Saturday, May 30, 2009

May's GQ in the Penny Press!

I know it's anachronistic of me, but I can't help it: I read magazines, lots of them, and I read them regularly, attentively, and thoroughly. I did this even before I became so happily involved in the monthly goings-on at Open Letters Monthly (a gigantic new issue of which has just been published, for those of you who might want to spend some thorough attention yourselves), and in the last few years I've had all the more reason to respect the wit, reach, and sheer amount of work involved in pulling off a monthly publication of any quality at all (and for all I know, even the ones with NO quality are still Hell on wheels to bring to term - it's still a gigantic amount of verbiage needing to be massaged and finessed, after all).

Take the May issue of GQ, for instance. I know there are those among you (you know who you are) who deride the very idea of reading a magazine like GQ, but nevertheless: every issue comes bearing several items of interest or genuine worth. This issue features a cover story about world-class infantile moron Christian Bale (whose infamous tirade on the set of Terminator should have terminated all public interest in him of any kind), and despite such an unpromising opening, I read the whole thing scrupulously, cover to cover - and once again, I wasn't disappointed.


Some of the items in the issue were admittedly trivial (jebus gawd, the amount of space they waste talking about idiotic stuff - utterly fad-driven things and gadgets I guess the magazine's target demographic really is wealthy and stupid enough to amass and care about amassing), like the squirt of irritation I felt seeing that stupid Gillette ad that shows the same ass-faced young douchebag in like fifty different iterations of douchery - or the fond smile I cracked at another ad, featuring the very same all-grown-up tobacco addict Alex Pettyfer who is, as all the world knows, the idee fixe of my esteemed (and hilarious) fellow-blogger Vera, and I laughed out loud at transcribed chatter between GQ's "in-house Twilight enthusiast and Pattinson-picture-kisser" Raha Naddaf and a random bunch of Twilight fans contacted at a sleepover:

What do you think about the rumors that Pattinson dated Camille Belle?
[Thirteen seconds of mortified screaming]
Olivia:
We don't like her.
[Three-minute conversation about the Jonas Brothers, with one girl concluding, "They wear promise rings, but that doesn't mean anything."]
Now for the big question: Do you ever imagine yourself making out with Pattinson?
[Again with the silence]
Abigail: We're only 12.

Hee.

There was also a throwaway photospread of a brand-new pro quarterback named Alex Sanchez, who was convinced to pose in a series of Baywatch-dorky beach outfits, presumably in exchange for permission to manhandle the vacant-eyed young thing posing in the photos with him. He doesn't seem able to fully shut his mouth, so he probably has a bright NFL career ahead of him.

But the issue wasn't all fun and games. Peter Savodnik turns in a riveting freelance piece on the Russian "Maniac" serial killer Alexander Pichushkin, who lured dozens of men and women into the woods of Moscow's Bitsevsky Park (three times the size of Central Park), killed them, and then dumped their bodies down municipal wells, where the sewage system washed the remains varying distances from the scene of the crimes (in typical serial killer fashion, Pichushkin got sloppier and sloppier the longer he went unsuspected and uncaught - which guaranteed he'd eventually be suspected and caught). Savodnik's article is very good - if grisly - reading, except for one odd bit of reaching he does that had me scratching my head:

... the detective who led the investigation ... rules out the possibility that the Maniac is homosexual. He says Pichushkin doesn't have any sexual longings for men; he just doesn't care about women.

But there's something else: In Russia, which remains violently homophobic, it may be that people have a hard time believing a gay man is capable of the kind of power or force of will that defined the Maniac. The Maniac is a maniac, and he's evil, and no one disputes this, but he is also very much a man in the way Russians think of men.


Hard to know what Savodnik is getting at here - so Pichushkin might be gay because his investigators might be typically bigoted Russians? He displays the absolutely textbook serial killer lack of any sexual identification, and suddenly that's enough to cast a doubt? Granted, I'm not the expert on the Maniac that Savodnik undoubtedly is by this point, but this still seems like a weird bit of projecting to me. Sometimes, a maniac is just a maniac, after all.

And only a couple of pages from the retailing of Pichushkin's homicidal horrors is a story about a real murderer, a serial killer of a scope and professionalism that makes the Maniac look like a piker: former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld is profiled by the very talented Robert Draper, with predictably chilling results.

As I read the piece, as I encountered quote after quote like this one:

"What Rumsfeld was most effective at doing was not so much undermining a decision that had yet to be made as finding every way possible to delay the implementation of a decision that had been made and that he didn't like"

I gradually realized that I know Donald Rumsfeld - I used to work with him. I had a co-worker who was every bit as mulishly self-absorbed and vigorously un-helpful as Rumsfeld is everywhere portrayed here as being. That co-worker could absolutely 100 % be relied upon to make any - and I mean any - work-related thing, no matter how big or small, no matter how important or trivial - more difficult, more annoying, more of an issue. You'd be off doing something else, and you'd suddenly realize the phone had been ringing for fifteen minutes - and when you hurried over, absolutely frickin guaranteed this co-worker would simply be standing there, obdurately ignoring the phone - and if you were dumb enough to ask why, he'd have a long, breathlessly self-centered rationale for why he'd been ignoring the phone, and it wouldn't matter what the Hell it was, because by the point of you being dumb enough to ask for it, you'd be stuck in it, trapped in the cramped, sweaty little mental world of somebody who's just one compass-tick north of being genuinely, helplessly, institutionalizably insane. Like that co-worker, the Rumsfeld in Draper's article gains absolutely nothing by his reflexive, non-stop obstructionism - and like that co-worker, the only reason his knee-jerk adamantly petty assholery didn't get him fired instantly is because nobody sane wants to interact with him long enough to get that firing done, because interacting with such a useless piece of cowdung, such a pathetically arrested 5-year-old, is intensely soiling. Reading this article, it was no shock to me that President Bush fired Rumsfeld on live TV, far away from the man himself. No shock either that at the man's farewell dinner, he intensely creeped out his guests - he probably ate every last morsel of the free food, too.

But as disagreeable as that article's subject might be, the article itself was a thrill to read - and it wasn't alone in this issue, and every issue of GQ is like that. So I keep reading, even though I don't know a Blackberry from a blueberry and couldn't tell you what kind of wood is best for your $500 loafer-tree.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Emperor!


Our books today form the "Emperor" series written by Conn Iggulden - all the paperbacks of which bear the same ominous blurb, "If you liked Gladiator, you'll love Emperor!"

I liked Gladiator, but a blurb such as that on a piece of Roman historical fiction is indeed ominous - because Gladiator was almost pure fantasy, playing almost as fast and loose with the facts of Roman history as the HBO series "Rome" did ... and seemingly advertising a similarly cavalier attitude toward facts is a mighty odd way of praising a historical novel.

Or maybe it isn't. Why do we read historical fiction, anyway? Since it's not solely to bone up on the facts of history (for which, er, boning we have many first-rate history books, including many that've had their day in the sun here at Stevereads), it stands to reason we come to this type of fiction for more - we want the writer to take all that historical research and do what the historian can't: neaten it, sharpen it, use it, in a way the ordinary sprawl of daily life would make impossible.

Virtually everybody who's ever written historical fiction quickly comes to this realization, and then they start doing things with the facts (scholars for the last four hundred years have been saying this very quality makes ancient writers like Livy - who liberally sprinkle their allegedly historical accounts with long speeches and long interior monologues that can't possibly be accurate - the forefathers not of history but of historical fiction)(which is mighty condescending thing to say, but I can't help but wonder how Livy would have responded to it). They start shaping the facts to fit the stories they want to tell. This is a very different thing from simply making mistakes about the facts.

It can be a maddeningly fine line. In the first half of The Alienist, Caleb Carr draws a vivid, memorable portrait of Theodore Roosevelt - but he's constrained by the historical record of Roosevelt's days as New York Police Commissioner. But in the second half of The List of 7, Mark Frost hauls Roosevelt onstage and has him chomping on a cigar, something the real Roosevelt never did - and Frost does this because he wanted to stress the 'big and bluff' side of Roosevelt's personality, in one scene. Same man, same facts, two different writers going to two different lengths to make their stories work.

Clearly, Carr's method is better. To the fullest extent possible, the facts you read in historical fiction should correspond reliably to the facts you'd find in Gibbon or Parkman. Custer shouldn't be described as tall if he was short; Jugurtha shouldn't be described as black if he was only swarthy; Cleopatra shouldn't be described as beautiful, period, since every ancient source and her own coins agree she wasn't. It might look as though that places intolerable restrictions on responsible historical fiction, but that's the wrong way of seeing it: think of it instead as a test for the cleverness of the author. The trick is to come up with ways to let the 'fiction' trump the 'historical' without doing it irreparable violence.

There are some tried-and-true methods for doing this, the easiest and most popular of which is to cast the whole of your story into some setting, some special circumstance, that you can come right and say would never, of course, find its way into the historical record (usually, books like this feature a scene toward the end in which one character stands up the table and says, "Gentlemen, we must never speak of this to anyone"). In Goodnight, Sweet Prince, David Dickinson wants his main character to solve the murder of Queen Victoria's grandson Prince Eddy - but Prince Eddy died of pneumonia, which is unhelpful. So Dickinson links Prince Eddy and his murderer with a scandal and has the Royals cloaking the whole thing in obfuscation - which is not only plausible but gives him an entirely free hand. I, Claudius, The Sword of Pleasure, and countless other novels give us the creaky-but-effective gimmick of the lost or doomed-to-be-lost secret manuscript (emboldened, no doubt, by the fact that such manuscripts have always, in fact, existed in real life - by happy chance, we have not only the official, public things Procopius wrote, for instance, but also the secret account he couldn't stop himself from writing, even though its discovery would have meant his very messy execution).

Another reliable way to write such books is to find some blank space in the historical record - and then swarm in to fill it. Iggulden does exactly this in his "Emperor" books, because despite the fact that Julius Caesar is one of the most famous individuals in the history of the world, we don't really know all that many details about his boyhood and youth. Iggulden knows this and freely admits in his Author's Notes that he's made liberal use of his imagination - a canny move that both exonerates him from anything readers might dislike and effectively de-emphasizes the very large amount of research that went into these books.

He's clearly angling for a wide popular audience, and there's nothing wrong with that. He almost always refers to his characters by one name only (and what he considers 'first' names - Agrippa is 'Marcus,' for instance, and of course Caesar himself is 'Gaius'), he centers everything on the vicissitudes of one boy growing up into a man, and he loads the books with action sequences - and he's quite good at writing action sequences.

He keeps everything small-focus and personal, as when our young heroes are enlisted in the army of General and Dictator Marius:

At first, the main roads emptied as the early-rising workers stood well back for the soldiers. Gaius could feel their eyes on them and heard angry mutters. One word was repeated from hard faces: "Scelus!" - a crime for soldiers to be on the streets. The dawn was damp and cold and he shivered slightly. Marcus too looked grim in the grey light and he nodded as their eyes met, his hand on the hilt of his gladius. The tension was heightened by the clatter and crash as the men moved. Gaius had not realised how noisy fifty soldiers could be, but in the narrow streets the clank of iron-shod sandals echoed back and forth. Windows opened in the high apartments as they passed, and someone shouted angrily, but they marched on.

"Sully will cut your eyes out!" one man howled before slamming his door shut.

The books follow Caesar from his young boyhood to the edge of world-domination, and they've taken their share of lumps from critical readers (who were no doubt primed by that Gladiator tag ... future editions of the books really ought to drop it), but this is partly because the books are Roman historical novels, a particular sub-genre that tends to bring out the petty-ass factchecker in otherwise easygoing readers. Such readers are unlikely to be satisfied by anything less than notarized videotape.

The rest of you might want to give the "Emperor" books a try. They're quite entertaining.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dracula!

Our book today is Dracula, Bram Stoker's immortal, undead, paradigm-shifting 1897 novel that has changed the shape of Western pop-culture more than anything published since. The book was a gigantic financial hit for Stoker virtually from the instant of its publication, and it's been imitated, parodied, adapted, and interpolated endlessly ever since.

I think there are three reasons why the concept Stoker hammered out and popularized caught on with such unprecedented drama (aside from the awkward, furniture-upsetting vigor of his prose, that is): first, he gives us a jim-dandy cast of characters - a good girl, a bad girl, a cowboy, an intellectual, a bland good guy, an aristocrat, a crazy old Yoda-figure, and of course the world's greatest villain, the perfect combination of plotting fiend and ravenous beast; second, he gives us that most emotionally satisfying of all plot under-structures - the invasion story ... Dracula has one goal in mind from the book's onset -- he wants to infect England with his undead virus, wants to begin turning the country (as I've done many times in the past, I whole-heartedly recommend Kim Stanley Newman's Anno Dracula, a book that has its own killer premise, that Stoker's novel is itself an alternate history, that in reality Dracula's plan worked), with only our band of heroes standing in his way; and third, he gives us a bad guy who's offering something just a little bit alluring. True, newly-turned undead must serve Dracula - but they get to live forever, outside of conventional strictures of morality. I've always considered it one of Dracula's rare important weaknesses that we never really see that allure championed properly - the Count's foremost servant, Renfield, is insane, and Lucy is a dimwit. But Lord knows, subsequent handlers of Stoker's material have spared no effort to show us that allure in all its dark glory (including most recently and most famously the Twilight saga, in which the winsome heroine pleads with her undead suitor to turn her, so she can be "free").


Sometimes, when I really love a book, I find my appreciation increases just a bit with every really good or interesting edition I find, and that's certainly true of Dracula - it's apparently endless commercial viability guarantees a fresh crop of repackagings every year, and some of them are worth having. Of course there's the Oxford World's Classics paperback with its great binding and its great notes (and the apparently requisite photo of Bela Lugosi on the cover), and there's the dorky old Magnum Easy Eye edition (also with Bela) for those who scorn any kind of scholarly apparatus.



At the hilariously, frantically overdone other end of the 'scholarly apparatus' spectrum, there's Leonard Wolf's epic 1975 Essential Dracula (it's got a still from Nosferatu on its cover, but don't worry - it's dedicated to Bela), which features the text of the novel onto which an encrusting, clambering moss of footnotes has clapped with joyful tenacity. Wolf footnotes absolutely everything in the book, and unlike so many equally annotated volumes of other classics (and the recent annotated volume of this one, which is as thorough as it is boring), Wolf's notes are always bristling with opinions. Sometime they very nearly end up being more interesting than the passages they explicate, like this little swipe at the token American:

Quincey Morris is a frequent window gazer. Presumably, this is part of his frontier American heritage. Stoker, no doubt, meant the trait to imply a huntsman's alertness. Ironically enough, this man of action rarely accomplishes anything.


Or this, about the recurrent wimpiness of Jonathan Harker, the book's main protagonist:

Mina here takes note of a pervasive weakness in Harker. The reader, more than Mina (one supposes), has seen a good deal of Harker lying passive and supine: most notably, of course, in his nearly flirtatious lassitude in the presence of Dracula's women; his swoon; his doze; and for a full six weeks he lay bedridden in Budapest. Mina, on August 24, reports that he was "so thin and pale and weak-looking ... He is only a wreck of himself ..." It is with this wreck that Mina spends her wedding night.


(fans of Buffy the Vampire-Slayer will read that "nearly flirtatious lassitude" and immediately think of Giles' own encounter with Dracula's women ... and, recalling it, most likely laugh out loud)



Dracula has naturally had countless adaptations to more visual formats over the years. The character had a long and very entertaining run in a Marvel Comics adaptation drawn by the great Gene Colan, and Mike Mignola's four-part comics adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is so visually stunning it almost compensates for the idiocy of the movie itself. And there've been many, many illustrated versions of the novel. Penguin brought one out in 2006 featuring both color and black and white drawings by an unusually restrained Jae Lee, and just last year Sterling kicked off its All-Action Classic series with graphic novel adaptation scripted by Michael Mucci and drawn with distinctive, idiosyncratic energy by Ben Caldwell.




And there'll be more, that goes without saying. Stoker hit upon the same creative gold that was found by Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Rice Burroughs did with Tarzan, so interpretations and re-interpretations will always be with us. This can usually be extremely frustrating - it's frustrating that Tarzan is currently creatively quiescent, it's more frustrating that Holmes is about to be debased beyond recognition into a gay kickboxer, and probably it'll be equally frustrating when details of the 2011 Hollywood version of Dracula come to light (I'm guessing the Count will be played by somebody under 25 - Michael Pitt's my frontrunner at the moment).

With any luck, in the meantime there'll be a nice meaty BBC TV production to sink our teeth into.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Forewards and Afterwards!


Our book today is Forewards and Afterwards, the collection of incidental deadline-prose written by celebrated poet W. H. Auden and published together in 1973. I'm told, by those who know, that Auden is a considerable force as a poet - I've scarcely liked a single line of his I've ever read, but then, poetry and I mostly parted ways with Kipling (my occasional forays into Poetry Class notwithstanding!). And certainly in this book he's working in a long tradition - poets have made consistently interesting and often powerfully original literary critics through the centuries. Every time I pick up Forewards and Afterwards (or its companion volume, The Dyer's Hand), I reflexively feel the same little anticipatory thrill that goes through me when I pick up Johnson's Lives of the Poets or Doyle's Through the Magic Door or the literary chunk of Gore Vidal's United States (the same thrill I'd feel in spades if Henry Adams had ever got off his reedy ass and actually compiled the similar volume he promised friends for decades).

And I'm disappointed every time, because Auden is something of a moron. At least when it comes to writing hack-criticism on deadline. Especially when he's writing about subjects other than poetry, which happens often in this collection.

Every time, I go in wanting this book to be the classic it's so clearly not. I open it at random, hoping that this time the great insights will outweigh - or hell, even temporarily occlude - the boneheaded groaners. But then I come across something like this:

It is not often that knowledge of an artist's life sheds any significant light upon his work ...


or this:

So far as I know, Goethe was the first writer or artist to become a Public Celebrity. There had always been poets, painters and composers who were known to and revered by their fellow artists, but the general public, however much it may have admired their works, would not have dreamed of wishing to make their personal acquaintance.

or this:

Others have been concerned with the corruptions of the big city, the ennui of the cultured mind; some sought a remedy in a return to Nature, to childhood, to Classical Antiquity; others looked forward to a brighter future of liberty, equality, and fraternity: they called on the powers of the subconscious, or prayed for the grace of God to inrupt and save their souls; they called on the oppressed to arise and save the world. In Kipling there is none of this, no nostalgia for a Golden Age, no belief in Progress.


And they just keep coming, like rocks hurled through a series of stained glass windows - not just contentious opinions (we're all entitled to those, after all) but weird-old-fart crank-ass assertions that wouldn't have made it past the second draft if they'd been written by some unknown freelancer churning out his thousand words to obtain his review copy. When Anthony Burgess writes book-essays like these (and I'm told he wrote about 100 times as many of them as Auden - or anybody else in the history of the world - ever did), he never fails to earn his supper: there's at least one memorable line in virtually every piece. But with Auden, most of what I come away remembering are the disasters, the crackpot stuff that isn't even worth arguing about.

Even when he tries for the more human tone of faux-humility (and it's always faux - the guy quotes from his own poetry during his reviews), it goes horribly awry:

Mr. Pope-Hennessey is probably the only person now living who has read all of Trollope's sixty-five books, the majority of which are in two or three volumes, and he devotes a good many pages to describing and assessing the little-known ones. For this I am most grateful to him. Like everybody who reads Trollope at all, I have read the Barchester novels and several others, but I had never even heart of He Knew He Was Right, which Mr. Pope-Hennessey thinks one of the best, and what he says about it makes me eager to read it at the first opportunity.


Yeesh. Confession may be good for the soul, but confessing (with such smug subdued pride - "As soon as I manage a spare moment, I'll straightaway ring up my lending library and ask them if they have this fascinating-sounding book I've just learned about") that you've never even heard of He Knew He Was Right - in the middle of writing about a Trollope biography - doesn't endear you to your readers ... it completely annihilates their faith in you.

At one point Auden proclaims, "No critic, however pontifical his tone, is really attempting to lay down eternal truths about art ..." Forewards and Afterwards would be a Hell of a better book if he'd really believed that, instead of trying to preach to his cake and eat it too. As it is, I don't really know why I keep going back to this wreck, this folly out in the yard. I just keep hoping it'll be better than I know it is. So come to think about it, maybe it's a good thing Adams never wrote his book ....

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Comics: Several Blasts from the Past!


It was like stepping into a time machine last week at the comic shop (and not just any comic shop - the great Comicopia in Boston, which sports not one but two stunning rarities for comic shops: the owner is a comics-biz nerd who's actually interesting to talk to, and the staff is largely comprised of really smart, really funny young women who are all also gorgeous)(if you're in the neighborhood, feel free to stop in, chat, and ogle!)(and buy something, of course...): everything old is new again.

Well, not everything - the Legion of Super-Heroes is still frelled up. But at least three things are!

First: the New Mutants. This one harks back to the early 80s, when Chris Claremont and excruciatingly static artist Bob McCleod created a weirdly-sized, oddly-bound oddity called a graphic novel (it was like the third one every published - who knew it would catch on?) starring a younger generation of mutants, some 'gifted youngsters' to fill out the ranks of Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters mutant training-facility. At the time, of course, I intensely disliked this idea (as indeed I intensely disliked Claremont's all-new all-different additions to the core X-Men team shortly before this): at the time, I wanted everything Marvel comics to remain entirely static in terms of time - no babies for the Fantastic Four, no high school graduation for Peter Parker, and likewise no graduation for the original X-Men. But Claremont envisioned a comic about a group of freshly-recruited young mutants who Xavier never intends to forge into a crime-fighting super-team; they're only at Xavier's to learn how to control their powers.

The new team had one thing in common with the old team: both were seriously weak-ass in the super-powers department. There was Cannonball, who could blast off like a rocket but couldn't control his flight path; there was Sunspot, who could absorb sunlight to increase his physical strength - for about five minutes, then he fainted; there was Wolfsbane, who could turn into a wolf (not a werewolf, just a big dog); there was Mirage, who could create images of people's worst fears (but since they could see that's what she was doing, welllll...); and there was Karma, who could possess the mind of another person (but only one person at a time, and she herself is just standing there like an archery target the whole time). Clearly, Claremont drew these limitations intentionally, to enhance the drama - but it mainly ended up enhancing the boredom, and within the first year of the resulting series two things happened: the kids' powers were slightly increased, and new members were added. There was Doug Ramsey, who could instantly translate any language (and whose floppy hair and combat inefficiency translated into "gay" about ten years before any other mutant came out of the closet); there was Warlock, a annoying techno-organic lifeform from space; there was Magma, a girl from a hidden ancient Roman civilization (...) who could kinda-sorta channel molten magma into molten magma-blasts, and there was Magik, who could teleport and act creepy.


Distinctly underwhelming adventures followed, and eventually other writers broke up the team and messed around with the characters (Cannonball gained control of his flight, Wolfsbane learned to turn into a bad-ass werewolf, Mirage got adopted by some Norse Valkyries .... you know, normal comics stuff). And now, after twenty five years (yeesh), Marvel brings the original band of characters back together in the new first issue of New Mutants.

And it's still underwhelming! Writer Zeb Wells does a solid enough job, gets in a few good lines, but there's nothing arresting here, and he's certainly not done any favors by the artwork - it's distinctly journeyman stuff, even though the artist - Diogenes Neyes - has the single coolest artist name imaginable.

The problem here is the same one that plagues the entire X-Men continuity: too much damn water has gone under the damn bridge. If this were a re-telling of the team's original adventures, a good writer could mine all the potential Claremont studiously ignored, but an almost un-synopsizable amount of stuff has happened to each of these characters in the intervening quarter-century, and this book tries to have it both ways, giving us a simple team-reunion ... but with the adult versions of all the characters. Either one of those things might work separately, but they can't possibly work together. Fortunately, this wasn't Marvel's only recent attempt at delving its own past! There was also:


Tales from Asgard - no doubt spurred by the recent sales success of the relaunched Thor (just follow the tags, everybody! that's why they're there!), Marvel here reprints the one-shot "Tales of Asgard" collection from 1964 - but oh! what a reprint job! The colors and textures of Jack Kirby's original artwork have been incredibly revivified - amplified, so that this is one reprint that's actually visually superior to its original material. I don't know how Marvel did it, but I'd sure as Hell like to see everything they've ever published revamped in this way.


The tales themselves are stirring, stupid stuff - basically Stan Lee retelling some of the greatest hits from Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of Asgard and throwing in a little Lord Dunsany along the way. There's humor, pathos, derring-do, and plenty of mythological mumbo-jumbo of the kind that had those of us who gave a crap forty years ago wondering why a Norse god of thunder would ever even bother to hang out with mortal heroes like the Avengers. No, it's the visual remastering that's the star of the show here, and it has that in common with our last item:

Nexus! We're back in the early '80s again for this one, a 'remastered' version of a remastered revamping of a character's stand-alone origin issue, which itself was issued a decade after the character's first appearance .... yes, a bit confusing - as is pretty much everything about Mike Baron and Steve Rude's signature and beguiling creation, Nexus, executioner of mass murderers.


This is Nexus' origin story, and it was originally issued in 1992 on good-quality paper with high-definition color (the collaborating creators even go so far as to use the front cover of that issue as the back cover of this issue), which started me wondering why it would need to be re-re-issued in 2009. Granted, it has a new cover (although not that new - it's a mirror-reverse image of a Nexus comic book cover from way before 1992)(go figure) and a few digital brush-strokes of new color or definition on the inside artwork ... but hardly enough to justify this issue, which means something else must be justifying this issue.


Aside from its convenience as a tie-in to the ongoing (and somewhat pricey) series of hardcover Nexus reprints, it's not hard to see what that justification is: Mike Baron and Steve Rude must on some level realize that they're not two strapping lads from Madison, Wisconsin anymore, and that Nexus and the wonderfully fertile mythology they built up around him ("Great Goulessarian!") are almost certainly their claim to comics immortality. That both of them see this is reflected in this constant returning to and fussing with their epic creation; that both of them resist it is reflected in the consistency with which they refuse to simply buckle down and regularly produce new Nexus material (for obvious reasons, we'll call this the Mike Mignola Syndrome).

In any case, though, it's a treat to revisit this great story about a man who's given tormenting dreams of mass murderers - and who's given the vast cosmic power necessary to bring them to final justice. And since Steve Rude's artwork is some the best in all comics history, even a marginal improvement in what was already top-notch color reproduction is sufficient excuse to pour over every electrifying page.

All trips down comic book memory lane should be so much fun! Atari Force, anyone?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Troilus and Criseyde!


Our book today is Geoffrey Chaucer's 1380s masterpiece, the magnificent long poem Troilus and Criseyde. The semi-mythical 'common reader' of today will not have read this great book, although that same reader will almost certainly have been forced to read segments of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales at some point in school. Unlike that reading-list book, Troilus and Criseyde is complete right down to the last fine detail.

It's odd that young people don't read this book, because it's one of the most moving (and unsparingly accurate) depictions of what it's like to be young and passionately, hopelessly tormented by love. While he was composing the poem, Chaucer's life was crowded to the rafters with responsibilities - he was a fixture at Court, Comptroller of Petty Customs (a silly-sounding name to us now, but oh, the money that flowed past your fingertips when you held such a post), Justice of the Peace for Kent, member of Parliament for Kent ... most men in such dizzying demand barely had time to bolt down a bit of cold mutton every day, but Chaucer had the knack for work. It was a refuge for him, a welcome that greeted him every time he closed his study door. People who embrace their writing rather than fight it often find themselves feeling this way; Chaucer wasn't the first to feel it (the Venerable Bede used to hum in sheer happiness when the writing was going well), and he had some pretty good external motivation - he was a favorite with the Court readers, especially the ladies (he'd been stunningly good-looking in his twenties and retained a lot of it even now, in his forties), and especially the queen.


(and just maybe, when he thought about the hectic pace of his life, he began to realize that he could never go back to the headstrong and happy love-stung antics of his teens and early twenties ... maybe that's exactly where Troilus and Criseyde comes from)

By the time he wrote Troilus and Criseyde, he'd been to Italy, absorbed the burgeoning literary scene there, and was quite openly chaffing at the traditional limitations of English letters. He was already a well-known author (for The Book of the Duchess) and translator (for his version of Roman de la Rose, among many other things), and he was impatient, as only people lit from inside by true writing talent can be. And so he looked to Homeric pastiche.

He didn't know it as that, of course; Homer was virtually unknown in the West at the time. Chaucer got his Troy materials from two slight but entertaining purportedly ancient accounts, one by Dares and one by Dictys (it's a shame Penguin hasn't seen fit to publish these in one fat volume with lots of notes - they could call it Chaucer's Homer and market it to schools - I'd buy one), plus a French poet named Benoit who wrote a long and boring Roman de Troye, plus a Sicilian writer named Guido who wrote another Historia Trojana. And then there was Chaucer's biggest source: Boccaccio, whose Il Filostrato is echoed everywhere in Troilus and Criseyde, often line for line.


Critics over the centuries have come up with lots of reasons why Chaucer never so much as mentions Boccaccio's name (and the omission doesn't just happen here - he uses Boccaccio just as heavily in The Canterbury Tales, also without a nod), but to my mind, the best summary of the state of affairs in Troilus and Criseyde comes from the great Chaucer scholar Don Howard:

When Boccaccio wrote Il Filostrato he was, we should remember, barely over twenty, an unknown poet in Naples, where he had been raised, trying to attract the attention of the Angevin court. Chaucer, on the other hand, had a courtly education and extensive exposure to courtly ways, and he understood the conventions of courtly culture quite well enough to see that Boccaccio had them wrong. This was probably why he never mentioned Boccaccio by name; there may have been other reasons, but this was reason enough.
Whatever the reason, Chaucer took that plump twenty-year-old's basic story, swirled it around in Dares and Dictys and Benoit and Guido, and then did what, reading him, you realize he so often did: made something stronger, more remarkable, and just plain better than all of it. Filostrato is a fairly conventional little evocation of courtly love; Troilus and Criseyde is a bursting, singing encyclopedia of humanity, the full realization of the character-heavy drama that's only hinted at in what we have of The Canterbury Tales, and the most thorough anatomy of love since Ovid finished his Ars amatoria. If you're reading along chronologically in Western literature, you eventually come across Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and suddenly realize it'd been 2000 years since the last time somebody wrote about actual people.

But here they are, in all their three-dimensional glory: there's pretty young Criseyde, even prettier young Troilus, and older, wiser Pandarus trying to bring them together in the midst of the Trojan War. The young lovers aren't the brightest bulbs in the chandelier (although Troilus is smart enough to care how convincingly he acts smitten, and Criseyde is smart enough not to want anybody to know that she knows how pretty she is), but this is more than compensated for by the incredible invention that is Pandarus, a seasoned loser in love who's secretly so proud of being in a position to dispense love-wisdom that willfully blinds himself to the damage his advice is doing. The lovers flirt, agonize, meet, fornicate, sleep it off, fornicate lots and lots more (Chaucer had an audience to entertain, after all) - then they're parted, first by the politics of war and then, amazingly, by Criseyde's 'She's Just Not That Into You' change of heart when she decides to be infatuated with the Greek warrior Diomede instead.



(This last was such an enormous departure from the forms and expectations of courtly love - a woman deserting one passionate himbo for another! trading up to the winning side! scandalous! - that the ladies all pretended to be outraged, and the Queen 'ordered' the grinning poet to write an entire work on the worthiness of women, as an apology)

It's all spectacularly, subversively good, and it's almost heartbreaking that most modern-day readers would never dream of looking at it. With poets I can almost understand this (Pound wasn't the only one to dolorously acknowledge that the more you read Chaucer, the more you see how truly great he is), but what's everybody else's excuse?

Part of the problem is that Chaucer sits right on the translation divide: if you study a thin manual for a few weeks and squint a bit while you're turning the pages, you can read him today just as he put the words on the page eight hundred years ago - but it's an effort. And scholars and teachers, proud of their own efforts to master Chaucer's English, have perhaps too stubbornly insisted that everybody do the same work - often even to the point of preserving Chaucer's exact spelling and syntax, something we certainly don't do for Shakespeare, who wrote centuries later than Chaucer. It's confusing, and it can be frustrating for those of us who, while rejoicing in Chaucer's original form, very much want him to have modern readers.

Take a quick example, one of the many times we see into Troilus' private anguish over Criseyde:

Wher is myn owene lady lief and deere?
Wer is hire white brest? Wher is it, where?
Wher ben hire armes and hire eyen cleeere,
That yesternyght this tyme with me were?
Now may I wepe allone many a teere,
And graspe aboute I may, but in this place,
Save a pilowe, I fynde naught t'enbrace.

(and that's a fairly painless choice, needing, as it does, virtually no trots on vocabulary)

That halts a modern reader right to the point of dropping the book altogether, or past that point - and so needlessly! With all due apologies to those professors and poetical sticklers, fully four-fifths of the fourteenth century anachronisms so lovingly preserved in that passage - and all through Troilus and Criseyde - preserve absolutely nothing worth preserving at the cost of even one potential reader, much less almost all of them.

Modern 'translations' often aren't much help either. Take the one by Philip Krapp from 1932:

O where is now my lovely lady dear?
Where are her breasts so white, O where, O where?
Where are her arms and where her eyes so clear,
Which yesternight were solace to my care?
Now I must weep alone in dark despair,
And blindly grope, but nothing in this place,
Except a pillow, find I to embrace!


Yeesh. And the estimable Neville Coghill's 1971 version isn't much better:

Where is my own, my lady loved and dear?
And where is her white breast? Where is it? Where?
Where are her arms? And where her eyes so clear,
That this time yesternight were with me here?
Now I may weep alone, full many a tear!
And wildly grasp about, but in her place
I only find a pillow to embrace.
You see the problem. In attempting to bring Chaucer alive to modern readers, both Krapp and Coghill mostly manage to hit him in the head with their shovels and then proceed to bury his still-twitching corpse. The solution is as simple to see as it is to obtain: what's needed is for a first-rate poet to simply and clearly comb Chaucer's diction into modernity, without getting in his way with where, O where's and the like. Even through the antique spellings, you can see immediately from that first excerpt that Chaucer was exulting in a rhythm his later adapters either don't hear or can't figure out how to match; we can only hope somebody will come along who hears and understands.

I hope it happens soon, because every year fewer and fewer passionate young people - who would learn from and love Troilus and Criseyde more than anybody - bother to read it. When I tell such young people that their various school educations have given them no real idea of the strange, vital, utterly living things the 'classics' of Western literature are, Troilus and Criseyde is always on the shortlist of such classics I have in mind. I just re-read it yesternight.

Miracle on the Hudson in the Penny Press!

My dim and distant understanding is that disgraced avatar of evil Bernie Madoff committed the heinous crime of bilking lots of stupid, greedy people out of negligible portions of their disposable incomes - a swindler, and old-fashioned card-sharp assuring his victims that the pea was, indeed, under the third cup.

If this is the case, then his crimes continue in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, where Mark Seal's headline-grabbing article about the downfall of this Lil' Satan will be the only reason most people buy the issue in the first place and the only thing they read in it. That's a first-class swindle right there, because the Seals article, though impeccably researched, is a snoozer (since Madoff's crimes almost by definition hurt only the willing, they lack any semblance of pathos and therefore any semblance of interest). Likewise the cover article about Jessica Simpson, which did more to shake my faith in that actress' native canniness than anything I've ever read. No, the real treat of the issue comes from an extremely reliable source: William Langewiesche writing about all things concerning aviation. This is an absolutely scintillating body of specialized work Lang is amassing, and in this issue he looks at the latest piece of aviation history to splash, quite literally, across the headlines: the "Miracle on the Hudson" water-landing of US Airways Flight 1549 last January.

The "Miracle on the Hudson" had everything a picture-perfect drama needs, except a villain (would it have killed one of the passengers to take a swing at one of the crew?) - it sure as Hell had a hero: Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who took control of the plane immediately after it swallowed some fat Canadian geese the wrong way and lost its engines.

In an instant, Sullenberger had no power - and almost no options, since the two airports that might have been within range of his craft were also deeply embedded in cities, thereby giving no margin for error whatsoever. Since the entire length of this drama extends only a few minutes, mighty fast thinking was in order, and as usual, Lang is superb at riveting his readers' attention:

Sullenberger could see La Guardia to the left side. Like all pilots he was experienced at visually projecting flight paths, even around corners, and particularly in descents. It was not obvious that if he turned directly toward the airport he would undershoot the runway.


But the point here isn't technical range, it's possible consequences, as Lang makes clear:

Even if it had been shown in simulation that Sullenberger could in theory have glided to La Guardia, in practice the approach would have been a very close thing, a crapshoot in a place were undershooting the runway by 20 feet would be like undershooting it by a mile. Once you committed toward La Guardia, you either had luck on your side or you died.


Lang has a broad range of excellent writer talents, but his best is the ability to step back a bit from the story he's narrating and comment on the bigger picture. He does this regularly in every piece, and it has the odd double effect of both allowing the reader a chance to breathe and of ratcheting up the tension of the narrative. At this point he pauses to remind his readers of the stark realities of flying planes, and I can just picture pilots all across the country nodding quietly as they read:

At some point as you climb down from the most desirable destinations, you stop thinking about hotels, stop thinking much even about the airplane, and shift your focus to survival. At that point life becomes very simple. The first rule is to avoid losing control. The second is to avoid hitting brick walls. The third and final rule is to keep "flying" the airplane even as it is sliding and disintegrating around you in the water or on the ground. You fly it until it stops, and then you evacuate.

And in addition to providing us with a gripping narrative of what happened that day in January, Lang also fills in the background on the incident's unsung hero: the Airbus A320 Captain Sullenberger was piloting that day. In an intentionally-chosen discordant note to the symphony of praise being played for Sullenberger (whom he nevertheless praises), Lang comments that in this case as in so many cases, the worker is only as good as his tools:

Suffice it to say that if Sullenberger had done nothing after the loss of thrust the airplane would have smoothly slowed down until reaching a certain angle with the airflow, at which point it would have lowered its nose to keep the wings from stalling, and would have done this even if for some reason Sullenberger had resisted. Of course, Sullenberger did no such thing.

It's a splendid article, as all Langewiesche's are - I eagerly look forward to the next collection he publishes of these superb aviation pieces (his first one, Inside the Sky, is very much worth hunting down). I think it's obvious that air travel will no longer be possible in at most a hundred years, after which its whole era will at least have its Melville in this great writer.

Poetry Class!




Every sunrise, even strangers' eyes.
Not necessarily swans, even crows,
even the falling fusillade of bats.
That place where the creek goes underground,
how many weeks before I see you again?
Stacks of books, every page, characters'
rages and poets' strange contraptions
of syntax and song, every song
even when there isn't one.
Every thistle, splinter, butterfly
over the drainage ditches. Every stray.
Did you see the meteor shower?
Did it feel like something swallowed?
Every question, conversation
even with almost nothing, cricket, cloud,
because of you I'm talking to crickets, clouds,
confiding in a cat. Everyone says,
Come to your senses, and I do, of you,
every smell, even burning sugar, every
cry and laugh. Toothpicked samples
at the farmers' market, every melon,
plum, I come undone, undone.

"Delphiniums in a Window Box" by Dean Young

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Storm of the Century!


Our book today started life as a screenplay for a long TV movie, 1999's Storm of the Century by none other than Stephen King, and it raises several fascinating questions, the foremost being: under what conditions can a bad writer produce good work?

In the realm of pure theory, of course, there are no such circumstances - a bad writer is a bad writer because he's not a good writer, and circumstances don't enter into it one way or the other. But the blogosphere, thank gawd, has little to do with pure theory and is all about contingent reality, and the simple truth is, Storm of the Century is a good book because Stephen King wasn't always a bad writer. There are stretches in Different Seasons that any comic writer could be proud of, for instance, and Salem's Lot is a fine, if verbose, vampire novel. That kernel of talent has to be there before an author can return to it, which raises the question of circumstances again.

Clearly, the key is control. Stephen King is the most popular, best-selling author of the 20th century, and once he started to become that (around It? The Dark Half, certainly?), he slipped the surly bonds of editorial control. He might continue to talk about having editors and publishers as friends, but nobody at that stage in a popular writer's career can say in any meaningful way "this part doesn't work," and all writers absolutely need that, or they become self-indulgent, self-referential, and self-absorbed.

This happened in spades to King (a tip-off for those of you searching his books: if an author has his characters refer to him as an author of popular books, that author has Left the Path and might not ever find his way back), and the underpinnings of it were certainly true in the genesis of Storm of the Century, which King only had to pitch to ABC in the roughest outline before the network rolled over like a sleepy kitten and gave him the kind of creative latitude most screenwriters only dream of. But the resulting work is indeed hugely more controlled than the piles of blathering wet-wash King produces in book-form these days, and the reason is simple: the format imposed it.

This is a screenplay, after all, not a novel. The action is carried almost entirely by dialogue, and King has a pretty good ear for dialogue. And dialogue is necessarily spoken by characters, which drastically limits the extent to which the author can interject his own navel-gazing into the proceedings. As a result, Storm of the Century is ironically both typically Stephen King in its preoccupations and refreshingly Stephen King-free in its presentation.

The setting is familiar: Little Tall Island, a small community of intertwined local families off the coast of Maine. Toward this community two unusual phenomena are headed with ominous intensity: the eponymous storm, a gigantic snow-system that threatens to shut down the island's power and totally cut it off from the mainland for a few days at least, and a mysterious man named Andre Linoge who carries a decorative cane and seems to know every dark secret the residents of Little Tall have.


Fans of King's work will expect automatically that there are plenty of such secrets, and this is right: it seems like everybody on Little Tall - from Robbie Beals, the prickly town manager, to Mike Anderson, the valiant, overwhelmed town constable, to all the other men and women gathering close in the face of the storm - harbors some dark revelation they haven't told anyone.

Linoge knows all these secrets, and he's free with his knowledge from the start, as when he taunts Robbie Beals with a shame from his past:

LINOGE:

You were with a whore in Boston when your mother died in Machias. Ma was in that crappy nursing home they closed down last fall, the one where they found rats in the pantry, right? She choked to death calling your name. Isn't that sweet? Other than a good slice of processed yellow cheese, there's nothing on earth like a mother's love!


Mike Anderson and his deputy find Linoge sitting calmly in the house of an old woman he's bludgeoned to death, and they take him to the makeshift holding cell that is all Little Tall has in the way of a prison. The temporary nature of the accommodations is put under immediate intolerable stress by the onset of the storm, which is like a living character in the story (King regularly intercuts the early action with television weather forecasts predicting the size and ferocity of this behemoth bearing down on the Maine coast). The storm quickly isolates the townspeople and concentrates the action of the story, as Linoge keeps saying, "Give me what I want, and I'll go away."

It's almost immediately obvious that Linoge isn't human - instead, he's a King archetype: the tester, the supernatural agent who puts pressure on the personal fault lines of ordinary people until they crack wide open (think of King's masterful portrait of Leland Gaunt, the tester in Needful Things). One of the most consistently enjoyable little aspects of King's testers is the element of completely idiosyncratic amusement they take in watching the havoc they cause, and in this Andre Linoge ("I Am Legion," naturally) is no exception. But what he wants from the people of Little Tall is no laughing matter. His request could not be more grave (he chooses Little Tall because island people pull together in emergencies - and know how to keep secrets), as he gradually reveals to the assembled townsfolk:


LINOGE:

By the standards of your mayfly existences, I have long to live yet - I'll still be walking the earth when all but the freshest and newest among you ... Davey Hopewell, perhaps, or young Don Beals ...

We INTERCUT SHOTS of DAVEY with his parents and DON sleeping on his cot.

LINOGE (continues):

... have gone to your graves. But in terms of my own existence, time has grown short. You ask me what I want?

Interior: MIKE and MOLLY ANDERSON.

MIKE already knows, and his face is filling with HORROR and FURIOUS PROTEST. When he begins speaking, his voice rising from a WHISPER TO A SCREAM, MOLLY seizes his wrist ...

MIKE:

No, no, no, no ...

LINOGE (ignores MIKE):

I want someone to raise and teach; someone to whom I can pass on all that I have learned and all I know; I want someone who will carry on my work when I can no longer do it myself.

Interior: MIKE.

He rises to his feet, dragging MOLLY with him.

MIKE:

No! No! Never!

Interior: LINOGE.

LINOGE (ignores MIKE):

I want a child. One of the eight sleeping back there. It doesn't matter which one: all are just as likely in my eyes. Give me what I want - give it freely - and I'll go away.



King's novels may be bloated and unfocused these days (I keep expecting - and yes, hoping - that if nothing else, simple advancing age will prompt him to sharpen and deepen what he does every season), but I'll always hold up Storm of the Century as a good example of what his art looks like when he's in more or less perfect control of it. There are no explicit villains in the piece ... even bellicose Robbie Beals is too fully realized to be hissable, and Linoge himself is ultimately more strange and unaccountable than outright evil. As a reading experience, Storm of the Century is, believe it or not, well worth your time.

And of course I could hardly be expected to let an entry like this conclude without saying something about that long TV movie, could I? Put simply, it's fantastic, easily the most textured and worthwhile filmed product King has ever created. The redoubtable Tim Daly gives Mike Anderson an appealing vulnerability, Jeffrey DeMunn makes Robbie Beals completely three-dimensional, erstwhile dreamboat white rapper Jeremy Jordan displays the glimmers of genuine talent that were shortly afterwards flattened by drug addiction, and of course the mighty Colm Feore (so good and yet so miscast in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and so great as the semi-human villain in The Chronicles of Riddick) is utterly arresting as Andre Linoge, even though the role doesn't have all that much meat on its bones. He knocks the part out of the park, just as Max Von Sydow did for Leland Gaunt. It's probably great fun to be a tester!

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Vintner's Luck


Our book today is Elizabeth Knox's 1998 novel The Vintner's Luck about Sobran Jodeau, a half-drunk young vintner in 19th century Burgundy who stumbles along a country path one night and encounters an angel taking in the night air. The two begin talking, and shortly they arrive at an arrangement: they will meet once a year on that night, share some wine, and talk.

The novel that Knox spins from such almost disappointingly cliche underpinnings is fast and powerful and unexpectedly sensuous and entirely wonderful. This is no sappy angel-book; this particular Heavenly creature, though beautiful and at times oddly innocent, is both winterishly alien and deeply passionate, and Sobran himself is no doe-eye pious pilgrim but a full-blooded chance-taker who's certainly not incapable of being a jerk to those he loves. And Sobran is naturally curious about this strange being to whom he has annual access - a curiosity initially aroused by the many ways the angel's reality collides with Sobran's preconceived Sunday School ideas of what angels are and do, as when he learns that 'his' angel likes to collect roses:

"You're a botanist?" Sobran gazed at the angel in amazement. A collection of roses seemed such an ordinary thing, like the passion of a country priest. "Aren't all flowers to be found in Heaven?"

"Everyone's a theologian," the angel said, droll. Then: "All things thrive in Heaven, so are unlike their earthly selves. Anyone who hoped to grow earthly roses in Heaven would be obliged to keep fetching fresh specimens." The angel touched the young man's face, where ice had gnawed the flesh. His touch was firm, like a physicians, and his fingertips were evenly upholstered by resilient calluses, like the pads on a cat's paw. The angel was thoughtful. "When are you truest, a perfect Sobran Jodeau? Is every scar or sign of age a departure? How would I recognize you, thriving in Heaven?" He withdrew his hand.

"Tell me your name."

"Why? I'm the only angel you're likely to meet in your lifetime. In your thoughts 'my angel'."

"Is it a secret?"

"No. My name is Xas. Like spit and vinegar - sass. X-a-s. I'm of the lowest of the nine orders. Unmentioned in Scripture or Apocrypha."

Knox's writing is by turns meticulously detailed and quietly lyrical, and she never shies away from the obvious homoerotic undertones implicit in her recurring tableau. When Sobran learns that Xas also spends time conversing with another human, a woman in Damascus, he's nettled and not a little jealous:

Sobran looked away from Xas. He put out his hand to crush a black cricket - only to hear, once its voice was silenced, how many there were, singing among his vines. "I hadn't imagined that you were so incautious or full of talk."

"You think I confine myself to collecting roses and one friend a century - the sad disciplines of a domesticated immortal?"

"I imagined you spent the balance of your time with other immortals."

Xas made a soft noise of affirmation, then said, "I'm at my leisure. With my time, what would you do?"

"I'd do good," Sobran said.

The angel was silent for a moment, then asked, "Haven't I done you good?"

The blood rushing to Sobran's head seemed to close a valve in the top of his skull; it shut out a coldness. He moved closer to the angel and, without looking into Xas's face, put a hand on his bare forearm. "Forgive me. I'm only jealous."

"I know."

Sobran moved his grip and took Xas's hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed. "You're my beloved friend," he said.

This abrupt submission appeared to trouble the angel. He removed his hand from Sobran's and thanked him - then, putting things back on a firmer footing, asked, as usual, for the news.

The story follows Sobran's life through its loves and losses, through the prosperity and vicissitudes of the vineyard and the unfolding century, almost always faithfully punctuated by his annual visits with the angel - until, that is, the angel, tempted by the immediacy of mortality, undergoes some changes of his own. Even so, the story's end finds a very old and very sick Sobran once again in the company of his angel, not knowing how much of a farewell death represents to such a strange pair of friends:

He closed his eyes. The bones in his neck were wax, melting, his head settled like a flower on a withered stalk, his throat began to occlude itself, never mind the thick liquids that crept up it from his lungs. He felt a hand on his mouth. They made a mirror, hand to mouth, and for a moment weren't anywhere particular in their lives, but were together.

Sobran roused himself one last time. He was exhausted, but love was never finished, it had its rights, it had the right of prophecy. He said, "I'll see you on the day beyond days." For a long second, like the shock of falling, he waited for the answer he deserved, the aspiration of "yes" on his fingertips.

The Vintner's Luck has never been widely available - you won't find it piled yea-high in the back shelves of your local giant retail mega-store. But it's an intense and odd novel that repays re-reading (I bought my first copy in 1999 in just such a mega-store in downtown Boston and found my second, reminding copy on a rainy night at the Strand in Manhattan), and it's worth tracking down. Because it's ultimately about the unaccountability of love, and so it will fascinate anybody who's ever been brave enough to risk that very thing.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Train Wrecks Possibly Avoided in the Penny Press!


Naturally, like all the rest of the blogosphere, I can't resist commenting on the Zac Efron article in the latest GQ, if only to weigh in on one of the foremost questions other bloggers have had: what's with the cover photo? Not only have many posters commented on the eerie similarity between that shot of teen heartthrob Efron and Steve Carrell from the movie poster of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," but almost everybody has wondered about the proportions of the photo - surely, they've said, something about the shot is Photoshopped? It just doesn't look right.

Such doubters are reckoning without two things: first, Efron is eensy-weensy. He's not what those of us In the Know refer to as Kennen-sized, but he's not far off: five feet tall in his argyle socks, and tipping the scales at barely 100 pounds. And second, every single day he puts roughly 2 pounds of polychemicalized gunk in his hair, causing it to attain the size and molecular consistency of a second head. When you combine these two things with the fact that Efron is apparently deeply lost in the current ridiculous fashion of skinny clothing - not just jeans but suits as well - you see at once that the cover photo need not be doctored: it's entirely possible for Efron to look that epicene naturally.


Ah, but the real pith isn't in the photos, despite how many gay computer monitors now sport that hanging-from-the-parking-meter shot as their background! No, the real merit is the article (made of boring old words) that accompanies the pictures. "The Graduate" is by the always comment-worthy Alex Pappedemas, and it's consistently, gloriously better than its material.

That material is incredibly skimpy. Not only does it seem like Pappedemas got very little time with with his superstar subject (one brief hike in the Hollywood Hills, one brief drive to one brief lunch on an outdoor deck)(both of which combine to assert one big omission, of course - if your reedy little star is first hiking outside and then, despite oft-voiced anxieties over intrusive paparazzi, lunching outside, the reason is because your reedy little star regularly needs to smoke, which can't be done indoors in California these days; there's no mention of this in the article because, almost certainly, the reedy little star - or his handlers - asked that there not be)(similar omissions were regularly made on Justin Timberlake's behalf, back when he was Zac Efron), but all during that time, the portcullis is firmly locked in the 'down' position. This isn't just the result of a studio ordering its breakout star not to set tongues wagging - it's also genetic at this point, since Efron has been conditioned by Disney since he was a fetus. The Mouse's control of the Dark Side makes Palpatine look like a piker.


So Pappedemas has an interview with the hottest young male star on the planet, and he knows before he starts that he's not going to get much in the way of meaningful dialogue, although Pappedemas can be such a good interviewer - and, you get the impression, such a personable guy - that he gets more than you expect and turns it out nicely:

When Efron talks about these guys [Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, believe it or not], or when he talks about meeting DeNiro and how all the "dedication and hard work" DeNiro had put into all those great roles was written in the lines of DeNiro's face, or when he talks about how the movies of the '70s were better because they didn't test-market everything, you get the feeling he just wants to say the right thing. That he wants to make sure we know that everything he's done up until now - the basic-cable ratings record set by the second High School Musical TV movie, his decision to take a smallish role in Hairspray that winked charmingly at his own decidedly retro teen-idol persona, even his leap into the world of PG-13 movies with the winningly goofy old-dude-becomes-young-dude comedy 17 Again - means exactly jack, cinematically. That at least for now, he does not yet have the kind of history a man can hang in a barn.


To his credit, Efron throughout the interview seems wary not only of interviews themselves (Pappademas must be GQ's go-to guy for this kind of assignment)(either that, or he knows where all the bodies are buried) but of the easy way he could lose everything he has. Pappademas is very good on some of the raw variables that come into play:

You can tell this is what got him here, what drove him through the endless basketball drills and dance rehearsals High School Musical required - this sense that the work was a challenge and that the challenge was necessary. Sure, he's cute as a damn button - but he's pushed himself this far with the iron will of a mathlete bent on crushing his crosstown rivals. Whether this is going to be enough to get him into better films - as opposed to just bigger ones, which will undoubtedly come - remains to be seen. Better films demand certain intangibles, stuff an actor can't necessarily pull out of himself by buckling down and studying hard. He could smack the ceiling of his talent and that'll be that. But it won't be for lack of drive.

Other things we learn about the teen heart-throb in the course of the interview? He's got a potty mouth (rule of thumb: if sixteen "fuck"s got onto the printed page, sixteen thousand were uttered into the L.A. air), he respects his parents, and he's never worn false eyelashes. And he's not much more satisfied with the shape of his career thus far than anybody else. Here's hoping Pappademas is still interested in interviewing him in another ten years.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Lonesome Dove!


Our book today is Larry McMurtry's 1985 masterpiece Lonesome Dove, his epic story of two retired Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, leading a cattle-drive from their flyspeck home of Lonesome Dove, Texas, to the wilds of the Montana territory. The two men are vividly different characters - Call driven and taciturn, McCrae footloose and talkative - united only by the fact that they're more capable than most of the people around them, better shots, cooler under fire, more resourceful (they're also old friends - Lonesome Dove examines the dynamics of male friendship better than almost any book I know). They gather a ragtag group of cowboys and hangers-on - plus a couple of their old colleagues from their Ranger days - and launch their drive on nothing much more than the report of good grazing land up north.

There's a wide array of sub-and-counterplots to that main one: Jake Spoon, another shiftless ex-Ranger colleague of Call and McCrae's, is as weak as they are strong and comes to no good; Clara, the love of McCrae's life, has a life of her own now out on the prairie; Sheriff July Johnson, a good man caught up in grinding circumstances, loses everything; Lorena, a kind-hearted whore from Lonesome Dove, travels with the expedition in hopes of finding a better life; and Blue Duck, a ruthless Comanchero bandit, finds himself almost as adrift in the modern world as Call and McCrae. Dozens more characters fill up this long and indelibly fantastic novel, and each one is fully realized in brush-strokes of very minimal fussiness.

But it's the core group of impromptu cattle-drivers who command the center stage, and their journey, like that of the Pequod in Moby Dick, is the essence of the book (there's a small mountain of undergrad term papers to be written comparing Lonesome Dove with Moby Dick; I'm inclined to think McMurtry planned half those similarities from the start). We follow them through bear and snake attacks, through Indian trouble and thunderstorms and hail. In one magnificent scene, the gigantic bull who leads the cattle herd faces off against a grizzly bear, and in another, tenser scene, Call and McCrae an ironic menace - the United States Army:

The leader of the troop was a small man with a gray mustache, who wore a Captain's bars. He seemed irritated at the sight of the herd. It was soon plain that he was drunk.

Beside him rode a large man in greasy buckskins, clearly a scout. He was bearded and had a wad of tobacco in his jaw.

"I'm Captain Weaver and this is Dixon, our scout," the Captain said. "Where the hell do you men think you're taking these cattle?"

"We thought we were headed for Montana," Augustus said lightly. "Where are we, Illinois?"

Call was irritated with Gus. He would make a joke.

"No, but you'll wish you were if Red Cloud finds you," Captain Weaver said. "You're in the middle of an Indian war, that's where you are."

"Why in hell would anybody think they wanted to take cattle to Montana?" Dixon, the scout, said. He had an insolent look.

"We thought it would be a good place to sit back and watch 'em shit," Augustus said. Insolence was apt to bring out the comic in him, as Call knew all too well.

"We've heard there are wonderful pastures in Montana," Call said, hoping to correct the bad impression Gus was giving.

"There may be, but you cowpokes won't live to see them," Dixon said.

"Oh well," Augustus said. "We wasn't always cowpokes. We put in some twenty years fighting Comanches in the state of Texas. Don't these Indians up here fall off their horses like other Indians when you put a bullet or two in them?"

"Some do and some just keep coming," Captain Weaver said. "I didn't come over here to talk all morning. Have you men seen any sign?"

"Our scout didn't mention any," Call said, waving to Deets.

"Oh, you've got a nigger for a scout," Dixon said. "No wonder you're lost."

"We ain't lost," Call said, annoyed suddenly. "And that black man could track you across the coals of hell."

"And bring you back on a pitchfork, if we asked him to," Augustus added.

"What makes you think you can say things like that to us?" Captain Weaver said, flushing with anger.

"Ain't it still a free country?" Augustus said. "Who asked you to ride up and insult our scout?"

Deets came loping up and Call asked him if he had seen any Indian sign.

"None between here and the river," Deets said.

A pale-looking young lieutenant suddenly spoke up.

"I thought they went east," he said.

"We went east," Weaver said. "Where do you think we've been the last week?"

"Maybe they went farther and faster," Augustus said. "Indians usually do. From the looks of those nags you're riding they could probably outrun you on foot."

"You're a damn impertinent man," Weaver said. "Those Indians killed a buffalo hunter and a woman, two days ago. Three weeks ago they wiped out a family southeast of here. If you see them, you'll wish you kept your damn beeves in Texas."

"Let's go," Call said, abruptly turning his horse.

"We need horses," Captain Weaver said. "Ours are about ridden down."

"Ain't that what I said that you thought was so impertinent?" Augustus remarked.

"I see you've got extras," Weaver said. "We'll take 'em. There's a man who sells horses west of Ogallala. You can buy some more there and send the Army a bill."

"No, thanks," Call said. "We like the ones we've got."

"I wasn't asking," Weaver said. "I'm requisitioning your horses."

Augustus laughed. Call didn't. He could see that the man was serious.

"We need 'em," Dixon said. "We've got to protect this frontier."

Augustus laughed again. "Who have you protected lately?" he asked. "All you've told us about are people you didn't protect."

Lonesome Dove is a disarmingly funny book, a thrilling book, an insightful and ultimately moving book (it's not a perfect book; certain words get repeated carelessly, and some of the subplots do meander). McMurtry has written things very nearly as good (stretches of The Last Picture Show and Buffalo Girls, for instance, and all of Moving On), but nothing to fully equal this - and certainly nothing to beat it. Moving On, for instance, is a great novel, as rich and real a book as you'll read in a year. But Lonesome Dove is the kind of book most authors (Tolstoy and Austen notwithstanding) only write once in a lifetime. Even if you think you don't like westerns, you should read it. It's big; reading it adds to you.