Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Actual

If I believe everything written about Saul Bellow’s The Actual, then at 36, I’m far too young to have taken on this book. Fortunately however, at 36 I’m fairly certain that I’ve already survived two or three midlife crises. Regretting, second guessing and inventorying what’s left of the future are an old man’s occupation, yet I feel somewhat adept at these things, as though I’ve accrued into them via dog years. I was ready for The Actual, and I am grateful for it.

In The Actual, Harry Trellman, an accomplished businessman and world traveler, has returned to his hometown Chicago. Early in this novella, he explains that he has returned for some unfinished emotional business: "A man's road back to himself is a return from his spiritual exile, for that is what a personal history amounts to - exile."

That unfinished business is Amy Wustrin, the girl he loved four decades earlier. As the years unfolded, Harry never married and all the while Amy was encapsulated in an alternative universe of his longing. Within this separate reality, she would grow older as he did, and thus she was always with him although he was most often on the other side of the globe. Harry explains that distance " really a formality. The mind takes no real notice of it."

But in The Actual, he is reunited with her. We learn that Amy is a widow surviving a letch of a husband (and a former friend of Harry's) who divorced her some years before his death. Meanwhile, Harry has befriended a zillionaire who has also engaged Amy for her interior decorating services.

A tripartite business arrangement unfolds and the zillionaire channels Harry towards Amy at a point where she is in need of Harry's advice. Harry must take stock of whatever years he and Amy have left and finally do something. Will Harry break from the analytical and move towards the emotional, to a place where he can communicate his love to Amy? Will he finally free her from the confines of his imaged Alternative Amy and become for him the Actual Amy?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Here we go Cardinals, here we go!

TAMPA Florida – This Sunday, when the Cardinals take on the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, they’ll have two big challenges ahead of them: breaking the tough Pittsburgh secondary while still advising the current pope on major decisions.

Since being drafted out of the College of Cardinals, the team, which the pope can convoke to discuss substantive questions facing the church, has also risen to become NFC Champions. The Cardinals should look to put pressure Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger while still offering their advice to the pope through their membership in Vatican congregations or other departments of the Roman Curia.

On game day we’ll see the NFC Champs wearing their distinctive orange-tinged red cassock and biretta. During non-playoff games and ordinary liturgical rites they usually wear a red skullcap.

Although retired Cardinals such as Dan Dierdorf are neither eligible to play in Sunday’s game nor vote in a conclave to elect a new pope, they still are considered advisers to the pope, and they are invited to participate in the meetings of the College of Cardinals or in any post game celebrations.

(my special thanks to The Catholic News)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

X's & Ex's

I went out on my first date in Memphis when I was fifteen.  She was inordinately smart and pretty and her father played guitar in a Stax cover band. We shared the same obscure tastes in music and pop culture. I was putty in her hands, pure and simple.

During the course of our date, we actually had a lot to talk about. Among the topics that came up, was her father’s eccentric band of friends. One gentleman drew this particular observation: “I mean, really…this guy is thirty-six years old and he still collects comic books.” And with that, my comic book collecting died on December 20, 1987. My collecting had started in 1982 with the purchase of this spectacular X-Men comic. I’d bought it at Archie’s Corner Candy & Newsstand. Archie’s is now a fashion optical boutique.

In retrospect, this girl probably did me a favor by scoffing comics. We all know the stereotype of the cryptic, anti-social and intransigently celibate comic book affectionado who lives in his parents’ basement. Happiness in such a confined world is elusive and narrowly defined.

But fast-forward another fifteen years: my parents were finally moving from Memphis. My wife and I were down for a visit from New York and had just found out that we were expecting a baby boy.

Knowing of the pending move, I threw out a lot of junk that had been in my closet. And then I came across two shoe boxes. The first was a Nike box filled with my old comic books and baseball cards. I quickly bound this up and stashed it in my suitcase to take back to New York.

The second shoebox was smaller and filled with letters, real letters written by hand from a time when such things were done. Most of these letters were from that girl, the one who’d been my first date, the one I’d date on and off through high school into college. I opened one or two and re-read them but then had to stop.

By the end of college we’d grown up to become different people and stopped loving each other even though we thought such a thing would never be possible. Reading those letters felt like peering into the lives of two unknown strangers who felt things so urgently and blindly. I discarded this box. Upon the dumpster’s slam, I felt like a criminal who’d just shed the shackles of incriminating evidence.

The box of comics and baseball cards is still here though. I’m looking at it right now.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Updike

I’m going to be brief as there are going to be a lot of people far more qualified than Slimbo to praise and dissect John Updike over the next spell of time. He's perhaps the easiest answer one can give when asked, “who is the greatest American writer of the 20th Century?” So now that he's passed at the untimely age of 76, let's get ready for the tidal wave.

For me, American suburbia can be a bewildering landscape of limitations and contradictions. It’s hard for me to write about it without levying judgments and slights. Yet Updike could eloquently portray suburban existence and use it to elegantly demonstrate our most primal aspects and our most complex dreams. I know you might be bombarded with similar Updike analysis, but there's Slimbo's two cents.

Anyway, here are two recommendations, one from The Master himself, another from an arguably demented admirer of the master. In the spirit of Slimbo’s Shelf, these are works which I’m thinking won’t get mentioned this week as Updikeapalooza gets underway.

Marry Me – Meet Sally, Richard, Jerry and Rita. Jerry's married to Rita and has an affair with Sally, who's married to Richard. Hilarity ensures! (not really). Only a book about infidelity from the 70’s can bring a line like this one from Jerry after Ruth tells him she too has been having an affair: “You did? Ruth, that’s wonderful!”

People slight this as a lesser work of Updike’s but I really took to it. Marriage is the anchor of the American Dream. Updike likes to see how elastic it is while digging into the real aspirations of his characters. These two couples seem to be suspended in a clueless cocoon, their bad behavior buoyed by their middle class comfort. Yet, perhaps because Updike portrays this story so lushly, I found myself feeling sympathetic to each.

U and I - Nicholson Baker likes Updike. No, I mean he really, really likes him. This is essentially a 180 page essay on just how enormous Updike is to Baker. But Baker doesn't make it simply a gush-piece. He circumnavigates a number of contemporary authors, his own works, and the writing life. Eventually all these topics course from some singular Updike vein in his consciousness. At times he seems a little unhinged but these times come off as humorous rather than creepy. This was a fun quick read. You don't even have to be an Updike expert - God knows Baker isn't. Early in the work, he rattles off the pillars of Updike's work and makes the astonishing admission of how few he's actually read.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sweet as the Showers of Rain

In August of 1987 my family moved to Memphis. A few days after we’d arrived, I was going to my new school, an all-boys Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers. I was fourteen and it was all bewilderingly. My brother, my beacon, the one who explained Planet Earth to me was about to leave for college. The day before he left, he picked me up after school to take me home.

“Listen to this.” He had the radio dialed to WEVL, a listener supported radio station in Memphis that specialized in blues, bluegrass and other indigenous American music. “Listen to this.”

The song playing was 'Mother Earth' by the blues piano player, Memphis Slim. It’s difficult for me to encapsulate what I was hearing but I knew I was encountering something special. In the subsequent weeks, my brother would be gone and I would be enduring a loneliness unique to moving mid-high school. During this time, I would find WEVL on my dial and listen to it often in the evening, usually while I laid on the floor with my head underneath my desk. One pillow would support my head and another would seal off the rest of the world leaving me and the radio. This is how I fell in love with blues music.

A few years later, once my love of blues music had sojourned into full blown self-study. I was also learning to play guitar. This was the first time of many when my interest in something could only be sated through complete immersion. Among the many books I still have on Slimbo’s Shelf, The Blues Makers by Samuel Charters still stands out as the best. It was a Christmas gift from my brother who gratefully left a greeting on the title page. Recall, it was my brother who’d first played WEVL for me.

Books about blues music are either excessively academic or endlessly looping around the words 'whiskey' or 'juke joint' without context. The Blues Makers is different. For starters, this book is really a combination of two books by Charters, The Bluesmen first published in 1967 and Sweet as the Showers of Rain from 1977. Both parts dissect the regions and personalities by blending an engaging narrative with understandable, fundamental explanations of musical structures. Of the two parts of the book however, the second has a gravity that could only be captured in that window of time, 1977.

We live in a world today where one can walk into a Pottery Barn or a St@rb%ck$ (I refuse to advertise for them) and see a rack of CD’s for sale. These are usually compilations of music made for yuppies who wish to consume music to conveniently recreate the moods that emanate from authentic, iconic jazz or blues music. In 1977, however, blues had no such suburban visibility and sustaining distribution. It had been left forlorn by the long-dead folk revivals of the 1960’s. It’s icons were aging or dying. It’s urban African American audience was now equating blues music with Jim Crow and had understandably moved onto newer innovations.

Charters beautifully captures Memphis amid this desolation. It was not unlike the Memphis I recall entering ten years later. From 1977, Charters writes:

“There isn’t much to Beale Street now. You walk along the main street in downtown Memphis, and you turn away from the river, down the sloping blocks to what is now called W.C. Handy Park, and before you’ve gone a hundred yards you realize that the next time you walk down Beale Street, it might not be there at all.”

I remember a lean downtown Memphis and my first impressions of Beale recall it as being mostly closed and somewhat derelict. In 1987, Memphis had such a desperate feel, desperate to shake of the malaise of the 70’s and become known for something other than Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Elvis Presley’s kitsch

My friend Dan goes to Memphis regularly for work these days. What he describes I wouldn’t recognize. The city has an NBA team now. Vast stretches of that enclave of East Memphis I lived in which I recall as undeveloped have been mowed over by reams of exurban expansion. Beale Street, that downtown strip where blues became famous has long been a barometer of the city’s ups and downs. It’s now a commercially vibrant PG-13 version of Bourbon Street.

But gratefully, WEVL is still broadcasting and going strong.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

" itself to me..."

I first heard of Haruki Murakami when an excerpt from his recent book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running appeared in The New Yorker. In that work, Murakami describes his deliberate and mechanical transformation from nightclub owner to writer during which also quit smoking, started sleeping and began running. After some time he found that the routines, disciplines and explorations of his running began to parallel his writing process. As someone who would like to consider himself a writer, I read this piece wishing I had some sort of independent regimen whereby I too could obtain such a parallel process to explore ideas. My job as an accountant has been sucking in all light and matter from my life lately. It’s a routine which ideas and originality find to be a hostile environment.

I drove to work Monday morning listening to NPR. On the program, Selected Shorts, John Shea read Murakami’s short story, “The Seventh Man”. It can be found in this collection: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

As well noted in this program’s introduction, Murakami’s work is generally considered contemporary or hip. This story however has a timeless, ghostly otherworldliness to it. A group of men collected in some undeterminable place are telling stories. Their reason for gathering is likewise not specified. All we know is that a windstorm rages outside the room they share. The seventh man is the last man to tell his story. He is a modestly dressed nondescript older gentleman.

Into this trepidatious setting, the seventh man begins to tell a story of a storm that wrought havoc on his childhood home. But Murakami does something that takes this vehicle to another level. The seventh man begins his story with the following sentences, and I’ve not been able to get these words out of my mind since Monday:

“…in my case, it was a wave,’ he said. ‘There’s no way for me to tell, of course, what it will be for each of you. In my case, it took the form of a giant wave. It...presented itself to me in the form of a gigantic wave. And it was devastating.’”


Although Superbowl XLIII is almost upon us, Slimbo’s Shelf will not be commenting on the upcoming matchup between the Cardinals and Steelers (except to say Steelers 20, Cardinals 17). You’ll all get your fill of pre-game nonsense once Obamamania dies down a bit. Instead, I’d like to take pause and temporarily resuscitate an extinct relic from the world of professional football: the United States Football League.

It was Morning in America when the USFL was born. I think one can point to the USFL (of the mid 1980’s) and the late XFL (of pre-9/11 2001) and definitively state that alternative professional football leagues are born out of a hubris indicative of times when America is flush with a good economy and mired in collective social brain death.

I’ve always been fascinated by the rise and near-immediate fall of these leagues. It’s a testament to the NFL that they have created a product so incomparably established in the America sports marketplace that any attempts to dethrone are akin to those midgets who used to try and wrestle Andre the Giant.

I have great memories of the USFL. When this league came about I was a naïve young lad and I assumed that it was here to stay. It seemed like such a great idea to an eleven year-old. Then again so does grape Kool-Aid.

One could point to a litany of reasons the USFL did not live past the age of three – the biggest undoubtedly were the saturation of the American sports market and the disdain Americans have for watching football in the sweltering summer sun. But one need only look to the team identities of this league and find the ultimate answer for the USFL’s downfall. Let’s take a look:

Birmingham Stallions - Someone sat around a marketing table in Birmingham and said, ‘our identity should conjure the image of white wooden fences, rolling green hills and riding boots’. This logo is so non-threatening; one could substitute the word ‘Stallions’ with ‘Home for the Aged’.

Boston Breakers - Jonathan Livingston USFL Team. No wonder they moved through three cities in three years. Looking at this gives me horrible flashbacks of when the Islanders went to that goofy fisherman jersey.

Denver Gold - I could easily see this image on the robes of cultists getting ready to commit mass suicide in preparation for their return to the mother ship.

Jacksonville Bulls - It makes sense that this bull is facing right, headed East towards Jacksonville, because it looks as though he just ran through a member of the 1980 Houston Astros and is now marked with the stripped remains of his uniform.

Memphis Showboats - This team should have been coached by Hal Holbrook in full Mark Twain attire. Okay, people….think striped blazers, straw hats, hoops skirts and paddle boats. Yeah, that’s football. Having a Dixie-land theme is all right if you’re opening a casino or planning a high school play, but did anyone ever think that perhaps the concept of Dixie might be a bit tainted for African American players? Downtown Memphis still features a street called ‘Auction Avenue’. You see where I’m going with all this, no?

New Jersey Generals - It’s fitting that a team owned by that fascist Trump would have a logo that conjures the image of militant totalitarianism. Like so many in the tri-state area, I looked to the New Jersey Generals and loafingly gave them my support with a passion that said, ‘well, uh…okay, whatever.’ They did have Hershel Walker and Doug Flutie after all.

Pittsburgh Maulers - When one looks at the image of this hammer swinger and sees the word “Mauler” above it, one can’t help but to assume that the figure presented here is a disgruntled worker committing an act of violence towards another human being and is not, like his NFL Steeler counterpart, a glorified symbol of American labor history.

Outlaws / Bandits – Isn’t it incredible how fond recollections of lawlessness have become an integral part of how we reminisce about the Old West. Perhaps these two teams, when matched against one another, would emerge from the locker room tunnel and simultaneously suffer an instantaneous mass identity crisis? Could it be that each team then turned on itself, a mass extinction through friendly fire?

San Antonio Gunslingers – if this “gunslinger” was successful, it’s because no one could see him behind a lamppost. My God. Take away his hat and guns and this team could have been the San Antonio Accountants.

Washington Federals “Government is the problem”. These words were spoken by Ronald Reagan at his inauguration as he was about to take the helm of our…well…government. An increasingly conservative wing of our nation had managed to vilify the very concept of the entity they were taking control of: government.
It’s odd that this Washington franchise would choose a brand identity that one could easily see featured upon a booklet describing some allegedly wasteful government program. Perhaps while entertaining fans, the team simultaneously wanted to remind them that all tax returns were due on April 15th

So I’ve decided to start my own alternative to the NFL. Unlike the USFL, my league will feature names that will be deeply rooted into the soul and character of each city.

Eastern Conference
Boston Syllabus
New York Sexual Ambiguity
Atlanta Soulless Suburban Sprawl
Cleveland Post Industrial Malaise
Mississippi Most Unhealthy and Illiterate Americans

Western Conference
Sacramento Austrian Governors
Las Vegas Lapdances
Denver Nicest American City to Live In
Seattle Venti
Texas Death Penalty

Saturday, January 17, 2009

" last!"

Over time I’ve accumulated Chekhov short story collections. They are abundant on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. The words “…short stories of Chekhov…” are akin to “…Sinatra’s Greatest Hits….”. A master turned into a commodity.
I bought the collection shown above at the Gotham Book Mart (back when it existed). Miraculously, amid the pretentious, cranky indifference of the staff, they found it within their hearts to ring up this purchase. Amazing that the place went out of business.

But among the various Chekhov collections that have graced Slimbo’s shelves, this one survived. The overarching reason for absent copies? During my dating years, I would give them to women I was trying to woo. (When my son begins to date, first and foremost on my list of advice will be: don’t give women Chekhov books, give jewelry).

Still, whatever form your favorite Chekhov collection takes, undoubtedly it will feature “The Kiss”.

When I was fourteen, my family moved from New York to Memphis. I had three years of high school ahead of me in a new school, all boys. My classmates seemed predisposed to dislike me and I perhaps did little to be liked on their occasionally reasonable terms. But through a slow and accretive process, I made a few friends.

And it was through these friends that on one summer night, I found myself alone with a young girl, Raquel. We were at a pool party. I was sixteen and she was fifteen. She sat on the hood of my car wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her magnificent bikini-clad body. Nothing amorous happened. We talked for maybe fifteen minutes together, alone. And despite that no teenage rite of romantic passage was achieved, it did feel as though the gods were finally looking down, now forced to acknowledge my existence.

“…All I am dreaming about now which seems to me so impossible and unearthly is really quite an ordinary thing…”

But what would come next? Nothing. I was, unfortunately slow to accept this realization, as only marginal, melancholic adolescent can be. I would drive by her house, perhaps hoping to serendipitously place myself there to rescue her from an unwanted assault from a football player. I tried to conjure possible ways I could situate us once again on Cooper Street, with her sitting on the hood of my car, laughing at things I’d say. None of this would happen and I would never speak to her again. During that phase I came to terms with this, I read “The Kiss” in my English class.

* * *

Like Gatsby, Shane, Lenny and George - Ryabovich is burned in my consciousness from my early reading years. At the time I read “The Kiss”, I was Ryabovich. Small, slight and awkward, he was the misfit in his artillery brigade. Amid the unit’s travels, they arrived at a town where a local landowner, a general von Rabbeck invites the officers to his home. There, Ryabovich slips away from the main dining room due to his discomfort with people and while he skulks into a darkened parlor, an unidentifiable young woman embraces him and whispers, ‘at last!’. She kisses him but then flees realizing she has mistaken him for someone else.

Or did she? Who was she? Was Ryabovich the intended recipient of the kiss? The magic, the mystery, the sensuousness of those seconds consume Ryabovich. In as much as they beguile him, they also embolden him. Suddenly he feels himself emerging from the unpopular awkward shell that has incarcerated his spirit.

But the evening passes. The brigade must move on. Ryabovich becomes unable to contain his obsession with the kiss. He tries to explain the event to another officer. He tries to contort his future that it may include some reunion with the young woman.

Their brigade comes again to von Rabbecks town. Ryabovich’s expectations soar, but no footman comes to invite them to the von Rabbecks. There will be no reunion with the mystery girl. Quickly, quietly and devastatingly, Ryabovich retreats back to his former self, the thin delicate labyrinth of dreams he over-constructed is shattered:

“Now that he expected nothing, the incident of the kiss, his expectations, his impatience, his vague hopes and disappointment, presented themselves to him in a clear light”
Why in God's name would I give Chekhov to the women I desired?
Although I recalled "The Kiss", I would forget Chekhov's name. Later in college, I'd be reunited with Chekhov through Raymond Carver, whom I believed to be the greatest writer of all time. I feel a certain shame by this, similar in the way I had to learn who Robert Johnson was because Eric Clapton told us all to look him up.

My Name is Legion

The Daily Legion is a smutty tabloid news rag published by an ultra right-wing megalomaniac. (OK, boys and girls…let’s all say it together: Ru-pert Mur-doch). But Lennox Mark is his name and to make his character complete, author A.N. Wilson makes Mark a morbidly obese glutton.

Mark is obsessed with an Anglican monk who’s recently returned to London. Father Chell has been spending years organizing (sometimes un-peacefully) against a right-wing junta in Africa. All the while, Mark is being stalked by a deeply disturbed, possibly possessed young man who might be the son of either Mark or his nemesis, Father Chell.

This book’s a good one, kids. There’s violence, there’s sex in the sacristies, there’s gossipy lurid voyeurism as only the English can serve up. My Name is Legion is a thrilling jaunt served up by a master. I was amazed that this was the same A.N. Wilson who’d authored After the Victorians, a book I recall giving to my father two years ago last Christmas.

Hungry Freaks, Daddy!

This past Christmas, we gave my six and a half year-old son an iPod. When it came time to load in some music, I became overwhelmed by the enormous gravity of this task. Six and a half was right about when I discovered music: the Beatles from my brother, jazz from my mother and classical music from my father. The foundations laid at that age are still solid in my consciousness. This was serious business.

I went to my iTunes and quickly, almost without thinking, the first song I isolated for the lad’s iPod was “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here”. If anything, it gave me the opportunity to once again, take in the masterpiece that is Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention.

In 1966, rock-n-roll was taking itself very, very seriously. Rock was taking its first steps away from being rebellious and was moving towards a world of pretentiousness. The Beatles, rightfully so, were being lauded for the innovations of Sgt Peppers. Dylan had been crowned the poet laureate of a generation and from Carnaby Street to Haight-Ashbury, everyone was about to swoon away the Summer of Love. Enter the Mothers of Invention with Freak Out!’s overarching message: So what…big deal.

The Mothers were the brainchild of the late Frank Zappa. He built a career on defying conventions and expectations about what Rock-n-Roll music should about and how it should be made. Freak Out! sits between the polar opposites of mainstream, consumerist middle-America and the emerging youth-driven counter culture. All the while, Zappa slays the hypocrisies of both. This would be Zappa’s lifelong song writing approach. Although unconventional, these songs are enormously listenable and many are outright hysterical. Freak Out! turned out to be a hit with my son – what six year old can resist a song called “Help, I’m a rock!”

Note 1 – Zappa always said writing about Rock music was “bad writing written for people who can’t read.” I hope he'll forgive Slimbo for the above.
Note 2 - For a spell of time I worked with the bassist for The Washington Squares. He recommended Freak Out! to me. I am eternally grateful.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Whiskey Robber

Not too long ago, my wife and I were hosting a dinner party. One of the ladies present was looking for suggestions for her neighborhood book club’s next selection, a biography. I immediately went upstairs and grabbed Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein. Our guest read the synopsis on the back of the book and then returned her glance to me. It was as though I’d handed her a crack pipe.

When Rubinstein first heard the true story of a drunken Romanian hockey player who’d become a folk hero by robbing banks amid the chaotic world of post-Soviet Hungary, he was seized with a panic known only to writers. Rubinstein simply HAD to be the one to tell the story of Attila Ambrus, the Whiskey Robber.

* * *
A goalie, Attila Ambrus would try out with the local Budapest league team, UTE. Upon seeing this audition, the coach remarked “Whatever this guy is has nothing to do with hockey.” Yet, Attila would make the team. There was an unbridled passion that came through his performance - a love of life, you could say. The coach would later explain, "It's simply amazing that there is a person on this planet who wants to be a goalie for our team so badly even though he clearly has never had anything to do with hockey before in his life."

Maybe it was his belief that life should be lived to its fullest. And no matter what it was, be it hockey or the sudden emergence of material riches accompanying the collapse of communism...Ambrus decided nothing should stand in his way. Perhaps it was this joie de vivre that propelled Attila Ambrus towards bank robbery. And rob he did...29 banks until he was finally apprehended. When you think of his MO, it's amazing it took that long.

Now keep in mind, capitalism was a new concept to this region. The mindset of the newly liberated Eastern Bloc was influenced by American gangster films in equal proportion to the surface promise of rote American business institutions. Ambrus' decision to rob banks became a logical career redirection once hockey failed to pay a living wage.

Despite his criminal career, Attila is enormously likable. He doesn't want to harm anyone. Hoping to quell the anxiety he feels before his first heist, he gets very, very drunk. Once this first robbery succeeds, Ambrus decides not to deviate from this formula, thus the legend of the Whiskey Robber is born.

As each heist ensues, we become aware how post-communist Hungary enables such a lovably inept thief to become so successful. Despite having exorcised the Soviet Union, this region feels a sort of unease of what will follow. Budapest becomes a bit dysfunctional without the Kremlin making the trains run on time. Hungarians felt adrift, perhaps vulnerable to the Western European and American venture (vulture) capitalists who seemed to immediately fill the void. Perhaps this local boy ludicrously robbing the local banks was wrong, but clearly that was preferable to foreign investors seeking to do the same subversively.

As this story progresses, Rubinstein introduces two additional characters, each trying to carve their niche in this post-Soviet wild frontier: Laszlo Juszt, the host of a 'Hungary's Most Wanted' type show and Lajos Varju, a robbery chief charged with bringing in this most notorious and visible villain, a prize he would never grasp. The Whiskey Robber soon dominates their lives.

Because this book is off the beaten path and brilliant…that means it was a gift from my brother. Many thanks, hermano.

Shea Stadium

We’ve been through some things together
With trunks of memories still to come
We found things to do in stormy weather
Long may you run.

Long may you run.
Long may you run.
Although these changes have come
With your chrome heart shining in the sun
Long may you run.

From Neil Young's – ‘Long May You Run’

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I-95 is outside my window
it is one long hum, it is a chorus of tires
it never stops
the city must have been running out of room
when this building was built
did the contractors, investors and buyers ever think
of the sound endured by people
people who'd work in this place?
probably not

I-95 is outside my window
while I'm on the phone, I'll watch it go
whoever is on the other line has no idea
of the fascinating movement I watch
it's all just red blood cells moving through an artery
where are they going?
all of us, the cells, the roads, the capillaries
we are the blood
America, the body

I-95 is outside my window
Today, I saw a white truck go by
It said: 'MS Carriers'. MS is Mike Starnes
When I lived in Memphis, I carried his golf bag.
He was a kind man.
He had pale eyes that seemed worried.
I'd carry his bag and he'd tip really well.
And now I'm here.
He must be very elderly now.

I-95 is outside my window
the orchestra of rubber tires and asphalt
it is an endless yawn from a benevolent giant
a bowling ball rolling around God's steel drum.
I've worked here a year and a half now
and I have to remind myself that this sound is here
Some days go by achingly slow.
How long will I be here?
Soon, I'll be 36.

I-95 is outside my window.
Almost once a happens
My back is to the window
and amid the hum, I hear it!
screeching brakes, SCREECHING BRAKES!
(i wait for it)
the smash, the metallic laughter of a rolling car
(i wait for it)
it never comes

I-95 is outside my window
sometimes I see a car has broken down
the driver emerges, a human being
has come out of the river
some help comes, or maybe
the driver has just emerged
to take a leak
then the driver leaves
and I go back to work

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gems from the Kailua Bookstore - Part Four

In 1993, I was a senior in college. In December, I took a trip from Syracuse to my uncle’s house in New Rochelle, a suburb just a half hour north of the Big Apple. I was going on a job interview in New York the next morning. I was jumpy….a bundle of nerves and I was running a fever. I was on the verge of something big I couldn’t yet identify: freedom, adulthood, failure. Whether I’d get that job or not...I was on an adventure. I was young…the world was mysterious and wide open.

My uncle picked up on this vibration I was eminating. That night he recommended I’d read A Coffin for Dimitrios. I didn’t read it at the time of his recommendation, but I never forgot how emphatically he praised it. Years later, I'd read Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love. In that book, Fleming’s Bond carries a copy of Ambler’s Coffin (the UK version of which was titled Mask of Dimitrios). Of course, Bond's copy had some explosive gizmo in it. But this brought back my uncle’s endorsement which I took as a sign that it was time for me to finally meet the master.

I maintain policy never to read any mysteries or espionage novels that take place after 1980. Technology and the worshiping throngs that fuel it have killed the romance of the vintage spy and sacred private investigator.

Of course, real spying and investigating consists of long, meticulous, tedious detailed work. But Ambler’s Coffin enables me to dwell in a fantasy world where cafes and continental parlors are the dance floors of espionage. I’ve since read a number of Ambler’s novels and quite a few of them are a bit forgettable. This however, is a classic (as are Light of Day and Background to Danger).

Alan Furst is a contemporary writer whose work takes place in 1930’s and 40’s Europe. Like Ambler, his novels capture that trepidation in the air that Europe felt just before the full onslaught of WW2 began.

What’s your favorite spy novel?

Lee Mazzilli

“I think he’s wonderful.” This is what my grandmother would say about Lee Mazzilli anytime he’d happen upon the screen of her television, forever tuned into WWOR, Channel 9, the volume so loud your molars ached. She’d praise Mazzilli with genuine grandmotherly affection as though he’d just carried her groceries all the way from the Busy Bee corner grocery store. My grandmother lived almost her entire life in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Like so many Met fans of her advanced age, she had been a devout Dodger fan, left forlorn by their move to Los Angeles.

The Greenpoint section of Brooklyn has long been a veritable fortress of Polish immigrants but in my grandmother's youth it was also an Irish and German stronghold. It is possible to have lived a lifetime in Greenpoint with minimal contact with African Americans or any other Americans for that matter. It’s not that my grandmother was racist, but African Americans were somewhat of an unknown mystery to her. Whenever a broadcast’s camera would happen upon an African American player, my grandmother would remark, “It’s a marvel that so many coloreds are playing these days.” So her affection for Lee Mazzilli could have been grounded on his being white, maybe, I don’t know. Ironically, my grandmother would pass away in a nursing home in Bartlett, Tennessee, an establishment employed almost exclusively by African American caretakers.

Still Mazzilli was wonderful. I love this card (which I happened to have stolen from my brother during his first year away at Providence College). Here Mazzilli swings powerfully, as though lashing out against all that’s stacked against him – his awful Mets teammates, their awful season, their awful stadium in a city systematically being undone by cancerous urban decay. Even the lighting seems to indicate that an enormous rainstorm is about to drench the hot summer afternoon, perhaps delivering that cleansing rain longed so achingly by Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

* * *

As an addendum...Shea's barely there any more. I'll be writing more about this later...I'm just not ready...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

He's lost the plot....

Before I fully understood the complexities of English Football, I knew the image shown above: Vinnie Jones attacking the ‘personal bits & bobs’ of Paul Gascoigne. I first saw this picture in Granta 45: Gazza Agonistes in 1995 while I was sitting on my brother’s couch in Philadelphia. This photo kicked off Ian Hamilton’s piece on Paul “GazzaGascoigne. I’d never forgotten Hamilton’s incredible telling of Gazza’s story, but moreover, it’s this photo that's stuck in my mind forever.

My brother was a scholar of English footie, having honed his knowledge while living in England for a year, so he explained what this picture was all about. Jones was a goon, a defender valued for his ability to harass and scare the crap out of the opposition (hockey has a lot of these guys as well). Paul Gascoigne is the young man unfortunate enough to be the recipient of this exchange, occurring when Gascoigne’s Newcastle played Jones’ Wimbledon.

The picture captures Gascoigne at one of the many points in his career where his reality has caught up to his ability. Gascoigne was a Geordie, from the northeastern city of Newcastle. At a very young age, he was brought up into his hometown’s football club, his play noted for speed and daring. Here the young Gazza’s boyish glee for the game is meeting a seasoned pro intent to put the young lad in his place and perhaps, scarring him for life.

As Gascoigne was thrust into top-level football, he had two problems: (1) a sophomoric inability to control his weight, drinking and off-pitch behavior, leading to (2) an inability to fit into the heroic mold of a stoic yet charming British football hero. Amid the excess, drunkenness and crude behavior, Hamilton portrays Gascoigne in this Granta 45 piece as an incredibly sympathetic and enormously likable person.

I found Ian Hamilton’s portrayal of Gascoigne compelling because he’s trying to essentially explain a Joe Namath-type sports persona to an English audience who’d never (with the exception of Georgie Best) experienced too many subversive sports mega-heroes. The pinnacle of Gascoigne's career seems to be World Cup 1990, where in defeat, his very un-British response of wildly shedding tears would move the stiff-upper lip nation in a way we’d later see on a much larger scale when Princess Diana died.

At the time at which Granta 45 came out, Hamilton can take the Paul Gascoigne story only so far. It encompasses his rise at Newcastle, his subsequent transfer to the London club Tottenham Hotspur (and to the London nightlife), which ultimate leads to his eventual transfer to the Italian club, Lazio. That’s where this story leaves off.

The years that follow Lazio have ups, but unfortunately more downs. Gazza would eventually leave Lazio and play for Glasgow’s Rangers. He would play for the national team 57 times. After Rangers, he would play for short spells with Middleborough and Everton. One of his last gasps at playing would be to try out for DC United here in the U.S. He wouldn’t make the team. After retiring, a managerial job with a lower division team would last a month. Recently, he’s had a number of alcohol related incidents leading either to arrest or in one case, being sectioned under the Mental Health Act and being brought into custody for his own protection.

I read about Gascoigne from Hamilton and I read about him from recent BBC news updates. I want to like this guy. He seems to have a love of life and a generous spirit. Like the England that once adored him, I keep wanting to give him second changes.

Maybe you can understand this by the following: I'll leave off with the attached clip. This is his goal against Scotland at Wembley in Euro 1996.

What joy.

Gems from the Kailua Library Bookstore – Part 3 – MacDonalds...Billions and billions published!

Ross MacDonald

Some years back I was overdosing on noir fiction from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Of all the writers to emerge from that furious era, Ross Macdonald is by far my favorite. In 2000 (and into 2001), I was so inspired that I wrote a novel of my own which essentially ripped off MacDonald's signature formula: private investigator and wealthy dysfunctional family. In an example of indescribable luck, among the random literary agents to whom I’d sent query packages, one happened to represent MacDonald’s backlist of titles. He agreed to shop it around the publishing houses for me. It never got picked up and after a year of trying, we both gave up.

But before that awful resignation, I was strolling Hawaiian beaches in Kailua while mulling my imminently successful writing career. A trip to the Kailua Library Bookstore yielded this 1970’s Bantam paperback of The Barbarous Coast. This was a real find as it was still out of print at the time (later reissued in 2007 by Vintage Crime). A funny thing though: I remembered that my mother had this book in our bookshelf growing up and I distinctly remember looking at this cover. The scantily clad and highly distressed lady in the blurred photograph was kind of a haunting image for a kid. I never forgot it.

The Barbarous Coast was first published in 1956. Although it is a great book, I prefer MacDonald's books from the late 60’s, early 70’s.

John D. MacDonald

Ross MacDonald (who’s actually John Ross MacDonald) should not be confused with John D. MacDonald. The two emerged on the scene at the same time and apparently Ross lost out on retaining his true first name. Further friction emerged in the 70's when John D. protested Ross’s release of The Blue Hammer (John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series all had colors in the titles).

Which brings us to the contribution which I’m highlighting in this post: The Lonely Silver Rain. This is the last Travis McGee story (the 21st) and was released in 1985. I find the early McGee stories (the first was in 1964) to be one-dimensional and somewhat misogynistic. In later books, McGee becomes more contemplative and cerebral investigator-slash-observer of humanity, demonstrating a sort of élan that Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer achieves much earlier. A year after the release of The Lonely Silver Rain, John D. MacDonald would pass away at the age of 70.

As Ross’s Lew Archer series was the mystery mainstay of Southern California, John D.’s Travis McGee covers Southern Florida with equal texture. Both give you a strong sense of place. I find it fascinating to experience Southern California and Southern Florida though the lens these men created. Both continue to draw an indescribably fascination out of me.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Graham Hills Country Park / Baltic Voices 2

By the time I got all my work done today, there were just a few hours of daylight left. I'd been couped up lately between work and this cold I've been fighting. It was time to get out and blow the stink off.

Graham Hills Country Park is less than a mile from my house. It's named after Dr. Isaac Gilbert Graham, a Revolutionary War surgeon who'd settled there in 1785. Throughout the park, numerous stone walls bear evidence of this colonial past. It's an oasis of woods, gratefully preserved amid the crowded, long established Westchester County suburbs.

I had about an hour before the sun was going to set - a short walk would be all I could afford. Although it was sunny, it was still quite cold due to 15mph winds. As I drove to the park, my mind began to envision what my experience would be like. There were still a few inches of snow on the ground and it was my hope that this might deter the yuppie mountain bikers who infest the park in nice weather. Ultimately, I was hoping for a solitary walk, amid dense, quiet woods. The ground would be white, the sky would be blue, the dark vertical barren trees would texture the rolling landscape, and the sun would achingly send me its final slanted afternoon offering.

In consideration of such a setting, I scrolled my iPod to Baltic Voices 2 as my companion for this walk. This album features religious and secular choral ensembles by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir as directed by Paul Hillier. I was first captivated by this spacious ambient music when WNYC was featuring Eastern European selections for its New Sounds program (
One track on Baltic Voices 2 particularly struck me. It's called 'Winter Hymn'. For me it was the center of gravity for this album, anchoring its mood. Geographically, this is music predispositions an association with desolation, cold and quiet. 'Winter Hymn' is a meditation and upon first hearing it, I wanted to experience it in a cold, snowy place all by myself. Perhaps it is this need to connect with this song in such a way, rather than my need to get out of the house, that brought me Graham Hills today.

In the last throws of sunlight, I'd made my way to the highest point in the park, having accended several hundred feet to get there. To the east I could see the towns of Thornwood and Hawthorne. To the South I could see Buttermilk Hill across the Taconic Parkway. To the north east, I could make out the hills buffering the Hudson. Their snowy flanks were turning blue in the cold twilight.

I got back to my car just as the last notes and the resolving 'Amen' of 'Our Father in Heaven' completed Baltic Sounds 2. I found it a jarring experience to be suddenly stripped from this contemplative winter cathedral that my walk had created for me. I took off my cap, scarf and gloves. It was time to re-enter my world and think about a hot cup of tea and this evening's NFL Playoffs.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Gems from the Kailua Library Bookstore - Part Two

If anything, The Golden Orange is a great time capsule of Southern California during the 1980’s. California has always been an enigmatic phenomenon to me. I’ve only been there a handful of times but loved every visit. I started reading this a few years ago aboard a flight from California to New York (connecting there from Honolulu). The family was staying in Hawaii for an additional week but I had to return for work. I sat next to a guy who was an executive for one of the major television networks. He kept asking me about different televisions shows, none of which I knew. Each seemed to be one of these specialized crime investigation dramas that saturate prime time. Frustrated and dismayed, his last words to me were, “you do watch television, don’t you?” His tone was condescending, as though this failure in my character was akin to not bathing.

I’d never heard of Joseph Wambaugh until I’d read an interview with James Ellroy. It was your typical Ellroy interview wherein he describes himself as God reincarnate (and Raymond Chandler as ‘softheaded’). Ah…uh huh.

But he did mention Joseph Wambaugh as a big inspiration. Wambaugh was a former LAPD detective who went on to have a prolific career as a crime novelist (The Onion Field, The New Centurions or The Glitter Dome). A while after reading that Ellroy interview, I couldn’t find any Wambaugh anywhere. Once again, the Kailua Library Bookstore saved the day.

I’ve read a lot of Wambaugh since picking up this copy of The Golden Orange, but this one is still my favorite. It chronicles the misadventures of Winnie Farlowe, a former police officer living the bum life amid the Newport Yachting Scene in Orange County (thus the title). Farlowe seems to be rescued (in a way) by the beautiful divorcee, Tess Binder. Tess has a past, though, that prevents them from entering the zone of happily ever after.

Wambaugh’s story line keeps you going in this book but he really hooks you with his characters. Most of the time when I read mysteries, I forget the mystery itself – who did what, what the scheme was, etc. Personally I don’t think a good mystery writer should even bother too much with establishing a clever labyrinth of who-dunnits (forgive me Dan Brown). A good mystery keeps a steady stream of interesting characters throughout the narrative. That's what you end up remembering.

Munson Pond

The bikini had a floral pattern and it must have been lying there for quite some time. It looked like a relic from the sixties, something that could have been worn by some anonymous twister in one of that era’s abundant formulaic surf movies.

This discovery of the bikini occurred in the mid-eighties. My friends and I were adventuring through the woods where our fresh, newly built homes had encroached upon an immense stretch of private land. Through thick briars and over a rocky hill, we happened upon a swimming hole. It looked like a natural spring with the exception that one end of the water was bordered by a linear stone wall which bore a diving board. The area peripheral to the pool was overgrown and barely accessible. The bikini had been left on the mossy plank of the rusty diving board that extended precariously over the black water. The overall neglect of the place, the murkiness of the water, it all insinuated something discomforting punctuated by the bikini, missing its occupant, its garish colors fighting against mold and time. A lone oar floated in the dark water in a slow, melancholic meander as though looking for the partnered oar it once knew and the boat they once served.

But what had happened to the girl in the bikini? The semi-erotic detritus clearly taunted my young mind. Was she beautiful? Of course, she was. Her long hair was black and straight, pulled to the sides in that Indian squaw style that hippie chicks loved. Her skin was so white, contrasting luminescence against her hair and the night. That’s how she looked when strolled down to this pool that summer’s eve to get away from the heat of her house and the watchful eye of her parents. She wanted that release, that escape within the cool dark water’s embrace. She took a look around, decided no one was looking and…

But why hadn’t she collected her suit after swimming? Had there been something nefarious in those woods watching her with homicidal lust? Glances into that dark water sent chills down my spine. Perhaps she still was down there in a timeless state of suspension staring quizzically up at her young visitors, aching to tell them the story of her untimely demise. Could it be her would-be assailant was never found? Could he have been watching us that very day?

We were just a band of kids brought together with a housing development in common. Our new homes were an invasion and we were its minions out on reconnaissance. As we ventured into these wooded areas, we’d happen upon the jarring remains of lives that had preceded our arrival. Bottles from the 1940’s, abandoned cars, forlorn appliances, outdated bikinis. For most of my friends, the bottles were for smashing against rocks, the cars were ripe for a beating with a stick, and now the bikini had become fodder for jokes. But for me these objects contained something sinister, a dark history and I’d treat each with reverence and trepidation.

Today on my computer, satellite photos of every inch of our planet seem to now be available. Amid the possible exotic and grand places I could visit, I find myself drawn to that spot in the woods where we found the pool. I go there again and again. I can see that those woods I recall as vast places of exploratory adventuring are quite small and confined. But the pool is still there. Somehow, it and the wisp of woods that surrounded it eluded the progress that’s left much of that area treeless.

I’m often skeptical of the validity of what I recall. The photo bears evidence that I didn’t dream this whole thing up and I’m relieved. I moved around a lot growing up and it’s left me with many rootless fragmentary childhood remembrances. I spend a lot of time looking at satellite pictures of various places from my past, houses I lived in, elementary schools I’d briefly attended. Sometimes a street view is available. You click on the map and suddenly a photo pops up whereby you’re standing on the sidewalk. I look again and again and everything seems small and old. I’m looking for answers, for something

Maybe the girl in the bikini really could have existed, not just in the sputtering of my imagination. I’ve replayed her stroll down to the pool that night many times. It’s a continuous reel in my mind. As I’ve gotten older, she continues to emerge with crisper details. Age and experience has allowed me reconstruct her femininity. I’ve invariably attached my own fetishes to both her and her act of disrobing. Her body is young but still features oddities, complexities, imperfections and unevenness that I find beautiful and alluring. Ultimately, I’m left to resign that this image, this fantasy might not coexist with her reality and the events of that night.

The pool is still there. The satellite caught it. I can see the elongated spec – the diving board endures. The photo is an example of the wonders of technology and its aching limitations to deliver completion. Amid the pixels of the strongest zoom, I can’t make out a bikini.