Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts

24 August 2022

The Satanic Chorus


Five months after the initial publication of The Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Khomeini put a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, for defaming Islam. (It shouldn’t be lost to view, as the author John Crowley points out, that The Satanic Verses also lampoons Khomeini.)

In the thirty-odd years since, the novel has been burned, bookstores have been fire-bombed, riots have killed dozens. A guy blows himself up in London when he prematurely sets off an explosive device; the book’s Japanese translator is found murdered; thirty-seven people die at a Turkish literary conference when the hotel is burned down. And in August of this year, a fanatic finally caught up with Salman Rushdie himself, and stabbed him multiple times, putting Rushdie in critical. He survived the attack, probably losing an eye.

Meanwhile, down in Albuquerque, there’ve been a series of ambush killings, targeting Muslim men. The first was back in November of last year, and police regarded it as an isolated incident. Then there were three more recent murders, in July and August, over a span of two weeks, and that put the focus back on the earlier homicide. Was there a pattern, and were they hate crimes?

Each of the victims had been Muslim, and of South Asian descent. The community was alarmed, unsurprisingly. In this actively malignant age, was somebody with an imagined grudge trawling for towelheads? New Mexico isn’t particularly homogenous: the grievances at issue between the native Indian population, and the Hispanic conquerors, and the Anglos – late arrivals, a mere three centuries of self-importance and privilege – are as close to surface as a bruise. For the relatively small and contained Islamic social and religiou fabric, how could this not be a threat?

“I believe in America,” the undertaker tells Don Vito, the opening line of The Godfather. The immigrant American experience has always been about promise, about a new world both literally and metaphorically. It hasn’t worked out all that well for the indigenous people who were here first, but for the huddled masses, yearning to be free, the shtetl Jews on the Lower East Side, the refugee Cubans in Miami, the Irish and the Italians - even the Africans brought chained in the holds of slave ships from the Bight of Benin, who came north between the wars, to the Great Lakes steel towns, to Ohio and Chicago, and New York.

They brought their labor and their industry, and their energy. Jazz, and fashion, and the Harlem Renaissance. America is about reinvention. What was Greektown, in Baltimore, two generations ago, is now Syrians, and Vietnamese, and Salvadoran groceries. How not? There are two hundred languages spoken in Queens. My cousin Peter, born and bred in New York, in some ways the archetypal WASP, goes to Queens to eat. Instead of hunkering down inside a fortress of white privilege, he’s excited to find something new.

Immigrants and exiles are borne up by hope.

It comes as no sad surprise that the guy APD arrested as their primary suspect for the killings in the Islamic community turns out not to be some white supremacist but one of their own, a lame with a chip on his shoulder named Muhammad Syed. He apparently went after these guys because of perceived slights. He has a record of domestic violence complaints, dropped because nobody in his family would press charges against him. We would suspect, the women, and a culture of submission, an authority figure who terrorized them. In other words, we’re not talking about a Medieval belief system, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s primitive interpretation of Islam, we’re talking about Primitive Dick Syndrome. The murders in Albuquerque were about insecurity.

This seems to be kind of where we’re at.

I don’t know whether the clown who went after Salman Rushdie really imagines he’s going to get ninety-nine virgins in Paradise, or whether he’s just compensating. It’s hard not to see these guys as sad sacks, Lee Harvey Oswalds, dead ends and losers. They’d never make it on a level playing field.

And while we’re on the subject, I think the Ayatollah’s another limp dick.

It’s a locker-room thing. The biggest loudmouths have the least wisdom. Anybody with sexual confidence keeps it to themselves. Would this be about Trump and his fluffers? You betcha. Kari Lake, running for governor of Arizona, tells us Gov. DeSantis of Florida has Big Dick Energy. She’s opening herself up to a bunch of cheap shots, but I’ll settle for the one. All that Big Dick Energy is what killed those guys in Albuquerque, in my opinion. It’s a toxic, corrupted view of manhood.

I may not like militant Islam, but I don’t have much if any respect for militant evangelical Christian Nationalism, either.

Over-orthodox bible-thumpers of any description just plain stick in my craw. Nobody’s got a lock on salvation, not you, not me, not the pope in Rome. I think Marjorie Taylor Greene’s a moron, but what really gets my goat is her righteousness. If she were nothing more than a simpleton, I might be able let it go; but she’s pushing a poisonous brand of snake oil I can’t swallow.

The problem with the mullahs and the anti-vaxxers and crusaders of every stripe, is their conviction that they alone know the path to godliness. Trump and DeSantis are of course without principle, repellent and opportunistic thugs, but that’s a horse of a different color. The more dangerous aspect is the committed and convinced among us. There’s no reasoned argument you can use with a true zealot.

I’ve got no prescriptive answer. We’re stuck with this gene pool, for better or worse. You have to wonder, though, about our poisoned models for masculine behavior.

Honor killings, rape as a weapon of war, vengeance for disrespect. But isn’t it just locker-room talk, after all, that Big Dick Energy? Who does it really hurt?

Fill in the blanks.

Oh, and now polio is back.

Just how dangerous is ignorance and misinformation?

I give up.

11 May 2022

BUSCADEROS: A Love Story


This is a gun post, so if that stuff leaves you cold, feel free to skip ahead. I’m not going to take offense. I know not everybody shares my oddball enthusiasms.

When I was a kid, there were a lot of Westerns on TV. They began to taper off in the early 1960’s, and cop shows and private eyes picked up steam, but if you look at primetime in the years just previous, Westerns dominated the schedule every night. ABC’s Sunday line-up, for example, was Colt .45, Maverick, Lawman, The Rebel, and The Alaskans. That’s a solid block, although I guess you could argue that The Alaskans, strictly speaking, was more sled dogs than horse opera. (And except for The Rebel, they were all produced by Warners.) Mondays was Cheyenne. Tuesdays had Sugarfoot and Bronco, Laramie, Wyatt Earp, and The Rifleman. Wagon Train ran on Wednesdays. Thursdays, you had Bat Masterson and Johnny Ringo. Friday was Rawhide and Hotel de Paree. Saturday night brought us Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun - Will Travel, and Gunsmoke.

L to R: Will Hutchins, Peter Brown, Jack Kelly, Ty Hardin, James Garner, Wayde Preston, John Russell

Is it any wonder that I was crazy about cowboy guns and fast draw? I drew on Wayde Preston in the titles for Colt .45, and on Richard Boone in the opening sequence of Have Gun – Will Travel, but I never mastered the trick of Wayde Preston’s spinning his seven-and-a-half-inch-barreled Colts back into the holsters. By this point, mind, I’d moved on from the cheesier grade of cap gun to the top-of-the-line Nichols 45 Stallion, the closest thing you could find to the nickel-plated gun Shane carried. And then Mattel came out with their version, superseding the Fanner 50, the Shootin’ Shell .45, an actual double-action, single-action you could cock coming out of the holster, a huge step up in design, as regards verisimilitude.







We put away childish things.

I went to summer camp, and learned the basics of gun safety, shooting single-shot bolt .22’s at fifty feet. This is back in the day when the NRA was essentially an educational and shooting group, not a political lobby. (I don’t want to get into how Wayne LaPierre and the 2nd Amendment absolutists hijacked it –maybe next time.) You got merit badges for your shooting skills, and I think I made it to Intermediate, which later stood me in good stead, when I shot Expert with the .30 caliber carbine in Basic Training, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

My dad himself had a single-shot Remington bolt .22, and he took me up Mass. Ave. to Roach’s Sporting Goods, across from the Sears, and we bought a Mossberg. Nice gun, I still own it. The next summer I was fifteen, and he let me buy a .22 Colt Frontier Scout, up in Ellsworth, Maine.

Let us pause, for a moment. My father was the gentlest of men. He served, though, in all three theaters of war, in the Navy, back and forth across the North Atlantic, with the wolfpacks, later in the Mediterranean, and through the Suez Canal, and at the end, in the Pacific. He only told the funny stories, of course. They ran aground in the Suez Canal because the skipper was drunk. It’s only years afterwards, reading his logbooks, that I hear about a close call, outside the anchorage at Scapa Flow. Never a word.

This gentle man, however, saw no contradiction in his son learning how to conduct himself safely and sensibly around firearms. He encouraged it. I could go off on a long sidebar about the guys who came back from the war, but I’ll leave it for now. For the purposes of this story, I spent hours with that Frontier Scout, dry-fire and live fire, cleaning it religiously, taking it apart all the way to the springs, spinning it in and out of the holster. I lived with that gun. (Still own it, too.) For a very long time, that was my model, what I imagined a gun should be.

Some years later, I bought its big brother, a single-action replica of the Colt SAA made in Italy. Heavy bastard, two and a half pounds, chambered in .38-40, with a trigger pull of no more than a few ounces. Tricky gun to shoot, with a lot of felt recoil, and not exactly practical. It was a sentimental choice, and meanwhile, I’d discovered the 1911. It was time I left an earlier century behind.

Again, let’s admit the influence of a Western, not a TV series, but The Wild Bunch. It’s hugely transitional, in many ways, but particularly its time period, introducing the automobile, for one, and the machine gun. And of course the .45 auto, the Colt 1911 pistol, which is almost a character in its own right. “I’m curious about the weapon you men are carrying,” Mapache’s German advisor says. “It is restricted to the use of military personnel. It cannot be purchased, or even owned.” And in the last gunfight of the picture, the .45 auto is in heavy rotation, speed reloads and all, shaking out spent magazines and slapping in full ones. It’s a far cry from the showdown in Shane, or Ride the High Country, for that matter.

Steve Hunter, who’s far more knowledgeable about guns than I am – Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, Hot Springs – caught wind of the fact that a .45 auto wouldn’t reliably cycle blank rounds, and the armorers on The Wild Bunch wound up buying .38 Supers, which you could find in Mexico, because it was the heaviest caliber legal for civilian carry. Two things, here; I know I’m trying your patience. The first is that anything bigger than the .38 Super, or the 9MM, was illegal in Mexico, and the .45 was restricted to military and police. Secondly, the .38 Super is an outlier. The .45 auto cartridge and the gun itself were designed around each other. John Browning originally came up with an autoloader in .38, and the War Department rejected it. This is a complicated story, involving the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, and I can’t do justice to it, here. The point is that after the 1911 in .45 was adopted by the U.S. Army, the .38 Super came along in the 1920’s, and it turned into a gunfighter’s gun. John Dillinger carried one.

Steve, being Steve, immediately went on GunBroker, and bought a .38 Super.

So did I. It was an alloy-frame Commander, and I’m here to tell you it’s one of the most reliable guns I’ve ever shot. You could put two hundred rounds through it, it got dirty, it kept right on shooting. The design was still state of the art.

Hunter did a lot with the .38 Super. It’s a major plot point in Black Light, when Bob Lee’s dad Earl is killed in a cornfield, and it resurfaces in Havana. For me, I gave the gun to Mickey Counihan, in my postwar New York stories. There was just something about it.

I don’t own a 1911 any more. I caved, and got a 9MM. It’s a CZ 75 compact. Heavy, simple, reliable. Actually the second most reproduced handgun in the world, for military and police, a generation removed from the Browning High-Power, another much-copied gun. I’ve still got a reflexive weakness for the single-action Army and the .45 auto, but fashions change. A gun is like a piece of furniture, threadbare and comfortable. We’re reluctant to give it up.

[Having opened the door here, I’m going to commit. The transformation of the NRA from a minor sportsmen’s group into a major political lobbyist is one of the big stories of the last thirty years, and it happened under the covers. Nobody noticed until it was too late. Stay tuned.]

27 April 2022

Performance Anxiety


Talking to a guy I know – we’ll call him Mike – who was once upon a time in the same trade I was, and who still has skin in the game, I wondered what he thought about how badly the Russians have stepped on their dicks in Ukraine.  There were in fact two parts to the question: why Russia has underperformed so fatally, and why Western intelligence so overestimated their war-fighting capacity beforehand.

Mike happened to be on his way to Ft. Huachuca for a workshop, or a briefing, or a roundtable, at the least a guarded conversation with some other stakeholders on this very subject, so he already had his ducks lined up, and was ready to share them. 

The chief impediment is that Russian command authority is rigidly hierarchal.  The culture and doctrine are top down.  Initiative is career suicide.  And the weakest link is simply that there’s no professional NCO class, not in the sense that an American combat soldier would understand.  Russian junior enlisted are cannon fodder; their sergeants are brutal, indifferent, and corrupt.  Morale is clearly in the toilet, unit cohesion near collapse. 

Where, then, did the intelligence consensus come from, that the Russians were going to kick ass in Ukraine?  Mike had an answer for that one, too.  We put a lot of faith in the hardware.  That’s because intelligence analysis mirrors our own presumptions.  In other words, NSA looks at the performance specs for, say, the MiG-31, and the obvious question is how it stacks up against the F-16.  Same thing with tanks, or infantry weapons: the AK-47 is one of the most copied guns in the world.  Our attention is fixed on the platform.  Mike’s point being that less weight was given to the personnel, the existing skillset of the pilots or the tank crews or the ground-pounders, or in support.

Like a lot of things, once you hear the explanation, you slap your forehead and tell yourself it makes perfect sense.  Nor do I think it’s Monday-morning quarterbacking.  For me, it actually conforms to what I learned back in Berlin, in the 1960’s, during the Cold War, when our target was the Soviet occupying forces in Eastern Europe, and the Warsaw Pact.  Poland and East Germany and Hungary and the other satellites were being trained by Russians, on Russian equipment, so there was a lot of overlap. 

The reason we were there, if I haven’t made it clear before, or if you’re new to this space, was to provide a basic profile of what the Russians could throw at us.  In military vocabulary, it’s called an Order of Battle.  A specific example might be: How many aircraft are at Zossen Wunsdorf? - Are they fighters or ground attack? – And how many pilots? - What’s their readiness posture?  This is all numbing detail, but it kept the Cold War from going hot.

Here’s why I don’t think the Russians have learned anything in fifty years.  Back in the day, they had sophisticated systems and platforms, but they didn’t trust them, or they didn’t trust their people, which adds up to the same.  They scrambled fighters, for drills, using Ground-Controlled Intercept, or GCI.  MiG-21’s and Yak-28’s were fitted with on-board pursuit radars, and a ground station tracking their targets could transmit encrypted signals directly from the ground radar to the pursuit radar on the aircraft, and the radar would vector the plane to target, all done electronically.  Hands off.  Fire and forget.  We, meaning your humble servant and his crowd, were listening to the pilot chatter, we could image the Russian ground radar, we could follow the encrypted signals, we intercepted the frequency shifts from the aircraft’s radar and knew when it went from Lock to Launch.  In effect, we were in the cockpit, too.  And not a single one of those pilots, or their command structure on the ground, believed the system would work on its own.  Every instruction the pilots got, every course correction that was transmitted, over a secure network, the pilot would repeat, in the clear, on Voice.  “Roger that, turning to heading 270.”  At which point you watched him on radar, changing course to 270.  I kid you not.  And you wonder why Russian generals are getting blown out of their shoes in Ukraine?  They’re using open comms.

I think there are other reasons for what’s going on.  I think the Ukrainian defense is heroic.  Volodymyr Zelensky has bigger balls than Vladimir Putin.  And the resolve from NATO has been unexpectedly solid.  But at its most basic level, the Russian disaster is a character flaw.  Arrogance defeats empires.

 

13 April 2022

The Irish & Their Discontents


There’s a lovely line in Thomas Perry’s new book, Eddie’s Boy – and I’m unreasonably envious – “The sky was the color of disappointment.”

Here’s one from Ed Dee, not so recent.  I think it’s in Bronx Angel. An old New York harness bull is retiring after thirty years, and the boys are sending him off.  Two cops are leaving the party.  One cop asks the other one what he thinks of the guy, and the second cop says, “He’s got Irish Alzheimer’s, he’s forgotten everything but his grievances.” Dennis Lehane wouldn’t kill for that? Or me, or George Higgins?

And then, of course, the inimitable John Gregory Dunne, in True Confessions. The set-up is two brothers, one a cop and the other a priest: Tom, the homicide dick, is on the pad; Des, rising fast in the church, is consigliere to the cardinal. Tom and his partner catch a murder, a dead woman dismembered in a vacant lot, and the victim has a votive candle in her vagina.  Tom’s partner remarks, “Looks like a job for your brother the monsignor.”

These would be, of course, Irish-American tropes, going back to Finley Peter Dunne and his Mr. Dooley sketches, and up to Edwin O’Connor and The Last Hurrah, with a little Studs Lonigan thrown in along the way.  It’s a rich vein, if it sometimes veers into caricature.  You could make the case that John Ford did as much to compromise the immigrant experience as he did to celebrate it.  All that blarney, along with an unhappy nostalgia for the Ould Sod that wraps violence in sentiment.  Then again, Jimmy Breslin’s World Without End, Amen turns that delusion inside out, and makes the politics of denial an engine of despair.

Which is by way of saying that we look at the Irish of the Troubles through an American lens, one sort of tribalism translated by another, provincials both.  It’s altogether bracing to discover that contemporary Irish thriller writers aren’t wearing those leaden shoes.  Irish noir may not be getting quite the rouse of the Tartan variety, but it’s coming up strong on the turn.  Stuart Neville, for one, who I first encountered with Ratlines, and Ken Bruen – his first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards, won the Shamus, and was nominated for both the Edgar and the Macavity.  Not by coincidence, Jack Taylor got his own TV series.

This all to introduce a more recent Irish cop show.  My pal Carolyn, who’s a fan of Jack Taylor, turned me on to the series Single-Handed, which ran for four seasons – the Brits call them series, meaning not the full run of the show, but a single year – and is now gone.  The first three are ninety-minute features, made-for-TV movies.  The last season is three two-hour episodes.  It has something of the flavor of Shetland, in that it’s a dour, damp landscape, but with sudden, striking shafts of light breaking through, that show off its extraordinary beauty.

The Quiet Man it ain’t, though.  This isn’t the Ireland of Sodom and Begorrah, it feels very genuine.  The thing Carolyn liked about it, and why she recommended it to me, and why I’m recommending it to you, is that it has a depth.  You sense a life, and a community, off-camera.

It’s not ground-breaking.  The guy leaves Dublin, under a cloud, and comes back to the west of Ireland, the town where he grew up, where his own Da is the Garda constable, a sitch-ee-ay-shun, as Victor McLaglen might say, rife with conflict. Not as light as The Coroner, not quite as dark as Justified. But close. The kid takes over from his dad, and the storm clouds gather.

I’m sorry, but you gotta watch it.  I can’t describe why I find it so compelling.  The cast and the characters are engaging (some you know to trust, some you know are suspect); the landscape is there, but not a character in itself, as with Shetland; the plots are involving, but not contrived, they seem organic, they rise up out of the yeast and ferment of the place.  Wow, some metaphor.

One other thing.  Thinking about it, it might be the most Irish quality of the show.  The rhythm.  The way the beats are placed.  It really isn’t Law & Order, and I mean no disrespect, but you have to get used to a different ebb and flow. You’re listening to some other instrument. 

09 March 2022

Grace Notes


Previously in this space, I spoke about beginnings, the hook or hinge of a story, how it presented itself in the mind’s eye.  What, in other words, made it seem like a story at all, why did it catch our attention?  Which got me thinking about endings, and wrapping things up.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  That’s a last line that sticks to your ribs.

Bill Goldman once remarked that the first five pages of a script sell the picture.  Paul Newman said, OK, but it’s the last five minutes of the movie people walk out talking about.  There’s that first rush of adrenaline, when you recognize you’ve opened the door, and you’re about to step through into a place of wonder or certainly surprise, and then there’s the enormous satisfaction of closing it behind you.

Another example: Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat.  It begins with the line, “None of them knew the colour of the sky.”  (John Berryman argues that, no, in fact it begins with the title, and I have to agree.)  And there’s the ending, like a long, indrawn breath, “When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”  Extraordinary.

In between, of course, there’s incident, and dialogue, fated meetings, and sudden partings, missed opportunities, and the like, but I wasn’t considering process, as such.  It’s that when we first look through the keyhole, which is I think Virginia Woolf’s metaphor, possibility clamors.  Then, necessity steps in.  Each narrative choice we make closes off other variables.  At the end, though, when we’re putting the tale to rest, we can tuck in the covers.

Now, in my case, I have a hard time starting a story if I don’t have a title, because the title captures, or projects, a sense of the story as a whole.  By the same token, I want the ending to reflect back – not necessarily a twist, but a comment or a glancing blow.  For instance, with Aesop, each story points a moral, the Tortoise and the Hare, the Fox and the Grapes.  I don’t mean that I want to be cautionary, or prescriptive, or teach a lesson, but I want to draw a line under the story.  Think of it as a sort of curtain call.

There’s a Benny Salvador story called “Old Man Gloom,” which takes place not long after the war (WWII, for you young’uns) and goes back to the Japanese internment camps.  At the end, Benny takes his daughters upriver to Embudo, to gather fruit.

     As he expected, it was hard work, but satisfying.  The girls, of course, complained to him about it.

     Benny had little sympathy.

     Peaches, he explained patiently, are easily bruised.

This is very much on the oblique, but as a last line, I thought it was terrifically effective, the story turning on honor, and obligation, and bitterly damaged feelings.

Here’s another.  At the wind-up of Black Traffic, a spy story, there were half a dozen closing scenes, each of the major players getting a last bow, and the final scene was somebody I figured the reader might have left off their mental list.  Oh, yeah, that guy, the Serbian gangster with the blood feud.  And the box of chocolates.

To the fallen, in forgotten wars.

The last line of the book, and it said it all, so far I was concerned.  It was about grievance. 

I’m using examples from my own stuff, but obviously the Fitzgerald or the Crane are more widely known.  I know why I used what I did, and how.  I don’t have any particular insight into the other guys.  It’s said that Fitzgerald put this passage into the book earlier, in a first draft.  I also heard Franklin Schaffner told George C. Scott he wouldn’t lead Patton off with the “No dumb bastard ever won a war by dying for his country” address.  Which happens to be a good example of how to round out your picture, without easy irony.  “All glory is fleeting.”

The first five pages; the last five minutes.

23 February 2022

The Chicken or The Egg



I just finished a novella, set during the Battle of the Bulge.  I’ve been working on it for a while.  I realized that I can’t pin down my original impulse, that glimpse of something, the orphan intuition that tugs at your sleeve or plays hide and seek in your peripheral vision.  

Sometimes you know right away when you’ve got a workable idea, and once in a while not just workable, but inspired, and the fuse is lit.  We’re all familiar with getting in the zone, and the feverish clamor of momentum, but genuine inspiration comes from applying your ass to the chair.  You have to be there for lightning to strike.

Now, in the case of “The Lion of the Chama,” another long and time-shifting story, I can tell you exactly where it sprang from.  I read an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican about a local criminal lawyer who was retiring after forty years, and the interviewer asked him which was his most memorable case.  The guy said, I defended Reies Lopez Tijerina after the siege of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse. My mental ears pricked right up.  What siege was that?

Which is actually pretty widely-known history hereabouts, but I was only a wash-ashore in those days - as former Santa Fe mayor Debbie Jaramillo used to say, “You just got off the bus.”  I began to dig into it, and as research made the narrative more concrete, it also began to veer off in unexpected directions.  This itself is not unexpected.  But the more I learned, the less wiggle room I had.  In a way, it mirrors the writing process.  You begin with an empty canvas, but as you fill it in, your avenues of choice close off.  The narrative funnels down.

The expression is: Don’t spoil a good story for lack of the facts.  I stopped researching the facts of the courthouse siege, because they got in the way of the story I wanted to tell.

Now, coming back to my WWII novella, The Kingdom of Wolves, we have almost the opposite dynamic.  I knew I wanted the wider backdrop to be authentic, so I tried to stick to the chronology and movements of the fight, and who was actually where on the big map.  Patton and Bradley, for example, have cameos.  So does my Uncle Charlie, breaking down the ENIGMA traffic, back at Bletchley Park.  (My primary source was Antony Beevor’s terrific book, Ardennes 1944.)  On the other hand, I wanted my own story to slip between the cracks.  I had to make room for it, without playing the historical record false.  What happened in this case, is that I didn’t have a story of my own until I’d straightened out the facts.  That background determined the story.

So, here’s the question.  Or, at least, a framework for discussion.  Sometimes you have a situation, and you work from that; sometimes you start with a character.  But almost always, you have a difficulty to surmount.  The ring goes back to the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged.  Not every story is a hero’s quest, of course, but is the narrative engine the hero or the journey?  Clearly the two influence each other.  I guess what’s interesting, and probably unanswerable, in this context, is whether we start with Frodo, or the Ring? 

It also probably doesn’t matter.  What counts is that we got to the finish line.  Still and all, I often wonder why and how.  The sudden and exact detail that shows up in high relief, and we say to ourselves, Now there’s a story!

09 February 2022

A Thousand Steps


  

T. Jefferson Parker’s Laguna Heat came out in 1985, and I gobbled it up.  Two years later, he released Little Saigonwhich I thought was even better.  I skipped the next six books, for a reason so trivial as to invite scorn, and with apologies, here it is.

Laguna Heat was adapted into a made-for-TV movie.  It’s got a good script, it’s well-directed, it has two-thirds of a solid lead cast.  Unhappily, the other third is Harry Hamlin, who conveys the hero’s moral conflict with furrowed brow and a general air of unplumbed gastric distress.

Now, of course, we both know that the last person to be held responsible for this is the writer.  I don’t have to quote Bill Goldman.  Jeff Parker is innocent of the wrongs done his novel, but he was somehow guilty by association.  I think this was partly unconscious – if I’d thought about it at all, I would have seen how ridiculous it was, but the effect lingered. 

So, cut to Silent Joe.  Fifteen years later, if you can believe it.  I pick it up in a bookstore and flip it open, thinking, I remember reading this guy.  The book sucks me in, no hesitation, and I’m like, where have I been?  And then, to my chagrin, I remember the back story.  This leads me to catch up with many of the books I’ve missed.

Then, in 2009, the Edgar nominations for best short story include me, Jeff Parker, Laura Lippman, Sean Chercover, and Dominique Mainard - and Linda Landrigan, my editor at Hitchcock, invites me to their table at the awards dinner.  Had a great time.  Didn’t win the Edgar.  Parker did.  “The fix was in,” Laura Lippman mutters to me.  But here’s the thing, which she and I would both readily admit.  It’s disappointing not to win, for sure, but it’s better to lose to somebody you like and admire, not just some chump.

Kept right on reading the guy.  All six Charlie Hood novels, which stack up with Don Winslow’s border trilogy. 

I have to say I’ve written about this neck of the woods as well, and about what Parker has called the Iron River, money and guns going south, drugs and human traffic coming north.  We three would probably agree that the War on Drugs is a failure, but nothing we’ve written is prescriptive.

Which brings us to A Thousand Steps. 

Jeff Parker is a California boy, and his books have a local specificity, particular to a place and time.  A Thousand Steps takes us back to Laguna, but the Laguna of 1968, the summer of a thousand Zig-Zags.  The book is, yes, a mystery thriller, but I’m inclined to think of it as a quest story first and foremost.  The departure here is that the hero is sixteen, and Parker inhabits the kid’s voice with absolute authority.  It doesn’t feel made-up or inauthentic in any way.  Parker was that age, in Laguna at the time, and he’s said in interviews that he didn’t have to conjure up much – that it was a matter of reimagination.  I believe it.

The thousand steps of the title are metaphorical, but they refer to a beach just off the Pacific Coast Highway, on the south end of Laguna.  I have another tangential connection here, which is that my pal David Price, himself a native Southern California boy, is the architect who designed the public restrooms for Laguna’s beaches.  (Both the restrooms and the flights of steps are being rehabilitated.)

A Thousand Steps, the book, is immersive.  It’s both a journey inward, and an embrace of the larger world, at high velocity.  I didn’t hesitate.  Neither should you.

26 January 2022

Rogue Male


My sister sent me a book she picked up at the Blue Hill Library book sale, remarking that A) it had my name on it, and B) a woman she knew had written the introduction.  It’s a recent paperback edition of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a much celebrated and compelling yarn: think The Most Dangerous Game with Nazis thrown in. 

The first and best movie version is Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt, released in 1941 - Household’s novel came out in 1939 - once you get past Walter Pidgeon in the lead.  (I’ve never bought him in anything, which includes How Green Was My Valley.)  This stumbling block aside, Man Hunt has the hugely endearing Joan Bennett – considerably less sympathetically cast in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, two later pictures with Lang – and the impeccable George Sanders at very possibly his slimiest, outdoing even the blackmailing bottom-feeder Favell in Rebecca. 

Here’s the hook.  Pidgeon, a renowned big-game hunter, stalks Hitler in Berchtesgaden, and has him in his sights, but he’s caught before he pulls the trigger.  He’s tortured by the Gestapo to get the truth out of him.  Sanders, the most sophisticated and sadistic of the secret police detail, is convinced Pidgeon could only have been acting on instructions from British intelligence.  Pidgeon escapes, through dramatic contrivance, and gets back to England, but Sanders and his goons follow him home.  Enough spoilers.

The most significant difference between the book and the movie is that Household drops you in media res.  There’s no preamble, and no back story.  In fact, the hero, the country, and the target go unnamed – you can certainly infer that it’s Hitler, but he’s never specified.  The book opens with the guy already on the run, and the details get filled in as you go along.  All you know is that he’s being pursued by malevolent adversaries.

This is very much John Buchan territory, The Thirty-Nine Steps.  The paranoia, the noose tightening.  Which is also familiar to Fritz Lang.  Household uses a journey narrative on both the surface level and belowdecks, though.  There’s an atavistic bass note.  In the wild, paranoia is your ally, a sense of the immediate, fight or flight, whether the environment presents as hostile or tame.  Landscape can be psychic, or magicked, just as well as physical. 

This isn’t a new storyline, by any means.  Household is reinventing, or reimagining, a descent.  Beowulf goes into the cave, to face Grendel’s mom.  Orpheus challenges the god of the underworld.  When the guy in Rogue Male goes to earth, literally, like a badger or a bear, hiding in a hole in the ground, he becomes earthen, old, primal. 

Nor is this simply habit, or trope.  This is a theme, for Household.  Victoria Nelson, a Goddard scholar and the author of Gothicka and The Secret Life of Puppets, says in her introduction to this newer edition of the novel, that he’s walking back the clock.  That in order to survive against the primitive, primitive instinct has to resurface.  Old wine in new bottles, we might say.

For all that, it’s one hell of a good story. 

22 December 2021

The Iron Lung


Elvis

Elvis got his polio shot on a Sunday night in October, 1956, backstage at CBS Studio 50, right before he went on the Ed Sullivan show.  On the right is NYC Public Health Commissioner Leona Baumgartner, and the guy with the needle is Assistant Commissioner Harold Fuerst.  The enormously influential Daily Mirror columnist Walter Winchell had suggested the Salk vaccine might be as deadly as the disease itself, but in the six months after Elvis was seen getting the shot, U.S. vaccination levels shot up to 80 per cent.

In the early 1950’s, there was a spike in U.S. polio cases, and a surge of quiet hysteria.  It was a little like the fear of nuclear war, and as a kid, I remember confusing the two in my mind.  My mom warned me not to grab the brass door handles at the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square, and we didn’t get to go to Brigham’s afterwards for ice cream.  Polio was an invisible adversary, cold to the touch, and it was everywhere. 

The approval of the vaccine in ‘55 put Jonas Salk on the cover of TIME.  He was a national hero.  The oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin came along a couple of years later, and the Americas have been polio-free for almost thirty years.  There have been outbreaks in Southwest Asia, but nowhere is it epidemic anymore. 

There was, mind, a dedicated growth industry in anxiety back when.  The aforementioned atomic holocaust, along with fringe nuttiness - fluoridation of the public water supply being a Commie plot, for example – but polio inspired an actual sub-genre.  Stories featuring the iron lung became a staple, all with roughly similar conventions.


An explanation.  One in five paralytic polio cases develop respiratory symptoms.  The virus affects the upper cervical vertebrae, and paralyzes the diaphragm.  You can’t breathe on your own; you’re kept alive on a ventilator.  In the 1950’s, they used a negative-pressure ventilator called an iron lung.  It was a coffin-sized metal tube, and your entire body went into it.  Only your head stuck out.  The vacuum created by negative pressure inside sucks your chest up, and your lungs draw in air. 


On an episode of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian Keith is in an iron lung, and his wife plans to pull the plug.  The question is how he can possibly outwit her when he’s flat on his back and immobilized, and there’s no way he can call for help.  There’s a delicious twist I didn’t see coming.

The iron lung is an obvious metaphor, but it’s also physical, the helplessness cruelly literal.  It’s interesting to me that certain tropes are so much a product of their particular time.  In this instance, representing the Cold War: we’re in the grip of overwhelming, mechanical forces, and struggle like ants.

There are clear echoes, or reflections, in the present day.

  One difference, however, is that we don’t have individual influencers as unifying as Elvis.  We’ve lost consensus.  We apparently can’t agree on a shared reality.  One thing you can say for polio.  It scared the shit out of enough of us to tip the scales.