Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"A Blanquito In El Barrio" by Gil Fagiani

"A Blanquito in El Barrio" is a parade of fringe urban characters tinged in tropical light (under soot), a borinquen carnival, sexy sometimes, baroque others, festive or nightmarish.

This collection of poems from 1966 through 1969 offers a view of Puerto Rican culture in East Harlem by a white guy (blanquito) from Connecticut, a survey of sixties New York and the drug scene that characterized it, as well as impressions of immigrant life, settled Nuyorica.

The clash of cultures spins sparks over most every page, as in “Reunion,” where an announcement in the doorway that “We are Catholics” contrasts starkly with the commission of adultery beyond its threshold.

The style in “Blanquito” is plainspoken, almost prosodic. There is little that is opaque or requiring contortions of linguistic comprehension. Sometimes this works in poetry, sometimes it doesn't. Here it does, the sparing, but forward-driving narrative possesses the preciousness of verse.

In “Fluteflirting,” the bond between music and sensuality coheres into erotica, without ever employing a hardcore vocabulary:

“He trills at the end of an arpeggio.
Her shoulders shake, nipples harden.

“He flutter-tongues high G.

Her legs tremble, eyes closed.”

The scene between dancer and flautist is literally choreographed through typography, the poet playing at puppeteer. The result is simple and on point, but open-ended rather than pat.


For all his clean lines, sometimes, like a musician who has kept with the beat too long, Fagiani breaks out in a redolent riff, as in “125th St.” where:

“...girls in straw hats wave at me
with mocha tans
and strawberry fingertips."

Music is very important to “Blanquito,” which generates its own and commemorates much of what was heard on El Barrio's streets in those times. It even comes with a discography, the names of bands and song titles themselves a kind of found art: “Soul Makossa,” Manu Dibango. “Boogaloo Blues,” Johnny Colón...

Not that Fagiani's is a candy-striped, timbale-splashed El Barrio. In “Blanquito,” The Spanish Harlem of the time is rendered in an earthy pallet, bruises and all, without repugnance or even detachment, rather with an intimation that what is ugly is also part of the beauty of the whole.

Fagiani is a founding member of the
Vito Marcantonio Forum and “A Blanquito in El Barrio” is dedicated to the unjustly forgotten East Harlem congressman.

Litany of San Vito.

San Vito of East Harlem                  Pray for us

San Vito bread of the poor               Pray for us
San Vito crucified by Wall Street    Pray for us
San Vito Martyr of McCarthyism    Pray for us

From the jail cell walls                    San Vito deliver us

From the backyard crap game         San Vito deliver us
From the loan shark's vig                San Vito deliver us
From the drunken stupor                 San Vito deliver us
From TB and asthma                       San Vito protect us
From the social worker's visit          San Vito protect us
From the immigration raids             San Vito protect us
From the landlord's greed                San Vito protect us”

Read on its own, the piece's rhythm links the people of El Barrio and their congressman, the kindness he showed them, his secular sanctification and their mutual victimization by the same unforgiving forces.

Seen as part of a larger canvas, the poem serves as a kind of reprise, linking Vito Marcantonio to characters come before in “Blanquito.

In “Cuchifrito,” the blanquito finds himself turned on by the salacious way a puertoriqueña he's casing slurps her greasy native treats.

“La Capitana” recounts a childhood social worker hauling her innocent charges to confront the bureaucrats who have cut their summer program funding.

“First Day in El Barrio” has an Italian cop born there, before it went Puerto Rican, mocking the blanquito and his crusading friends for being heavy on book learning and short on street smarts.

“when he began his barrio beat

he was young and idealistic too
and wanted to help people.
But in no time he learned
that except for a few residents
too scared to say a word
mostly he met backstabbers,
sneaks, junkies, welfare bums,
dope addicts and cutthroats.”

Dust Recuperated.

“La Loca,” depicts a straight-playing secretary and mother of three who gets her freak on by hitting some weed and dancing for multiple macho admirers at something called the Hunts Point Plaza.

And there are numerous junkies laying about the streets and alleys of Gil Fagiani's East Harlem, notable among them the “Fashionista” whose journey on junk takes him from dandy to dirtbag.

“Blanquito” dives into an unknown or, worse, ignored world, recuperates the lives of humans treated as something less than human. Without it, the junkies and petty thieves and desperate but honest ones who pass anonymously and without imprint on the collective memory, would be dust.

Much the same can be said for Marcantonio whose life's work was to improve their situation.

The book introduces us to the jail cell walls, the backyard crap game, to the druggy stupors so that, by the time San Vito makes his appearance, these are not single-shot sentences, but markers for full-blown characters.

The yarns in “Blanquito” are
woven from ecstatic party vibe, lowdown hangovers or overdoses, stories of people who try hard getting the same raw deal as those who don't do. There is fried food, swampy summers streets with the sewer smell rising up, the final goodbye to someone who had it coming, the whole flawed festival of urban immigrant life.

Binding the tales of misery together with a lighthearted filigree is the incessant push of the desperate, confused, or wronged characters to not just live, but to insist on joy. In amplifying their drive, Fagiani infuses his story-in-poems with that same joy.
Portrait of "San Vito" by Roman O'Cadiz 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Anne Theroigne: Portrait of a Portrait of a Lady."

Sometimes bit players steal the show.

That is not to say the historical figures of Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre are upstaged by the sparse appearances of Anne Theroigne in Hilary Mantel's
"A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel," but she certainly adds to the conversation.

This post is both about a fascinating person, and about the author's masterful crafting of a secondary book character.

highwayscribery's own novel "Vedette: or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows,"and posts like "Birthday Card for Tina Modotti," are evidence of an abiding interest in female revolutionaries. No less sanguinary or egalitarian in action and thought, Anne-Josephe Theroigne de Mericourt fits the bill as a subject of interest here.

The goal is not to conflate the scribe's humble effort with an eminence quite so eminent as Mantel (okay, maybe a little), but to assert his rightful place as an admirer and collector of lady iconoclasts.

Not in the girlfriend sense, let us be clear. They are not conducive to a writer's quiet life.

Throughout this expansive novel, Theroigne surfaces, burns and submerges, resurfaces again, lighting the dank torch-lit streets of ragged and unjust Paris...just a few passages, evocative ones, transmit her flavors.

Late Entry

Camille Desmoulins, pamphleteer extraordinaire of the revolutionary cupola, first stumbles upon Anne at a theater audition where she is being humiliated.

It takes place at page 118 of this weighty literary chronicle: "She was about twenty-seven, he thought; small bones darkish brown hair, snub nose. She was pretty enough, but there was something blurred about her features: as though at some time she'd been beaten, hit around the head, had almost recovered, but would never quite."

They exchange barbs before she submits that her future looks bleak. Desmoulins wants to know what she has done in the past when faced with a dry spell between acting stints:

Answer: "I used to sleep with a marquis."

"There you are then."

"'I don't know,' the girl said, 'I get the impression that marquises aren't so free with their money anymore. And me, I'm not so free with my favors.'"

She then establishes herself as a free-ranging woman when divulging her plan to meet contacts in Genoa.

"She put her cheek on her hand. 'My name is Anne Theroigne.' She closed her eyes. 'God, I'm so tired,' she said. She moved thin shoulders inside the shawl, trying to ease the world off her back."

This is an introduction to someone mordant, socially astute, battered, yet unyielding.

She is being marginalized by fading beauty and diminishing artistic talents. Anne Theroigne is afraid and her future actions reveal she thinks the government, or society, or somebody, should do something to arrest her tailspin into the gutter.

(the scribe does not know this for certain, rather has drawn certain conclusions from these first paragraphs written by Hilary Mantel).

This is Theroigne before the revolution. And this is her France.

Once the deluge is unleashed, Desmoulins is out in the street doing what he does best, rousing the rabble. Among them is a "pretty young woman with a pistol in the belt of her riding habit, and her brown hair tied back with a red ribbon and blue one."

These are the colors the ascendant radicals have adopted and she is with them, flowering, purposeful.

Though she may be fading, Anne has been feted by Paris. Has heard a few stories. She has been at the center of the world and lived off making believe she is other, made-up people.

"Her face seemed luminous in the watery light. Now he saw that she was very cold, drenched and shivering. 'The weather has broken,' she said. 'And so much else.'"

The streets are seething and a few hours later she is a portrait of action.

Made for the Part

Underemployed, she certainly has the time. Dramatically gifted, the troubles of 1879 provide her with a proper stage.

"Another night on the streets: at five o'clock, the tocsin and the alarm cannon. 'Now it begins in earnest,' Anne Theroigne said. She pulled the ribbons from her hair, and looped them into the buttonhole of his coat. Red and blue. 'Red for blood,' she said. 'Blue for heaven.' The colors of Paris: blood-heaven."

You can earn respect by cranking out 749 pages of engaging literature, and sometimes, in one brush stroke, give the whole thing a strident coloring that clings.


The highway scribe is not going to pick apart each of the Theroigne-related passages. He is giving you an idea of how the text was read. Your reading would be something else entirely.

Now back to the revolution. In the earliest phases, action draws the highest premium and the new order has jobs for people like Camille and Theroigne. Their gang, a disparate lot of social maladroits and axe-grinders, is somehow on the rise.

Centripetal forces continue to drive politics in France; Paris in particular and apart. Louis and Antoinette's days are numbered. The politics of the moment revolve around what to do with them. The king does try. He receives a delegation of women and makes promises.

"Theroigne is outside, talking to soldiers," Mantel revives her anti-heroine. "She wears a scarlet riding habit. She is in possession of a saber. The rain is spoiling the plumes on her hat."

Anne can dress the part, although there is usually some element gone awry, screwing up the perfection of the whole, gaining empathy.

Laying Low

And then she is gone, though not for long. As chaotic Paris tries to sort itself out -- going to the theater, dining, sexing it up, and carrying the enemy's head around on a pike -- Theroigne marshals support and plays her hand in the deadly game for power.

The author finds a character who can tell us they are all -- Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre, Anne and their revolutionary caste -- "virgins."

Soon enough, she reappears before Desmoulins. "Theroigne swept in. She wore a white dress, and a tricolor sash about her waist. A National Guardsman's tunic, unbuttoned, was draped over her slim square shoulders. Her brown hair was a breeze-blown waterfall of curls; she employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you've never been near a hairdresser in your life."

Desmoulin rebuffs her sexual play and denies her a job writing for whatever paper he's editing at the moment. She is damaged goods and he's worried about his reputation.

"As far as he knew, Anne was leading a chaste and blameless life; the strange thing was, that she seemed dedicated to giving the contrary impression. The royalist scandal sheets were not slow to pick up on anything. Theroigne was a gift from God, as far as they were concerned."

So she gets labeled the whore while Danton and Desmoulins enjoy the winning revolutionary's celebrity, notching their belts with every belle at every ball in town.

Anne, by opting for a public life, for demanding a voice, gets tarred and good.

And though she's acting, it's not an act. She's a revolutionary having her say and you can't mistake Theroigne for anything but what she is, except for what she's not.

Which is to say there is ambiguity in this portrait, someone we can both like and not like, a person on whom we are still withholding judgment, but find worthy of attention.


The revolution, as most left-wing ventures tend to do, begins consuming itself. First overboard are the dreamers. Mantel tells us, "In May, Theroigne left Paris. She had no money and was tired of the royalist papers calling her a prostitute."

Noblesse Oblige indeed.

"One by one, the "murky layers of her past" had been peeled away to reveal unsavory acts and liaisons that "we've all done when necessity has pressed. It left her open, though, to ridicule and insult."

Anne's plan is to return once the libelers move on, but she suffers the star's burden of being missed: Her scarlet cloak, her "claque" surrounding, pistol swinging as she prowls the National Assembly's corridors looking for deputies to berate.

And so rumors circulated, in her absence, that the Austrians, with whom the revolutionary government is at war (along with the rest of Europe), have abducted her.

"Hope they keep her," is what Lucile, Desmoulins' modern wife and newly minted revolutionary, says. "What gave her the right to be a pseudo-man, turning up at the Cordeliers [that most ferocious of workerist sects] and demanding the rostrum."

Aborted Catfight

Lucille gets a shot at some answers when Theroigne shows up in her tricolored salon. Anne has been released by the Austrians with some money to boot, but she has not come to square-off with a feminine rival. She has come to lament. For her part, Camille's wife is very pregnant.

Their lives have assumed radically different paths, and each prefers the other's.

Theroigne is out of sorts, tattered, not sharp. Lucile can see that the hem is frayed on her scarlet coat, "that the dust on the streets was upon it, that even the red was not so red as it used to be."

Anne is furious that the papers are still spreading lies about her. And Camille is ignoring her.

"He's busy," Lucile covers for her husband.

"Oh yes, I'm sure he's busy. Busy playing cards at the Palais-Royal, busy dining with aristocrats. How can anyone think of passing the time of day with an old friend when there's champagne to be drunk and so many silly, empty-headed bitches to be screwed?"

"Including you," Lucile murmured.

"No, not including me," Theroigne stopped pacing. "Never including me. I have never slept with Camille, or with Jerome Petion, or with any of the other two dozen names the newspapers have named."

The object of a superior social deference, Lucile wouldn't dare stake the same claim.

Theroigne has a particular grudge against a royalist by the name of Louis Suleau, publisher of The Acts of the Apostles who has had his way with her good name in print.

Lucile is miserable in this hellion's company. She explains how Anne's bankrolled release from the Austrians has left her open to the charge of spying.

Theroigne comes a little undone. She admits to having a daughter who died after being left behind. She doesn't know how to write. Things are not going her way, her tribulations multiplying willy-nilly.

Today she has been weak.


But life can turn on a dime, and soon the angriest most radical of the revolutionary factions is literally up in arms, jailing aristocrats left and right, and forcing the king's imprisonment.

Desmoulins is witnessing a riot outside the Royal Palace at Versailles.

“Theroigne had taken charge. Here was her own, her little Bastille.”

She has led an “unfocused rabble” to a place where the royalty are being held against their will, and is breaking in, not to save them, but too...

More revolutionary and feminine portraiture:

“Theroigne wore black; she had a pistol in her belt, a saber in her hand, and her face was incandescent.”

It’s romantic writing, without getting melodramatic. Theroigne is incandescent, but she’s also out of her mind. Camille watches as the fourth prisoner emptied into the mob’s maws is Louis Suleau, the guy who’s been spreading the rumors.

It’s not a heroic moment, but an ugly one. Your own politics determine whether it is necessary.

Leader of the revolution, or some part of it, Desmoulins can do nothing but watch Theroigne, “approach Louis Suleau and say to him something that only he could have heard; Louis put up a hand, as if to say, what’s the point of going into all this now? The gesture etched itself into his mind. It was the last gesture. He saw Theroigne raise her pistol. He did not hear the shot.”

Don't call her a whore.

As all of the revolutionary class learned, direct action is effective, but does have its drawbacks. Among these are constant exposure to committed enemies and overheated throngs.

Some time later, Robespierre asks Camille if he’s heard about “that girl. Anne Theroigne.”

“What’s she done now?”

“She was making the speech in the Tuileries gardens, and a group of women attacked her -- rough women from the public gallery. She’s attached herself to Brissott and his faction, for some reason only she understands -- I can’t believe Brissot is delighted. She found the wrong audience -- I don’t know, but perhaps they thought she was some woman of fashion intruding on their patch.”

She is saved by the dangerous Jacobin scribe Marat, soon to be assassinated himself, at the hands of a “fashion plate.”

Camille laments that she was not killed. “I'll never forgive that bitch for what she did on August 10.”

Robespierre is philosophical. Old schoolmate or not, Suleau “ended up on the wrong side, didn’t he? And then so did she."

Brissot is on the extermination list, so Theroigne’s made a bad political call. It meant Robespierre wouldn't mind taking off her head.

But he does not have to kill Anne, because everyone thinks her own choices are doing it much better. Theroigne, in fact, ended up surviving the stunning violence of her time and living another 25 years.

In the book, Anne is done before the revolution is done. Disappearing as easily as she first appeared, she is an afterthought in the fast-moving paces of a tumultuous situation.

“A few weeks ago in the street Lucile and her mother had seen Anne Theroigne. It had taken them both a moment to recognize her. Theroigne was no longer pretty. She was thin; her face had fallen in as if she had lost some teeth. She passed them; something flickered in her eyes, but she didn’t speak. Lucile thought her pathetic -- a victim of the times. ‘No one could see her as attractive now,’ Annette said. She smiled. Her recent birthdays had passed, as she put it, without incident. Most men still looked at her with interest.”

Not this reader fair lady. Both eyes are on the rebel girl.

Monday, September 30, 2013

"Venice: History of the Floating City," by Joanne Ferraro

“Venice: History of the Floating City” is strictly an academic affair.

Author Joanne Ferraros's enthusiasm shines through and she feels the poetry of Venice, cites it often, but doesn't quite conjure it in this work.

Read together with a novel about Venice, let's say, Gabriele D'Annunzio's “Flame of Life,” this book would help put things in high relief: make clear where the fabulous fabric hailed from, valuate the rank of a fading Countess's family, explain why the shipyard is an important place.

Someone with a basic of knowledge of Venice will find their stores greatly increased after finishing this work, which does a top-to-bottom examination of the city's political and social structures. It covers Venice's rise through war, trade, and Mediterranean colonialism. It restores the profiles of novel thinkers, forgotten by time, to their rightful place in the history of the floating city.

Without knowing much about Venice-related scholarship (the author shares the perspectives of others with her readers) this book may be breaking new ground by putting in historical perspective the contributions and tribulations of women (they were many) during the rise and plateauing of Venetian might.

Similarly, we get a glimpse of what life was like for the poor, the unmarried and others who didn't fit a rather strict of behavior determined by a group of wealthy folks on high.

Which is to say the rich and powerful, as always, have their story told, but the contributions or aspirations of the weak or marginal are given air time, too.

Not to say this book is some Marxist tract. The author enjoys and revels in the commerce the once-great city-state engaged the world through and provides a comprehensive account of how Venice raked in treasure and how it was spent.

“Venice,” will not grip you. The “story” of the city is subject to the business of correctly ordered facts, and necessities that don't always thrill, but ensure the record accurate. It is worth the effort to take a chapter-by-chapter approach and marvel at the beauty of things past Ferraro has curated, and at the horrors, too.

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain

Back when the world of book publishing was focused around a few areas of Manhattan Island, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Back when the world of book publishing was focused around a few areas of Manhattan Island, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (BLLHW) would have been considered a mordant and witty satire on American culture and politics.

But today, with factions of the country hording their own myths as facts, BLLHW is better understood as a kind of blue-state analysis of red state life, written by a blue-state-red stater, also known as a liberal southerner.

This book takes place in the early 2000s, around the time an obscure Illinois state legislator told the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, "There are no red states. There are no blue states. There are only the United States."

President Obama probably doesn't think that anymore, and if Ben Fountain's entertaining novel was available, instead of merely being written at the time, he might not have said those things.

"Billy Lynn," juxtaposes the deadly serious concerns, thoughts, and fears of Bravo Company's legitimate Iraq war heroes with the predatory motivations of Hollywood (they want to make a movie of the yunguns exploits), and the silliness and excess of the culture around the Dallas Cowboys football club.

The setting is mostly the old stadium the "Boys" played in for 30-plus years. It's where Bravo Company is to be feted at half-time for battlefield heroics witnessed by the entire country thanks to the extended reach of modern telecommunications.

And thanks to the longevity of Beyonce Knowles's career, her turn as star during that half-time in BLLHW was matched at the 2013 Super Bowl, keeping Fountain's novel relevant and hip despite the passage of time and further degeneration of national discourse.

The author has great fun making great fun of conservative Texans, Cowboy fans, and overpaid, overfed football players sacrificing nothing but a lot of hot air for a war the Bravo boys feel they are fighting on their own.

Texas is the place, but the extrapolation to the farthest regions of our country is easy because BLLHW has little patience for yahoo-jingoism, conspicuous consumption of the vulgar kind, and the disconnect Fountain proposes exists between the lifestyles of most Americans and everybody outside the bubble dome isolating them.

BLLHW goes down easy as fast food, but its nutritional value is without question.

"Wilson" by A. Scott Berg

This book should be entitled, "Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Woodrow Wilson"*

Author A. Scott Berg leaves no stone unturned in the voluminous work covering the entire life of the former president. You'll know what the New Jersey legislature was up to behind closed doors when the hero was governor of that state, and you'll learn that Wilson had two biscuits and earl gray tea before singing George M. Cohan tunes to his daughters in the sitting room.

This is one of those big books where the author reaches back into history and dusts off a worthy figure fallen into something of a national forgetfulness.

Wilson brought you the Federal Reserve Bank, progressive taxation, the precursor to the United Nations, the state of the union speech before both houses of Congress, Princeton University, college football, American political science and so on and and so on.

Our modern polity, if this account is correct, has been much shaped by the guiding hand of Wilson. He comes across as a kind of second-wave founding father, acting most selflessly for the good of the Republic, skillfully assuring the country takes the medicine Good Doctor Woodrow has prescribed.

Berg's detailed portrait is of a person whose intellectual capabilities and moral rectitude really put him heads above the American men of his time. There's no point saying anything more about this remarkable fellow if you consider what Mr. Berg has in store for those who choose to read "Wilson."

What can be said is that, for all its historical accuracy and research bona fides, the author tells Wilson's life as a story.

And though some sections will command a greater degree of patience and attention than normal, readers can still follow an engaging narrative about a Herculean man brought skillfully to life, with a strong background of the times surrounding.

(*But didn't even know you were supposed to ask.)

"La Regenta," por Leopoldo Alas "Clarin"

Basta decir que "La Regenta" es mucho "La Regenta."

Cuando se trata de cosa tan clasica como puede ser éste obra monumental de Leopoldo Alas, "Clarín," poco sentido tiene el declararlo "bueno" o "malo." Mas seguro es alistarse con los en "pro," que tampoco cuesta tanto con un libro de valor tan indiscutible.

Mejor escarbar unas cuantas palabras acerca de cómo "Clarín" hacia su trabajo y de que va este enorme esfuerzo.

La historia se trata de una lucha entre dos hombres, rivales sociales, y enemigos espirituales, para seducir a una bellísima casada, Ana Ozores. Como está casada con hombre que fue "Regente" sobre la pequeña ciudad bajo escrutinio, Vetusta (que dicen que se trata de Oviedo), todo el pueblo la hayan puesto el mote de "La Regenta" y asi un señal del modernísmo utilizado por el autor, de su íntima relación con lo que se califica como lenguaje (y mentalidad) de la calle.

"La Regenta," como libro, es una ópera epica, con un ejercito to personajes que representan lo mas barriobajero hasta las alcurnias mas altas. Lo peor de Clarin is su técnica de introducir los personajes todo de entrada, de sopetón, lo cual requiere del lector que se vuelve atrás para confirmar de quien esta hablando y como son.

Esto hace la lectura mas difícil, y menos placentera que una obra donde los temas y personajes estan mejor tejidos.

Através de su menáge a trois, el libro es todo un comentario sobre los vaivienes de una sociedad cerrada y católica a fines del Siglo decimonico. Obviamente, La Regenta, casada como es con un viejo de la alta sociedad, no puede consumar la relación sexual que le brinda el seductor, Don Alvaro Mesías.

El Provisor de la catedral, prominente miembro del clero, tampoco puede ser honesto consigo, ni con los demás, sobre su deseo de pelar la bella confesante. En estos conflictos, y los de carácteres menores, se investíga de pies a la cabeza la iglesia católica Española, la socieded que rige, la política progresísta, y la mente proletario de la epoca.

Tampoco son del todo tejidos estas discusiónes del antiguo periodista Alas, pero cuenta con suficiente talento e ideas para enganchar un lector dispuesto a "estudiar" su obra mas que simplement leerlo.

Se siente este libro-de-sexo-casi-sin-sexo como se lo ha vivído el sexo en España durante siglos.
Lento, sugeriente, descriptívo, espíritual, "La Regenta" calienta al lector baron y viríl hasta dejarle con ganas de saltar la página y cumplir lo que Mesías y El Provisor tarden tanto en iniciar.

Guiado por las mismas reglas que la sociedad retratada, Clarín no se nos pega con gran sorpresa al fín de su tragedia, pero aún asi queda sorprendente la resolución aquí en oferta.

"Gascoyne" by Stanley Crawford

Instead of putting his anti-hero Gascoyne behind the wheel of a "Kaiser," author Stanley Crawford might have made a clearer statement by opting for a "Rambler" instead.

For ramble indeed is what the author's main character and first-person narrator does for 245 pages of "Gascoyne."

This is an elder scoundrel who pulls the strings via corruption in a metropolis hard to place on the map until the very end when we learn Gascoyne is leaving town for the desert. It's black comedy and Gascoyne is hard to root for, even when today's television fare can hook you into siding with Tony Soprano ("The Sopranos"), Don Draper ("Mad Men") or Walter White ("Breaking Bad").

The set-up is simple enough. Gascoyne gets into an old car and begins tooling around the unnamed burg under his tutelage, only to stumble into an apparent murder at the palatial home of a rival/business associate.

This triggers a long series of cruises, with a few different cars, throughout the city, which is bucking Gascoyne's crooked authority even as he shambles around trying to solve the mystery murder. Are we sad? Perhaps. Gascoyne is hardly likeable, but the people out to uproot him appear even worse.

The presentation is slapstick. You follow the effusive narrator from one outrageous and impossible situation to another. You may find the give-and-take funny, you might not.

Here's a bit this reviewer liked:

"He sees me and says, 'All right drop your gun GASCOYNE.'

Which is really my line he's stealing..."

And here's a passage that will give you the tone of the work while summarizing the essence of Gascoyne, The Man:

"I zip under the Turnpike Tollroad underpass but of course I'm not going to take the tollroad because I absolutely refuse to pay another cent to officials I'm subsidizing in other ways, so I keep on Clyde Hopkins Bird Sanctuary Road which angles back toward the center of town."

The author is, throughout, obviously unabashed and out to push buttons, but there's a lot that happens in "Gascoyne" that doesn't add to anything more than its length and somebody might have stepped in and shortened the old man's day for the good of the story.

It seems that neither plot nor cast of characters are developed enough to hold up the long and repetitive descriptions of mayhem or rudeness that are the book's stock and trade.

"Gascoyne" is a triumph of language over structure, a painting done with words rather than an analysis that marries them to thought or insight. Your liking or not liking it are tied mostly to whether you find what the protagonist has to say darkly mordant, or extended flight of fancy.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"The Noir Forties," by Richard Lingeman

"The Noir Forties" promises less than it delivers.

By his own admission, author Richard Lingeman was counseled to shorten his manuscript, but you may find he did not achieve good enough a pruning.

Or, sometimes less is more. The author has an engaging idea about the collective American mind in the years immediately after World War II. Lingeman's proposal is to draw lines linking the particulars of that mind-state and what it projected onto movie screens in late 1940s America.

In films like "D.O.A.", "Double-Indemnity" "Blue Dahlia," and others, the writer says, "The war's psychological shocks reverberated through the popular culture, most prominently in the films noir that proliferated in the late '40s...."

Lingeman notes that strikes, a desperate rush for security, continued wartime rationing, the readjustment pains of 14 million veterans, were all moods that, "merged into a vague sense of gloom and pessimism, the reverse image of traditional American optimism and faith in the future. It tempered the victory dreams of postwar abundance, which seemed ephemeral to a generation scarred by the Depression."

In the book's best moments, the author weaves policy and news both big and small with films noir that serve as literary and cinematic parallels. The fun thing to do is watch the movies as he brings them up for discussion.

Having developed the idea a bit further, perhaps examined a few more films and drawn a more developed argument to completion, Lingeman might have had a sweet, pocket-sized seller that was attractive to a cross section of film fans/students and American politico/cultural buffs.

But it's his book and his call, and the author decided upon a path that winds into the "rouge" fifties of anti-communist propaganda films, the Korean War, and McCarthyism.

Mr. Lingeman served in the Korean War and a lot of what he presents in "Noir" is clearly of personal import to him.

A writer with "The Nation," his progressive analysis of President Franklin Roosevelt's absent vision for a post-war world, Harry Truman's capitulation to the country's most rancid and conservative forces, and the Red Scare, are all fine and good, especially if you have never delved into such topics in the kind of detail a knowledgeable journalist and political writer would.

Just know that's what your buying, that the focus on film fades (though is not completely abandoned), as the book goes on, replaced in its stead by something closer to a harrowing account of the shabby treatment endured by liberals, veterans, unions, and responsible scientists during what was, for many including the author, a kind of dark age.

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" by Willa Cather

Through one man's story, Willa Cather fashions a thumbprint history of Santa Fé , New Mexico and its environs.

"Death Comes to the Archbishop" takes place in the mid-19th Century, but hundreds of years'-worth of prior events are brought to life in the famed scribe's limped prose.

The short novel recounts the life of Father Jean Marie LaTour, a fictional (?) French Jesuit, woven into the fabric of New Mexican lore as he rubs soldiers with scout and Indian killer Kit Carson, jousts with the Catholic poo-bah in Taos, Father Antonio Jose Martí nez, and others peopling the time and region.

The title is a misnomer. The story is one of LaTour's entire missionary life, with memories of a youth in France thrown in for some Old World/New World contrast.

His death comes only at the end, and without much surprise.

This yarn is episodic, and moves from the mid-1800s to the later ones in fits and starts, zig-zags, backs-and-forths, but for all that, has a sense of being at least mildly woven.

It is not a classic narrative that develops and reaches a climax. It is, simply, the life of a man moving among the notable and not so notable of old New Mexico, expending energy in his particular calling, gathering experience and enduring hardship until his own ending, unhappy as it is for us all.

highwayscribery took "Death Comes to the Archbishop" on a recent trip to New Mexico and it served, eighty-something years later, as a marvelous tour guide because the state's history is hammered into (and out of) its landscape and everywhere places or features detailed in Cather's book jump out at you.

Her descriptions of the land are dead-on. Early in the story, LaTour approaches his destination. The reader is with him:

"As the wagons went forward and the sun sank lower, a sweep of red carnelian-coloured hills lying at the foot of the mountains came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and in that depression was Santa Fé , at last! A thin wavering adobe town...green plaza...at one end of a church with two earthen towers that rose high above the flatness. The long main street began at the church, the town seemed to flow fro it like a stream from a spring."

A spring that flowed into the author's heart like manna and unto the bookish and adventurous alike, for decades after.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"Dinner with Lenny" by Jonathan Cott

"Dinner with Lenny," leans toward the connoisseur and away from the classical music neophyte.

This book boils down 12 hours of conversation it's author, Jonathan Cott, had with composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein not too long before the classical music magician's death.

Here is a lion in winter, yet expansive and intellectually alert, settling old scores (pun intended), delving into decisions made, adventures in music endured, holding forth on the state of culture, politics and society, though mostly on music.

In particular, and naturally, classical music is on parade and it would help if you knew, for example, something about Gustav Mahler's work. For the connoisseur, these discussions will shed light and add layers of understanding to the composer's opus.

For the neophyte, the mention of a piece's title and a little background point in the direction of future learning with a head-start from a master.

In short, there's a lot of musical knowledge here, the kind that will enhance those who know more than those who know less.

"Dinner with Lenny" is an easy and cultured read. Its adjectives run from "ravishing" to "exquisite" and its tone is drawn from the rarefied air of society's upper echelons.

It is short (165 pages), does not ask much of the reader, but, as any conversation with the great and consecrated should do, gives back more.