Notes on TV shows in 2016

The Good (in no particular order)

The Americans –This does belong at the top, the show got even quieter this season with devastating effect, earnestly following the implications of the main couple’s situation to its logical conclusion and fully embracing the family dynamic at the center of the show.

The Good Place — Well cast and if you can ignore the show’s construct of heaven and hell (fun sure, but still, much like shows that depict the devil, angels and in the case of Supernatural, God (a dude named Chuck, who also has a troublesome sister known as The Darkness), it embraces a particular biblical view of existence that is troubling), funny and sometimes even touches upon a philosophical depth.

OJ: Made in America — Thrilling documentary that manages to be about race in a way the TV movie depiction never quite reached, it’s worth watching all 10 hours.

Bojack Horseman — The weakest of the three seasons but still, consistently inventive and dark.

You’re the Worst – This show did something last season that is tough, embracing Gretchen’s clinical depression and fully exploring it without ever becoming maudlin.  This season wasn’t quite as good, but still managed to be watchable, dark and often quite funny.

High Maintenance – The show that best captures a psychological/emotional sense of being a New Yorker, it also casually embraces the complexity and edginess of that city in a way that few shows even attempt.

John Oliver – His Trump eviscerations were just what we (but apparently not the nation as a whole) needed, but more impressive was the way he would embrace complex political issues and explore them.  Sure, his comedy asides were sometimes painful, but they never detracted from what he was telling us.

Better Things — Female oriented in a way that could be programmatic (all those women with boy names) but somehow wasn’t, it was instead mostly moving and sometimes thrilling.

Game of Thrones — Sure, Jon Snow came back from the dead, an ambivalent and fully expected turn for many of us, and we really bogged down in Arya’s journey but watching her feed Walder Frey his sons in a pie then slit his throat made it all worth it.  Oh and that ending.  Too bad the High Sparrow never saw earlier seasons of the show and realized it’s best not to fuck with Cersei.

The not good exactly but entertaining

Braindead — The ant in the brain metaphor never was as compelling as it was meant to be, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a revelation here, a TV star in the making, that rare woman character on TV who feels like an adult, has a complicated sexual past (without that past being fetishized), and is attractive without seeming like a supermodel dressed down.

Arrow — This show has always been pretty hit and miss, but it seems to be taking a cue from entertainments like the recent Batman vs Superman movie and is dedicated to realistically exploring the impact of Oliver Queen’s past, including fully embracing him as a killer (seriously, the dude has offed like a couple hundred people) and the result has been Arrow’s most involving and least half-assed season.

Lucifer — The devil is all over TV these days; here he’s a smarmy piano playing (his specialty is piano versions of grunge songs) English dude who likes threesomes (would be nice to see the show embrace a boy/boy/girl threesome but no…), is in therapy, has mommy and daddy issues, and some sort of obsession/flirtation with an uptight dullish female detective, all of which makes it sound less entertaining than it is.

The Blacklist — Spader scenes only.  The show is populated by a cast of some of the dullest actors around, all of which makes Spader’s turn as an international, ruthless criminal all the more entertaining.

Elementary — In so many ways, a typical CBS show and it often has a troublesome and self-righteously rigid tone towards criminality that seems to fit in with a Republican/older folks POV, but it also has Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes, whose take on the character has become my favorite modern Holmes depiction, edging out Cumberbatch and obliterating Robert Downey Jr’s tiresome ass-kicking Holmes.

Grimm – Has improbably over five or six seasons created a complex world of Grimm Fairy Tale type characters, the depiction of which are the highlight of the show.

The Magicians – Sure, Lev Grossman’s books were better, but this manages to embrace the more adult side of those books (sex, drugs, language) without ever seeming to strain for it and the magic scenes were often thrilling and scary at the same time.


The well reviewed but not by me

Better Call Saul — I tried to finish it, simply could not.  Season 1 was a slog as well.

People vs OJ Simpson — A bit like the Michael Mann movie Ali, which came out about the same time as “When We Were Kings.”  Ali the movie was good and smart but not a pimple on the ass of the documentary.  Same dynamic here.  I admired Cuba Gooding Jr’s attempt at Simpson but he was all wrong for the part and become a huge hole in the center of the show.

Stranger Things – Winona Ryder gives one of the most graceless, one-tone, screeching performances in recent memory, the kid stars were only a little better.  Only Millie Brown rose above the material.

Search Party – Alia Shawkat was the revelation here, but almost none of the rest of this worked.  Never came close to feeling like a NYC show, see High Maintenance for a show that gets NYC right.

Luke Cage — I admire everything about its approach, especially the idea of a black superhero for a black community.  But episodes had a monotony to them that reminded me of the old George Reeves Superman.  Villain confronts Superman/Cage, empties his pistol at him to no effect, throws his gun, gets his ass kicked.

Westworld — Too many holes and questions to make up for the fact that the producers had no interest in doing anything interesting with the re-creation of the west (I mean seriously? People are paying out thousands, maybe millions, of dollars to be thrust into America’s west of 1880.  This might make sense in 1975, less so today), which is fine I guess, but the intellectual/philosophical meanings had so many holes and dead ends (can you say William/The Man in Black?) and raised so many thorny questions, it was impossible to fully embrace the show.

Mr. Robot — Still love the feel and vibe of the show, but when you spend the first six weeks, roughly half the show, on a narrative that turns out to not actually exist, I am within my rights as a viewer to feel thoroughly fucked over.  The show often mistakes obtuseness for depth, which was never so obvious.

The Walking Dead — We get it, the zombie apocalypse sucks and the real monsters are the other humans.  Got that in the first season, but that doesn’t keep the showrunners from pushing this idea again and again (and again and again).  Enough already.  Oh, and someone please waste Carl on the way out.  Sooner rather than later.

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Notes on TV Shows from 2013

Timothy-Olyphant-and-Walton-Goggins-Justified-FX-This is not an attempt to be a comprehensive “best of” list, more a few notes on some of the television shows I’ve watched this year; in alphabetical order.

The Americans – It’s a hoot for someone who lived through the Reagan era and the heightened military buildup, the hyperbolic “evil empire” rhetoric, to see a show set in that time where we are encouraged and expected to root for the Communist spies.  It’s subversively brilliant on some minor level, sort of like Ron Artest changing his name to Meta World Peace (not just world peace, but freaking META…), forcing broadcasters to say those words over and over, something has to seep in over time and if it’s an implicit criticism of the Reagan years and the insane, self-righteous thuggery of that president and his ilk (or a heightened commitment to world peace), all the better.

It’s true they cook the books just a little, Noah Emmerich as the most visible FBI rival (and neighbor) is not particularly pleasant or likeable as a character and becomes less so as he gets himself entangled in a sexual affair with a woman at the Soviet embassy (a Russian who at all times seems more real and human than her American handler/lover).  But the show is also an examination of a marriage that was for most of the 20 years as much assignment as marriage (despite two children), but is possibly becoming something a bit more real, something closer to real love, tapping into a wonderful metaphor about how really loving someone rather than being part of a social construction is dangerous and scary (in their cases, physically so, since with love comes new motivations that may not mesh with their Soviet handlers’ wishes).  And this doesn’t come close to getting at how fun the show is, how tense and full of first-rate action (they’re particularly strong in hand to hand combat scenes) it is and how good both Matthew Rhys (as the “warmer” and seemingly more vulnerable of the two) and Keri Russell are (Russell’s emotionally cooler wife character can be terrifying in her seeming blankness).  It’s going to be interesting to see if they can integrate the children into this coming season’s story (something Breaking Bad never managed to do with Junior).

Archer – For all the outlandish plots, absurdly crude double entendres and suggestions of wild and often violent sex, what really comes through are the small moments of comedy.  H. Jon Benjamin can do more with a single word – “Phrasing!” – than most actors can do with an entire comic monologue.

Arrow – Slowly turning into the best superhero show on TV, which is a fairly low bar, I realize, especially since their main competition seems to be the strangely inert Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but even for someone who has very little knowledge of the DC universe, it is thrilling to watch the various creation myths surrounding superheros and supervillains in this universe coming to life (at times, it seems like almost every character on the show is going to end up being some sort of iconic DC hero/villain).  The show is consistently well cast (Stephen Amell has really shaped into an actor who can handle the Oliver Queen and the Green Arrow parts of the story with equal aplomb), the physical action when it’s humming is the best on television (there’s a kind of parkour quality to the best of the action, though we can never fully forget this is a CW show with a limited budget).

Breaking Bad – I’ve got nothing to say about this series that hasn’t been said many times before. As someone who has been on the side of the final episodes of two other “water cooler” series (Seinfeld and The Sopranos), I will say, BB’s was the most satisfying overall, which isn’t the same as saying it was the best.  For those of you who found how it shook out implausible or not sufficiently punitive to Walter, I’d answer that the show has never been particularly textually plausible (see the giant magnet break-in, the poisoning of Brock, and the train heist for further info) and anyone who doesn’t think Walter suffered enough wasn’t paying attention.

Elementary and Persons of Interest – CBS has a history as an older person’s channel and in many ways, this continues today.  All those CSI/NCSI shows are angled towards an older crowd and comedies like Two Broke Girls (painfully, inexorably unfunny) and Mike and Molly fit this model well. And so do in many ways these two shows.  In both, the moral landscape is fundamentally conservative.  Person posits a world where a machine that sees everything and is able to pry into anyone’s business using a series of street cameras and taps into cell phones is fundamentally a power for the greater good; the government isn’t necessarily abusing the machine (it’s for combating “terrorism” and in this, the show shows no nuance as to what that might mean), it just isn’t interested in the non-terrorist threats, which is where our two heroes come in. And Elementary has an even simpler moral landscape where the central uber genius is a kind of bratty moral force and the cops are good and clean and just. Both shows rise above the CBS junk heap for different reasons.  For Elementary, the interest essentially boils down to Jonny Lee Miller and how much patience one has for a highly mannered, tic-heavy acting style (indeed, Miller’s sour faces add to the show’s texture and I can’t think of another “hero” on television who looks so good one moment and so small and pinched the next), though in the end, it’s his precise annunciation of dialogue, even dialogue heavy on exposition, that really comes through, and much of the pleasure of the show comes from listening to him speak this dialogue, which also of course reveals a very lively mind.  Lucy Liu as Watson is a good idea that mostly works, but Miller is the heart and soul of the show and he projects a depth, empathy, and moral/emotional complexity that CBS’s other Holmes-esque detective, Patrick Jane, lacks.

Person of Interest is another show altogether.  It is in fact one of the loopiest shows on TV and the fact that it flies under the radar as an CBS justice-is-served drama makes it even loopier.  Last season when the machine moved itself (I love that this is now plausible) and developed an almost supernatural connection with Amy Acker’s Root, the show veered towards science fiction. I find humor in the notion that the machine contacted a moving company online, gave them detailed instructions where to move it, paid for it, the first few steps towards sentience apparently being the ability to employ Fed Ex.  Not that the show is really interested in this direction, mostly it’s a case of the week show with the various conspiracies running side by side and spilling over from week to week, and that’s always going to be its focus.

And while this may be a show where the creation of a machine that can spy on, essentially, every American is seen as benign and for the greater good (anyone paying attention knows the truth is exactly the opposite), it’s no fan of the powers that be.  No one trusts the federal government and for much of its run, a secret crime organization has been operating within the police department.  Indeed, part of the fun of the show is the truth that there are usually two and sometimes three conspiracies going on at any one time.  Add to that Jim Cavaziel’s stoic asskicker John (the show manages to consistently find sly humor in how laconically John can beat up a room full of thugs), Sarah Shahi’s murderous, comic foil ex spook (I’m surely not the only one who is hoping that at some point her and Root might, you know, get drunk and fool around a bit – it was thrilling in a recent episode when Root grabbed two guns and mowed down four or five guys and Shahi’s only comment was a deadpan, “That’s hot.”), and of course Michael Emerson’s semi-mysterious Harold, who is saddled with much of the expository dialogue in the show but still manages to emerge as benign version of the character he played on Lost.  It’s a strange and demented mix of elements that may be the most wildly entertaining show on TV, though it’ll never get its due as such.

Game of Thrones – I was late to  Game of Thrones, this past season being the first full season I’ve watched as it was being broadcast and it was thrilling. I can’t remember another series that had so many jaw-dropping final moments, from the Kingslayer losing his hand to the Red Wedding (like everyone I was shocked into disbelief that they’d just done what they did) to Daeny’s revelation that she speaks the slave-trainer’s language as she takes back her dragon, torches the baddies, and claims her slave army.  And like most of us, I want to see a spinoff series about the wacky misadventures of Arya Stark (aka Cool Kid) and The Hound where much bloody mayhem and hilarity would undoubtedly abound, likely at the same time.

Girls – I watch it but I can’t say I enjoy it exactly.  Or my enjoyment is more distanced and second-hand, like I’m happy the show has a presence in our culture and even that it’s getting so much attention and I can enjoy it on that level, but I don’t actually much like watching the show itself.  I do it, but always on DVR and often stopping several times along the way to do something else.  I admire Lena Dunham’s fearlessness physically in the role, though I can’t help but think that in season 2 it turned to schtick, with Hannah repeatedly shedding her clothing because that’s her thing (understand that as an artistic choice, this came to feel played out for me, but there’s value still as a political message about the depiction of people with normal bodies.) And while it might be stereotypically (and hopefully not offensively) heterosexual of me, I have to say I read politics in what happened to Shiri Appleby’s character near the end of last season, who was subjected to a typically unpleasant sexual experience with Adam, ending with him coming on her breasts, which Dunham and company showed in loving close-up.  It felt like Dunham was reacting to critics of her nudity, saying, “Fine, you people bitching about me getting naked all the time, you want to see a beautiful woman naked (a WB/CW star no less), here’s my version, cum and all.” Which seems as valid a response to all the cultural hoo hah about the show as any other.

Still, I can’t help but believe the show’s notoriety emerges at least partly out of a perfect storm of clashing generational reaction, each group getting something different out of staking a claim for or against the show.  Gen Xers feel smugly reassured they’re safely upstream from this group in the river of self-involved vacuity because there’s no way they were ever that bad, Boomers love to decry the lack of functional, pleasurable sex in the show, implicitly staking their claim as the greatest sexual generation, usually accompanied with a story about the Bacchanalian glories of the 70s, before the whole country started shoving its collective head up its collective ass and forget that fucking is supposed to be fun, the millennials…well, I have no idea what they see in the show.  I can’t believe they want to see themselves in Hannah Horvath and company, but…

Justified’s flashiest pleasure is just listening to these people talk to each other; the show is full of characters who like to talk and are mostly good at it.  A scene early on in this season nicely captures the spirit of the show.  A new gunfighter is in town (the show flirts with these kinds of iconographic associations with westerns without ever fully committing to it, a la Firefly), looking for Raylan and he gets the drop on him, but this guy being arrogant, lays the gun in the middle of the table on a towel, the fastest to the gun wins. There’s some humorous back and forth banter before the guy makes his move and Raylan very simply pulls the towel with the gun towards him and out of the other guy’s reach, grabs it and shoots him. It’s unexpected and witty and exciting and manages to both undercut and embrace the machismo at the core of the scene.

Mad Men – Though the scene didn’t full make textual sense (Sally Draper couldn’t have know all that happened to young Dick Whitman in the house she’s being shown by grown up Don/Dick), there was no more emotionally resonant moment in the entire run of Mad Men than the end of this season where Don takes Sally to the whorehouse where he grew up. It comes off as a desperate, long-overdue apology to Sally, and plea for grace and maybe for redemption as well.  I don’t believe it will happen, I suspect Don’s arc is ultimately a tragedy, but it was the loveliest of moments, a spot where Don’s feelings for his daughter finally match ours.

New Girl – A funny thing happened in the past couple of years. Daman Wayans Jr went with Happy Endings and it seemed the smart choice at the time; Happy Endings was really pumping on all cylinders and when it was good, there was nothing quite like it on TV; the pace, the tossed off jokes, the willingness to dip deeply into the absurd.  And New Girl while okay was up and down with Coach’s replacement Winston something of a problem (the show still struggles with what to do with him) and Max Greenfield’s Schmidt emerging as the show’s breakout character.  Now a year later, Happy Endings is gone (all that frenetic pace was completely dependent on tone and if the tone was off, the whole thing felt forced, which is not conducive to humor) and New Girl is my favorite comedy on the air (at least until Louie reappears). Who would’ve thought that getting the “will they or won’t they” couple together would be so good for a TV show (when it’s been so disastrous for TV shows in the past – I believe Moonlighting scared off a generation of sitcom show runners) and Jake Johnson has emerged as the comic center of the crew (Schmidt is still good, but he’s been saddled with an unfortunate “dating two girls” plotline that the show has to play out, though it’s a losing game); he and Zooey D not only have genuine chemistry, their banter makes them one of the oddest, most inspired comedy couples on TV.

Revenge – As a friend once said watching this show, “I like it when she does her revenge.”

Revolution – Season two is leagues better than the first season.  It feels like there’s an actual thinking person running the show rather than some sort of corporate collective mindset. The show has found a passable storyline for Giancarlo Esposito (they can’t do much with his son, who needs to follow last season’s annoying son’s lead and find a way to get himself killed off), Charlie the outrageously irritating daughter no longer makes you want to jab knitting needles into her eyes (though few would object if someone did), and while Billy Burke’s Miles still reads more as a deadpan hair dresser, he’s better with his boy Bass Monroe as his running buddy.  The fat bearded dude who apparently can channel murderous nanotech fireflies is still deeply useless, though the show hasn’t caught on yet, and continues to have him do clueless shit that makes no sense beyond moving the plot forward.  I’m not yet tired of the digital arterial sprays when Monroe slashes another throat but it’s coming. Hard to imagine this is going anywhere good and the parameters of this universe are still being worked out, they haven’t quite figured out a coherent explanation for either the nanotech or the evil militia who say they want to resurrect the beloved USA (really? Why?), but who are really murderous scumbags who also seem to my eye to be made up of current and future tea party members, though I may be projecting on this last bit.

Sleepy Hollow – People have written with admiration that this show has a black woman lead whose part isn’t conceived around race, which seems a low bar for a show that has a lot more than that going for it. It’s all on the surface but it’s entertaining, reliably deranged, with a jokey view of our founding fathers (except Washington, who gets the full hero treatment). What’s not to like about a show that in the first episode had a headless horseman wielding a machine gun?  But ultimately it works because it’s well cast; Tom Mison as (yes) Ichabod Crane manages to project a kind of wry dignity and allows you to feel the weight of his situation (resurrected from 1776 and set loose in 2013 Tarrytown) and Nicole Beharie more than holds her own in the straight man role (the two of them manage to exude an air of flirtiness without ever overtly flirting and there’s zero sense that the show is interested in going that direction).  The writers have managed to keep the fish out of water stuff to a minimum and are often surprisingly low key about it.  He occasionally grumbles about something modern (paying for bottled water, how McDonald’s food isn’t at all Scottish), but the show has not yet pushed it towards schtick.  It’s too bad Clancy Brown went down in the first episode but John Noble** showing up is a nice consolation, Orlando Jones has found his bearings in what is mostly a non-comic role, and John Cho sporadically appears as a…something.  Dead guy still walking around who wants to do the right thing but can’t (and is tormented about it) because he’s the sock puppet of the big bad, I guess, the head demon being a horned creature named Moloch (and it is one of the show’s strengths that it plays such hokum straight while embracing the sometimes frightening absurdity of it).

**A moment of silence for Noble’s Walter Bishop (in both universes) from Fringe, one of network television’s truly original creations.

Supernatural – Angels.  A lot of angels.  And they’re mostly murderous douchebags. Just like in real life.

Top of the Lake and Rectify – Both Sundance original shows, I’ve seen Top of the Lake on several “best of” lists but not Rectify and the latter is the better of the two shows overall, which isn’t quite the same as saying it’s the more inspired of the two.  Top of the Lake was often a mess but just as often, there was nothing else like it on TV with its magic New Zealand landscape, collection of ragers, misanthropes and wacky screwed up women. Sometimes it was simply mystifying and it felt like you were losing something in the translation as when the police detective recounted that what they did many years ago to Elizabeth Moss’s rapists was made them lick each others’ assholes. You were like, “Uh, what? What did he just say?”  In the end, there was a bit too much of the Dragon Tattoo books in it, their original name “The Men Who Hate Women,” could sum up what we eventually learn about what’s going on in this small NZ community.  Along the way, Holly Hunter (with Jane Campion hair) was a hoot, Peter Mullen was terrifying and such a force of nature, I found myself leaning away from the screen, and Elizabeth Moss managed to exude a kind of everyday, real-seeming sexiness unusual on regular TV.  Some things it did beautifully; the realization late in the show that the central police detective surely did something sexual to Elizabeth Moss when he put her to bed at his place manages to resonate off the screen into an imagined future while the ending with that detective allowed Moss’s character some cathartic release from this and her earlier rape.  But the show really has to cook the books to make it all work (Tooey, the young girl, was in the woods for a crazy long time and it turned out that anyone could pretty much find her whenever they wanted) and when we finally come to understand what’s been going on with these young kids, it reduces the power of what we’ve seen rather than expands it.

Rectify is the better, or at least the more emotionally and structurally sound, show.  Aden Young is pitch perfect as the 40ish Daniel Holden out of prison because of DNA evidence after 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his 16 year old girlfriend, crimes for which most of law enforcement and a lot of the town still believes he committed. There’s something of the superhero to Daniel, a sense that he has a power that no one else in the world has, though it’s not a power anyone might want. He’s achieved some otherworldly inner peace and a lot of often arcane book knowledge while remaining in many ways a child (because he went into prison as a teenager and that’s his whole life experience as an adult).  It reminded me of the late, lamented show Life with Damian Lewis as a cop who is released from prison after 12 years, sues the police, and gets his old job back as a detective.  Like Daniel Holden, Lewis’ Charlie Crews had a Zen outlook that seemed to give him inner peace and strength and the ability to see things others didn’t and in both cases, their time in prison seems to have allowed them to develop some physical powers as well, though Rectify is by all accounts the stranger and more cerebral of the two shows.  It manages to hang a sense of dread over the entire thing and though there is some sort of larger conspiracy that’s not particularly well developed at this point (unlike Lake, Rectify is coming back for a second season), we also understand this is the type of show where we might learn Daniel actually did do it.

The Walking Dead — Even when it’s working, it’s never exactly good. Sometimes compelling, even exciting.  Sometimes…uh, not.  In the first couple seasons, they had far too many problems that I would call first world problems, except of course post-apocalypse, they’re living in a fourth or fifth world country and all these moral/ethical questions were beyond tiresome. They do gore well and have occasionally (though not enough) found zombie images and ideas that are genuinely funny or inventive (Michonne’s armless, jawless zombies on a chain, the man who hung himself in the woods and became a hanging zombie for eternity), but far too often (and in keeping with my skit analogy approach) it’s the equivalent of a bad Saturday Night Live skit.  Mildly interesting at first, wears out its welcome 30 seconds in, and is still going three minutes later with no end in sight.

Gunsmoke on TV Land extra –At the end of a story about Kiowa Indians kidnapping the daughter of a farmer (played by the late great Victor French, nobody could do pissed off, scary western guys quite like him –  here in a different episode, French offs a Catholic priest – French’s presence alone elevated all the approximately 200 Gunsmoke episodes he appeared in as various characters); French and his two sons pursue (along with Matt Dillon of course), proving themselves along the way to be virulent Indian haters (set against Matt’s more socially progressive and pragmatically understanding marshal) so it comes as a bit of a surprise to everyone onscreen (less so to us) when French’s character confesses he was born Kiowa and he’s been passing for white for a couple of decades.  So after everything shakes out and they get back home, there’s this coda as French tries, haltingly, to explain why he went full Coleman Silk on everyone all these years ago:

Victor French – A man…does things………..they’re just done.

Marshal Dillon, nodding in agreement, That about says it, Ed.

Pure economy of expression and if you strip it of its tone of patriarchal solidarity (A person…does things…), hard to argue with.  It’s my new guide to living with my past, or (really) any stupid thing I might want to do.

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Books I Read in 2012 and Liked (to varying degrees) and Have Something to Say About

Really Liked

The Passage of Power, Robert Caro

Stands with Taylor Branch’s civil rights trilogy as the best of the popular histories I’ve read; consistently compelling and sometimes it goes way beyond that, the section dealing with the relationship between the Kennedys and Johnson is painful on all kinds of levels, and the triumph of Johnson’s post-assassination law-making is rendered in such a way that you get chills. The chapter on the assassination itself is worth the price of the book.  One thing I didn’t expect was how fluid and lyrical a writer Caro is; this is the first Caro history I’ve read and really the first history of any sort wherein the beauty of the writing on the page carried it along.

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

A friend said about Argo that it’s not a great movie, but it’s a wonderfully made one and he wondered why popular entertainments can’t be more like that.  I feel something of the same about Beautiful Ruins; it’s a propulsive read and Walter hits all the spots along the way and even wraps things up in a way that a lot of authors might shy away from (mistaking opaqueness for profundity). The depiction of Richard Burton, no more than a couple of pages total, feels spot on (which is what matters, I mean, how would I really know) and a sense of lives lived and choices made hangs over the book.

Canada, Richard Ford

Ford certainly has a spot at the round-table discussion of greatest living American writers and if this isn’t as compelling or stylistically over the top as his masterpiece, “Lay of the Land,” it has such a skillful, mature writing style, I was frequently in awe of his economy and the way he develops narrative tension through a word here or there. He captures the entire length of a character’s life and like Stoner, manages to balance the smallness on one person’s existence with the glory of a regular moral life lived.

Jerusalem; The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore

I admittedly spent a fair amount of my time reading this book in confusion, there are seemingly endless names and dates and atrocities, and considerable nuance to the various sects of what seems at first glance the same religion, yet there’s such an insane vibrancy to this place, as if the entire old world’s psychic energy was focused on this one dry spot in the landscape. You would think in a place as bloodstained as this, no single atrocity or incident would stand out, but the recounting of the first Crusade wherein the invading Europeans killed everything they came across – pregnant women, children, the crippled, animals – and draped themselves in the blood and viscera of their victims, marching through the streets with eyes shining through the blood, taken by a kind of insane moral self-righteousness (and completely freaking out anyone still alive to witness it) gets the ultimate prize, it made me (briefly) ashamed of being raised (however perfunctorily) a Christian.

Stoner, John Williams

It’s a book that manages to not only carry contradiction, it makes contradiction central to what’s great about the book. So it seems both a portrait of a small life — of a man who never traveled, had two friends, one of whom died young, was in love twice, the first time very briefly and with disastrous life-long consequences, a single implacable enemy, a retirement party that he’d prefer not to attend — and of a glorious life of a man who lived teaching what he loved to teach, who found genuine and passionate love, albeit for a short time, who managed to escape an 19th Century farming existence for a life of the mind. There’s something magnificent about his life, something profoundly admirable, while at the same time, the book is something of a tragedy. Williams’ language is always spare and concise, this would be an excellent book to show creative writing students because he gets so much meaning out of a spare style, it’s one of those books that expands well beyond the pages and manages to get across in a few words worlds of emotions. There’s a ruthlessness to Williams’ depictions in the book that he never shies from, never tries to ameliorate; the intensity with which another professor hates William Stoner never wanes and though his wife occasionally softens, we never forget that on some very basic level, she despises her husband. In so many ways, Stoner’s seems a dismal life yet somehow it is not.

Liked With Caveats

Who I am: A Memoir, Pete Townshend

Not as artfully done and controlled as Dylan’s “Chronicles” but there’s a similar attention to the idiosyncratic detail and you never forget that Townshend is a human being struggling with self-doubt, self-loathing, etc, etc, all the things we all deal with. Relentlessly honest about what he felt in the moment with an understanding of the ironies of his life.  It feels like a real memoir, a book that just happens to be about a guy who was the central figure in an iconic rock band.  I had to laugh watching what’s left of The Who perform “Bell Boy” at the Hurricane Sandy benefit; Townshend here and in a recent documentary on the making of Quadrophenia made it clear he has never liked Keith Moon’s vocals on the song, that Moon takes lyrics mean to be pathetic and more than a little sad and turns them into something broadly comic, but here they were in late 2012 performing the song with a tape of Moon doing his vocals.  After reading this memoir, I’m confident Townshend would see the bitter and comic irony of this, of being trapped in an existence not wholly of his making and doing the best he can.

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Philip Connors

Stands with Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire as books that find consistently beautiful and evocative ways to describe nature as it plays out across a gorgeous landscape. It drags some towards the end, though it manages to make readers want to experience the part of New Mexico he’s writing about and at the same time, understand that we’re probably not emotionally equipped to do the job Connors did year in and year out.

Gone Girl, A Novel, Gillian Flynn

The problem with a book like this is that when you get to the ultimate reveal of the mystery, much of what has come before — and there’s a lot of fine material here around relationships and the cooling of a marriage — gets lost in the glare of the revelation of the presence of a psychopath. So while there’s genuine insight here about how people deal with other people, how young marrieds drift, and the various forms that can take, and she manages to make the mystery consistently compelling, the two halves actually add up to a less of a whole. People have lumped this book with Beautiful Ruins, the idea being both of them are compelling narratives artfully written, literary novels that are also page turners, and that seems apt to me, though Gone Girl is the lesser of the two books.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

There’s nothing spectacular about this book. The writing style never ramps towards lyricism, what’s going on in her life is significant (her mother has died, her marriage is floundering) but has none of that lurid heft (sexual abuse, incest, murder, drug addiction, though there are some drug problems in her recent past) that accompanies even serious memoirs, yet the book is consistently readable and compelling from beginning to end.  She gets an immense amount of forward momentum out of the concept of the Pacific Coast trail itself, tapping into that human desire to know what’s next on the trail.  If Gone Girl manages to be less as a whole, Wild  manages as a book to seem greater than its individual parts.

Finished and Enjoyed but More Caveats than Not

How a Person Should Be, Sheila Heti

An admirable book in so many ways, she’s doing what so many of us have dreamed of — writing a more or less plotless book — and managed to make it compelling and readable. At the same time, it’s really all over the place, full of filler and long dialogue sections that in format and content often seem here to pad out the book’s length, and long sections about her sexual obsession with some ill-defined dude that seems out of a different, crappier book. What she does do and wonderfully well, is chart the ups and downs of her friendship with a woman named Margaux (who remains the book’s most indelible invention), the complexity of which is exhilarating in its detailing of the nuances of the mutual clue reading and moment to moment navigation of a volatile connection. I’m still not convinced it’s really a book or at least a coherent one, but I’m happy I read it, which is no small thing.

The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan

It’s impossible not to be impressed by Duncan’s writing chops and for the first 75 pages or so, the story of the last werewolf who is tired of living after 200 years and is arranging his own death (by a werewolf hunter who is avenging a death), is captivating and interesting and touches the edges of true originality. He’s very good with tweaking some of the werewolf conventions and it’s impressive, even if you aren’t interested in such things, and his descriptions of the force of being a werewolf are first-rate and really get across the sense of an unstoppable demon-esque life force that cannot be denied in any way (Duncan’s monster really has only about 14 days of peace each month — the rest of the time, he’s either coming down from having turned and eaten or building up to turning). It’s full of smart details and fine ideas, but at some point, I started turning on the book. Duncan’s characters’ take on life is pithy and witty and world-weary and eventually utterly tiresome in a way I don’t think he intends. I found myself thinking as the werewolf starts going on in erudite, articulate form about some aspect of life “Please, please shut up” and then “I can’t believe you’re not shutting up.” After awhile, the book feels like you’re trapped at a party with a guest who is much smarter and articulate than you, but over the course of the evening, you realize he is so in love with his own voice, he’s a crashing bore.

The Magician KingThe Magicians, Lev Grossman

Consistently smart and inventive, it also manages to often feel arbitrary and not fully lived in as a created world, somewhere between elaborate sketch and fully realized reality, and because of that, it doesn’t as a world linger in one’s mind the way Middle Earth or Harry Potter’s world does.  Still, it’s compelling, often exciting, frightening, and dauntingly intelligent in its invention of the parameters of this magical world.

Somewhere Between Liked and Disliked

The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac,  Kris D’Agostino

The writer mostly handles the small moments just right and at times, the book has a Hotel New Hampshire sort of feeling with its sprawling domestic drama, a whacky, troubled family whose members love each other finding a way to work through real problems. But the book falters in key moments with details that never rise to the level of believability. The father, possibly dying of cancer, carries a pistol with him wherever he goes and ends up accidentally shooting the narrator in the shoulder and I didn’t buy any of it for a second. The narrator borrows the gun and ends up killing a deer in the woods by accident; quite apart from the unlikeliness of someone accidentally hitting a deer in the woods with a snub-nosed .38, the author uses it as an ill-conceived jumping off point to riff on existential control. And the sister, while likeable enough, never really rises to the level of a real character and then she’s gone, a bit of drama that feels off and unearned besides. There’s a lot of fine stuff here; a sense of a young man adrift, of a mother who has decided to buck up and do whatever she has to to save her family, but the overall execution feels clunky, even obvious, and not as fully compelling as it should.

The Last Headbangers, Kevin Cook

Some excellent stories about that period in the NFL where it was becoming a multi-billion dollar industry and it does a fair job of making the case that the 70s (and not the 60s or even the 50s) was the time of freewheeling iconoclasts slowly being corralled by a bunch of egghead coaches intent on taking the fun out of the game. But pretty quickly this descends into a series of recaps of various seminal games of the period and as such, becomes monotonous and flirts with irrelevancy. The best scene is the opening in the Oakland Raiders locker room in 1972, the highlight being a Raider linebacker who discovered his helmet was loose, banged his bare head against a concrete wall three or four times, waited for it to swell, then put on the helmet, announcing it now fits and he’s ready to go.

Rabbit Redux, John Updike

My first Updike novel and I’m not sure there’s going to be another. On one hand, it’s a hugely impressive piece of work. His use of language is just beautiful (though at times it’s self-consciously so and jars the reader out of the moment) and there’s a probing, interesting intelligence displayed on every page. At the same time, there’s something deeply ugly about Updike’s world view, a kind of misogyny that grows more tiresome as the book progresses. DF Wallace, channeling unnamed feminist critics, labeled Updike “a penis with a thesaurus” and if I don’t think that’s fully fair (in that way that any generalization about a serious writer isn’t fair), that tendency is on full display here. At one point, after the tragic death of a young woman in a fire, a character tells Rabbit’s son who is bereft that he’ll come to understand that “there’s a ton of cunt in the world” (to find the exact quote, I entered that specific word in my Kindle search for the book and it returned 14 pages, multiple entries per page) and even though it’s not even Rabbit saying this and surely a writer has the right (and often the obligation) to have their characters say ugly things, when I was reading this, in the larger context of the book, I found it difficult not to believe this is what Updike thinks. That’s maybe not fair, but it is the feeling the book leaves you with.

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Pickup Basketball Archetypes

old man pickup gameI’ve been playing pickup basketball in various venues in various cities (most recently New York) for thirty years now, and I’ve found that some of the same broad categories of player exist everywhere.

(I use the masculine repeatedly throughout this piece, though I have played with a number of women over the years. But they rarely fit into these types, and indeed, the women I’ve played with have almost always been skilled ball players. Women with no basketball skill don’t naturally gravitate towards pickup games. The same cannot be said for men.)

The Punisher rarely has much in the way of basketball skill, but is usually physically robust with a lot of energy and started playing pickup basketball to stay in shape and because there’s not a local bare knuckles boxing league.  The best Punishers learn to set picks (though rolling to the rim or to an open spot on the court is beyond them) and box out on rebounds (though the offensive rebound put-back is usually something of an adventure) and most people appreciate having a Punisher on their team, though they are often a danger to their own teammates. The closest I ever came to a catastrophic injury on the court was when a Punisher on my team decided to charge past me while I was bent forward with the ball, posting up, and kneed me just above my upper lip so hard, I saw stars.  A half-inch higher and my nose would’ve been mush and my life no doubt would’ve taken an unfortunate turn for awhile. Punishers are often sweet of spirit, everywhere except the court anyway, but are naturally charged up and genuinely don’t see the problem with body-blocking into the wall some poor soul about to take a wide open layup or grabbing the man they’re defending by the shoulders and throwing him out of the way. The most unusual punisher I ever played with was a man who had both arms amputated at the elbows.  He dribbled the ball by slapping at it with the backs of his triceps and shot it like he was tossing a bucket of water on a burning fire.  He would careen around the court like a pinball, gleefully bouncing off one player after another, looking for someone to body block.

The Tumbler – Usually though not always a player with some basketball ability, the Tumbler is #2 on the most feared list, only a short step behind the Punisher.  The problem with The Tumbler is he seems to think playing basketball means running around and diving on the floor, which maybe it does in the NBA finals but no one in a pickup game appreciates a 200 pound man lunging horizontally towards your knees. Tumblers tend to be intense sorts and are prone to yelling things like “Come on” and “Fucking get at it, bitch” ostensibly self-directed, though it can be difficult not to take personally. The most exaggerated Tumblers have something of The Scarecrow in them, all flailing arms and legs, hitting the ground and bouncing back up like they’re made of rubber. Tumblers are often Flayers as well and if you get one who is less than fastidious about cutting his finger-nails, he can become a skin-gouging machine, leaving little half-moon, bloody gouges wherever he goes.

The Unskilled Gunner — There are skilled and unskilled gunners and both present their own unique sets of problems.  The Unskilled Gunner is often a three-point “specialist” who actually can’t shoot threes but it’s all they do because they really don’t know the game and have no idea where to be on the court or even how to pass the ball. So they stand outside the three-point line and if someone passes them the ball, they shoot with a Pavlovian single-mindedness. It’s automatic. The only way to stop the Unskilled Gunner is to make sure the ball never touches his hands.

The Skilled Gunner presents a more subtle set of challenges.  It’s true the Skilled Gunner can win a game more or less by himself, but more often they come up short because even if they hit five threes in a game, the rest of the team becomes so lethargic and distracted (because they’ve realized no matter what they do, they’re not going to see the ball), they stop doing things like setting picks, rebounding or even bothering to run back on defense.

The Dribbler – A typical Dribbler move would be like this:  you’re on a three on three fast break and you’ve leaked out to the wing and you’re wide open and all they have to do is hit you with a simple, clean bounce pass and you’ll have a layup or an easy 10 foot jumper and The Dribbler instead drives into all three of the defenders, dribbles around like he’s channeling Curly Neal, then finally hits you with a no look over the shoulder/between the legs/behind the back pass at precisely the point when your man has recovered and is guarding you and you don’t expect it or even want it and it careens off your hands out of bounds and the Dribbler takes this as tacit approval to never look in your direction again.

The Popper is one of those guys who occasionally and without warning hauls off and punches someone, often with very little provocation. He’s like one of those crazy cross-eyed dogs that wandered your neighborhood growing up, friendly enough on the surface but likely to bite you just because they can. I’ve played with a couple of Poppers and you have to be careful not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, though the sight of two 40 year old stock brokers lurching about grabbing each other and awkwardly tossing punches holds its own appeal.

The Rager.  Closely related to The Popper is The Rager, the chief difference being The Rager doesn’t get physical, but instead curses both out-loud and under his breath, is prone to throwing up his hands in exaggerated disgust, screams at those players least likely to scream back (there’s a lot of the bully in the Rager), and is known to drop-kick the ball or whip it at the backboard. One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever witnessed on the court was when this particular player, after spending the entire game raging at anyone who crossed his sight line, slammed the ball with both hands to the floor, the ball rebounding straight into his face, bloodying his nose and forcing him to leave the game. The Rager often acts like he’s the keeper of the flame of basketball purity, though he’s also the most likely of all archetypes to quit in the middle of a game because things aren’t going his way.

The Jailhouse Lawyer is someone whose skill with a basketball is kind of beside the point; he constantly picks at the rules, especially in times of high tension (close games with a lot of people waiting — you lose, you sit for a long time), calling piddly fouls, claiming non-existent traveling calls or loudly denying he touched the ball on its way out of bounds even when he clearly did. The Jailhouse Lawyer argues so relentlessly and vociferously that inevitably the opposing side gives in and allows someone to shoot a three (all jump balls situations in our games are adjudicated by a shot behind the three point line) to decide, just because no one wants to listen to him anymore.

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A 1965 Harley Chopper, an Overzealous Actor and I Play Dead

The first film of any size I ever worked on was a rambling, elaborate thing directed (and bankrolled) by a session drummer who’d made a small fortune when he angled away from jazz drumming in the 60s to play music for ads and jingles.  He had a Gold Coast estate, a farm in northern Illinois, and his own airplane, which he flew out of Miegs Field. He’d thrown some money at T. Coraghessan Boyle for a story called “Greasy Lake” which my roommate (the drummer’s partner) had adapted and was producing.  There was a lot of money for what was essentially an elaborate (we shot for two plus weeks) student film with an unwieldy projected running time of 40 minutes.  Since I was the producer’s roommate, I was made the script supervisor, though I never fully grasped exactly what that entailed and was prone when asked (for example) how far an actress’s cigarette was burned down in the close-up to answer “How the fuck would I know?” the New Yorker I had been just a year before coming out.

I was better at doing the kinds of odd jobs necessary to keep a small film production like this moving forward, driving vans and trucks and cast and crew, running to the store for emergency supplies, driving to Wicker Park to pick up a forgotten prop, even appearing in the background in a couple of scenes. For the last four days, a key job had been keeping the 1974 AMC Pacer (the main character’s car) in one piece and running. We paid $150 for the car, it barely ran in the first place and the night before, we’d sat just off camera and watched as an overzealous actor (who also happened to be our third roommate) trashed the Pacer with a crowbar while the main character stood chest deep in the lake where he ran to escape. Of course the car-trashing was in the script, but we’d told our roommate repeatedly to make it look good but be cool because we needed that car for a couple more days. He being the exuberant sort went at it with a fury once the cameras rolled and in no time, windshield glass pebbled the front seats, both side mirrors were on the ground, the driver’s side door hung by speaker wires and the dent in the hood was so big, we had to hammer it out from the inside to keep it from rubbing against the fan belt.  The three of us shared a house in Wicker Park built in 1851 with a huge yard with peach trees (we made pies in the Fall) that was so rickety, we joked if there was a fire, we could take a good run at any interior wall and end up on the outside. He was also part of the “anything that needs doing” crew and I’ll forever remember him standing on the front bumper of a Jeep Cherokee that wouldn’t start, air cleaner off, pouring a small Solo cup full of gas straight into the carburetor, lit cigarette dangling off his lower lip. 

When the director said he needed someone to go pick up a motorcycle for a scene, I volunteered immediately.  It sounded like an adventure and I’d owned a couple of motorcycles over the years. The next morning, I drove to the border of Wisconsin where I met his friend who owned the bike, which turned out to be a 1965 Harley chopper (see photo for a rough idea).  Suffice to say I’d never ridden anything quite like that.  His instructions were not reassuring.  Kick the bike hard to start it, he said, if you half ass it, it’ll kick back, either sending you head over handlebars or snapping your leg cleanly in place (“What?” I said. “What was that second part?”).  Don’t worry about using the clutch to shift gears, just blip the engine lightly before shifting. And be warned, the bike is good on straightaways, but turns are “more problematic.”

Fine, fine, I said, eager to go because I had to drive it to the far south side near Cicero, close to 100 miles one way.  The kick start was not a problem, the difficulty of turning was a steep learning curve and I nearly dropped it more than once going around a corner before I got the hang of keeping my speed up. The clutch was so stiff, my hand ached halfway to Cicero, even though I wasn’t using it to shift gears and was putting it in neutral at lights. But even with all that, it was a damn stylish way to travel. It was summer and Illinois had no helmet law so my long hair was in a doo-rag and I wore a sleeveless leather vest. Riding with my hands perched above my eyeline was a strangely dramatic way of moving through the world, like you’re leaning back in your recliner and watching the landscape spool out around you. Everyone stared as I drove by; pedestrians, bicyclists, children in strollers, guys in pick-up trucks, stoned teenagers standing on overpasses. At my first stoplight, a car with father, mother and three kids in the back pulled up alongside.  A little boy stared open-mouthed, I gave him a friendly wink and smiled at the mother who promptly and rather ostentatiously locked all four of the doors with a panicked slamming of the flat of her hand on the buttons. Years later, when I wrote about a hyped up couple driving through the countryside as part of the book that would become the (recently published) novel “Double,” I drew on this motorcycle ride:

We were charged, cutting a dangerous swath through the landscape.  When she pushed down on the accelerator, the clouds above seemed to part, the front end of the car lifted, wind noise screamed in our ears, children covered their faces as we passed, a rabbit froze in the road, then darted—too slow!, birds panicked and beat the wind with their wings and pickup trucks skidded sideways to avoid us.

There were two south side locations where the bike was needed.  First, I was to drop it off at a bar where we’d been shooting for a couple of nights outside Cicero, a real shithole type of place (neon signs with missing letters, one speaker shredded on the juke box, faint smell of piss and puke permanently soaked into the wood) with increasingly intoxicated south-siders who were pretty surly to begin with. We often joked on set that the Chicago city motto should be “You think you’re better than me?/You’re not better than me” to go on bumper stickers and t-shirts city-wide. We’d had an incident the night before where some customers, drunk and pissed off over what they saw as a bunch of snotty college kids shooting a movie outside their bar, made a scene, settling on the notion that we were mocking bikers. That they were more barflies than bikers (no motorcycles, though there was one beat-up looking bicycle chained out front, the kind of thing someone who has lost his license repeatedly might mount to hit the local watering hole) didn’t seem to matter, they just wanted a reason to disrupt us and would not go away. I was interested in seeing what the presence of a genuine 1965 Harley chopper might have on the rowdies, but they weren’t around.

Location number two was a small lake nearby where we’d spend the rest of the night shooting. The idea was that the main character would happen upon this lake after a long night of drinking and general trouble-making, see this chopper parked lakeside, then get run into the water by a couple of hooligans (this was the “attack the Pacer scene” shot the night before) where he’ll happen upon a floating dead body (me, my only cameo in the film that ended up making the final cut), presumably the owner of the motorcycle, the horror of a floating dead body the final straw in his night of debauchery, sending him careening towards some morning epiphanies.

And it all worked out, more or less. We saw the sunrise, three of us climbed into the row boat rented from a place on the far side of the lake, rowed out to the center, and promptly took naps in the warming morning sun. By the time, I got back to the chopper, I was literally the last person left. I had a panicked moment when it wouldn’t kick over – it was miles and miles to any sort of phone (this was 1989, cell phones were a decade away) – but it did and I had a (mostly) serene ride through the far western suburbs of Chicago to the border of Wisconsin, where I happily climbed into my quiet, anonymous Honda Accord for the drive back to the city.

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(Paid) Sex, Crying Jags and (3/4 inch) Videotape

Above: My store-front apartment in Chicago as it appears today, housing a restaurant called West End. In 1989, there were no windows, no second story, the front door on the corner was where prostitutes hung out, my car was often the only one parked on the entire block and our entry-way was along the side, where there’s now an awning. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth.)

Here was the situation as it stood in the Fall of 1989: I emerged late morning from my store-front living space (calling it an apartment is a stretch) to find the trunk of my Honda Accord wide open. I’d came home the night before around 2 a.m. after a long day shooting a short fiction narrative on ¾ inch video as part of the graduate film program I was in at the time. I calculated the damage: a buck knife in a leather sheath that actually belonged to my father, a beat-up corduroy blazer, a straw fedora I was using as a prop were all gone. They hadn’t taken the spare or the jack and left a box of road supplies including a fancy Streamlight flashlight untouched, all in all not bad in the realm of loss.

Then I remembered – all my video footage was in there! All of it.  Eight tape boxes, hours of footage. The night before, I’d dragged the camera and a light kit inside, but figured everything in the trunk would be safe enough over night. I was exhausted and not thinking straight. This was beyond catastrophic. A reshoot was impossible. I’d hired actors and crew and set up locations that involved driving many miles and coordinating travel for everyone. I’d spent a fair amount of money paying for gas, renting a shielded generator for lighting an outdoor scene, feeding the cast and crew. Hollow sparks danced along the edges of my vision, then descended, turning my stomach and forcing me inside where I had to lie down.

A little bit about our living space: it was a store-front on the near west side of Chicago, a few blocks east of Chicago Stadium, in an area that burned in 1968 after King was killed and had never recovered.  The place was massive, stretching 100 feet front to back, 5000 square feet with 15 foot high ceilings, beautiful ornate tiles on the front half of the apartment, rough plywood paneling on the back. A friend from grad school had found this and I needed a place to live and having lived in New York City for much of the 80s, was excited about the sheer amount of space. I was going to set up a basketball rim in the back, I told everyone, only half-joking.

There were some disadvantages.  Rats for one. We spent the first day furiously shoving steel wool in every hole we could find and while we were seemingly successful keeping them out of the main space, we could hear the patter of their feet on the ornate tin ceiling as they scurried around, a definite buzz-kill when guests were over. Nothing quite like explaining to the woman friend in your bed that yes, those actually are the sound of rat’s feet overhead. The only windows were up front and 12 feet off the ground and streetwalkers were permanently camped just outside our front door (which we kept locked, entering on the side), talking and yelling and laughing at all hours.  Four or five times a week, there was some sort of flare-up with screaming and threats and general street scene chaos. A couple of times there were gunshots.

And when it started getting cold, my roommate and I realized it was going to cost a fortune to heat the place and we constructed a wallboard floor to ceiling wall, complete with working door, sectioning off the front half where our bedrooms were, which was an effective if inelegant solution because the walls were rickety constructions of drywall and two by fours and our bathroom and shower were stranded in the cold part of the apartment. Using the toilet was a two-step process:  run in, turn on the space heater and retreat to the warm part until the bathroom heated up.

I wasn’t ready to give up on my film. It wasn’t like these were VHS tapes, they were useless to anyone outside of film school and I’d even broken the tabs on them to make sure I didn’t record over one by accident. My only idea involved the hookers on the corner.  Someone was out there all night long and surely they saw something. Maybe with a few bucks aimed in their direction might kick something loose. I approached a tall woman in tight short shorts and a sleeveless fur vest as casually and gingerly as possible but still there was a very cinematic moment of cross-purposes confusion where she reacted first with a bland, absent smile, then a flicked switch change to surly suspicion until I could explain myself fully. I stressed the money – a $20 for whoever saw what happened and $50 for whoever had the tapes – and the useless nature of the tapes.  Keep the knife and blazer and whatever else was in the trunk, I only care about the tapes.

The next night, there was a knock on the door and a different woman was standing there with news. She was clearly also a working girl by how she was dressed, but softer, livelier around the eyes, even alluring in her way, though so seemingly young, it raised all kinds of troubling issues, none of which in the end had anything to do with me (though it did strike me at the time that even if I was the sort who went to prostitutes, I’d have to tamp down a whole world of moral quandaries to go to this girl). She showed no interest in coming inside, she seemed skittish, even scared. Her name was something-lene.  Darlene, Charlene, one of the other women shouted out to her at one point. She told me the man who had my tapes was named Samuel, that he lived in the projects around Chicago Stadium and that he was not a thief, that my trunk was wide open for all the world to see (I later came to believe I’d left it slightly ajar) and that anyone stupid enough to leave their trunk that way deserved whatever they got, something I agreed with. The money was fine, she said, but she’d be handling the pass-off because Samuel had seen me and was frightened of me. The idea that Charlene and Samuel both seemed scared of me was from my point of view an absurd joke since I was pretty sure the toughness it took to have sex with strangers for money (or live in the rough looking projects west of here) was beyond me, though it’s true on the surface I am a rather large man.

And that was pretty much it.  Charlene brought the tapes, I gave her the money, she offered to give me his address for another $10, the implication being I might want to seek revenge. I said thanks but no thanks and just like that, I had my film back. I’d love to say I edited it into a wonderfully lyrical rumination on love and life and that it changed my life, but the best thing to come out of the whole experience was the story itself. The final cut tape sits buried in a box in a storage unit on East 10th in Manhattan, yet one more bit of evidence that in the end as a filmmaker, about the best that can be said is I was an okay writer.

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On James Wolcott’s “Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York”

It’s not surprising that the most effective sections in James Wolcott’s memoir of the 70s are on Pauline Kael and the beginnings of CBGBs, almost all the attention the book got when it was released was in relation to the recent Kael biography. It’s easy to appreciate Wolcott’s intelligence and his way with a phrase, his constantly inventive and generally witty similes when they’re grounded in a specific narrative, with characters we feel we know (Kael, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, John Cale, David Byrne and Tina Weymouth, Tom Verlaine, Lester Bangs), the insights and stories well chosen to give us a sense of what it was like to be an insider in the creation of mythic cultural tropes (CBGB as the birthplace of the burgeoning American punk scene, Kael as film guru).

But there’s also an awful lot of padding in this book, whole sections in which Wolcott goes on (and on) in his elaborate, often funny, just as often frustrating style, sending out great waves of obfusticating prose in the service of…something, it’s not always clear what. It comes as no surprise late in the book when he owns up to a grudging admiration for John Leonard, a critic whose everything-including-the-kitchen-sink style was surely an inspiration for Wolcott’s. So we get a bizarre interlude about porn in the 70s which seems to be Wolcott’s coming out as a porn addict, but it’s so aestheticized and buried under layers of clever, allusionary prose, it’s impossible to decipher or even much care what he’s going on about.

His obsession with ballet comes off a bit better, though there’s such an air of abashment over it (Look at me, yes, goddammit, I love ballet and I don’t care what the rest of you spittle-covered punk rockers think), it grows tiresome, like that guest at a party trying to convince you of the magnificence (say) of a particular music video by going into over-elaborate detail about every aspect. There are other pleasures here as well, including Wolcott’s early years at the Village Voice and all the various characters moving in and out of his sight-lines, people like Ellen Willis (who he eviscerates both as a human being and an intellect), Robert Christgau (Willis’ boyfriend for a time, he comes off less poorly mostly because he seems such a vivid character, doing group editing from home in nothing but the briefest of underwear briefs, or sometimes completely in the buff, once prompting Lester Bangs to ponder why a specific writer gets Christgau in a speedo while he is forced to bear the man in the full monty) and later Bangs, who seems sad, insecure and terminally, almost inevitably doomed.

It’s towards the end of an unfocused riff on literary criticism (where he ponders what his life might’ve been like as a book critic and informs us of some 70s books he liked and a couple he did not) that he begins to regain his bearings, first delving into Kael’s 1979 foray to Hollywood and then moving on to the fall-out from Renata Adler’s infamous takedown of Kael’s collection of reviews, “When the Lights Go Down,” in The New York Review of Books (“…jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.”) This return to the world of Kael feels like a drink of cool, clear water, back to actual characters and focused prose, and less stylized Anthony Lane noodling in search of a subject.

Wolcott mostly holds his tongue here, though clearly he’s appalled by Adler’s attack, instead concentrating on the debris field, which included Kael’s confidence over her own writing (she complains that Adler is trying to make her overly self-conscious) and a galling realization that there had to have been an awful lot of explicit and implicit approval of Adler’s attack up and down the New York cultural scene, including many of her colleagues at The New Yorker. We acutely feel Wolcott and Kael’s sense of betrayal, but it also sets up a nagging question that hangs over the end of the book. The Pauline Kael Wolcott shows us is smart, vain, imperious, intellectually open and curious, sharp-witted, generous, occasionally vicious (and usually sorry about it later) but at her core a lovely human being; he simply shows us no part of her that might elicit the kind of reaction he details where even Wallace Shawn, the New Yorker editor at the time, is suspected of having given his tacit approval to Adler’s piece.

It is on this low that Wolcott and Kael stumble out of the 70s together. The two of them were in a cab on the night of Dec. 8, 1980 when they heard from the driver that John Lennon had been shot outside the Dakota, and coupled with Kael’s recent estrangement from Woody Allen (over her blistering attack on “Stardust Memories”) and the continued fallout from the Adler piece, Wolcott announces that his 70s are over. He ends the book on some half-hearted Christmas light imagery (“The Christmas lights in midtown looked incongruous, an irony we could have done without.”), a tepid finish to a book that could’ve been a lot sharper – more personal and emotionally involving, less glib – than it is.

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Over the Holes and Far Away

It’s hard to shake the feeling that Bruno from Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles could use a few ‘treatments’ at the Houses of Holes, the title spa of Nicholson Baker’s most recent book. Surely Bruno’s sexual self-loathing would find no quarter in HOH, though his obsessions with sex and with his own constant hard-on would fit right in. And HOH could do something about his feelings of inadequacy over the size of his penis (though until the ‘crotchal transfer’ goes through, Bruno would no doubt be tormented by the truth that seemingly every other male in HOH is equipped with a large and often interestingly shaped dick), though he’d have to give up something in return. The book opens with Shandee finding Dave’s arm in the weeds (it’s first names only throughout the book, befitting the skipping-across-the-surface approach); it turns out Dave gave up his arm in exchange for an enormous penis. The arm itself is quite sweet and useful; sensitive, articulate (putting pen to paper) and, not surprisingly, adept at sexually satisfying women. I feel confident Bruno would like Dave give up a body part to be well-hung, though I suspect Bruno’s disembodied arm would not be quite as gentle and loving to the woman who finds it. There are moments where it seems the book’s primary reason to be is as an anti-dote to the collective male sense of inadequacy over penis size brought on by the ubiquity of porn. Every penis in HOH is fascinating on some level and even Dave’s is labeled beautiful; the feeling at the end of the Dave storyline is he’s better off with both arms and his own dick, sending out a can’t we (men and our penises) all just get along vibe.

If The Elementary Particles makes you feel even the simplest human interaction is hopeless and almost impossibly, if not always purposefully, cruel, dominated by venal self-interest, in House of Holes everyone is so pleasantly ready to get it on in a variety of ways, and the context is so willfully artificial, magical, even mythical, it’s like waking from the most pleasant sex dream and living in the afterglow. So we get vignettes where (for example) a tiny naked woman stuck inside the urethra of a regular-sized man’s penis, is slowly being masturbated out and playing with herself as he does, the two of them coming together, her settling in a little sea of his semen. When she grows to normal size again, they’re both quite happy about what just happened and go on their way. This is the spirit of the book and what makes it so readable, it is a series of comic, ribald fairy tales only vaguely connected (mostly by character and context) to each other. Narrative tension is supplied not by a functional forward-leaning plot but by the desire to see what comic sexual absurdity Baker will come up with next, and that often is enough.

Yet it’s all faintly ridiculous, with Baker’s bevy of made up words (manjig, twizzerling, cockfuckedful, doublethick sackshot, plasmic cockmeat puree, Dave-jism), which often feel like the punch windows from the old Batman TV series (GASPING TWAT! SWIZZLED! SLUTSLOT!), fun in the moment but cumulatively oppressive. I suppose it could be argued the book has something to say about our culture of porn, though beyond the fact that all the women are beautiful, thin and up for pretty much anything at anytime and all the men have huge dicks and are forever hard, I don’t see a lot of analysis here. If anything, Baker is positing his own particular porno world where everyone is forever enveloped in a hazy fog of sexual desire, no one is all that tortured over it, no means no, and yes means absolutely, I need your “thundertube of dickmeat” now yes, and the closest thing to a non-hetero interaction is when Dune (a man) switches genitals with Marci and they have sex (though not before he rejects going down on his own penis).



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Granny Was a Baller

First the obvious in this photograph of my grandmother (center, holding the ball) surrounded by her teammates: she played basketball, which I didn’t know until this photograph came to light while going through my father’s things after he died, and which is something of a shared family activity. Between us, my father (her son) and I played some 80 years of pickup basketball; he was playing until he was 70 at which point he had a terrible accident on the court, shattering his nose, bleeding into his brain, causing seizures that would make the last ten years of his life something of a torment. I’m still playing, despite knee surgeries, countless turned ankles, torn tendons and four broken bones, the last of which required a plate and seven pins.

The ball reads Sneezers 13 meaning 1913, meaning my grandmother was 18, a senior in high school, meaning she was playing basketball in La Porte, Indiana 22 years after James Naismith invented the game. I have no idea what Sneezers is about, though it has an air of deprecation, maybe even a touch of that whimsical derision you imagine accompanied women’s basketball before the first World War.

What else? All five girls are attractive in their way, my grandmother the only one who might be called sultry, her expression holds a flirty aggression, a kind of steely focus and resolve, as if she’s daring the photographer. Her shirt seems unbuttoned and spread out by design, she dominates the photo both literally (she’s in the middle, she has the ball) and by affect. Does it matter that I can’t remember even one thing about her that meshes with the lovely, even provocative creature at the center of this photograph?

Is that even true? I know her and her sister drove the Alaskan highway in a Studebaker in 1960, all the way from Indiana. She was 65. The 1,300 miles of dirt road tore their car to pieces and they had to ferry it back to Seattle. I’d always known the story, but it wasn’t until this photo that it made sense, that I could see in that 18 year old girl the resolve it might take to drive a road that is 55 years later still an ordeal. And if I’d always assumed she had out of loneliness, even desperation, stumbled into a second marriage with a charming Greek man who turned out to be grumbling pain in the ass but by all accounts was at the time they got together (meeting in the diner where she was a waitress at the age of 70) a geriatric who had a real touch with the ladies, this photo tells me she was used to attention, used to attracting the alpha in the room.

I can make other connections. Sylvia, the oldest of her three daughters had a reputation for being wild in high school. When my mother moved back to Indiana after my father died and into an assisted living facility, she promptly met a 90-year-old woman who remembered Sylvia and said exactly that, “Wow, was she a wild thing.” Sylvia died in 1960 in northern California at the age of 42 after a night of heavy drinking; I’ve always been fascinated by the story because there was no one else in the immediate family like her, not someone who might be labeled headstrong and unchecked. But in this photo, I can see some of that in my grandmother, a focused willfulness capable of running over or burning down anything in her path.

And writing this, I realize something else. In 1936, after her youngest daughter died of whooping cough at the age of 10 (it forever scarred my then 8 year old father), the family loaded everything in the car and drove to California, a serious trip in pre-Interstate America. And in 1960, after Sylvia died, she had the same basic urge; get in the car and go, this time to Alaska. This matches my own impulse in response to extreme stress, the thought of hours behind the wheel a salve.

The past has the power to change the present; I’ve always known that, though I think as a younger man (with significantly less of a past), I didn’t think about it much because everything important seemed still ahead. Less so now, which is why I find it reassuring that an old photograph still has the power to generate insight almost 100 years later.

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Joy is But the Shadow Pain Casts: The Elementary Particles

A friend had told me the last few pages of Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles” really flips everything and changes how you feel about the book and it’s true, if I’d skipped the Epilogue, I’m not sure where I might fall on this book. For much of the length of it, I was mixed; sometimes engaged, sometimes repelled, often bored. It took me three months to read it and I read at least three books in that time, putting down the Houellebecq again and again. It is ostensibly the story of two half-brothers and what’s difficult to take for long periods of time is that peculiar brand of French misanthropy on display, rendered in such detail here that the mood lingers for a time after reading a section, until you re-gain your bearings. It’s always a nice moment when you realize, hey, I don’t actually think like that, though I’m susceptible to the argument that if there was nothing about the world view on display that I related to, I wouldn’t be so affected.

I think one reason it took me so long to read is I didn’t find much of the human interaction particularly involving or convincing, though to Houellebecq’s credit, he never posits the whole world as this place of pure hopeless Gallic melancholia, we see characters who don’t feel the way the brothers do, it’s not a one note tone. And I don’t mean to suggest the two brothers are miserable in the same way, though they share a deep existential emptiness. This becomes fully clear with the revelation in the Epilogue** wherein we understand why we were given such detailed descriptions of the lives and minds of Bruno and Michel Djerzinski.

And even this is a bit unfair to Houellebecq, he paints two lives empty of any kind of joy, but late in their lives, gives both brothers women who love them and who they, in their own ways, love back. There’s warmth of a sort here, in context of the bleak landscape surrounding them, though there’s always an edge of doubt and disgust lurking and nothing really works out other than Michel’s ideas and theories.

I’m hesitant to say too much about the writing itself, having read it in a translation, but there are some beautiful moments here, both descriptively and in terms of integrating complex scientific and philosophic material into the narrative. This isn’t always successful, it often seems arbitrary and self-conscious, but these sections are almost always fun to read. And what to make of a line like this one, late in the story: “In cemeteries all across the world, the recently deceased continued to rot in their graves, slowly becoming skeletons.” It’s ridiculous of course, almost a parody of a certain kind of mindset, and that’s the key; I think he understands how funny this line is, I think he knows how funny in a very dark way the adventures of Bruno and Michel are. I didn’t end the book feeling like Houellebecq was some raging misanthrope with enough genius to turn his neuroses into art but not enough control to keep his obsessions fully in check, it seems to me there’s more there’s more calculation here than that, more novelist’s skill.

**I’ll remain coy about the revelation because I liked coming on it cold, not knowing about it, though normally I don’t believe knowing what happens in a book lessons the pleasure of reading that book.


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