Tag Archives: Joseph Epstein

Let me come at it another way…my kind of town

17 Apr

Chicago flag

 

On my recent hegira to the geography of my youth, Chicago Illinois (fly over zone or Heartland, depending on whether you hail from the Golden Corridor USA ), I chanced to discover the reason for the ( four six-pointed red stars [the six points symbolize transportation, labor, commerce, finance, populousness, and salubrity] on the official City of Chicago flag which was adopted in 1917. They represent major historical events: the advent of Fort Dearborn in 1831, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933–34.

A reasonable assumption (for those of us aware of the passage of time since the mid 20th century) would be that a number of events should be candidates for additional stars. And in fact there have been regular proposals to do so. Of those making it into urban folklore purportedly a letter to the Chicago Tribune opined that the city flag honor “Chicago’ s place in the history of the nuclear age.” A star was also  proposed to honor  Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago. And following the so-called Chicago Flood of 1992.

Chicago being Chicago and Cubs fans being long suffering the notion has previously been floated to honor the eventuality of a Cubs’s World Series (which of course after 108 years would more accurately called a long shot. Enter whiz kid Theo Epstein and field mentor Joe Madden and. well, let’s just say that the odds have changed

“Once you’ve come to be a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” — Nelson Algren

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Coincident with my recent visit and refreshment of my  warm feelings for Chi town  I came across Brian Doyle’s new opus Chicago. As is the case with much of what makes up my reading diet a few years ago I chanced to pick up  Brian Doyle’s novel, Mink River and have stayed on the lookout for his writings  ever since—which include short stories, memoirs  essays and novels , Doyle who edits Portland magazine at the University of Oregon is a card carrying Catholic  but clearly not an apologist for the Church as the opening of his story “Pinching Bernie”  (from his collection  Bin Laden’s Bald Spot)

Bernard Francis Cardinal Law , archbishop of Boston for  almost 20 years during which probably a thousand kids were raped by priests and Law knew about it but kept shuffling the rapists around from job to job and denying everything and writing letters  that were total bullshit about how he knew  these guys real well and saw into their hearts and their hearts were pure  as driven snow, this was while  they were raping kids in sacristies and chapels and hospital rooms and classrooms and basements and cellars and billiard rooms and rectories and cabin son lakes and cars and the house of prominent donors and beach cottages and the backs of school busses and once even in a convent, well, finally Bernie gets ridden out of town. on a rail you know, the people of the archdiocese weren’t going to take this evil crap anymore, and Bernie has to vamoose from his palatial residence so fast that the coffee was still warm when the cops got there…

So, it was with gleeful anticipation that I dove into Chicago. Being a expatriated Chicagoan this tome contains a double dose of joy as the city of big shoulders, home of Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren, fabulous small Jews like Joe Epstein and Karl Shapiro, Dick Gregory, Mike Royko and  Slats Grobnik, Ernie Banks and Walter Payton, Minnie Minoso and Mike Ditka and Muddy Waters and Curtis Mayfield, Oscar Brown Jr. and on and on, remains my sweet spiritual home.. As befits the

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Doyle wastes no time indulging his playfulness  citing three epigrams by Mark Twain ,Sun Ra and this by Rudyard Kipling

I have struck a city—a real city—and they call it Chicago… Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.*

 

 

As has become something of a Doyle trademark conceit (see Mink River ‘s philosophizing crow and Martin Marten’s pine marten), one of the main characters in Chicago is  Edward “a wise and personable dog of indeterminate breed.” While an engaging ensemble of characters,the residents of the Northside  building in which the unnamed narrator resides, join Edward,

Self Portrat, Brian Doyle

Self Portrait, Brian Doyle

the main protagonist is the city itself—presented in all its glories from the great inland sea, Lake Michigan,  that marks its eastern border  to the vibrant music culture to the great green spaces of the park system that runs the length of the city. Chicago’s narrator finds happiness playing basketball and  spending much of his spare time dribbling his worn down ball up and down the Lake Michigan shore as well as exploring the villages that comprise this big hearted metropolis. He also manages to touch upon Chicago’s dark side, playing in  edgy pickup games involving two rival Chicago gangs.
The unnamed  narrator in Chicago, a recent Notre Dame graduate is an entry-level staffer at a Chicago-based Catholic magazine who spend 15 months  in the city in 1979.  Coincidentally he becomes a fan of the (Southside) White Sox,  the year the Chisox fielded the best outfield in the major leagues —though it its something of an anomaly for someone from the city’s Northside to prefer the Southside team to the Northside Cubs. 

 
 Steve Nathans-Kelly opines
Doyle’s Chicago is a determinedly quiet book about a noisy city that sketches a vast cityscape but deals narratively in miniatures… One gets the impression that Doyle, an award-winning journalist, editor and author of multiple novels, has wanted to write this book for a long time. It’s to his credit that he didn’t let his immense feeling for Chicago and the brief time he lived there induce him to make this modest and winsome story bigger than it is.

 

 

* Some additional epigrams on Chicago

“Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years”— Carl Sandburg

“Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring”—Nelson Algren

“Chicago was a town where nobody could forget how the money was made. It was picked up from floors still slippery with blood.” — Norman Mailer

“It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago-she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.” — Mark Twain

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Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

8 Jan
Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

 My acquaintance with Thomas Mallon began about twenty years ago when I discovered his novel Henry and Clara, his riveting novel about the couple seated next to Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at the Ford Theater. And so began our small literary friendship that has resulted in my continued interest and appreciation of his novels and thus  a number of interview/ conversations. This latest  chat was occasioned by his newest novel, Finale. Suffice it to say , that as usual, he and I digress from fiction to films to politics to the aging process. No doubt (given the obvious proviso for two geezers) we will be conversating again in a few years.

Allow me to quote from my previous talk with Thomas:

Given the deplorable state of historical literacy in the greatest country in the world, I have long held that if I were allowed to teach history, there are a number of novels I would include in my lesson plans—in addition to the eye-opening, ground-breaking People’s History by Howard Zinn. Thomas Mallon has written a number of those novels—

######

Robert Birnbaum: Onward and upward (as he readies the recording device).

Thomas Mallon: I’m just very aware of how in the midst of all of the changes in the industry that the essentials for me have stayed very old-fashioned.

Robert Birnbaum: Your publisher is remarkably stable. They have editors that have been there for years at all the various  imprints. The publicity  people have been there years and years. They’re  slick—slick in a good way. They’re decent, they’re efficient, sweet; they know the stuff. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine.

Thomas Mallon: A lot the processes of my writing life have changed dramatically, but the personnel of it have really been stable: Dan[Frank]; the people I write for at the New Yorker, for instance. I have been writing for Dan [at Pantheon] for nearly 20 years now. The Times Book Review, whatever. I’ve moved around a little bit with agents but I’ve been with [Andrew] Wiley now for the last 8 years, so it’s been very happy for me. I’ve been sheltered from the storm.

Robert Birnbaum:  Which may or may not be responsible for the fact that you’ve written some pretty creditable books, on a regular basis.

Thomas Mallon: I’m hoping to retire from teaching next year. I will be 65. Nobody in my-

Robert Birnbaum: No! No, you’re lying.

Thomas Mallon: Next year, sure. Can’t tell, right? As I creep along. I’ll keep writing… I don’t know how many of these [novels] I have left in me.” I think I have a couple more; in fact, I’m signed up to do a couple more and I think I can bring everything in for a soft landing.  If novel-writing seems to become too much, I’d like to think I could have a dignified closing act with essays and reviews and things like that.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re not going to do something as ostentatious as announce your retirement —like some other authors.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, I know who you’re thinking of[Philip Roth], but he was 80; for God sakes.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you believe him, is he absolutely … Are we sure there won’t be another novel.

Thomas Mallon: I don’t know. My God, if I could go to 80, I’d be thrilled. I’m hoping to get past 70 doing it.

Robert Birnbaum: Joseph Epstein  wrote a very funny piece when he turned 70— a spoof on  producer Robert Evans’s memoir. Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned 70.[1] The brilliant thing I thought was that he announces  “You know what, I have a birthday, I just want 10 more years. I don’t want to live forever I just another 10 years,” “A happy amount of time to aspire to wherever you are.”

Thomas Mallon: He says that whenever he has a birthday.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, 10 more, 10 more, 10 more.

Thomas Mallon: He’s really been asking for 20, right?

Robert Birnbaum: When did you start feeling you were aging? And that you had to think about  an end-game, a last quarter?

Thomas Mallon: I think earlier than most people in the same game as I am. I think that may be temperamental, that may be  dark Irish stuff, I don’t know. I did have a sense of being off to a late start as a fiction writer. Not as a non-fiction writer, but I published my first novel when I was 36. It seemed very late at the time. It doesn’t seem so right now, but it did in the ’80s. I think I had a sense early on that I needed to work hard and move quickly where fiction was concerned, once I found my feet. I have seen writers, often writers that I admire extravagantly, who went on too long. It’s very difficult to tell somebody to stop.  I knew Gore Vidal a little bit, I edited him sometimes at GQ. A couple times I even wrote about him.  I remember being on the phone with him one time, and he had written what was his last novel.  I can’t even remember the title, but I think it’s set at the Smithsonian or something. He said to me in that patrician voice, “Well, you know, this will be the last one.” I said something like, “Oh, surely not.” “No,” he replied.  “Well, why?” I asked.  He said, “Well, you know, I get to the end of a chapter now, I have trouble remembering how it began.” I do think that the engineering feats of novel-writing are something to keep in mind. I’ve seen this, again, mostly in writers that I admired a lot. Somebody like Elizabeth Hardwick who went on very, very late. Lizzie was still publishing, I don’t know, well into her 80s or whatever. From anybody else it would have been pretty damn good. But if you had been reading her for years you noticed a falling off. How could you not? Once in a blue moon there are these people like V.S. Pritchett who seem undiminished. Updike seemed quite undiminished, too. He wasn’t of a very great age but well into his 70s. Then that burst of … I think, honestly, at the end, his poetry was fabulous. I think his criticism was still sharp, very sharp as he went along.

Robert Birnbaum:  Updike is one of the writers I just never got around to [reading]. First of all I want to … not first of all but I want to thank you on behalf of ordinary Americans for adding to our knowledge of Iceland’s literacy and food culture, so thank you.

Thomas Mallon: Yes, highest per capita book consumption or something like that.  I’ll tell you one last thing before we leave that topic concerning the writer I most admire.  My mentor, my muse, was Mary McCarthy. Mary died at 77 which seems young, but it wasn’t so young for her generation—hard-living writers. I do remember my sense of Mary in her ’60s and ’70s. She was operating in some ways as if she had all the time in the world. I remember thinking this at the time, also because she wrote a memoir called How I Grew. It’s not my favorite among her books; again, for almost anybody else it would be top drawer. She was going over ground that she had already covered in probably her very best work, Memories of Catholic Girlhood. She was going over it in a way that was certainly interesting to anybody who cared about her work. But it was more literal than Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and I kept thinking, “Why are you giving this 3 years, or whatever it is, of your life? Get on to the 1930s which is what everybody wants to read.” One thing about Mary–and I think that some of her biographers notice this:  she never really thought in career terms. She didn’t have a plan, and there’s something about that that I actually admire.

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

 

Robert Birnbaum: [across from the patio at which we are seated a wild turkey crosses the street The return of the species here…

Thomas Mallon: Unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: They are all over the place.

Thomas Mallon: I feel like I’m back in Westport.

Robert Birnbaum: Wildlife is  everywhere now—returning to urban populated areas.

Thomas Mallon: I’ll be damned.

Robert Birnbaum: There are a couple of recent portrayals of McCarthy . One in particular  impressed me —Janet McTeer played her  in that Hannah Arendt film.[2]

Thomas Mallon: Which I haven’t seen; which I will see.

 

(the beginning  scene has Arendt and Mary McCarthy in conversation)

 

Robert Birnbaum: McTeer’s a wonderful actress and I hope her portrayal did her justice. So, the occasion for our conversation here is that you just published a book which is a historical fiction. I have to ask, how much of it is fiction?

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

 

 

Thomas Mallon: I would say probably about the same quotient, maybe a little higher quotient of fiction than in some of the previous ones. It’s a book that’s on roughly the same scale as Watergate  and it operates in largely the same way with about a half dozen point-of-view characters.

Robert Birnbaum: Right, but to me they were 3 really substantial characters’ points of view.

 

Finale by Thomas Mallon

Finale by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon:Yeah, there are 2 important characters who are purely fictional characters. Anne Macmurray, who’s revived from my old novel Dewey Defeats Truman—she was the ingenue of that—and this fellow Anders Little on the National Security Council. In Watergate there were only a handful of very minor characters who were fictional. Watergate was different, with this juggernaut plot. You had to go from the break-in to the pardon. This book is somewhat more diffuse. It’s more a portrait of an era than it is a single narrative. The subtitle was somewhat carefully chosen: A Novel of the Reagan Years. It’s not trying to unlock the mystery of Reagan or anything-

Robert Birnbaum: I have to backtrack …there are 4 major characters; I forgot about Nixon.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, Nixon in some ways; he’s my Alice Roosevelt Longworth in this book. He’s become the kind of aged one who’s seen it all. I guess I couldn’t let go of him.

Robert Birnbaum: In so many ways, he was fascinating.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I was surprised by a lot of things … Nixon and Reagan were in touch more often than I expected in the ’80s and the-

Robert Birnbaum: On whose initiative?

Thomas Mallon: Both, and that surprised me too. Nixon did not want to wear out his welcome but he would send memoranda to [Reagan’s] chief of staff, things like that. Reagan would call him up and they talked during Iran-Contra and Nixon makes no bones about it. “Apologize for the son-of-a-bitch and put it behind you. Learn the lesson I failed to.” I think Nixon had a … He knew Reagan had something and he had a certain respect for what Reagan was doing. I think he, at times, shook his head thinking that, from his point of view, things had come awfully easy to Reagan.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, right.  My impression, you don’t treat Reagan negatively, but  you cast this notion of him as being a cipher to so many people that they felt they sort of knew him and  also didn’t know him.

Thomas Mallon:Right, and I think you phrase it exactly. “Cipher” to so many people. I don’t consider him a cipher. I do think he was a formidable figure, but I do think there was a great deal of mystery to him. One of the things I decided almost immediately upon beginning this book was that I was not going to try to turn Reagan into a point-of-view character. I was not going to see anything from inside of him. I had no trouble doing that, or I felt I had no trouble doing that, with Nixon. I felt comfortable writing from Nixon’s point of view, but-

Robert Birnbaum: You didn’t feel comfortable doing it because-

Thomas Mallon: I didn’t feel comfortable at all because I think Reagan has defeated any number of biographers. Which is  not to say that they’ve necessarily been defeated by making an historical assessment of his presidency. Not that, but in terms of his personality they’ve been defeated. When I tried to see things from his point of view I never felt that I had put the skin on. There were times when he seemed very big to me; other times he seemed comically small. I was acutely aware of Edmund Morris’ s frustration with him. I even give Morris a scene with him in the book. I decided I would, to go back to Vidal, I would adopt his approach in Lincoln. He never gets inside Lincoln, it’s all from several different vantage points. I would do that, but I was not trying to render Reagan; I was trying to render the Reagan years. A time about which, politically, I was wildly ambivalent.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Good for you, good.  As opposed to being so proud of our Exceptionalism.

Thomas Mallon: That part I liked. I do think that Reagan had a lot to do with winning the Cold War. To me it was thrilling when his own national security adviser asked him, “What’s your view of the Cold War?” He said, “We win, they lose.” I thought, “Clarity, at last; as opposed to detail.” It was also, it was a time when I was burying my friends and would have liked to have heard a kind word from him about AIDS, you know?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, well. there were any number of those glaring disjunctions. I never worried about Russian tanks showing up on the Rio Grande.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, I did. The Soviets were truly on the march in the ’70s. Whether it was Angola or and then Afghanistan in 1980. The Soviets were extremely expansionist. Now, of course, it’s easy to say, “Oh, well-

Robert Birnbaum: It ruined them.

Thomas Mallon: It wouldn’t have ruined them if there hadn’t been some push-back. This book doesn’t offer any brief for Iran-Contra but I wouldn’t argue with every tactic and every bit of strategy. People said to me, “Why does Reagan come out … Why does he get off so easily with something like Iran-Contra?” I think it’s because of the Contra part of the scandal, whether you agreed with this tactic of fighting this proxy war or not. People view the scandal, a lot of them, as a blunder or even something pernicious but it was part of a much bigger thing. It was a part of the U.S.-Soviet opposition and, ultimately, he won that.

Robert Birnbaum: If you turn around the telescope, then, yeah, great. The Berlin Wall came down, peace dividends were being declared but I’m not that much interested in the fixing blame on historical personalities. I think the process … Some of the things that started to happen under, or suddenly become more visible, under that administrations really were toxic to the democratic process. I don’t care, having someone like Ollie North running around, having ambassadors who really were cowboys and had no … hey weren’t really answering to anyone. Therefore, you could have things like nuns being murdered in El Salvador. Did the United States really say that was okay? Did we really want that to happen?

Thomas Mallon: Now we have government by executive order.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, so-

Thomas Mallon: I don’t think the democratic process is in terrific shape under this chief executive.

Robert Birnbaum: Certainly the promised transparency is not there. You know what’s interesting to me on Reagan is that Richard Reeves*, for instance, who is not particularly sympathetic to Republicans, wrote not a sympathetic, but an understanding biography of Reagan-

Thomas Mallon: Reeves’s book is quite good, I think. As I said, Reagan himself is at the center but he’s the missing center of this book in a way.  It all swirls around him. I do think that in any administration, in any organization, people spend a lot of time trying to figure out the boss. They want to please the boss, they want to get ahead, etc. In his administration I think people spent an inordinate amount of time doing that. It may have lent it some odd kind of creative energy, along with some overreaching, because I think he baffled some of the people that he worked with. I’ve talked to other people who say, “No,” people who knew him.I had a brief phone conversation a couple weeks ago with George Will. He goes, “This remote stuff is very overrated. He was genial and what you saw was what you got,” and he said, “He had one friend and he married her.” My reaction to that was, “How ordinary is that? Who has one friend and marries the person?” Even Nixon had Bebe Robozo. I do think there was some mystery about Reagan, but I wanted, as always, I wanted to show him operating, the president operating, amidst a lot of accident, chance, fatefulness, opposition. We have Pamela Harriman as my sort of my comic…

Robert Birnbaum: I suspect she was a fun character to play with —a wild card.

Thomas Mallon:One of the reasons I think that Anne Macmurray came back laughs) was I realized I had Nancy Reagan and Pamela Harriman and I have to have a nice woman character among the main ones. The women characters have often run off with my books; I’ve noticed that. People talked a lot about that with Watergate. I didn’t set out to do that, but the women were very crucial in Watergate. I thought that they were, on the surface, they had some similarities, Nancy and Pamela. Nancy is this sort of-

Robert Birnbaum:Pamela, the way you presented her, was much smarter than Nancy. Nancy was shrewd but the scope of her general knowledge was limited

Thomas Mallon: Nancy, to me … I think the picture of her is sympathetic; she’s a raw nerve. I don’t think she enjoyed 10 minutes of the White House. Pamela is one of the least self-curious people ever. She’s just a predator, you know? She goes after one life after another. She’s kind of astonishing and is having this quite late third act.

Robert Birnbaum: Am I correct in assuming she wrote a memoir or autobiography or something?

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: No?

 

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon: There are 2 substantial biographies of her. She would have written a fabulous memoir. I think by the time she was ready to write it, she had inherited hundred million dollars and really didn’t need to.

Robert Birnbaum: Since she was not self-curious and had no financial need.

Thomas Mallon: It would not have been an introspective book. She had a tremendous desire for dignity. The really funny thing about her was she was an aristocrat. She was a Digby . Yet, throughout her life her reputation was for being a courtesan. Somebody who was trying to push her way into the respectable world,when in fact, it was the world she was born to.

Robert Birnbaum: In America, was she referred to as a courtesan?

Thomas Mallon: Oh, yeah; routinely.

Robert Birnbaum: I wasn’t aware that Americans recognized that position.

Thomas Mallon: When you say-

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what I mean?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. When you say, “in America,” certainly while she was operating in America she was still referred to as that. Maybe she was more often referred to that way by people who had known her in her European days. It’s an astonishing life but the funny thing, at the end, is that she really craves respectability. She really wanted her reward for everything she did for the Democrats. She has to wait until Bill Clinton to get it and then she gets the ambassadorship to Paris. She felt this kind of strange hunger for respectability even though she had been born into hyper-respectability. She had this kind of raffish early and middle life that she had to overcome.

 

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: As you began this book, how much was [Christopher] Hitchens [ 4]going to be a part of it?

Thomas Mallon: At the very beginning I didn’t have him in mind at all. Obviously, he occurred to me in fairly short order because he’s there throughout the whole book. I didn’t know Christopher in the time-

Robert Birnbaum: In that period.

Thomas Mallon: Of the book. I got to know Christopher—I didn’t meet him until well into the ’90s. I got to know him pretty well in the early 2000’s. At the time the novel is set, 1986, he’s always betwixt and between. Should he stay in the States, go back to England? Is he going to make his was through publications like Vanity Fair or The Nation? Is he going to stay in his first marriage or leave it, whatever? I thought I could plausibly deploy him into the narrative in a lot of ways, though he never did a  profile of Pamela Harriman [as the book purports].

Robert Birnbaum: Is that how you got information about Harriman —through him?

Thomas Mallon: No. I think to go back to what you were first asking about—how much is fiction, how much isn’t—I think that’s a good example of how I feel I can operate. I don’t operate at the extremes of historical fiction, which is alternate history fiction. Those books where the south wins the Civil War, things like that.

Robert Birnbaum: Bill O’Reilly’s-

Thomas Mallon: I think-

Robert Birnbaum: If one  could call them books.

Thomas Mallon: That doesn’t interest me. It has to be what are  Vidal’s   “agreed-upon facts”  that are adhered to. Then people say, “Why write fiction at all, why not write well-done biographies, things like that?” Obviously, there are ways it has an intimacy to it, historical fiction. There are ways to speculate about people…

Robert Birnbaum: Have you read any biographies of George Washington?

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: I haven’t either but I’m wondering how many of them refer to the fact that Washington was a real hound and would send his junior officers out so he could liaison with their wives. Is that something you think is … I think that’s the kind of thing, whether it’s true or not, that’s the kind of thing you can put in… that Vidal would put in a  story. I’m glad you brought him up because I think those American civilization novels, I think they’re 5?

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: They are better American history than many scholarly texts of the time.

Thomas Mallon: One big … Let me to try to organize my thoughts on this and I will return to him in one minute. In my own books I’m not going to change something like the chronology of the Reykjavik summit. Those negotiating sessions operate almost exactly…

Robert Birnbaum: I assume that.

Thomas Mallon: The stuff I will change is the smaller stuff that you can plausibly change. For instance, something like, was Hitchens at Reykjavik? No. But is it plausible for him to have been there? Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: Does it make a difference?

Thomas Mallon: Right, and it’s the sort of thing where the only way the reader is going to know that it’s fiction is if the reader looks it up and discovers, “No, there’s no record of him having been there,” things like that. That’s a rule of thumb.  It’s not what happened instead of the big things but what might have happened in addition to the big things. What might have happened behind the scenes, whatever. One difference I would say between me and Vidal, aside from the fact that he remains the maestro, is a … His works have a higher thematic content than mine do. He’s hugely working the thesis, the thesis of American empire, whatever. I’m more interested in serendipity, accident, quirks, telling a story. I think in that sense I’m operating more as a novelist than he is because there’s always a … He goes about more of the business of a historian than I do.

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

Robert Birnbaum: Nonetheless you have Truman that’s 1948, and Fellow Travelers covers the early ’50s, and Watergate, the late 60’s , early 70’s. I don’t remember was there a novel that’s set in the ’60s?

Thomas Mallon: Aurora 7, an early book but it’s not really political. Kennedy has a couple of scenes in it but it’s mostly my bildungsroman. It’s all set on the day  of Scott Carpenter’s space flight … Finale is dedicated to Scott, who died a couple of years ago.

Robert Birnbaum: Then Watergate and now this. One could say that’s sort of a kind of American history. Do you want to fill in anything?

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

 

Thomas Mallon: It is kind of a Republican saga. If you go back to Henry and Clara, you’ve got Lincoln-

Robert Birnbaum: My favorite of your books.

Thomas Mallon: Thank you.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s such a novel  perspective to look at Lincoln’s assassination from.

Thomas Mallon: Also, now that I think of it, the Hayes administration in Two Moons—another Republican administration. I am now writing —and it’s so close that I don’t know that you’d be able to call it historical fiction—about the George W. Bush years.

Robert Birnbaum: Is it fiction?

Thomas Mallon:It’s fiction, yeah. A novel called Landfall. I always seem to throw these presidents into the soup. I have them at their lowest points. Reagan here; Nixon during Watergate; and the Bush book is mostly set in ’05, ’06—Katrina, the Iraq insurgency, everything.  I also want to go back to the Civil War one more time. I’ve sold these next two books as proposals and the one thing they said was … I was going to do the Civil War book first. They said, “No, we want you to flip them, and we want you to do the Bush book first and complete the trilogy.” I didn’t know I was writing one. They see Watergate, Finale and the Bush book. To use the phrase that DH Lawrence used dismissively about Ulysses—he said, “It’s so on purpose”—I think my books, in some intellectual, thematic way,  are less “on purpose” than Vidal’s were. I don’t have a point to prove about the country.

Robert Birnbaum: They’re not quite Teddy White’s Making of the President.

Robert Birnbaum: As they say, Vidal had cojones. He believed in himself, yes, and-

Thomas Mallon: He was unfailingly nice to me, too. Jay Parini’s biography of him is about to come out.

Robert Birnbaum: Parini is executor of his estate, I think.

Thomas Mallon: Yes, Jay knew him very, very well. I didn’t know him nearly as well. I have to say I was always—in some ways I was scared of getting to know him any better because, I thought, if I do, at some point I’m going to feel the lash. There’ll be the falling out, there’ll be-

Robert Birnbaum: I hear you.  How are you feeling about the city on the hill these days?

Thomas Mallon: Somebody asked, “You going to do a novel about Trump if he goes all the way?” I said, “It’s already a novel.” I wish he would recede quickly. I’m not sure it’s going to happen now. I still think … I do not think he’s going to go the distance. I don’t think he’s going to go the distance to the nomination. On the other hand, I am a terrible prognosticator.

Robert Birnbaum: What is the possibility that the American public becomes disenchanted with him?

 

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, they become disenchanted with a lot of people, so why not with him?  It would be really different if he were 1 of 4, you know? The fact that he’s 1 of 16 or whatever it is, and that a dozen of them are almost completely unknown to the public, is what’s made the race more ridiculous than it would have been otherwise. I think the best thing that could happen to the Republican party right now would be for half of these people running to get out immediately.

Robert Birnbaum: This interesting thing about the status of Ronald Reagan within the Republican party, for me, is that these aspiring politicians really don’t have a grasp of who he was . But he’s given them the confidence to think that they could be president of the United States. Honestly, I look at that group and I would like them to explain, what makes them think they are qualified to be president?

Thomas Mallon:Certainly, Reagan had business running for president; a 2-term governor of California has the chops for it. He did raise the appropriate age so that if Biden gets in we’re going to have the altacocker  primary in the Democratic party, I mean between Bernie and Hillary and Biden. Reagan did that. I’m sure I would get different opinions, but I would argue that nobody did more to lower the credentials factor for the presidency than Barack Obama.  I’m not wild about the idea of electing people who have been in the Senate for a couple years—3 years, whatever it was—as president. I’ve often said this to people:  “I hold Barack Obama responsible for Sarah Palin.”

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs)

Thomas Mallon:I was not a fan of Governor Palin, but do you remember much talk when she was picked by John McCain?  Do you remember much talk of, “God, McCain’s going to put somebody a heartbeat away from the presidency who’s been governor of Alaska for a year and a half?”  They couldn’t do it, the Democrats couldn’t make that point because of Obama.

Robert Birnbaum: Why would they need to?  She was self-discrediting.

Thomas Mallon: You have all of these first-term Senators running. I rather like Rubio, I will say that. But I think something’s wrong.

Robert Birnbaum: Except these  guys are talking  pie-in-the-sky economics and that they— are going make the American worker ,who’s being screwed by the Democrats, they’re going to make their lives better for them. Really, with their voodoo economics? Their  supply side economics and deficit austerity?

Thomas Mallon: You see, Robert, now you’re getting into issues, and I hate that part of politics.

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

Thomas Mallon: I would much rather … If I were truly interested in issues I’d be a historian, but it’s personalities …

Robert Birnbaum: Its no longer  about experience  in governance as much … I don’t think you can argue that he’s not a very smart man.

Thomas Mallon: Who?

Robert Birnbaum: Obama.

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: That he’s a quick read and that he does have respect for history. In fact , look at the disenchantment by left Democrats. Obama’s a centrist all the way. Bringing Goldman Sachs people into the economic advisory mix, what makes him radical? The right  calls him a socialist …

Thomas Mallon: I can’t see him as a centrist but I know the point you’re making.

Robert Birnbaum:  What operating room do you have if the opposition says, from day one,”We’re gong to do everything we can to make sure he’s a 1-term president.” How do you negotiate? Govern?

Thomas Mallon: As opposed to the gigantic elbow room the Democrats gave Reagan throughout the ’80s? Come on. The Republicans gave Obama the stimulus he asked for.

Robert Birnbaum: The Tip O’Neill-Ron Reagan ‘friendship  was just a myth?

Thomas Mallon: I think it’s overblown, I do. Others will argue differently. There’s that Chris Matthews book about the whole thing. I don’t think either one liked the other.

Robert Birnbaum: Chris Matthews?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: My, my.

Thomas Mallon: You know, Jesse Jackson used to say, “I would rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse.” I would have to say that, because of the basic sense he had of what he wanted to do with the presidency, I would rather have Ronald Reagan at the beginning of geriatric exhaustion—I’m not saying senility—

Robert Birnbaum: Right, got you.

Thomas Mallon: At the beginning of his geriatric exhaustion, than Obama at the head of the Law Review.

Robert Birnbaum: That does point to the fact that there’s this whole bouillabaisse of credentials and characteristics that one would think make a good president but you really don’t know what the mixture is. It’s a mystery, right?

Thomas Mallon: Right, and you really don’t know what opportunities they’re going to have to use the better parts of themselves, you know? I think it’s … It won’t be me but Obama would certainly be interesting for a novelist. Much more interesting than Clinton.

Robert Birnbaum: What about someone like Ulysses S. Grant for whom, I think, his historical stature is being revised . He’s been rehabilitated. I don’t think Americans know his story, they think he was a drunk and a crook, you know? How many people do you think have read his memoirs which I am  told are quite good?

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

 

Thomas Mallon: Very few.

Robert Birnbaum: …and were published by Mark Twain, right?

Thomas Mallon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Birnbaum: And then Eisenhower, I don’t think … He turned out to be, looked like a much better president today than he was when people were laughing at his golfing and his lack of polish as a public speaker.

Thomas Mallon:  It’s amazing that the United States has this 10-year stretch with two of the most baroque personalities ever as president— Johnson and Nixon, with their incredible complexities. And then it goes Main Street with Jerry Ford.

Robert Birnbaum: That was sort of accidental. He would have never been elected.

Thomas Mallon: He came close. Clinton would not interest me as a novelist because while Clinton is complicated, yes; everybody’s always talking about Clinton as being compartmentalized, whatever. I don’t think he’s the least bit mysterious.  Can see the different compartments, you know? Obama, is  a much more opaque figure. Much harder to read, harder to get at.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a duo, a comedy due called Key & Peele. They have a  routine where they have an anger  translator for Obama.And Obama brought him to the last White House Correspondent’s dinner

Thomas Mallon: Suppressed anger, I think, is fascinating. I always thought and continue to think, even as I wish him well in his current state of ill health, that Jimmy Carter was a very angry man beneath the surface. Very angry and resentful.

Robert Birnbaum: Is he a Baptist or Methodist ?

Thomas Mallon: Baptist, I think.

Robert Birnbaum:A  more  austere form of Protestantism?

Robert Birnbaum: Well he did  a good job of anger management didn’t he?

Thomas Mallon:That’s the thing, though.  Anger management is not the same thing as anger suppression, because anger management entails letting it out as appropriate, you know? I would be interested to know just how cool Barack Obama really is or how much anger he suppresses. What he’s angry about? I think that it might be something entirely different from what we think. It’s not for me, but I think there’s good material for a novelist there and-

Robert Birnbaum: In all these cases you have a very volatile world setting. There’s lots of stuff going on that you can pull out to deal with. Has anyone talked about making a movie out of any of the books? You optioned?

Thomas Mallon: Say that louder. The options come and go. They don’t buy up properties with the alacrity they used to. Hollywood has the same kind of cautionary chill about it that publishing has now. Henry and Clara options have come and gone. Dewey Defeats Truman was not only optioned, it was bought. I paid for half of my house in Connecticut with it and then they never made it. They could still make it. It was a period piece to begin with.

Robert Birnbaum: What I notice is this expansion of the scope of what the so called cable industry and HBO, Showcase, A & E. They’re making things they’re … The HBO special that David Simon just did [Show Me A Hero]. Can you imagine somebody actually making a movie about the housing crisis in Yonkers?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I would much prefer if somebody were going to film this. My strong preference would be to have it done for television in 8 parts or something. I think that would be a much closer match to the construction of the novel. Television is doing such interesting things with narrative right now. Much more so, I think, than film.

Robert Birnbaum: I think I find myself reading somewhat less and watching more of these extended series. When it comes down to it, my interest in stories, good stories.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, right.

Robert Birnbaum: The streaming services are  a great reservoir of  wonderful movies but, again, in terms of commercial interest, starting with the Sopranos and the Wire , producers  are buying into getting writers writing good stories; investing —like Nick Pizolatto, His True Detective [at least season one][5]was genius.

Thomas Mallon: In terms of adaptation, something like Wolf Hall. If you were going to do Wolf Hall, to me the proper way to do it was the way it was done on television.

Robert Birnbaum: Right,  I don’t know about you but I couldn’t read the book but I thought the dramatization was fabulous. The lead actor Mark Rylance, just perfect.

Thomas Mallon: I like the book, I’ve never read the second one, the one that came after. Maybe I will at some point

Robert Birnbaum: Also the  BBC  did a splendid job on William Boyd’s [novel ]Any Given Heart.[6]  It’s about a writer’s life, from about 1910 I think up until the ’60s or ’70s. 3 It’s just a wonderful story and again, ist based on a worthy text

Thomas Mallon: The single, greatest television experience I have ever had—and I remember the first run of the Honeymooners as a rug rat in the mid-’50s—the greatest television experience I ever had was Deadwood. If you have not seen Deadwood…

Robert Birnbaum:  I have seen Deadwood and I read Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name. There was a piece on the HBO series producer David Milch in the New Yorker. I don’t remember if they referenced Dexter’s skepticism about Milch’s claim  saying he never read Dexter’s book.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, really?  It was one of those things where after a couple of episodes I still wasn’t in the groove with it. I’m thinking, “Am I going to commit to this?” or whatever. Then I got past that crucial point very much as you often have to do with a novel. “Now, I’m in; I’m investing,” whatever. After that, I just felt the whole thing was so audacious, so atmospheric. It just, it didn’t build and build in a narrative way, it didn’t build and build to the climax of the story, but it deepened and deepened and deepened.

Robert Birnbaum: I always loved John Hawkes[plays Sol Star in Deadwood]. Do you know his work? He does  a lot of comedy but in Winter’s Bone he’s resoundingly sinister.

Thomas Mallon: A little bit, yeah. The main character, Al Swearengen, there was a part of him that reminded me of my old boss Art Cooper.

Robert Birnbaum: I think the next time I saw Swearingen was in some odd NBC special about some futuristic kingdom where he’s the king.  Have you seen Winter’s Bone?

Thomas Mallon: No, I know what it is, though.

Robert Birnbaum: It takes place in a hard scrabble Ozarks, really tough people with their own code, insular; 2 really interesting characters. Based on a novel written by a wonderful writer,  Daniel Woodrell credited with creating “redneck noir”.   Are you engaged in this book tour for some period of time? Is it a distraction? Is it hard for you?

Thomas Mallon: No, it’s not steady…

Robert Birnbaum: You’re going to tell me you’re glad they asked you because…

Thomas Mallon: Actually, yes. It would be wrong to say anything else. It’s a little bit different; it’s more broken up than it used to be. In the old days they put you out on the road for a long time. I go home tomorrow and then I’m at home for 10 days; then I go to St. Louis. Then I’m at home for a week and I go to New York.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s good. There will have been time for people to actually read the book?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, over a couple of months it adds up to a lot.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s smart.

Thomas Mallon: Then there’ll be a California leg of it, whatever. I still, I’m always keeping my journalistic life afloat. The truly hair-raising aspect of this week was not just the traveling, not just waiting on reviews. I had to close a piece for the New Yorker this week. From the hotel room in Texas and then at my apartment in New York, I was on the phone with the fact-checkers and getting proof after proof after proof. I’m a nervous closer even during a slow week at home, so my hands have been shaky.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s the state of writing, too.  Writers used to say, “I never write on the road.” Now people are forced to  write on the road.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, I couldn’t actually write on the road but I have to do other stuff on the road. One of the things that I’ve also noticed is a bit of a change in my non-fiction life. I think I’m writing … I’m still writing literary criticism, but I’m writing more about politics and political books that I’m used to. This piece I just closed was about The Drew Pearson Diaries from the 1960s

Robert Birnbaum: He was an influential columnist-

Thomas Mallon: Incredibly so, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: In the  Washington Post, right?  There were a handful of those guys, also Lippmann, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson?

Thomas Mallon: Anderson was Pearson’s assistant. Until he took over the column. Lippmann and people like Joe Alsop—they were sort of these mandarins of commentary. Although Anderson also had some reporting in his column. Lippmann was very much speaking ex cathedra but Pearson was the Washington equivalent of the Hollywood gossip columnist. A lot of digging, and the diaries are really fascinating. It’s odd, a volume of them covering the ’50s was edited 40 years ago. This volume covering the ’60s is only coming out now. What they really show is the degree to which he operated as somebody seeking political influence behind the scenes. He was often rounding up Senate votes on something. You would think he was the majority whip rather than a columnist; a very interesting dynamic compared to what we have today. And so, in a sense, maybe there’s more overlap between the 2 kinds of writing I am doing, fiction and non-fiction, than there used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow, time flies, as usual it’s been a pleasure.

Thomas Mallon: Same here.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m glad we’re both still walking and talking.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, a little more stiffly but still doing it.

 

##############

 

1 The Kid Turns Seventy:And  No one Cares —The Weekly Standard

2 Trailer for Hannah Arendt

3 Conversation with Richard Reeves

4  Identitytheory conversation with Christopher Hitchens

5 True Detective / Season 1 trailer

6 Any Human Heart Episode 1

Talking with Mary Karr

4 Nov
Philo, aka Philo of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria,

Philo, aka Philo of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria,

… Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare…Mary Karr

Some two decades I was delighted to read Mary Karr’s literary debut, Liars Club, so named after her raconteur father’s group of story-telling friends. And I did sit down and converse with her about her East Texas life and upbringing and matters to do with writing a book about a “terrific family of liars and drunks … redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.” A number of poetry collections and two memoirs — Lit:A Memoir and Cherry:A Memoir—later, Ms Karr has recently published, The Art of Memoir.

As it happens I was able to catch up with poet and Syracuse mentor Karr recently, for a pleasant and digressive chat on, of course, writing memoirs, her recent turn to music , the proposed film treatment of her initial memoir, Liar’s Club, her mother and her wide ranging experiences including coaching Little League baseball.

Here is a snippet from her Mary Karr Thinks You Shouldn’t Google Yourselfher recent interview with Ann- Marie Cox

You are friends with a lot of today’s memoirists. Have you ever appeared in another person’s memoir?

Oh, I’ve appeared in all kinds of [expletive].

What’s that experience like for you?

Well, obviously, I would like my every portrait to be of me dispensing food to the poor. Believe it or not, I’m actually not that interested in representation of myself in other people’s writing. I’ve also never Googled myself. It wouldn’t occur to me to do so. It’s the same reason I don’t watch pornography. It’s not that I occupy some moral high ground. I just think: Down that road lies madness.

As someone who reveals so much, is there a time that an interviewer has gone too far with you?

Oh, yeah, but I have no problem saying, ‘‘I’m not going to discuss that.’’ I would never talk about anybody’s penis. You can ask me about my relationship with David Wallace all you like; I’m not going to talk about his penis.

That’s one of the least interesting things about any man, really.

If only they knew that.

Mary Karr: I was just on with Terry Gross. She’s really a good interviewer, I’ve got to say. You never know what she’s going to ask you. She always makes me think… You don’t know—you probably do know, but when you go out on the road now, the people who used to interview you were book people, you know? Michael Silverblatt,[The Book Worm at KCRW](1) or somebody like that. Real bookworms. Now you get some chirpy, twenty-five-year-old who says, “What would your ad for your book be?” I’m like, “Well, I wouldn’t write an ad for my book.”

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a hilarious book trailer for Alan Arkin,(2) the actor, who has also written a couple of memoirs. It opens up with him laying in a hotel room bed ,it’s 6:00 … the phone rings, he fumbles for the phone, picks up the phone. It’s a guy from the radio station, wants to do an interview, which Arkin hadn’t even known about. ..the radio guy proceeds to ask questions that make clear he doesn’t know who Arkin is or that he has even looked at the book…

Mary Karr: …The way I look at it, these people are doing you a favor. You’re always responsible for ponying up.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s very nice. You’re never put off by somebody’s ignorance?

Mary Karr: No, I don’t mind people who haven’t read the book.Somebody like that is just stupid, actively stupid. You don’t have to have read The Art of Memoir to have three or four questions about memoir. How do you deal with your family? Those are normal questions— a normal person would want to know the answer to those questions. [It’s]Just a total absence of curiosity. It’s hard to be an interviewer when you’re not curious.

Robert Birnbaum: A propos of nothing, where is Mark Costello today [David Foster Wallace’s best friend](3)?

Mary Karr:He lives in New York City, he’s married to somebody I fixed him up on a blind date with, Nan Graham, who’s a big editor at Scribner. They’ve got two kids. I fixed him up on a blind date like twenty years ago.

Robert Birnbaum: I see. Because I talked to him in 2002 and he had published a novel and hadn’t heard of him since.

Mary Karr:Yeah,Big If, which is a terrific book. I think he teaches at Fordham Law School.

Robert Birnbaum: Has he written or published anything since?

Mary Karr: He’s finishing a novel now. I mean, he’s the dad of two kids and he teaches full-time, and his wife is high-powered enough that he gets a lot of the kid duties. I love Mark. One of the great human beings.

 Mary Karr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Mary Karr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: When you write a book called the Art of Memoir, who are you thinking will want to read it?

Mary Karr: You know, it’s funny, people think of it as a how-to book, but the how-to stuff is kind of peppered in. I want to say maybe eighteen percent of it is how-to, maybe eighteen percent of it is a memoir about writing memoir, because people do ask me, “How did your family react?” Anybody with a family imagines how you deal with your beloveds, you know? But I think it is also, in a way, for anybody with an inner life, anybody who ponders how what’s happened to them is affecting how they see the world. Trying to determine what’s true and what isn’t true and what’s real and what’s not real in the course of your day. I have a big inner life and I am always … my tendency is to project onto the landscape what I want to see. I’m like an all-giving loving saint and everybody else is an asshole, but …

philo

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know of the old Jew, Philo of Alexandria? Have you heard of him?

Mary Karr: No, I mean I know the name. He had the library, right?

Robert Birnbaum: I came across a quote of his, and I thought it was a very Dalai Lama like, “Be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone in life is going through a great battle.”

Mary Karr: That’s exactly right.

Robert Birnbaum:I thought of that when I was reading the latter part of your speech at Syracuse,(4) which, by the way, I think an excellent speech. I think some commencement speeches are a new literary genre. There’s are some great commencement speeches by writers, by novelists and writers.

Mary Karr:Steve Jobs also did a great one. I think.

Robert Birnbaum: I was focusing at writers. I put Aaron Sorkin in that group…

Mary Karr: He was also at Syracuse. He gave a really good speech.

Robert Birnbaum:I started noticing with the David Foster Wallace/Kenyon College speech, and then I started seeing others. George Saunders.(6)

Mary Karr:George Saunders’ speech—to me, that’s the pinnacle. That’s as good a commencement speech as I’ve ever heard.

Robert Birnbaum:In the first three lines of yours you said something like, “Memoir takes you from a scary place, it’s a zip line to a truer place,”

Mary Karr:Poetry. Not memoir but poetry. That poetry hopefully takes you to a truer place. I mean, all art should, right? Any art should take you somewhere truer.

Robert Birnbaum: Your speech can stand alone…it’s the kind of piece that would be included in David Shields’s anthology, Fakes.(7) All these odds and ends— a letter from George Saunders, customer relations department. All these odd writings, somebody’s laundry list, you know? But they all seem to become literary, you know?

Fakes edited by David Shelds

Fakes edited by David Shelds

Mary Karr:That’s very funny. That’s a great … And David Shields edited it?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, Here’s the thing, I’m not inclined to read memoirs. I’m not hungry for them. I read yours, but it turns out if you wrote an instruction manual on how to assemble a tricycle, I be inclined to read it…

Mary Karr:That’s so nice. I’m not much of a writer, but I’m a dogged little re-writer. Everything I have written is about as good as I can make it.

Robert Birnbaum:I gave particular credence to your first chapter and your last chapter, so I hear you.

Mary Karr:Don’t you wish more people rewrote?

Robert Birnbaum: One forgives people for their infelicitous writing.

Mary Karr:Sure, of course, you’ve got to. I mean, journalists or people writing on a deadline, that’s a different kind of writing.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?

Mary Karr:Everybody makes that distinction, I don’t. I don’t think there is a distinction. I think they’re the same thing. I think there are good memoirs and bad memoirs. I think when they think of a one-off, I think the way it’s used when people make the distinction, is when it’s some film star with fake boobs tells her tale of woe. They think of that as an autobiography, and then they think of somebody who does a literary thing as a memoir. But that’s just using a French word for … I think they’re the same thing. There’s just good ones and bad ones.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. I hesitate to make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, although I know there’s a hard line. I say this is because, I think Gore Vidal’s Empire series is as good a history of the United States as any.

Mary Karr: Really funny.
.
Robert Birnbaum: So, do you want to read David Herbert Donald or other biographers on Lincoln? Or do you want to read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln?

Mary Karr: Yeah, it’s true. I’ve read a lot of books on Lincoln. I love reading about Lincoln.

Robert Birnbaum:I was thinking, besides Jesus Christ, I think Lincoln has the second most amount of books written about him. How many memoirs do you have in you?

Mary Karr:Exactly. I don’t know. Maybe I have as many books as there are advances publishers are dumb enough to give me. All those books, after The Liar’s Club, I wrote the proposal for that book, but every other book, including this one, I wrote because somebody called and offered me money for them.

Robert Birnbaum: Good for you.

Mary Karr: That’s not a bad reason to write a book.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s also pretty flattering.

Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum:That does remove a little bit of the anxiety about whether or not the publisher is going to support the book once they publish it.

Mary Karr: Right, that’s true. If you can gouge them for enough money, then maybe they’ll try to do it. Yeah, but then your editor leaves and other people have other problems, so …

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have much contact with the publishing world, and the business of books? When you have completed and delivered the book, while you’re writing the book, do you have contact?

Mary Karr:I have a wonderful editor, and certainly for this book, she really helped me think about how to shape it and put it together.

Robert Birnbaum:So it wasn’t you wrote the book and presented it to her, you start crying and saying, “Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit,” and then you call her.

Mary Karr:Right. With this book. Well, I say, “Shit, shit, fuck, shit,” for every book.

Robert Birnbaum: I gathered that.

Mary Karr: Every book is like that. I’m always in a state of torment. She and I basically did a bunch of outlines back and forth over about a four month period. I would work on one and then send it to her, and then she really helped me, the outline that she gave me isn’t how the book ended up, but George Saunders actually helped me a lot, to structure The Art of Memoir.

Robert Birnbaum: One of the things I thought about in reading your,what might be construed as a manual sort of, is that you are suggesting that everyone may have a memoir in them, but not necessarily a book.

Mary Karr:I think, I really believe, as I say in the book, that the most privileged person in any room, as I said in that speech, suffers the torments of the damned. Just like you said, they’re engaged in a great struggle. Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare. Not everybody is going to be a good enough writer to write a great one, but I think certainly in terms of … I think I said I’m always amazed when I’m on an airplane, yes, by the people who you meet who are boring, but also by boring people who you meet who become interesting when they talk with great feeling. Do you know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:You never know. I agree with your notion of truth, that there is something, there is a truth that makes everyone, when someone encounters something they think is true, it really does refresh one with great energy. It’s a good place to land.

Mary Karr: Right.

Robert Birnbaum:It may be sort of counter intuitive to the way human beings are constructed. My judgment about, my sense of human behavior is that many people are continuously running away from the truth or pursuit of truths?

Mary Karr: Well, let’s say all of us are running away from the truth. The fact that we’re all going to die, and we’re not all screaming every second of day, is running away from the truth in a way. I think we all are.

Robert Birnbaum: How old are you?

Mary Karr:Sixty.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you find yourself thinking about aging? Will that be the next memoir?

Mary Karr: People keep asking me—Terry Gross just asked me this, two smart people. I don’t know, I don’t have any plans. I don’t know, I’m trying to finish a book of poems.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you think a lot about it?

Mary Karr: More so since I turned sixty. I never really, I thought about it as anybody does, but …I’m not in the middle of anything. When you’re sixty you’re not going to live to be 120, so you can’t bullshit yourself.

Robert Birnbaum: Sixty is the new forty.

Mary Karr:You might live to be eighty, but you’re not going to live to be 120, so it becomes a different thing when you can’t double it, when you don’t have that much left. You’re definitely on the losing end of it. I play all kind of games with myself where I say, “I sort of became a person when I was thirty, so I probably don’t have another thirty years left in me, but maybe I have another twenty.” You know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Joseph Epstein, wrote a piece when he was seventy,(8) talking about, it was a take-off on film producer Robert Evans’s memoir/autobiography The Kid Stays in The Picture . Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned Seventy. He said every time he has a birthday he just wants ten more years. It seems like a reasonable figure to ask for.

Mary Karr:I think that’s the way I feel. Instead of people thinking I want another fifty years, I do think if I could just make it to seventy I will have accomplished something.

Mary Karr: How old are you?

Robert Birnbaum: 68—two thirds of a century.

Mary Karr: Do you think about it?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes. I don’t feel my age at all, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I see people who are younger who are in terrible shape. Can hardly walk, have blank facial expressions and flat affects… I do a lot of stuff,umpire little league, work the sticks at home high school football games, walk my dog regularly..

Mary Karr: What a great thing to do. I bet that’s a great thing to do. I coached little league, and I always said it was one of the great spiritual experiences of my life. It was really one of the funniest things I ever did in my life.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Being around ten-year-olds on a regular basis. Plus, I get to push them around.

Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a lot of fun doing that, but it’s hard to be a good umpire.

Mary Karr: It’s hard to know what’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a test, you know? A 68-year-old guy who can still bend down over 100 times in two hours and remember things from instant to instant while attending to countless other things …

Mary Karr:It’s testing your short-term memory all the time, which is deteriorating.

Robert Birnbaum:I don’t know what your worst fears is, but one of my worst fears is losing my sentience.

Mary Karr: Your marbles?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, and even my memory, you know?

Mary Karr:I remember stuff so well, I kind of aspire to it. I have way too good a memory. I wish I could forget more. I’m better at it now.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m amazed at what I remember. Especially when a smell triggers something.

Mary Karr:That’s the amazing thing, right? It’s the most primitive sense.

Robert Birnbaum:You smell something and you go back forty years.

Mary Karr:It’s in your snake brain. No, it is. It’s like the most primitive part of you, smells.

Robert Birnbaum:I think I’d be willing to say we don’t forget anything. It’s not a question of forgetting. Everything we need to encounter is somewhere there, but the ability to access it.

Mary Karr:Yeah, that’s a problem.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.I’m amazed sometimes at the distinctive, vivid way that I remember stuff.

Mary Karr:Oh yeah. And especially the further back the more vivid often, right?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, yeah.

Mary Karr: I know, me too.

Robert Birnbaum: How much do you still recall the life that you talked about in The Liar’s Club? Is that still vivid to you?

Mary Karr: I think the traumatic memories remain very lucid, because they’re probably stored in another part of the brain, actually. You now how when people who have strokes, they keep all the curse words. You’ll often hear, go in the nursing home, you’ll hear cursing . It’s because those emotions— my daddy, when he had a stroke, if the World at War came on or something, and there was all this World War II stuff, he would say, “Cannons your tank, ” and he couldn’t say yes or no. He would say, “General Montgomery.” He would name, “Luftwaffe.” He could say things from having been in the war. Those memories, he couldn’t say he wanted a cup of juice or not, but I think those things seared in your brain meat from a very emotional time. I always say you remember the most important things to you. Things that are most important to you, to who you are.

Robert Birnbaum: Do people remember their funnest, wonderfullest, most loving moments in their life?

Mary Karr: People unlike us do. Regular people do. We don’t. We remember all the … Every time we were knocked in the dirt. Exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: You mentioned a time in your family when it was somewhat healed ?

Mary Karr:I think we were as healed as we could’ve been without everybody going into therapy. But I mean, I think to the extent that we took care of aging parents and buried people, showed up and did stuff, kids went to graduations, that’s pretty healed for a family like mine.

Robert Birnbaum: It was your mother, father and your sister. Did you count your mother’s husbands?

Mary Karr:No.

Robert Birnbaum: Once they left …

Mary Karr: Gone, that was the end of it.

Robert Birnbaum:How about your mother? Did she maintain memories of past husbands?

Mary Karr: Not that she ever shared. I think they were dismissed by my mother. I think once she divorced she opens that door and…

Robert Birnbaum: She had seven husbands?

Mary Karr: I know, right? Who know how many? There were seven she told us about.

Robert Birnbaum: And you didn’t lose touch with her once you started going to school, moved to Minnesota.

Mary Karr: It’s weird, I still, for much of my life, when I could afford it, I talked to her every day. She was an interesting person.

Robert Birnbaum: Sounds like.

Mary Karr: Not a great mother as a mother, but she’s very smart and she was curious. She was extremely curious and could be very charming. She was fun to talk to.

Robert Birnbaum: How is it that your mother and your father met?

Mary Karr:She had a flat tire. Yeah, I think she had a flat tire and he came out to fix it and …

Robert Birnbaum:That was it.

Mary Karr: That was it.

Robert Birnbaum: Did he charm her, do you think?

Mary Karr:I think they charmed each other. I think they both charmed each other. He was labor organizing then, working class hero. Handsome, kind of Clark Gable-type guy.

Robert Birnbaum: And told good stories.

Mary Karr:Tells good stories. A lot of fun to be with. She was beautiful and wild, I think it was like seeing a great thoroughbred somewhere.

Kin Songs by Mary KArr & Rodney Crowell

Kin Songs by Mary KArr & Rodney Crowell

Robert Birnbaum: What is your foray into songwriting and recording about, is that a one-time thing (9)?

Mary Karr: No, I have at least one song on Rodney’s Christmas album, and he and I have worked on a couple of other songs. We’re actually meeting tomorrow night to talk … I think we’re going to get together this winter and work on another album.

Robert Birnbaum: Where do you do it, in Syracuse?

Mary Karr:No, no. He’s in Nashville. We mostly met on the road though. He and I were both on the road, and so I’d be in Berkeley, he’d be in San Francisco, we’d meet. Or I’d be in LA, he’d be in Orange County, we’d meet in some hotel. Or I would go stay with him and his wife down in Nashville, or he would come to New York a lot, quite a bit. So wherever we were, found ourselves, we’d work on the side. We did a lot on the phone too.He would call me and send a recording of a guitar thing, and then I’d call him back, and we’d go back and forth and then we’d arrange to meet.

Robert Birnbaum: Who do you like singing your songs?

Mary Karr: I had so many great people sing my songs. I’ll be honest with you, there’s nobody who did a shitty job. There’s really nobody who did a shitty job. I mean, I think Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill, Kris Kristopherson, Rodney, Lee Ann Womack, I mean, it doesn’t get much better, Rosanne Cash. Couldn’t get much better than that lineup.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s true. Does that fuel your interest or urge in writing more songs, doing more music?

Mary Karr:Yeah. I would love to do it. It was really fun. The fun part was going on the road with the band. That was really fun. I did that for a couple of weeks. That was the most fun I ever had.

Robert Birnbaum: How did you do that and stay sober?

Mary Karr: Rodney doesn’t drink.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, but musicians are known to drink and such. What did you do?

Mary Karr: His musicians he travels with, don’t.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the fun part of being on the road?

Mary Karr: They call it playing.

Robert Birnbaum: Oh, the playing is the fun part?

Mary Karr: It’s fun, and also you’re traveling. You’re with the band, you’re in a band where the .. He has very smart, interesting musicians play with him. He doesn’t have just anybody. Stuart Smith is a guitar player for the Eagles now. He’s an incredible classically trained guitar player, an incredibly smart human being. He reads everything. His crew … It’s not like being with the drummer from AC/DC. It’s not a lot of booze and girls. It’s a lot of smart people reading books and talking about them. I’m sure it was a lot of booze and girls …and coke [at one time].

Poster from Kinetic Playground Chicago  circa 1969

Poster from Kinetic Playground Chicago circa 1969

Robert Birnbaum: Well I can tell you about tne music scene because after I graduated college, I worked in one of the first, sort of. psychedelic dungeons[like the Fillmore] in Chicago, it was called the Kinetic Playground, and every big group at that time played there …

Mary Karr: Psychedelic dungeon?

Robert Birnbaum: Uh huh. I took drugs as part of a regular diet of loud music, late nights and mindless sex…

Mary Karr:So did I. But that’s the name of a memoir. Psychedelic Dungeon, that’s a great memoir title.

Robert Birnbaum:The first time that Led Zeppelin played in America, they played there, Santana, everybody… you know.

Mary Karr:Wow, Santana.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That was my experience. And then the drugs, of course.

Mary Karr: And then the drugs.

Robert Birnbaum: You weren’t in Plainfield, Vermont (Goddard College) in 71 were you?

Mary Karr: I was in Plainfield, Vermont in ’78.

Robert Birnbaum: I attended the now famous Alternative Media Conference there in ’71 or ’72.(10 It was just outlandish and unfettered and hopeful…

Mary Karr: That’s the way things used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: I had never really taken Goddard seriously. I didn’t get a sense of there there. It seemed so ethereal.

Mary Karr: It was, it was. I still remember Ray Carver, there was a little pond, and there were these women who would go shirtless in their kayak. The pond was from here to the back of the deli, and they would paddle back and forth about thirty yards. It was the strangest thing, with no shirts on. Ray just couldn’t get over it. He called them the Nudie Veggies. That’s what Goddard was like. When you read the list of professors I studied with there, they’re all MacArthur Fellows, you know, Bob Hass, Charlie Simic, it’s nuts … Heather McHugh, they’re all amazing.

Robert Birnbaum: You were lucky in the people that you ran into as a student.

Mary Karr: Unbelievably lucky, unbelievably lucky. Geoffrey and Tobias [Wolff]. Frank Conroy was there. In terms of memoir, that was probably one of the planet’s most interesting conversations about. Three memoirs of that caliber, in one spot, you’d be hard to come by.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. I never read Stop-Time [by Frank Conroy], but I did feel like his …

Mary Karr:You have to read Stop-Time. It’s so good.

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, okay. I read his novel and I really liked his essays.

Mary Karr: His essays were great.

Robert Birnbaum:The Dogs Bark and the Caravan Rolls On, that kind of thing. Just thought that was spot on.

Mary Karr:I liked it too.

Robert Birnbaum: He interviewed Keith Jarrett, and he asked him how he prepared, and Jarrett says, “I walk out on the stage and I sit down on the piano, and I try to clear my mind of everything. No, I don’t want any notes in my head. I just want to not think about [what I am going to do]. That approach to doing something …

Mary & Rodney Crowell [photo: Debra Feingold]

Mary & Rodney Crowell [photo: Debra Feingold]

Mary Karr:Takes some big brass ones. That’s how Rodney is. Rodney is very … I mean, he’s not a jazz musician, but he hates to put together a set list. He’d rather just go out there and play what hits him.

Robert Birnbaum:Has he worked on any movies?

Mary Karr: No, but he just was music director in the new Hank Williams movie.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the name?

Mary Karr:I can’t remember.

Robert Birnbaum: I think a lot of the narratives in movies and films and TV now are really making good use of the music, not necessarily well known songs. I think of T Bone Burnett’s stuff for True Detectivesor Nick Cave on Peaky Blinders.

Mary Karr: Right, right. I heard T Bone Burnett in Cambridge, I think. I also saw James Brown and the Famous Flames in 1966.

Robert Birnbaum: I saw him at the Regal Theater at about that time.

Mary Karr:That was amazing.

Robert Birnbaum:Yes it was. I think back now, and I think, I was afraid of black people. I don’t know why, because when I went to the Regal Theater, which is all black, me and three other white people, we never had a problem.

Mary Karr:I went with my daddy. We were the only white people there. You qualified yourself by being there, to be there by liking the music. I think that’s … You know what I mean? You had to be a different kind of person to be that into African American music.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Why did I feel any anxiety? Where did all that come from? Who told me that black people were scary … You know?

Mary Karr: Well, it’s the same way, certainly they feel that way about us, with better reason. You know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:Yes.

Mary Karr:I can’t believe what happened to the tennis player (James Blake, who was mistakenly and forcibly arrested) in New York. It’s unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s actually not unbelievable Ever been asked to write a film treatment?

Liar's Club by Mary Karr

Liar’s Club by Mary Karr

Mary Karr:Many people have. I’m currently working on Liar’s Club at Showtime with Mary Louise Parker slated.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s your participation?

Mary Karr: Executive producing and writing. I’ve written a pilot, so we’ll see, we’ll see if they do it.

Robert Birnbaum:Yea,there is that.

Mary Karr: There is that.

Robert Birnbaum:Is there a subject or a theme or person that you’d like to create … Is there a biography you’d like to do? Is there one person that you learned about, that you think other people should know about, learn about…have you discovered somebody who’s been undiscovered?

Mary Karr:Oh, in memoir?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah.

Mary Karr: Maybe Harry Crews, Childhood Biography of a Place. I think Black Boy, the Richard Wright book, isn’t undiscovered, but I think it’s in some ways a better book than Native Son, which I know is scandalous to say, but I think that’s a brilliant memoir.

Robert Birnbaum:I remember reading Richard Wright. I remember things about it very vividly. They were part of my, the images was part of my growing up. I look at it and I go, the Sixties would be such a small window, cultural literacy. How do people know about James Baldwin, who are twenty years ,twenty-five years old?

Mary Karr:I think everybody who reads. Anybody who is a reader.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s only 400,000 people in the world.

Mary Karr:I was going to say, yeah exactly. There’s nobody left.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m assuming that all the memoirs you listed in the back of The Art of Memoir and the people are ones you admire.

Mary Karr:Yeah, I wouldn’t list them if I didn’t.

Robert Birnbaum:Would it be impolitic to ask you what are some memoirs that you think fall short?

Mary Karr:Yeah, I probably wouldn’t say that. We all know what they are. We all know the … Mostly the memoirs of the liars are mostly badly written, even if they had good stories to them. They are mostly pretty bad, pretty shabby written. I mean, a memoir like Black Boy, Richard Wright, you’re not going to forget, Dispatches, Michael Herr’s book, Maxine Hong Kingston Woman Warrior, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, I mean those are books nobody is going to forget…

Robert Birnbaum:You mentioned Mary McCarthy’s memoir, and I’ve always been fascinated by her, what I know about her, what I’ve read about her. That memoir doesn’t sound very promising…

Mary Karr:Really? She’s so smart, so funny, and so well-written. And it was right at the time when the notion of subjective truth hadn’t really been invented, in a way. She spends a lot of time correcting herself and second-guessing, and you see her idea of truth eroding, over the course of her book.

Robert Birnbaum: I read a piece she wrote for The New York Review of Books, from Saigon in ‘66, when she did a stint in Saigon. I thought it was just brilliant.

Mary Karr:Oh, she’s so brilliant.

Robert Birnbaum:Do you have a routine where you sort of engage the news of the day? Do you read newspapers?

Mary Karr: Just The New York Times, you know. I’m not a big news junkie. In fact, I kind of don’t like the news. I’m much more interested in history. I prefer everybody to sift experience and tell me what’s interesting fifty years later, sadly.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ve come to think that people like Stewart and Colbert and now John Oliver, are the news.

Mary Karr: Well, the people watching it think they are, so yeah.

Robert Birnbaum:. How much time do you have spend talking about this book in the coming months?

Mary Karr:Probably just this week and next week, and then I go back to sitting around in my pajamas, so not so long.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s your schedule at Syracuse? You go there, what, one semester a year?

Mary Karr:I do a fall semester there, yeah. But I also supervise students, often in the spring, so that involves them coming to New York, or me going there.

Robert Birnbaum: I gather you travel a lot, for any number of reasons.

Mary Karr:I do, I do. My gentleman caller is a big traveler. He’s the head of a real estate development firm, and so he builds big buildings all over. But he’s also just an inveterate adventurer. I think I get to Asia more than I would have done with a different gentleman caller.

Robert Birnbaum: Have you read anything good lately?

Mary Karr: Other than the Art of Memoir? Yeah, I just taught Black Boy, I just read that, and I’m teaching Mary McCarthy next week, so I’m reading that.

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t have any particular inclination to read newly, fresh-off-the-press books?

Dear Mr. You by  Mary-Louse Parker

Dear Mr. You by
Mary-Louse Parker

Mary Karr: Sure I do. I mean, sure I do, but not in the middle of teaching. When I’m teaching, I’m reading what I’m teaching. Actually, Mary Louise Parker has a great book called Dear Mr. You that I think is a terrific kind of …Very poetic. She reads a lot of poetry and it shows in the prose, very poetic memoir. Oh, Dana Spiotta has a novel coming out called Innocence and Others.

Robert Birnbaum: Anything else you want to tell me, that you want might to confess to me?

Mary Karr: I’m going to have to take my sins with me when I leave.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s okay. I really wasn’t expecting a confession

Mary Karr: A smooth exit, there we go.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah a smooth segue.

Mary Karr: You can absolve me. Well, happy new year.

Robert Birnbaum: Happy[Jewish] New Year to you. Thanks

Mary Karr: Thank you. Shabat tova…

End Notes

(1) Michel Silverblatt, long time host of LA radios’s Bookworm

(2) Alan Arkin book trailer

(3) Mark Costello Interview at Identitytheory

(4 Commencement speech at Syracuse

(5)George Saunders 2013 Syracuse Commencement speech

(7)David Shields interview at Our Man in Boston

(8) Joseph Epstein The Kid Turns 70 in the Weekly Standard

(9) Kin Recording of songs written by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

(10) Alternative Media Conference, 1971

My Kind of Town or A Stranger in A Strange Land

21 Oct
Johnny Guitar directed by Nichola Ray

Johnny Guitar directed by Nichola Ray

I am a stranger here myself – Johnny Guitar

Events of recent days and the recent 162 game MLB season should make clear why an expatriated Chicagoan might feel pangs of nostalgia for the the city of big shoulders*, the Friendly Confines, Leon Depres, Wolfy’s hot dogs, Nelson Algren,Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, da Bears and Ditka, Small Fabulous Jews,Karl Shapiro and Joseph Epstein, Dick Gregory and Fred Hampton, the Playboy Mansion and the unforgettable Democratic convention of 1968.

Studs Terkel [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Studs Terkel [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Actually, for this expatriate, the stirrings of a rare adult onset homesickness go further and deeper. For one thing I have discovered a mesmerizing recording by bassist William Parker, which interprets the songs of the mighty, mighty Chicago musical giant Curtis Mayfield who may at the very least ring familiar as the composer of the Civil Rights anthem, People Get Ready**. In fact if you were paying attention, at the 2004 Democratic Convention, it was Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up playing as Sen.Barack Obama sauntered up to the podium to give the keynote speech***

Actually Parker has two recordings of I Plan to Stay a Believer The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield,the second one being a live version done in Rome. These renditions offer a full palette of music from Ornette Colemanish free jazz moments to quotes of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and aided and abetted by the trenchant verse of poet Amiri Baraka.

The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield/Live in Rome by William Parker

The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield/Live in Rome by William Parker

Here’s a powerful version of We People Who are Darker Than Blue

Chicago is also the home of writer(forget that carpet bagger Saul Bellow), Joseph Epstein**** whose story collection Small Fabulous Jews is one of my favorite 50th Ward/Golden Ghetto touchstones.

Joseph Epstein [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Joseph Epstein [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

And who doesn’t know about the Monsters of The Midway—da Bears

BEARS
The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Bears: A Decade-By-Decade History H
by Chicago Tribune Staff

Uh huh, my kind of town…

* http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/2043

*Hospital Karl Shapiro

This is the Oxford of all sicknesses.
Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews
And actresses whose legs were always news.
In this black room the painter lost his sight,
The cripples dancer here put down her shoes,
And the scholar’s memory broke, like an old clock.

** People Get Ready

*** Move On Up

**** Joseph Epstein

Good Ol’ Joe:The Kid Can Write

18 Nov

I hope I am not alone in appreciating an apparent increase in the publication of essay anthologies(both by a single author and a gaggle of writers).Whether this signals a renaisance in the literary stature of the personal essay is, I suppose, dross for the journalistic mill. It must however mean something that those hard-nosed bean counting types inhabiting the upper echelons of book publishing see the possibility of revenue. Mustn’t it?

Apropos of nothing, I have been thinking that quite a few of the books published under the ‘memoir’ rubric are, in fact, hybrid personal essays.I have in mind, Ben Anastas’s Too Good To Be True (New Harvest) and Richard Russo’s Elswhere (Knopf) As I intend to publish chats with Anastas and Russo, let me table this idea.

Essays in Biography bt Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein whose CV includes a prodigious list of accomplishments — none more meaningful to me than his keeping alive Karl Shapiro’s phrase small Jews, also the title of an Epstein’s story collection and his being a Chicago Rogers Park landsman— has a new tome,Essays in Biography*(Axios Press) Kid Epstein (which I have taken to calling him based on his highly amusing 70th birthday rumination, The Kid Turns 70: And Nobody Cares)anthologizes 40 different pieces on an array of figures from Saul Bellow, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Isaiah Berlin, to George Washington and Adlai Stevenson, to Joe DiMaggio and Alfred Kinsey. Here’s an excerpt from his take on Michael Jordan (He Flew through the Air):

When I was thirteen, my father allowed me to put up a wooden backboard and basket in our backyard in Chicago. The yard was small, mostly grass, the only concrete being a narrow sidewalk leading to the alleyway. I used that basket in all seasons, including insultingly cold Chicago winters when I would daily shoot a hundred free throws with my gloves on. At other times, I would play fantasy games. Since I have always been of the realist school, in personal life as in literature, I would limit my scoring to somewhere between 24 and 33 points a game, usually winning for my team by popping in two free throws after the clock had run out. Not in my sweetest fantasies could I ever imagine myself doing what Michael Jordan, the retired star of the Chicago Bulls, would do in actuality some 40 years later. If I was a realist even when grounded in fantasy, he, Michael Jordan, was a magic realist, soaring in life.

In Playing for Keeps, his book about Michael Jordan, David Halberstam uses the phrase “Jordanologist” to describe close students of the great player, marketing phenomenon, and international celebrity. Only now do I realize that, since 1984, when he left the University of North Carolina after his junior year to play with the Bulls, Jordanology has been, as the professors say, my subspecialty. Over this period of time I must have seen Michael—as we in Chicago refer to him—play perhaps a thousand games; even though I watched most of them on television, I feel that I know his facial expressions, his moods, his verbal responses at least as well as I do those of most members of my own family. When I acquired cable TV, I did so not chiefly but exclusively in order to see more of Michael before he closed out his career. The prospect of seeing him at night could lift my spirits during the day; actually watching him play—even through the cool medium of the screen—brought me the kind of ephemeral but never-to-be-gainsaid pleasure of a fine meal or a lightish aesthetic experience.

Maybe not so lightish as all that. Having had the chance to observe so much of Michael Jordan in performance may be the equivalent, in sports, of having had tickets to the early years of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. If this reference to Balanchine seems too elevated, the law of carefully measured accolades has long ago run out on Michael Jordan. By now he has been compared with nearly every genius the world has produced, with the possible exceptions of Goethe and Proust. In many quarters, he has become the standard by which genius in other fields is measured. “Frank Galati,” I heard a former president of Northwestern University say about a theatrical director who happens to teach there, “is the Michael Jordan of the contemporary theater.”

When Michael retired, Jerry Sloan, coach of the Utah Jazz, whom the Bulls twice defeated in the NBA finals on their way to winning six championships in eight years, said that he should be remembered “as the greatest player who ever played the game.” Sidney Green, a journeyman player and briefly a teammate, asserted that Jordan “was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.” Jayson Williams, the power forward for the New Jersey Nets, called him “Jesus in Nikes.” Bobby Knight, the coach of Indiana University, once remarked that we would not see his equal in our lifetimes and neither would our children or our grandchildren in theirs. Later he pushed things up a notch by stating that Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time, not just of basketball but of any sport. My own view is that in Michael we had the reincarnation of Achilles, but without the sulking and without the heel.

“Kid” Joseph Epstein photo: Robert Birnbaum

Here’s a snippet on Art in Chicago from a 2003 chat I had with the Kid:

JE: One of the great delights of my life once was —you know the books you feel you should read. I read Edmund Wilson, the critic, saying, “After John Booth, the worst thing that happened to Abe Lincoln was Sandburg.”

RB: [both laugh heartily]

JE: It’s a kind of myth-making baloney.

RB: I guess it’s appropriate that the Sandburg Village boondoggle should be named after him.

JE: I think Chicagoans have great artistic institutions. The Art Institute is a great place. The architecture is still splendid, and new stuff is always interesting. But I think they aren’t blown away by artists. And I think it’s good. It keeps you grounded in some useful way. I remember Saul Bellow, who I used to see in the late ’70s, we would go to places and I would introduce him to people sometimes and someone would say, “Are you any relation to Charlie Bellows?” He was a big defense lawyer. One day I was watching a Cub game and it was Brickhouse the glorious Brick house, and there was a guy he would call “handsome young Jim West.” (let me say in parentheses, handsome next to Brickhouse, next to which we are both dazzling, you and I) And handsome young Jim West said, “Gee I saw on the front page of the Sun Times, Sparky Anderson’s picture.” I said, “Gee what’s the Sparker doing on the front page? I read the front page and it seem like a guy named Bellow won the Nobel Prize.” That’s Chicago and it’s good. If you are a writer you don’t expect people to say [in hushed tones], “Oh Mr. Epstein.” Sometimes it does happen and it’s a delight, but you are never a lion. And that’s good. In New York, one might be. It’s healthy philistinism. At thirty-seven I got a job teaching at Northwestern. Without a union card, I had no advanced degrees and was proud of it. I was living in Evanston and I call my mother and I say, “Mother, I got a job teaching at Northwestern.” She says, “Oh that’s nice. A job in the neighborhood.” Absolutely right, [laughs] all the air goes out of my tires.

The dyspetic Philip Larkin adulates:

Epstein’s work is well in the Addisonian line of succession that Cyril Connolly saw petering out in Punch and the professional humorists . . . Epstein is a great deal more sophisticated than they were, and a great deal more readable. His subjects are tossed up, turned round, stuck with quotations, abandoned and returned to, playfully, inverted, and finally set back on their feet, as is the reader, a little breathless but quite unharmed. But is essentially a merry-go-round, not a view to the death.

*not to be confused the book of the same name by John Maynard Keynes.

Currently reading The Round House by Louise Erdich (Harper)

Old Age,Death and the Whole Shebang

21 Feb

In explaining their upbeat anthology The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death, Brad Morrow and David Shields quote David Foster Wallace by way of explaining their intention:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self, (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I ‘m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple fingered theoretical justification, I strongly suspect a big part of [a writer’s]job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people; to move people to countenance it;since as any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

Personally, I am of the opinion this is the most sophomoric if not dumbest thing I have ever read by Foster Wallace but that’s ambient to this book note—though I wonder if the editors of The Inevitable gave the Wallace citation to the participating authors before they accepted their contributions?

Writers included in this collection are Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Dillard, Robert Clark, Jonathan Safran Foer, Sallie Tisdale, Mark Doty, Geoff Dyer, Peter Straub,Terry Castle and Diane Ackerman,Christopher Sorrentino and David Gates

Susan Jacoby is lionized (at least by her publisher as a “unsparing chronicler of unreason in American culture”) And in Never Say Die: The New Old Age:The Myth and Marketing of the New Old (Pantheon) she has found a subject worthy of her unsparingness. Reading Jacoby, Baby Boomers as well as the 70 million American who will be over 65 by 2030 will quickly learn that the economic engine driving a joyous and untroubled old age is very effective in steam rolling the less than hopeful reality. Here is Jacoby:

I hope that this book about the genuine battles of growing old will provide support for all who draw their strength and courage from real­ity, however daunting that reality may be, rather than from platitudes about “defying old age.” This commonly used phrase in the annals of the so-called new old age fills me with rage, because the proximity of old age to death is not only undefiable but undeniable. Anger, by the way, is another emotion considered inappropriate in the old; the dubi­ous notion of the “wisdom of old age” rests on the belief that elders can, and should, transcend the passions, vaulting ambition, and com­petitiveness of their younger adult lives and arrive at some sort of peace that passeth all understanding.

Nicholas Delbanco, has a decidedly more measured take with his rumination, Lastingness The Art of Old Agee (Grand Central Books). As one would expect the opening epigram from Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, succinctly suggests Delbanco’s attitude

Grow Old along with me.
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:

Delbanco explaIns:

This book is about tribal elders in the world of art; what interests me is lastingness: how it may be attained.For obvious reasons, this has become a personal matter: I publish my first novel in 1966 and very much hope to continue…An ever growing number of Americans are middle-aged or elderly:no natural catastrophe has thinned our swelling ranks. And the habit of creation does not die, so there are more who paint the sunset or take piano lessons or hunt the perfect end rhyme at day’s end…

Yet its a daunting proposition. To try to fashion work that might last more than one season is to recognize how hard it is to make a thing of beauty be “a joy forever”— that proud bias of a poet who died at twenty five…”

In these pages I consider what has been left behind: testimonials we hear and see and read…

Add to the mix of these somber thoughts on that particular unyielding certainty are Joseph Epstein’s evocation of Cicero as he presents his own thoughts on Jacoby’s rant:

Unlike Ms. Jacoby, with her penchant for doctor-assisted suicide, Cicero thought with Pythagoras that we mustn’t “desert life’s sentry-post till God, our commander, has given word.” He was of course aware of the arbitrary nature of death, which can strike at any age: “What nature gives us is a place to dwell in temporarily, not to make one’s own.”

Death, Cicero knew, is an old joke that comes to each of us afresh; and he also knew that old age is a straight man who prepares us, always inadequately, for the punch line. He was himself murdered at 63, by order of his enemy Mark Antony: the hands that had composed attacks against Antony cut off and displayed alongside his head in the Roman Forum. Cicero was wise enough to know that even wisdom itself is no protection against the forces of nature or the malevolence of men

Finally, Epstein’s own views on aging are worth mulling over: Upon turning 70 Epstein opined:

I much like the Internet, adore email, and probably use Google seven or eight times a day. But must I also check in on YouTube, have a posting on MySpace, and spend a portion of my day text-messaging? At 70, the temptation is to relax, breathe through the mouth, and become comfortably rear-guard.