worked for the Saturday Evening Post in the sixties. I was assigned to the White House press corps for about four months. With Johnson. In those days the press corps was still allowed to travel on Air Force One. There were several veteran reporters who were afraid of flying. But when they were on Air Force One they were happy because they thought that in an orderly universe that god wouldn’t strike down the president’s plane, “I am here with Zeus and therefore for the time being I am safe”. It’s the only time these guys had an anxiety free plane ride. And I’ve met people who feel the same way if they’re with a CEO whose net worth is over two hundred billion dollars.[laughs] There is some number at which god no longer dares to erase you from the sky. There is something like that about celebrity. They walk into a room and suddenly you feel like instead of being nowhere, suddenly you are somewhere because Tom Cruise is also here. Therefore this has to be real.

RB: And there is the corollary phenomenon of six degrees of separation.

LL: Yea. I can remember I went to a cocktail party when Kennedy was president. You take a girl to dinner and then maybe you end up at the girl’s apartment after dinner. She would have a box of White House matches on the bedside table. This is to improve her own…somehow you make love to the girl and you go through the golden door and you get connecetd to Kennedy. It was the same kind of…

RB: One slept with someone who might have slept with Kennedy. In one of your essays you bemoan the lack of interest in American history and the failure of schools to be able to present this American narrative. Is there a way in which current publications despite their celebrity worship are still engaged in telling the American story? That they are journalizing what is happening.

LL: I see what you mean. You mean, it’s contemporary, it’s current history. Yea, they’re telling the story. Some of them tell it better than others. Most of them don’t tell it very well. If you write a…. the celebrity profile is an extremely dull form. Because it’s so repetitious. Because you know that the celebrity is lying to the journalist and the journalist is lying…it’s a terrible..

RB: And the intercession of the publicist who has introduced any number of lies and preconditions…

LL: So you’re dealing with some totally false form that everybody in the room knows is a false form. On the other hand if you can have…if you can tell a story in the hands of a good writer who has been three months in Kosovo or is Barbara Ehrenreich…we do that , the Atlantic does that, the New Yorker does that, Rolling Stone does that and they come at you from all angles…but in the hands of a good writer on almost any subject…that does give you…it certainly gives you a current narrative. How it fits in the larger narrative—not many people do that and that’s hard to do on a deadline. But there’s good writing there, you take all the magazines together.

RB: What’s the challenge in publishing Harper’s, which has a quarter of the circulation of The New Yorker which has a eighth of the circulation of People?

LL: Your challenge is to—our circulation is 216,000—The New Yorker’s is around 700,000…

RB: 813,000…

LL: Vanity Fair is a million three, a million four. I do it for the readers. I don’t expect it to make or break elections or bring down Archer-Daniel-Midland. I started out in life wanting to be a history professor so I’m doing what you said. I’m trying to give an account of the world in which we all find ourselves. And I’m trying to do it in a way that will make…I’m doing for people who take pleasure in reading, who don’t read for data but who appreciate the uses of language. And you can do things in writing that you simply can not do in film. You can’t do it, it won’t work. I think of it as an audience, I don’t think of it as a market. There’s no product. It’s not like Road & Track. Or The American Beagle or Vogue. It presumes a literate curious and a knowledgeable reader. And that’s the person I think I’m writing for. Walker Percy wrote a piece for Harper’s magazine many year’s ago about the art of writing fiction. And he says the whole point is to tell it like it is between men and women, how it is within themselves, how it is with their relations between people, where we are now. And he thought of writing as a diagnostic—he was talking about Chekhov—so he was thinking of it in terms of [being] a doctor. It’s not therapeutic necessarily. It’s not necessarily going to cure you but it might help you find out where you are. A navigational device. I just enjoy it. I like finding good writing.

RB: Aren’t you frustrated that your observations and critiques don’t redirect or affect policy?

LL: No. If you get into that you’re lost. I come into…I’m 64. That was never in my mind when I got into writing. I had the notion that a writer or a journalist was not a policy maker. It was in order to see it and say what you saw and maybe what you think but not to direct politicians. That’s a wholly different…nobody that went into the newspaper business in the fifties—I won’t say nobody, there was Walter Lippmann, of course, pouring wisdom into the ears of kings—but for the most part when I started out at the San Franscisco Examiner in 1957, I was the only Ivy League guy in the whole building. I’d been to Yale, I’d been to Cambridge in England. We were all about telling stories. In the sixties, you began to get people from Harvard and Yale…

RB: And the era of Me journalism…

LL: Yea, that starts too. And money goes up. All of a sudden the communications industry begin to…when I first came to New York in 1960, if you wanted to think you were in the inner circle, where it was happening, you’d want to go to dinner with the chairman of U.S. Steel. Or General Motors, or Banker’s Trust Co. Five years later you’d want to go to dinner with Kate Graham or Arthur Sulzburger. So that reporters who were making $50 a week in 1955 were by 1965 were making $250.00 a week and the television guys are making three or four times that. So not only is the money moving them into the possessing class— in the fifties the point of view was the point of view of Will Rogers, the man in the bleachers. His suspicion of the ‘swells’ and the boxes[boxseats]. And nobody in the city room of the San Francisco Examiner ever thought that he or she would become a ‘swell’. Ten years later reporters are beginning to become ‘swells’. And they are showing up from Harvard and Princeton and they are bringing with them the bound volumes of the truth that they’ve been given. And they’re also having their suits tailor made and these guys start thinking about giving advice, “We know how to conduct the Viet Nam War and we know what the American people really think” and so on. I missed that, I was ten years earlier. I went into the newspaper business because I wanted to become a novelist. Because it was romantic…I was thinking of John O’Hara, the young Ernest Hemingway or even the young James Thurber…of all of the novelists who had started as reporters. I also was in it to learn. I had had a protected education… I didn’t really know how a city worked or where the water came from or how the lights went on or how you got bill through the city council or what a dead body looked like. It was a graduate school for me, also. But was there to learn and I’m still there to learn. When I write a column every month I know where I start it…I never know how it’s going to end. I’m educating myself in public and I learn from the writers. In a little way it’s like children because…the young ones, the old one’s— if they keep up their curiosity—the best way to cure your depression is to learn something. So the writers if they’re god are teaching you something—they’re themselves something, they’re teaching you something as your children will do. You learn more from them than they do from you. I promise you. Another cliche, but a golden one. It’s a little like that when you’re editing a magazine.

RB: You regularly make reference to Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Menken. And you are associated with that style of iconoclasm. Are there writers today who have that kind of attitude and social critique?

LL: There’s [Christopher] Hitchens. I’m an admirer of his. Others may not be , but I am. I admire him because he is fearless. And he writes well. I forgive anybody who writes well. Kurt Anderson writes some good things for The New Yorker. There not many…Hitchens comes right to mind.

RB: Michael Thomas [The New York Observer]?

LL: Michael Thomas. If only Michael Thomas would listen to me. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to get Michael to write a piece for Harper’s magazine. Michael was my brother’s roommate at college. I think he is an enormously talented guy. I think Ron Rosenbaum is an enormously talented guy too. When he is talking about things he knows about…Shakespeare, Nabokov,theater…I didn’t read his book on Hitler so I don’t know. But Thomas…

RB: Am I confused, is there a Roger and a Ron?

LL: Oh no you’re thinking of Roger Rosenblatt who’s a horror. He’s the PBS guy. No, Ron’s at the Observer. If you want to really understand how to do a cliche read aloud the essays of Roger Rosenblatt. He’s the essayist on Lehrer or one of them…

RB: Let’s get back to Michael Thomas.

LL: Alright, Michael Thomas has great wit and is very fluent but he won’t get off attacking the same four rich Jews in East Hampton. He get’s started on a column and somehow he has to stab…

RB: Ron Perleman, Mort Zuckerman….

LL: And Kravits. Cramer. There’s a whole row of these guys.

RB:L When he not trashing Charley Rose and Barbara Walters, which he does really well….

LL: …he does really well. I’ve tried to commission him two or three times. There was an art show in Soho, the Hugo Boss show. Hugo Boss now thinks he’s an art collector. Right. And it was the worst possible modern art. And Michael really knows about painting. He was a young curator at the Met and he taught art history right after he graduated from Yale, at Yale. I said, ”Michael you’re always complaining about modern art. Go see the Hugo Boss show. Start there.” He had interesting idea about the infantilization of the culture. He had a large idea that everything has been made baby-soft and risk-adverse, the writing as well. He started the piece with three pages of driving to NY past the houses of Cramer, Kravits, all of the them. He stabbed all of them before he got into town. I said, Michael can we please cut the drive?” He wouldn’t do it…. Yes, he does have that edge.

RB: Anyone else?

LL: David Foster Wallace. Nick Von Hoffman? I don’t think Tom Wolfe has it. Somehow he never quite draws blood. Everybody gets off the hook at the end. He always on stage. You see this edge show up in the novels of Charles Portis. The dialogue of Elmore Leonard. [Carl]Hiassen can do it too. You start thinking about and you can come up with ten or twenty names. They’ re all working in different venues…

RB: Harper’s has corporate sponsors. Do you think that anyone at your corporate sponsors—from the marketing department to the CEO— reads your essays?

LL: No. I doubt it.

RB: So why do they support Harper’s magazine?

LL: We have a good salesman. Peter Kendall. There’s a way of selling it as a thought leader magazine… I wouldn’t expect the CEO types to read it. I know a number of CEO types, I see them…

RB: You’ve been to Davos..

LL: I don’t go to dinner with them. But I play golf. And nobody has ever mentioned anything about what I’ve written. Ever. They think it’s kind of curious and quaint that I’m the editor of Harper’s. No idea what’s in it. If I write a book on golf maybe they’ll talk to me. It is[Harper’s] addressed to people who read and a lot of those people don’t read. I can remember being impressed by that in the 70’s, as a member of the Council on Foreign relations. And I listened to Henry Kissinger one night. Talk about the Fashoda affair, Bismarck, and Metternich. He gave one of these seminars to a group of fifty very important corporate executives. And they listened to him with their mouths open. What Kissinger was doing was a kind of high table conversation you would have at Cambridge or Harvard. Perfectly routine bullshit. None of it held water. But it sounded great. And he has the accent. But it went down like chocolate ice cream. Because these people—at least in that group—didn’t know anything. They weren’t readers of history, they were so preoccupied with running their [business] affairs.

RB: In Waiting For the Barbarians, one of your essays makes mention of Governor Morris in revolutionary Paris saving himself from a frenzied crowd by waving his wooden leg as proof of his fighting for liberty. He, of course, hadn’t. But it’s a very amusing story that makes that era more real or human…The stories in history are every bit as vivid and funny and entertaining as prime time t.v. or trashy novel. Why hasn’t that message gotten across?

LL: We don’t teach it properly.[Benjamin] Franklin would fuck anything that moved. You could not leave a chambermaid in a room with that guy. Washington took a shine to a girl at a dance at Newport. The war was on. He was working his way slowly from Massachusetts back toward Long Island and eventually New Jersey and Valley Forge. The woman happened to be to married General Nathaniel Greene. At nine o’clock at night, by candle light Washington suddenly assigned Greene to an urgent message. The general was suddenly called away. These people drank…but we don’t teach it that way.

RB: Why the imperative to sterilize our history? Those who taught the teachers of history didn’t think it dull. The teachers don’t think it dull. How does it end up being dull and uninteresting.

LL: I don’t know. Part of it is because of the standardization of the texts. As recently as fifteen years ago if you wanted to teach 6th grade history in California you would have had a choice of possibly 16 texts. Today it’s down to four. The text books are geared to California and Texas, because they buy for the whole state …intellectually we want to present history as a science rather than an art…as a series of facts rather than as an always changing story. It’s the scientific approach to the humanities. With history, in the earlier grades, if you told stories you might offend someone. What do you mean George Washington drank too much? What do you mean 20% of the population of New York in 1773 were slaves? These people were being followed around by little black guys. That doesn’t show up. They don’t have time. They have to get through it in 13 weeks. I can remember my history teacher explaining the Battle of Cannae, where Hannibal triumphed over the Romans. He drew it on the blackboard and he took a week to explain. Today, they don’t have time…and what difference does it make anyway. So the story drains out of it…

Currently reading The Dog Killer of Utica by Frank Lentricchia (Melville House)

Me and Allan (Gurganus) Part I (Local Souls)

12 Nov

I am going to assume that if your gaze has landed on this page, you know something about novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All).Thusly relieved of the task of introducing this fine writer I need only add that this is my third conversation with him, a skein that commenced in 1997 with his second published novel Plays Well With Others and has continued now with his recently published litter of novellas, Local Souls.

Chatting with Allan, a warm and courtly North Carolingian, has all the feel and ambience of the kind of thing one enjoys passing a leisurely afternoon on his front porch—which is to say his joyfulness in conversation matches that found in his prose.

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

RB: How are you?

AG: I’m pretty good. Being with readers is very reassuring. You forget that they still exist.

RB: This is early in the publication life of Local Souls; you assume that the readers that show up at events know your work?

AG: Many of them do, because they bring their copies and see they are dog-eared and with pieces post it attached—

RB: —coffee circles on the cover.

AG: I love that. And sun tan lotion makes me very happy.

RB: In the book collecting world that’s frowned upon. I guess in the 19th century the most valuable books were those that hasn’t had the plats split apart

AG: Exactly, that right. The uncut pages. Premiums on virgins. Virginity is highly overrated.

RB: I have vast multitudes of signed 1st editions and they are besmirched with all sorts of substances.
AG: I love that. People apologize. You must have an amazing collection by now.

RB: Well yeah, it’s pretty good.

AG: Isn’t it thrilling about Alice Munro winning the Nobel? I am so happy about that.

RB: Every laureate makes a speech but she is not going to the ceremony. I wonder if she will provide some kind of valedictory.

AG: Oh, is she not going? She has cancer, apparently. Such a shame. It happened maybe 2 years too late. Her lover is dead. I can’t believe it when writers say they’ve stopped writing. Philip Roth and Alice Munro.

RB: Well, we’ll see. Vonnegut announced he would stop writing and didn’t.

AG: I think it’s an impossible habit to break. Even if you know you are writing stuff that you know is not your very best. It’s an irresistible habit. I find not writing on tour excruciating.

RB: Early in Local Souls (the 1st novella) you say a writer is always writing.

AG: Yeah, exactly. You are always gathering and eavesdropping and spying. And formulating.

RB: Is that true of all writers? Or is that your definition of a writer?

AG: That’s what draws you to the occupation.

RB: An excuse to be nosey? (laughs)

AG: Absolutely. I saw a thing in Memphis —I saw 2 things is Memphis that were exciting to me fictionally. One was a bail bondsman whose company was “Free At Last Bail Bonds”. I don’t think Dr. King had that in mind when he said that.

RB: It was put to good use

AG: That’s right. The other thing was I saw a very well dressed 68-year-old society lady in patent leather pumps at an ATM machine being trained by a man who was about 70, in how to use her 1st ATM cash card. And it was clear that she was terrified. She was putting it in the wrong way. It’s a wonderful beginning of a story.

RB: What do you imagine her life was like? Did she know how to operate a vacuum cleaner?

AG: Oh, never. I don’t think she knew how to write a check to t he maid who ran the vacuum cleaner. But the man with her seemed to me to be the brother of her husband who just died. And she’d been one of these coddled impeded people. And was terrified—

RB: What do you mean by impeded?

AG: By making people helpless you foot bind them.

RB: Infantilize them?

AG: Absolutely.

RB: That reminds me, did you make up the word ‘sogged’ [to describe a rain soaked coat]?

AG: I did, yeah; it seemed the only word that I could think of.

RB: What’s a novella?

AG: It’s a work of a certain length that has something wrong with it.

RB: (laughs)

AG: Ideally it’s a unit that you can pick up after dinner and finish by bedtime. That’s Peter Taylor’s definition.

RB: Kind of an ad hoc description—it depends on how long you stay up after dinner.

AG: I think it means that you leave out the secondary characters. It’s ideally suited for stories about obsessions—single-minded quests—“I love my child too much.” “I made a fatal mistake and spent my life trying to recapture what I gave away.”

RB: Jim Harrison is the only author I can think of who regularly writes novellas.

AG: Steven Millhauser does a lot—he’s really good.

RB: Andre Dubus just published a volume [Dirty Love] with a novella.

AG: My friend Lee Smith was a t a 5th grade school session as a visiting writer. And her 1st question came from a little girl, “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?”
Lee said it would have been too cruel to say,”No.” The girl was so game to ask the 1st question.

RB: I like the definition that says there is something wrong with a novella. Had the stories in Local Souls gone right they would have been novels?

AG: I think it’s a service to the reader to gut out the carbs and give you pure protein—like eating tuna fish out of a can at the kitchen sink.

RB: That sounds like one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for writing

AG: Oh does it, good?

Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

RB: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

AG: That’s great. A lot of green scenery needs to go. I am not really interested in purple mountains majesty on the page. It aerates too much the interior obsessions and struggles of the writer. I want people to be completely in the reality of the character.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

RB: In the first story, you are the narrator/character.

AG: Oh absolutely. There is no question .Its an invitation to the reader to participate in the construction of the piece. And that piece was fascinating to write. It was an attempt to simulate a documentary by gathering the clues; you are with him as he makes it all up out of bare- boned reality. I am very interested in Jim Thomson. He’s an underestimated crime writer and really a great writer in his best book. The Killer Inside Me is a terrifying —a beautiful book. And in a way the whodunit still has tremendous vitality as a pattern for how me move through fiction. A crime is created on the first page and resolved on the last page.

RB: I really enjoy crime stories. There is the tendency of crime writers to create series —which lost their vitality more or less quickly. And by the way, in Elmore Leonard, the crime is not important to his stories.

AG: In a way the crime is the fillip, the sorry excuse— so you can hear those guys who are so stupid and so smart at the same time, talk. It’s so thrilling to see on the page.Since Flannery O’Connor he has best ear in American fiction—maybe with Grace Paley. I love reading that dialogue.

RB: And Leonard makes it easy for screen adaptation—the dialogue doesn’t need to be tampered with. Getting back to ‘sogged’ when I went back to reread your stories I was struck by the wonderful solecisms.

AG: Shakespeare was always turning nouns into verbs.

RB: That would be the beauty of the English language.

AG: Exactly, that’s how it happens —the regeneration, the resurrection. There are instances where there is no legal verb. In White People I have an angel falling out of the sky on to green grass. And I used the word ‘twunk’, I had a dream in which an angel fell and that was exactly the sound. I think what we are trying to do as writers, in a way, is develop an idiomatic language that’s separate from conventional Strunk & White language. That’s a kind of emotional short hand for the characters and should vary from piece to piece but it takes a while for the reader to learn this news language. But once they have got it they are that much closer to the center of the character.

RB: Is there a conscious effort?

AG: In the heat of the moment you develop—

RB: For the reader?

AG: It shouldn’t be too conscious. It shouldn’t be like reading Finnegan’s Wake. You have to meet people half way.

RB: I didn’t catch some of this on my first reading. What’s mind set when you are reading something for the 2nd time?

AG: You see the construction much more consciously. I am always doing battle with copy editors —you know, in Saints Have Mothers, the self reported IQ of Jean Mulray keeps rising by 22 points by the end. The copyeditors were having an orgasm having caught me in this mistake. I told them there may be accidents in my work but there are no mistakes. I really meant that. I had to right a whole new chapter to justify myself to this anonymous lady.

RB: You could have simply pointed out that this was a novel, a fiction.

AG: I tried to do that but those distinctions are breaking down. Americans are so fact loving as a people that most of the questions you get at readings are, “This is pretty much what happened, right?” No, this is not. The very phrase ‘fiction’ is based on the word ‘fashioned’ meaning forged or created, hand made. The question is what of the inventions that you have put in this book, is the craziest and the most successful to you? That would be the question I ‘d like asked. I have handy example, which for me was mind-boggling. In Decoy, I needed a disease—this is what I do to my poor characters. Drowning, mortification of the flesh is not enough. N-n-n-n-n-no, they have to have a fated inherited disease. So I made up a disease. Exercising all rights of fiction. The disease was patrilineal —you got it form your dad, from male to male. It’s a heart disease that retains all the cholesterol you have ever eaten, in your body. It turns you into a crystal palace of cholesterol. And I had a great Gothic Edgar Alan Poe time imagining this. I actually had dates when the body began to be impeded—about 30-35. Then dead, conventionally by 50-51, something like that. I have a next-door neighbor who is a retired famous cardiologist. He is entering his 80’s. He is so famous he did a triple by pass on the Sultan of Brunei. When he came to Duke University, he brought his wives, his children his rugs and his security force. And he rented the university hotel. The rugs were stacked so high that you had to crawl into the rooms (that’s his wealth). It’s like traveling with Metropolitan Museum. And they have to use them to make them better. Anyway, —

RB: Anyway—

AG: Moving right along—you see, you thought I lost the thread. You thought I had, but n-o-o-o-o I hadn’t.

RB: No, I was thinking there’s a story.

AG: Exactly. So I decided I have the world’s leading cardiologist living next door, idled. I take advantage of his expertise and humor him and build bridges as father used to say, by asking him if such a thing could be possible. So went over with my little note pad and laid out this fictitious disease. It took me about 10 minutes to lay out all the specs of the disease. So I asked is such a thing possible. And he said is such a thing possible along side familial chloresterolemia? And I said, “What’s familial chloresterolemia?” “The disease you just described for the last 10 minutes.” To the day, I had described a disease that preexisted me. I never read about it. Or known anyone who had it. I made it up. Its real.

RB: But rare.

AG: It’s rare, thank god for the poor sufferers. But even the name chloresterolemia, to put the Latin up front like that—I couldn’t have done better in my wildest dreams. So when people say, “This story is real, you read in a newspaper, right? Right! Wrong! The mystical stuff is the stuff that you invent most fancifully and that somehow comes to validate you and the fiction.

RB: I hear from writers that readers seem to have an expectation that everything is factual.

AG: Oh god, its tedious. I think it’s a great age for non-fiction but I also think it’s a great age for fiction. But in the horserace —

RB: May be not a great age for reading.

AG: Its not. I have seen in the —I read in Seattle 12 years ago, I had 120 people. I read in Seattle, that if anything has gotten more praise than the last book, 11 people turn up. I flew 3000 miles to Seattle, which is supposed to be one of the great book towns —

RB: At Elliot Bay?

AG: At Elliot Bay.

RB: What explains that?

AG: I don’t know but I see that the promise of the book has receded. For instance, I have never not been on All Things Considered. For every book I have written since ’89. They don’t really do books anymore. Only books about the burning of the Koran. Or something sensational.

RB: Tiger mothers?

AG: Yeah, exactly. And Terry Gross is retired. So now we have to do things like writing essays for the Times and the Wall St Journal.

RB: Like “On Collecting”[written for the NY Times].

AG: Like that and inventing diseases and whatever else, in order to see your name in the paper. It’s changed. Unfortunately it’s too late for me to retool. All I ever wanted to do was write a great book. And I’m not changing.

RB: Are you going take in boarders or something?

AG: I guess so. Or become a callboy. Except nobody called—I hate when that happens.

RB: We have it wrong. Its not about the decline of reading its about the decline of education.

AG: Well, it’s true.

RB: As long as the emphasis radically shifts from creating the whole person and the humanities to vocational guidance and training what is in it for students to read?

AG: It’s great to put it in that context. That’s what the Republican majority is doing by cutting education

RB: Everyone is doing it—the great majority of policy makers see education as a career strategy, there is no learning for learning’s sake. Nicholson Baker wrote in Harpers that Algebra shouldn’t be required as part of the Core. Which is considered a gateway course (but mostly and obstacle) to college. How much do you use Algebra in your life?

AG: I couldn’t use it. That’s a great point. Talk about the dumbing down of America as something in the future—that happened decades ago and we are reaping the benefit. Its scary it really is. And the absolute passivity of whatever comes down it’s a scary time. Those 40 representatives, so-called, could have just pushed right on into full coup. That was the idea. Its spooky and we are entranced and narcotized with our gizmos and I am as guilty as the next person. I never had an IPhone until I went on this tour and now I feel like I have a little white kitten upstairs and I leave milk and cookies for it in a shoe box by the bed. That’s my favorite little thing.

RB: I just realized I hate football. My son plays for his high school.

AG: Oh god.

RB: And I can’t stop watching it because I have been watching it since childhood. But I hate it.

AG: Its horrible. It’s gladiatorial. Its white people in the stands watching under cashmere blankets watching the underclass kill each other. Its bear baiting, is what it is.

RB: Daniel Woodrell in The Bayou Trilogy has a funny take on college football —essentially characterizing the games as between Alabama’s felons and Florida States’ criminals.

AG: I was just in Oxford, Mississippi before the LSU game. LSU fans are notorious for coming with broken coca cola bottles and throwing them into the stands. People are afraid to go out on the street. The marauding hordes have arrived.

RB: Wow, sounds like English soccer fans.

AG: The thugs. Its inevitable that they imitate on the street what they see on the field.

RB: Wasn’t there some incident where an opposing fan chopped down a tree on the Auburn Campus?

AG: That was horrible.

RB: You wrote somewhere you liked to find humor in the most horrible circumstances

AG: Yeah. I want to write the funniest books possible about the worst things that can happen.

RB: Why is that?

AG: There’s where the energy is and redemption is and that’s where the truth is. We are all in for a terrible row of disasters. The flood that I described in Decoy is predicated on flood that took out 30% of the houses in my hometown overnight. 17 feet of water hit the town. Essentially the Atlantic Ocean came 150 miles inland in 1999. It preceded Katrina—by the time Katrina hit everybody in my town had been there and done that. They will never get back into their houses. We just move on.

RB: I just read Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s The Tilted World. Its about the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. And in the last chapter one of the characters talks about what he will tell his children and mentions that this greatest of natural disasters was very much ignored around the country and would have been dealt with differently had it taken place in New England.

RB: What struck me living through this real flood—I was not living in the town at the time. My brother got on the phone and said, ”Come now.” And I said, “Well I have a dentist appointment.” “Cancel. Come now.” [He] Being a man of few words, I got in the car and went. And instances of such heroism from the least likely people. And like Doc in the novella [Decoy], the person who seems the most set up and most revered can bear anything but to lose what he’s hand made. He can’t sacrifice his art. And its sort of way of subjecting your art work to difficulty. It has to float—I mean, you carve a decoy so it can float away on a flood. And it floats away; a highly successful and you’re devastated because you have lost your beauty—

RB: Do you know Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell?

AG: I know her name but I don’t know the book.

RB: She chose 6 historic natural disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Katrina and pointed out that in those calamities, that people banded together and formed communities of aid and comfort.

AG: Think about 9/11—people carrying wheelchair victims 90 floors down the stairs. We forget that. Those instances of beauty and of community inspire me. Its what I have instead of god. Community is real, god is fiction. It’s thrilling to see how imaginative people can be. I lived through a lot of hurricanes growing up in North Carolina. One of the most recent, Fran, took out all of the electricity for 8 or 9 days. Which in and of itself is a huge cataclysm for most of us. But I had a gas range and a lot of coffee, which I had ground up in advance, very cleverly.

RB: You could have used a hammer.

AG: That takes a long time—like a mortar and pestle. I had filled the bathtub, so I had a lot of water. And I made coffee for my neighbors. I am a total coffee addict. And I learned when they need their coffee and what they took in their coffee. And I have never had such gratitude. It was like doing a sexual favor for old lady next door.

RB: That’s pretty thoughtful. Do you use a burr grinder or a blade [grinder]? Or the old hand burr grinder?

AG: Exactly. It was so simple top do and so powerful. And I felt closer to the people and we also did the thing that we did in Decoy of pooling all our frozen food, delicacies, and putting them in a giant pot. It was one the best things I have eaten I my life. Sitting outside behind a darkened house-

RB: A peasant meal.

AG: Right, whatever you have, squirrel, okra, weeds, what the hell—it was thrilling

RB: People get great pleasure from doing acts of kindness.

AG: I love the most basic definition —which kin and kindness are from the same root. So to the extent that you are kind to somebody you are demonstrating how like them you are. And that lines up the pheromones like nothing else in the world—to know that you are part of a huge tribe.

RB: That’s what makes the Dalai Llama so attractive —preaching kindness.

AG: Absolutely. It’s a profound concept. And it’s difficult to practice. I swear this is my mantra, my daily activity, to try to make everybody you contact in a course of a day, incrementally better about themselves for having seen you. It’s incredible—

RB: A lesson often learned later in life.

AG: It does come later. The slash and burn days are gone, yeah.

Waiter tries to take our stuff—we humorously protest.

RB: We were somewhere

AG: —before they took our food away. We were talking about kindness
RB: There is that old saw about having two lives, one is the life you learn with and one is the life you live what you have learned.

AG: I am 66. I love this age. I love it.

RB: I am older than you. So remember that.

AG: All right sir, I can take lessons. Can I sit in your lap and get counsel, Santa?

RB: How often do you run into people that you don’t know?

AG: Not all the time. I live in a village of 6 thousand and when I walk around town the bookstore has my books in the window. It’s a Jimmy Stewart kind of reality.

RB: Is there a street named for you?

AG: Not yet.

Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

RB: Anything that commemorates your existence?

AG: Yes, my hometown library has a life size portrait of me. I should say that with shame—its actually quite a good painting apart from its likeness to me.

RB: And the bronze statue?

AG: That comes later. I don’t care about post humus; I want it now, baby. You know that Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again. The reason he has to say that is because he used every secret about Ashville in his trashy book. He was so mean to the people who helped him. I work from an opposite principle—kin and kindness have their rewards. Not just on the page but in reality and community.

RB: Did you think this was what you were going to when you were a young pup in NYC?

AG: I though I was going to be a painter until I was inducted into the US Navy.

RB: I meant did you think you were going to return to rustic North Carolina?

AG: I didn’t think that until the AIDS pandemic. Until I lost 30 of the most adorable people that I had known. You reach a point where you have to start over. You are lucky of you can start over—if you are one of the survivors who can say I will remember all these people and I will take these memories into my new friends. But I couldn’t do it on the same streets where all this terrible stuff had happened.

RB: And now when you are in New York?

AG: I enjoy it. I love it. I feel very quickened by it. It sis much more congested and expensive, needless to say. But every block has associations for me. There is a kind of default setting. I think we all have. The people who go back to Ireland to die, and they haven’t seen it in 60 years. The minute they get to the dock they are like, ”Hah! Bye bye.” For me the course of least resistance was to know all the sounds and smells of this particular landscape. And it’s been extremely consoling. I have a garden and old house that I fixed up. I love it. I love being there. And I learn a lot. Its almost the narrative inspiration is permeable. You get through the skin.

RB: Well, North Carolina has a lot of writers living there

AG: Well, in my little town it could be 30 %. When I moved there 21 years ago it was me and the hardware store. I like living where I do and then going from there. The book is being translated into a lot of languages. I’ll go to countries, each in turn—there is no way like getting to know a country like having a book in their language. Its exciting dealing with translators and the questions that they ask.

RB: Any non-traditional languages?

AG: Mostly French, German, And Italian. I have things in Japanese. I just love to look at the text though I have no idea what I am seeing. The questions that come are fascinating. Word choices and—

RB: You’ll get questions about ‘sogged’.

AG: I’m ready. I am prepared to defend it in any language. It’s an underpaid and under appreciated occupation. Astonishing artistry.

Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)

Note to you: I am suspending my customary practice of publishing an interview in totality. In this case my conversation with Allan Gurganus was about 90 minutes in duration (which flew by as we were engaged in it) and I fear that a complete transcript would tax all but the most devoted readers. Thus, you can, if you made it this far, in the fullness of time, look forward to a Part II.

Currently reading The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig
by Stefan Zweig translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press)

Triple Dutch

31 Jan

If Elmore “Dutch” Leonard has ever written a bad story I have not read it—and I have read many, if not most, of his 40 or so published works.Which is not to say that some aren’t better than others but I don’t recall ever having finished a book by Leonard and feeling unsatisfied. And so it is with his latest opus, Raylon (William Morrow).

Those of you who are Leonard fans or are simply alert, should know that the FX series Justified (now in its 3rd season) is based on the Raylan Givens character first encountered in Leonard’s story ” Fire in the Hole” and his novel Riding the Rap. While it is uncharacteristic Dutch to resort to sequels, he has done so occasionally — Be Cool following Get Shorty and Road Dogs reprising bank robber Jack Foley from Out of Sight. In past this eschewing of series/sequels was deliberate, as optioning films rights to a story includes all iterations of the characters involved. Mama Leonard clearly did not raise a fool.

In Raylan , the Kentucky born Assistant US Marshall Givens hunts down the perpetrators of an organ stealing scheme, is assigned to body guard a cold blooded coal mine company official and tracks down a young poker playing Butler University coed who lost the twenty thousand dollars she won betting on Duke in the NCAA championship, playing in a high stakes game— who may or may not be involved in a bank robbing ring. That’s a pretty good threefer.

Naturally weird losers and felons abound:

Delroy Lewis was a member of a biker club one time called pages, all black guys, least fifty of ’emit black leather, the ace of spades painted on their yellow helmets…Delroy rode with the gang four times, got filthy dirty riding ass-end of the pack and quit the Spades.

He owned a cocktail lounge on New Center Road called the Cooz Club that featured chicks writhing bare naked on a pole that rose from a narrows strip of stage back of the bar. They’d get up there in their heels, eyes dreamy, out of focus and the guys at the bar would bet on which chick would fall off, side bets on hitting the bartender or not. He made drinks looking over his shoulder. Once Delroy had the idea, he turned the bare naked ladies into bank robbin’ chicks and was doing just fine til…

No surprise, Delroy does not come to a good end but the how of it amuses and entertains.

Elmore Leonard’s work, as mentioned above, has been adapted to a fair number of movies but in Justified he has found a simpatico group of filmmakers (Raylan is dedicated to producer Graham Yost and actor Tim Oliphant) and stands with Steve Soderbergh’s Out of Sight as exemplars of fine American cinema narratives.

Currently reading Raylan by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow)

The Vast Wasteland

30 Jan

In the half century since JFK appointed FCC Commissioner Newton Minnow pronounced television a cultural “vast wasteland” one could argue that some signs of life have blossomed, Thankfully that’s beside the point today’s modest feuilleton. Suffice it to say that if what used to be called the small screen had spawned no more than HBO’s The Wire that would be sufficient to justify its previous aridity.

Arguably there are (many) other high points in television history (which understandably was hindered by the necessity of collecting large numbers of viewers) but its not a stretch to award HBO with coming up with a different model for programming (keep in mind HBO’s motto, “It’s not television, its HBO.”) Which brings me HBO’s latest offering, Luck

Whatever disclosure is worth, this 9 episode series is being touted as a collaboration between two masters, director Michael Mann( Thief) and writer producer David Milch (Deadwood). Now I don’t doubt Milch’s credentials and talents but I do find his claim of being unaware of Pete Dexter’s wonderful novel Deadwood disingenuous. But, to quote, Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

In any case, Luck with Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina (a Michael Mann favorite),Joan Allen. Jill Hennessy,Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon (playing even nastier than his role in Open Range) and a wonderful ensemble cast, muck about legendary Santa Anita race track involved in any number of high-jinks and naturally mayhem follows.Though one may look upon the intricacies of the Sport of Kings indifferently even a non-horsey person (like myself) was entranced by the race footage and splendor of these complex animals.

Having watched the whole season’s episodes, Luck does make it through the backstretch to deliver at the finish.

Sadly, NBC cancelled their version of Prime Suspect (first done in England with the incomparable Helen Mirren) with Maria Bello.

For the time being you can still catch the first and last season’s episodes here

In addition to the Closer and Law and Order reruns what does that leave on the television horizon? I have heard good things about Shameless, and Breaking Bad but not enough to move me to watch.Justified apparently is in its 3rd season and in an uncharacteristic move, Elmore Leonard has written Raylon (Wm Morrow) another story about Raylon Givens, hero of the series and protagonist of a previous novel, Riding the Rap.

Currently reading Midnight Alley by Miles Corwin (Oceanview Publishing)