Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gems from the Kailua Library Bookstore - Part One

Today, I put my beloved wife and children on an airplane headed to Hawaii. I’m not joining them because my next two blistering months are spent preparing for my company’s annual filing. I say ‘my company’, but it’s more like, ‘the company I work for’, lest you should I have delusions of grandeur.

My in-laws live on the windward side of the Island of Oahu in an idyllic little town called Kailua, recently made famous by the Obama family. Kailua is far from all the touristy nonsense of Waikiki so a visit there gives you the experience of authentic Hawaiian living.

The Kailua Public Library has its own used bookstore that I have to say is among my favorites on planet earth. So for a few of the next posts, as I’m thinking a great deal about the family in Hawaii – I’m going to share a few of what I’ll call: Gems from Kailua Library Bookstore.

I got this book last time I visited. There’s something incredibly accessible, honest and appealing about this poetry. The themes are consistent: nature, time, longing, heaven. Within each of these themes there are mysteries, joys and sorrows that these poets tried to dissect. Of course missing from the English translations is the added texture of original calligraphy and presentation, almost as important as the words themselves.

One poem, At Midnight by Li Po is my favorite, perhaps because it could have been written by any Irish Catholic:

Look: Moonlight shining on my bed. Or is it the white of frost?
Raising my head I see the moon over mountains.
Lowering it, I remember all my debts and errors.

What’s your favorite book store?

Pappy & Jimmy's

When my family first moved to Memphis, my parents had a great deal of difficulty finding a Catholic Parish where they felt at home. My parents were both true New Yorkers, having grown up in Brooklyn and Queens.

The Catholic Churches we’d visited in Memphis had a sort of plastic veneer that made my parents ill at ease. To them, Catholicism had been experienced through an ethnic lens. As Memphis really only has black people and white people, the Catholic experience there lacked a familiarity and authenticity that my parents craved as they tried to feel comfortable in an alien town.

Finally, upon the recommendation of the pastor of the Dominican parish we’d just left in New York, we visited St. Peter’s Church. Immediately, my parents felt at home, became active in parish doings and thereby, made measured strides towards assimilation.

St. Peter’s Church is in downtown Memphis, a twenty minute drive from our house, which was on the outer reaches of the city limits, in East Memphis. Despite this, we trekked there every weekend. Driving home from downtown after mass, we’d go by way of Poplar Avenue, a main east-west artery.

As this drive would pass through Midtown Memphis, on the corner of Hollywood and Poplar we’d pass a seafood restaurant called Pappy & Jimmy’s. Its sign, whose the partially destroyed remains can be seen here, featured two lobsters with the superimposed heads of (one must assume to be) Pappy and Jimmy.

Now this was not a nice looking establishment and I never ate there. Now that I think of it, I would never eat at any seafood restaurant that is located thousands of miles from the…well…sea. But each Sunday, I looked forward to passing Pappy & Jimmy’s and pondering this sign.

It was my brother, (a brilliant man at that) who fabricated the storyline that Pappy & Jimmy had long been engaged in a armed struggle against one another with the objective of becoming The One Lobster featured on their sign. Martin created skits which we’d reenact in the car, Pappy emerges from the kitchen with an assault rifle as Jimmy sends a rocket propelled grenade across the restaurant. All the while, two things never changed: (1) loyal nonplussed patrons would continue to eat their food and (2) the men would always fail to kill one another.

Sadly, the damage to the sign seen in this photo was NOT the result of this prolonged conflict but rather the effects of a windstorm. In 1994, I’d leave Memphis for good. Pappy & Jimmy’s would leave Midtown Memphis to relocate to an unremarkable, anonymous strip mall just outside of the I-240 loop on Summer Avenue. They must have shut down sometime thereafter. I just called the number listed for the Summer Avenue location and a recorded voice said the line had been disconnected.
Who knows, maybe one day both those guys got lucky and knocked each other off in one fantastic explosion?

Sunday, December 28, 2008


I have, at times, been accused of being some sort of communist sympathizer. These occasions began when I was a teenage transplant to what was becoming an increasingly conservative South. This was the late 1980’s. I was a Yankee, an outsider. After a period of time, I resolved to go to college up North and stave off any urges to assimilate with my classmates, the majority of whom disliked me. So when the label ‘commie’ came my way, I accepted it without protest.
* * *

Years later I would work for Lehman Brothers as a controller monitoring the compensation of investment management brokers. These (mostly) men were given outsized payouts for essentially dialing telephones, playing golf and having steak dinners. The dictates behind broker payouts were rubber stamped by managing directors with little regard for the company making any bottom line profit. Once one of my colleagues confronted a broker about how his personal payout ensured that Lehman made no actual money on the deal he’d made, he replied: “This place is a mall…people like you are the plumbing…I’m Banana Republic.”
* * *

When I was eleven, I watched the 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago. Until that time, Russians were only people I’d see as villains in Bond films or that hockey team we defeated in the 1980 Olympics. Zhivago put a human face to a nation I knew nothing about. Of course, the lesson of Zhivago was that there were no good guys or bad guys in the Bolshevik revolution and behind history there were just ordinary people trying to live and love amid the chaos. The character of Lara, as played by Julie Chrisite, perhaps subconsciously established that I’d marry a blond someday.
* * *

There are volumes upon volumes written about the fall of the Soviet Union. Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick is one I recently pilfered from my father’s library. It is a massive surgical dissection of what happened and what was.

Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium offers a different view with a different style. Kapuscinski spent most of his career reporting from the third world. In Imperium, he is returning home but still retaining the observational narrative that delivers an incredibly human experience.

Imperium begins with his remembrances of his childhood in Pinsk and continues as sort of a travelogue describing the fear and fall of the vastly disparate regions that composed the former Soviet Union. In each region Kapuscinski visits he describes their unique historical particulars and how those particulars were decimated by the Soviet machine, leaving a people numb to our concepts of happiness and liberty.

The most shocking and stark descriptions come from his experiences in post-Gulag Siberia. The people he encounters seem as surprised by their own existence and he is. Kapuscinski writes: “Always, one question comes to my mind: And who were you? The executioner or the victim?”

Imperium was translated from Polish by Klara Glowczewska but the cadence behind Kapuscinski’s voice is retained in this unbelievably moving book.

There is an institutional coldness that defies comprehending in these stories. Each makes me ill at east that I should ever have aligned myself with communism, even among the hyperbolic ranting of my breathtakingly ignorant schoolmates growing up.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

That Rapper

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Book Shop, a woman named Florence has settled in a coastal village in 1950’s England. She’s bought an old house in which she plans to open up a small book shop. The townspeople take to her with mild curiosity and it seems she might eek out the modest success she seeks.

Unfortunately, two forces are at work against Florence. The first is the town’s wealthy matriarch who had her own plans for Florence’s building. The second is an ill-intentioned poltergeist, referred to by the locals as a ‘rapper’.

Any book that involves ghosts has me hooked right away. But The Book Shop is not exclusively a ghost story. Florence’s ambition seems well intentioned: to bring a book shop to a town that has none. The poltergeist simply underscores her predicament with the matriarch. Sometimes forces work against us for seemingly no reason, with no warning.

Despite this being a very slim book Fitzgerald creates incredibly rich characters. Her writing beautifully captures this town, the damp walks and the lingering scent of the sea air. Only characters so committed to understatement could label the shop's poltergeist, which at times is ferociously violent, a 'rapper'.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Oh, I got a million dreams, man."

Amid the vast ocean of Duke Ellington’s contribution to American music, my favorite Ellington is not the one who created the swing juggernaut or the sweeping orchestral suites. My favorite Ellington is the man alone at a piano, almost unconsciously letting his mind search while his hands would layer lush chord after chord. Sweeping, dreamlike notes - this is the Ellington that I search for and it is a rare treasure when he was caught on film or tape in this special space he could create.

Musicians who would board with Ellington complained that they could never sleep. He would be up all night at his piano decked out in his bathrobe and a stocking over his head to keep his hairdo together. All night. Chord after chord, notes, runs, progressions – he was searching, always searching for some musical manifestation of his dreams.

The Ellington in Money Jungle is older. This recording is from 1969. Swing, Bop, Cool – all these things have come and gone. The Harlem his music had emboldened and enlivened is now in complete urban decay. Also by 1969, Ellington’s collaborative partner for decades, Billy Strayhorn, the man who was like a son to him, has recently died of cancer.

Money Jungle was a collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach but its standout tracks like Fleurette Africaine and Warm Valley are where we find Ellington searching quietly and beautifully. It is spellbinding. As beautiful as these songs are, there is an eloquent melancholy in the veins of these notes that can only come from a man, a genius, who as seen so much and now more than ever, seeks to make sense of what his world has become.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sheraton Hotel, NYC

I spent two days last week at the Sheraton Hotel in New York City attending an SEC Institute seminar on accounting policy. (If you haven't dropped dead from boredom at the completion of that last sentence, I commend you). The last time I'd been to that hotel was in the summer of 1994 when the now-defunct Arthur Andersen flew me up from Memphis to spend a weekend in the Big Apple apartment hunting. I was 21 years old and had just landed a job with that prestigious accounting firm. (Mind you, this all was many years before my time at the now-defunct Lehman Brothers).

Just now, something serendipitous happened to come my way. I found the above letter which I'd written to the editor of The Commercial Appeal while living in Memphis that summer. They'd run a syndicated column by Cal Thomas who was pontificating on the benefits Oliver North might bring to the U.S. Senate should he win the senatorial election in Virginia. This letter was my college-grad-know-it-all outrage. The Commercial Appeal ran it right away. It was the first time I'd ever seen something I'd written in print.

Two things stuck me upon finding this paper: (1) in the lower left hand corner of the page you can see I'm making a song list for an all-Allman Brothers mix tape; and (2) in the upper right hand corner, you can see me jotting down the information for my apartment hunting trip to New York. The '327' was the room number I was to meet people at Andersen's office on the '15th' at 'noon'.

I didn't find an apartment that weekend. I went out drinking with my cousin, strategically assisted with the midtown hotel room. A few weeks later, my cousin found an apartment for us and it would become my home until 2000. 2000 was also the last time I'd go Memphis. My parents moved away and so I've never had a reason to go back.

But I like this looking at this letter. There I was between two polar opposite identities. One moment, I was sitting in my parents home, playing guitar along with an Allman Brothers CD. Seconds later, with the same piece of paper, I was planning a trip to New York City to become that magnanimous new self. In between these things, I suppose I found time to voice convenient outrage.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Curious Mr. Nagel

Several years ago I had a job at the now bankrupt and extinct Lehman Brothers. For a fair amount of time, I'd tolerably toiled for Mother Lehman and done relatively well. Towards the end of my tenure however, I started working for their subsidiary, Neuberger Berman. Neuberger was a company whose leaders submitted themselves to be sold to Lehman and then later cashed out and split town. The Neuberger they left behind was filled with people who despised Lehman and often blamed me, an outsider, for all their ills. I hated that place and as a consequence I was lousy at my job.

Towards the end of this career disaster, I took refuge in the hidden perk of Lehman's sponsorship of the Museum of Modern Art. As an employee, I got free admission. I'd often go there on my lunch break. Incongruously, I'd become a Lehman Brothers vice-president and visiting museums during lunch was something Lehman VP's simply did not do. Really, eating lunch was questionable.

One day, I snuck into MoMA to find that an enormous retrospective exhibit of Edvard Munch's work had opened. Knowing only 'The Scream', I was ignorant of his massive accomplishments. I was instantly drawn in by the way Munch could dissect the tantamount pillars of humanity: birth and death, love and sex, loneliness and jealousy.

I was needing this experience. My life had suddenly become defined by a job I hated in an industry I didn't understand in a place that didn't want me. Munch transported me away from all that and reminded me that my life should be defined by birth, death, love, sex, loneliness and jealousy. I would go back again and again to that exhibit as I grew further detached from my flailing, failing career at Lehman.

I would find this copy of Knut Hamsun's Mysteries at the Stamford Public Library's used book shop a year after I'd left Mother Lehman. In as much as I was happy to be away from Lehman, there I was again taking another subversive lunch break, only to find Munch once again, now on this cover.

Understandably, Mysteries was misclassified under the store's 'Mystery' section. I didn't know that at the time, however. All I knew was that this curious book's cover bore a woodcut by an artist I loved. (Hamsun is one of Norway's most famous authors so it was quite a short stretch for Penguin to choose Munch for this reprint).
In Mysteries, Hamsun presents a central character, Nagel, who suddenly arrives upon a Norwegian coastal town. He is an outsider and this stigma is accentuated by his unusual behavior. He is at times graceful and generous, at other times, boorish and conniving. He seems, at times, ebulliently happy but then later contemplates suicide. Slowly, almost insidiously, he inextricably weaves himself into the lives of men of authority, beautiful society women as well as undesirable fringe characters.

This book is considered an early existentialist breakthrough. Through Nagel, Hamsun creates arguments against the trivialities of life symbolized by this town. Nagel questions everything that these people hold dear and as a consequence, everything you and I hold dear.

Much of the reason I loved this book is because of Munch. My mind brought Munch to these pages, the way I would employ the imagery of the impressionists while reading Flaubert. Hamsun's Nagel also bears evidence of a delicate balance between Norwegian stoicism and outright madness that runs throughout Munch's work.

I've never been to Norway. Should I visit someday, I imagine I will be enormously disappointed should I not to encounter scenic, sylvan scenes and beautiful, crazy people.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness

For the most part I think I’ve maintained a balanced approach to becoming a parent. Though my love for my children is immeasurable, there are moments where this love eclipses reason. In these moments, I am seized with terror as though I enter an alternate reality, one that enables me to see the infinity of their innocence, the coldness of the world and my limitations to comfort them and guide them in the years ahead, in which I only see peril. It is as though I cross a threshold into something I can only describe as madness.

Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe wrote a story called Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness which is in this collection of short stories from the mid 1960’s. Years earlier, Oe’s eldest son was born significantly brain damaged. In the title story of this collection, Oe presents a family whose son is likewise disabled. The boy is referred to as Eeyore (Oe called his son ‘Pooh’). Eeyore’s nameless father is referred to only as ‘the fat man’.

As Eeyore grows up, the fat man, overwhelmed by the boy’s disability, takes to his day to day care exclusively. He shuts out the entire world, even his wife, and as a result he is transformed into an irrationally obsessed caricature. Still, beautiful imagery is used to illustrate the relationship between father and son: they sleep on adjacent tatami mats as Eeyore needs to touch his father’s arm in order to sleep; father and son riding through town with the boy, who is nearly blind, staring blankly into sky while riding on the handlebars. Due to the father’s obesity and the boy’s disability, they share the bond of being outsiders in a Post-Occupation Japanese world which gains its strength in homogeny.

Kenzaburo Oe places these emotional images to simultaneously draw in our sympathy and then leave us to explain the fat man and Eeyore’s existentialist dilemma. What life will they lead? What will happen to them? Oe uses the fat man’s outsized body and irascible behavior, perhaps, as a manifestation of the rage and helplessness he may have felt when confronted with his own son’s disability, yet could not express in the stoic Japan of his times. The other works in this book are equally powerful, also drawing on the analogies of outsiders, fathers and sons.

About this copy: Twice a year our local library holds a used book sale. Usually, this sale turns into a bit of a Tom Clancy/ John Grisham/Michael Connelly love fest (what do those guys DO with all that dough?). Two years ago, however, I happened upon Kenzaburo Oe’s Teach Us to Outgrown Our Madness. It was like finding a penguin in Jamaica. It is currently available from Grove Press.


I got this comic in 1983 from a boy named Gyon Vjack. I don’t know why he gave it to me. The Vjacks lived in our town and had emigrated from what was then Yugoslavia. They were an extended family whose number I’d estimate in the tens of thousands all living in one enormous house. Soon, each grade level in school had at least three or four Vjacks. They were everywhere.

Added to this mystery of the Vjack’s is the stamp on this comic’s cover. You can see it right over Captain America himself - "COMPLEMENTARY - NOT TO BE SOLD" Why was this not for re-sale? How did Gyon get it? Why did he give it to me? Why, without provocation, did he later expertly punch me in the solar plexus? Had I not reciprocated my appreciation appropriately? Was this a local custom from his homeland? What the hell?

There’s something I’m unable to decode yet enormously symbolic that during the height of the Cold War, I should receive both a Captain America comic and a subsequent personal attack from a Yugoslav refugee. Maybe you have an idea what that all means because I sure don’t.

Captain America, of course, was the patriotic creation of Jack Kirby, conjured to fight Nazis and an array of villains who symbolized totalitarian fascism during the 1940’s. Later, Ol’ Cap would be frozen in an arctic tomb, only to be unfrozen by Marvel Comics and brought into the malaise of 1970’s America. Placing the ludicrously clad iconic figure amid the urban decay of the Seventies shows artistic genius on the part of Marvel Comics.

In this particular issue, an old army buddy from WWII has contacted Cap and asked him to help him find his son, who he believes has taken up with a neo-Nazi motorcycle gang. Cap snoops around and indeed the boy has taken up with a gang called The Huns. There’s a fantastic scene when Captain America arrives at their hideout, having to process the sight of Nazi paraphernalia donned by American longhairs.

Captain America is just about to get through to the boy when…whoa, Doctor Octopus shows up!! Hey, what’s he doing here??

At any rate, Cap fights Doc, Doc gets away…blah, blah, blah…

If you have any thoughts on why that malignant little Slavic bastard hit me that day, please post a comment. Thanks.

Where's My Monument?

The Town Center in Thornwood, New York is a strip mall that features a Shop Rite and a CVS I occasionally visit. For reasons I cannot explain, there exists an impenetrable malaise at that Shop Rite. Everyone is angry…really angry. No one smiles. Upon entering, beautiful women turn old and ugly. Virile young men loose the will to live.

For years I have pondered why this anomalous dead zone of hostility exists amid a town filled with wonderful people, many of whom I love dearly.

A quick peek at the Wikipedia entry on Thornwood, NY provided all the answers:


Thornwood once had a large and thriving marble quarry near its heart, the intersection of Route 141 and Kensico Road (known as Four Corners). The quarry pit was filled in in the late 1980s and the Town Center shopping center constructed over it.

Thornwood once had a station stop on the Harlem Line of the Metro-North Railroad and was about a 48-minute ride to Grand Central Terminal. The station building remains on Commerce Street, but the stop was eliminated when the upper Harlem Line (north of North White Plains) was electrified in the mid-1980s. Thornwood was the only stop eliminated as a result of the electrification process. While the station could accommodate diesel trains, the curve of the line as it proceeds north to Pleasantville made the construction at Thornwood of an elevated platform, necessary for electric trains, impractical.

In 1993, there was a robbery and shooting at the Shoprite Supermarket.

Suddenly, it all makes sense: the marble.

Having lived nearby in my youth, I remember that quarry before it was filled in. It was a ghostly and anachronistically strange looking place. There’s now a small plaque at the Town Center that commemorates the quarry. In fact, it said that some of the marble used from that site went to St Patrick’s Cathedral among other iconic structures.

So the malaise felt and endured at the Town Center Shop Rite, therefore, is a manifestation of Mother Nature’s rage…her betrayal:

“Look how you took from me….Look at what you did! I gave you all of that! You ripped it from me and created monuments to glorify yourselves! And what is my compensation? Where is my monument? You give me Shop Rite.”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Giant Man in My Life

Early in A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley describes his memories of taking the long journey with his father from Upstate New York to the Manhattan hotel whereupon they sought out New York Giants coach, Steve Owen. Their mission was to propose the idea of Owens’s Giants playing and exhibition game against the semi-professional team Exley’s father managed. Exley’s father was a bit of a local football legend upstate and for young Freddie, aged eight at the time of this remembrance, an absolute god. When they finally confront Owen, Owen very quickly, but gently dismissed the idea. They ride home defeated. Exley writes:

…”my father’s shadow was so imposing that I had scarcely ever, until that moment, had any identity of my own….Steve Owen not only gave me an identity; he proved to me my father was vulnerable.”

Hearing Frederick Exley describe his love for the New York Football Giants in A Fan’s Notes is a lot like hearing Charles Manson describe his love for the Beatles. Someone’s gonna get hurt here.

In as much as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch presents the sports fan as an affable, well meaning bundle of neurosis, Exley’s picture is far grimmer. Whereas Hornby’s obsession isolates him on Saturdays and at worst, hurts the feelings of a friend or two, Exley’s obsession with the Giants is perhaps all that keeps him on planet Earth. The rest of the time, there are ruined relationships, abandoned children, sporadic stays at institutions and alcohol…lots and lots of alcohol.

This book is strongly autobiographical which brings an extra wince as Exley unfolds his past and his foils. Each new phase of adulthood brings a new inability to fit into conventional America. All the while this stumbling journey is contrasted against his love for the iconic football team he loves and moreover, its supreme hero Frank Gifford.

Much of the story is placed in upstate New York, that other New York that doesn’t belong to the world but poignantly belongs only to those who’ve lived there.

A Fan’s Notes is a study in survival. Exley makes no excuses when he is unable to find his fit in the world. His inability to maintain relationships and find contentment in…anything, he blames only himself and attributes his lack of equilibrium to an essentially random and uncaring universe.

The despair felt in this story is balanced with immeasurably eloquent writing. Although Exley seems not to love life, he does demonstrate an incredible love of language. This is not an easy read and should only be attempted in a quiet room with a dictionary on your lap.
This book scares the crap out of me. As eloquent as Exley is, he seems to so easily be drawn into the abyss. 'What's keeping me in line?' I'm left to wonder. For a long time I harbored my own unhealthy love for the New York Mets. This love seemed to have been deepest at a time where I read no books, never would visit a museum and rarely had anything between my ears that could be considered an original thought. I lived a life devoid of ideas. Eventually, I changed and things occupied my life and the Mets vacated. My sports neurosis was there because nothing else was.

A Fan’s Notes is available from Vintage Contemporaries. I got this as a gift from my brother.

The Horror, the Horror

I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea upon the recommendation of my brother. At the time I was interested in 1970’s England and was looking to inhabit that world through the literature it produced. I’d also been wanted to balance my reading list as it was (and always has been) populated with male authors (New Year’s resolution).

The Sea, the Sea is dense, the first third especially. We are joining Charles Arrowby who’s now retiring from a life balanced between writing for the London theater scene and Hollywood. He has settled in a small English coastal village in a somewhat stark cottage overlooking the sea. Murdoch quickly portrays Arrowby as relentlessly self absorbed as evidenced by his deprecating treatment of the visitors from his old theater life and his obliviousness of the barely veiled contempt that his fellow villagers have for him.

Also during this early phase of the book, Arrowby sees what he believes is an enormous sea serpent rising out of the sea and the reader is left to evaluate whether this is a hallucination or real. It is a bit of an harbinger as shortly after this incident, Charles becomes reunited with a childhood love, Hartley, whom he happens upon in the local village. Incredibly, she has settled to this seaside town as well.

Charles begins to become obsessed with Hartley who, unlike the young beautiful theater women who still flock to Charles, is his own age and rather ordinary. Slowly, Murdoch begins to transform Charles from a self centered romantic into something far more sinister. The theater friends who continue to cling to Charles, likewise see this transformation and are quite unaware of what to make of it. Ultimately, the reader aches to know how this transformation will resolve. Eventually, I found myself concerned about what Charles might do next and became upset when the other characters left him alone. Suddenly the self indulgent artist who annoyed you begins to scare you.

Readers are likewise left to try and understand what the sea is meant to symbolize. Murdoch consistently places the sea and its ever changing temperament into each phase of the story. The sea has drawn Charles to this new phase in his life. Why? One theory (not my own) is that the sea is meant to symbolize life itself: enduring, unpredictable, ceaseless changing and somewhat uncaring.

Another theory (again, not my own) is that the sea is the human mind, filled with unexpected pitfalls and containing demonic monsters which can arrive without warning. Charles’ retirement at that seaside cottage is his time to step away from the career that defined him and confront something. Is the unsettling affection he’s pouring out to Hartley genuine or just a manifestation of something else?

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch is available from Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. The image above was scanned from a first edition hard-cover copy I got from my local public library.

Happy Days Are Here Again?

This song was written in late 1929, perhaps when the full impact of the Great Depression could not be fathomed. It was deemed that America need only ‘sing a song of cheer again’, and then everything would be okay.

There’s a scene early in Roughneck where Jim Thompson’s autobiographical protagonist has taken a job as an auditor in a department store. He works for a volatile workaholic who urinates out their office window rather than waste time sojourning to the men’s room. The two men become so angry with the management of the store that one night, they make a display composed of sanitary napkins that spell out the words ‘Happy Days are Here Again’. Such was Jim Thompson’s response to that iconic anthem meant to assure America at its most desperate hour. And so goes Roughneck, Thompson’s rendering of bumming, slumming and surviving the Great Depression while trying to build a career as a novelist.

Whenever I read stories that take place during the Great Depression, I’m struck by two things: how little everything costs and how little people have. In Roughneck, there are various situations where the Thompson finds himself pondering how his family is going to get through the day while looking at a handful of coins constituting their total net worth. Seen through the lens of our current economic crisis wherein we’re all still somehow retaining SUV’s and flat-screen TV’s, these scenes are stark and jarring.

Roughneck was released in 1954 while Big Jim was churning out book after book to feed the American mass market pulp paperback fiction machine of the mid-20th Century. Most of these works were crisp reads that still hold up well today. Some are forgettable. But Roughneck departs from the formula of tough guys, dames and guns. Thompson took the opportunity here to tell his own story of trying supporting a family during the Depression while still trying to becoming a writer. Such a task is enormous but while attempted during one of America’s darkest eras, it’s given an extra gravity.

I suppose our own looming dooming economy and the recent passing of Studs Terkel has me thinking a lot about this particular chapter in history. Roughneck is the hard-boiled companion to Terkel’s Hard Times. As the voices from Terkel’s work are meant to inspire us with their strength and honesty, the cast of misfits in Thompson’s Roughneck are there to entertain us. As Terkel hopes we will see ourselves in Hard Times, Thompson wants us to be glad we’re not him in Roughneck.

In Savage Art, Thompson biographer Robert Polito writes that Thompson “failed to mint an autobiographical language” in Roughneck and “retreated into abstractions like Fate and Luck to explain why his world turned out the way it did.”

But Roughneck needs to be taken for what it is. Thompson took advantage of a brief snippet of freedom amid his factory line of pulps. Perhaps this entertaining read would contain the depth Polito sought had Thompson had not been so shackled to the pulp formula in order to survive.

Roughneck is widely available in this Black Lizard reissue (as seen above). The great JB had recommended it to me, for which I am eternally grateful.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Welcome to Slimbo's Shelf

Good day, good people and welcome. I've started this blog as a....



It comes down to this. I'm enchanted by the sound of my own voice. I suppose that's a prerequisite for starting one of these things.

But I do love books...weird books that might be a bit off the beaten path. I love to talk about these books and other stuff too. I hope you might enjoy these posts.

Thanks for being here.

I am Slimbo.