Showing posts with label Jim Winter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jim Winter. Show all posts

07 June 2024

Catch-22



 Usually, when a novel becomes classic, it's often serious, almost intentionally humorless. No one's really laughing at The Great Gatsby or anything by Toni Morrison. The exceptions, of course, are Dickens, Twain, and Washington Irving. Dickens infuses whimsey into even his darkest tales (though it's hard to find in A Tale of Two Cities, which is unremittingly dark.) And if you can't find Twain's tongue planted firmly in his cheek somewhere in one of his books, you weren't paying attention. Irving, of course, suffers only because the television hadn't been invented yet to give him a job on Saturday Night Live.

But if you go through Harold Bloom's list of novels from How to Read, not one of them (except maybe Don Quixote) have anymore than unintentional humor.

And then we come to Joseph Heller's World War II novel, Catch-22. At the time, stories of World War II focused on the valor of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who fought, the brutality of the Nazis and the Japanese, and rightness of the cause. Heller skewered military bureaucracy mercilessly in his short book about a bombardier named Yossarian, who just wants to go home.

He can't, of course. Every time he comes close to reaching his quota for missions allowing him to rotate out, the vainglorious (and let's be honest here, stupid) Colonel Cathcart raises the quota again. It's forty-five at the beginning of the novel. It's eighty by the end. I actually rooted for Cathcart to be unceremonious shoved out a B-25's bomb bay in an "accident." Oh, um, spoiler alert. Doesn't happen.

Yossarian is surrounded by the insane. Stationed on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy, he's beset by all sorts of bureaucratic nonsense which gets men killed and even has the mess officer paying the Germans to bomb the airbase to keep his black market enterprise going. Because nothing is more American than profit. (I'm thinking Heller didn't vote for Reagan.)

Everyone in Yossarian's wing is killed over the course of the novel, except one who turned out to be living in neutral territory at the book's end. The book is absurdist about this at the beginning, but retells events from various characters' points of view, getting progressively darker. One character, who starts out as a rather oblivious jerk is revealed to have raped and murdered a woman in Rome, shrugging it off as, "Hey, I always get away with it."

The brass are absolutely worthless, with Catchcart obsessed only with looking good and making general, not that his superiors are much better. His adjutant, the aptly named Lt. Col. Korn, seems reasonable at first, but then reveals slowly how much he enjoys being the power behind the throne. Intelligence officer Captain Black has nothing but contempt for the pilots and is angry about being passed over for promotion in favor of a major named Major Major (middle name, Major. Clearly, Heller read the 87th Precinct books.) Major is an ironic choice for wing commander because he uses his power and position to avoid as much human contact as possible. Yossarian even dives through his office window to force the issue.

Perhaps the most despicable character (outside the rapist/murderer pilot) is the mess officer, Milo Minderbinder. Milo builds a black market initially to supply all the mess halls in southern Italy. Soon, its tentacles reach past the Axis lines, north to England and liberated France, over into Russia, and even back to America. Whenever confronted about his questionable deeds, Minderbinder justifies himself with long lectures about profit and his "syndicate," of which, "Everyone has a share." 

Heller is definitely a Dickens fan with his Meyer Meyer-like Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, and so on. His villains are completely oblivious to their malice. And it becomes obvious why Heller chose 1944 Italy as his setting. Most heroic tales of World War II come from France, from Stalingrad, and from the Pacific. But 1944 Italy was a hurry-up and wait front. The absurd and the horrific comes from confused men and women who aren't sure what's going on because Allied commanders are busy elsewhere grinding Hitler and Imperial Japan to pulp.

Catch-22 is often on banned book lists because of a knee-jerk "How dare you?" reaction. The Army Air Corps (now the US Air Force and, more recently, Space Force) is made to look incompetent. But like Lower Decks to the rest of the Star Trek franchise, where the Cerritos must follow where someone else boldly went, these people have followed the battle to pry Italy out of Nazi Germany's bloody hands. So while Band of Brothers and Midway are happening elsewhere, the people in pacified Italy have no idea what's going on.

This plays out later when writers combined Catch-22's absurdity with the play Stalag 17 to create Hogan's Heroes. In that, the enemy is bungling and incompetent, since they're far from the English Channel, Africa, and the ominous Russian front. This allows a motley crew of Allied prisoners to function as an underground and pitting self-important German brass against each other.

But it comes to fore with both the movie and television series M*A*S*H. Richard Hornberger (as Richard Hooker) wrote a novel skewering the Korean War's hurry-up-and-wait situation, which led to the same issues as depicted in Catch-22. As the Vietnam War erupted, the novel M*A*S*H provided ample anti-war fodder for Robert Altman's movie. The television show focused more on humor, but made the bureaucratic morass a prominent feature. ("No, Colonel, I'm looking at the map right now, which is up-to-date, and I can assure you, you are not being bombed." Meanwhile, Henry Blake is hoping a mortar shell doesn't land in his office as he's on this call.)

War is hell. Sherman said it, and every book worth reading about war, from The Winds of War and The Longest Day to Catch-22 makes clear. But for every Saving Private Ryan, which shows the courage and tenacity of those under fire, there has to be a M*A*S*H or a Catch-22 to remind us how the Office Space mentality isn't just for civilians.

17 May 2024

English, Brother Tucker*! Do You Speak It?


 When most people say Old English, they're actually referring to Elizabethan English. The type found in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. The markers are the formal vs. informal second person and the attendant verb forms. "Thou," informal for "you," is rarely used these days, though the objective form, "thee" still puts in an appearance here and there. 

Miramax

 

But that's not Old English. That is merely an early form of modern English. You know. What you're reading this very moment. "Thee" and "thou" had a long, slow decline to the point where they still exist, but they often are used for effect. Some even think "thee" and "thou" are more formal. And yet the Spanish version of "thou" is tu, and my high school Spanish teacher informed us calling a total stranger tu was a great way to get slapped. Those speaking Romance languages take the separation of the familiar and the formal very seriously.

On the other hand, the late Queen Elizabeth and King Charles seem to have been annoyed by the royal "We," but questions of gender identity and the lack most languages have of a gender-neutral pronoun beyond "it" (which is awful for referring to people) has given rise to a singular "they." Some find this controversial. I find this the perfect excuse to dance on my tenth grade English teacher's grave.

But what is Old English, then? And, for that matter, Middle English?

By PHGCOM - Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5969131

 

Old English actually refers to Anglo-Saxon, the tongue that evolved from the Germanic of the Angles and Saxons who moved in after the Romans pulled out of Britain and the Norse of the Jutes, who had a great idea. They'd leave Scandinavia and build this colony called Kent, where one day, teenage blues nerds would reinvent rock and roll. Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic language, sounding quite a bit like Dutch with a syntax resembling Yoda speak. It even used a not-entirely Roman alphabet.

My youngest stepson used to complain loudly about the silent "k" in "knight" or "knife." I used to blame the Vikings, who added more Norse to the language. Silent "k" does not make linguistic sense in the context of English rules, so it must be their fault. Right? Nope. Silent K came over from Germany with those Angles and Saxons. The Celts, who'd been in Britain since before the Romans, shrugged and started using it when they dealt with the weird Germans (and those guys over in Kent. Who are still quite Kentish.)

The best example of Anglo-Saxon is the epic poem Beowulf. It has to be translated for modern audiences because the English of Alfred the Great is not even the language of Edward III, one of the first Norman kings to actually speak English to his subjects. As I said, the alphabet is different. The syntax is different. It's really another language. But it's not. It's just the prototype for what you're reading right this moment.

The translation of Beowulf I listened to on Audible was done by a translator from Ulster. Ulsterites are in a unique position when it comes to English, steeped in two flavors of Celtic languages along with English. This particular translator also spoke Irish. So sometimes, he used a Celtic interpretation of certain passages to translate into modern English. 

Geoff Chaucer, renaissance man
before the Renaissance

Then we come to Middle English, the language of Chaucer. And the language of Sir Thomas Malory. Chaucer we know because he was the BFF and brother-in-law of John of Gaunt, the ancestor of the current royal family. Chaucer was a regular renaissance man before there was an actual renaissance in England. (The plague had yet to wipe out a third of Europe.) Malory has been traced to one person, but might have been several.

Anglo-Saxon was the predominant language in Britain for 700 years, from the withdrawal of the Romans to the Norman Conquest. Strange folk those Normans. They were Vikings. But not the Vikings of Sweden, Denmark, or Norway, nor the funny-talking English of the Danelaw, in central Britain. No, these Vikings had settled in France, started speaking French, and had radical ideas like banning serfdom and writing things down. From William the Conqueror (a much better regnal nickname than William the Bastard, which he was called as Duke of Normandy) to the final days of the Plantagenets, the court spoke French. The Church spoke French. Business was conducted in French. Anglo-Saxon faded because French was more compatible with Latin, then lingua franca. (Ironically, the term refers to French, a Latin-based language.) So English had to adapt.

If you go slowly, you can probably read the original text of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's sprawling series of tales from a cross-section of English society. (And I really want to pour a glass of wine over Prioress's head, but I was born around the time the Beatles because a studio-only band.) I said almost read it. The words, when read aloud, are somewhat familiar, but the spellings are almost phonetic. It still requires a translation, but it's almost word-for-word. 

Flash forward a century to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and not only is the original text readable, it looks like Shakespeare trying for forge a few entries into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer lived near the end of the twelfth century. Malory retold the Arthurian legend (actually, the Norman appropriation of a Saxon forgery of a Welsh legend about a guy who likely was a Roman) around 1485, according to William Caxton's note at the end. That's only seven years before Columbus took a wrong turn at Hispanola and declared Haiti to be Indonesia. (The Carib tribe found this a bit confusing as they'd never heard of the East Indies. The East Indians found this hilarious.)

Middle English arose during the Norman Conquest and became the language of peasants and merchants who didn't give a fig about their French overlords. Since, by the time of Edward III, England had few French possessions, his sons and grandsons decided an English monarch should speak, yanno, English. Chaucer codified a lot of written English, so you can blame him for the confusing "-ough" construction, a tough construct that can be understood with thorough thought. "Should," "would," "could?" Yep. That's Middle English, too. Thanks, Geoff!

But Malory's collection and retelling of Arthurian tales was published around the time some Welsh guy with a dubious claim to the throne named Henry Tudor ruled England. (And Wales. The Welsh found this hilarious.) Your eyes might cross, but you can actually read Le Morte d'Arthur in the original text. The spellings are Middle English, but aloud, it sounds more like Shakespeare. And why wouldn't it? King Hank would begat Henry VIII who would begat Elizabeth, who would hand off the throne to her cousin James. Modern English is emerging. Not there yet, but it's coming. Publishers still update the language because English from a century prior to The Tempest still challenges the modern reader.

Unlike Anglo-Saxon, Middle English's day was only 500 years long. 


Then came Shakespeare. Credit a few other writers, including Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and so on, for joining Wil in codifying English. A few apocryphal accounts suggest English varied from town to town. But Wil's plays, along with Marlowe's and a few others', were performed widely. So, as folios and quartos became available via the printing press, English started to sound roughly the same with standard spellings taking root.

Of course, even then, it was not fate accompli. The informal "thee" and "thou" disappeared (though still spoken in parts of Yorkshire and Appalachia.) Americans changed the words "happyness" and "busyness" to "happiness" and "business." Writing from Washington, William Pitt the Younger, and Thomas Paine suggest spelling was more a guideline than a set of rules. In the late nineteenth century, a movement tried to simplify spelling, which changed "plough" to "plow" and "all ready" to "already." The movement, in my humble opinion, died out too soon, but Mark Twain now gets an edit when he isn't writing in dialog since he, like many of his day, disdained formal spelling rules. (But he had a hypocritical attitude toward adjectives.) 

The point is, of course, English is an ever-evolving language. From a Germanic tongue with some Latin suggestions and the odd bit of Welsh or Cornish to a mashup of Anglo-Saxon reshaped by French, absorbing more Latin, and making up its own rules today's language, English, as many like to say, is not so much one language, but seven welded together and roving in a pack to mug other languages in a back alley. Originally, English was written in runes. The runes are gone, but now memes are creeping in. You only have to show a picture of a woman screaming at a cat to understand the gist before even reading the text.

What's next. 



^Apologies to Quentin Tarantino, but I can't use the original line in this forum.

26 April 2024

King Arthur and Vince McMahon?



 My current Audible listen is Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory. It's the earliest complete telling of the King Arthur legend in the English language. Written near the end of the Hundred Years War (just in time for the Wars of the Roses! Oh, those whacky Norman monarchs!), Malory, of whom there is little known, renders the tale of the legendary king as a treatise on the Chivalric Code. It's also a transitional time for the English language. Gone is the bizarre Anglo-Saxon tongue of Beowulf. By now, poet and royal in-law Geoffrey Chaucer has normalized writing literature in English. (The Normans, originally Vikings who became French, considered Anglo-Saxon a degenerate tongue in their early days. Henry IV decided an English court should speak English. I know. Radical.) But Malory's Middle English looks like Shakespeare trying to forge new entries into The Canterbury Tales. However, after the most recent reading of a Knight of the Round Table going out and doing feats of daring-do, I can only hear one phrase as I start a new section.

LET'S GET READY TO RUMBLE!

Sony

Strange, isn't it? That sounds like something more out of the movie A Knight's Tale (with Chaucer as a character and a 90s rock soundtrack) than a Norman coopting of a Saxon forgery of a Welsh legend originally based on the life of a warrior from the waning days of Rome. Malory tells a familiar tale of Uther Pendragon taking an enemy's wife, Igraine, and conceiving Arthur, who is raised in secret, pulls Excalibur from a stone, then conquers all Britain and Ireland before marching down to Rome to give the Emperor Lucius what-for. (Historians will note that was actually the Vandals and the Visigoths, not Graham Chapman and the Monty Python troupe.) And then we get into the Knights of the Table Round, of which Malory says there are about 150. And each one goes out to fight whomever they will fight. Sometimes, they run afoul of Arthur's incestuous sister, Morgan Le Fay, and fight each other. In listening, I noticed knights will be the hero in one book, the villain in another, and sidekick in yet another. Doesn't that sound like WWE?

Le Morte d'Arthur is episodic and tends to repeat itself. It's not the post-World War II spiking of the ball for England like TH White's The Once and Future King (and by extension, the musical Camelot), which followed more modern storytelling. Nor is it the more complex, feminist reworking that is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which has more in common with Dune than Malory, aside from the characters. No, these tales were not meant to be a single novel or play like Shakespeare in his day or even today's ten-episode streamers. Nor was it intended for the elite few who could read. Like Homer before him, Malory and Chaucer wrote for their stories to be read piece by piece to the masses, who didn't really care about which god slept with which goddess or... Well... Let's just say Greek and Roman mythology is less complicated than Phonecian. (Moloch? Seriously?) No, the masses gravitate toward action. Fight scenes. Heroes with a code. Damsels in distress. (Though these days, the damsels often come armed with brains or weapons or both and usually cause or relieve distress more often than be in it.) They want adventure.

Heroes and villains. Like pro wrestling. And the heroes swap places. One chapter Sir Tristram is the boldest knight, save Lancelot. The next, he's dumped his damsel for another and off living like a Duke in Brittany, earning several knights' enmity. But wait. A rival to Arthur has kidnapped or killed one of the knights of the Round Table. Or Morgan Le Fay (who also switches sides a lot) has hexed one of our heroes. Another knight comes in to save the day, but he needs help. "Oh, um, Trist? Why don't we settle this with a joust a Pentecost. I could really use a hand right now." 

Even Lancelot becomes the villain eventually. Many of the knights lust after Queen Guinevere. Lance actually does something about it. It's the precursor to pro wrestling. Andre the Giant is the good guy. Then he's not when he battles Hulk Hogan. Roddy Piper is a heel. Then he's the wise old man of wrestling. (Also, a guy with really cool sunglasses that expose capitalism's faults. I'd have thought $200 for a non-prescription pair of Oakleys was a hint, but that's a couple of other columns.)

Malory, I've come to realize, was a pulp writer. So was, to some extent, Shakespeare, but he wrote long, (usually coherent) plays. (And someone should have let him completely rewrite Edward III. Is it really his canon if he's the obvious script doctor on a polished turd? I digress.)

Even Dickens and Twain wrote this way early on. The Pickwick Papers aren't so much a novel as a serialized forerunner to Freaks and Geeks minus the MST3K cameos. Even Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, two of the most influential American novels ever written, read like a newspaper serial or, to our modern eyes, a streaming program. But unlike Dickens and Twain, who spent a fair bit of time fleshing out even their most one-dimensional characters, Malory has simple good guys and bad guys who are interchangeable. It was Twain, White, Bradley, and a host of movie directors and novelists who gave the various knights deeper motivations. Read The Mists of Avalon, and you wonder why Merlin didn't get smacked around by an angry Morgan Le Fay. 

Malory picked up where Chaucer left off in terms of language, bridging the gap between the nascent Middle English of the Plantagenet Era and Elizabethan style we see in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. But Chaucer was writing a cross-section of English society that would inspire later classics, including Dan Simmons's classic Hyperion. Malory wants you to throw some popcorn in the microwave (or it's 15th century equivalent, in a pan over an open fire.) Or maybe, since Arthur was pilfered from the Welsh, stick the Orville Redenbacher in the popty ping. (Which remains my favorite Welsh slang of all time.)

And besides, if it weren't for Lance, Gawain, and Gallahad, we'd have never had Holmes, Phillip Marlowe, or Jim Rockford. 

Or WWE Raw



05 April 2024

Eclipse



 Monday, Cincinnati will witness something it hasn't seen in decades: A total eclipse of the sun. The path of totality, where the moon completely obscures the sun, and you get that nice corona, will pass through Butler County north of the city. Just from my back deck, we will have 99.5% coverage. So we may avoid the crowds and watch from there.

We've witnessed one major eclipse here in recent years. In 2017, Cincinnati was treated to a partial eclipse, the path of totality passing a couple hundred miles to the west. That in itself was spectacular. I thought it was great until a local pastor opted to brag, "I saw the eclipse, and the rest of you didn't." What are you, dude? Fifteen? (I don't go there anymore,)

Eclipses are amazing because the sky does something it normally doesn't do. We get at least one or two lunar eclipses every year, when the Earth blots out or reddens the full moon. I watched several as a kid and thought they were spectacular. But the moon casting a shadow on the Earth and blocking the sun? Well, that actually happens frequently, just not in the same place every time. There are several pictures from space showing a dark spot on the Earth where the moon has cast a shadow. But from the ground, it's quite rare. Why?

The Earth rotates. Both the Earth and the moon move around the sun. So sunlight is never hitting at the same angle from moment to moment. For you flat Earthers out there, this is one of those things you learn when you stay awake in science class and don't believe in conspiracy theories. 

There are two-to-five eclipses a year. You don't hear about most of them because it's really a local event. There's only so much moon to cast so much shadow. Plus, as often as not, eclipses occur over the ocean, often out of view of anyone not on a ship, airplane, or Gilligan's Island (where, we assume, the Professor will make eclipse glasses out of coconut shells and some polarized plastic that fell off a passing 737 Max.)

Eclipses have fascinated humans since prehistoric times. The ancient Chinese believed a dragon had eaten the sun and had to be coaxed to vomit it back out. Columbus used an eclipse to convince natives of his divine nature. Not bad for a guy whose navigation skills were so bad he thought it was in Indonesia. 

In literature and movies, they occasionally show up as a plot point, such as the movie Ladyhawk. In it, a curse forces Rugter Hauer to assume the form of a wolf at night and Michelle Pfeiffer a hawk by day. Only during an eclipse can the curse be broken. Spoiler alert: There's an eclipse. And a mildly befuddled Matthew Broderick.

Stephen King and director Taylor Hackford used an eclipse great effect. In the novel Dolores Claiborne, the coming eclipse is used to build tension before the titular character kills her husband. In the movie, it makes an almost terrifying backdrop to the actual murder, Kathy Bates staring down the dry well with the moon and the sun's corona over her shoulder. 

So what will happen on Monday? On Monday, my wife and I will watch (through proper eclipse glasses myself) and, hopefully, snap a photo.

15 March 2024

From Gun Monkeys to Fast Charlie


Gun Monkeys - original cover

When I started out, back when cell phones were actual phones and texting required learning a new set of runes to type into your keypad, I made the acquaintance of one Victor Gischler. Back then, he and pal Anthony Neil Smith ran the now-missed Plots With Guns webzine. I have a special fondness for PWG as they gave me my first publishing credit in their second issue, a short story called "A Walk in the Rain."

At the time, Gisch was putting the finishing touches on his first novel, a nasty slice of noir called Gun Monkeys, which had already been taken by a rather well-regarded small press. Gun Monkeys debuted in 2003 to much acclaim, and off Mr. Gischler went. The Big Five (There were five back then. Good times!) snapped him up and published Suicide Squeeze and Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse. The latter should have been optioned for SyFy back before it got glommed by Peacock. Marvel tapped him to write for Wolverine, Deadpool, and the X-Men.

Then, in the midst of the pandemic, producers approached him about adapting Gun Monkeys. Hollywood being Hollywood, they moved the action from Florida to Gischler's native Gulf Coast region near New Orleans and southern Mississippi. Pierce Brosnan took on the role of "Fast Charlie" Swift with Morena Baccarin as Marcie and James Cann (in his last film role) as a doddering Stan. There were other changes, but the heart of the story remained. It's been twenty years, after all. In the original, Stan was still trying to cling to power. In the movie, Charlie is trying to protect a father figure whose mind is literally fading to nothing scene by scene. And, of course, they gave the movie the title Fast Charlie

I watched Fast Charlie when it came out late last year. Other than Brosnan's cringe-inducing accent (An Irishman trying to sound Cajun is a dicey prospect.), it was very well done. Many of the changes had to do with the changes in society over two decades and the fact a movie director has only ninety minutes to two-and-a-half hours to tell a story. Plus script writers gotta script. Hand me, SA Cosby, or Nathan Singer The Maltese Falcon, and you'll get three different movies, none of which look like Bogie's version.All in all, I'd say director Phillip Noyce and screenwriter Richard Wenk did a good job invoking the original. Helps that Gun Monkeys was a short book.

Fast Charlie, the retitled version of Gun Monkeys from Hardcase Crime

Still, I asked for (and got) the original, retitled Fast Charlie, from Hardcase Crime. Honestly, Hardcase Crime is probably a better home for the book than it's original publisher. But it didn't exist in 2003, and Uglytown's short existence gave the book some heft in its original run. However, when I originally read it, I had vastly different pictures of Charlie and Stan. Baccarin as Marcie, though, solidified my original image of the character. On reread, I couldn't help seeing Brosnan as Charlie and Caan as Stan.

It's pretty rare when an adaptation invokes the original so well. Look at how many times Dune has been done. David Lynch's mind-bending version wasn't even the first attempt. A French movie in the seventies would have probably required a visit from the Merry Pranksters, with their psychedelic Kool-Aid, to watch. The Syfy version lacked heart but at least could be followed. But Dune is a long, complicated book. Still, even the simplest novels can morph into something other than what the author intended. See The Long Goodbye.

23 February 2024

Bad Whiskey



A lot of stories take their cues from music. I listen to music when I write, and I often say I can't write listening to Carrie Underwood or Roger Waters because they're telling stories in their songs. Actually, I can't listen to Roger Waters on anything after 1980 because... Okay, that's another rant I'll save for elsewhere. But Carrie Underwood writes entire novels in her music. "Blown Away" and "Two Cadillacs" come to mind.

And then there's southern rock. Ever listen to some of Skynyrd's songs and see a story unfold in your mind? "Two Steps" is a good one and might have spawned a different story had I heard it around the time we started planning the Murder, Neat anthology. Instead, a friend of mine sent me this video of her husband's band. For a group who played mostly bars (though they did open for the likes of Black Country Communion a few times), they did a rather professional video. When it opened, I thought, "Cool. Johnny Lynn's playing slide!" But they had a few stories to go with the verses, many of them fitting that southern rock vibe half of Johnny's bands embrace. (Johnny is the aforementioned friend's husband.)

I had a video, awaiting the CD, and I had an email from either Leigh or Robert and a follow up from Michael Bracken: Write a story set in a bar. Put a murder in it. I had a soundtrack, an inspiration, and marching orders. This is why I love anthologies as a writer. When the prompt hits just right, the stories spin off on their own.

The song is called "Bad Whiskey." How's that for a southern rock title? And if the video shows the ill-effects of bad whiskey in general, the story flows backward and reveals just how bad one man's whiskey was. 

And in case you were wondering, here is the aforementioned song that inspired the story, "Bad Whiskey" by the Russell Jinkens XL Band.



02 February 2024

The Second Murderer by Denise Mina



 For the first time since Poodle Springs, Philip Marlowe shows up in a Philip Marlowe novel and manages to stay well past Chapter 4. If it sounds like I'm giving damning faint praise to author Denise Mina, I'm not. Mina has written the latest authorized Philip Marlowe novel, and for once, we have an author who understands how to place Marlowe in context and not belabor the similes.

Like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, Philip Marlowe is one of those characters who won't die with his author. You have to go to science fiction to get anything else American like it. Star Wars is a Marvel-like franchise now instead of the story of a farm boy becoming Siegfried. Star Trek just avoids that fate by becoming a setting more than a story about set characters. Marlowe is...

Well, he's Marlowe. And he has dozens upon dozens of imitators: Lew Archer (more a means for Ross MacDonald to tell a story), Nameless, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Kinsey Milhonne, VI Warshawski. Even a certain Sleuthsayers contributor originally from Cleveland invented his own not-Marlowe. Which reminds me, there was another not-Marlowe from Cleveland by a much older writer from Cleveland. Seems like everyone wants in on the action.

But Bond and Holmes are larger than life, to the point where Holmes is recognizable the moment he appears, and Bond is now two Bonds: literary and cinematic. Marlowe is a working stiff, a guy in a corner office. If you reinvent him, you almost have to create a new character. Many have tried. The result has been not-Spenser, a book full of wisecracks and similes, or some guy named Philip Marlowe who happens to be or was a private detective. The closest anyone came to the original was Lawrence Osborne's Only to Sleep, featuring an elderly Marlowe in Mexico, though the story had an almost Miami Vice vibe to it. Denise Mina writes a story about the character Raymond Chandler created.

The similes and an odd metaphor or ten are there, but they need to be. That's how Marlowe talks. And he's in period. The Second Murderer begins with Marlowe wrapping up a case but wondering if he got it wrong: The death of a Western character actor on the eve of World War II. He has no time to think about it as an elderly man, in shades of The Big Sleep, summons Marlowe to Stately Montgomery Manor to hire him. He doesn't want the job, but Montgomery wants his daughter found. Because Montgomery is a Very Important Man(TM) from a Very Important Family(TM). And unlike The Big Sleep's General Sternwood, Marlowe doesn't like this guy. He's a shriveled monster who beats his family Yet Marlowe takes the gig. He finds the daughter, Chrissie, soon enough. But he also runs into Anne Riordan, a character so strong she could probably carry her own series. And Mina has made her a PI in her own right. Something's not right.

Marlowe and Riordan soon realize they're working at cross purposes here, and even the police are being played. Despite being at odds in their missions, the pair are soon walking a fine line between what they're tasked with and protecting Chrissie, who has a few secrets of their own.

Mina writes this in period. There's no overlay of modern sensibilities, although she does avoid some language Chandler might not have blinked at. But she's writing in 1938 and focused on the rhythms and the consequences of Hollywood trying very hard to pretend Hitler is someone else's problem. The dialog is in-period. However, the book comes from a Scottish writer, so the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all UK. That takes about a chapter to get used to. As an editor, I've seen the challenge and once had to leave Australian rules in place. But there were occasional lapses. One particular instance has Marlowe describing the rain on his car's "bonnet" (hood to us yanks.) Fortunately, the Britishisms are few and far between, and Marlowe even makes fun of one characters' faux British accent.

Much is made of Denise Mina being the first female author to tackle Marlowe. But I find it interesting a a Gen X woman from Scotland did a far superior job resurrecting Marlowe than Robert Parker or some of the other writers who attempted to carry on the legacy. First off, she focuses on telling a good story. She organically adds in Anne Riordan as a callback to Farewell, My Lovely without being gratuitous about it. And the Marlowe in her book is the Marlowe Chandler wrote. Considering she's been doing this for over twenty-five years, she was a good choice to add a chapter to Marlowe's story. I'd read another by her.

12 January 2024

Rookies


In the past two years, I've become a professional editor in addition to writing. I'm still good at writing as a writer, editing as an editor, and reading as a reader. When I'm doing any one of these things, my brain doesn't want to do the other.

But after fifteen books for Down & Out plus a couple of freelance jobs, some things do make my inner editor scream. One is the inevitable neophyte writer's rant online about "The Rules." We're all familiar with Elmore Leonard's list. 

It's a good list. It's also written based on how Elmore Leonard wrote. Ever read Elmore Leonard? This is how he got good. But his rules and Lawrence Block's rules and Stephen King's rules are all different lists. I'm not talking about those lists. I'm talking about the temper tantrum of a newer writer getting frustrated with the editing process. I recently ran across such a list. My wife found my own "Get off my lawn!" rant toward it quite entertaining. Really, it showed the writer's lack of experience. And it's not unfamiliar to me. I used to think the same way. What were they complaining about?

  • No head hopping - Now this one infuriates me, even if it took me the longest time to understand it. What brought it home was Tom Clancy, an unrepentant head hopper. Clancy would give you whiplash starting in Jack Ryan's head, bopping over to some sonar technician's POV, then ending with some admiral's or politician's. I can't read it anymore. Head hopping is disrespectful to the reader, who has to follow the writer's ADHD-inspired point-of-view shifts. Now, I violently disagree with the "One POV Per Chapter" rule. I always thought that was stupid because it makes for short, short chapters. But one POV per scene should be an ironclad rule. Only four writers I know of since World War II have managed to head hop smoothly: Frank Herbert, Stephen King, George Pelecanos, and SA Cosby. Everyone else needs to remember someone's gotta read this at some point, and more people will if they can follow along.

  • No adverbs. Okay, editors need to really chill about this one, but outright rebellion? That needs to be stamped out aggressively. Mind you, I'm spoiled. I've only beta'd (but not fully edited) one neophyte writer, so the adverbs are usually at a minimum. By the time I get them, they're invisible. But my first professional editing job came from a guy who's been writing longer than I've been alive. (And my puberty began to the strains of Blondie, which was not a bad way for a pre-teen boy to get his hormones flowing. I digress.) So by the time I get most manuscripts, I'm not treated to a flood of "ly."

  • No repeated words. Now let's be clear. I don't have long lists of overused words. I do a crutch word check. I'll leave about 33% of passive voice intact, either for context or because it's been about three pages since the last instance. But repeated words. Yes, you'll use a word multiple times in a manuscript. That's a given. But let's take a word like "peculiar." Unless it's a verbal gambit, that word shouldn't appear again for at least another page. Twice in the same paragraph? There's a reason we do multiple drafts. While I'm not a big fan of thesauruses--I've seen them abused too many times--you may want to pick one up if you find yourself leaning on one word to say the same thing.

  • Show, don't tell. I've got a whole rant about why editors and veteran writers really need to give this one a rest. But I saw this on one of those "lists" and realized writers like this are never going to let editors or veteran writers give it a rest. My problem with show-don't-tell is overzealous beta readers who love rules lists too much and people who can't sell their fiction selling writing courses. (You know who you are.) But ignoring this rule leads to lazy writing. "I don't need to describe Sarah's reaction. I'll just say she was angry.)

    Oh, no. That's precisely why editors and more experienced writers won't ease up on this. The inexperienced writer tends to use this as an excuse to write less. If Sarah's reaction is a minor detail, then yes, just say she's angry. Better yet, cut the anger altogether. It will likely become obvious further into the scene. If Sarah is the POV character, we need to see her jaw clench or fists tighten, hear her growl, see her vision turn red.

There are others. Passive voice, which is abused by experienced writers as well, including this one. The fact that some writers use "that" to join dependent clauses too often. 

But when a writer says they're going to ignore all these rules? That just shows inexperience. I know. I used to say this myself. And a friend who started writing a couple of years ago needed to be guided, particularly in POV issues. He's now an editor for Running Wild Press. And he calls me when he gets overwhelmed by a neophyte writer who thinks the rules are, "Like, oppression, man!"

 The rules exist for a reason. They work when they're applied with nuance, which means you have to know how to use them to know how to break them.  Ignore them at your own risk.

22 December 2023

Holiday Tradition: A Very Tom Waits Christmas - An Homage to the Master



Author's Note: I've posted this annually, more or less, every year since the mid-2000s. It's going here this year.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
Christmas Eve was dark, and the snow fell like cocaine off some politician’s coffee table
Rudolph looked to the sky. He had a shiny nose, but it was from too much vodka
He said, “Boys, it’s gonna be a rough one this year.”

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
The elves scrambled to pack up the last of the lumps of coal for deserving suburban brats
And a bottle of Jamie for some forgotten soul whose wife just left him
Santa’s like that. He’s been there.
Oh, he still loves Mrs. Claus, a spent piece of used sleigh trash who
Makes good vodka martinis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the loneliness, the loneliness only Santa knows

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And the workshop reeks of too much peppermint
The candy canes all have the names of prostitutes
And Santa stands there, breathing in the loneliness
The loneliness that creeps out of the main house
And out through the stables
Sometimes it follows the big guy down the chimneys
Wraps itself around your tannenbaum and sleeps in your hat

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
We all line up for the annual ride
I’m behind Vixen, who’s showin’ her age these days
She has a certain tiredness that comes with being the only girl on the team
Ah, there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix
She’s got a tear drop tattooed under her eye now, one for every year Dancer’s away

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh and
I asked myself, “That elf. What’s he building in there?”
He has no elf friends, no elf children
What’s he building in there?
He doesn’t make toys like the other elves
I heard he used to work for Halliburton,
And he’s got an ex-wife in someplace called Santa Claus, Pennsylvania
But what’s he building in there?
We got a right to know.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And we’re off
Off into the night
Watching the world burn below
All chimney red and Halloween orange

I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen it all
Every Christmas Eve, I’ve seen it all

There’s nothing sadder than landing on a roof in a town with no cheer.

01 December 2023

Why Marlowe?


Open Road Films

Last year, Liam Neeson appeared in Marlowe, the first Philip Marlowe movie in years. Marlowe's been scarce on the big and small screen until recently, but there seems to be a need to continue his story beyond Raymond Chandler's death. Most notably, Robert B. Parker finished the last Marlowe novel by Chandler, Poodle Springs. One blurb stated emphatically one couldn't tell where Parker picked up from Chandler. Spoiler alert: Not only is it glaringly obvious, the dialog changes mid-scene with Marlowe suddenly talking like Spenser. Still, Parker would have been my first choice to finish the last Marlowe novel.

There are other characters who have been as timeless as Philip Marlowe. James Bond is always a product of his times, with Connery and Lazenby's versions aficionados of Playboy while Daniel Craig's iteration had more of a conscience. Sherlock Holmes has also proved enduring, but with the exception of some films during World War II, Holmes remained rooted in the Victorian Era until the twenty-first century, with versions set in present-day London and New York, each using aspects of Doyle's work to justify the updates. (Then there's the Margaret Colin movie where she wakes up Holmes from suspended animation in the 1980s. Let us never speak of that one again.)

Like Holmes, Marlowe has usually been stuck with his original period on the big screen. But subsequent post-Chandler novels have been all over the map. This year's novel, The Second Murderer, takes place in the 1940s while others move the knight errant forward in time to the 1970s or 1980s. Unlike, say, James Bond, Marlowe is a product of his time.

On the big screen, filmmakers were able to do present-day Marlowe as long as the present day was within 30-40 years of his debut. Robert Altman's controversial The Long Goodbye was a product of the 1970s, complete with Altman's off-beat shooting and writing style and then-baseball celeb Jim Bouton as a supporting character. The 1975 remake of The Big Sleep, a TV movie from the same people who brought you UFO and Space: 1999, aged Marlowe, put him in London, and cast an aging Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. It was an uneven turn from the same actor who played Marlow in Farewell, My Lovely a few years earlier. There, his presence gave Marlowe realistic aging by setting the story in the 1940s.

For some reason, Marlowe also has yielded experimentation. After his conventional debut in Murder, My Sweet, 1944, Robert Montgomery directed and starred in The Lady in the Lake, in which we literally see the story through Marlowe's eyes. The entire movie is shot with the camera as Marlowe, taking the first-person narrative as literally as possible. And of course, Altman took the novel The Long Goodbye as a polite suggestion and sent Elliot Gould muttering about 1970s LA. But perhaps the best-known, best-loved iteration of Marlowe on the big screen is Humphrey Bogart's 1946 turn in the original The Big Sleep. Bogart plays a warmer PI than his almost sociopathic turn as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The movie is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Chandler novel. Yet it sizzles with the obvious heat between Bogart and costar/future wife Lauren Bacall (22 and already one of the classiest presences on screen.)

For the post-Chandler books, Marlowe receives uneven treatment. Parker, of course, kept him aged in the 1950s as that was where Chandler left him when he died. The next novel, Perchance to Dream, gets meta and has Marlowe in the 1940s work with a writer named Raymond Chandler on a case. The last Marlowe book I read, however, was set in the late 1980s, with Marlowe trying to stay retired in Mexico and running into drug cartels. Denise Mina, however, takes him back to his roots, placing him in the 1940s. 

The trouble with Marlowe is that authors either try to imitate Chandler's trademark similes, expected from Parker, or they ignore it altogether. The result is either a pastiche or a story about a guy named Phillip Marlowe. 

Neeson's Marlowe, based on Benjamin Black's The Black-Eyed Blonde, probably comes closest to the original Marlowe. Neeson, probably needing a break from threatening people with "I will find you!", is the perfect choice to bring Marlowe's world-weariness to life.

But why new Marlowe novels? And why does he endure? Like Bond, some of his original stories inspire cringe in the present day. Holmes is infinitely adaptable, and as someone likely on the spectrum, has a renewed sense of chic. His mind doesn't work like most people's and keeps him eternally interesting. Bond, however, is cinematically a present-day creature. Connery and Lazenby's versions would not have worked in the 1990s or even today, whereas Brosnan's Bond is a halfway point. But why Marlowe?

Marlowe is a product of the Depression, with the world in a post-Victorian hangover, not to mention bracing for another World War. Nevertheless, he's persisted, showing up in the 1970s, a brief revival in-period in the 1980s, and several authors keeping him alive from the 1990s forward. But why? In an era where the PI is either a relic or off fighting right-wing extremists hiding in the shadows, Marlowe is still going down these mean streets.

It's probably because Marlowe's foes are still with us. Gangsters might have changed, but they never really went away. Drugs remain a scourge, even if pot is either legal or decriminalized, depending on where you live. And the crimes have gotten worse: human trafficking, child porn. All these are in Philip Marlowe's wheelhouse. And Marlowe makes no pretense of being virtuous, something his spiritual descendants insist on with their Hawks and Bubbas doing all the dirty work. (Even Robert Crais's Joe Pike, but he's a special case.) 

Many question the need to reboot James Bond after Daniel Craig's version died in No Time to Die. The enemies seem to be within. Holmes inhabits a realm that never really goes away. There will always be theft. There will always be murder. And there will always be a fascination with an unconventional mind that disdains the rules.

Marlowe, however, seems to be finding a new niche. It's a cold and confusing world. Who better to fight the good fight than a world-weary man who faces the nastiness with a wisecrack?

19 October 2023

The Last Stephen King Post. For Now.


Stephen King
Stephen King © Rolling Stone

It finally happened. Last night, I finished Holly, the latest Stephen King novel, which concludes my reading of his entire canon. There was, of course, a sense of "What do I do next?" (Answer: Read someone else. Congratulations, Mark Twain. I'm already halfway through your canon.) Something tells me I'd have enjoyed this journey more if I'd have started with Carrie in 1974. My mother did, and as my eighth birthday was a month away the day Carrie debuted, Mom was not about to let her oldest boy read it. My oldest brother had just turned one. My youngest brother had yet to appear.

Mom loved scary novels. Not an out-and-out horror fan, she did, however, enjoy The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. Then again, she and Dad every Friday night religiously watched the schlock horror show Ghoulardi/Houlihan and Big Chuck/Big Chuck and Li'l John, introducing us boys to its UHF counterpart Superhost. So the spooky, despite some early religious admonitions, was always there for them. 

But The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were a different kind of horror from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the lurid type of paperbacks King referred to as "Just Plain Books." I bought a few of those when I turned eleven and never really got through the first chapter of Hand of Cain. Amazingly, I also bought a Western from such a desolate rack and somehow held onto it into middle age. I'm glad I did. It was written by Elmore Leonard. 

Carrie fit the mold of The Exorcist, but the writing also attracted Mom. (Dad was a TV-and-movie guy and went to his grave sick to death of Star Trek. Sorry, Dad. I might have been a little overzealous.) She eagerly snapped up Salem's Lot when it came out in paperback. By then I was ten, and while again, I was not allowed to read it, I was allowed to watch the miniseries three years later. And then I saw why mom loved King.

I didn't read The Stand at that age, and missed The Shining and Firestarter. I did see the Kubrick movie. Despite King's protestations how Jack Nicholson was wrong for the part of Jack Torrance and Kubrick missed the point, there was a vibe that would inhabit all the best King adaptations and even one of the worst. Lawnmower Man retained only the title, but the script they slapped it on could easily have come out of King's trunk.

So my first King novel was actually The Dead Zone, which bewildered me. I, being a sheltered, naive teen, didn't get a lot of the adult references. I did, however, take special glee in the fate of Gregory Stilson. I went back and read Salem's Lot. Tell no one this, but I like it better than Dracula (which I've reread a few times.) My first King to be gifted was It, which I absolutely loved as I was in that stage halfway between child and adult. I even had a mental cast for the movie. I was disappointed the miniseries did not cast Marilu Henner as the adult Bevvie.

The original Mrs. Winter bought me Gerald's Game shortly after our wedding, partly knowing I loved King, partly as a gag, and mostly as a... hint. By then, I was stuck on Mr. King from Maine. I missed a few novels and came back to them over the years. Hated Christine. Found some of the 90s books meh. Was impressed by the effort of the Dark Tower Series but not really connecting to it.

And absolutely fell in love with On Writing. Harold Bloom should have been made to read it aloud to students before his death. OK, I'm still bitter about Portrait of a Lady on his novels list. 

And so here we are, in 2023. I started in 2010 to read his entire canon, minus Faithful, a collaboration about the Red Sox season in which they won the World Series. Sorry, Steve, but I came of age in Cleveland when the then-Indians were owned by a dead guy. When your team becomes a farm team for the Yankees and the Blue Jays, then you can talk to me about true sports suffering. (And Cubs fans would like a word.) But I even read the screenplay Storm of the Century

But I just finished Holly last night. It's a straight-up crime novel, a serial killer novel actually. There are references to Brady Hartsfield (who became supernatural in the third Bill Hodges novel) and the Holly Gibney novels The Outsider and If It Bleeds. But Holly laments her quarry is a pair of plain ol' evil human beings (and wildly off their rockers, which you figure out within the first 50 pages.) One thing odd about this particular story is King's tendency to go off into the past and tell a related story. Sometimes this works. Often it doesn't. Instead, he uses flashbacks to show the reader what horrific monsters the nonegenarian Harris's are, not to mention racists, homophobes, and intellectual snobs. You just want to punch Emily in the face despite her nearly debilitating sciatica. And Rodney? Oh, my God! Some people should not be permitted to read Jonathan Swift, and he tops the list.

That said, finishing the book, which I enjoyed very much, capped a years-long personal project for me. King is by no means done. He has a collection due out next year, You Like It Darker, and that always accompanies a novel. So what next?

Does there have to be a next? I edit. I write. And there are thousands of books out there, some of which we talk about here. Some of them we write. But I got through this author's canon, and I'm glad I did.

Now, off to read Tom Sawyer Abroad.

08 September 2023

On Stephen King...


Photo by Shane Leonard

 As I type this, a copy of Holly, the latest Stephen King novel, sits in a TBR stack I keep in my living room. It's a few books down and obviously not the last King book I will read. I've read most of his canon in the order published, segregating the Bachman books at the end. But until You Like It Darker drops next year, I'll have read everything he's published with a few exceptions. Some of the screenplays, some uncollected short stories and novellas. I definitely never read The Plant because King put the kibosh on it when his ebook experiment (pre-Kindle) did not work. I also did not read his book about the Red Sox recent World Series run.

King is an odd choice to occupy his place in American literature. He's an unabashed horror writer who's recently shown a penchant for crime fiction. To his annoyance, some complain when he eschews the supernatural for crime, but the Bachman books show he's just as at home there. In fact, only two Bachman books, Thinner and The Regulators, are overtly supernatural. Rage and Road Work are out-and-out noir, while Blaze, an admitted trunk novel, takes its cues from Of Mice and Men. The Long Walk and The Running Man are both dystopian thrillers with one foot in noir and the other in science fiction. One wonders if this is what they watched on TV in Gilead in A Handmaid's Tale

Yet horror is King's wheelhouse. Horror is not supposed to produce classic novels. Yet The Stand, The Shining, It... All these are cultural touchstones. They might owe some spiritual strands to HP Lovecraft, but they're hardly Lovecraftian horror. (Well, It is basically Cthulhu in  a clown suit chewing scenery and inspiring Bill Skarsgard to channel Tim Curry. Bad example.) But horror is just a canvass for King to paint on. 

His real talent is making a fictional place seem real. Castle Rock, or rather Castle County, gets its first mention in Blaze, written before Carrie. You really believe there's an Overlook Hotel (or was), You expect George Bannerman or Alan Pangborn or Norris Ridgewick to answer your 911 call. And we just won't mention Salem's Lot or Derry. By the time of the Gwendy trilogy, Derry is actually more dangerous than the Lot. 

I always described King's horror as this. The guy next door who borrowed your mower is Satan. And he's not the problem. He's worried about the weird stuff going on across the street. But the horror takes a backseat to the characters and the story. Jack Torrance in The Stand is already headed over the edge. The ghosts and the isolation of the Overlook just give him a not-so-gentle shove. The Stand takes ordinary people and tosses them into the post-apocalyptic battle between good and evil. 

But perhaps his greatest monster is not Pennywise or Leland Gaunt or even Randall Flagg. It has to be Annie Wilkes, the obsessed fan of one writer's work who suddenly has him in her clutches. King actually imagined Annie offing poor Paul Sheldon and feeding him to her pig while she enjoyed his last novel lovingly bound in his skin. If you've read the book or watched the movie, it's almost a surprise that was not how it ended. Annie is that most dangerous creature: The one unaware of their own evil and convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

Next year will be sixty years since Carrie was published. Naturally, there are hits and misses. Cell is a huge misfire, a lightweight Stand that doubles as a rant against cell phones. The Dark Tower Series is uneven until King figures out what he wants it to do (and manages to plug it in to most of his canon.)

King himself has lamented that his best regarded work came early in his career. The Stand and Salem's Lot are cultural touchstones. But listening to my share of rockers, I'm not surprised. There's a certain quality that comes with a lack of inhibition and ignorance of the rules. King will tell a story in a long, rambling style. He'll go off on tangents, but the tangents are stories unto themselves. And the man has an eye and ear for character. In his brilliant nonfiction tome, On Writing, he relates the accident that nearly killed him and may have revitalized his passion for writing. In describing the man who hit him in his minivan, King says, "I was nearly killed by one of my own characters." Years later, as Roland crosses into our world from that of the Dark Tower series, both King and the late Bryan Smith, the driver, do become characters when another character literally comes out of the story to badger the author into finishing. (Methinks the later Dark Tower books were therapy as much as parts of a longer epic.)

 The next time I land in this space, I'll either be reading Holly, his latest, or have finished it. But next time, I want to look at King's alter-ego, Richard Bachman.




18 August 2023

Do You Speak the Language?



 I've been an editor for Down & Out Books now for about nine months. One of the challenges has been dialect. I apply the normal rules of editing to each manuscript, though I'm not nearly as dogmatic about it as some. For the most part, I've only had to worry about foreign variants of English. I downloaded a trial version of PerfectIt to handle a manuscript from an Australian author. Not UK. Australian. Yes, there's a difference.

But Australian English, like UK or American English, is a formal dialect. It evolved in a certain country with its own rules and variations. Likewise, Canadian English is not American English, and if you use the wrong word choice, you hear about it. Boy, do you hear about it. (BTW, editing tool makers, I have yet to read an American writer who writes "leaped" instead of "leapt." Whoever's programming your AI needs to back off a bit.)

But then we get to local dialect, usually evidenced whenever a new actor becomes the Doctor on Doctor Who. Of course, the real explanation for the Doctor's sudden change in speech is Patrick Troughton did not talk like Tom Baker, who did not sound like Christopher Eccleston, who did not sound like Peter Capaldi. In fact, the most hilarious reaction to Jodi Whittaker's turn as the first female Doctor was, "Really? We go from Geordi to London to Scottish and get a Yorkie?" Past actors have tended to waffle between the RP, London, Scottish, with the odd detour to Northern England. (Hence, a few of them sound like Geordis. So... Brian Johnson of AC/DC is a Time Lord?)

And then we come to America. Like it's big neighbor to the north, America is big. Really big. People who do not live in North America assume there are only three accents on the continent: Midwestern, Southern, and some bastardized Scottish accent where people say "aboot" and "Eh?" I invite you to talk to someone from the Maritimes or Quebec. Tell me someone from Georgia sounds like a Texan or one of those old Tidewater families in Virginia. While Californians definitely speak with Midwestern accents, you can tell you're not in Cleveland or Chicago. In fact, just within the state of Ohio, the accent changes every two hundred miles or so.

Clevelanders have this nasally accent, the product of a lot of Slavic and Irish immigrants in the last century. Cincinnatians have a slight southern accent due to their proximity to Kentucky and speak slower than their northern counterparts. In the middle of the state, you have Columbus, which, while having a larger population than Staten Island in New York, is somewhat isolated. Unlike the two big cities at either end of the state, Columbus did not spawn a megalopolis with its neighboring large towns and smaller cities within sixty miles. 

But it was Dana King's The Spread that challenged me. Dana lives in the Pittsburgh area, and his Penns River series is set in that area. Pittsburghers speak a dialect called "Yinzer," as in "youins are." It's a mix of East Coast, Pennsylvania Dutch, Slavic accents, and West Virginia dialect. So the dialog had to break rules. It's a tightrope. I would never want to edit Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series or the late Bill Crider's work. Both wrote in that clipped East Texas dialect, which has more in common with Huckleberry Finn than Raymond Chandler. My editing brain tells me to yank out 75% of the apostrophes. Bill, whom I knew fairly well for a time, would have been offended. Mosley would give me a lecture about disrespecting not just Easy and Mouse's past, but even a lot of the white people from that region. It's as much their identity as anything else.

Even more of a shock, I discussed editing with a potential client from the same area as Dana. Her husband did a sports podcast in Pittsburgh. I mentioned I learned to adjust for "Yinzer." Had I permission, I'd copy one of her emails here as her rendition of the local speak was even more dead-on than Dana's toned-down version, which was clearly written for a wider audience. (Incidentally, The Spread is an awesome book from Down & Out.)

Even milquetoast Cincinnati, where everything (according to Twain) happens ten years after everywhere else, has it's verbal ticks. You can literally tell the Eastside from the Westside by the accents, references, and even personalities. But Cincy has its own speak. For instance...

 

"Please?" - I haven't heard this in about a decade, and even then, only on the Westside. But this Cleveland boy had to learn to respond to people saying "Please?" instead of "I beg your pardon?" or "What was that?"

"Three-way" - Notoriously uptight Hamilton County has had its share of sex controversies, but three-way actually refers to Greek meatsauce on spaghetti with cheddar cheese piled high, aka Cincinnati-style chili. A four-way is with either beans or onions. A five-way is beans and onions. There are two six-ways: jalapenos on top (Blue Ash Chili) or fresh garlic (Dixie Chili.)

"Pony keg"/"Drive-around" - In most places, this is called a drive-through, as in a drive-through store, not a fastfood joint. Drive-around seems to be a Kentucky-derived term, but pony keg is the more common phrase for that sort of convenience store.

"Big Mac Bridge" - I-471 traverses this wide bridge supported on either side by two large yellow arches. Starting with former traffic reporter John Phillips, locals started calling it the "Big Mac Bridge" (actually the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge) due to its resemblance to the McDonald's logo. Sidenote: I totally stole this when I wrote Holland Bay

"Cut-in-the-hill" - The cut in the hill refers to the man-made trench leading from Dixie Highway and the large bluff overlooking the Ohio River into Covington, the riverfront city across from Cincinnati. It's a mile-long steep grade which sees semis slow to twenty-five miles an hour uphill. There is a second cut in the hill that refers to an excavated gap along I-71 leading into Kenwood, a northern section of suburban Sycamore Township. That one is often called "the Kenwood Cut in the Hill."

"Warsh" - Wash. Whereas New England flattens out all the Rs, Cincinnati tends to add them.

"Up the pike" - Often said alongside "up the street" and "up the road." Many roads here are called "pike," such as Princeton Pike, Springfield Pike.

"CVG" - The airport code for Cincinnati Airport. The code stands for "Covington." The airport is actually in Hebron, Kentucky, one county over from Covington and most definitely not in Cincinnati.

"Where'd you go to high school?" - How to identify a fellow local's background. Elder/Seton are dead giveaways for Westsiders.

"Carryout" - Carryout is not only food you pick up, it's the corner store, like a pony keg. Or a drivearound.

Cincinnati is not the only city with its own language, as I discussed with Yinzer speak out of Pittsburgh. Seattle has a local dialect even more distinctive and hard to pick up for outsiders.

 



28 July 2023

Poisoned Pen


A friend of mine sent me this article asking if I knew anything about it. The long, tortured affair took place in Circleville, one of those small railroad towns that dot the Midwest. This one is north of Columbus and not on any of the Interstates. I grew up on the fringes of the Cleveland area, spent six months in Amish country, and have lived in Cincinnati ever since. So, no. I barely knew of Circleville.

Which is interesting because of the town's long-standing mystery. Who's writing all the nasty letters?

It began in the 1970s. A bus driver named Mary Gillespie began receiving letters accusing her of having an affair with the school's vice principal. The harassment continued for some time until her brother-in-law and his wife tracked the letters back to one of Mary's coworkers, a man named David Longberry. Longberry was never charged, though he was later charged with sexual assault in an unrelated case.

But before the letters stopped, Mary's husband received a phone call. Angry, he went to confront Longberry with a pistol. Almost an hour later, police found his pickup off the road, him dead.

While Longberry was never charged, he came under some unwanted scrutiny. The letters stopped.

For a time. Then they started up again, along with signs on Mary's bus route detailing her alleged affair. The number of letter recipients increased as well, as more and more Circleville residents began receiving their own poisoned pen letters. Things escalated when Mary attempted to rip down a sign along her route only to find one crudely booby-trapped with a pistol.

The perpetrator attempted to file off the serial number, but a forensics technician recovered it. The gun traced back to a brewery employee in Columbus, who in turn sold it to his supervisor, who then sold it to someone else. The gun belonged to Paul Freshour, Mary's brother-in-law and the one who fingered David Longberry.

Before long, the sheriff began looking at Freshour.Eventually, he was convicted and sentenced to prison. The letters stopped.

Again, only for a time. Eventually, Unsolved Mysteries got involved, sending a production team to the small town. Soon, producers received their own poisoned pen letters threatening the crew if they showed up. Spoiler alert: Robert Stack totally did a segment on the unknown letter writer. Perhaps feeling the heat, the letter writer soon went silent for good.

Longberry and Freshour have both since died. Curiously, letters continued after Freshour went to prison. Only when Unsolved Mysteries showed up did they stop. The long story sounds like the beginnings of a Stephen King story, although King would have made the perpetrator supernatural or had him run afoul of the supernatural. More likely, it has much in common with SA Cosby's semi-rural Virginia tales, should Cosby opt to write an homage to Sherwood Anderson.

The motivations and machinations behind such episodes are familiar to anyone who grew up in small towns, exurbs, and even suburbs. Like the Cleveland-area town where I grew up, Circleville is exactly the type of American or Canadian town described in the song "Subdivisions," existing between the bright lights and the far, unlit unknown. Most of us who grew up there hear whispers, half-heard gossip. So-and-so is having an affair with someone-or-other. The bus driver grows pot on an abandoned farm. The undertaker enjoys his work too much, or the small bank president is skimming the receipts. Undoubtedly, the original letters arose from something like this: misplaced outrage or perhaps jealousy. Over the years, someone else became a copycat, the way some serial killers or burglars will copy some of the more outlandish of their chosen crimes. This person or persons saw a way to lash out at small-town hypocrisy. Unlike burglars, robbers, and worse, their crime is one of nuisance. It can flare into deadly confrontation, but the reason the person or persons behind Circleville's ordeal could continue for so long is one of resources. Small town police and rural/semi-rural departments are understaffed while urban agencies have a higher number of murders, rapes, robberies, and property damage to deal with.

And of course, now I have a pitch for Down & Out Books.

26 May 2023

They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore


With apologies to Greg Kihn.

I just finished listening to The Iliad on audio. Read by Dominic Keating of Star Trek: Enterprise fame, one got the sense one was listening to Homer riffing in front of a crowd in some Athenian public space. Keating had to read a fairly new English translation, but The Iliad and its companion piece, The Odyssey, are really epic poems. Keating's dramatic read hewed closer to Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan doing Shakespeare. Homer, especially after listening to some of the translator's background in the intro, probably sounded like Jack Kerouac to those ancient Greeks.

Except I've read Kerouac's On the Road. Incidentally, that, too, is meant to be performed, not read. But I digress. Kerouac's prose is the beat poetry of the fifties laid over the prose of the day, which, like today, has Hemingway in its bones. He's into a scene, and he's out, and the flourishes come from spending short snatches of time in Sal Paradise's bizarre mind.

Homer, on the other hand, does things in The Iliad no editor, even the most forgiving of editors, would let out of the slush pile, let alone into print. The goddess Athena is referred to not merely as the goddess of wisdom or daughter of Zeus, nor does Homer limit himself to the epithets like Pallas Athena. No, she is "Athena, she of the bright, shining eyes." Achilles, who spends most of the story sulking in those final days besieging Troy, is "Achilles of the fleet foot." These are not one offs. Homer uses this or a similar phrase every. Single. Time. 

Mind you, it's an epic poem, and Keating's reading, even after taking out the supplemental material, is almost twenty hours. (Also, Homer likely never ended with "Audible hopes you've enjoyed this program.") And we don't see a lot of epic poems these days. Even its spiritual descendant, rock's concept album, is a bit of a dinosaur. Its last adherent seems to be Roger Waters, and lately, most people wish Rog would just shut the hell up.

These days, if you're going to ramble, as Homer does without anyone really noticing, you have to be Stephen King about it. Going off on a tangent? Tell a story within the story, then circle back to the point. Most editors won't allow that these days. (And I really think current editing dogma is too rigid. Says the editor.)  Otherwise, get to the point (says the guy who likes writing lean prose.) So when a character walks into a scene, the most extreme example of modern description is to find a trait, use that trait as a placeholder, and only change it when their name is revealed. Robert B. Parker did this throughout his career, but it began all the way back in The Godwulf Manuscript. The one I remember best is where Spenser's attempts to rescue Susan Silverman overlap a government black op. Spenser says the agent looks like Buddy Holly, and for a page or two, refers to him as Buddy Holly. I don't remember the guy's name or if he even had one, but I remember him, his job, and most of what he did.

Even Dickens, one of the most verbose writers in modern English, stuck with names or something descriptive, like the Artful Dodger. His name was actually Jack Dawkins, but how many Jacks are their in novels set in 19-century England or America? Hell, Jean-Luc Picard's son is named Jack, named for his half-brother's father. Sometimes, the title or job sticks better. But for all Dickens's wordiness, Artful Dodger is a short, powerful shorthand for a character in Oliver Twist. Contrast that with Dickens's American counterparts, Hawthorne and Melville. One of the reasons I found The Scarlet Letter so unreadable, at least at the age of 15, when I'd discovered King and Tom Clancy, was the constant refrain of "It seemed as though Hester Prynne..."  (And in 2023, my inner editor is going, "HEY! STOP BEATING THAT DEAD HORSE!") On the other hand, Melville scores points for being more episodic in Moby Dick and hanging genius labels on Ishmael's shipmates, such as Starbuck or the cannibal (who ironically doesn't eat anyone in the story.)

Much of this is the function of the culture. Even if we write stories about Greek or Roman or Norse gods, they come off as aliens or superheroes (or supervillains) or both. Marvel built a big chunk of its mythos around Thor and Loki. As far back as Twain's era, we didn't want Athena of the Bright Shining Eyes or Zeus Who Holds the Aegis. Nowadays, we want Wonder Woman's sister or Liam Neeson shouting, "Release the kraken!"* In Homer's day and even into Shakespeare's time, we wanted heroes. Mythical heroes. Of course, until the Enlightenment, we weren't quite as sciencey as we are now. Hence, even Harry Potter has to follow some sort of rules and most conspiracy theories are based on bad science skimmed while scrolling the phone in the bathroom. When we pay closer attention, ignoring Newton and Einstein without an explanation is what writers call "a plot hole."


*Fun fact: He meant the rum, of which I have a bottle, actually. Too bad I don't drink much anymore.

05 May 2023

Listen


audible.com

One day while I doom scrolled Twitter, a writer declared listening to audio books to be cheating and not really reading. I may have unfollowed him or some other petty overreaction to all things social media. I also told myself he's entitled to his opinion no matter how wrong it is. 

Audiobooks are about a third of the books I consume in any given year. Last year, it was half. And while it's not reading with one's eyes, it is reading. There's even an editing technique having Word play back a manuscript. (Use that only for yourself. Edits for clients should contain track changes, and listening to that would be torture.) So, instead of whatever your inner narrator sounds like as you scan the page, you get an actor. Or several in the case of scifi author Gareth Powell.

I listen to audio books during my commutes to the office (only two a week now as we've gone hybrid.) and when I'm out taking a walk. Sometimes while doing the laundry or yard work. My listening lists range from memoirs to history to fiction off the beaten path (or can't get to with my towering stack of books and Kindle editions) to ancient texts to classics. I'm currently listening to The Iliad, read by Dominic Keating. Keating played Reed on Star Trek: Enterprise, so it's great to hear him perform something besides an overworked security chief on a balky starship. 

And often, it's the reader that makes the difference. Some, like Alice Walker, are authors reading their own work. In the case of Walker, who is also a lecturer, it's perfect. Walker wrote The Color Purple in dialect and could read it properly. Other times, it might have been nice if the author hired, if not an actor, then maybe their teenage niece or nephew who just did the high school musical.

Other times, publishers or authors hire a reader. Wil Wheaton has a thriving second career doing audio books, and he reads with a wicked sense of humor that was perfect for The Martian (after the publisher decided it didn't want original reader RC Bray, himself no slouch.) Other times, like some apocrypha I've been listening to, the reader probably needed some caffeine. I kept making fun of one reader but aping his annoying monotone as a forgotten Bible character asking God why he snored during his prayers. "Oh, Jedediah, my son. I would listen but your monotone has caused me to rest an eighth day, and lo, all the Heavenly host are face down in their lyres."

But is listening reading? Depends on how you define it. Sometimes, I choose by performer. Johnny Depp is hilarious reading Keith Richards's autobiography, Life, even doing a stoner Keith from the 1970s before Keef himself takes over. (And Keith is actually not a bad reader, but I often wonder how many takes he had to do, given his propensity to mumble.) One of my favorites was Jean Smart, she of Designing Women fame, when she did the VI Warshawski novels. She was VI Warshawski.

But if reading is consuming text, then yes, listening to audio books is reading. If you're adamant reading is done with your eyes, and listening is just hearing a dramatic performance (except when Mr. Monotone prompts the Almighty to nod off. Then it's not so dramatic.), then no.

I listen to Audible exclusively right now. I may roll back to the library's offerings if I slow down, and the subscription is no longer worth it. But until then...

I'm not done with the book until I hear that voice say, "Audible hopes you've enjoyed this program."