Posts Tagged ‘Don’t Call Me a Crook!’

Don’t Call Me a Crook!: “Incredible” and “incredibly well-written”

Friday, February 18th, 2011

OK, I freely admit it: it’s been far too long since my last blog post.  I’m sorry.  Really.  And it’s not from a lack of topics.  From the November U.S. elections to the mass movements in the Mideast, things are changing quickly!  Not to make excuses, but Dissident Books’ is a one-man shop, so between getting the word out about the titles, sales, and dozens of other tasks, blogging tends to get pushed to the back burner.  But that’s not an excuse.  I promise to post more often.  Just like I promise that the check is in the mail.
You might recall in my last post I wrote how e-newsletter ForeWord This Week ran a feature on Notes on Democracy: A New Edition.  Well, this week managing editor Kimber Bilby turned her attention to Dissident Books’ other offering, Don’t Call Me a Crook!  Bilby writes that

Autobiographies & Memoirs is the biggest category in our Book of the Year Awards program. I understand why: everyone has a story to tell—even reference librarians. (Does Ruth Harrison from A Prairie Home Companion ring familiar?) The ability to tell a good story and grab the reader from page one is a gift that not everyone has. That’s what makes an award-winning memoir: it’s not only an incredible tale, but an incredibly well-written one. Cheers to those who tackle retelling their life stories in print. This week we feature a more humorous account of a con man, Bob Moore, in Don’t Call Me a Crook! published by Dissident Books.

Boy, did reading that make my day!  It’s a fact is Don’t Call Me a Crook! is both “an incredible tale” and “an incredibly well-written one.”  One blogger confessed that she read it three times.  Three times!  You know a story is gripping and a pleasure to read when someone goes through it more than once.  Check out what ForeWord has to say about Moore’s memoirs here.

Be ForeWarned!

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

“Tis’ the season for the subliminal and the over-the-top political ads,” ForeWord Reviews’ managing editor Kimber Bilby writes today in ForeWord This Week, an e-newsletter. “And they’re definitely getting to me because I’ve chosen two politically-inspired titles for our featured FTW reviews.”  And guess what?  Notes on Democracy: A New Edition is one of them!  No kidding!  We here at Dissident Books are mighty jazzed that the good folks at ForeWord thought to give a well-timed primary-week nod to Mencken’s Majestic Missive on the Mob and its Malice. 

And we’re very flattered that Notes is coupled with what appears to be a scorcher of a book: Lt. Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, a memoir of the war in Iraq.  “While Gallagher didn’t hold back his opinions, there is no mistaking the biting satire of noted social critic H.L. Mencken in Notes on Democracy.”  Take a minute to read what ForeWord has to say about Notes.  And while you’re at it, check out what it had to say about Dissident Books’ other epic, Don’t Call Me a Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime.

“Speaking of democracy and freedom, Banned Books week is only two weeks away,” Bilby segues.  She invites readers to send in their answers to ForeWord’s “Banned Books Survey”:

1. What is the most popular banned book in your library/bookstore?
2. Number one question you’re asked about banned books?
3. What display or event received the most attention during Banned Books Week?

Off hand we can’t think of answers to these excellent questions, but we will say that Mencken fought censorship and Puritanism all his life.  Indeed, he was no stranger to censorship.  A Boston reverend tried to ban The American Mercury, Mencken’s magazine.  The Sage of Baltimore stood up to the Puritan, went to trial, and won.  Right on, Hank!

Notes on Democracy and the Jihad on Narcotics

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Nowadays Prohibition seems rather quaint.  It conjures flickering, grainy black-and-white images of silent movie stars, flappers, and Tommy gun-brandishing gangsters.  Even Prohibition’s goal—a sober, righteous America—has a decidedly outdated smack to all but the most militant teetotaler. 

But don’t mistake the Volstead Act for a mere historical curiosity.  It was a prolonged, destructive violation of personal freedoms.  Ironically, the law fostered chaos.  As Deborah Blum explains in “The Chemist’s War,” an article that appeared last February in Slate,

But people continued to drink—and in large quantities. Alcoholism rates soared during the 1920s; insurance companies charted the increase at more than 300 percent. Speakeasies promptly opened for business. By the decade’s end, some 30,000 existed in New York City alone. Street gangs grew into bootlegging empires built on smuggling, stealing, and manufacturing illegal alcohol. The country’s defiant response to the new laws shocked those who sincerely (and naively) believed that the amendment would usher in a new era of upright behavior.

(Incidentally, for a firsthand account of fun and games under Prohibition, including rum-running, tending bar in a speakeasy, and shootouts with rival bootleggers, turn to Don’t Call Me a Crook! by Bob Moore.  As obnoxious as Moore is, one reason I like him so much is his utter refusal to be controlled, whether by oppressive bosses, rich women, or Prohibitionists.)

Despite the law, Americans continued to pursue the forbidden pleasure.  Sound familiar?  Make no mistake, Prohibition exists today.

And as with yesterday’s Prohibition, it’s not just that there’s laws proscribing pot and other narcotics.  They’re enforced with a vast security apparatus, paid for with billions of our tax dollars.  The Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free has more citizens in its prisons than any other nation, largely because of its Jihad on Narcotics.  It’s not enough that statutes are on the books: they must be enforced with the zeal of true believers and people jealous of their government salaries.

Of course, the effects are never, ever what were intended.  Just as Al Capone and his peers grew rich and powerful through bootlegging, we’ve seen the rise of well-armed gangs, narco-terrorists, and the Taliban, all flush with lucre from drug sales.

Then as now, lawmakers’ response to proscription’s unexpected consequences was the same: full steam ahead.  Indeed, the effort must be intensified.  Harass citizens?  Jail offenders?  No, that’s not enough.  Poison the juice and its imbibers.

Blum explains that when Uncle Sam stemmed the flow of smuggled Canadian hooch, gangsters stole industrial alcohol and redistilled it to make it palatable.  Industrial alcohol is essentially grain alcohol with some disagreeable additives to render it distasteful.  As crooks slaked America’s thirst with redistilled firewater, the government reacted by telling producers to pump chemicals into industrial alcohol.

Gangsters met the challenge by recruiting chemists to “renature” the purloined rotgut and render it consumable.  Washington, in all its infinite wisdom and compassion, in turn demanded manufacturers pump more poisons into the mix.

By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.

It wasn’t long until the inevitable results came in:

In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. “Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes,” proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.

Readers of Notes on Democracy will recall H. L. Mencken’s words of praise for Reed.  “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified,” the Chicago Tribune observed in 1927.

That’s right.  Fanaticism.  It was the driver then as it is now.  Two passages from Notes on Democracy sum it up:

Our laws are invented, in the main, by frauds and fanatics, and put upon the statute books by poltroons and scoundrels.

Under the pressure of fanaticism, and with the mob complacently applauding the show, democratic law tends more and more to be grounded upon the maxim that every citizen is, by nature, a traitor, a libertine, and a scoundrel.  In order to dissuade him from his evil-doing the police power is extended until it surpasses anything ever heard of in the oriental monarchies of antiquity.

Incidentally, if you think official and deliberate tainting of illegal substances is the stuff of nearly a century ago, think again.  In the 1970s the U.S. sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with an herbicide named Paraquat.  Blum relates that its

use was primarily intended to destroy crops, but government officials also insisted that awareness of the toxin would deter marijuana smokers. They echoed the official position of the 1920s—if some citizens ended up poisoned, well, they’d brought it upon themselves. Although Paraquat wasn’t really all that toxic, the outcry forced the government to drop the plan. Still, the incident created an unsurprising lack of trust in government motives, which reveals itself in the occasional rumors circulating today that federal agencies, such as the CIA, mix poison into the illegal drug supply.

I’m not the only one who sees a parallel between the yesterday’s and today’s crusades against intoxication and finds Notes on Democracy a valuable commentary on both.  Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica and author of How to Know, writes this week that

Prohibition is a comfortable 80 years in our past, of course, so we can read [Notes on Democracy’s] passionate denunciation of it with equanimity, even smugness. A terrible idea, based on false premises and conducted ruthlessly, that left the country far worse off than it was to begin with. Yet simply substitute “War on Drugs” for “Prohibition,” and see what you think.

McHenry says that Mencken in Notes “performed vivisection on the dogma underlying the American political system and revealed the offal within.”

As Mencken loathed Prohibition, he would’ve detested the War on Drugs, and not just for its infringement on liberty.  Mencken would’ve perceived democracy’s stunting influence at work:  Because addicts can’t handle wine or cocaine responsibly, the healthy are barred from enjoying them.  The same force was at work when the FCC went after Howard Stern

The censors wield their red pens, defending the weak’s delicate ears from profane words.  But what of those of us who don’t take offense at Stern’s ramblings?  How truly free are you when you can’t partake of simple pleasures like smoking a joint or listening to uncensored talk on the radio?

It all fairness to democracy, everyone knows other systems are often repressive.  Actually, they tend to be even more restrictive.  But what’s particularly galling about democracy is that by its very nature it allows and encourages small but focused groups—Prohibitionists, for example—to direct the nation.  As Mencken observes in Notes on Democracy

Some of these minorities have developed a highly efficient technique of intimidation.  They not only know how to arouse the fears of the mob; they also know how to awaken its envy, its dislike of privilege, its hatred of its betters.  How formidable they may become is shown by the example of the Anti-Saloon League in the United States—a minority body in the strictest sense, however skillful its mustering of popular support, for it nowhere includes a majority of the voters among its subscribing members, and its leaders are nowhere chosen by democratic methods.  And how such minorities may intimidate the whole class of place-seeking politicians has been demonstrated brilliantly and obscenely by the same corrupt and unconscionable organization.  It has filled all the law-making bodies of the nation with men who have got into office by submitting cravenly to its dictation, and it has filled thousands of administrative posts, and not a few judicial posts, with vermin of the same sort.

Certainly it’s possible for a determined minority to persuade a king or dictator, but it’s got just one shot, so to speak.  The potentate either approves or dismisses the petition: end of story.  But in a democracy, if the minority is driven and well-funded enough, chances are it’ll succeed, no matter how insane its goal.  Politicians need money and votes.  If a lobby offers them, it’s got your representatives’ ears more than you can ever hope.

This is not a libertarian rant.  I don’t see government as inherently evil.  Living in a community means making compromises.  But something is very wrong when there’s more resources invested into forbidding adults from indulging in whatever pleasures they choose than fostering science and culture.  As Mencken points out elsewhere in Notes, although liberty is “the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic,” democracy “always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves.”

Where Old Ships Go to Die!

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

I’ve got to believe that Bob Moore, marine engineer and author of Don’t Call Me a Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime, would find Jan Smith’s photographs of abandoned ships in Mauritania’s Nouadhibou Bay both fascinating and horrifying.  They’d no doubt remind him of his ill-fated stints on a yacht on Long Island Sound, a river boat carrying kerosene along the Yangtze, and the cruise ship s.s. Vestris.

Like Dissident Books’ beloved Glaswegian, Mr. Smith is quite an adventurer and risk-taker.  From MSN’s Good:

When Smith attempted to venture into Mauritania in 2008, he encountered no shortage of struggle. “I was turned away at the border, slept in a mine field, and was accused of espionage. No one believed I would travel to the remoteness of Nouadhibou to simply take pictures of rotting ships.”

Well, whatever Bob might or might not of thought, I love the pictures.  To my eyes these vast behemoths are dead dinosaurs, rotting in a primordial lake.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

 

 

Booklust returns and reviews “Don’t Call Me a Crook!”

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

You might recall my August 23 post (“Booklust takes ‘Don’t Call Me a Crook!’ on a trip”).  Well, Booklust is back, and has written a review of Bob Moore’s pickled, globetrotting and illegal memoirs.  We’re pretty stroked to see she gave it a rating of 7.5 out of 10–not bad!  Personally, we think Mr. Moore’s memoirs rate an 11 out of 10, but we have an admittedly biased opinion.  “I don’t know if there are any thoroughly unapologetic, charmingly devious con men out there in the world like him any more,” Booklust writes.  “The author embodied the spirit of the Roaring 20s, of a world thrilled to be done with WWI and happily ignoring the inevitability of WWII, a world that had not reached the Great Depression, and was riding high on waves of lawlessness and corruption on the cusp of the modern age. . . .  It’s hard to admire him, but it’s impossible to dislike him. He has a certain roguish, rakish charm.”

Booklust also comments wisely on Moore’s racism.  In the book’s third part, “Mitchell and China,” “Moore’s racism and bigotry shine through a little too much for my liking,” she remarks. “However, it made the book very real. I think now, a lot of historical fiction tends to glaze over the racial relations of the past, sidestepping the complications and possible negative reactions that those situations can create. But when you read books that were written in those eras, by people who lived them. . .  well, it’s just there. Innate. In the pores, as it were. Yes, it is hard to read, but it’s worse to ignore it, and worst to pretend it never happened, I think. Moore had opinions and he stuck by them, regardless of how narrow-minded or slippery his ideas were. I can’t help but respect a man who sticks to his guns. And when he does it in such a hilariously self-righteous and interesting manner. . . well, that just makes the going that much easier.”

We completely agree.  How often in movies and books about the past do you find whitewashing of discrimination and strife?  The good old days weren’t so good.  Like today, there was hatred and racism.  Like Booklust, we prefer reality to lies.

Booklust ends her review with an equally perceptive summary: “Don’t Call Me a Crook is a fun and interesting look at what life was like for the working class of the 1920s–unapologetic, realistic and true, it sheds light on what must have been a fascinating time to be alive.”  She’s absolutely right to stress that Don’t Call Me a Crook! is a proletarian memoir.  As The Scotsman (Edinburgh) pointed out, “Moore’s book is one of relatively few accounts looking at the Roaring Twenties from the point of view of a Scot who was, if hardly at the bottom of the social order, at least not born with a silver spoon in his gob.”  It might break the hearts of politically correct folks to read that a laboring man didn’t feel class solidarity (just the opposite: he wanted your job!), and saw the world through a sexist, racist, and greedy lens, but that’s their problem.  Again, we’ll take truth over fairy tales.

Booklust takes “Don’t Call Me a Crook!” on a trip

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Booklust takes Don’t Call Me a Crook! with her on a trip to India!  Bon voyage!

How appropriate to bring the globetrotting Bob Moore on a voyage halfway across the earth…  But should you really trust him as a traveling companion?

Wedding Album Blues

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

We’re the flowers in the dustbin. . .

The Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen”

I’m nosy.  I love to snoop around.  I once reported for a commodities news service, and nearly all my work was phone based, but you could say investigating market rumors and trends is a kind of snooping.  On top of that, I love “finds.”  I poke around flea markets and used-book stalls for something forgotten yet beautiful, worthless to others but a prize for me.  My discovery of a Don’t Call Me a Crook! is an example of this, although it I spotted it a public library, not on a folding table or in a dusty shop.

A month ago, on my way to Carl Schultz Park, I spotted a huge book in a garbage can.  Measuring roughly a foot in width and length and about three inches thick, it was big enough to be a family Bible.  It even came with a sturdy, dark green case.  But it wasn’t a Bible—it was a wedding album, and not an old, dusty, dog-eared one.  It was in perfect condition and dated May 2004.

Why would anyone dump a wedding album in a public trash bin?  That’s different than carefully tearing up its pictures, dropping them into a garbage bag, and fastening the pouch so the ripped photos are hidden.  This is a public and stark renunciation of the album’s contents. 

If someone gave you the book, one option would be it to return it.  Of course, that’s got to be more than a little uncomfortable.  What do you say?  “Your wedding pictures are so sweet and precious, but I’m clearing stuff out, and…”  But as awkward and alienating as it might giving it back, the act’s politics are different from the genuinely shocking violence and irreverence of chucking an album into a public garbage, not even bothering to bury it beneath rubbish.  The act screams “I don’t care about you anymore, and I’m not going to hide my disdain.  The memories these photos record are nothing to me.  They’re worse than nothing.  I won’t even let this book gather dust in my overpriced studio apartment: I want it out of my life.  Gone!”

Why leave photos of a man and wife’s happiest day (or what they hoped would be their happiest day) with rotting banana peels and empty dog food cans?  Why abandon them for some dude to bring home and use as the basis for a blog post?

Who dropped it in the can?  A former friend of the couple?  A disgruntled relative?  Did the marriage end so quickly and badly that one of its partners was moved to exile reminders of its first day to a trash can?

Actually, whoever slipped the album into the bin might’ve been motivated by something blander than vitriol.  Perhaps he was a handyman, sweeping up the detritus of past tenants.  Hopefully it wasn’t the couple who left behind their own wedding album: that’s a little too absentminded!  In any case, the bin-banishment was still brutal, but impersonal.  Like a sexton kicking a sleeping bum out of church, he was just doing his job.

For the sake of discretion and decency, I won’t tell you the couple’s identity.  Suffice to say their names, both given and cognominal, are unassuming and Anglo-Saxon.  Both the groom and bride are young and attractive, in their early to mid-twenties.  Both have light-brown hair: the bride has hers back in not a painful but a pleasant and comfortable bun with blond highlights.  Later photos reveal the bun consists of interwoven braids, the effect like a bouquet. The groom’s haircut is short, spikey with mousse.

The album’s first photo is of the bride, in her white gown sitting on a bed.  Her grin reveals large, bright teeth.  She’s a lovely woman, almost beautiful, with tan skin, luminous green eyes, and full breasts.  She casually holds a bedpost with one hand, and lets the other rest on the cover.  I doubt she’s aware of photo’s eroticism.  Was the photographer?

In the next photo the bridesmaids join their friend on the bed. (Get that smirk off your face.)  They too are attractive girls, but look younger, less sophisticated than the bride.  Has love and commitment matured the wife-to-be?  She’s certainly the most pulchritudinous of the lot.
 You can pretty much guess the course of the rest of the album: the father-of-the-bride (I assume that’s her father) walks her to the altar, the couple says their vows, friends and family pose for pictures, the assembled take lunch and dinner, man and wife cut the cake and slip morsels into each other’s mouths.  However, there is one surprise: the ceremony unfolds on a beach. 

The sand is pristine, and in some pictures it has a burnt-almond hue.  A path, flanked left and right by white, broken shells and small stones, divides the seated guests and leads to a white lattice arch there the couple say the vows.  A stout, white-haired officiant gazes placidly at them.  The bride looks close to tears in one shot. 

The wedding party is entirely Caucasian.  The women are well-dressed for the occasion, but the young men are too casual.  They have their shirts open-necked: one is shod in sneakers!  The groom wears a goatee.  It signifies more frat boy than hipster, although nowadays the terms aren’t mutually exclusive.

Where do these scenes unfold?  Perhaps somewhere on either coast, but not necessarily.  The Great Lakes have beaches.  Perhaps it’s on an island.

It’s tempting, maybe even logical, to assume scenes unfold somewhere in the U.S, but there’s no reason to think it couldn’t be Canada, Great Britain, Australia, or anywhere in the English-speaking world.  It could be nearly anywhere. South America, for example—why not?  The couple could be scions of expatriates, with names from the old country.  English could be a second language for them, an ill-fitting hand-me-down.  I doubt it, but it’s amusing to imagine the bride whispering “I do” in Spanish or Portuguese.

But for all its charm and wonder, the album is very sad.  Something went wrong between friends, between relatives, between parent and child, or most likely, between man and wife.  As happy as the pictures are, it’s impossible to forget where the album was discarded.  What happened?  That’s a true-crime mystery, and I’m not sure I want to solve it.

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.

Andre the Giant: Wrestling King, Booze God

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

I just finished reading this wonderful piece on Andre the Giant from Modern Drunkard magazine.  I never was that into the guy before, but now I’m a real fan.  I love him the same way I love Bob Moore: he was lusty, crazy, and full of life …  and alcohol.  Imagine if the author of Don’t Call Me a Crook! and the Gigantic Andre met for an imbibing match…  Whoa, the mind reels.  Methinks that Andre would sip Bobby under the table, but hey, that’s no disgrace.  We’re talking about Andre.

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.