Barking Backward

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 Paradise Across the Pond

December 5th, 2016 10 Comments

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“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Ben Franklin

 

Great Britain is so often held up as a sort of paradigm for America: two nations separated by a common language, yet linked by laws and customs. Our media pundits and politicians frequently point to Great Britain as the wellspring for our legal system and for many of our Constitutional rights. Never mind that Great Britain has no written constitution; the pundits are actually pointing to the Bill of Rights (1689), and that should give all Americans nightmares, because Great Britain’s Bill of Rights was a flawed and prejudiced document when it was written and it has since proven itself to be completely meaningless and not worth the paper it was written on.

To take the most flagrant example, consider the right to keep and bear arms: in 1689 it afforded that right solely to Protestants, excluding Catholics, and now no longer exists. So much for that right.

Freedom of speech was also spelled out as a right, yet Parliament had no trouble radically curtailing that right during both world wars, especially the second, with news censorship, with criticism or anti-war speech being severely punished, and with fake news (also known as propaganda) being spread by the Ministry of Information. So much for that right.

If even having a Ministry of Information sounds suspiciously like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, there is a reason for that, because the novel revolves around the concepts of perpetual war and constant, all-pervasive government surveillance. Perpetual war is pretty much what we have right now, and Great Britain has finally brought George Orwell’s surveillance nightmare to life with its most recent (passed November 17th ) and most intrusive law, the “Investigatory Powers Act.”

The Investigatory Powers Act requires British telephone and internet companies to keep records of every single phone call made, and every single website visited, by every single citizen, for twelve months, and for the companies to turn over those records to any one of forty-eight different government agencies without a warrant. The law also allows intelligence agencies to hack into any device they wish to, and it further gives the government the right to force internet companies to remove encryption, thereby reducing the average Englishman’s right to privacy to the same level as the average North Korean’s.

I would like to quote Great Britain’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s justification for the new law: “At a time of heightened security threat, it is essential our law enforcement, intelligence, and security services have the powers they need to keep people safe.” [Emphasis mine.]

Remember those words, gentle reader, because they echo words spoken by Goebbels to justify the Nazi’s actions; they echo words that have been spoken here on Capitol Hill; and they presage words you will almost certainly hear again in the near future in this country because far too many of our politicians think no more of your rights than the British Parliament does of its citizens’ rights. The only difference is that we do have a written Constitution. Remember that and be grateful.

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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.

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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.

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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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Thinking the Unthinkable

October 30th, 2016 23 Comments

Hillary Clinton

 

There is hysteria, left and right, over the latest announcement from the FBI about Hillary’s emails. I’d like to provide a measured and non-partisan response from a man long dead.

In 1972 I was living in northern Virginia, working at night in a dinner theater, and by day trying to support my acting addiction by driving a taxi and working as a gardener. One of the gardens I tended belonged to one of the highest-ranking intelligence officers in the CIA at that time. (I won’t mention his name.) I had landed the gardening gig at his house because government generally and the intelligence branch in particular were both still very much an old-school-tie affair back in those days. Everyone knew everyone and they had all gone to the same schools and the same colleges; in this particular case, the CIA officer and his wife were friends of some friends of my parents and were charitable enough to help keep a friend’s friend’s son from starving to death.

It just so happened that the day the Watergate scandal broke in the Washington Post (those of you under fifty please go rent All the President’s Men, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) I was working in the CIA officer’s garden. He had recently had a serious heart attack and was recuperating at home, sitting in the sun on his back patio with the morning paper in his hands. When I saw he was reading about the break-in, I asked him what he thought of it. Without missing a beat he said, “Well, if I were on the Democratic National Committee, and I wanted to make sure my boy” [George McGovern] “got elected, I might stage a phony break-in to make Nixon and the Republicans look bad.”

I was flabbergasted. That way of looking at things had never occurred to me. As it turned out, he was wrong. Things were much simpler than a CIA officer could have imagined, and Richard Nixon and his cronies were as crooked as they seemed.

 

So now we have James Comey announcing that emails found on a server belonging to Anthony Weiner contained material that justified the FBI’s decision to re-open their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private-server-classified-email peccadillos. In case you’ve been living under a rock, let’s review the bidding:

One of Hillary Clinton’s most trusted senior advisors, the vice-chairwoman of Hillary’s campaign, and her former deputy chief of staff at the Department of State, is Huma Abedin.

Huma Abedin is married to Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former Democratic Congressman and New York City mayoral candidate who likes to “sext” photographs of his, uh, not-so-private parts to under-aged girls, which is why all of him is under investigation.

Hillary Clinton came under investigation for using her private, non-governmentally secured server to send and receive classified and top-secret material to various parties, including Huma Abedin.

Ms. Abedin has been accused (by some extremely conservative Republican congressmen) of having ties to the radical Muslim Brotherhood, an association which, they claimed, made her unqualified to have any kind of security clearance. This appears to have been pretty much dismissed as tinfoil hat material.

We know, from James Comey’s testimony to Congress, that Hillary lied, both under oath and to the American people, about sending and receiving classified and top-secret material.

Now we have a situation where Huma Abedin’s husband (they are separated but still married), who is under investigation for sex crimes, has emails on some of his devices (the same devices, presumably, with which he sent under-aged girls photographs they would probably have preferred not seeing) that are “significant” enough (Comey’s word) to justify the FBI re-opening their investigation into the question of whether or not Hillary’s poor judgement and preference for convenience over national security might constitute illegal behavior.

No matter how you look at this, whether or not you believe Hillary Clinton’s behavior was criminal or merely “careless,” whether or not you believe Huma Abedin should or should not be allowed access to classified material because of her possible ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, even if you believe Hillary Clinton is a pristine and flawless saint who should be canonized, there is absolutely no way that classified emails about the business of the United States government should end up on the server that a pedophile uses to send photographs of his eponymous body part to under-aged girls, thereby—presumably—giving said under-aged girls potential access to classified information.

I hope, I pray, sincerely, that there is some kind of simple, innocent explanation for all this, that it is no more than proof of the extraordinary, mind-boggling stupidity and incompetence of the Woman Who Would Be President and her top advisor, but remembering an aging CIA officer and his immediate response to a vastly less serious crime, the writer in me can easily come up with a half-dozen scenarios that are considerably more ominous. I pray for our country and for an innocent explanation because the alternative is unthinkable.

 

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Reductio ad Absurdum

October 21st, 2016 17 Comments

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What is your definition of a government’s duties? If the function of government is to protect and serve—serve—the people, at what point do the powers of government shift from serving to dictating? In other words, how would you define governmental overreach? When do laws and regulations cease to be a benefit to the general welfare and instead become onerous and intrusive? In your bedroom? In public bathrooms? To take it to an extreme, when does a government become so immersed in minutia that it ceases to be a democratic republic and becomes a fascist dictatorship? Or just an absurd joke?

I thought the state of California had gone as far as it could go in terms of overreach when a few years ago the state passed a law limiting the weight of the schoolbooks a child may carry in his backpack. The problem with that law, like all governmental attempts to micromanage the lives and activities of its citizens, is that not all children are the same and one size does not fit all. When the state passes a law where one size must fit all, it serves no one.

But I had honestly had no idea of the extent to which the progressive liberal boneheads in Sacramento were willing to go. I like to vote early, by mail, and I recently received my ballot. For your edification, I will now simply transcribe here the exact wording of this year’s California Proposition 60, The Adult Films, Condoms, Health Requirements, Initiative Statute, as it appears on my ballot:

“Requires adult film performers to use condoms during filming of sexual intercourse. Requires producers to pay for performer vaccinations, testing, and medical examinations. Requires producers to post condom requirements at film sites. Fiscal impact: Likely reduction of state and local tax revenues of several million dollars annually. Increased state spending that could exceed $1-million annually on regulation, partially offset by new fees.”

Of course, offsetting the state spending would be the creation of a whole new, specialized line of work in the entertainment industry: the vitally important job of Condom Inspector, affectionately known as Rubber Wranglers. I sure am glad my state representatives are spending my tax dollars and their clearly limited intellectual resources on this critical issue.

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Book Review: Shadow Country

October 18th, 2016 9 Comments

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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.

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America At Her Best

October 12th, 2016 8 Comments

weatherby-decal

 

I do some work for the Weatherby Company, makers of some of the finest rifles in the world, including the renowned and vault-like Mark V, and I went to my local range yesterday to play with their new ladies’ model, called the Camilla.

It’s a private, unsupervised range, and the only other person there was an older gentleman shooting a few tables away. When I turned to signal for down time to check my target, I noticed he was shooting a Weatherby and that his truck had a “Semper Fi” sticker on it with the cursive Weatherby W decal right above that. I had never met this gentleman before, he had no idea who I was (we didn’t even exchange names until later), and I said nothing to him about my having any connection to Weatherby. This, paraphrased and condensed, is what came out, unsolicited, in our conversation:

His name is Jim Neal and he is an eighty-year-old former Marine, originally from Montana. He and his family (children and grandchildren) drive up to Dillon, Montana ever year for a couple of weeks of deer and elk hunting. His rifle is a synthetic-stocked Mark V .340 Wby that he bought secondhand thirty-two years ago as his all-purpose hunting rifle. He had Weatherby install a muzzle brake a few years back when age began to make the recoil a little unpleasant. He had a Kahles scope on it originally, but earlier this year, when he started to practice for his family hunt, the focus ring froze up. He sent the scope back to Kahles, but they told him it would be months before they could repair and return it. He mounted another scope and found, to his horror, that his shots were going all over the paper. He asked a friend to shoot it as a double-check. Same thing. Another scope. Same thing. He called Weatherby and then drove the rifle across the state to them in Paso Robles. He dealt with a lady named Cheryl in the Service Department who took him in back to talk to a gunsmith named Vladimir, who examined the rifle.

How it happened, or how he had been able to shoot the rifle, I don’t know, but this is what they found:

The stock was cracked, the magazine was bent, the floorplate hinge was cracked, and the safety wouldn’t engage properly. Weatherby put on a new stock, repaired the magazine and the floorplate, fixed the safety, and installed a new trigger, but the new trigger had too much creep in it, so they replaced their replacement. Then Cheryl and Vladimir gave Mr. Neal a Weatherby cap, a butt-stock ammo carrier, a sling, and Vladimir gave him his own ratchet screw-driver because Mr. Neal likes to do his own gun-smithing.

The total cost to him for all their time and labor was exactly zero. On a secondhand, thirty-two-year-old rifle.

Ask me why I’m proud to be associated with Weatherby.

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Who You Gonna Vote For? Vote Busters!

October 10th, 2016 33 Comments

Donald Trump

 

I have become something of a one-issue voter, not because I only care about one issue, but because that one issue—support for or repudiation of the Second Amendment—is an accurate touchstone of a candidate’s understanding of and belief in the Constitution, and if a candidate doesn’t believe in the Constitution, it is, as far as I’m concerned, an accurate sign that person is unqualified to hold public office in this country.

It was for this reason that I was going to hold my nose, buy a ticket on the Titanic, and vote for the Trumpster. But I have been thinking about the latest revelations that have surfaced about his admitted—boasted about—sexual predation, thinking about those revelations in the context of my two daughters and my granddaughter.

I have done many things in my life that I am ashamed of. Most were mistakes, errors in judgement, poor decisions, and what are described in old-fashioned novels as “youthful indiscretions.” But I can honestly say that I have never sexually assaulted any girl or woman. I can honestly say that, even while quivering with desire, I have never forced myself on any girl or woman. And I can also honestly say that it would never have occurred to me to grope any girl or woman. I can even honestly say that I’ve never discussed girls or women in the way I heard on that video clip, or used the terms I heard on that video. And more, I can even honestly say that in the raunchy, smelly, loathsome confines of the locker rooms of the various schools I attended I never heard anyone use quite that kind of language or display quite that kind of attitude. I have used inappropriate language about specific women while moved to anger, but I have also used equally inappropriate language about specific men while moved to anger, and in both cases I have always reflected later that use of such language in anger is a sign that one’s brain has ceased to function.

But it’s not just locker room talk. Just as Bill Clinton wasn’t impeached for sexual predation (in which he may have done far worse than the Trumpster), but rather for the crime of lying under oath, so too the Trumpster shouldn’t be judged by an example of obnoxious adolescent locker room talk, but rather by the fact that these were things he was boasting about having done. It’s not a question of looking at a girl and saying, “Whoo boy! I’d love to bathe her in scented oils and take her to my tent.” It’s that he reported doing things that are not only distasteful, but criminal.

I cannot bring myself to vote for a woman who is a pathological liar, who came under criminal investigation by the FBI for what can be described as, at best, egregiously careless and arrogant attention to her own convenience rather than the nation’s security, who may still come under criminal investigation for her conflation of her public office and her private financial dealings, and one who has expressed her disdain for and contempt of people like me who believe in the importance of the Second Amendment. But before I cast my ballot, I will think about my daughters and my granddaughter.

Maybe I’ll write in Mike Pence.

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Please Do Not Annoy the Elk

October 6th, 2016 12 Comments

Elk 068 (2) (Small)

 

Twenty years ago or more, Darleen and I went for a hike in Alberta’s Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton. Its name notwithstanding, it is a refuge more famous for its herds of bison than elk, with warnings everywhere to be wary of the bison and not get too close. In fact, in the parking area there was in those days a graphic photograph of what could happen if one did get too close to a one-ton mass of aggression and attitude, a photograph that inspired a lot of respect.

We chose a trail that went in long loop (roughly eight miles, if memory serves), starting at the parking area and ending at the parking area. At a little over the six mile mark we came to a large marsh where the only way across was a narrow wooden causeway perhaps a hundred yards long. At the far end of the causeway, at the foot of the steps back down to the trail, there was a large bull bison dozing in the sun.

There was the bull. There we were. There we stayed. Our options narrowed down to waiting for him to finish his nap, or turning around and walking back, making our pleasant eight mile jaunt a somewhat more rigorous twelve-mile-plus schlep. We tried waiting, oh boy did we try waiting; we tried yelling at him; we tried positive thinking; we tried prayer, but it was clear this was a bull who had found his place in the sun and planned to get his beauty rest, so after about forty-five minutes we gave up and went back the way we had come.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when we tried to take our dogs to a dog park in a nearby community. It’s a very large fenced and mowed area in an even bigger park where we can let them off-leash to blow off steam in continuous wind sprints without picking up the foxtails in their fur which necessitate a good hour of grooming afterward. It wears them out (a tired dog is a good dog) without wearing us out (a tired dog owner is a grumpy dog owner).

We pulled into the parking area to be greeted by four giant bull elk grazing leisurely in front of the gate into the dog park. One of them, a magnificent eight by seven, was as large as any bull I’ve ever seen. Of course, with running the dogs being the only thing on my mind, I hadn’t brought my camera (that’s an old photograph above), so all we could do was leave the dogs in the car and stand and admire. And that was what we were doing when a woman in spandex and high-tech walking shoes showed up. She had a smart phone and took some pictures of the elk, but she seemed annoyed at having her path blocked, and when Darleen made a comment about the beauty of the bulls, she launched into an exasperated tirade.

Those same elk, those exact four, it appeared, had been on her lawn, on the front lawn of her house, mind you, and had grazed there too, pulling out great chunks of her grass, her expensive front lawn, her manicured and beautifully maintained lawn that she had spent so much money on, damaging it, and when she had told her husband to go out and shoo them away, he had said, he had actually told her to go shoo them off herself! 

She flounced off on her hike in the opposite direction, away from the elk, and I found myself wondering at anyone who could find such beauty a nuisance. I think I would like her husband.

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