Archive for the ‘criticism’ Category

1919: The Year Liberalism Broke

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

City Journal this week published an outstanding piece on World War I and its aftermath in America.  In “1919: Betrayal and the Birth of Modern Liberalism”, Fred Siegel, a City Journal contributing editor and a visiting professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, challenges the notion that liberalism is a direct descendant of 19th and early 20th century reformers.  “Today’s state-oriented liberalism, we are often told, was the inevitable extension of the pre–World War I tradition of progressivism….  After the unfortunate Republican interregnum of the 1920s, so the story goes, this progressivism, faced with the Great Depression, matured into the full-blown liberalism of the New Deal.”

However, it’s not as simple as that.  Siegel writes that

But a central strand of modern liberalism was born of a sense of betrayal, of a rejection of progressivism, of a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone wrong between Wilson and a liberal Left unable to grapple with the realities of Prussian power. Initially embraced by many leftists as a thaumaturgical leader of near-messianic promise, Wilson came to be seen—in the wake of a cataclysmic war, a failed peace, repression at home, revolution abroad, and a country wracked by a “Red Scare”—as a Judas. His numinous rhetoric, it was concluded, was mere mummery.

One strand of progressives grew contemptuous not only of Wilson but of American society. For the once-ardent progressive Frederick Howe, formerly Wilson’s Commissioner of Immigration, the prewar promise of a benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts. . . . I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.”

Like John Emerson’s great piece on the Bourbon Democrats and H. L. Mencken, Siegel reveals fascinating historical tidbits.  Almost 500,000 million Germans left America to join the ranks of the Kaiser’s army.  He details the era’s paranoia over all things Teutonic.  Little did I know that there was some justification for the fear:

Charles John Hexamer, president of the National German-American Alliance, financed in part by the German government, insisted that Germans needed to maintain their separate identity and not “descend to the level of an inferior culture.” Germans even began attacking that inferior culture. The most important instance of German domestic sabotage was the spectacular explosion on Black Tom Island in the summer of 1916, which shook a sizable swath of New York City and New Jersey. The man-made peninsula in New York Harbor was a key storage and shipping point for munitions sold to the British and French. The bombing sank the peninsula into the sea, killed seven, and damaged the Statue of Liberty. Wilson denounced Germany’s supporters in America: “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”

The war, with its jingoism and repression of dissent, together with Prohibition and the Red Scare, soured many forward-minded thinkers on American “progress.” 

What followed was not so much protest as simmering scorn. In 1919, the Germanophile H. L. Mencken, writing in The New Republic, called sarcastically for honoring the civilian heroes who had suppressed Beethoven by bedizening them with bronze badges and golden crosses. Mencken ridiculed the mass of Americans who had backed “Wilson’s War,” branding them a “timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob”; a great admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm, he denigrated American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Taking its cues from Mencken, the liberalism that emerged from 1919 was contemptuous of American culture and politics. For liberals, the war years had shown that American society and democracy were themselves agents of repression. These sentiments deepened during the 1920s and have been an ongoing current in liberalism ever since.

Siegel leaves out that Mencken himself was scornful of liberals.  His unleashes his wrath on them throughout Notes on Democracy.  Moreover, I don’t think liberals are alone in the their contempt of American society.  It would be more accurate to say they, like conservatives, hold a contempt for those stretches of the nation’s landscape that don’t adhere to their principals and values.  For some, gay marriage, atheism, and war resistance are vitally American.

To his credit, Siegel identifies one of liberalism’s best qualities:

The new liberal ethos was not without its virtues. In picking their fights with Prohibition and their former hero Wilson, liberals encouraged the sense of tolerance and appreciation of differences that would, over time, mature into what came to be called pluralism. “The root of liberalism,” wrote [Harold] Stearns, “is hatred of compulsion, for liberalism has the respect for the individual and his conscience and reason which the employment of coercion necessarily destroys.” Though not always observed by liberals themselves, the call for an urbane temper would come to mark liberalism at its best.

This is no small point.  In Notes, Mencken himself contrasts repressive America with “more liberal and enlightened countries.”  Mencken’s “philosophy, stated one critic, was ‘thoroughly American,’ the remnants of nineteenth-century liberal thought,” Marion Elizabeth Rodgers explains in her introduction to Notes.

Regardless of Siegel’s views on liberalism, his piece is fascinating.  Anyone who’d like a backgrounder on the political and intellectual climate that fostered Mencken’s dark, cynical position on democracy and America should read it.

Sipping sweet, sweet whiskey with H. L. Mencken and the Bourbon Democrats

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

I discovered an excellent post on “Open Left” about H. L. Mencken the other day.  The author, John Emerson, puts Mencken’s both elitism and allegiance to the Democrats in the context of a wing of the party I’d never heard of: the Bourbon Democrats:

…Mencken was a Bourbon Democrat. The Bourbon Democrats ruled the South and most of the big cities of the North. They (and their “stand-pat” Republican frenemies) were uniformly corrupt, cynical, elitist, anti-labor, and segregationist. During the 1890s they succeeded in destroying the Populist Party, and in the succeeding era they were under continual attack by progressives within the party, and they and the stand-pat Republicans fought to the death against reform. The Bourbons didn’t lose their power within the party until 1965 or so, and during the New Deal they supported FDR only grudgingly, if at all.

Emerson cites Mencken’s encomium to Grover Cleveland, “the most famous and most successful Bourbon Democrat.”  Cleveland, students of American history will recall, sent troops to Chicago to put down the Pullman Strike.

Surveying today’s political landscape, Emerson remarks that

[T]oo many of the Democratic rank and file – what I call the “wonk demographic” — have bought into the anti-populism, cultural elitism, and administrative liberalism of the machine Democrats, and this cripples the party. In many contexts, becoming a liberal is a way of making yourself a better class of person, the same as buying a nicer pair of shoes or a better kind of cheese.

There’s truth to the that, but there’s another truth that’s even uglier to consider.  Most of the American masses don’t want to hear about progress.  They despise uplift.  Anything that opposes their masters–the corporations, the State (especially the military), and the church–is evil and unpatriotic.  Look at the response to health care reform.  Look at how “socialist” has become a pejorative word.  (Actually it’s been pejorative for decades, but now it’s on a level of “Satanist.”)  Look at the cults of creeps like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh.

It’s hard, very hard, to fight for people who don’t want to be liberated.  To quote a passage from Notes on Democracy, what the common man mistakes liberty for, “nine times out of ten, is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upons his oppressors.  He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.” 

Bring back the Wobblies, I say.

A Spectre is Haunting Asia: the Spectre of 1970s Pop Legends

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

The Ghost of Neil Diamond The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why do we review other publishers’ titles? Because we like to, that’s why! There are a lot of good books out there, and we think you should know about them.


The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes is the best novel I’ve read in years. I’ve not experienced fiction like it since Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

Novelists can succeed at their craft four ways: story, architecture, painting, and poetry. You almost certainly know what I mean by “story.”  A great story is exactly that: a tale that holds the reader’s interest. It can be an account of high-school angst or interstellar war. Regardless, the writer spins a yarn that keeps your attention, one that you’re glad you made the time to read.

Architecture refers to a novel’s intricacy, staging, and development.  War and Peace, a book I don’t like, is impressive in its sheer breadth, the swath of time, space, and people it covers. While the grandeur of its architecture is undeniable, its story is abysmal. It’s a hideously boring book. A novel doesn’t have to be epic in scale to exhibit fine architecture. While a book might cover a single day spent alone in a protagonist’s life, through its exploration of actions, memories, and psyche it could be as vast as The Odyssey.

A novelist can paint portraits, scenes, and images so striking that it doesn’t matter whether the novel’s story and architecture are weak. Jim Thompson‘s The Grifters and The Getaway are like that. As a stories go, they’re not terribly interesting, but Thompson wields his pen-brush with such artistry that it doesn’t occur to you until later that the plots were pretty threadbare.

Poetry and painting are closely related, but not the same. “Painting” for a novelist is the creation of singular, beautiful, or shocking people, places, or events through words. The word choice itself doesn’t have to be remarkable. With simple, unassuming brushstrokes, the writer can limn memorable language-paintings. Charles Bukowski was like that.

It’s very rare to find writers who can imbue their prose with poetry. And by poetry I don’t mean sonnets and the like. I mean language that conveys that which can only be communicated through words. Plenty can be told through multiple media: think of books that have been made into plays, movies, comics… Poetry is different. It expresses experiences—layered, ephemeral moments—that are language’s sole domain.

A few rare novels excel in all four categories. The Ghost of Neil Diamond, like Suite Francaise, is one such book.

Honestly, I had a good feeling about Ghost right from its opening:

Amen to all sorrows.

With a few splashes of cold water Neil washed away his sins. He watched them slip down the plughole, one by wretched one. The wrongdoings and the wrong turns, the bad debts and the bad memories sank beyond the U-bend, and his soul lay empty and prepared. A whiff reached him from the urinals, the stale reminder of the catalogue of men who had fallen short just this point—the last call, the swan song. Well, forget them, he decided. They had their lives and this is mine. He lifted his aching head to the mirror. This time. Maybe this time.

As Sinatra once said, “If you don’t like that, you don’t like ice cream.” It’s as simple a scene as one could imagine: a man washing his face in a public lavatory. But the painting (the meticulous details, the imagery) coupled with the poetry (the character’s inner dialogue and the artistry by which it’s expressed) is exquisite.

“So what’s it about?” you ask. Set roughly ten years ago, Ghost chronicles the (figurative) death and rebirth of Neil Atherton, a middle-aged English folk musician. Well, more like former folk musician. Atherton has spent most of his life touring “the shabby pub rooms, the British Legion Clubs, cellar bars, back rooms, church halls,” struggling, waiting, plying and honing his art, waiting for folk’s revival. But sadly, unlike rockabilly, big band, and ska, no acoustic phoenix has risen from the cigarette ashes. Folk died years ago, is still dead, and almost certainly will remain dead. (Now to all you hipsters who are about to write angry emails on how there’s a vibrant folk scene in your town, chill. I’m sure there are some swell singer-songwriters warbling in basements near and far. But unlike the hip-hoppers, their music ain’t paying the bills. Day jobs at offices, libraries, and department stores are.) Neil’s wife, Angel, in a last-ditch effort to escape destitution, takes up a lucrative job selling shipping space in Hong Kong, dragging Atherton along.

In Hong Kong, Atherton transforms from an anti-establishment, gypsy troubadour to a kept man. The thing is, Mrs. Atherton isn’t so keen to keep her man. She’s taken to Hong Kong’s restlessness, ruthless meritocracy, and itches to trade Atherton in for a newer, sleeker model. Jobless and purposeless, Atherton keeps his self-esteem on life-support by singing karaoke, much to unsympathetic wifey’s disgust.

One night, a local shady businessman, Elbert Chan, catches Atherton performing “Reason to Believe” as Neil Diamond. Chan, sensing a hot property ripe for the plucking, gives Neil his business card. “If you want to fix up some dates, some bookings,” he offers, “just call or stop by… I think you’re terrific. Terrific. I really do. Any time. Open door. Perhaps I can be of service.”

(Minor point: I can find no mention of Neil Diamond performing “Reason to Believe” under its Wikipedia page or that of its composer, Tim Hardin. What does that mean? Any number of things. Maybe Diamond did cover it–Wikipedia is far from infallible. Maybe the author made a mistake; certainly not an important one. Perhaps this is an instance of a writer rewiring reality ever-so slightly to fit better his novel’s architecture.)

What’s Atherton’s reaction to such a promising overture? Disinterest, of course. But Angel (now that’s an interesting name choice) pushes him to take up Chan’s offer. (“Losers can’t be choosers, Neil.”) And thus begins Atherton’s initiation into Neil Diamond’s world, or more accurately, the world of Neil Diamond impersonation. Initiation into a literal cult of personality. Suffice to say nothing is as it seems, or as Atherton hopes.

Chan becomes Atherton’s second wife. The relationship isn’t intimate or loving, yet it’s very sexual in that it’s driven by lust: specifically, lust for recognition and money. (Neil Diamond.) Like a shrewd shrew, Chan alternately encourages and belittles Atherton, ignores and lavishes attention, knocks him down only to build him up again.

Ghost, though quite original, follows the noir trope of the basically innocent man suddenly swept into a strange and corrupt world. Although there’s no gangsters or violence, the underworld pulsates just below story’s surface (forgive the pun).

I could reveal more of the novel’s masterful architecture, but that would be unfair to you. If a family tells you they’re making a pilgrimage to a beautiful cathedral, you don’t show them photographs of its interior. No, let the church’s stained glass, carvings, and sheer vastness astonish them. And at the risk of sounding effusive, you should make a pilgrimage to The Ghost of Neil Diamond.  It’s that superb.

Ghost is about a lot more than one man’s venture into show-business’s fringes.  It tackles authenticity versus imitation, generations of duplication, identity, art versus commerce, representation, and transformation. (Andy Warhol would’ve loved this book.) Atherton is both a ghost of Neil Diamond and haunted by the vocalist’s spirit.  It’s not for nothing that Ghost is set in the Far East, where factories churn out products originally made in the West. The output’s quality varies from shoddy knockoffs to substantial improvements:

A beautiful Chinese girl came on, dressed in a silvery sixties slip that was little more than a nightdress… She delivered a flawless Downtown. Petula Clark had to stay on the opposite screen the whole song. But Petula Clark was ignored, irrelevant. She’d been upstaged. Against her beautiful Chinese impersonator, Clark—in her mid-thirties, in dowdy black and white, 1965, couldn’t compete. Not even with her one and only British hit. There was a discipline about this girl’s performance that was unsettling to Neil… It was like watching a mirror image to Clark, except that she was so much prettier and sexier and more exotic.

Oh, and if that’s not enough, The Ghost of Neil Diamond is also about culture clashes; performing; music; ambition; success; failure; desperation; home and homeless; music; sex; desire; flatulence…

When he looked down, everywhere he looked, the thighs were trapped under the overflowing buttocks of European, Australian and American men, in their Thai silk suits or linen chinos… And trapped deep and tight between those overflowing buttocks were arseholes that had farted and shat on long haul flights to and from every capital in the world. Arseholes that had shat in Hyatts all around Asia, broken wind in conference rooms scented with rosewater, in Macau and Shenzen and Guangzhou.

That’s a hysterically funny passage, but it’s also an example of Ghost’s poignant—yes, I said poignant—poetry.

If you can’t see the lyricism in farting—although, hey, passing gas is as much a part of life as work, eating, and sex—savor this passage from late in the novel, when Atherton and Chan have a business breakfast at a swank hotel’s cafe. Atherton contemplates the restaurant’s stunning vista:

Now, sipping his second glass of coffee, Neil came to understand what gave the view its power. It wasn’t just the beautiful panorama itself, with all its gliding reflections and deceptions. It was the silence of the scene beyond the glass. The silence underscored it all, as it were. The wash in the harbor was heavy from the weight of traffic—the ferries, barges, crane barges and liners—yet they all went by without a sound, not a hundred yards away. In the closeness of the sea traffic to the massive glass walls there was a danger, a recklessness, but it was suppressed, silenced, there was not a word about that. The risk had been taken and forgotten, had sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Like the hotel, Atherton seizes Hong Kong’s spirit of risk and takes a gamble, perhaps the first real one he’s ever wagered.  Does he win?  That’s for you to find out. But Ghost itself takes a gamble—a story about an English folkie in Hong Kong impersonating Neil Diamond? Really?—and it pays off brilliantly.

Can I find any faults in Ghost? A few, but again, like Sinatra said, too few to mention. I would’ve liked a blurb about the author, David Milnes: who he is, his past, and how come he writes so Goddamn good.

Incidentally, if you think it’s far-fetched that a veteran of the cellar bars would take up Neil Diamond impersonation, I draw your attention to Phranc, an “all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer,” who for awhile wowed audiences with her tributes to the Brooklyn Gemstone, complete with fake sideburns and chest hair.  Now that’s art.

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Book Review: “Shooting Star” and “Spiderweb” by Robert Bloch

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Shooting Star/Spiderweb (Hard Case Crime #42) Shooting Star/Spiderweb by Robert Bloch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A great package! I knew nothing of Robert Bloch when I picked up this book at the library.  I selected it largely because of my experiences with other releases from its publisher, Hard Case Crime.  Bloch was the author of Psycho and the youngest within H. P. Lovecraft’s circle.

Both novels are gritty, L.A. mean noir, and have some exquisite and darkly funny word-paintings.  From Spiderweb:

The Professor nodded and whispered.  “We’re back in the world of normal people, my friend. Look at them.”

I looked. . . .

A cannibalistic circle huddled around a small fire, gorging on half-raw weenies and rancid dill pickles.  Troglodyte faces gaped in the firelight.  A wrinkled, wizened old man’s head: white, bushy hair and beetling black brows that moved convulsively as he chewed with his whole face.  There was a fat, blobby woman with stringy hair and a red neck: the rest of her flesh hung in dead white folds, broken here and there by bulging purplish veins that stood out like mountain ranges on a relief map.  She slapped at a screaming brat with one beefy hand, slopping beer from a punctured can clutched in the other.  A bullet-headed youth squatted next to a portable radio, fiddling with the volume control and scratching the hairy recesses of his armpits.

From Shooting Star:

Yes, there but for the grace of God went all of us, and there seemed to be plenty the grace of God had somehow overlooked. Everybody overlooked them, including the nice, clean, family newspapers and the smug little moralists who devoted their oracular pronouncements to solving vital problems of people who couldn’t make up their minds between buying a new station wagon or taking a vacation in Hawaii this season.

Neither book is perfect.  They both hinge on paranoid fears over dated controversies: marijuana in Shooting Star and self-help gurus in Spiderweb.  (Incidentally, alcoholism plays a curious subtext in both.  Booze gushes everywhere.  Perhaps that’s unsurprising given the books were written a half-century ago, but it also suggests a sly take on sanctioned addictions versus criminal ones: “Put down that joint, stop listening to that shrink, and have a drink!”)  Shooting Star’s ending is so contrived and deus ex machina it detracts from its overall artistry.  But don’t let any of this dissuade you from reading the book.  It’s a fantastic read!

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Anatomy of a Killer and A Shroud for Jesso by Peter Rabe

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Anatomy of a Killer & A Shroud for Jesso Anatomy of a Killer & A Shroud for Jesso by Peter Rabe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Very good! I read much of “Anatomy of a Killer” on train rides from New York to D.C. and back again. At times I was a little tired, and that might account for the confusion I experienced with some of it.  That said, someone else remarked that Rabe does a lot of “head-hopping,” i.e., quick changes in perspective.  It’s literally a portrait (“Anatomy”) of a young killer. It doesn’t surprise me Rabe was a psychologist because really does go into the characters’ heads, particularly their habits, methods, etc. Of the two novels, I liked “A Shroud for Jesso” the best.  As Donald Westlake observes in his afterword, at first it’s a nasty big American city-hardboiled tale, but then quickly switches gears into an Continental espionage thriller and romance.  Don’t let “romance” fool you though: this is a bitter, bitter story.  The characters are really well-crafted. I can’t understand why it wasn’t made into a film.  “Killer” also would’ve been good on the screen.  Recommended!

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The Washington-Baghdad-New York Musical Express (with a stopover in Noirville)

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

I took a quick trip to Washington, D.C. earlier this week.  Washington is such an underrated city.  There are no great songs about it and there are no cinematic encomiums to it the way there are to London, Paris, and New York, not to mention Los Angeles.   But Washington was, and is, a gas.  Its museums are second to none, its architecture is breathtaking, and its subway system is futuristic and immaculate.  What’s not to love?

On my train rides there and back, I listened to Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq, a compilation of Iraqi pop music from 1980s up through 2000The music is so good it’s outrageous.  Some of it sounds like techno with its funky, staccato drums.  The linear notes explain that while the percussion might sound electronic, and sometimes is, it’s typically a hand-drum called the khishba, also known as the zanbour (Arabic for “wasp”).  Any of these songs would sound great on a dance floor.

Choubi Choubi! also features “1970s Socialist Folk-Rock” by a singer named Ja’afar Hassan.  To my ears his songs are more like mid-1960s garage rock, particularly with what sounds like a caterwauling Farfisa.  I also really dig his enormous Dylan/Hendrix afro.

After my happy experience with Choubi!, I’ll turn to Sublime Frequencies, the compilation’s label, to satisfy further my exotic auditory needs.  (That sounds lewd.)  With titles like 1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground, Radio Myanmar (Burma), and Sumatran Folk Cinema DVD, how can you go wrong?  On its website, the label says that:

SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently through all channels of academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations. SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is focused on an aesthetic of extra-geography and soulful experience inspired by music and culture, world travel, research, and the pioneering recording labels of the past including OCORA, SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS, ETHNIC FOLKWAYS, LYRICHORD, NONESUCH EXPLORER, MUSICAPHONE, BARONREITER, UNESCO, PLAYASOUND, MUSICAL ATLAS, CHANT DU MONDE, B.A.M., TANGENT, and TOPIC.

On my train rides I also read Peter Rabe’s Anatomy of a Killer.  It’s great, but sometimes I find it a little confusing.  The language itself is simple and direct, but there’s frequent and abrupt changes in perspective.  Nevertheless, so far  it’s strong noir: quick, brutal, and unsentimental. 

I also like it for its mundane settings: a Pennsylvania mining town, a bowling alley, a seedy nightclub.  I want art to transport me somewhere, anywhere–it can be someplace unfamiliar like a Baghdad tearoom, or a rundown coffee shop.  I like the trip–the destination is secondary.  Although, yes, part of Choubi Choubi!‘s fascination is its foreignness, but it couldn’t hold me on that alone.  The music itself grabbed me.

I’m reminded of why I love Don’t Call Me a Crook!  It’s a voyage through Bob Moore’s world.  Sometimes he sails to  to strange places like Alexandria and Shanghai, and other times he’s making trouble in humdrum towns like Hoboken and Glasgow.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s the trip that’s interesting: the places he sees, the women he tricks, the booze he guzzles.  What would Bob make of Choubi Choubi!?  Not a lot, I’m afraid.  It wasn’t European, much less Harry Lauder, “Land of My Fathers,” or “I Belong to Glasgow” so I’m sure he would’ve dismissed it as noise.  But that’s Bob’s problem, not mine.

Stephen King, Max Allan Collins, and Me

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Last week I also read Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid and Max Allan Collins’ Deadly Beloved, both published by Hard Case Crime.  Honestly, neither really blew me away, and perhaps that’s not the point.  Hard Case books provide quick, diverting reads: they’re first and foremost entertainment.  That’s fine, and I’ll be quick to say both had me compulsively turning their pages.  They’re competently written and executed.  But they’re both one-dimensional.  I wasn’t surprised that Deadly Beloved was originally a comic strip—it had that simplistic quality of comics that never translates well into books or film (and that’s coming from someone who loves the offerings of Marvel and DC, not to mention Hergé).


I want more from my noir.  I like crime literature that reveals and ponders on the sordid details of life, particularly life beyond the respectable and the law.  That’s why I like Jim Thompson’s books.  Frankly, the plots themselves don’t knock me out.  (I haven’t yet read The Killer Inside Me yet; I understand that’s great on all counts, including story.)  But I’m drawn in by Thompson’s descriptions of people, places, and mood; his artistry of language and imagery; and the subtle yet deliberate way he conveys his worldview.  I didn’t get that from either Deadly Beloved or The Colorado Kid. Contrary to what you might think, I have found it Mickey Spillane’s words.  And not to constantly blow Dissident Books’ horn (that sounds obscene), but Don’t Call Me a Crook! delivers it too.


But all that said, there are two things I appreciated about The Colorado Kid.  It commits the delicious sin of breaking that most holy of compacts with the reader: it leaves the mystery unresolved.  I like that.  I like that a lot.  As the two crusty newspaper editors in Kid intimate, that’s life—an unresolved mystery. 


Stephen King also writes something outstanding in his afterword:


I ask you to consider the fact that we live in web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality.  Where do we come from?  Where were we before we were here?  Don’t know.  Where are we going?  Don’t know.  A lot of churches have what they assure us are the answers, but most of us have a sneaking suspicion all that might be a con-job laid down to fill the collection plates.  In the meantime, we’re in a kind of compulsory dodgeball game as we free-fall from Wherever to Ain’t Got A Clue.  Sometimes bombs go off and sometimes the planes land okay and sometimes the blood tests come back clean and sometimes the biopsies come back positive.  Most times the bad telephone call doesn’t come in the middle of the night but sometimes it does, and either way we know we’re going to drive pedal-to-the-metal into the mystery eventually.


I would add to King’s rhetorical questions “What’s it all for?”  And again, the answer is “Don’t know.”  It brings to mind a wonderful passage from Mencken’s Chrestomathy:


Yet we cling to [life] in a muddled physiological sort of way—or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way—and even try to fill it with a gaudy, hocus-pocus . . . .   Why?  If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes . . . .

 Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic.  So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror.  He works. He plays.  He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property.  He strives for the coy eyewink called fame.  He founds a family, and spreads his curse over others.  All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself.  Life, fundamentally, is not worth living.  So he confects artificialities to make it so.  So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

 Perhaps my talk of agonies and tragi-comedies may be a bit misleading.  The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore.  It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.  The objection to it is not that is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking sense.  What is ahead for the race?  Even theologians can see nothing but a gray emptiness, with a burst of irrational fireworks at the end.  But there is such a thing as human progress.  True.  It is the progress that a felon makes from the watch-house to the jail, and from the jail to the death-house.  Every generation faces the same intolerable boredom.


Final thought:  It was Mencken together with George Jean Nathan who started The Black Mask, the famed detective magazine.  True, Mencken and Nathan began it as a means to subsidize The Smart Set, their prestigious literary magazine, and sold it after eight issues.  And yes, it was the subsequent editor, Joseph Shaw, who recruited great hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner.  And Mencken even wrote in his preface to his collection that those who criticized his use of Chrestomathy were “ignoramuses” who “recreate themselves with whodunits.”  But I like to think (keywords “like to think”: not “know” or “certain” or even “have reason to believe”) that Mencken had a soft spot for noir.  Consider his repeated use of criminal and prison imagery, as in the passage above.  I bet noir’s lack of sentiment and harsh view of life on “this lugubrious ball” spoke to the Sage of Baltimore.

California Dreamin’ turns to Nightmares! Myth, Sex, and Violence in Bakersfield

Thursday, July 9th, 2009
I recently finished Lords: Part One by Nick Belardes.  Although a novel, it chronicles an actual cabal of the elite of Bakersfield, a Southern Californian city not far from Los Angeles, that preyed on local boys beginning in the 1970s.  For “the Lords” sex wasn’t a diversion; it was an essential part of their black magic. 
Lords: Part One chronicles the entry of Minstrel, a barely teenage male-prostitute, journey into the Lords’ world.   Although picked up in Hollywood by one of the cabal, Minstrel is a Bakersfield native.  He’s the side of city that the citizenry and its leaders—the Lords—would rather you ignored: he’s desperate, hungry, and motherless.  Bakersfield, as Belardes paints it, is a conservative, all-American, and a superficially Christian town.  The Lords, through the press, the police, and the church, delivers to it what it wants: a wholesome identity, a sense of existing as a tranquil island surrounded a sea of ruin and doom.  But reality is something very different…
Lordsis clearly an occult book.  It’s imbued with local Native mythology, Biblical dust-storms, pouring rain, rituals, and initiations.  Toward the book’s end, a character walks the local collage holding an incriminating videotape.  This is an example of the “Revelation of the Method” practiced by cryptocracies.  (For more about this, read the works of James Shelby Downard and Michael A. Hoffman II.)

That’s not only allusion to cryptocracy.  Another Lord, the cabal’s chief, tells his fellow mind-manipulators:

The media controls behavior.  Do you know what that means?  We control how people act.  If we want the masses excited about something, all we have to do is tell stories.  These stories feed into popular beliefs.  You know, if people believe the end of the world is near, then we can help them to continue to believe that, for years to come.  If we want to preserve our way of life, it is simple.  We must retain control.  Symbolically, we test our control methods now and then in sacred acts.  And through such acts, we remind those around us that to be sacred is to be secret.  Let this tape be a symbol of our power, that we are truly to be feared, and that we are truly untouched, and that the minds of this city are easily and forever broken.

Elsewhere, the same Lord says:

The people always have great fear!  We just remind them of it.  We must always find ways to keep the Southern Valley simpletons on the edge of hysteria, Stevens.  And always, we must mythologize and demonize.

I’m reminded of this passage from Mencken’s Notes on Democracy: “Public Opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob’s fears.  It is piped to central factories, and there it is flavoured and coloured, and put into cans.”

There’s something interesting about Lords’ locale.  When it’s not subjected to torrential rain, Bakersfield is a dusty, dry place.  Civilization began in a desert, or more accurately, near one.  It might be a stretch to say that it was there the divisions of lord/slave, powerful/weak, leader/follower began, but they must’ve deepen there, became more rigid, more insurmountable.  And while myths and demons weren’t born in Mesopotamia and subsequent desert settlements, it’s there they were recorded and canonized, and where their fascination and fear drove the construction of temples and the rise of priest classes.

And the Lords’ predilection for boys and sadistic sex is no less primeval.  I read somewhere that the act of circumcision was an ancient reminder to young males of who the boss is.  What more effective and intimate channel to intimidate and co-opt potential rivals than sex?  Sex plays can play another role in powerful cults.  It binds the members together.  The bonds can be intimate, and also darker: photographs of debauchery can yield material for keeping the brethren in line and unified.  Consider Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

I’m looking forward to reading Lords: Part Two and learning more about the Lords of Bakersfield from Nick Belardes.




We’ve just joined GoodReads!

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

And here’s our first review:

We were so happy and proud that this was our first release and that it turned out so well.  Mencken’s words read like they were written today.  And they’re just as shocking–maybe more so–as they were when “Notes” was first published in 1926.  Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’ introduction and annotations open up fascinating vistas on the Sage of Baltimore’s prose that otherwise would go unnoticed by the average reader.  Anthony Lewis’ afterword is passionate and a fine nightcap to an evening (or week or month) spent with “Notes.”

What I Found at BEA! Part III

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Libertarian Nation: The Call for a New Agenda by James Walsh, Silver Lake Publishing, $19.95

I’m really looking forward to reading this.  I like this extract from the book featured on the front flap:

The current political debate that you see on TV and online is not a real exchange of ideas. [Emphasis mine]  It’s bread and circuses.  They say that generals are always fighting the last war…   well, the same is true for TV producers and newspapers editors.  This nation has spent and borrowed its way to a crisis point.  We’re losing our position as a world leader.  And we need to get back to the philosophical roots on which the nation was founded.  This won’t be good news for the smirking neo-cons… or self-righteous liberals.  They’re both yesterday’s partisans.”

Six years ago I organized a talk co-sponsored by the New York alumni clubs of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.  It was entitled “Monotone Media and Voices on the Margins,” and it examined the lack of true diversity and vigorous political discourse in the mass news media.  Rather than bringing the usual talking heads, I invited journalists from “fringe” backgrounds: a neo-pagan, a conspiracy researcher, and a Marxist.  There was also a business reporter and an analyst from the media watch group FAIR.  I wish I knew Jim back then so he could’ve sat on the panel. 

It’s interesting that Jim mentions “bread and circuses”:  Mencken repeatedly uses that phrase throughout Notes on Democracy.  According to HLM, the masses don’t want real freedom: they want a safe, secure prison, with regular servings of Wonder Bread and “Gilligan’s Island.”  Or Sour Dough and “Lost,” if you prefer.  Jim also talks about the “philosophical roots” upon which America was founded.  I don’t know his position, but Mencken argues that the founders were not at all in favor of universal suffrage, and had a real fear of the mob.  I’ll be curious to know what Libertarian Nation says on this. 

One last thing…  Why should it be surprising that the people Jim condemns as “yesterday’s partisans” be TV producers and newspaper editors?  They’re men and women knee-deep in technology and modes of communication from the last century, indeed, in the case of newspapers, the 19th century.  If the media is the message, then what else could their message be except for yesterday’s news?