November, 2016

Book Review: Innocents and Others

November 20th, 2016 12 Comments

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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.

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

November 14th, 2016 16 Comments

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On Veteran’s Day I went to see Mel Gibson’s World War Two movie, Hacksaw Ridge. I almost didn’t go because the title made me think it was going to be just another manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie filled with stirring heroics and a few heartwarming moments. One of the few reviews I read (in a national newspaper I deign to identify) primly shook a reproving finger at director Mel Gibson’s “appetite for gore,” and for making “a rousing celebration of the thrills of battle,” which didn’t do anything to inspire me, even as it praised the movie generally. (Keep those two phrases, “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle” in mind.) I decided to go when it finally dawned on me that this was a true story.

On one level Hacksaw Ridge is in fact a manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie, because those physical virtues—and in war, those are virtues—are contrasted against the very different virtues of deep religious conviction and adhering to one’s beliefs even under unimaginable duress.

Very briefly, in both real life and the movie, Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who not only refused to kill or fight, but even to touch or carry a weapon. With those slight impediments to the soldier’s life, but with a strong sense of patriotism and duty, he enlisted in the Army with the objective of becoming a medic and serving his country and his fellow man by saving lives. He ended up as the only conscientious objector in World War Two, and the first ever, to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor for, in President Truman’s official words, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty.” In battle, mind you, without ever touching a weapon. He also won three Bronze Stars with two Oak Leaf Clusters and “V” Device, three Purple Hearts with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a slew of other medals.

And it is the contrast between the quiet, humble, and absolutely unshakeable courage of Mr. Doss’ convictions and the physical courage of his fellow soldiers—the rare and shining courage so many young men show in war—that makes up the heart of this extraordinary movie. Mr. Gibson makes Doss into a Christ figure, not in any superficial, symbolic sense, but rather in the very real sense of the Christ within us all. The difference between Mr. Doss and the rest of us was his own vastly increased awareness of and sensitivity to the Christ within, and the duty that demands. Mr. Doss also clearly had the kind of courage—both moral and physical—very, very few people possess.

Reducing the plot and message to a handful of words makes the movie sound like a boring sermon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mel Gibson and the screenwriters (Pulitzer-Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight) clearly understand that the single most important function of any work of art is to evoke an emotional response, and Lord have mercy, do they ever! Every single character in this movie is fleshed out and made real, made sympathetic in their reality, proving that all people are far more interesting and have far more depth and humanity than we can ever completely know. More conventionally, they create a love story (again, based on real life) between Mr. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) and his fiancée (played by the exquisite Teresa Palmer) that makes you ache for a happy ending.

I want to go back to Mr. Gibson’s “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle.” Perhaps I am reading more into this than I should, but there is a minginess and smug self-righteousness in those pejorative phrases that diminishes Gibson’s brilliance as a director, and diminishes too the sheer horror of war that Mr. Gibson was clearly trying to emphasize because, after all, it was that terrifying horror that Desmond Doss’ faith enabled him to overcome. (The greater the obstacle, the greater the victory; it’s a well accepted tenet of storytelling.) I know a little bit about what a bullet can do, and I have twice had to clean up the bloody consequences of violent death, but even with that knowledge, it is hard to imagine what the Greatest Generation saw and endured during that unspeakable war. Go back and read For Esmé, with Love and Squalor¸ and remember that J. D. Salinger’s oblique and sanitized reference came from his experiences on Utah Beach on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, and liberating various concentration camps, yet that short story created a furor when it was published just for alluding to the reality of what was. And the truth is, what was, what those men lived through, did, had done to them, saw, heard, felt, smelled, was incomprehensibly, unimaginably appalling. Part of the genius of Mr. Gibson’s direction is that he makes it as unrelentingly and horrifyingly real as he can, not because he has an appetite for gore, or because he is trying to create cheap secondhand thrills of battle (there is no thrill, except in bad John Wayne movies, only terror), but because he wants to create what even that same critic described as “a taste of hell.” It is so real, so terrifying, so nightmarish, that the only things lacking—that I know of personally—are the pain and the smell.

One last comment about any reviews you might have read: I read a few reviews after seeing the movie and they all seemed to dwell at length on Mel Gibson and his moral shortcomings. Why, I wonder? When did we start equating the art and the artist? Mr. Gibson had, apparently, a long struggle with alcoholism and offensive behavior when he was drunk. So did the late Senator Ted Kennedy, but it was usually glossed over by the press, including the famous incident that resulted in the death of a young lady. If I didn’t go see movies made by people who hold radically different political views than I, I’d probably never see anything.

This a brilliant, devastating, triumphant movie. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It got a prolonged round of applause from an audience of veterans and others at a small theater in the mountains of California. It, the director, the writers, and the magnificent cast, deserve all the applause in the world.

Blame It All on Racism

November 9th, 2016 24 Comments

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I just read the Washington Post report of CNN commentator and Democratic strategist Van Jones’ emotional comments about Donald Trump’s victory, specifically this part: “This was a white-lash,” Jones said. “This was a white-lash against a changing country. It was a white-lash against a black president, in part.” I also read some of the responses from liberal pundits agreeing with him, and I would suggest the whole exchange, as reported in the Post, is a paradigm for this election.

I live in a highly conservative, blue-collar, rural area where there are very few black people. When I go to shoot trap, or to a local store where I run into people I know and we stand around chatting, or when I’m dealing with any one of the small businesses I have transactions with, when I bump into my neighbors, I am almost always only talking and dealing with working-class white or Hispanic people, blue-collar, high school-educated, deeply patriotic guys, many of them veterans, most of whom use bad grammar and rural colloquialisms. Because there are so few black people in this part of the county, no one has to look over his shoulder before he makes a nasty racial slur, or worry about offending the person next to him when he condemns Barack Hussein Obama’s actions in racist terms.

And that’s the point: In the eight years that Obama has been in the White House, I have heard an ever-increasing stream of anger, frustration, alienation (from all of government), disappointment, disapproval, and dismay, but I can honestly say that never once, not one goddamned time, have I heard Obama or any of his actions dismissed in racist terms. I used to hear more racist shit when I lived in an upscale, well-educated white enclave in Los Angeles. In fact, I can honestly say I haven’t heard any racist cracks or slurs or denigrations in these past eight years, even as I have heard an increasing level of anger and frustration. And that’s what urban, progressive liberal, Democratic, Ivy League pundits like Van Jones don’t get. The working class people who voted for Trump as a backlash against Obama did so not because they’re racists, but because they’re sick to death of policies they disagree with, broken promises, and strangely moveable lines in the sand, and then being told by arrogant, urban, progressive liberal, Democratic, Ivy League pundits that they’re too ignorant to understand what’s best for them.

Donald Trump wasn’t elected because the majority of working class Americans in fly-over country are racists. He was elected because the majority of working class Americans in fly-over country are sick of being condescended to like children. They are sick of policies that they can see for themselves are not working. They are sick of the litany of lies and self-serving distortions from politicians at all levels and on both sides of the aisle. And above all, they are sick of the smug and dishonest syllogism that if they dare to disagree with the progressive, liberal, elitists it is ipso facto proof of their ignorance and racism.

For Van Jones or anyone else to try and deflect the leftwing defeat onto racism is shameful.

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