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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

My father has a history major's appreciation of chronology. This extends even into his reading in fiction. He does not like to read novels out of order, whether or not the books are serial or not. After reading Michael Chabon's first novel, written as his MFA thesis and published when the author was 24 years old, I have realized the true wisdom of my father's seemingly capricious stance.

Great first novels are so mythologized, i.e. To Kill A Mockingbird and A Confederacy of Dunces, that it can often be forgotten that authors, like other professionals, can and do get better with experience. This certainly hold true with Chabon, whose other novels, even Wonder Boys, which I disliked, far outpace The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in terms of plotting, complexity and character development.

There is, naturally, ample evidence of the author's talent on display. Chabon writes sentences with apparent effortless grace, an enviable ability. He has a talent for creating memorable moments and distinguishing features. And if one makes allowances for age and inexperience the novel can truly be said to be almost annoyingly well-written.

Still there is a lot wanting in this story of one summer in the life of a gangster's son, a summer spent carousing, and sleeping with, an unsavory assortment of delinquents and airily artificial college graduates. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is that this assortment of partners includes members of both genders. Here Chabon seems to go astray, narrator Art Bechstein's vacillation between women and men never seems either authentic or sympathetic, but then I've never been sympathetic to literary characters who intentionally subvert their romantic relationships, especially to female characters as appealing as Phlox, the French major and film-buff Bechstein deserts.

I wonder especially what gay readers of the novel think of Chabon's treatment in this novel. Bechstein's male lover Arthur Lecomte comes across as a sort of homosexual Svengali, manipulating our hero into wayward sex. In a somewhat bold authorial move Chabon has Phlox, a more or less sympathetic character, display a pathological homophobia. It is my understanding that Chabon had at this age already been romantically involved with both men and women, so the lack of authenticity I perceived is surprising, unless I am just so unfamiliar as to be unable to be perceptive.

Chabon raises some interesting possibilities with the intriguing backstory of Bechstein's family life. His father is a money-man for the mafia and his mother was assassinated in message killing, and her death seems to haunt the sensitive, lachrymose Bechstein, but Chabon denies, whether through intent or lack of developed skill, his readers any moment of revelation or insight. The novel's down-note ending leaves the reader unssatisfied and curiously unmoved by the plight of the main characters.

If you've read and enjoyed other novels by Michael Chabon, including the wonderful Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, perhaps you would be better off consigning The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to the bin of rough drafts or promising debuts. As a novel to be read it is unsatisfactory.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The End of the Affair

The problem with having a reputation as a Catholic novelist is that inevitably your novels will be judged on a basis greater than literary. Whether or not the story works or holds together takes a back seat to whether the novel presents an appealing and workable version of Catholicism. Catholic readers want their faith upheld for its virtues while religious skeptics may be looking for the author to make the case for the existence of God.

Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is considered a classic of Catholic literature, but for the life of me I don't understand why. This may be a personal shortcoming but to me the version of religious belief presented by Greene is a scary and false perversion of what Christianity should be.

The End of the Affair centers on a love triangle, which becomes a square when God enters the picture. Novelist Maurice Bendrix has a passionate affair with Sarah, who is married to Henry Miles. Henry's stodginess and prudishness drive Sarah to Maurice's arms, and she loves him despite his jealous nature. During a bombing (the setting is WWII London) Maurice is trapped under rubble and Sarah, thinking him dead, prays to God, promising to leave Maurice if God will let him live.

Of course, Maurice isn't dead and is perplexed when Sarah leaves him with no explanation. Convinced there is another man, he hires a detective to follow Sarah, eventually learning of her pledge when the private eye steals her diary.

The novel then follows Maurice's attempts to get Sarah back, and her refusals due to her new-found religious belief.

As a story the novel is slightly above average. Greene is good at establishing characters, and though the plot is thin even for such a short novel it is well-constructed.

But as a work of Catholicism is inherently flawed. Sarah's reason for believing, despite the fact that she desperately wants Maurice back, is a shallow and insupportable faith. The novel establishes the shallowness as a virtue in the last few pages, when several inexplicable miracles occur, ostensibly due to Sarah's belief in God.

I don't feel like getting into it, but this kind of thing upsets me, and I believe that it should upset thinking Catholics as well. It's tough to grade the novel, as it's not clear to me whether or not Greene intended his book to be representative of a true Catholicism or whether that has just been ascribed to him. Overall, I'm just having trouble imagining who I would recommend this book to.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Redux)

When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was in its initial run on ABC it quickly became a family ritual in the Everett household. I remember watching it down in my Nana's room with her and my father, even when it was on four nights a week and fewer and fewer people were tuning in. I remember my father dialing in to try and get a spot at an audition. I remember my father being upset that the first million-dollar winner did so on what he considered a remarkably easy question. (Who wouldn't know that Richard Nixon did Laugh-In? he complained.) The show was something I always enjoyed, and those nights watching the show have a special place in my memory.

I watch the syndicated version of Millionaire occasionally (I am unemployed, after all.) But it's just not the same. Meredith Viera isn't half the host Regis was, and no one has won the big prize in quite a while. So I was ecstatic when I heard a few months ago that Regis was coming back for a limited run in prime-time.

However the 10th Anniversary Edition premiered Sunday night to such little fanfare that I forget to watch it. Back during the show's original run, this was something that never happened. Disappointed with myself, I made sure to watch the second night of the limited run, and it is with heavy heart that I report that this revival is a pretty sad affair.

For one thing, they are using the inferior daytime version's new rules, and that is clearly confusing Regis, and who can blame him? He's 78 and hasn't done this in ten years, and on top of all that you're going to switch all the rules around? Last night on a $100 question Regis clearly forget that the contestant is on a clock. He started chatting and laughing during the question, using up almost the whole 15 seconds. The contestant didn't realize the clock had started and she only barely got out her answer.

That incident clearly shook Regis, and for the rest of the show he was speeding through the questions and answers until he was nearly unintelligible. Now, I hate it when Meredith talks to the contestants on the syndicated version, but that's because she's a terrible host and the contestants, who don't have to answer a fastest-finger, are generally dumber than the general population. Regis is, or at least was, a great game-show host, and it used to be fun to watch him gently mock contestants while they thought out their answers.

The worst part of the show was the arbitrary shoe-horning of celebrities into the telecast. Last night at 7:46 central, a contestant had just won $25,000. This is when the show generally gets really interesting, but no, tonight this contestant was shuffled off until the next broadcast so that ABC could promote Ugly Betty by bringing out Vanessa Williams to play for charity. Then they went to a six-minute commercial break (seriously, six minutes) and gave Vanessa one question to answer, for $50,000 to give to her charity, guaranteeing her $25,000 even if she missed. The worst part is that they didn't put a clock on Vanessa, who tried to think out a question that she didn't know (and which could not possibly be "thought out") for the rest of the show before miraculously picking the right answer. It was unexciting, awful television.

Tonight the celebrity guest is Sherri Shepherd of The View, who once admitted to a national television audience that she wasn't sure whether the world is flat or not. Thanks for crapping on my memories ABC.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Moving Along

No picture because the google image search for Freehold, New Jersey is even worse than I thought it would be.

That's right, it's time for me to get out of the big city and go home with my non-existent tail between my legs. The occasion for my departure? Well, this isn't quite as bad as the last time. I actually have a few job interviews scheduled in New York during the last half of August, so hopefully something will work out. Most of these are for internships, but they are in publishing, which is what I want to do, so there's that, at least.

My flight leaves next Monday, the 17th, which is absurdly soon, but luckily I don't exactly have a lot to do or finish up before I leave Chicago. I actually have one interview here before I go, so I suppose it's not impossible that I will be back before long, but if I had a choice in the matter, which is certainly not guaranteed or even likely given my track record, I'd like to get one of the New York opportunities. It's a better place to get into publishing.

So if you're in Chicago over the next week give me a call because I don't know when I'll be back this way again.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Downtown Owl

I am going to try to write a review of Chuck Klosterman's debut novel "Downtown Owl" without sounding like a snob. I am going to fail, but it's worth the attempt.

Downtown Owl is set in the fictional small-town of Owl, North Dakota during the winter of 1983-1984 and the book interweaves the unconnected and seemingly unconnectable stories of three of its residents. Fifteen-year-old Mitch struggles to read Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for his football coach's English class and can't understand why his friends like Van Halen and ZZ Top so much. Twenty-four-year-old Julia (Jules to her friends) is starting to like being the only passably attractive single girl in town, if only for the free drinks. The novel's third main character, seventy-three-year-old Horace, spends his time divided between a lonely house filled with thoughts of the wife he loved but does not miss and the Cafe where he gets his coffee and conversation with older elderly farmers.

Klosterman is an entertaining writer, and he creates a lot of funny situations and side characters. However he doesn't seem to be able to stop himself from going too far, whether it's making his character's life-stories too inconceivable, their nicknames too complex, or their personal philosophies too ripe for mockery.

He also doesn't do enough to distant himself from the type of writing he's most famous for. Granted, there are times when references to popular music or culture can be constructive in a work of fiction, but too frequently that is not the case here. It is off-putting to read Klosterman get inside a character's head but then break the spell, so to speak, because he just has to name drop a record that even within the body of the text is something he admits the character would be unfamiliar.

What Klosterman does best is explore the inherent uncertainty of human interaction, often in meta-fictional or inventive sections of the text. At one point he writes the dialogue between Julia and a man she is falling for (and who has fallen for her, though neither of them have any idea about the other) twice, once is the 'actual' conversation, the other is what each was really trying to say.

There is a lot that Klosterman gets about writing a novel. His characters are distinct and well-developed, and his sense of place (obviously crucial to a novel like this) is excellent. Near the end of the novel he even showcases the ability to create dramatic tension, something that had been decidedly lacking for the first nine-tenths of the book. The conclusion was unexpectedly gripping, but it leaves the reader hollow in the aftermath. It feels almost like a cheat, well-written though it may be. Klosterman may be able to create interesting characters and write with an admirable verve, but it is far from proven that he knows what to do with any of it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Free Speech and Demonstrations

This is not an essay on the righteousness of a particular health care plan. I am afraid that I must admit that the intricacies of public policy are rather beyond my expertise. (This puts me in dubious company, as I'm not sure how many of our representatives understand it either.)

Rather, I'd like to take the time to address the protests currently going on around the country. It being August, and congressmen apparently being only slightly better than schoolchildren, our representatives are using their summer vacation to pound the pavement in support or opposition to the President's agenda. At many of the town halls organized to discuss healthcare reform throngs of angry protesters have waved signs, shouted slogans and tried their best to disrupt the proceedings. Liberal members of the media and the blogosphere have done their best to discredit these demonstrators, highlighting their alleged corporate backing and their self-interest in ensuring that the status quo remains unchanged. These charges have been parried by conservatives cheering the protests as demonstrating free speech and every American's right to advocate for their position.

Both sides are, as usual, being disingenuous. Many of the liberals who are criticizing right-wingers for painting Hitler mustaches on Obama signs are the same people who never managed to summon the nerve to chastise their own for the repeated Bush-Hitler comparisons. Meanwhile, the Glenn Beck types at Fox et al are the same people who denounced college students for shouting down Ann Coulter and David Horowitz at scheduled lectures.

There's a million-dollar question at the heart of all this, and that's really the one that I want to ask, even though I don't know the answer, or even if there is an answer. Does free speech extend to the right to shout down somebody else?

Before you answer, take the current context out of it. If you want healthcare reform you probably don't like the protesters very much. If you think Obama is a reckless spender than you probably support them. But what if your pet cause was being shouted down by an angry throng? Or, what if something you thought was pure evil was being advocated in public?

A lot of people would say that it depends, which is a less honest way of saying they have no idea. Well, I have no idea.

One of my favorite scenes from any movie is the scene in which the patrons at Rick's Cafe Americain sing "Le Marseillaise" to drown out the Germans "Die Wacht am Rhein". It's a stirring moment where an oppressed group takes on evil fearlessly and wins.

But look at that painting above. If you don't recognize it, it's one of Norman Rockwell's famous Four Freedoms paintings, based on the speech by FDR. The title, of course, is freedom of speech. The man in the painting is rising at a town hall meeting to say his piece. From his body language it seems possible to infer that he has a strong opinion on the subject, and going further, that his opinion may be in the minority. But the people around him are sitting quietly and letting him have his say.

It may be that there are times which call for us to break the code of decorum and drown out evil with our voices. It may be that there are things worthy of such behavior, but surely they are few and far between. Can't we try, the rest of the time, to live up to the ideal expressed in that painting? As I said before I don't know much about the various healthcare plans that are being bandied about on Capitol Hill, but surely there is no deliberate malignancy in any of them.

If you don't like Obama's healthcare plan and want to express your opinion publicly, I applaud you for being engaged with the issues, but please, wait your turn, state your case, and then sit down and let the next person say theirs. It's the patriotic thing to do.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Risk Pool

Richard Russo's second novel at times reads more like a memoir than a work of fiction. That's a testament to how wonderfully complex and life-like Russo's characters are. Russo tells the story of his narrator from the first person, and so well that you can forget that there is an author directing the scene.

The narrator, Ned Hall, has the type of dysfunctional family life that must appeal to modern readers, if the non-fiction bestseller lists are any indication. His parents are separated because his father is an immature and irresponsible man-about-town. But Sam Hall takes offense, and spends years bothering Ned's mother, eventually leading her to have a nervous breakdown. With nowhere else to go Ned moves in to his father's apartment, which just happens to be across the street from his father's favorite bar.

The bulk of the novel deals with Ned's relationship with his father as he begins to grow fond of the man despite his mother's warnings and the man's own atrocious behavior. Russo masterfully depicts the underlying charm of Sam Hall, and gradually the reader understands why the man has made so many friends and earned the love of his son.

Like any Russo novel there are dozens of supporting characters of varying importance but all are drawn in a life-like manner no matter how quickly. In The Risk Pool these include a disillusioned heiress and Ned's first love, Sam's waitress girfriend and her son, a muscle-bound proto-Marxist out to harm the town's wealthy few, and a love-struck lawyer intent on marrying Ned's mother as soon as he can get her far enough away from Sam. There are also an innumerable quantity of drinking buddies, and in passages in the town bars Russo shows his uncanny ability to mimic the speech patterns of drunks worldwide, the boastfulness, the crudity, and the fear to be anywhere near their wives. Russo is able to introduce a character's personality through dialogue or habits unlike any writer I've read besides (and this is one of those comparisons that people don't believe, but it's true) Charles Dickens.

Plot takes a slight backseat in every Russo novel I've read (this is my fifth, not including a book of short stories.) The focus is so strongly on the characters and you get the sense that Russo would rather just let you roam around in their world for awhile. But things have to happen, and Russo ably creates memorable set-pieces, including quite a few automobile accidents (the title comes from the fact that Sam Hall can only buy insurance from the risk pool due to his many accidents) and a few bar-fights, especially between Sam and his girlfriend's son.

The Risk Pool is a genuinely funny novel which movingly explores family relationships in an understanding and sympathetic way. It is nothing more than a happy coincidence that I happen to finish this novel just as a new Russo novel is released, but I am pleased that I am not any closer to being finished with his body of work than I was when I started this book. I hope he keeps writing books, because I plan to keep reading them, and I won't like when there aren't any more to pick up.

Next? I'm not going to dive into Russo's new one just yet. I've got Downtown Owl by culture-critic Chuck Klosterman and Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien both sitting on my shelf.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Remakes (Sorry Duarte)

Rather surprisingly, I got into it a bit today via Twitter with my good friend and loyal reader Jose Duarte. My friend took exemption to my admittedly curmudgeonly disgust at the news of Steven Spielberg's planned Harvey remake. The discussion provoked a well-mannered argument over the Hollywood remake in general, its necessity, its value, its possible status as an eighth deadly sin. That discussion continued in a private chat, but I'd like to state my position clearly in an open forum, to let you all know that my displeasure at the news of this and nearly every remake is more than just some cantankerous manifestation of my latent elderly persona loosed upon anyone who cares to listen.

I believe that in a perfect world, which will never exist, there would be no need for movie remakes nor any desire to produce them. In a perfect world everyone would see them as a waste of time. This would be because in the perfect world of my envisioning people would have a greater respect for film older than they are, and would not need someone to come along and remake them in order for them to be palatable.

I believe that movies should tell stories, and tell it well. That's what I think books should do too, the only differences I see between the two are incidental to their mediums. Books have the advantages of length and depth, but movies are admittedly a more sensory experience. My preference for books to movies is an individual preference and not the result of any philosophy.

The point is that remakes are simply retelling old stories, and doing so in a generally poorer and less fulfilling manner. I don't care who Spielberg casts or who he hires to write his remake, it can't be better than the original Harvey. For one thing, the mere fact that it came first gives the Jimmy Stewart version a nearly insurmountable edge. The fact that it stars Jimmy Stewart makes it a sure thing.

Okay, so a decent to bad movie comes out and it's got the same name and general story line as a classic. Who cares, right? No one's forcing you to go see it, so why can't you just let it go?

The short answer is that I could, maybe. But there are things about this incessant need to remake things that worry me. For one thing, there is the fact that a new version of a movie means that many people are much less likely to ever see the original. (I understand that some people may reach out and see it, like I did with the original Taking of Pelham 1,2,3) The product of this is that over time the remake becomes the more well-known version, it gets shown on TV a year after its release, runs about 3000 times on the various HBO stations for a month and no one ever sees the old one again. This has happened to a lot of films, the foremost example in my head being The Bad News Bears. The awful and clearly unnecessary Billy Bob Thornton version is shown all the time while the '70s classic, which I remember watching on TBS multiple times as a kid, is never on.

The second thing is that while no one can make me go see a remake, the sad truth is that there is only so much money, talent, and time in the world, and every remake is taking the spot of what could be an original film getting made. As a society we need to tell stories, and the disturbing lack of care in ensuring that new stories get told is upsetting to me. When half the movies that get made these days are either sequels or prequels or reboots or remakes then we are really crowding out a lot of material. We are shutting off possibilities to the point that I truly believe that this generation will have less to pass on in terms of meaningful and celebrated achievement in film than our preceding generations.

You can argue that I'm taking this far too seriously, which I may be, and you can tell me that in the old days of Hollywood they remade movies all the time, which is true, with the mitigating factor that they didn't have TV or VHS or DVD to keep old movies alive in people's homes. What does it say about us that we have an unprecedented ability to preserve the best efforts of previous generations, and instead we relegate them to the dustbins, eschewing them just because they aren't in color, or seem "dated"? Of course they're dated! They were made at an earlier date! That doesn't mean that they don't have anything to tell us, in fact it might just mean the opposite.

Alright, I'm done old-man ranting. Just know this, whenever someone tells me that they can't watch a movie in black and white, I immediately move them down three circles on my nine circles of judgment.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


William Kennedy's Ironweed, Pulitzer Prize winner for 1983, is a novel that has been growing on me ever since I finished it the other day. As I was reading it, I didn't think all that much of this thin, rather spare novel. But in the days since I have developed something akin to a fondness for this little book, and I'm trying to figure out why.

One thing I really like about the book, and liked from the start, was that it had a definite sense of both time and place. Ironweed is set in Albany, in 1938, and deals with the memories of Francis Phelan, an ex-baseball player and current bum. Kennedy captures both Phelan's current life as a man who would likely be a bum even without the Depression and also the early twentieth century life that brought him to his degradation. Francis has lead a deadly and death-filled life, as a labor protester who caused the death of a scab, as a violent drunk who killed a fellow vagrant in a fight, and as a negligent father who dropped his infant son and caused his death. Throughout the novel these and other dead men appear to Francis and confront him. This was an authorial device I didn't take to right away, but as the novel went along these interludes made more sense and seemed to humanize Francis in a crucial way.

Kennedy does run into a problem of excess, an odd problem for such a short novel, but a problem nonetheless. Occasionally, and too infrequently not to be jarring, Kennedy will break into the narrative and seem to be talking to the audience directly. It's like he's shouting at you to pay attention because he really likes these sentences more than the others, and it's a rather unnecessary and regrettable choice.

Perhaps the thing I like best about Ironweed is something I wasn't really aware of until after I had finished it. During the novel there are several promising plotlines that are seemingly abandoned, including a juicy bit about Francis' son Billy being involved in a kidnapping. It seems almost unconscionable that Kennedy would leave these avenues unexplored, but it turns out that Kennedy has written other novels with these characters.

This is something I wish authors would do more often. I love when authors use the same characters throughout their works. Faulkner did it often with the prominent families of Yoknapatopha County and Salinger did it with the Glass Family. It really allows for greater development of characters. Kennedy's Albany Cycle (the name given to all his novels about these characters) apparently stretches back to the Civil War and includes novels about several characters only briefly mentioned in Ironweed.

Ironweed paints a disturbing account of what's its like to be hopeless and downtrodden without being able or willing to change it. It's also about the unbelievable will to go on living a life that is full of humiliation and despair. It is above all, a novel that will stick with you.

Next? Well, as much as I'd like to read Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (the novel which explores the kidnapping) I've already started on Richard Russo's The Risk Pool.