Tag Archives: Philip Kerr

Four (not Miles Davis’s)

11 Jul

 

 

 

Heretics by Leonardo Padura

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

You Belong to Me -Colin Harrison

 

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

 

Megan Abbott’ opines,

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

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

 

 

* Megan Abbott’s  explication of You Belong To Me

 

The Force Don Winslow

 

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

 

“Cops are just people, ” she said irrelevantly.

They start out that way, I’ve heard.”

 

 

 

Prussia Blue Philip  Kerr

 

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

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

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

 

*My first chat with Philip Kerr

 

 

 

 

Isadora Amelia Gray

 

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

Gayle Brandeis gushes* (with justification)

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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Jess Walter on Beautiful Ruins and Other Stuff

15 Aug

 

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

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

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

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

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

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

Jess Walter: Really? All right.

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

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

RB: Really—were you a musician?

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

RB: How big was the breast?

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

RB: Permanent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Yeah, right.

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

JW: My son’s name is Alec.

RB: Who is Brooklyn?

JW: Brooklyn is my daughter.

RB: You called a girl Brooklyn?

JW: I did, yeah.

RB: So what’s the reaction?

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

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

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

RB: Where is she?

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

RB: What does your daughter think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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JW: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: There’s another Spokane?

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

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

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

RB: Was Richard Burton in the story originally?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Maybe, right.

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

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

RB: And then he became an automobile dealer.

JW: Yeah. Who couldn’t write.

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

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

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

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

RB: It is a lovely ending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: I also liked  his novel Samaritan.

JW: It was good too.

RB: Colin Harrison writes literary crime novels.

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

RB: But there is still a crime fiction ghetto.

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

RB: Have you read Georges Simenon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: I love those.

RB: You could be the glorifier of Spokane.

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

RB: So what’s next?

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

RB: These others weren’t?

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

RB: Did you live in Hollywood?

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

RB: Who’s in the cast?

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

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

JW: It’s an indie film, low-budget.

RB: Acting and storytelling?

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: You may regret giving it away.

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

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

JW: I never said that.

RB: What’s it like living in Spokane?

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

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

JW: Yeah, well—

RB: There’s your education.

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

RB: How close were you to Ruby Ridge?

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

RB: How far from the Canadian border?

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

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

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

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

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

RB: There is something to be said for originality—

JW: And authenticity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Vince turned out to be unflinchingly moral.

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

RB: There’s no mob there?

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

RB: No drugs?

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

RB: Chinese gangs? Or Guatemalan gangs?

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

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

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

RB: How long has Cal Morgan been your editor?

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: Before or after his fall from grace?

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

RB: I lost my copy on an airplane.

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

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

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

RB: That’s very commendable.

JW: For a young writer, right.

RB: For any writer.

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

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

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

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

JW: Six novels and one nonfiction book.

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

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

RB: “Bery, bery good to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Probably.

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

RB: How many languages for Beautiful Ruins?

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

RB: What about the movie of Beautiful Ruins?

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

RB: He’s a really good guy.

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

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

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

RB: (laughs) Right.

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

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

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

RB: So they get the back end covered.

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

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

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

RB:A Separation, an Iranian film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: It more has the stench of institutionalized conformity.

JW: Mechanization.

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

JW: I think you did.

RB: Imagine it?

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

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

imgres-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Too easy. I do it every day.

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

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

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

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

RB: Well, thank you.

JW: Thank you.

Nick (Nixon)

6 Mar

Some years back I saw a film entitled Smoke with Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. I don’ t remember much about it except that Keitel portrays a smoke shop owner. Every day, he crosses the street, sets up a camera on a tripod, at the intersection adjacent to his shop and photographs his store front. For fifteen years.

Now this project raised some questions — mainly around the notion of the value of Keitel’s effort and the valence of what was created. Viewing Keitel’s subject (the store front) did not immediately spark the thought that, ‘wow, that would make an interesting photograph.” In any case, photographer Nicholas Nixon, has every year for the past forty photographed his wife Bebe and her three sisters. The results have been made public in a number of iterations. There was the exhibition of the photos at the Museum of Modern Art (November 22, 2014-January 2, 2015)

The Brown Sisters: Forty Years by Nicholas Nixon

The Brown Sisters: Forty Years by Nicholas Nixon

And then there was the New York Times Magazine which featured a a full gallery of the black and white images. And, of course, there is the hard cover monograph Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters. Forty Years(The Museum of Modern Art, New York ) with an afterword by exhibition curator Sarah Hermanson Meister. The publisher’s notes are clear

In August 1974, the photographer Nicholas Nixon made a group portrait of his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters, Heather, Mimi and Laurie–the Brown sisters. He did not keep that image, but in 1975 he made another portrait of the four, who then ranged in age from 15 to 25. Working with an 8 x 10-inch view camera, whose large negatives capture a wealth of detail and a luscious continuity of tone, Nixon did the same in 1976, and this second successful photograph prompted him to suggest to the sisters that they assemble for a portrait every year. The women agreed and have gathered for an annual portrait ever since. Nicholas Nixon: 40 Years of the Brown Sisters celebrates the 40th anniversary of the series with luminous tritone reproductions of all 40 portraits and a new afterword which examines the series’ public exhibitions, critical reception, and cult following. Like the previous editions of the series, published in 1999 and 2008 for its 25th and 33rd anniversaries (both out of print),Nicholas Nixon: 40 Years of the Brown Sisters is a milestone in an ongoing project that we hope will continue for many years to come.

The Brown Sisters (courtesy of the Fraenkel Gallery)

The Brown Sisters (courtesy of the Fraenkel Gallery)

Here Nicholas Nixon says some smart things about taking pictures


 

Currently reading The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Putnam)

Me and George. Talking.

5 Nov

In the new issue of the Baffler (Issue #26)writer,editor, critic George Scialabba’s forty year mental health records are presented in an abridged and annotated form with evocative illustrations by Brad Holland. Scialabba has, over the years ,suffered from severe bouts of depression and has searched for relief from this debilitating ‘disease’. Despite this burden George has published a number of essay collections—The Divided Mind, What are Intellectual Good For?, The Modern Predicament and recently For The Republic and countless articles for a wide swath of smart periodicals.

This conversation took place at Mt Auburn Cemetery on a crisp early September Sunday at the promonotory where the Washington Tower is located and that overlooks Boston looking to the east ( the name of person’s gravesite we settled at escapes me).George and I talked about his reason(s) for allowing the Baffler to publish his records and how they were edited and presented and his battle with depression. We also talked about the health care system, DH Lawrence,19th century Utopians, his religious upbringing, the state of American culture, not reading Tolstoy, some of his favorite recent reads, his ambitions and more…

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat— Antonin Artaud

RB: Say something (testing sound level).

GS: Four score and seven…

RB: The Baffler [Issue # 26] is publishing an edited version of your medical records of over forty years.

GS: My mental health records. There are no mentions of my toenail fungus.

RB: You have toenail fungus?

GS: I’m afraid so.

RB: What moved you to publish and publicize those records?

GS: Not what, who: the editor-in-chief, John Summers. Two years ago I had an episode of major depression. John and I were very good friends by then, so he offered to help—to come with me to doctors when necessary, shop for me, visit, and so on. At one point he thought it might be useful if we got my medical records. So I requested them—nowadays there is no problem getting them. We both only glanced at them back then and put them aside. Earlier this year he came across them, while he was conceiving the next issue of The Baffler, about health and the medical care system. and thought they might make an interesting document. I was … dubious, but he’s a persuasive guy and a very accomplished editor, so I said go ahead, see what you can turn them into. And he produced an excerpt that reads well and has, I think, a certain dramatic interest. He found some excellent art to illustrate it, and with a bit of commentary by me before and after, it fits into the tapestry of the issue. I don’t make great claims for it. I don’t think he does either. But because it’s the most widespread illness in the world, and there’s a lot of secrecy, of furtiveness, about it, it seemed to us that it might be worthwhile to offer this glimpse from another angle into the culture of health and sickness, which the whole issue is meant to represent

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

RB: My first reaction to this piece was to recall an anthology entitled Fakes [An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts by David Shields], which collects a variety of texts that turn out to also stand as literary items—written items that have narrative resonance. This iteration of your mental health records seems to suggest a new literary genre.

GS: I’ll have to take your word for it.

RB: How much material did John start with?

GS: About 40,000 words.

RB: That doesn’t seem like a lot for forty years, does it?

GS: There’s some stuff from the byways of my therapeutic history that I didn’t collect. But this is most of it.

RB: Is your mental health history cumulative? Does each provider pass on his or her notes upward?

GS: No, they were in three or four places.

RB: At some point, perhaps in the last ten years, did they become part of one file?

GS: No, I asked each of the three or four places where I had been seen for any length of time for their records. As far as I know, they’re still not gathered in any one place.

For the Republic by George Scialabba

For the Republic by George
Scialabba

RB: I was thinking that since medical records are being digitalized, eventually there should be one file.

GS: There are intake processes where they ask about your medications and hospitalizations.

RB: The patient is assumed to be a reliable narrator?

GS: If they think they’re looking at a potentially critical or terribly complicated case, then they will ask for the previous records. It took me a while to get mine, but the hospitals have courier service back and forth, so it’s faster for them. None of the institutions I did intake interviews with, seemed to want to see my previous records.

RB: There was a set of notes where the practitioner insisted on using the word ‘deny’—“denies suicidal ideation”, “denies whatever”—

GS: More than one.

RB: Is that standard medical jargon? There are verbs other than ‘deny’.

GS: I guess, as with so many other things in medicine, they’re being self-protective. If they had said, “the patient appears free of suicidal intent,” and then the patient committed suicide, they might be called on the carpet.

RB: That puts the onus on the patient and reveals an attitude by the practitioner toward the patient.

GS: That was my first reaction.

RB: You have denied suicidal ideation in each intake interview. In the commonplace book on your website there is a citation from Artaud:

“I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat.”

Is there more history available to you? There are big gaps.

GS: There are gaps—some of the time I was out of therapy. There is one large episode of therapy for which I couldn’t get the therapist to give up her notes.

RB: Her notes of your treatment are available at her discretion?

GS: No, I’m legally entitled to them. But I didn’t want to fight about it.

RB: Were you tempted to annotate these records more extensively?

GS: John has a notion that the longer transcript can be made into a small book, in which case I’d have to do much more work.

RB: I second that idea. Its seems strange to say this – bordering on crass – but you have Brad Holland providing wonderful illustrations …

GS: I wasn’t truly sold on the whole idea until I saw both his illustrations and the other, smaller ones in the margin. Then I knew it had to be.

RB: I’ve read a number of novels lately – Francine Prose, Amy Bloom, Anthony Doerr – where part of the story is told through letters. Prose even uses excerpts from published books to advance the narrative. So writers are using different devices—

GS: I think there’s something new in the degree to which people are incorporating little shots of non-direct narrative. I’m not sure what it means; maybe it’s just …

RB: … the last gasp. I find I like to write notes —to service providers, my doctor, my son’s guidance counselor – and in so doing I attempt to make the epistles somewhat interesting and attractive to read. Possibly many people are also intent on avoiding cliché.

GS: That may be true, but I suspect you’ll agree it isn’t true of psychotherapists. They seem to have the opposite motive —to make the sessions sound less interesting. You don’t really get a sense, I think, of an individual personality, an individual voice, an individual sensibility, on either end. I mean, there are flashes of idiosyncratic perception on the part of therapists. And there are occasions when my own voice comes through. At one point, one of my therapists says, “He’s concerned about the beginnings of gray hair, or forehead receding” and then in parenthesis (He thinks very highly of his hair).” (laughs). And it’s true, I remember I was bragging about it. But touches like that, individuating touches, there are not many of them throughout the whole record— either in what was included or in what wasn’t. And the reason for that, I have discovered since talking to my current therapist about this project, is that there are very rigorous standard procedures for writing case notes.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


RB: Does anyone read R. D Laing anymore? Did they ever?

GS: Laing is an object lesson…

RB: I am at a loss here— I think so much of psychotherapy and especially psychopharmacology is voodoo, but I have myself benefited from it. I have had therapists who have been useful in navigating the wild world. But I really don’t quite know what the diagnosis of depression means anymore. I have noted that the WHO claims depression is the world’s most widespread disease, but I wonder if people understand what that means.

GS: I wish I could explain it to you.

RB: I understand your symptoms —there are times when I have no energy or very low energy but it’s not sustained for more than a day or two. And there is no correlation to anything I can observe. I find myself taking great joy in a lot of things and being interested, being semi-productive. I would like to be more productive. But I am also trying figure out what to expect of myself at this point in my life.

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by  George Sciallabba

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by George Sciallabba

GS: Great joy pretty much disqualifies you from a diagnosis of depression.

RB: Exactly. A friend of mine from high school recently visited me and we were chatting and he, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me if we were ever asked whether we were happy when we were kids? It was never an issue.

GS: Yeah, not in my youth, either.

RB: Today, kids are always being asked and are really expected to say. A negative means bring in the psych HAZMAT team. It seems to me to be a phony issue.

GS: Well yeah, the phoniness is the critical part, I guess. Obviously, parents during our youth at least occasionally wondered or worried whether we were happy, and they wanted us to be happy. It just wasn’t thought necessary to be hovering or solicitous. Whereas now it is. Maybe it is for the wrong reasons. Maybe it’s because we have a social work bureaucracy, a medical bureaucracy, which is a level of authority laid over the parents to which the parents are now in a sense accountable. And they tell the parents they ought to regularly diagnose their child’s mental health and ask if they are happy. I am not a parent so I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with the general bureaucratization of medicine and family life and intimacy. So yes, it’s good now as it was then to care that your kids are happy, but how you go about manifesting it and seeing to it has changed. D. H. Lawrence, my personal guru, has an essay about child-rearing called “Education of the People”,(1) which would absolutely cause the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association to blow a collective gasket. His three cardinal rules: “1) Leave them [i.e., children] alone. 2) Leave them alone. 3) Leave them alone.”

RB: What was the response when it was published?

GS: It wasn’t published. It was found in his papers.

RB: Has it been published now?

GS: It’s in that two-volume collection, Phoenix.

RB: It’s curious – you admire and are interested in a lot of classical writers, while I rarely read anything written before 1980 and have developed a certain impatience with certain kinds of scholarship, which I respect but can’t get interested in, such as literary theory. I barely know the names of its professors.

GS: Well. I have just a very passing acquaintance with literary theory, and not much interest. It’s a matter of personal history; I guess. I got my moral education from George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James. And to some extent from 17th-century and Romantic poetry.

RB: Not the Enlightenment?

GS: Pre- and post-Enlightenment. (both laugh)

RB: Where is your Catholicism in this? Did that moral education conflict with your Catholicism?

GS: Yes, it did. And Catholicism lost out.

RB: Had you not gone to college, would you have retained your faith?

GS: Well, it’s possible. I once thought I’d go straight into the seminary after grade school. Then I decided to go to a regular high school but to the seminary after that. I think I would have become a very undistinguished, moderately unhappy Catholic priest. Probably a Franciscan.

RB: Franciscans are monks? Do they wear robes?

GS: Not monks, but they do wear brown robes. They take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

RB: In your notes you said you could no longer reconcile taking seriously something that didn’t allow investigation and questioning. High school didn’t move you to curiosity and skepticism but college did?

GS: Well, it was a decent average high-school education. I had a few good teachers —the whole thing managed to avoid killing any interest in literature, history or philosophy, which often happens to less fortunate kinds.

RB: But it must have stimulated you sufficiently to apply to Harvard…

GS: That wasn’t my idea. This was 1964 – the beginning of affirmative action.

RB: You’re an African-American lesbian?

GS: No, but the Ivy League colleges really were, back then, WASP strongholds. In the early ‘60’s, around 1964 in fact, Kingman Brewster and Yale spearheaded affirmative action and Harvard jumped on the bandwagon. The Ivy Schools decided that they ought to open wide their gates.

RB: What deprived and marginalized category did you represent?

GS: It was just that no one from my high school had ever gone to Harvard. It was a working-class Catholic high school. If there was an affirmative action category I fit in, it was probably grease balls—they didn’t have a lot of grease balls.

RB: Oh, wops and greasers. Dagos. I believe my moral education came from Nelson Algren. [Algren’s “three rules of life”: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”] I do find it hard to believe, though, that you stressed yourself and worried yourself about religious issues. I understand that millions of people do, but it’s so foreign to me.

GS: Well, after I left I wondered too. And I had hoped that therapy would show me what in my psychic constitution and character that having attached myself to religion so fiercely as a boy stood for—what to make of it in terms or my psychic structure. It didn’t. I never did solve that problem in therapy.

RB: How many therapists have you gone to/through over forty years?

GS: Maybe nine or ten.

RB: What was the duration of the longest therapeutic relationship?

GS: Five or six years

RB: Why did it end?

GS: It was a psychoanalyst and insurance doesn’t pay for psychoanalysis, so I couldn’t afford to see her anymore. I would have somehow found the money if it were clearly useful, but I wasn’t sure that it was.

RB: Karl Krause’s quip on psychoanalysis comes to mind [Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy.] I find dealing with medical institutions and bureaucracies depressing and stressful—it’s like dealing with a foreign country. I wonder if all the effort is worth it. I find the intake process off-putting and insensitive

GS: And this in a context that’s supposed to be about empathy and concern for you. It’s a little bit like the grimace I often can’t suppress when I hear about somebody retiring from the Senate after a long career of “public service.” Well, you know, service my ass! (laughs). He’s leaving to become a lobbyist and cash in. I haven’t read this book by the philosopher Harry Frankfort called Bullshit. But if it’s the book I hope it is, it looks at just this kind of thing: the way you can’t say what you actually think, on pain of being sued or being some kind of social outcast. A therapist has to —there has to be this presumption of medical care but it often feels like medical processing.

RB: Finding a simpatico therapist is like playing roulette. That’s an ingredient that plays in a lot of situations and it’s almost a miracle to come across it. I just watched The Constant Gardener again and was impressed by how the diplomat and his activist wife formed a strong bond. And in the book it is quite vivid—two people talking the same language.

GS: I am going to write myself a reminder to look at that book.

[ Irrelevant exchange about Le Carre & Fatwa]

GS: (is looking for a pen)

RB: I don’t have a pen either—should we be embarrassed —two writers without pens?

GS: (chuckles)

RB:I noticed in these therapy notes there are a couple of places where you exclaim, “I am overqualified for this job”—in one place it was in quotation marks, almost as if it was in bold type. Is that something you actually said?

GS: No, it didn’t come across quite like that. I mean I had always assumed I would go to college, go to graduate school, and then teach at a college. Not become a great scholar, but I liked being a student and thought I’d be a good teacher. But instead I had this nervous breakdown in graduate school after leaving Opus Dei. And then what I did was become a cab driver and a welfare department social worker and then a receptionist and building manager. The thought of ever going back to graduate school gave me a swarm of butterflies in my stomach.

RB: Why did you go to New York for graduate school?

GS: Well, I got into Columbia and didn’t get into Harvard.

RB: Did you have any thoughts about how different New York would be from Cambridge? Did being in New York affect you?

GS: It rattled me a bit. I just applied to a few graduate schools and Columbia was the best one I got into.

RB: Did you have friends in New York?

GS: No, but there was an Opus Dei in New York.

RB: Hadn’t you quit Opus Dei?

GS: I had quit the summer before but then for the first month or so [of graduate school] I lived in the residence. It was not only for members—it was a residence for students as well. And thenI moved out. New York’s strangeness and intensity was just a small wrinkle in a very big strange force field that I was entering.

RB: When you wake up every day, what is sense of it—what’s the music playing in the opening scenes? You open your eyes and you sit up and then —what?

GS: Um, from 20 to 45 the first thing most males are conscious of when waking is an erection, usually. When you get to your mid-60’s as I have and you have been taking an SSRI for twenty years or more, you are usually all too conscious of the lack of an erection. (Both chuckle, sheepishly.)

[Brief discussion about full bladders and sleep apnea.]

RB: I have in the past two or three had years a few [minor] medical problems, which just took forever to resolve. Have you experienced the glacial tempo of the medical bureaucracy?

GS: I blame capitalism.

RB: Why is there resistance to universal health care?

GS: Well I have a hobbyhorse theory about it. It’s because there is a generalized and really superstitious distrust of government, earnestly and assiduously and cunningly cultivated by all the people who stand to profit from it. Among others, the insurance industry and the processed food industry. It’s no accident that all those people out there think government can’t do anything good. Remember what one of them said at a political rally, ”Keep your government hands off my Social Security!”

RB: Might it be something more basic that elicits this pretzel logic on all sorts of issues? And there is this real belief that the current right agenda is based on some demonstrable rationale.

GS: I’m from a working-class family, and they really do have these stubborn anti-government attitudes that very few of us enlightened people in the Cambridge-Boston area have.

RB: Reagan Democrats.

GS: Exactly.

RB: Why don’t people just admit they are racist, Judeophobic, homophobic? These seem to be regnant in the USA. We live in a funhouse. I wonder why in a world that seems to have so many problems and crises, there isn’t a greater audience for publications like The Baffler, In These Times, Truthdig, even the New York Review, which can be very insightful. What aren’t people searching for a critique?

GS: That’s the revolutionary question.

RB: Is it Marcuse’s notion that there is a moronizing process?

GS: There’s a lot to that. Life in contemporary capitalist culture is a continuous stream of disconnected stimulants. Distractions.

RB: There is a connection but it’s not apparent to the audience—it’s all about consuming.

GS: It’s not coordinated, but it works together to this one purpose.

RB: We don’t want to say, to make people stupid. Desensitizing them?

GS: Yeah, we must find a good phrase. (Both laugh.) Impoverishing their critical faculties.

RB: Growing up under the old regime of literacy and hard copy [real] books and certain kinds of narrative, you may fall prey to anxieties about new technology. And thus we may be somewhat impaired in assessing new media. Is Facebook snake oil—it seems to work for some people?

GS: Well, I suppose that nothing that either lasts a long time or engages a lot of people—

RB: What’s a long time? What’s the life expectancy of some of this new technology? What is the phrase I noted in The Baffler— “Innovation without progress”?

GS: I was thinking of a line from Durkheim, which explained conservatives to me in a lightening flash when I came across it. “No tradition or institution lasted for hundreds of year can be entirely without merit or substance.”

RB: Meaning?

GS: That the good and the bad are jumbled together. That Facebook, though I think on the whole it is an enormous waste of time and basically an infantilizing influence, nonetheless has its uses and (almost) redeeming features. And the same with television. I don’t read as many books as I used to, and it’s because once when I was badly depressed, my brother gave me a television set—“Maybe this will help take your mind off your troubles.” And it did. But , alas, I couldn’t stop watching it when I got better.

RB: I agree, but then there are shows like The Wire.

GS: TV is such a vast phenomenon that even if a minority of shows are inspired, it’s practically impossible to keep up with them.

RB: As distracting and procrastination-inducing as they are, streaming media (Netflix, Spotify) are amazing things. Access to a very wide [in the case of Spotify almost unlimited] selection of music and film is grand.

GS: There is a well-known media theorist named Clay Shirky, who made a passing remark on his blog to the effect that “nobody I know reads Tolstoy any more. And that makes perfect sense to me: War and Peace is so long and kind of boring.” Shirky’s a decent guy and not himself illiterate, but Jesus, if the young are not reading Tolstoy, then what about 16th- and 17th- century English lyric poetry – the marrow, the distillation, the flower of the language. Do they even know it exists?

RB: We do have these, for lack of a better word, controversies in literature. Ian McEwan recently asserted (2) that most long novels today don’t justify their length. Tim Parks in the New York Review also wrote about reading long works.(3)

GS: There are people like Donna Tartt that the argument probably applies to. I suppose Shirky’s point was: “My God, there’s so much. It’s hard just to keep up with good blogs. Who has time for Tolstoy?” You can spend all your time in front of a screen and increasingly that seems like a sensible thing for people to do. Those of us who grew up with in a hard-copy world can see what’s being lost as well as what’s being gained. But the people who are growing up in the new world can’t see what’s being lost. And so it gives an edge of desperation, an edge of Luddism, to those of us who are trying to keep those treasures from being lost. If the young want to choose not to read Tolstoy and Donne and George Herbert, ok. But they have to at least know what they’re giving up.

The Baffler Issue #26 Cover art- Ruth Marten

The Baffler Issue #26
Cover art- Ruth Marten

RB: It can be an amusing pastime to consider what will be read a hundred years hence. Philip Kerr told me he thought John LeCarre would be the guy. Which at the time surprised me. But I have this theory that there is a fixed finite number of readers in the world—like the ever-present twelve honest men. There will always be 400,000 readers who will be reading 17th-century poetry and the great Russians and the epochal Germans.

GS: (laughs)

RB: So we ought to set aside these declinist and worrisome thoughts about the disappearance of literature, which really is about the disappointment that more people are not making use of the great literary wellspring that is available. There are kids out there reading—they just don’t make much noise.

GS: Maybe that’s true. But there is this dream of a humanist Utopia that the Enlightenment philosophers had—Condorcet, Godwin, later Utopians William Morris and John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, that the best that has been thought and said could become a common property of humankind. Probably there will always be many millions or billions who find enough beauty in growing a garden or swimming—nonverbal things. And that’s fine. But many, many, more than 400,000 people, many more than the elite of their time in 18th-century France or 19th-century Britain could have kindled to the books we hold dear.

RB: It would seem that lots of people seem to want to remain ignorant of the pressing issues of our time — climate change, the failure of the Western model of development in the so-called Third World. I think back on novels like Nevil Chute’s On the Beach, which portrayed a nuclear apocalypse, and there was a Ban the Bomb movement. If you read LeCarre, you can get a clear idea of the corrupted and degraded state of Western post-industrial nations. I don’t know that utopian ideals have any place in the thinking of people in the short term —the next twenty or thirty years.

GS: We all have a moral imagination.

RB: You think?

GS: Anybody who does have a moral imagination or a political imagination can’t help occasionally finding inspiration in an ideal that he/she hopes can be achieved.

RB: Do you see any examples of that in life today, around the world? Lives and institutions guided by a basic sense of decency and fairness?

GS: No group examples, but individuals. No, no communities.

RB: Whom do you see aspiring to make the world a better place?

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


GS: Well, there’s probably 400, 000 people. (Both laugh.)

RB: In reading this Baffler article, it is not apparent that you ever give yourself credit for doing good and useful work. Your writing has been recognized by smart people. Didn’t that make you feel better?

GS: Eventually, it did. Saved my life, really. But it took a long while.

RB: Why?

GS: (long pause) Because there were lots of people my age doing what I was doing, a lot more successfully than me.

RB: Well, what was your criterion of success?

GS: I suppose quantity and visibility. I would see Sven Birkerts $4) or Paul Berman or Ellen Willis appearing in the New Yorker, the New Republic or the NYRB, or publishing a book, and I hadn’t done any of those things and probably never will.

RB: But you were published—how did that happen?

GS: It started with hearing Noam Chomsky on the radio – I felt the scales fall from my eyes. At the end, the interviewer mentioned that Chomsky had a new book coming out in a few months. I thought, “Wow, this is great. This will make the scales fall from everybody’s eyes.”

RB: (laughs)

GS: So I got the new book when it came out and I waited for the reviews and for American politics and culture to be turned upside down. And nothing happened. It was published by small radical press.

RB: As is his latest opus, by Haymarket Books.

GS: I was incredulous and dismayed. I wrote a 3000-word letter in the form of a review to Elliot Fremont-Smith of the Village Voice and said this is a great book and nobody has said a word about it, and this is what it’s about. How about getting some writer to review it? So he called me back and said he would publish me and I should send something else.
RB: How do you think other writers started out?

GS: I may not have been as hopeless a case as I thought I was, but I really was very isolated.

RB: It does seem to be the case that being a good and original writer is not sufficient to launch a career. It takes luck or a real careerist bent. If you are not going to toot your own horn, then you need an agent, yes?

GS: Yes, but an agent looks for writers who are going to sell books.

RB: Some do.

GS: They have to, that’s how they make a living.

RB: There are some that don’t, people like Rachel Cohen (5) who wrote a wonderful book entitled A Chance Meeting or Edward P. Jones,(6) who spent 12 years writing The Known World are represented by super agent. Or Eduardo Galeano’s (7)agent, who also represented Latino women writers. But who am I to give career advice? What are your ambitions at this point in your life?

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

GS: (long pause) They mostly involve reading. No, nothing I really feel passionate about. John is trying to interest somebody in a Selected Scialabba book. I’m fairly pessimistic about it.

RB: How far have you gotten into turning the mental health records into a book?

GS: It’s basically John’s project, so I don’t know. I think he has a strong and detailed vision.

RB: So what do you look forward to reading— just more or specific books?

GS: Just big piles of books on the floor that have been accumulating over the last decades. All kind of things—

RB: How does something get drawn out of the piles?

GS: It depends on when the next deadline is.

RB: Deadline for who or what?

GS: I hope to write more for The Baffler.

RB: That’s a three-times-a-year publication.

GS: Well, I’m running out of gas. I like Raritan(8)—I have a good relationship with them. And Commonweal. I also wrote a couple of things for Virginia Quarterly Review

RB: Does reaching out to publications take a large effort for you?

GS: I’m not sure why. I usually have enough on my plate. You were talking before about that little spark of ambition you need. My spark flickers.

RB: Would you like to accomplish more?

GS: I’d like to do less,really.

RB: (laughs)

GS: I wish the world were a much more sensible place

RB: You see your writing as a corrective or an attempt to be…?

GS: Yeah. Yeah. Yes, I don’t make beautiful things with words, at least that’s not my [intention]. I am not a poet or a storyteller. I am kind of a preacher, and I wish there were less to preach about.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: You are frequently expressive about the beauty of language and what that may do.

GS: Yeah, but so do James Wood and Sven Birkerts. And I love being instructed by them. But I don’t feel I can instruct other people about language and literature, whereas inequality, American foreign policy—there’s just so much unnecessary suffering in the world.

RB: You wrote about Chomsky thirty years ago and not much has changed about Chomsky and the issues he focuses on. Americans still don’t pay attention to him. Or he is a buzzword for the evil left wing.

GS: He has been very effectively marginalized in America, but internationally it’s a different story.

RB: Name a book or a movie that has given you a charge. Uplifted you.

GS: A novel from last year by Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (9)

RB: A wonderful novel, and the title, taken from a Russian medical dictionary as the definition of life, is thought provoking.

GS: Another novel that knocked my socks off was Bob Schacochis’s (10) The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.

RB: Indeed. In the literary beauty contest of the National Book Awards, it lost out to Donna Tartt’s book?

GS: Yes.

RB: Anything else?

GS: A new book by William Deresiewicz [EXCELLENT SHEEP The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life]. It’s not the best written book but it says all the right things and it’s getting a lot of flak

RB: I read a piece by Stephen Pinker in the New Republic, which wasn’t positive. Why the negative response?

GS: Partly because Deresiewicz is an amateur. He’s a literary critic and not a VSP [Very Serious Person]

RB: Doesn’t he teach?

GS: He taught English at Yale.

RB: Doesn’t that give him some qualification?

GS: Sure. But he’s a radical and doesn’t have social-scientific credentials. And there is something preachy about the book, something amateurish. It’s not a Christopher Jencks or Nicholas Lehmann—not one of these carefully hedged, data-heavy books. It’s somewhat impressionistic and a bit sweeping. That appeals to me, but it annoys people like Pinker and Harry Lewis, a Harvard dean. And Deresiewicz traces higher education’s problems to capitalism, another reason why he’s not taken very seriously.

RB: From what I read, it reminds of a John Summers piece (11) for the Chronicle of Higher Education

GS: It’s in that vein.

RB: It seems there is a shortage of intellectual honesty. There’s too much intellectual hucksterism.

GS: Yes. A subject for another interview.

RB: Exactly.

GS: The other two books I’m excited about are Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I just read for the first time …

RB: Wasn’t that written in the 19th century?

GS: Yes (laughs). And The Return of the Native.

RB: Geez, where do you find these books? (Laughs)

GS: Especially Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

RB: Whatever its literary merit, I suppose it’s a very important book in American history.

GS: I was prepared for a slog. But it’s a really good book. She’s the George Eliot of slavery.

RB: I can’t read those books. I wonder what it says that a reader like me doesn’t read the canon – what it says about their durability? You bemoan the fact that Tolstoy and others are not being read…

GS: Well, I take comfort in the thought of the 400,000.

RB: I see.

GS: A useful remnant.

RB: A useful myth.

GS: Yes, as we enter our Dark Years.

RB: The Dark Years—a good place to end. (Both laugh) Well, George, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.

Footnotes

1. David Shields- Conversation at Los Angeles Review of Books
2.D H Lawrence citation “The Education of the People” (1919), in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, pp. 659-661. from George Scialabba’s Commonplace Book
3.Ian McEwan from Guardian article
4.Tim Parks from New York Review of Books blog, “Reading The Struggle
5. Sven Birkets Conversation at The Morning News
6. Rachel Cohen Conversation at The Morning News
7. Edward P Jones Conversation at Identitytheory
8. Eduardo Galeano Conversation at Identitytheory
9. Raritan
10. Anthony Marra Conversation at Our Man in Boston
11.Bob Schaccochis Conversation at The Los Angeles Review of Books
11. John Summers Conversation at Identitytheory

Currently reading Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket books)

12 Postscript

What The World Needs Now

27 Jul
Phillip Kerr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Phillip Kerr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Recently, I chatted with Philip Kerr, my favorite Scotch author , and he observed something to the effect that John Le Carre will be the author that is most remembered and read from this era (20th century).

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre

I watched A Most Wanted Man last Friday afternoon and A Constant Gardener (again). I have previously read both these LeCarre novels and I am beginning to see Kerr’s point about LeCarre— A Constant Gardner is a precis’ of the foibles of (white) Western African policies and the immense corruption that has been rampant since the days of empire.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

A Most Wanted Man is, plain and simple, a display of, in toto, the ineptitude of secret spy agencies (think back to the absurd machinations of the Czars’s secret police) and the self-serving nature of the security state. The bad joke in this story is that the CIA operative (Robin Wright) offers , when asked by the German anti terror unit agent(Phillip Seymour Hoffman) why they did what they did, “To make the world a little safer —isn’ that enough?”

Lecarre also reprises a notion that I first noticed in A Constant Gardener. Tessa want he husband to stop the car and give a ride to 3 Africans she knows have to walk 40 k to get home. He says. there are just too many to help. We leave it to the agencies.” She says,” But there are 3 people we can help now.” In A Most Wanted Man someone says, ‘“The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing.”

And then there is this gem from Russia House (which Howard Zinn pointed out to me)

I do not like experts. They are our jailers. I despise experts more than anyone on earth…They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured,we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us…When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.

John Le Carre The Russia House p 207

Currently reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Knopf)

The Thrill Is Gone

8 Jul
Chandler wrote thrillers?

Chandler wrote thrillers?

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

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

Our Man In  Havana by Graham Greene

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene

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

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

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

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer

Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer


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

Our Tailor in Panama by John  le Carre

Our Tailor in Panama by John le Carre

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

SHELLEY'S HEART BY  Charles McCarry

SHELLEY’S HEART BY Charles McCarry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: That’s the perception.

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

RB: They have no domestic jurisdiction.

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

RB: Those were not Republicans?

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

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

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

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

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

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

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serial Fictionists

7 Sep

Except for a novitiate’s enthusiasm for John D McDonald’s Travis MCGee, I have not been enamored of crime store series as I discovered more and more irresistible crime story writers. I tried to stay with Robert Parker’s Spenser and early on and lost interest. Lawrence Block’s Scudder became agonizingly involved with 12 Steps and Alcoholics Anonymous. Andrew Vachhs’s Burke was compelling, especially since he so skillfully lived off the grid but you can only get so much mileage out of amorality.Thomas Perry’s Jane whitehead seemingly became a vehicle for various of her pyrotechnics. For a time, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rollins progressed convincingly—Mosley kept moving through the decades to good effect. Even highly regarded Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch became tiresome —I would maintain that Connelly’s one-off, The Poet, was his best book. In fact, both Dennis Lehane and Robert Parker most absorbing stories were the one-offs they wrote set in a Boston of the past.

Elmore Leonard has done himself proud with a long skein of fine stories but even he has, of late, succumbed to the temptation of reprising a powerful and enthralling character e.g. Raylon Givens, Karen Sisco and Jack Foley. George Pelecanos’s early stories were a series of sorts but his recent books have been woven whole cloth each time out. Reportedly though, his fine new novel, The Cut featuring a young Iraq war vet is the beginning of a string.

Under varying circumstances I have recently had cause to return to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series(a chat), Michael Dibdin’s Zen stories (Masterpiece Theater series), Bernard Black’s Quirke (another chat)(I am tempted to propagate the New Yorker‘s erroneous assignment of a first name to Black’s hero—but no), Richard Stark’s Parker(Banville’s recommendation), John Lawton’s Inspector Troy ( joyful discovery and John Harvey’s Charley Resnick(an old and goody).

Interestingly,when I spoke to Kerr he shrewdly observed that series writers usually write one or two too many—citing Raymond Chandler as an example. I am pleased to report that that Kerr, Lawton, Stark and Harvey and, to some degree, Black have managed to enliven the ongoing stories of their heroes.

That’s good news.

Currently reading Nightwoods Charles Frazier(Random House)