Book Review

Book Review: Middlemarch

May 3rd, 2017 4 Comments


Middlemarch was hailed as a masterpiece when it was published in 1871 (roughly—there is some question as to which criteria to use to determine its date of publication), and it is still considered one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language. No novel becomes an instant classic and holds that status for almost a century-and-a-half without characters succeeding generations can identify with, characters whose hopes and dreams succeeding generations can identify with, characters whose problems and flaws succeeding generations can identify with, and with a plot—or multiple interwoven plots—that grabs succeeding generations. Middlemarch has all those and more.

Time should have been unkind to Middlemarch. George Eliot’s writing is extremely florid by today’s standards, far less accessible than, say, Charles Dickens,’ who died a year before Middlemarch was even published. Many of the issues she wished to discuss are both dated and obscure; I pride myself on knowing something of English history, but I hadn’t a clue why the Reform of Act of 1832 was so hotly debated and fought over.

Having said that, one of the novel’s issues has resurrected itself with a vengeance in today’s world, albeit in different forms. Religious tolerance is even more in danger today than it was then: scroll through any news source and you can find angry, intolerant fools railing against Jews, Muslims, Christianity, varying forms of Christianity, the right of politicians to have or express any faith at all, and religious freedom generally being pitted against secular freedom. Whew. Things were simpler in England in the first half of the nineteenth century, if only due to the benefits of hindsight, but even then, the attitude was that my faith was clearly closer to God than yours, a smugly self-righteous belief that was the only conviction unifying the Church of England, Catholicism, and Evangelicalism.

Many of the conflicts in the novel are extremely dated, and Eliot’s resolutions to those conflicts are themselves dated: Dorothea, the intelligent and highly educated heroine, finally finds joy and fulfillment with a life that would make any intelligent and ambitious wife of today’s world start tearing her hair out in frustration. Women today have much to rightly fight for (or against: consider recent developments at Fox News), but we live in an era when a woman came within a hair of becoming president, and today’s readers may have a hard time coming to grips with ladies who took it for granted that they should be subservient to their husbands and who never even dreamed of such extraordinary freedoms as enfranchisement. So, when you read this (and you should, you really should), you must read it within the context of its time, just as you would with Huckleberry Finn, or Pride and Prejudice, or Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary, or any other novel written to reflect a specific time and specific place. It’s not the details of time and place that make a novel weak or strong. It is the universal and unchanging qualities of the human animal that make us identify so with yesterday’s characters and their struggles precisely because those qualities and those struggles endure.

And, oh boy, does Eliot do a spectacular job of giving us characters to love or hate, characters we recognize instantly even after all this time. She (George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Anne Evans, and it is proof of her talent that most readers haven’t a clue who Mary Anne Evans was, yet everyone knows the name George Eliot) has a wise and perceptive eye for human constants and foibles that make us laugh or cry in recognition. Rosemond Vincy, the narcissistic, vain, selfish, and scheming wife of one of the primary characters, was so well-drawn, so real, so nastily self-absorbed and manipulative, that at one point I had to put the book down because she reminded me too much of someone from my past I prefer to forget. But even Eliot’s most subsidiary characters ring true today. Consider this thumbnail of the unnamed ladies (of a certain social class) in the town of Middlemarch on hearing of behavior they deplore on the part of one of their own:

“‘To be candid,’ in Middlemarch phraseology, meant to use an early opportunity of letting your friends know that you did not take a cheerful view of their capacity, their conduct, or their position; and a robust candor never waited to be asked for its opinion.”

Tell me you don’t recognize that personality type.

And sometimes Eliot’s observations are hysterically funny. We were traveling when I read the following paragraph to my bride, and she laughed so hard I thought she might wake the people in the next room:

“After three months, [her sister Celia’s house] had become rather oppressive: to sit like a model for Saint Catharine looking rapturously at Celia’s baby would not do for many hours in the day, and to remain in that momentous babe’s presence with persistent disregard was a course that could not have been tolerated in a childless sister. Dorothea would have been capable of carrying the baby joyfully for a mile if there had been need, and of loving it more tenderly for that labor; but to an aunt who does not recognize her infant nephew as Buddha, and has nothing to do for him but admire, his behavior is apt to appear monotonous, and the interest of watching of him exhaustible.”

My children were constant sources of delight and amazement even as infants; yours, not so much so.

One element that runs throughout Middlemarch is the rigid stratification of society in those days. It’s not a theme, so much as it something so taken for granted, even by George Eliot, so much a part and parcel of England in that era, that it is reflected in the novel without comment, and Eliot comments on almost everything and everyone. She shows every different level of society, from laborers to landed gentry, but it isn’t commented on as either good or bad, but just as something that is, something that may possibly always be part of England.

Those of you who watched Downton Abbey remember what a momentous thing it was, especially at the beginning of the series, whenever one of the Crawley family would go downstairs to the kitchen or the wine cellar, causing disruption and chaos amongst the serving classes. Downton Abbey took place almost a hundred years later than Middlemarch, yet nothing had changed. Nor would anything even begin to change until the horrors and wholesale annihilation of an entire generation finally began the decline of the British Empire. And how much change occurred even then? How much remains the same? A friend of mine, Dale Tate, is a custom shotgun maker who lives in northern California. He was born in the rough, working-class neighborhood of Southwark, and got his start in the traditional Dickensian British manner as an apprentice for James Purdey & Sons, makers of fine guns for Queen Victoria, Edward VII, Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburg, the Prince of Wales, countless members of lesser royal houses (sniff, sniff) throughout the continent, as well as Indian princes. But Dale moved to America because he got tired of having his dreams and ambitions dismissed by wealthy men with posh “public school” accents; of being told to go around to the tradesman’s entrance; of being told to eat in the barn after his day’s work as a beater was done, so perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all.

Middlemarch has been criticized for being intentionally didactic. In theory, it is, and in theory, that should be disastrous because Eliot repeatedly steps outside the world and characters she has created to moralize about them, and yet… And yet, somehow it works. It works in part because her observations are so astute and so well expressed that one becomes hooked on them rather than put off: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” Eliot wants us to see ourselves and our fellow travelers with sympathy and understanding, but she knows too well that none of us see or comprehend nearly as much as we should, and that none of us are God-like enough to do so completely without going mad.

I have no intention of trying to give you an idea of the plot. For one thing, there are at least two major and interweaving plot lines, and two or three (depending on how you count them) subsidiary plot lines, each of which involves multiple ancillary characters. What I will say is that in spite of its old-fashioned and arch literary style, and in spite of its length (at roughly eight hundred pages it counts as one of the longest novels written in the English language), it will leave with you with memories of unforgettable people, some of whom triumph, some of whom do not, but all of whom linger as completely and honestly three-dimensional, as delightful or disgusting, as the people in your life today.

Book Review: The Hell Bent Kid

January 6th, 2017 6 Comments



Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) gave me an ancient, yellow-paged, mass-market paperback entitled The Hell Bent Kid, by Charles O. Locke, published back in the fifties, with the kind of over-the-top cover illustration one might expect to see on a bad Louis L’Amour. Both the cover and the title gave me pause.

The cover was painted by illustrator George Gross, who clearly took his inspiration from Hollywood’s ideas of cowboys and cowboying, not from anything approaching reality. That’s hardly surprising, considering that George Gross was the Brooklyn-born son of an illustrator, who followed in his father’s footsteps, attending the Pratt Art Institute, and then living and working as an illustrator in New York all his life, and it probably wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to anyone likely to buy the book, but it got me off to a bad start.

Then there’s the title.

Dan has a theory that writers frequently choose the worst possible titles for their novels. He points to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s revered and classic novel Trimalchio in West Egg as an example. I’m sure you’ve read it. If in fact you do remember the name Trimalchio at all, it’s from The Satyricon, and if you happen to be one of the very few who have ever actually read that, you will agree that it might—might—possibly have been an appropriate choice of title. Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s editor, the great Maxwell Perkins, was able to prevail upon his client and the book has fared reasonably well throughout the years under the much better title The Great Gatsby. If only Maxwell Perkins had been Charles O. Locke’s editor.


Good question. Who the hell was Charles O. Locke? In the Age of the Internet it’s supposed to be possible to find out just about anything about anybody, but not Charles O. Locke. The sum of the man’s life (that I have been able to find) is that he was born into a well-to-do newspaper family in Ohio, graduated from Yale, worked as a journalist, a publicist, a copy writer for an advertising agency, and as a lyricist for some Broadway musicals before turning his hand to Western novels. That’s about it—not much for a man who lived to be eighty-one and is credited with (among accolades for his other novels) a Western that is considered one of the best of all time, frequently mentioned in the same breath as such classics as The Ox-Bow Incident and The Big Sky. That’s heady company, and it was only a reference to those books on the cover, and the fact that I trust Dan’s literary judgment, that kept me from sticking the book up on a high and obscure shelf in my library. I’m glad I didn’t.

Apart from the appalling and off-putting title, The Hell Bent Kid (it should have a hyphen in there, but it doesn’t) is an excellent and exceptionally well-written novel—not just an excellent and well-written Western novel, but novel, period. Mr. Locke’s style reminds me of Hemingway at his very best, meaning sparse, taut, unemotional, where much lies beneath the bare-bones surface, a style that I suspect is the result of both men having been newspaper reporters. All that sparseness creates a story that rushes forward with the speed and momentum of a galloping horse, and yet, in Locke’s capable hands, without ever sacrificing character development or a vivid sense of place.

And it is a story that is both compelling and deceptively intelligent. On the surface, it is nothing more than a variant retelling of the classic of the innocent man fighting to clear his name, or escape the forces of evil, or simply to stay alive against overwhelming odds, the kind of story you can find in any paperback Western with white or yellowed pages. Yet Locke presents an idealistic young hero fighting not just the evil of the men who wish to kill him, or the equally deadly and impersonal dangers of the desert he must travel through, but also confronting the violent nature of man himself as it rises within him. The kid knows what he must do to stay alive, knows too what the almost certain outcome will be, and chooses to confront both dangers on his own terms.

The result is an archetypical, stock Western character elevated into a Christ figure, a man willing to sacrifice himself for a fundamental belief in essentially Christian values. Don’t misunderstand: this is not a “Christian novel;” it is not preachy; it is not a moralizing sermon in novel form; it is not even (I suspect) a novel with a conscious theme. Rather, it is a damned fine, fast-paced novel, set in the American West, using typically Western cowboy themes and images and characters and plot, yet (I’m guessing here) where the author’s moral compass shines through and makes it something more than the same story might have been in lesser hands.

Clearly, Charles O. Locke was neither a horseman nor a shooter; there are a few minor errors having to do with horse handling and firearms, but they are so minor and so few that only diehard fanatics like me will ever catch them. If you liked The Oxbow Incident, give yourself a treat and try to find a copy of The Hell Bent Kid. Good luck finding an affordable copy, though. It is one of those books that command the kinds of prices that once could buy you a good used pickup. We can only hope that some publisher will re-release it.


Book Review: Innocents and Others

November 20th, 2016 12 Comments


We all have certain authors, or even individual books, we return to over and over. Some qualify as comfort food to get us through those dark nights of the soul: P.G. Wodehouse, H.H. Munro (Saki), Somerville & Ross, W.W. Jacobs, James Thurber, O. Henry, The Wind in the Willows. Some qualify as old friends, the ones we turn to in moments of leisure or despair, not to harp on the rejected manuscript, the financial straits, the acid words spoken in anger by a child or spouse, but just to hear a known and friendly voice, see a friendly face, acknowledge a shared and treasured past: anything by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, William Trevor, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, certain mysteries and certain poets, The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, The Reivers, The Bear, so many others, all those links that can only be broken by our own passing.

The comfort food and the old friends both wrote compelling stories, but the old friends also wrote marvelous commentaries on the human condition, holding up the mirror on aspects of ourselves that were true when they were written, true today, and true ten-thousand tomorrows from now.

Which brings me to what it is I dislike about so much of today’s American literary fiction.

I have not read all, by any means, but with a few obvious exceptions, most of what I have read seems to focus in lengthy, neurotic detail on the microcosm of contemporary middleclass suburban life, as if the authors had taken too much to heart the aphorism, “write what you know.” That’s great advice if what you know, what you have witnessed and experienced, is worth writing about, but it is also some of the most crippling nonsense I have ever heard. Taking it to heart we would never have had anything by Edgar Allen Poe, as an obvious example, or Ray Bradbury, or Ursula Le Guin, or most of the great mysteries that have entranced generations of readers. But if you are going to limit yourself to writing about what you know, for God’s sake dip below the surface and look at some of the universal qualities of the human psyche that make people extraordinary, interesting, and memorable. Hold up the mirror on what endures, not on the unmemorable and transitory surface. And memorable is my personal yardstick: if, a year, a month, a week later, I can’t remember who was who in a novel, the odds are pretty good it was a novel not worth reading. Rather than give you an example of the boring, the hackneyed, the neurotic surface-scratching, let me give you an example of a novel with absolutely unique and unforgettable characters: No Country for Old Men. You may love or hate Cormac McCarthy, but you can’t deny that he creates some of the most indelible characters in all of modern literary fiction.

I recently read Innocents and Others, by Dana Spiotta. Dana Spiotta is one of the hot and hip young darlings of the modern American literary scene, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Whatever else you might think about Dana Spiotta’s characters in Innocents and Others, they are, by God, memorable. With one exception they are all freaky, dishonest, self-absorbed, oblivious to anyone’s needs but their own, oblivious sometimes to their own selfishness and cruelty, frequently not very likeable, but all are memorable.

I’m not intellectual enough to know if Innocents and Others qualifies as post-modernist, or deconstructionist, or fabulist, or meta-fiction, or any one or all of the dozens of other precious labels given to equally precious works, but if another yardstick is the desire to keep reading and learn what happens next, Spiotta achieves that.

Her style (and I’m sure there is some label for it I am not well-educated enough to know) is a pastiche of past and present, first person, third person and omniscient, straight forward story-telling and personal essay, epistolary (if you can use that word in association with email and blog comments) and movie-script, truth and bullshit, with the not unnatural result that the reader—or at least this reader—is always kept on his toes. It may be nothing more than a fairly common, up-to-the-minute way of writing, but it was new to me and—at least in Ms. Spiotta’s hands—very intriguing.

Equally intriguing to me personally was the story’s background in movie-making; not just in Hollywood, but in old films and both famous and obscure filmmakers that the two friends, Meadow and Carrie, obsess over and whose work they analyze and try to learn from.

The third character in this odd and strangely seductive book is the most sympathetic, a fat, lumpy, unattractive middle-aged, visually impaired woman who seduces men—total strangers—over the phone. No, contrary to any reviews you might read, it is not phone sex. Rather, it is a bizarre, emotional reaching out on the part of a woman who knows that in our youth- and beauty-oriented society, where gorgeous young things with perfect bodies and perfect skin and gleaming lips pout at us from every row of the magazine rack at the supermarket, her only assets are a beautiful voice and an exceptionally keen and accurate ability to understand and engage the men she talks to, engage them both intellectually and emotionally. And the needs and isolation of that character say more about our society today than the rest of the book.

The rest is a meditation in part on reality, in part on friendship, in part on art—or at least on what constitutes art—but all those things are the abstractions within the tangible construction of memorable characters.

Innocents and Others is unlikely to ever become anybody’s comfort food, but Dana Spiotta may turn out to be an old friend.

Book Review: Shadow Country

October 18th, 2016 9 Comments



The prolific and immensely talented actor James Best (most famous for his role as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazard) owned an acting school in Hollywood for many years. One of his admonitions to any of his students who happened to get cast as a villain was, “After you rape all the women and murder all the children, make sure you pat the horse on the ass before you leave the scene.” It was a shorthand way of saying, ‘No matter how loathsome your character, find a way to give him a humanizing dimension.’ It’s excellent advice for actors and writers both, and it is why I have a problem with Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country.

I have no proof of this, but my impression is that Americans are more prone to romanticize their villains and make heroes of them than people of other nations. Think of the violent criminals of the post-Civil War days: Frank and Jesse James, the Younger brothers, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Butch and Sundance, the Daltons, Tom Horn, and a score of others, less well known, but also romanticized gunslingers. I haven’t even bothered to include some of the famous names that were nominally considered lawmen, but who moved back and forth across the line between law and crime as it suited their purposes. (The Earps, Wild Bill Hickok, Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday… The list is lengthy.) Moving along into the twentieth century, think of Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Machine Gun Kelley, Pretty Boy Floyd, the glorification of the Mafia generally in books and on film. These were all murderous, vicious, amoral, and narcissistic thugs, but every single one of the names above has had at least one book written about him and been featured in a movie, and most of those names have had multiple books written and multiple movies made about them, and some have passed into legend, forming part of the mythology of America.

Enter Peter Matthiessen with his monumental and massive (892 pages) portrayal of one of the bloodiest and most ruthless and little known members of that legendary group.

Edgar Artemas (middle name later changed to Jack) Watson, nicknamed “Bloody” Watson for reasons that scarcely need explaining, was a pioneer of one of the least known, least appreciated, and least understood wilderness areas remaining in America at the end of the nineteenth century.

The extreme southwestern coast of Florida is known as the Ten Thousand Islands, islands here including any little islet, regardless of suitability for habitation. While most of those little tangled islets are nothing more than mangroves growing on submerged oyster beds, they have two very desirable qualities. One is they provide an ecologically rich buffer zone for the ecologically rich coast proper. The other is they provide excellent cover for people who might prefer their activities to be screened from the prying eyes of the law-abiding world. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Ten Thousand Islands (the name is a great exaggeration; there are nowhere near ten thousand of them) was a conveniently remote and inaccessible area for people who might be of great interest to law enforcement. And nothing has changed in over one hundred years; when I worked down there in the early eighties, the area was considered one of the primary ports of entry for the illegal drug trade, and I suspect little has changed in the past thirty-five years.

Briefly, Edgar Watson was one of those who found the area to be convenient, being a person of interest in various other parts of the country for the reasons that led to his “Bloody” nickname. Like so many other semi-legendary characters, like the islands themselves, his soubriquet was probably a great exaggeration. It owed its genesis to rumors that he was the man who killed the notorious Belle Starr while he was hiding out in the “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). There is no doubt that he killed at least several people, but probably nowhere near as many as are attributed to him. There is also no doubt that he raised sugar cane and vegetables very successfully in the Ten Thousand Islands. After that, much is conjecture.

Shadow Country is Peter Matthiessen’s rich imagining of Edgar Watson’s life, but unfortunately, Matthiessen ignored Jimmy Best’s advice: his Edgar Watson is loathsome in every single way you can imagine and admirable in none. Yes, as written by Matthiessen, Mr. Watson is highly intelligent, but so what? There are highly intelligent psychopaths in every prison in America, but intelligence doesn’t make them people you want to hang out with. Yes, as written by Matthiessen, Mr. Watson is ambitious and has the foresight to see the potential in swampy, mosquito-infested land, but every crooked politician in the country has ambition and foresight, and those qualities don’t make any of them the kind of person you want to spend 892 pages with.

Mr. Watson’s bad qualities (murderous violence, treachery, the kind of unspeakable racism that regards blacks as disposable non-humans, brutality toward his own children, infidelity, sexual predation of every pretty thing who crosses his path regardless of age or willingness, sexual brutality toward even the women he purports to love, an inclination to justify his murders and treachery by saying other people do it too, alcoholism and a host of other self-destructive traits) so outweigh whatever miniscule and fleeting good impulses he might have had that it was only Matthiessen’s exquisite writing that kept me forging on to the end. If I want to hang out with people like that, I can find them in any city in the country. Hell, there’re a lot of them on Capitol Hill. And I frankly got tired of the litany of killings; the bodies kept piling up without remorse or even learning from experience on the part of Mr. Watson. Except for a brief interlude as a child, Mr. Watson starts out bad and progresses only as far as worse.

Originally written as a much longer trilogy, Shadow Country is condensed down into three connected books in a single volume. The first and last of the these work the best.

The first is told in a wide range of voices and from a wide range of different points of view, all of them discussing Mr. Watson and his exploits from their singular perspective. And here is one of the areas where Matthiessen is unsurpassed: like Twain, Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy, Matthiessen has the rare ability to catch the real and natural vernacular of uneducated people even as he achieves something almost like poetry.

The third book is told from Mr. Watson’s point of view, and while that doesn’t make his actions any prettier, it does provide a fascinating portrait of a man almost completely devoid of empathy, compassion, understanding, or any other trace of humanity. He may be despicable, but he is the personification of raw courage and self-reliance. He never whines or shows any more self-pity than he does pity to various people he uses and uses up for his own ends. It’s an intriguing masterpiece of writing, and in the last three or four pages, Matthiessen even managed to engage my sympathies for this despicable man.

The middle book, told from the point of view of one of Mr. Watson’s sons, is the most revealing yet least successful. The boy is educated, so he lacks the vernacular poetry of the more uneducated people in the story, and—probably in the interests of time and brevity—Matthiessen has other people, some of them total strangers to the boy, overly eager to tell him the unvarnished truth of everything they know about his father. And yet, in Matthiessen’s gifted hands, truth becomes as tenuous and slippery as it is in real life.

I have one other cavil, one in which I am not alone: covering over half a century and the entire southeastern quadrant of the country, not including occasional forays into the past, there are sooooooooooooo many characters I had to keep referring back to the genealogy just to keep Mr. Watson’s family members and multiple wives straight. More irritating and more to the point, there are sooooooooooooo many ancillary characters, some of whom appear briefly in book one and don’t reappear until book three, that I would really have appreciated a list of all the dramatis personae. Or perhaps not: I’m willing to do that for War and Peace because I find Russian names confusing and hard to remember, but I shouldn’t have to do it for Shadow Country.

What kept me plowing on, more than anything else, is Matthiessen’s felicitous writing and the real hero of his story: the beautiful, fragile, vulnerable southern Florida wilderness, a wilderness as abused and doomed as any of Mr. Watson’s many women.

Book Review: The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing

September 16th, 2016 26 Comments



Packing up some books I came across The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank. I gazed at it in wonder because, as far as I know, it made its way onto my shelves entirely of its own volition. I have no memory of purchasing it, borrowing it, stealing it, or having received it as a gift. Tired from climbing up and down the step ladder, covered with dust, irritable at having to put my books in storage, if only for a while, I looked upon it as a sign, a message from the universe that I should take a break, and I did so immediately.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is designated as “Chick-Lit.” I hate designations generally (after you’ve said fiction or non-fiction, either it’s good writing or it’s bad writing), but “Chick-Lit” especially seems so condescending and vaguely contemptuous, as if “chicks” had to have special books written for them with small words, short sentences, and large font. “Ah, those brainless little sex objects, bless their hearts; here’s a simple little book to keep them busy and away from the shoe stores for a while.” I mean, come on, is there a “Beefcake” genre? (Please don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.)

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is a loosely connected sequence of short stories that cover the range of a girl’s life from fourteen to an unstated age (which we can guess at precisely because it’s unstated) as she tries to come to grips with what love is and should be for her. Like so many of us, she makes one disastrous mistake after another over the years before she stumbles into a healthy relationship, and it is that process that links the stories. It is not quite a novel, but the linked stories make it a sort of novel in the way that Jack Schaeffer’s Monte Walsh was. (That’s Manly-Cowboy fiction, for you genre addicts.)

But describing the book this way trivializes it. Romeo and Juliet can be summarized as “Chick-Lit, sub-genre, Boy-Meets-Girl,” but in Shakespeare’s hands, the story becomes a trifle more interesting than that. In Melissa Bank’s hands, Jane and her family and eventually her lovers become, if not as majestic and heroic as the Montagues and the Capulets, very real and specific people in specific places at a specific time, which is another way of saying universal. The very first story in the collection introduces us to Jane as a fourteen-year-old, and in Melissa Bank’s hands, Jane becomes as awkwardly and sardonically real for the advent of the twenty-first century as Holden Caulfield was for the middle of the twentieth. And it was that intelligent and perceptive adolescent girl who remained with me throughout the other stories; she may have aged and gotten smarter (and funnier), but she was still Jane trying to make sense of her brother’s choice of girlfriend, still Jane trying to get along with a boss without getting squashed by the same, still Jane trying to reconcile the men in her life with her idea of love. It’s what we all do, on both sides of the sexual border.

Melissa Bank’s writing is lean and compelling and very funny. I’m only giving the book four stars because I found one story to be jarringly out of place; not in style or tone, but because it was told from another person’s point of view, and that jarred me out of the flow of the book. But if all “Chick-Lit” is as good as The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, then count me in as a brainless little sex object.

Book Review: At Play in the Fields of the Lord

August 24th, 2016 12 Comments

Old bboks


In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond posits the theory that Eurasian cultures (meaning Europe plus the whole of the Mediterranean region from the Mesopotamian Basin and the Levant across northern Africa to the Atlantic) were able to conquer so-called primitive cultures in Africa and the Americas not because of any inherent intellectual superiority, but because the accident of geography had given the Eurasians natural travel corridors that exposed them to both the creative ideas and the germs of other societies, providing tools for growth and conquest with the one, and resistance to disease with the other. Diamond’s book was written in 1997, over thirty years after Peter Matthiessen wrote At Play in the Fields of the Lord, yet Matthiessen’s novel anticipated—albeit indirectly—some of Diamond’s theories about cultural destruction, while adding a third in the form of religious dogma, thereby proving that art frequently presages reality.

Very briefly, and crudely, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, presents three entities in conflict. Two are “civilized” American groups, one of mercenaries, one of missionaries, at a remote outpost in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian jungle.

The mercenaries are a duo, a New York Jew and a half-Cheyenne named Lewis Moon (the side of their stolen plane bears the logo, “Wolfie & Moon, Inc., Small Wars & Demolition”) stranded by lack of cash, and willing to earn their way out of the filthy, fly-ridden hell-hole by killing off the third entity, a band of fierce and feared Indians farther upriver. On a reconnaissance flight, trying to locate the tribe they are to kill, they fly over a clearing as the terrified Indians run into the jungle. All but one, who stands his ground and shoots an arrow into the air at the giant noisy bird above him and with that arrow, that courageous, hopeless gesture of defiance, begins the transformation of Lewis Moon.

The other “civilized” group consists of two married couples, members of a fundamentalist Protestant sect determined to save both the souls of the primitive Indians from damnation and their lives from the mercenaries. One man wants to save them by understanding them; the other by making them understand him and his vision of Jesus Christ. Neither succeeds.

Also there is an intelligent, educated, enigmatic Catholic priest who too wants to save the souls of the savages, but with the wisdom and patience of over a thousand years of the Church, he bides his time and watches the others with detachment and amusement.

Of course, no one is saved. But the story lies in the transformation of the pivotal characters. One of the missionaries loses some of his religion, but gains a greater level of humanity; Matthiessen has him lose his last pair of glasses just as he begins to finally and truly “see” in the proper Christian sense of understanding and compassion. The mercenary loses an identity he never really had and gains a truer understanding of himself as he tries to save the little band of Indians who have proven themselves less savage than portrayed. And the Indians… The Indians lose everything.

I hate synopses; they so frequently—as I have just done—reduce the sublime to the ridiculous, but I want you to keep the basics of the plot in mind.

Many, many years ago I knew an artist by the name of Tobias Schneebaum. Toby, deceased now, God bless him, was acclaimed for his art, but also for his penchant for travelling the world and living with disparate and primitive cultures in far-flung places. He was also known for a book he wrote about one of his experiences, where he marched off into the jungles of Peru and lived for—months? years?—with a tribe of cannibals, a book entitled Keep the River on Your Right, so named after the advice given him by a missionary, the last Westerner to see him. Toby was thought dead for a long time, until he finally reemerged from the jungle to write and paint about his experiences with the tribe (including, apparently, sampling their favorite dish, other tribesmen).

It was Toby’s book that inspired me to originally read At Play in the Fields of the Lord. There are parallels, but it is the differences that are most striking. Toby wasn’t interested in killing or converting anyone. His interests were learning about other people, other cultures, other varieties of artistic expression, and—perhaps above all (at least from something he once said to me)—about the differences of light and color in various parts of the world, differences he would capture on canvas when he returned to New York.

The point is that art can bridge the gap between cultures in ways that nothing else can, certainly and especially not religious belief. I suspect music does this more effectively and universally than any other art form, but Toby wrote specifically about using his artistic skill to keep himself alive initially (Amazonian cannibals apparently being not too fussy about the origins of their food source. New York? Hell, we’ll even eat Brooklyn, Queens, Paterson, whatever.) and equally to bridge the language barrier. And in that openness of mind and spirit, in that willingness to bridge cultural gaps by using the universal language of art, Toby most closely resembles Lewis Moon, the half-Cheyenne mercenary who comes first to kill, then to save, and finally, inadvertently, to destroy, embodying all the elements Jared Diamond wrote about in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

At Play in the Fields of the Lord was published in 1965, not so long ago as the world turns, but unfathomable eons ago in terms of today’s technological advancements. Today, Toby’s cannibals and Lewis Moon’s warrior savages both probably have the internet, 4G Wi-Fi, and their own Facebook pages, so from that perspective it is an old-fashioned, dated book. Yet not so. We can learn much from that grumpy old fart next door, if we just stop being judgmental and open our minds and our hearts to different ways of thinking and being, and other cultures, with other ways of seeing the world might be able to save us more than we can save them. Lewis Moon learns a new way of being, the missionaries retreat, and the priest waits, patient, wise, and enduring.

What I lament is the passing of that single, courageous Indian, defiantly shooting his arrow at a monstrous metal bird.

Book Review: Guns and Violence

August 16th, 2016 13 Comments

Kimber 1911 001 (Small)


Books and articles that attack firearms ownership and the Second Amendment are usually clumsy and tedious recitations of often-repeated lies and misinformation, but they are frequently entertaining. For obscure reasons many anti-gun types, who might otherwise be perfectly intelligent and rational people, seem to become completely unhinged when discussing anything to do with guns and/or the Second Amendment, which is entertaining right there. Also, the authors usually haven’t got a clue as to which end of the gun the bullet comes out of, and ignorance can also be very entertaining. A flagrant example would be a breathless report I read many years ago about the actress Sharon Stone’s “fully automatic double-barreled shotgun,” something I would give a lot to see. A more recent example would be the congressman who worked himself into a frenzy on television following the Orlando terrorist attack, stating in horrified tones that an AR15 is capable of shooting four hundred rounds a minute! Ah, no, counselor, nowhere near; go do your homework.

On the other side, books and articles that support firearms ownership and the Second Amendment are frequently clumsy and tedious recitations of well-known facts, and that’s where Joyce Lee Malcolm’s Guns and Violence: The English Experience (Harvard University Press) stands apart.

Joyce Lee Malcolm is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, historian and constitutional scholar, professor of law at George Mason University, former professor of history at Bentley University, fellow of the Royal Historical Society… Frankly, the list of her academic accomplishments and honors is too long to record in full. What Ms. Malcom has done with her book is bring a scholar’s dispassionate objectivity and relentless research to an otherwise emotionally charged subject. Not only has she has done it in a refreshingly clear and well-written manner, but she has explored an area that as far as I know no one else has ever written about: the sad decline and eventual loss of the Merrie Olde paradise that was once possibly the most peaceful nation on earth.

Great Britain was for many years, many centuries, a remarkably peaceful country, the kind of place where what little crime there was rarely involved violence of any kind, and violent crime with a firearm was almost non-existent. Many people in Great Britain went armed every day, and not only was there almost no violent crime whatsoever, and even less armed crime, but an unarmed police force relied on an armed public to help them maintain law and order. In a notable example of how an armed populace is a benefit to society as a whole, in one of the rare gun crimes to occur during that peaceful era (a robbery known as the “Tottenham Outrage;” the fact that the incident was given a name shows you just how infrequent such crimes were), unarmed police officers “borrowed four [handguns] from passersby while other armed citizens fulfilled their legal obligation and joined the chase” [emphasis mine].

The industrial revolution was indirectly responsible for the gradual erosion of the traditional right of British citizens to keep and bear arms. The sudden explosion of wealth among the nouveau riche owners of new industries, from coal mines to factories, came at the expense of large numbers of workers who were paid barely living wages to labor in subhuman conditions, and even larger numbers of displaced countrymen who had no work at any salary under any conditions and who congregated in urban areas.

But it is a little too glib and easy to place the blame solely on the inventive fruits and greed of gifted entrepreneurs, and the resentment of the starving poor. Ms. Malcolm does not follow the following thread (it is not germane to her study), but the loss of rights in Great Britain actually had its genesis in the French Revolution.

The Royal Family, specifically the Prince Regent who eventually became George IV, set a standard for egregious, preposterous, wasteful, and ostentatious hedonism and spending that was imitated by wealthy peers who were in turn aped by well-to-do landed gentry and well-heeled middle classes in a nauseating display of trickledown extravagance. To achieve this, they cultivated an attitude of indifferent disdain for the plight of their less fortunate countrymen, a disdain that evolved quickly into fear whenever the desperate and desperately poor gathered to protest their poverty. As J. B. Priestley pointed out in The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency, the excesses of the French Revolution were still vivid in the minds of those who imagined their wealth and breeding made them somehow so superior to the lower classes that not even sympathy had to be extended, let alone a reasonable working wage. The poor wanted to eat; the rich, remembering the guillotines so recently put to good use in France, wanted to maintain both the status quo and their powdered heads on their pampered shoulders. The stage was set.

Every now and then the poor would gather together or march upon various cities, usually London, to voice their unreasonable desire to eat, and here is a singularly shameful period in the history of a great Empire that is filled with shameful periods and shameful episodes. One of the regular practices of the government at this time—and other times, so many others, both before and since—was to plant undercover agents whose role was to act as provocateurs, either starting fights and violence or whipping the crowds that had gathered for peaceful petition into enough of a frenzy to give government forces an excuse to go in and brutally suppress them. An excellent example of this would be the atrocity known as Peterloo that occurred in 1819, when regular troops (the 15th Hussars), local Yeomanry (equivalent to our National Guard), and constables attacked an unarmed crowd and killed at least eleven people and severely wounded an estimated six hundred, many of them women and children, who had gathered in Manchester to listen to orators tell them they had a right to food. So much, however, for the right of the people to petition their government.

The government justified their savagery by claiming the crowds were armed and dangerous (they were neither), the privileged and well-to-do members of the press dutifully reported what the government told them, the really wealthy read what the press reported and then, trembling in fear, demanded the government do something—something!—to protect them. What easier than to pass meaningless laws to solve a problem that did not exist?

Does all that sound familiar, gentle reader?

Governments have been lying to and manipulating the press for as long as both governments and the press have existed and the process continues unabated to this day in every country civilized enough to have a press that requires manipulation in place of direct intimidation. What is striking about the English example Ms. Malcolm has chronicled is that until the last decade or so, the English press seems never to have bothered to question even the most preposterous claims and outright lies spewed forth by generation after generation of British leaders. Instead, the press dutifully reported the lies as facts and duped generation after generation of readers.

Ms. Malcolm is masterfully objective and non-judgmental; the only ax-grinding she indulges in is an obsession with truth and honesty. You can almost hear her disdain as she chronicles the constant, repetitive dishonesty and manipulation of the British government: [The Secretary of State for the Home Office, Sir David Maxwell…] “…Fyfe was closely questioned about his contention that violent crime had risen sharply. Just two weeks earlier the government had defeated an effort to reinstate corporal punishment for some types of violent crimes by insisting that crime rates were declining.”

If that reminds you of the kind of contradictory gobbledygook you read or hear on the news every day, it’s because lying has always been and always will be a way of life for politicians.

Where Ms. Malcolm’s research is most revealing is in her assessment of the effects of Great Britain’s draconian confiscation and total ban of firearms. For over a century the myth of peaceful Olde England has been carefully perpetuated by a dishonest government (forgive the tautology) and a press eager to collude, even as both shrieked for more and more laws to prevent crimes that were not being committed. Finally, about ten years ago, The London Daily Telegraph (I believe) at last rose to the occasion and broke a story about the Home Office and the police consistently underreporting incidents of violent crime, and almost a decade later broke another story showing that even the government’s admission of an increase in violent crime was itself underreported. What Ms. Malcolm’s research showed was: “in 1904, before passage of gun restrictions, there were only 4 armed robberies a year in London. By 1991 this had increased 400 times, to 1,600 cases. From 1989 through 1996, armed crime increased by 500 percent at the very time the number of firearms certificate holders decreased by 20 percent.” The Home Office’s admission shows the situation has gotten markedly worse since then.

For the record, current independent tracking of world-wide crime generally, on a per capita basis, puts Great Britain in fourth place, ahead of South Africa (!) and well ahead of the United States, which came in a paltry twenty-second. For violent crime exclusively, according Great Britain’s Daily Mail, the United Kingdom is the most violent country in Europe, with a violent crime rate of 2,034 per 100,000 residents, compared with a rate of 466 per 100,000 for the United States. So much for disarming the law-abiding citizen. So much for peaceful Olde England.

How Great Britain compares to the United States is accentuated by the respective histories of the two countries. Great Britain had no violent crime but was afraid it might occur; their government took away the right of the people to keep and bear arms to defend themselves and violent crime became epidemic. America had violent crime (though, interestingly enough, nowhere near as much as most people imagine), but also had a Second Amendment that prevented the government from taking away the people’s right to self-defense. Today, America’s violent crime rate is lower than it was three decades ago, and the vast percent of the crime it does have is accounted for exclusively by major metropolitan centers with draconian and illegal gun laws, with Chicago, Washington, DC, and Baltimore topping the list.

Two of those cities have had Democratic mayors and governments for over fifty years; Washington, DC has never had a Republican mayor. All three of those Democratically-led cities scream that their violent crime rates are the fault of surrounding states with lax gun laws, but one has to ask why the surrounding states with the lax gun laws don’t also have stratospheric crime rates.

If you have the slightest interest in the truth about gun ownership and violent crime, read Guns and Violence.

Book Review: The Hounds of Heaven

June 27th, 2016 11 Comments

Bodio's dog


Steve Bodio is one of America’s greatly underrated treasures. He writes like an angel about a wide range of fascinating topics; he is one of the most widely-read and well-educated men I have ever come across, a twenty-first century version of an eccentric Victorian polymath; when he writes about topics close to his heart, he has the rare ability to weave emotion and objective scientific observation together; and he knows (or has known—time has thinned the ranks) practically everyone worth knowing, famous and obscure, rich and poor, artist and scientist, from New Mexico (where he lives physically) to Kazakhstan (where he lives spiritually).

We live in a time when polymaths are rarer than honest politicians and, whenever one does float to the surface of public perception, he is regarded with deep suspicion. Everyone and everything has to be quickly and easily pigeonholed in our Age of Single-Minded Experts: if you’re an artist, you can’t possibly be a scientist; if you’re a naturalist, you most certainly cannot write fiction; if you’re a cynologist, what the hell can you be expected to know about paleontology? When obvious exceptions such as Peter Matthiessen do arise, they are explained away as anomalies: Well, after all, how can you expect anything else from someone like Matthiessen when he was really a CIA agent all along? But Steve Bodio is a genuine polymath without being a CIA agent. As far as I know.

So what do you do with a book like Hounds of Heaven? Really now, is it about dogs or is it about falconry? Is it about pigeons or paleontology? Is it about hunting or is it about cultural anthropology or is it about genetics? And if it’s supposed to be a serious work, why is it so funny? Where the hell in the bookstore do we stock the damned thing?

I suspect some or all of those specious and asinine arguments will be voiced.

The fact is, the book is about all those things and more, it is indeed a serious work that will make you laugh out loud, and my recommendation is to stock it everywhere. It’s that good.

On one level Hounds of Heaven is about a quest, a search for an almost mythical beast that takes Bodio from a vodka-soaked apartment in Brooklyn to an unexpected and interrupted life in New Mexico, to that vast, high, central Asian region dismissed by a former presidential candidate as, “all those –stans,” where once Tamerlane and the Scourge of God and Marco Polo roamed, a region still inhabited by fierce and independent men who love deeply their horses, their eagles, and above all their dogs. It may be that Africa was the cradle of man and Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization, but the rugged steppes and mountains of central Asia were probably the cradle of man’s best friend, and very certainly the cradle of that unique variety known as sight-hounds.

And on another level Hounds of Heaven is a love story, for no matter how useful or scientifically intriguing dogs may be, ultimately our relationship with them is based on mutual love, and anyone who has ever shared his life with a dog will admit he has learned at least as much from his faithful friend as his friend ever learned from him.

Finally, several years ago, before Steve ever started this book, I asked him to vet an article I had written for a magazine in which I posited the theory that the only way to save virtually every dog recognized by either the AKC or the UKC was to outcross to related, but genetically different, breeds. In other words, if you want to return the German shepherd, for example, to the healthy, long-lived specimen it once was, open up the gene pool and go back to some of the distantly related breeds that prior to the end of the nineteenth century used to be lumped under the loose category “sheepdog.” Try a Malinois or Groenendael or Tervueren, try a Kuvasz, hell, try an Anatolian. If those don’t work, go farther afield, but for God’s sake stop breeding crippled, short-lived beauties to crippled, short-lived beauties. I’d rather have a German shepherd that looks like the vaguely mutty ones von Stephanitz had, that was capable of living its full twelve or thirteen years free of the more than fifty heritable diseases man has bred into and concentrated in that noble breed.

It turned out Steve had been studying (of course) and thinking about this very issue, and he kindly corrected some of my errors and told me to sic ‘em. Steve goes into this issue in depth, but very readable depth. If you love dogs, or even if you’ve ever loved just a single dog, you will love Hounds of Heaven and its cast of unusual, eccentric, and passionate characters, two-legged as well as four-legged.

Book Review: The Noise of Time

June 20th, 2016 10 Comments



Somewhere, I now forget where, I stumbled across the following quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize-winning author of, among others, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago:

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more—we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

It’s worth keeping that quote, that sentiment, in mind when reading Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. Barnes’ novel about Dmitri Shostakovich opens with the composer standing by the elevator in his apartment building all night long, with a small overnight bag at his feet, smoking endless cigarettes as he waits for Stalin’s security officers to come take him away. Those who were unlucky enough to drift into Stalin’s vast (seven million or more dead) and frequently merely peripheral web of disfavor were invariably taken away during the night, and Shostakovich’s standing by the elevator is his personal act of courage, his desperate effort to save his wife and children.

I am not knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to appreciate this novel from a musical perspective, but it doesn’t matter because what it really is about is courage, not the great, courageous stroke of the hero, but the small and varying courage it takes to live—to endure—for decades in fear. You cooperate here, resist a little bit there when you dare, bow low and weigh your words carefully this morning, then try to recoup a tiny fraction of self-respect by taking a small stand this afternoon. The subtle stands of resistance—a musical masterpiece like the Fifth Symphony—are offset by the capitulations that breed self-loathing and regret for the opera not written. Courage, under Stalin, had to be used by the teaspoon. Shostakovich recounts the experience of a friend, a violinist who expected to be arrested. Instead, the secret police came, night after night, and each time they arrested someone else in the violinist’s apartment building, gradually working their way up, night by night, apartment by apartment, floor by floor, until at last the entire building was vacant except for the violinist. And that gradual, casual murdering of everyone else, of totally innocent people whose only crime was to have lived in the wrong building, made the violinist completely, utterly compliant. Fear is a powerful weapon, more powerful than death, because after all the dead are immune; nothing more can be done to them.

Barnes has an odd writing style, a detached, cerebral style that in the only other book of his that I’ve read, Flaubert’s Parrot, I disliked. It’s as if he uses his own writing to keep all emotion at arm’s length. (In Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator is so cold and emotionally detached that the result is there is no one in the novel for the reader to identify and empathize with. I found myself thinking of Herman Melville’s comment in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, discussing the relative value of emotion versus intellect in art: “I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!”) Yet here, in The Noise of Time, that same distancing of emotion works, in part because the only way a man can find the courage to stand, night after night, by an elevator, waiting to be arrested, is by distancing himself from emotion. And by showing us a man who will sacrifice himself to save his wife and children, you have automatically presented someone the reader can empathize with, not a hero, not even a consistently brave man, but one who, like most of us, screws his courage to the sticking place when he can, and hates himself when he can’t.

Readers with more musicality than I may get more out of this book, but its universality lies in its harrowing portrayal of what it’s like to live in fear, not for a day or a week or a year, but for decade after decade, and then, at the end, to look back and to think of what one might have done, might have accomplished if only one hadn’t been afraid. If only. If…if.

It’s a lesson to be kept in mind.

Book Review: L.A. Noir

June 3rd, 2016 14 Comments

LA Noir


A year or so ago, my lady wife and I stumbled across a series on TNT called Mob City. It was an excellent, stylish tip of the hat to the classic film noir productions of Hollywood’s golden era and to the kind of movies that came out of that era, movies that emphasized a world-weary, cynical view of life, where moral ambiguity reigns and the hero typically loses more than he gains in his Pyrrhic victory over evil. Think of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum in film adaptations of novels by Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain directed by John Huston or Howard Hawks. I’m over-simplifying terribly, but you get the noir picture.

I was tottering around a bookstore recently with my friend Dan Bronson, a retired screen-writer and former professor of English and American literature, and we stumbled across the book upon which Mob City is based. To my surprise, the book, L.A. Noir, by John Buntin, is a non-fiction account of the Los Angeles Police Department as it grew and developed in response to, and in conjunction with, the growth and spread of organized crime in America.

Let me give you some perspective. The LAPD is considered one of the elite and premier law enforcement agencies in the world, the very best of the best. For many decades they took a sort of cynical pride in the fact that they were the smallest police force relative to the population they served anywhere in the civilized world. I believe that statistic may still be true. Due in part to the small number of officers, versus the large numbers of people in a vast amount of square miles of territory, they made a virtue of necessity and pioneered techniques that allowed them to get the job done, techniques that are now studied and imitated by law enforcement agencies around the world. There is a reason why retired LAPD officer (former SWAT-team member and firearms and tactical instructor for the elite Metro division) Scott Reitz’s International Tactical Training Seminars is the go-to place for training for such entities as Navy Special Warfare Team Six and Army Delta Forces, as well as elite law enforcement agencies from around the world. Men and women who make their livings doing the dangerous things that allow the rest of us to sleep quietly at night train with the best, and that’s Scott Reitz. That’s the LAPD.

To call this book scholarly is an insult. I was still living in Los Angeles back during the Rodney King riots, and because I had and have friends in law enforcement, I was privy to a few details about those riots that were not commonly known. I was a little stunned to see some of those details in the closing pages of L.A. Noir. If Mr. Buntin was that thorough about all the research he did for the entire book, than this is more than merely scholarly; it practically qualifies as obsessively well-researched.

But it is also an insult to call it scholarly because that word—at least to me—carries the implication of dusty and jejune pedantry, and L.A. Noir reads like a Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain thriller. Mr. Buntin has the technique of the best of best investigative reporters, really of all good writers of non-fiction (think of Jared Diamond or the late Marc Reisner), finishing each chapter with a sentence or paragraph that leaves you desperate to find out what happens next.

Having said that, Buntin employs, very logically, the technique of (for the most part) using Chief William Parker and legendary gangster Mickey Cohen to drive his story, alternating back and forth as he follows their respective careers and how they intertwine. But look back at that sentence. “…Chief William Parker and legendary gangster Mickey Cohen…” If L.A. Noir has a weak spot it is due to William Parker. Yes, he was a brilliant, innovative police chief, but in his personal life he was about as exciting as yesterday’s mashed potatoes, and the chapters that focus on him pale in comparison to the chapters that focus on the flamboyant, volatile, unpredictable, and always deadly Mickey Cohen. Think about it: if you’re walking through your backyard and you suddenly see a garter snake on one side of you and a rattlesnake on the other, which one are you going to focus on?

Because Mickey Cohen was the colorful character he was, and because gambling was an important part of their operations, he and Bugsy Siegel both crossed paths, directly or indirectly, and in some cases mingled easily with, a who’s-who of household names from that era: George Raft, Robert Mitchum, Columbia Pictures boss and despicable wannabe gangster Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg, Darryl Zanuck, Lana Turner (with her gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato, who once made the mistake of pulling his tough guy routine on real-life tough guy Sean Connery and got knocked unconscious for his pains), Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Ben Hecht, evangelist Billy Graham, and many others even as they crossed swords with Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Mike Wallace…

The list goes on, and I’m not even bothering to mention the forgotten names of the ruthless and bloody gangsters who were the Shorty Guzmans of their day.

The result is that L.A. Noir, while touted as, “a struggle for the soul of America’s most seductive city,” actually becomes a study of the rapine and venality not only of gangsters outside the law, but of the “respectable” gangsters who stayed inside the law and used their lawyers to pervert justice to their own ends. In short, L.A. Noir is a brilliant, fascinating, beautifully-written, and eminently readable portrait of a city and paradigm for an unchanging country.

There is one bad mark against this book, and that goes to the publisher of the paperback version, Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. I’ve taken the time to write out their full name because they should be ashamed of themselves. In an effort to be mingy and pinch the buffalo, they have made the print so preposterously small that it will almost certainly turn off all but the very young (who don’t read books anyway) or fanatically devoted book lovers like me who refuse to succumb to Kindle. I understand the publishing industry is in turmoil, thanks to a combination of mergers, e-books, declining reading habits, printing costs, and probably a bunch of other factors of which I am blissfully unaware, but for God’s sake, if you’re going to commit to publishing an actual printed book, then cowboy up and print a book worth buying, especially if it is as worthy of reading as L.A. Noir.

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