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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Friday, October 19, 2018

Outlaws, Inlaws, 7.

We still read in this house. Details follow.

From Outlaw Bible:
Excerpt from An Accidental Autobiography by Gregory Corso: A rambling letter from one of the less name-brand Beat writers on a skeptical article about Beat in Life magazine. The key ideas I take from this stream-of-conciousness rant are:

1.     Beat was a means to an end, and Corso regards it as a vessel to be abandoned, especially since Beat, as of December 1959, exists primarily to be misrepresented in Life magazine, and

2.     Nuclear weapons end war, which means "history is eliminated... we are immortal." Corso and Fukuyama sittin' in a tree....

From Rolling Thunder Logbook by Sam Shepard: If you or I hung out at Kerouac's grave with Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan we'd spend the rest of our lives being completely insufferable about it, but Sam Shepard chooses a different approach, describing the event with calm observational pellucidity.

On Dee Dee Ramone by Neil Ortenberg: On the other hand, Outlaw Bible of American Literature coeditor Neil Ortenberg used to totally hang with Dee Dee, the bassist for ovarian Punk band The Ramones, and he tells us about it.

Legend of a Rock Star by Dee Dee Ramone:  Dee Dee describes Germany, where he grew up, as if it were a stultifying small town he had to leave. "I made himself an American outlaw," and thereby an American icon. He enjoys an animistic mindset in which friendly dragons hover on the skyline, and shiny guitars are angels with which he must wrestle. I always looked at The Ramones, with their tough-guy demeanors and defiant songs, and assumed they were basically unhappy, but Dee Dee makes his life sound pretty blissful.

E.A.R.L. by DMX: Hit rapper/convict/church deacon DMX tells us how, despite having a family that encouraged him to live right, he became a junkie after the cops killed his dog. The pitfalls of ghetto life, and the shame of disappointing one's loved ones, is pungent. I wanna check out DMX’s rap, now, because he can tell a story with purpose.

From Calling the Wind:

Headwaiter by Chester Himes: I loved Himes' novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, a detective novel cum guided tour of Harlem that mocked both Marcus Garvey-styled flock-fleecing opportunists, and Southern Gentlemen who offer The Dignity of Work in the most condescending, exploitative fashion possible. Headwaiter is also a guided tour, this time of a classy hotel restaurant, from the perspective of a supremely keen headwaiter who knows, understands, and loves his customers, and, less obviously, his employees. It's tough love, though, and the challenge of running a tight, taut ship without becoming heartless gives the story a payoff beyond its hilarious observations about the human frailties of high-class people, although those observations would be enough.

 Bright and Morning Star by Richard Wright: No way. I read this in Best American Short Stories for my last installment, and I’m glad I read it once, but there's no way I'm putting myself through that grueling story twice.

Jack in the Pot by Dorothy West: A poor woman wins a bingo jackpot that has the potential to change life for her and her husband. It doesn't work out, because she's learned so many negative lessons from poverty (defer to bigger personalities, be dishonestly modest, don't do for yourself when a neighbor has a greater need) that her mind-forged manacles ruin everything. We also get a glimpse of a white social worker who inadvertently strikes terror into our hapless protagonist, but who’s equally mired in poverty. Like many stories in this anthology, this story is a sharp, persuasive rebuke to the bootstrap fetish enjoyed by so many Caucasian blowhards.

 From Dangerous Visions:

The Man Who Went to the Moon-Twice by Howard Rodman. A small boy in a rural town may or may not have ridden to the moon on a balloon, but his tale causes quite a stir, and everyone has a lovely time asking him questions and photographing him for the paper. Near the end of his life he does it again, but his tale is met with boredom by townies who lack that old-fashioned communal enthusiasm. Rodman was a TV writer from the Playhouse 90 days, and he evokes the city slicker's tribute to Real America that we remember from Mayberry. I’m happy to say that it doesn’t try to be a Dangerous Vision; merely a clear and whimsical one. Keeps the sentimentality in check, just. Bradberry without Bradberry; makes me wonder how many Route 66 scribes could have been huge in the sensitive sci-fi game if they'd bothered to try.

Faith of our Fathers by Phillip Dick. FINALLY. Dangerous Visions manages to come through with the really good stuff, ten stories in. A disaffected functionary of a totalitarian Communist future discovers that the Beloved Leader is actually a clanking, clattering glossolalia machine. And a gibbering aquatic horror. And a windstorm. And God. Movies have strip-mined Dick's paranoiac gnosticism, but who can say they've plumbed the depths of his scary wit? In this dystopia, Lear's fly-killing god runs the government, but the true horror of the situation is first revealed by the fact that people perform formal Japanese tea ceremonies with Lipton. That's the semiotic collision that marks the real Dick out from his imitators.

From Best American Short Stories:

The Hitch-Hikers by Eudora Welty: A handsome and good-hearted but prickly and lonely traveling salesman picks up a couple of hitch-hiking tramps, and one of them bludgeons the other in the salesman's car. This leaves our hero stranded in a small town while waiting to see if the victim will recover and the attacker will confess, and he ends up at a party with some people he vaguely knows. All the women want him, but he's distracted by the pointless assault and can't return serve to anyone’s flirtations. One young woman at the party may or may not be someone he knew last year at Marienbad, and our hero is chilled to realize that this event is unusual because his past and his present almost never fold together like that. On a continuum with the unmoored tramps at one end, and the bored but rooted townies at the other, he's suspended in the middle, or as Welty puts it: "He was free; helpless." 

It's an American libertarian dream redrafted as purgatory on earth. I'm making it sound like a downer, but it doesn't play that way, because Welty is one of the most inventively breezy (but in no way glib) storytellers I've ever encountered. The story bounces along like a good anime; characters are constantly leaping out of the last scene into the next, and subtle flourishes create a charmingly peppy vibe. A spoonful of sugar... Welty is a recognized Great American Writer, but she’d be as boringly acclaimed as Hemingway and Faulkner if she were male and less fun.

The Peach Stone by Paul Morgan: An infant has died in a fire, and her family, along with the local teacher, drive to the mother's birthplace to bury the child's remains. This also sounds in summary like an enormous downer, but it's not that simple. Most of the story is set in the car as we peek into each character's thoughts, where they’re circling around the central trauma to find a way of moving forward. The surviving sibling quietly implores his mother to look at him. The father laments his inability to control everything, and admits to himself that the fire wouldn't have happened if he's been responsible about fire hazards. The teacher is a Miniver Cheevy who believes that the only people who really matter are the martyrs she learned about in school, each of whom was beautiful, pure and virginal, just as the teacher aspires to be. And the mother is suspended in astonishment that the world flowing by the windows can still be so beautiful in the wake of such tragedy. By the end of the story it's the teacher who cries first, as her lifelong defense mechanism crumbles and she realizes that the tragedy of this child is urgent in a way that the martyrs no longer are. Mother comforts her, instead of the other way around. As for what the title means; you’ll just have to read the story to find out.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part 6.

I got sidetracked by a bookshelf relocation project that cast my books to the four corners, but now that the lost manuscripts are rediscovered and painstakingly reconstructed, I'm once more wending my solitary way through these short story anthologies, thusly:

From Dangerous Visions:

The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World by Harlan Ellison. RIP Harlan. As a youth I was fascinated by his most famous short story, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, but soon discovered that most of his work was like being cornered by a garrulous drunk. Also, for some reason, I read a whole book of his film reviews. He spent a lot of time whining that Gremlins was a bad movie on the grounds that its ad campaign was misleading (Bait: heartwarming. Switch: scary monsters.) Lots of parents' groups were unhappy about this at the time too, but hardly anyone talks about it now, so I suppose it didn't really traumatize that many tots.

This story, which is far less kid-friendly than Gremlins, is a sequel to the preceding Robert Bloch tale about Jack the Ripper gettin' transported to the far future. In that story, Jack's brand of from-the-heart viciousness trumps the decadent rich-girl cruelty of the future world's Murder Eloi. In this followup, Jack turns out to be pursuing a religious false-flag mission to raise awareness about the sufferings of the urban poor via committing spectacular crimes in urban poor territory. Meanwhile, Ellison pulls back to reveal that the future world has matters in hand, and is keeping Jack around for intense, immersive entertainment, much to Jack's humiliation. The future world's decadent pleasures and cruelties are presented with baroque, phantasmagorical imagination. 

Perhaps this story influenced Neil Gaiman's Sandman story arc about a serial-killer conference; that ended with the hero humiliating a bunch of smug murderers by revealing to them just how pathetic they were once their vainglorious narratives were stripped from them. 

The Night That All Time Broke Out by Brian W. Aldiss. Aldiss' critical history of science fiction literature, Billion Year Spree, includes a close comparison of the prose styles of Tolkien and Mervyn Peake that helped me understand how fully a prose style can color writing. On that basis, I expected more compelling prose from Mr. Aldiss, but this story reads as though it was manufactured too briskly for literary niceties. 

It concerns an all-too-stock suburban couple that runs afoul of the new household necessity, time gas. This gas has been discovered deep in the earth, and, in controlled quantities, allows you to re-experience the past. The immersiveness of this proves dangerous to one's sense of the now, and ultimately to one's very identity. Regression to earlier ages and stages is a risk, and once the time gas starts leaking, watch out. 

It's clever enough, and the effects of too much time regression are deployed with farcical results. The prose seems purloined from slick magazines of the mid-century, though, with banal characterizations and adverbs like mildew. Perhaps this says less about Aldiss' capabilities and more about the pressure of being a high-throughput writer for one's bread.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

The First Third by Neal Cassidy: A letter from Kerouac's muse that suggests just how much of Kerouac's from-the-hip/heart/groin writing style issues from Cassidy. A nasty, misogynistic account of a woman who has sex with Neal and is therefore a perfect woman, and a woman who refuses sex to Neal, and is therefore an evil monster. This sloped-brow broishness is presented with the high/low eloquence of a casually wrought, jazzy linguistic performance that might just be worth reading 2 pages of mean-spirited dick worship for. Or might not.

Off the Road by Carolyn Cassidy. Neal's wife suggests that her husband's proto-redpill rhetoric is empty bluster, and that he was a more sensitive and anxious man that his writing dared admit. She initiates a conflicted affair with Kerouac, who also comes off as more bashful than in his self-presentation. Despite her worries for the feelings of both men, Carolyn soon has a tentative upper hand in this Jules and Jim style relationship. That's one way to bring misogynists to heel.

Go by John Clellon Holmes. I never heard of this Holmes guy, but if you regard yourself as any (literary) variety of emo or goth, you might wanna check him out. An excerpt: 

"We said goodbye when we met the first secret time... We come together rarely and then like two infected lovers in some contagious ruin, we lie down together only so that we might die warm."

You like this or you don't. Later there's an examination of "coolness" in the 50s sense of the term that essentially describes the symptoms of either crippling depression or heroin addiction. It speculates that the pathology of coolness may break free of the circumstances of its inception and become communicable, a distressing speculation worthy of further literary exploration.

From Best American Short Stories:

Christmas Gift by Robert Penn Warren: Don't let the title fool you; This ain't no Hallmark movie. It's about a timid country boy from an unrewarding family situation who has to go into town to fetch a doctor on behalf of a pregnant sister. He meets a bunch of townfolk who mostly treat him with diffidence shading into restrained kindness, with the exception of one loser who subjects him to as much hazing as the other townies will stand for. The snow is dirty gray and mud-mixed.

The first time I read this I thought it was an utter bummer, probably because the title led me to expect at least a little cheer. A second reading revealed the subtle (almost concealed) kindnesses and austere beauty that I expect from Warren. An overlooked Christmas treat for the tough-love demographic. Share it with a miserable hillbilly child, along with some baked cinnamon apples, or a hand-rolled cigarette if you prefer to honor the text.

Bright and Morning Star by Richard Wright. A proud African-American Communist Party operative needs to figure out which honky-ass party members she can trust with her son's life, and which ones are going to get him lynched. Every character, black or white, talks in a thudding dialect that kept pumping the brakes on my effort to read this, but, like problematic fave H. P. Lovecraft, Wright's vision is so compelling and horrifying that it rewards those who power through the stumbling prose. As in Lovecraft, shrill racism and misanthropy roll together into a bolus of psychotic hatred, only here it's not the narrator who's racist, but his villains, labor-busting white degenerates. 

  Wright's angry dissection of racist evil is the reality-based flip side of Lovecraft, who was a passive and persnickety cohort of the racist thugs who bring this tale to a more grueling, protracted, horrifying conclusion than that of any "horror" story I've ever read. This story posits that serving the interests of the downtrodden will get you murdered, and the best you can do is stick to your values, never give in, and murder 'em back.

I really needed the next two stories to plug me back in to some hopefulness, and thankfully, they did.

From Calling The Wind:

Miss Cynthie by Rudolph Fisher: Miss Cynthie has left her small town for the first time and taken a train to New York City to visit her grandson David, but it soon becomes evident that David has a secret. Where does his wealth and fame come from? Is he a criminal?

Spoiler: he's a successful song-and-dance man, and he's secretive about it only because he knows that Miss Cynthie regards the theatre as the antithesis of church. She lets herself be dragged to a performance, and even though she's unhappy with the scanty costumes and show-biz razzmatazz, she's won over by her grandson's performance of a song she taught him in his youth. 

Country culture both resists and is appropriated by city culture, and traditional entertainment carries on in new forms. Wright's communist struggle gets nice old ladies and the young men in their lives killed, but Fisher's show-biz enriches similar nice old women and young men, bringing them together in the kind of cheer I wanted from that Christmas story.

The Gilded Six Bits, Zora Neal Hurston. A charmingly happy married couple almost lets their love get ruined by a cheezy roll-flashing Lothario. Hurston is absolutely persuasive about the love, the loss, and the reconciliation that brings this tale to an end as joyful as its beginning. Like Wright, she puts all the dialogue in dialect, but she makes it swing; the characters are practically singing and dancing through life. Hurston's prose becomes highflown and ornate to describe powerful emotion, which might seem like a creaky old-fashioned affectation from a less deft storyteller, but Hurston made me believe that her down-home characters' emotional lives deserved the intensity of such heavy-laden language.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the Fifth

I read em, I review em. Anthologized short stories, that is.

From Calling the Wind:

A Summer Tragedy by Arna Bontemps: An elderly African-American couple sets out on a trip that doesn’t end well. This ominously gentle story unspools the struggles they’ve had with health, poverty, and racism, and the ways they’ve tried to stay strong and proud through it all. The ending is a warning about what happens when you (particularly white society and/or employers) thwart people (particularly Black and/or working people) too much for too long. 
I realize that I’ve made this sound like a big downer. It is a big downer. Life is a big downer for some people who deserve better, and that’s the subject of the story.

Truant by Claude McKay: A married man who works in the dining car on a passenger train, and has always been reliable in that position, plays hooky one time and finds out that the consequences for this naughtiness are way more intense than the consequences for being a good employee. Turns out that, years before, our man left a placid island life to pursue a highbrow education. What role does the USA have for sophisticated black people? Kitchen work. Not that anything’s wrong with kitchen work, god knows, but he didn’t go to culinary school. He’s also bored with his marriage, in the way a closeted gay man is likely to be bored with his marriage, and he’s yearning to wander. But for all that he wants to walk out of his responsibilities, he also wants to cover the bases; making sure that the wife he plans to abandon is financially secure, etc. Any resemblance to McKay’s actual life is non-coincidental.

McKay may be best known as the author of the fist-pumpingly rousing poem/fight song If We Must Die, but his prose is well worth investigating; it’s plainspoken yet engaging. Having read this much, I’d like to real all the rest.

From The Outlaw Book of American Literature:

Jan and Jack by Neil Ortenberg: This short essay provides context for some of what we’re about to read; Jack Kerouac had a daughter, Jan, whom he barely ever met, but who became a fierce guardian of his literary estate.

Baby Driver by Jan Kerouac: Jan describes a hospital stay in which an orderly, recognizing her name, gives her a copy of On The Road, which is Jan’s first serious engagement with her absentee father’s work. She recognizes her own thought patterns in her father’s writing. She also hangs a bloodstained artifact of a medical lab test over her bed because it’s pretty. I liked this better than anything I’ve read by her father.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac: this excerpt is typical of Kerouac’s chest-thumping chatterboxing. I’ve got a blind spot for this guy’s appeal, even though I adore Burroughs and Ginsberg, but I can’t deny the powerful reactions I’ve seen from women I know who read Jack’s stuff. “He’s so sexist,” they say, but they don’t say it with the annoyance they’d bring to a lesser guy’s sexism; they say it with hushed awe.

In college, my roommate said that he wanted to spend a year or two “Jack Kerouac-ing around the country.” After he’d said this about a hundred times I asked him if he’d read any Kerouac. He hadn’t, but decided he ought to. After reading On The Road he said “Okay, I don’t want to do it the way he did. I want to do what I thought Jack Kerouac-ing was.” Years later, he joined the Peace Corps and roughed it in an Ecuadorian village, and I’d rather read his memoir, if he writes one, than any more Jack Kerouac. However, there is a rhapsodic passage in the excerpt under consideration in which Kerouac compares all his other friends to his man crush Dean Moriarty and finds them wanting. It reminds me a bit of both Burroughs and Ginsberg, which makes it my favorite bit of writing from Kerouac. I dunno who copied whose style here, or if there’s a Beat Q Gospel that shaped the 3 of them (okay, a preposterous notion, but a fun daydream/story seed), but either way, Kerouac writing like his cohorts is my favorite Kerouac.

Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson: Kerouac’s ex gives her side of the story, and it’s probably the best exploration of how a woman can size up a guy’s many shortcomings and still be enchanted by him that I’ve ever read.

Women write about Kerouac better than Kerouac wrote about anything.

From Best American Short Stories:

My Dead Brother Comes To America by Alexander Godin. A woman and her children, including the narrator, immigrate to the USA and meet her husband at Ellis Island after a separation of years. The narrator, recounting his childhood experience, conveys just how huge and mysterious things are when you’re a kid, without turning it into a Tim Burton production. There’s a terrible secret, a weird yet understandable betrayal, that creates fresh anguish for the newly reunited family. In frightening new surroundings, the trauma and loss of the old country follows the immigrants like a family member.

Resurrection of a Life by William Saroyan: This rhapsodically romanticized account of childhood is written with a Whitmanish self-aggrandizement and a plummy purple populism that suggests Saroyan was a shaping influence on Ray Bradbury’s writing. This also reminds me of J. M. Demattais’ more autobio comics (like Seekers into the Mystery). It’s so flamboyantly self-dramatizing that it’s like the male prose version of a shojo manga. Does a nice job of conveying that life’s beauties and evils coexist and make of life a beguiling tapestry. I relate to the ways that religious ceremony enriches the boy’s sense of awe, even as his mind rebels at the tenets of the faith. Still, this was too much like watching a middle-aged guy being grandstandingly emo for my tastes.

Also, fat shaming. It’s one of those stories where a fat person represents a grab bag of human failings.

From Dangerous Visions:

The Malley System by Miriam Allen deFord: A variety of creeps commit some truly horrible crimes, but it turns out that they’re reenacting their actual villainies in a virtual reality simulation. This is part of a therapy that’s designs to reduce recidivism in dangerous criminals. The side effects, though, undermine the entire endeavor. Does the mere fact that a treatment doesn’t work mean the prison system will stop using it? What do you think?
Ms. deFord worked in criminal justice and wrote legal fiction, so it’s no surprise that her story feels grounded in knowledge. Her prose in the first half, as she recounts the crimes, strains for hard-boiledness but sells the improvisational intensity of criminal acts of passion; the dialogue in the latter half, in which blasé penal professionals exposit the rationale, process, and shortcomings of this VR aversion therapy, are clear but bland. If only the same could be said for Ellison’s introduction, in which he whips himself into a popeyed frenzy about how just because she’s old, it doesn’t mean Ms. deFord couldn’t fist-fight you all into submission. But that’s the kind of hyperventilation Ellison fans pay their money for, innit?
A Toy For Juliette by Robert Bloch: In the future, there’s pretty much 2 people left: a nymphettish sexpot who likes to torture and murder people, and her time-traveling uncle who brings her torture devices and victims from throughout history. But remember, history has its own killers, isn’t that right, JACK THE RIPPER?

The airless BDSM nastiness of this tale (from the creator of Psycho) suits my worries about the Post-Trump, globally warmed future. But is the story any good? I’ve basically told you the whole tale, but I’m reminded of Howard Bloom’s wisecrack about The Fall of the House of Usher: anyone can retell it better than Poe told it. I don’t cosign that opinion, but I find it a useful rubric for evaluating the strength of a plot relative to the strength of its execution, and I’m inclined to say Bloch sells it with greater venomous zest than my capsule summary does.