A Blog by Jameson Parker
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
Gentle Reader, guess what? I’m a terrorist! Who knew? I only just found out myself.
I kid you not. I recently stumbled across several articles about a United States Army training instructor who made up a list of “religious extremists” for a training session on extremism. And, boys and girls, I was proud—somewhat confused, but proud—to see Catholicism listed right there between, uh, well, actually between two groups I’d never heard of before. But some of the other extremist groups on the list included Al Qaeda, Hamas, and the Ku Klux Klan. I mean, we’re in the big leagues now, baby. Of course, in the interest of honesty I have to admit Catholics weren’t the only Christians singled out. In fact, topping the list were Evangelical Christians, and I was a little offended to see they are apparently considered more extreme than we Catholics, since they were listed first. Please. Give me a break. Anyone who has ever read The Da Vinci Code knows Catholics are much more dangerous than Evangelicals any day of the week. Especially on Sundays. Heck. Those Evangelicals could take our correspondence course.
So, in the light of the fact that I am now a known and identified terrorist, and in light of certain recent revelations about the federal government snooping on private individuals and organizations, and in light of other revelations about the government using certain key words to identify organizations they don’t like, since I am almost certainly being monitored because I am so dangerous, I will state publicly that, while I am not a member of the TEA PARTY, I am however a CONSERVATIVE, RIGHT-WING PATRIOT, who believes in absolute adherence to the CONSTITUTION as the way to make a BETTER AMERICA.
There. To quote Mark Twain, if that don’t get ‘em, I don’t know Arkansas.
But now that I know I’m a dangerous member of a radical extremist group, I intend to live up to the United States government’s expectations of me. I intend to overthrow…
Let me think about this for a minute. The Unites States government is made up entirely of avaricious, self-serving morons whose only skill is lining their own pockets by fleecing and manipulating and taking advantage of the American public, but the institution itself is excellent, so I don’t want to overthrow them.
That leaves the individual states, but there are all kinds of problems there, too. California is a great place, geographically, but what the hell would I do with almost forty million liberal deadheads?
I like Texas a lot, but it’s too damned hot, and any attempt to overthrow Texas might be injurious to the health of the overthrowing party, and if I’m going to go to all this trouble, I like to live to see the benefits.
Montana is beautiful, but it’s too damned cold, and the other reservations about Texas apply to them also.
I love all the Midwestern states, but they all manage to combine too much heat with too much cold, so they’re out.
Wyoming’s too windy. The Southwest doesn’t have enough water, and the whole Mississippi River drainage system has too much. New England combines cold weather and dour people, while the South is too hot and besides, I’m not a NASCAR fan.
Hmm. I’m going to have to think about this. But never fear. The United States government is afraid of me because I am a dangerous extremist, so you haven’t heard the last of the RIGHT-WING, CONSERVATIVE, CONSTITUTIONALIST, non-TEA PARTY member and believer in a BETTER AMERICA, Jameson Parker! DON’T TREAD ON ME!
I only heard about Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity a few years ago. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, I’ll explain that, as I understand it, it refers to the phenomenon of two or multiple events occurring that have nothing to do with each other, but which combine to have meaning to the person who experiences them. In other words, the linking significance of the events lies in the experiencing of them, as opposed to any causal significance. I recently had an experience of synchronicity.
I read a short story the other evening, Resurrection of a Life, by the late William Saroyan. It is, by any standards, an unusual short story, devoid of plot or characterization or even continuity in any traditional sense of those terms. The narrator is alternately the author or a young boy, very like the youthful author, who sells newspapers on the street to help his impoverished family earn a precarious living in a city very like Fresno, California, where the author grew up. It takes place during World War One, when the author was growing up and selling newspapers, and the story consists of jumps backward and forward in time from the author’s memories to the boy’s observations to the author’s observations of the boy’s memories. I read somewhere once that Saroyan rarely edited his work. I have no idea if that is true, but reading Resurrection of a Life I can well believe it. Like all of Saroyan’s work that I have read, the story is furiously fast, loose, impressionistic, and imbued with an extraordinary optimism and love of his fellow man:
“He used to go through the city like an alley cat, prowling all over the place, into saloons, upstairs into whore houses, into gambling joints, to see: their faces, the faces of those who were alive with him on the earth, and the expressions of their faces, and their forms, the faces of the old whores, and the way they talked, and the smell of all the ugly places, and the drabness of all the old and rotting buildings, all of it, of his time and his life, a part of him. He prowled through the city, seeing and smelling, talking, shouting about the big news, inhaling and exhaling, blood moving to the rhythm of the sea, coming and going, to the shore of self and back again to selflessness, inhale and newness, exhale and new death, and the boy in the city, walking through it like an alley cat, shouting headlines.”
The author, the boy, is horrified when he has to shout the bloody headlines of the war, about Ypres, the Marne, another ship sunk, ten thousand Huns killed, but Saroyan’s irrepressible love of life shines through at the end:
“All that I have learned is that we breathe, from moment to moment, now, always now, and then we remember, and we see the boy moving through a city that has become lost, among people who have become dead, alive among dead moments, crossing a street, the scene thus, or standing by the bread bin in the bakery, a sack of chicken bread please so that we can live and shout about it, and it begins nowhere and it ends nowhere, and all I know is that we are somehow alive, all of us in the light, making shadow, the sun overhead, space all around us, inhaling, exhaling, the face and form of man everywhere, pleasure and pain, sanity and madness, over and over again, war and no war, and peace and no peace, the earth solid and unaware of us, unaware of our cities, our dreams, unaware of this love I have for life, the love that was the boy’s, unaware of all things, my going, my coming, the earth everlastingly itself, not of me, everlastingly precise, and the sea sullen with movement like my breathing, waves pounding the shore of myself, coming and going, all that I know is that I am alive and glad to be, glad to be of this ugliness and this glory, somehow glad that I can remember, somehow remember the boy climbing the fig tree, unpraying but religious with joy, somehow of the earth, of the time of the earth, somehow everlastingly of life, nothingness, blessed or unblessed, somehow deathless like myself, timeless, glad, insanely glad to be here, and so it is true, there is no death, somehow there is no death, and can never be.”
Saroyan always claimed he didn’t believe in God, but that long last paragraph is about as good an affirmation of the tenets of Christianity as you’re likely to find anywhere.
The day after I read this I opened a CD Jay Dusard sent me of some of his work over the years. In case you are unfamiliar with Jay Dusard, he is the renowned photographer who has spent a lifetime chronicling the American West, in every sense of that phrase: landscapes, ranchers, cowboys, horses, cattle, dogs, and the wild places where those people and animals come together. His portraits are spare, direct, and overwhelmingly beautiful in their stark and deceptive simplicity. He works almost exclusively in black and white, and achieves not only texture and intensity, but also an immense spatial precision, so that—as with a fine painting or with fine writing—the brain sees far more than is conveyed to the eye. Even if you’ve never lived anywhere but New York City and have come no closer to the reality of the cowboy life than old Roy Rogers movies, Jay Dusard’s images will take your breath away.
But the CD he sent me was entitled Abstractions, and with it he achieved very much the same thing Saroyan achieved with his writing: a love of and appreciation for life even in things we might normally overlook, even in things we might turn our faces from, things like death itself. An overturned railroad car, the rusting end of a dilapidated tractor-trailer rig, an abandoned and decaying camper, even the desiccated skeleton of a horse, all things most of us would turn away from, Jay turns into images of beauty, intriguing patterns and interplay of chiaroscuro and texture, the intricacy of blistered paint and rust, the elegance of a discarded piece of railroad engine, the stains of time on rock, all the beauty that exists unnoticed and unappreciated around us, those are the things Jay celebrates in this most recent collection. Like William Saroyan, Jay Dusard is “timeless, glad, insanely glad to be here…”
Learn to see again; go to http://www.tinysatellitepress.com and shout about it.
I’ve received some very nice and flattering emails from people wanting to know if there is a hardcopy version of, variously, Return to Laughter, or The Horseman at Midnight, or American Riff. The short answer, unfortunately, is no. E-publishing is the wave of the future for a number of reasons, with money being the first and foremost reason, as it is with just about everything else in the wide world. In my case, that can be interpreted in two ways:
First, because I couldn’t land a publishing deal with one of the big houses, there was no way I could hope to make money with a small house. Small houses have neither the resources to pay good advances, nor the resources to pay for marketing and advertising to guarantee sufficient sales to reimburse themselves for the good advances. Ergo, no money for the author, ergo, no book deal.
Second, because a printed book demands a substantial outlay of cash, it isn’t worth it to the author of an e-book to pay for a printed version unless the e-book version is selling sooooooo well that paying for printing becomes a meaningless bagatelle, an expense one can cheerfully afford in between bouts of buying Bentleys as stocking stuffers for one’s friends. Alas, I am not in that financial category. In fact, my bride—a lady with a frighteningly level head and a practical streak that could and sometimes does put the average CPA to shame—frequently points out to me that my “financial category” is only that in the strictest sense of the phrase. Or, alternately, if I use the phrase as a joke. So there are not, nor will there be in the immediate future, any printed versions of those books, and if you would really like one, personally autographed by a grateful author, you will have to buy thousands upon thousands of the e-book versions. I’ll hold your coat for you while you get to work.
The past fell out of a book last night.
I caught a glimpse on television of Lawrence Olivier in John Osborne’s The Entertainer the other evening, and it prompted a thought that led to a thought that led to… You know how it goes. So I pulled down my copy of Osborne’s play to look for a quote.
Because I used to be an actor, I have a pretty extensive collection of plays. It’s not as extensive as I would like, but it’s a hell of a lot more extensive than Darleen would like, she being an advocate of the Zen-Clarity School of Interior Design, while I lean toward the Absent-Minded, Cluttered-and-Dusty, But Comfortable school. I have shelves of Samuel French editions, many of them dog-eared and frail, packed with histrionic and directorial notes from over thirty years of studying and earning my living as an actor. I have shelves of paperback editions, hardbound editions, collector’s editions, anthologies, books on set design and lighting and costumes, theatrical history and criticism, multiple copies of every Shakespearean play (you can never have too much Shakespeare), entire shelves devoted to nothing but Shakespearean analysis and exegesis, a massive copy of the Norton Facsimile of the First Folio… The list goes on.
But I knew exactly where my copy of The Entertainer was, and I curled up to read it again for the first time in almost forty years. A card fell out.
It was an elegant card on heavy bond paper, with beautifully printed calligraphic font on the outside. It was John Donne’s famous quotation from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
On the inside were the handwritten words, “Just to say I love you, Ellen, 3/5/76”
Ellen. Ellen Parker. No relation, just a coincidence of name. We were in acting class together. That particular class catered to professionals, which included models, so some of the most beautiful women in the world were in that class. (Yes, yes; some of the most handsome men, too, but we don’t need to dwell on that.) Among all those towering beauties, you might have expected Ellen to go relatively unnoticed. She wasn’t tall, and she didn’t have the classic dying swan look that seems to reign supreme on the covers of fashion magazines decade after decade. Her beauty was of the clean, healthy, fresh-faced, good humored variety. She always looked as if she might have just stepped out of the shower after milking the family cows. (In fact, she was born in Paris, and her parents were restauranteurs.) She did not go unnoticed, however, at least not by me nor, later, by stage and screen directors who recognized her talent immediately: her career has included Broadway, off-Broadway, movies, and both nighttime and daytime television, including an Emmy award for her work on the soap opera Guiding Light. She had a sort cheerful confidence to her, and her eyes were extraordinary: large and luminous, and with something in them that hinted at intelligence and passion, laughter and tears, but mostly laughter. She always smelled good, soapy good, not perfumey, and her skin was the flawless kind that begs to be touched.
We did a scene together. Time steals so much that I can no longer remember what the scene was, but I do remember rehearsing with her in her apartment somewhere downtown. I remember her coming to a party or parties at my apartment. I remember having dinner with her (Once? Twice? Multiple times?) at a restaurant or restaurants. I remember her telling me about a cross-country motorcycle trip she took with her (then) actor husband, and possibly because of that I have either a memory or an image, a fantasy, of her stepping off a bike in blue jeans and a leather jacket, pulling off her helmet and shaking out that glorious mane of hair, sexier than hell, but I don’t know if it is real or not. Mostly I remember those rehearsals at her apartment.
If it sounds strange to you that I should remember rehearsals without remembering what scene from what play we were doing, then you know how I felt about Ellen. Don’t misunderstand: she was married, and I was married, but I always felt so comfortable and so right in her presence, and there something kind about her, something thoughtful one doesn’t often find in actors. I remember too a rehearsal when I had a cold and she gave me a tea I had never had before, chamomile possibly.
“And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China…”
But there was one rehearsal, one moment in particular, that lingers. We were finished. I was leaving, standing by the door, turned back into the room—Spartan, like all impoverished actors’ apartments—and she came up to me and kissed me on the lips, briefly, gently, and then stepped back and looked up at me, smiling. What she intended by that kiss I do not presume to know, but what she achieved was overwhelming desire. I wanted her at that moment more than any woman I had ever known or held or touched or kissed. I wanted her so much it left me breathless, breathless and confused. But she was married and I was married. I left.
What she meant by her note in the card I also do not presume to know. I have no memory of the occasion for the book—birthday? Christmas? A random gift?—nor why she chose that particular play, but I know she must have given it to me, for I would never have thought to save a card from her in a book she hadn’t given me. Was it just an exuberant expression of affection from a girl in a profession given to exuberant hyperbole? Was she expressing a desire for something my conscience would not allow me to give? Was she expressing a longing for something her actor husband could not give? She is married to a doctor now, so I very much doubt it is the same man who was off doing a play in Boston back in that long ago time. How did that card make me feel back then? I don’t remember. I only know it meant enough to me that I carefully preserved it, and I know what it means to me now. And I know too how it makes me feel now:
“And would it have been worth it, after all
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worthwhile,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’ –
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.’”
This is what happens when the past falls out of a book.
Several years after we were in acting class together, just before I moved out to Los Angeles, Ellen was cast in the Broadway production of Peter Shaffer’s brilliant Equus. My (then) wife and I went to see it. If you’re unfamiliar with the play, it’s about a very troubled teenaged boy’s religious and sexual fascination with horses, and there is scene where the boy and a teenaged girl who works at the stables both strip totally naked on stage. The play deals with themes of social norms and conventions versus individual desires and passions, the religious versus the sexual, the conforming and commonplace versus the rare and spontaneous, the confining orthodoxies of society versus the vital pagan within. There is a very moving speech by the psychiatrist who is treating the boy where he admits he envies his wild young patient, envies his pagan passion and freedom:
“…He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable. What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply reattached, like plasters? Stuck onto other objects we select… He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening – and one thing I promise you: he will never touch hide again! With any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent. Who knows? He may even come to find sex funny. Smirky funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control…”
I heard all this and I watched Ellen’s naked body as I sat next to a woman I already knew I should never have married, and I thought of that kiss and remembered a line from another play, The Dream Play, by August Strindberg: “…For sins one never sinned remorse is felt…”
Faulkner was right in Requiem for a Nun. The past is never dead. It’s not even past. Sometimes the past can fall out of a book. The past is not in her sixties, married to a doctor, with an adopted daughter. She is still in her twenties, smooth-skinned and sweet-breathed, shaking her mane of hair out from under a motorcycle helmet, lovely, luminous, and laughing.
I had one of those days yesterday. You know. The kind where brushing your teeth in the morning uses up your entire store of ambition and creativity for the rest of the day. I had had big plans. I was going to finish this, I was going work on that, and then I was going start something else. Instead, I had a hard time summoning the energy and imagination to endorse a check. And trust me, checks don’t arrive at the Parker household often enough to drain my stores of anything. Hell, I still use a ballpoint pen someone left at my house the year Kate Upton was born. (There was and is no correlation between those two occurrences; it’s just a conveniently frivolous way to specify a point in time. If you’re a man, you don’t need to be told who Kate Upton is; if you’re a woman, you don’t want to know.) So instead of honest labor, I decided to take an idle, luxury-barge cruise through the scenic inland waterways of the internet. It turned out to be very interesting indeed.
I started on my friend Steve Bodio’s site http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com/ which is always fun and interesting and informative, albeit sometimes intimidating. After all, how many people can write intelligently and well about everything from eagles to emergent zoonoses? How many people even know what a zoonosis is?
That led me to http://sonsofsavages.blogspot.com/ an eccentric and wide-ranging blog about everything to do with dogs, hunting, dogs, books, dogs, food, dogs, any number of other things, and dogs.
Not surprisingly, that led me to http://lurchersterriersferrets.blogspot.com/ primarily because, as a fan of the late Brian Plummer (Tales of a Rat-Hunting Man, along with many other equally eccentric books), I couldn’t resist a blog about lurchers, terriers, and ferrets.
I worked my way back to Raised By Wolves, http://cynography.blogspot.com/ a blog primarily about dogs, search and rescue, dogs, sheep, and more dogs.
That in turn took me to http://pedigreedogsexposed.blogspot.com/ which of course I loved, primarily because the author (Jemima Harrison, and if you don’t like that name you don’t like chocolate cake) shares my dim and jaundiced view of the fanatical purebred dog world being the ruination of practically every breed there is. (See my blog, Man’s Best Friend Needs a Little TLC, under July, 2012 archive).
By then I had successfully used up (not wasted) an entire work day (a loosely defined, by me, period of time that can range from three to twelve hours, depending on my level of creativity, my level of energy, my mood, the weather, and various other intangibles) enjoying myself immensely. The common elements that bind all these sites are dogs, books, and a passion for the outdoors. Some you may like. Some of the hunting sites may be too strong for delicate urban sensibilities, though I would point out that it is hunters who work, and have historically worked harder than any other segment of society, to protect and preserve the land and animals we all love. All of them are intelligent and well-written.
Spring has come to our valley. That means the sheep have come back to the valley and our horses are behaving like idiots. That means the rabbits are, um, courting, and so intent on their amorous activities they pay almost no attention to man or beast. Almost no attention. Pete the Boxer, recovered from his ear surgery, manages to encourage them to forego “that same sweet sin of lechery” in favor of aerobic exercise.
And spring means the poppies are blooming, turning large patches of the surrounding hills bright orange. Well, bright orange depending on how clear the day is; the California poppy is a photosensitive flower, the petals closing up at night or in cold weather, and if there is enough cloud cover during the day, they don’t open. In wetter years, when we get heavy amounts of rain or snow, the hills are covered with large patches of other wild flowers as well, making the world look like a giant Hans Hofmann painting.
I went through a period in college where I sped backward in artistic time from Minimalism (my godmother, Anne Truitt, whom I adored, and who doubtless inspired this retrograde journey), to Pop Art (Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein), through a very brief flirtation with Assemblage (Jasper Johns), and finally into Abstract Expressionism. I tried hard to fall in love with Jackson Pollock (couldn’t do it; he made me too nervous) and was well on my way into love with Mark Rothko when I discovered Hans Hofmann. I took a bus from Beloit into Chicago one day to see a Hans Hofmann exhibition at the Art Institute and the effect was electrifying. There was nothing intellectual about my reaction to his work; it was simply a visceral and emotional response, somewhat akin to seeing the most beautiful girl in the world in a bikini on a sun-drenched beach and having her smile radiantly at you. You don’t dissect the discrete components of your reaction; you just sit there dazzled. I bought a poster, a reproduction of the museum’s official poster, and it hung on a wall of every place I lived for many years.
I know why I fell out of love with modern art, but it’s hard to explain. Basically, it had to do with bad modern art. I lived in New York for seven years and spent a lot of time going to museums and galleries, but so much of what I saw was, well, just plain stupid and/or unattractive: gimmicky, sensational, uninspired, frequently tasteless, and sometimes I had the impression it was all just a bad joke being played on people who had more money than taste by a conspiracy of gallery owners and untalented artists eager to relieve said people of some of said money. I saw stuff that disgusted me, stuff that made me annoyed I had wasted my time going to that gallery, stuff that struck me as moronic. I don’t give a damn what the critics say, or if it does bear a name like Duchamp: if I see a urinal on the wall, I want to pee in it. (Yes, yes, I know he predates Rothko and Pollock, but it’s a good example of what I didn’t like.) Gallery owners trumpeted twelve year old children as the next great geniuses; untrained gang-bangers who honed their skills on other people’s private property; gimmick art; cartoonish three-dimensional characters devoid of Lichtenstein’s social commentary; found objects. The list could go on, but it came to an abrupt head with Andres Serrano.
Do you know who Andres Serrano is? He is the gentleman who made his fame and fortune by using “bodily fluids,” notably blood, urine, semen, and feces to create works of what he conned onto a gullible public as art. He rocketed to notoriety after he displayed a crucifix in a vat of his own urine, a work which was subsequently purchased at auction by someone with considerably more money than taste or brains for $277,000. I had already decided I was either too intelligent to waste my time on modern art, or not intelligent enough to understand and appreciate it (I’m still not sure which), but Serrano put me over the top; over the top and back into the refreshing arms of traditional, old-fashioned, representational art: landscapes, horses, dogs, wildlife.
I know this means I am hopelessly old-fashioned myself, and it probably also means I am an artistic simpleton and a sort of cultural coward, but at least I know where I stand, and I’m not as much of a coward as Andres Serrano. If he really had the courage of his shock-art convictions, he’d put an image of Mohammed in a vat of his urine. Then we could send him on one of those State Department cultural exchanges to Iran or Afghanistan or someplace. Think what that would do for the world of modern art!
It’s hard to know what to make of evil, or what to say about it. What can anyone say about the incomprehensible? Who has the words to express what cannot even be understood? That kind of evil isn’t even worth the effort of putting words on paper. But what I did see today on the news that I choose to remember was endless displays of all that is best in mankind, all that gives me hope, all that reaffirms my faith in God.
People of every stripe and race and sex rushed to help strangers. Some were professionals, the police and medics and firemen and soldiers who have been trained to some degree to help their fellow citizens, but there were also countless hundreds, maybe thousands, of ordinary citizens who had come out to enjoy a festive day, cheer on runners known and unknown, spend time with their friends and families, who ran toward the danger, toward the smoke and screams, toward the injured. There were glimpses—sometimes in the background of footage intended to show us other things, more dreadful things—of everyday private citizens kneeling in blood to offer aid or comfort, helping to carry stretchers, push the wheelchairs that were intended for exhausted runners, assisting those who could walk. In the background of one shot there was a quick glimpse of a woman who may have had medical training, but who was dressed in civilian clothes, on her knees, vigorously performing CPR amid the chaos, her ponytail flipping up behind her. There was the doctor interviewed in front of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who had been performing surgery continuously since eight that morning, who had seen what he euphemistically described as “on-site amputations” (meaning limbs blown off at the scene), who remained calm, organized, thoughtful, well-spoken, polite, humane—and human—under circumstances that would have transformed and undone me, and who, after his comments, excused himself, saying he had to go back in to do more surgery, cope with more horrors.
And there were countless others like him. So I have nothing to say about evil. I choose not even to think about it or acknowledge it; others will do that who are better suited for the job than I. Evil of some lesser and godless life form caused the horrors in Boston, but all he or they achieved was to put on display the very best of mankind, the very best of humanity, for all the world to see. God bless the good people of Boston. God bless America.
Thomas Cobb is one of America’s grotesquely underrated national treasures. He is the author of Crazy Heart, which was made into a movie with Jeff Bridges (who was also an underrated national treasure until Crazy Heart, when he finally won a long overdue Academy Award, one of two for the movie, and one of the three nominations the movie received), and the almost unheard of novel Shavetail, which is about as close to perfection as a novel can get. A possible reason why Cobb is not as well-known and revered (and rich and famous) as he should be is that he that he breaks a lot of rules in his story-telling, and judging by some of the negative customer reviews he has gotten, this rule-breaking is caviar to the general. I’m not sure why. Faulkner, Steinbeck, McCarthy all broke (break, in McCarthy’s case) a lot of rules, and I believe all of them ended up affluent and well known.
With Blood in Their Eyes is a paradigm of rule-breaking. The story opens with the dramatic climax and bounces backward and forward from there. The heroes are unlovable villains, the villains are on the side of truth and justice and the American way (at least as the American way was in 1918) and the most sympathetic character is killed on the first page. If you want William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy triumphing over the forces of evil sequentially from A to Z, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you want a meticulously researched account of a historical miscarriage of justice, transformed into unforgettable fiction by a master, sit back and enjoy.
The Power Brothers’ shootout was the single bloodiest shootout in Arizona history, an event that left the entire Graham County Sheriff’s Department dead and resulted in the largest manhunt in Arizona history. That’s the surface story of With Blood in Their Eyes, but it is the story behind the facts that Cobb brings so deftly to life. History is always written by the victors and our view of events is shaped by them. Cobb’s careful research reveals a different point of view, one far more complex and compelling than the basic historical facts, and his ability to breathe life into all his characters, lovable and unlovable alike, results in an unforgettable novel of courage and endurance and the ambiguity of right and wrong.
In case you are put off by references to Faulkner or McCarthy, I should point out that while Cobb’s plot structure is fluid and bounces back and forth in time, his writing is much closer to Steinbeck in his straightforward use of language. Straightforward, but immensely evocative:
“There was a clatter and ringing of bells as horses rushed past them. McBride threw himself to the side of the trail and let the horses get by. They must be Power horses, he thought, spooked by Haynes, who had fallen behind him. ‘Throw up your hands,’ McBride heard, and knew that it had all gone bad.”
Thomas Cobb understands both the mythology and the reality of the place and time we call the West. He also understands that our vision of the reality of the past is touched by its mythology and made bigger by it, unforgettable. And oh so readable.
…and I am seriously annoyed.
Damn, damn damn! There really is just no point in trying to be a good, responsible citizen and do the right thing. Not only does nobody—no individual, I mean—give a damn, but the world, the collective population, doesn’t give a damn.
Take paying taxes as an example. Darleen and I did all our paperwork months ago, tallying up our earnings (that part was depressingly quick and easy) our expenses (a long and wearisome endeavor that had me groping for the whisky bottle and a straw), our deductions (nowhere near enough) and had it all ready long ago for the lady who actually fills out the forms. We don’t do that part because, as is well known, only certified obsessive-compulsive mathematical geniuses with legal degrees can possibly comprehend—or even begin to hope to keep up with—the seventy-eight thousand pages of gobbledygook the government bureaucrats have come up with to enrich and enliven the lives of lucky tax-paying citizens. (Who says government can’t create jobs? Why, when it comes to income taxes the government has spawned an entire industry devoted to simply trying to understand what the government demands and can’t itself even begin to understand. If you think about it, it’s a perfect circle.)
But back to being a responsible citizen. Darleen and I got all this done back in March. In the interests of complete candor and forthright honesty, and in case Darleen reads this, I should be a little more accurate and say that she got it all done. For inexplicable reasons, she regards my creative and imaginative approach to mathematics as unsound. For my part, I regard her slavish adherence to arbitrary rules and antiquated customs to be indicative of a narrow and circumscribed intellect. I mean, for God’s sake, if two plus two is always going to equal four, what the hell is the point? Do you think Michelangelo or Mozart or Tolstoy sat around worrying about boring and capricious rules when they created their masterpieces? Nonsense. But that’s the way Darleen feels about the thing, so in the interests of domestic harmony, I let her have her way, and we turned in our paperwork, had our meeting with our obsessive-compulsive mathematical legal genius and staggered home to await our refund.
And now look what’s happened. Some mentally negligible Pillsbury doughboy in North Korea has announced he intends to celebrate his grandfather’s birthday (April 15th, income tax day) by ending the world as we know it in a thermo-nuclear Armageddon. Apart from the fact that it seems a very peculiar way of celebrating a birthday (couldn’t he just bake a cake?) what about my refund?
There’s just no point in being responsible.