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."
Saturday, January 31, 2009
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."
Friday, January 30, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
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
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.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
“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
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.’”
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.
New York Sexual Ambiguity
Atlanta Soulless Suburban Sprawl
Cleveland Post Industrial Malaise
Mississippi Most Unhealthy and Illiterate Americans
Sacramento Austrian Governors
Las Vegas Lapdances
Denver Nicest American City to Live In
Texas Death Penalty
Saturday, January 17, 2009
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”
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.
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.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
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 doing...it 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.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
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?
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.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
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.
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
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
Thursday, January 1, 2009
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.
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.