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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
British-born custom shotgun-maker and shooting instructor Dale Tate of Ione, California told me once that he immigrated to America from Great Britain because he got so sick and tired of the rigidity of the British class system that made it almost impossible for anyone to rise above the station into which he had been born. He told me many of his own frequently humiliating experiences trying to better himself and being reminded at every turn that he didn’t have the right accent, the right manners, the right education, the right, well, breeding, Darling.
I thought of Dale recently as various seemingly unrelated things I had read all came together to make some sort of troubling sense of life in America today.
The first thing to mention is an article I read positing the theory that Donald Trump’s success, and his appeal to so many Americans, is understandable because supporting him is a way to give a single-digit salute to all the Washington elite as well as the offensively wealthy who both support and profit from those elite, while the rest of us, the vast majority of the country, struggle to maintain a diminished status quo, or slide further down the rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This us-versus-them situation is nothing new, nothing that can be laid upon Barack Hussein Obama’s shoulders or any one single president’s shoulders; it has been coming on slowly pretty much ever since World War Two, though its roots could be traced back further still.
The next thing was reading Guns and Violence: The English Experience, by Joyce Lee Malcolm, who put forth the theory that gun control in Great Britain had its genesis in the ruling class’s fear of the growing impoverished classes, the same ruling class that worked steadily over many decades to remove any ownership of firearms of any kind. The problem is that as I was reading her book, I was simultaneously reading my monthly copy of The Field, England’s foremost sporting (hunting, stalking, shooting, fishing, and conservation) magazine, where every month there are articles about well-heeled Brits stalking stag and shooting birds or sporting clays with the kinds of unaffordable firearms most of us only read about or see in museums. I spoke to a friend of mine who was raised in Scotland and he seemed mildly surprised that I was surprised. Oh, yes, he said, there has always been one law for Great Britain at large and another law for the privileged few of that nation. He went on to tell me a story about working as a teenager for a titled, land-owning lord who sent him out to buy some ammunition for one of his Lordship’s handguns, this at a time when handguns had been recently banned throughout Great Britain. At the store, a very stuffy and unfriendly salesman told my friend he would have to provide identification, fill out paperwork, wait several months, get cleared by the police, pass a special … My friend interrupted to explain it wasn’t for him but for Lord Deep-Pockets. Oh, in that case, said the store owner, take the ammo with you right now; how many boxes does his Lordship require?
The final thing I read was the transcript of a speech given at Hillsdale College by Professor Frank Buckley (Scalia Law School, George Mason University) in which the professor referred to a Pew Charitable Trust study of economic mobility in seven developed, First World countries. The most immobile country, where upward mobility is almost impossible and the ruling classes remain the ruling classes for generation after generation, is—not surprisingly—Great Britain, with a rating of .50. The most mobile country, where anyone can slide up or down depending on their abilities, is Denmark, with a rating of .15. The second most immobile—immobile—country, with a rating of .47 (!), is America, the fabled Land of Opportunity. What that means is that a handful of mega-wealthy, well-connected families with networks of insider connections (mostly meaning inside the beltway) not only control the wealth, but also the politicians who help maintain the status quo, and that the likelihood of one of their kind dropping down into middle- or lower-class status, or the equally improbable likelihood of someone from the projects or a small farm in Missouri ever making it up into their rarified upper tier, are both highly unlikely.
Professor Buckley attributes this frozen and destructive economic rigidity to a variety of causes, primarily a two-tier educational system that provides excellent educational opportunities for the wealthy elite and a mediocre (at best) K-12 public school system for the great unwashed.
He attributes America’s economic immobility to an open immigration system that “supports inequality and immobility” [his words] by taking in everyone under family-preference categories (as opposed to economic categories), with no consideration of how those persons might benefit America.
He attributes America’s economic immobility to a rule of civil law (especially regarding property rights and contracts) that has been manipulated and corrupted by the wealthy to benefit the elite until anyone from ranchers to elderly urban pensioners can lose their homes to someone with deeper pockets and better lawyers. When a legal system is biased toward the wealthy and better-educated, there is no such thing as democracy, not to mention equality, or trust, and you can forget about any chance of upward mobility.
He attributes America’s economic immobility to corruption (as ranked by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index) where lobbyists and the elite can use their wealth to buy laws that benefit themselves. (Consider Hiz Honor Mayor Michael Bloomberg buying anti-gun laws in states—Washington already, with Nevada and Maine in his sights this election cycle—where he doesn’t even live.)
It was while pondering all this that I realized what a terrible mistake poor Dale Tate had made. He followed the myth instead of the reality: he should have immigrated to Canada, where the economic mobility ranking is second only to Denmark with a score of .19. He would have found the Land of Opportunity still alive and well in its new home north of the border.
Of course, the irony in all this is that the outsider Donald Trump is, in fact, one of the ultimate members of the American aristocracy: inherited wealth (vastly increased by him, to his credit); private schools; first-rate colleges; the network of connections that come with all of those. If you want further proof of his entrenched position as one of the favored few, the elite, the American aristocracy, you need look no further than the fact that—to go back to the British example illustrated by my friend—he has a concealed carry permit in New York City, where the Sullivan law virtually proscribes firearm ownership of any kind. If you doubt me, and you live in one of the five boroughs, just try getting a concealed carry license. Let me know how you get along.
The difference is that there is a sort of genial and combative working-class boorishness to Trump that appeals to those of us who are sick to death of the idiocy of political correctness run amok. In one single day last week I read an article by an outraged progressive liberal castigating a novelist for cultural appropriation (as a white person, she had had the temerity to write a novel about a black woman) and another article by another progressive castigating Hollywood as a hotbed of racism because so few roles are written for minorities and the LGBTQ members of our society. (Make up what we laughingly refer to as your minds, progressive liberals: do you want cultural appropriation—also known as creative imagination, sort of what all writers and actors have to do and have done for all time—or do you want exclusion dressed as racism? It’s an either-or and you can’t have it both ways.) Trump also appeals to those of us who hope and pray he will actually live up to his self-proclaimed status as an outsider. Who among us, after a few beers with our buddies, isn’t convinced he could fix this country if he only had the chance? That’s the persona Trump projects, and since the country certainly hasn’t been served well by liberal elites, maybe, just maybe, the Trumpster might be able to quaff an Oktoberfest special brew and git ‘er done. As he likes to say, what have you got to lose? The answer is: at this point, not much.
If you doubt that America is no longer the preeminent land of opportunity, and that we have become a nation of two sets of laws, two separate standards of living, two separate standards of ethics, two separate standards of right and wrong, consider some of the signs of unrest and unhappiness occurring across America today:
Black Lives Matter rioting and calling for the assassination of police on one side of the political spectrum, with angry, disenfranchised, and armed ranchers confronting federal officers on the other; professional athletes protesting “oppression” by the police on one side, with police being assassinated in the streets on the other; radical Islamic terrorists bombing, shooting, stabbing, and beheading innocents across the country, with thousands of first-time gun owners (predominately women) taking defensive shooting classes at schools from New Hampshire to LA; illegal immigrants protesting the idea they should be thought of as illegal immigrants on one side, with angry people holding up unpleasant signs suggesting they all go home on the other; blacks calling all whites racists on one side, with whites calling all blacks racists on the other; a self-proclaimed Socialist nearly clinching the Democratic nomination on one side by claiming the rich have hijacked America, with a billionaire reality TV star clinching the Republican nomination on the other side by claiming the political elite have hijacked America (both are right). I could go on, but you can read the news yourself. When everybody is unhappy with the way the country is being run, the government might do well to consider moving on to Plan B. After all, Canada is only a short drive away.
Packing up some books I came across The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank. I gazed at it in wonder because, as far as I know, it made its way onto my shelves entirely of its own volition. I have no memory of purchasing it, borrowing it, stealing it, or having received it as a gift. Tired from climbing up and down the step ladder, covered with dust, irritable at having to put my books in storage, if only for a while, I looked upon it as a sign, a message from the universe that I should take a break, and I did so immediately.
The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is designated as “Chick-Lit.” I hate designations generally (after you’ve said fiction or non-fiction, either it’s good writing or it’s bad writing), but “Chick-Lit” especially seems so condescending and vaguely contemptuous, as if “chicks” had to have special books written for them with small words, short sentences, and large font. “Ah, those brainless little sex objects, bless their hearts; here’s a simple little book to keep them busy and away from the shoe stores for a while.” I mean, come on, is there a “Beefcake” genre? (Please don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.)
The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is a loosely connected sequence of short stories that cover the range of a girl’s life from fourteen to an unstated age (which we can guess at precisely because it’s unstated) as she tries to come to grips with what love is and should be for her. Like so many of us, she makes one disastrous mistake after another over the years before she stumbles into a healthy relationship, and it is that process that links the stories. It is not quite a novel, but the linked stories make it a sort of novel in the way that Jack Schaeffer’s Monte Walsh was. (That’s Manly-Cowboy fiction, for you genre addicts.)
But describing the book this way trivializes it. Romeo and Juliet can be summarized as “Chick-Lit, sub-genre, Boy-Meets-Girl,” but in Shakespeare’s hands, the story becomes a trifle more interesting than that. In Melissa Bank’s hands, Jane and her family and eventually her lovers become, if not as majestic and heroic as the Montagues and the Capulets, very real and specific people in specific places at a specific time, which is another way of saying universal. The very first story in the collection introduces us to Jane as a fourteen-year-old, and in Melissa Bank’s hands, Jane becomes as awkwardly and sardonically real for the advent of the twenty-first century as Holden Caulfield was for the middle of the twentieth. And it was that intelligent and perceptive adolescent girl who remained with me throughout the other stories; she may have aged and gotten smarter (and funnier), but she was still Jane trying to make sense of her brother’s choice of girlfriend, still Jane trying to get along with a boss without getting squashed by the same, still Jane trying to reconcile the men in her life with her idea of love. It’s what we all do, on both sides of the sexual border.
Melissa Bank’s writing is lean and compelling and very funny. I’m only giving the book four stars because I found one story to be jarringly out of place; not in style or tone, but because it was told from another person’s point of view, and that jarred me out of the flow of the book. But if all “Chick-Lit” is as good as The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, then count me in as a brainless little sex object.
Normally I see movies years after they’ve been released, but a concatenation of disasters and stresses in both households caused Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) and his wife to suggest we all go out to dinner together and take in Meryl Streep’s latest movie. I am so glad we did. Run, do not walk, to see Florence Foster Jenkins. You’ll almost certainly have to run to catch it before it gets yanked out of theaters because it’s the kind of film that will be largely ignored by the movie-going public today, revered and acclaimed at the Academy Awards tomorrow, and appreciated by viewers for decades to come. It’s absolutely brilliant.
I had never heard of her, but Florence Foster Jenkins was apparently a well-known tragi-comic figure in Manhattan during the first half of the twentieth century. She was what is described as a socialite, which basically means she was smart enough to have been born to the right family with plenty of the right stuff. She was also apparently born with a certain degree of skill as a concert pianist, being good enough to have performed as a child at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes. After that, the details of her life quickly descend down the scales from comedy to tragedy.
This is not the place to write a complete biography, but putting it in a nutshell, a combination of syphilis contracted on her wedding night from her first husband and/or an injury to her arm put an end to her career as a pianist, but not an end to her love of music or her desire to perform. She had the money to be able to afford the very best vocal instruction, but sadly, whatever skills had emerged from her fingertips did not emerge from her mouth. Instead, what did limp out was a sequence of unholy sounds that made her an object of ridicule among virtually everybody unfortunate enough to hear her sing, which included—because of her wealth and social position—some very famous people, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly because they wanted to get their hands in her purse, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly for social reasons, and a few of whom stifled their laughter, publicly and privately, because of such quaint, old-fashioned virtues as loyalty, love, and a genuine appreciation of her great generosity.
Not much comedy there, I hear you cry. Enter writer Nicholas Martin, director Stephen Frears, Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, and a cast of literally hundreds of pitch-perfect performances.
In real life it is unclear to what extent Florence Foster Jenkins realized she was a comic figure or to what extent her brain had been addled by the syphilis, making her oblivious. In the movie, while Nicholas Martin and Stephen Frears tip their artistic hats to that ambiguity, they wisely move their plot forward through the device of Hugh Grant’s increasingly frantic efforts to protect this unfortunate but well-intentioned woman, so that the movie becomes a magical and delicate balance between tragedy and comedy. And that is, obviously, the very best of all possible balancing acts.
Hugh Grant’s layered performance as Florence Foster Jenkins’ second husband is hands down the finest work he’s ever done (and he has done a lot of excellent work), playing a man who almost certainly started many years earlier as just another garden-variety leech, but who now has to balance his natural inclinations against his very real love of this pathetic, ridiculous, vulnerable woman. The dance he does with a pretty young thing at a wild party at his apartment is, by itself, worth the price of admission.
Simon Helberg, as the concert pianist struggling to balance his musical sensibility and artistic ambition against his sense of loyalty and his soft heart, practically steals the movie. The scene where he first hears Florence Foster Jenkins sing—if you can call it that—and the sequence of emotions that cross his face, from stunned disbelief to incredulity to rising hysteria, as his hands continue to mechanically play the accompaniment, is, by itself, worth the price of admission.
And Meryl Streep. I’m sure there must be some things Ms. Streep does not do better than anyone else (possibly her income taxes, diesel engine maintenance, mounted cowboy shooting, cryptanalysis) but none of them have anything to do with acting. She is, simply, the best there ever was. The scene when she sings (again, I use that word loosely) for the first time, Dan and I both became completely hysterical and I thought Darleen might have to leave the theater, and yet those scenes are balanced against moments so poignant you ache for her. It is no secret that many an actress’s singing has been “sweetened,” some by my gifted bride, many by the great, recently deceased Marni Nixon and other talented anonymous singers, but according to Darleen, the most difficult thing for a good singer to do is sing badly. I have no idea if Ms. Streep did her own atrocious singing or if she was ____________ (fill in the opposite of “to sweeten”), but the scenes of her in full costume, butchering opera, are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.
Unlike its eponymous title character Florence Foster Jenkins never strikes a false note.
I received an email from a reader who saw me in an old movie, White Dog, with Kristy McNichol. It was a polite note, nothing out of the ordinary, but it brought back memories of people and a sequence of events I haven’t thought about for many years, all of which are probably more relevant today than they were in 1980.
I got a call from my agent on a Sunday—not the norm—asking if I’d be willing to meet right away, that day, with the acclaimed (in Europe; underappreciated in America) director Sam Fuller. If the meeting went well, I would pick up the script from Mr. Fuller because I would need to start work the next morning on a film that had already begun production. I was to replace another actor Sam Fuller felt wasn’t right for the role. The other actor was John Friedrich.
It’s an odd feeling, being asked to replace someone else, particularly if you have worked with the someone else, and most especially if you know the someone else is a far better actor than you’ll ever be. John Friedrich, along with Brad Davis, was one of the actors in A Small Circle of Friends who made me feel so out of my league. These days it’s called “imposter syndrome.” I know that because someone I love very much struggles with it and with its frequent concomitant, depression, and we have talked about it in relationship to his work and to mine. But back in 1980, when all this occurred, there was no such thing as imposter syndrome; there was only the perceived difference between the truly gifted (John Friedrich) and those of us who were faking our way through life. Today, when I think about John Friedrich I see him as I saw him one night on a street in Boston when I got into a fight with some teenaged boys who were molesting a girl: watchful, wary, and concerned, as was I. It’s that look I remember more than any moment in the film we made, but he was so incredibly talented. The idea that I was to replace John Friedrich made me very uncomfortable, partly as if stepping into his shoes were somehow unkind or disloyal to him, and partly because it seemed an act of o’erweening hubris on my part.
My agent had little patience with such niceties. He told me in no uncertain terms that this was an unparalleled chance for me to keep my movie career going, that to not take a meeting with Sam Fuller would be tantamount to moronic stupidity on my part, that there was nothing else on the horizon at the moment, that I was hardly in a position to turn down a meeting with an acclaimed director, that… I agreed to call Sam Fuller.
Hollywood has a reputation for being packed to the gills with colorful characters. It is a reputation that sometimes owes more to ill-manners than to genuine singularity or even eccentricity, but Sam Fuller was truly colorful and truly unique, brilliant, complex, singular in both attitude and expression, a kind Hollywood is unlikely ever to see again.
He asked me to drive up to his house on Mulholland Drive and said we would talk about the movie, about the role he wanted me to play, and how he saw me fitting into those two things. It was a perfectly mundane telephone conversation, the kind any actor might have with any director with a gruff, hoarse voice and an idiosyncratic, New York way of expressing himself. I drove up.
His wife, Christa Lang, opened the door and walked me into Sam’s office. And we’ll stop right there to meet Sam Fuller as I knew him.
His office had been the garage. It had been converted to an office by the simple expedient of sealing up the garage door and building bookcases on all four walls. There were no windows, just the door from the house into the office and bookcases from floor to ceiling, bookcases jammed tight with books, with more lying on their sides on top of the upright ones, and if you pulled a book out, there was a second row of books behind the first. The only way to circumnavigate the room was by a narrow pathway around the four sides because the entire middle section was taken up with… Well, I’m not sure. There may have been a very large table covered with stacks of books and with more books piled up underneath, but there was so much random stuff—stuff—that the table may be something real I remember accurately, or it may be something I imagined. I know there were stacks and stacks of papers and scripts (and books), boxes, some kind of military flags—as in Army flags and battalion guidons or things along those lines—a sword, many other miscellaneous items I have now forgotten. In a small space in one corner there was a desk with a chair where Mr. Fuller sat smoking a cigar almost as big as he was.
“Sit down. Thanks for coming, kid. Sit down, sit down.”
I looked around but couldn’t see any place to sit.
“Oh! Sorry about that.” He jumped up and picked up a great armful of stuff—stuff—revealing a chair and threw the armful onto the pile in the center of the room. “There you go. Want a drink?”
He waved an almost full bottle of Jack Daniels at me. Since I was feeling a little dazed, and since he had a partially full glass in front of him, and since it was getting close to the cocktail hour anyway, and since I wanted to be polite, and since I never miss a chance to have a glass of good whiskey or whisky, I thanked him. He poured a healthy portion into a lowball and handed it to me. Fortunately, I like my whiskey and my whisky straight, because there was no mention of ice or water.
“So, where’re you from, kid?”
He was very easy to talk to, a man with a quicksilver mind and a rough, gruff way of expressing himself that disguised real intelligence and real curiosity about the world, and we covered a lot of ground. Somehow, after a long period of casual, albeit fascinating conversation, just as I was trying for the second or third time to bring the conversation around to the project at hand—“Yeah, yeah, we’ll talk about that later.”—it came out that he had started his life as a newspaperman. (What he did not mention is that he had started working fulltime as a copyboy at the age of twelve, and graduated to real, full-fledged, honest-to-God crime reporter by the time he was seventeen.) I made some comment about my grandfather having been a newspaper man, and I think it was my use of that workingman’s term instead of the more high-falutin’ “journalist” that caught his attention.
“Yeah? Who was your grandfather?”
“Well, you probably don’t know him. It was a long time ago, but he was pretty well known back in his day. His name was Mark Sullivan—”
Lord have mercy. If I had told him my grandfather was Johannes Gutenberg he couldn’t have been more excited.
“Mark Sullivan? Mark Sullivan! Your grandfather was Mark Sullivan?! Why, your grandfather and I…”
It appeared that as a teenaged newspaperman Sam Fuller had written a letter to another newspaperman who had gotten his start as a teenager, and that my grandfather, being courtly in his manners and every bit as curious about his fellow travelers through this veil of tears as Sam Fuller, had written back a very encouraging letter that had evolved into a decades-long correspondence.
“I got letters! I got lots of letters!” He jumped up and looked around the sea of clutter. “Well, I don’t know exactly where they are right now, but I got letters!”
And off he went into a long and fascinating and meandering account of his years as a reporter, his correspondence with my grandfather, stories he had written that had been influenced by something my grandfather wrote in his own column or perhaps to him, and from there on to novels he had written, his transition to Hollywood and finally to World War Two. Like so many other courageous Jews of that era, Sam Fuller had served with great distinction (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart), in his case with the First Infantry Division of the Sixteenth Infantry Regiment, the Division that was nicknamed The Big Red One, which became the title of one of his most successful films. And like so many courageous veterans of that most horrible war, a part of him was still and would always be back in Italy and Africa, France and Germany, talking of it with humor and a boy’s lightheartedness, but underneath it all was the sense of a man still trying to come to grips with things no man should ever have to see or do.
And every now and then I would make feeble attempts to bring him back on track—“Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that. Have another drink. So we landed in Sicily,”—until sometime late that night, the Jack Daniels bottle completely empty, I cautiously put my truck in first gear and crawled home. I started filming White Dog at seven the next morning, without ever having even read the script, the most hungover actor in Hollywood and possibly west of the Mississippi.
White Dog. It was the English translation of Chien Blanc, an autobiographical novel written by one of the more intriguing, most accomplished, and somewhat mysterious figures of the twentieth century. Romain Gary, whose real name was probably Roman Kacew, but might have been Émile Ajar, or any one of half a dozen pseudonyms, was a Jewish, Lithuanian-born, French resistance fighter, bomber pilot (decorated many times for bravery, including the Légion d’Honneur), diplomat (Consul General in Los Angeles), novelist (over thirty novels and memoirs), script writer (The Longest Day), director, and the only man ever to have won the prestigious French-language literary award, the Prix Goncourt, twice under different names. He was married first to a British journalist and Vogue editor, and then to the actress Jean Seberg, beautiful, fragile, vulnerable, naïve Jean Seberg, who should be remembered not just for some of her work (Breathless, Saint Joan, The Mouse that Roared, A Fine Madness, Lilith, Paint Your Wagon, among others) but as an example of why it is never a good idea, gentle reader, to trust your government.
Jean Seberg, who was well-intentioned, if naïve, donated money to a variety of charitable causes and civil rights groups; one of the latter was the Black Panthers. You or I might or might not disapprove of her choice, but that does not excuse what happened to her. She became one of the victims of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) attentions, attentions that included not only surveillance, but also harassment, intimidation, break-ins, burglary, smear campaigns, psychological warfare, and possibly murder (e.g.: Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers). These completely illegal and unconstitutional attentions were directed against anyone the government decided they did not like, including such dangerously radical people and organizations as Jean Seberg, Martin Luther King, the NAACP, Barry Goldwater, the American Indian Movement, some of those oh so notoriously violent and dangerous feminist organizations, along with many others. And just in case you think, as most people do these days, that such charming activities were restricted to Richard Nixon’s tenure, remember, gentle reader, that COINTELPRO was started in a mild version by Franklin Roosevelt, continued under Presidents Truman, and Eisenhower, and galloped into full and filthy swing under the revered Kennedy administration (with no less than the iconic Robert Kennedy signing the authorization for wiretaps of Martin Luther King) and continued under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, only possibly grinding to halt after his resignation, though possibly not, when you consider some of the DOJ and IRS activities under Barack Hussein Obama. There is a reason why we have a Second Amendment, and it ain’t duck hunting.
In 1979, Jean Seberg’s beautiful body, hidden under a blanket and partially decomposed, was found in the back seat of her car in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement. There was a bottle of barbiturates and a suicide note addressed to her son. The Paris police initially ruled her death a suicide, but they subsequently changed the ruling and brought charges against a person or persons unknown because there was no liquor found with her in the car, yet there was so much alcohol in her system that they said it would have been impossible for her to get into the car unassisted.
Was it murder? If so, by whom? The man she was living with at the time, who may have had financial reasons for wanting her dead? The FBI? Someone else? No one knows. Was it suicide? If so, why? Because of the loss of Romain Gary? Because of the Fury-like harassment of her by the FBI? Because of the resultant ruining of her reputation and career? Because of some other, more personal demon or demons? No one knows. And after all these years (to quote a politician who has been known to use COINTELPRO techniques herself), What difference, at this point, does it make?
One year later, Romain Gary followed her lead and put a bullet through his head.
According to Sam Fuller, it was while Romain Gary and Jean Seberg were married and living in Los Angeles that the inspiration came for White Dog. Apparently they were driving home one night on Mulholland Drive and Gary hit a German shepherd. They took the dog back to their house, got a vet, and cared for it. Beyond that incident, the primary theme of White Dog owes its inspiration to the federal government’s delicate attentions toward Jean Seberg, and that theme is the evil of racism. And it was that theme that caused the movie we made to be banned.
It’s a long and dreary story hardly worth the telling, but the Cliff Notes version is that the NAACP, a black journalist who was member of the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition, and various other civil rights leaders all condemned the movie before filming even began, on the grounds that it might spur racist violence. This not only before a day’s shooting had been done, but in spite of the fact that Paramount had specifically decided to buy the rights to Gary’s book because it contained the message that racism is a learned evil, and in spite of the fact that Sam Fuller had a well-deserved reputation for confronting racism for his entire career, and in spite of the fact that Fuller had convinced Paramount CEO Michael Eisner and producer Jon Davison that it would be an anti-racism movie, but possibly because the message was that racism is evil no matter which way it goes. In any event, the NAACP condemned the movie without ever seeing it and threatened boycotts, Paramount decided not to release it, Sam Fuller moved to France in disgust and never made another movie in America, and for many years a movie that may be a great statement (or perhaps not; I’ve never seen the film) against the evil of racism in any of its forms was buried in Paramount’s vaults.
If that story sounds at all familiar, perhaps you’re thinking of the old joke about the lady who refuses to read a book because somebody said someone said the minister said he had heard it might be pornographic. Don’t ever let yourself be confused by reality and God forbid we should do our own homework and make up our own minds. Or maybe it sounds familiar, gentle reader, because you’re old enough to have read 1984 and can recognize the Thought Police at work.
As far as I can remember (this all happened almost forty years ago) I only worked with Kristy McNichol. Two things struck me about her.
I had met her briefly once before when I did an episode of Family, and she was very nice and very professional, but I was struck by how ill at ease she was with her own talent and success. She had just finished filming Only When I Laugh, with Marsha Mason, and when I told her my agent had seen a preview and been blown away by her work and thought she should be nominated for an Oscar, she was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable with both the praise and the attention, immediately deflecting all credit onto Marsha Mason. It came as no surprise to me later when Kristy vanished from the Business almost as completely as I did. I understand she lives now, as she has for the last twenty-odd years, quietly and privately with her long-time partner.
The other thing that struck me was that she had a great, if quirky, sense of humor. At least, she laughed at some of my jokes, so clearly she must have had a great sense of humor. I hope she is happy, and I wish her well.
If he were alive today, I wonder what Sam Fuller would think of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond posits the theory that Eurasian cultures (meaning Europe plus the whole of the Mediterranean region from the Mesopotamian Basin and the Levant across northern Africa to the Atlantic) were able to conquer so-called primitive cultures in Africa and the Americas not because of any inherent intellectual superiority, but because the accident of geography had given the Eurasians natural travel corridors that exposed them to both the creative ideas and the germs of other societies, providing tools for growth and conquest with the one, and resistance to disease with the other. Diamond’s book was written in 1997, over thirty years after Peter Matthiessen wrote At Play in the Fields of the Lord, yet Matthiessen’s novel anticipated—albeit indirectly—some of Diamond’s theories about cultural destruction, while adding a third in the form of religious dogma, thereby proving that art frequently presages reality.
Very briefly, and crudely, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, presents three entities in conflict. Two are “civilized” American groups, one of mercenaries, one of missionaries, at a remote outpost in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian jungle.
The mercenaries are a duo, a New York Jew and a half-Cheyenne named Lewis Moon (the side of their stolen plane bears the logo, “Wolfie & Moon, Inc., Small Wars & Demolition”) stranded by lack of cash, and willing to earn their way out of the filthy, fly-ridden hell-hole by killing off the third entity, a band of fierce and feared Indians farther upriver. On a reconnaissance flight, trying to locate the tribe they are to kill, they fly over a clearing as the terrified Indians run into the jungle. All but one, who stands his ground and shoots an arrow into the air at the giant noisy bird above him and with that arrow, that courageous, hopeless gesture of defiance, begins the transformation of Lewis Moon.
The other “civilized” group consists of two married couples, members of a fundamentalist Protestant sect determined to save both the souls of the primitive Indians from damnation and their lives from the mercenaries. One man wants to save them by understanding them; the other by making them understand him and his vision of Jesus Christ. Neither succeeds.
Also there is an intelligent, educated, enigmatic Catholic priest who too wants to save the souls of the savages, but with the wisdom and patience of over a thousand years of the Church, he bides his time and watches the others with detachment and amusement.
Of course, no one is saved. But the story lies in the transformation of the pivotal characters. One of the missionaries loses some of his religion, but gains a greater level of humanity; Matthiessen has him lose his last pair of glasses just as he begins to finally and truly “see” in the proper Christian sense of understanding and compassion. The mercenary loses an identity he never really had and gains a truer understanding of himself as he tries to save the little band of Indians who have proven themselves less savage than portrayed. And the Indians… The Indians lose everything.
I hate synopses; they so frequently—as I have just done—reduce the sublime to the ridiculous, but I want you to keep the basics of the plot in mind.
Many, many years ago I knew an artist by the name of Tobias Schneebaum. Toby, deceased now, God bless him, was acclaimed for his art, but also for his penchant for travelling the world and living with disparate and primitive cultures in far-flung places. He was also known for a book he wrote about one of his experiences, where he marched off into the jungles of Peru and lived for—months? years?—with a tribe of cannibals, a book entitled Keep the River on Your Right, so named after the advice given him by a missionary, the last Westerner to see him. Toby was thought dead for a long time, until he finally reemerged from the jungle to write and paint about his experiences with the tribe (including, apparently, sampling their favorite dish, other tribesmen).
It was Toby’s book that inspired me to originally read At Play in the Fields of the Lord. There are parallels, but it is the differences that are most striking. Toby wasn’t interested in killing or converting anyone. His interests were learning about other people, other cultures, other varieties of artistic expression, and—perhaps above all (at least from something he once said to me)—about the differences of light and color in various parts of the world, differences he would capture on canvas when he returned to New York.
The point is that art can bridge the gap between cultures in ways that nothing else can, certainly and especially not religious belief. I suspect music does this more effectively and universally than any other art form, but Toby wrote specifically about using his artistic skill to keep himself alive initially (Amazonian cannibals apparently being not too fussy about the origins of their food source. New York? Hell, we’ll even eat Brooklyn, Queens, Paterson, whatever.) and equally to bridge the language barrier. And in that openness of mind and spirit, in that willingness to bridge cultural gaps by using the universal language of art, Toby most closely resembles Lewis Moon, the half-Cheyenne mercenary who comes first to kill, then to save, and finally, inadvertently, to destroy, embodying all the elements Jared Diamond wrote about in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord was published in 1965, not so long ago as the world turns, but unfathomable eons ago in terms of today’s technological advancements. Today, Toby’s cannibals and Lewis Moon’s warrior savages both probably have the internet, 4G Wi-Fi, and their own Facebook pages, so from that perspective it is an old-fashioned, dated book. Yet not so. We can learn much from that grumpy old fart next door, if we just stop being judgmental and open our minds and our hearts to different ways of thinking and being, and other cultures, with other ways of seeing the world might be able to save us more than we can save them. Lewis Moon learns a new way of being, the missionaries retreat, and the priest waits, patient, wise, and enduring.
What I lament is the passing of that single, courageous Indian, defiantly shooting his arrow at a monstrous metal bird.