Death’s Sweet Song (1955) by Clifton Adams

“Strangely, I felt nothing. I stood there and the pale sky became suddenly bloody as the violent sun lifted into a widening sky.”

American Pulp writer Clifton Adams (1919-1971) is primarily known for a long list of westerns written under several pseudonyms, but he also wrote a few noir titles. This brings me to Death’s Sweet Song–my copy comes in one of Stark House’s double releases along with its sister title Whom Gods Destroy which I’ll be writing up shortly.

Death's sweet songDeath’s Sweet Song is set in Oklahoma, and it’s the story of Joe Hooper, a WWII veteran who’s now back in the poky town of Creston, Oklahoma trying to squeeze a living from a gas station and 5 drab little cabins located at the back of the property. That iconic highway–Route 66–runs right in front of Hooper’s mortgaged property. Location was probably a selling point, but ironically now it’s a point that rubs a festering, open sore in Hopper’s mind as he watches the tourists drive by in a steady stream on their way to … somewhere else. The 5 crude cabins that he imagined he’d fill with tourists, stand empty and unrented, and with the endless flow of traffic passing by, it’s as though Hooper’s life is draining away along with all of his broken dreams.

The thermometer on the east side of the wash rack had reached an even hundred. I opened a bottle of Coke and stood in the doorway, watching the endless stream of traffic rushing by on the highway. License tags from everywhere–Nebraska, California, Illinois…. Where do tourists go, anyway, in such a hell of a hurry?

Depending on tourists for business is a particularly depressing prospect. As they drive by on the road to somewhere better, somewhere more interesting, the lack of business is just another painful reminder that there’s a big, bright world out there that Hooper’s not a part of. Is Hooper’s luck changing when a well-dressed couple in a blue Buick pull in and ask for a cabin for the night? Hooper can hardly believe the request:

There were five cabins behind the station and they were all vacant. Most of them would remain vacant, even during the tourist season. That’s the kind of place it was. I wondered about that while I put gas into his car. Here was a tourist with a new car, wearing expensive clothes, so why should he want to put up in a rat trap like mine when there were first-class AAA motels all along the highway?

The tiny, shabby cabins with their “cracked linoleum” cause the pouting blonde from the blue Buick to open her mouth in protest, but her complaints are ignored, and the couple, Karl & Paula Sheldon remain.

Hooper is right to suspect why this well-dressed couple should want to stay in one of his cabins when much more appealing accommodations are just down the road. In spite of the fact (or perhaps even because of it) that he has a long-term, patient girlfriend in town, he’s drawn to the ripe, skimpily-dressed, elusive blonde with the bone china skin. After another boring, predictable date with his girlfriend, Hooper finds himself creeping around the Sheldons’ cabin trying to get a glimpse of the hot blonde. He overhears Karl and another man planning a heist, and while Hooper initially plays with the idea of calling the sheriff, he decides, instead, that this is his opportunity to get ahead, and get the blonde in the process.

There are two ‘stories’ or examples that bolster Hooper’s decision to rehabilitate his life through crime–one example is Hooper’s father, a local doctor who’s worn down by work, all night house calls, and very little money to show for his labour. The other example is Herb, a local man who took tremendous financial risks, but eventually hit $5 million in oil. These two characters sit on opposite sides of the see-saw inside Hooper’s head. He doesn’t want to have a life like his father and he wants to hit the big time like Herb.

Death’s Sweet Song is written in a plain unadorned style–it’s the sort of book you could read and then imagine is easy to write, but there’s real skill in the way Clifton Adams develops his character of Joe Hooper. At first we make the mistake, as we’re meant to, of measuring Hooper’s character by his circumstances, but as events unfold, and the layers of well-known local small businessman fall away from Hooper, we see the simmering, bitter resentment seething underneath the surface. Oklahoma native Adams also reproduces the monotony of small town life in convincing ways while reinforcing Hooper’s boredom and festering desperation. Every time Hooper meets someone or talks to someone on the phone, they ask him ‘how’s the tourist business?‘ For Hooper, this is a particularly painful and ludicrous question which he avoids with trite answers, and yet the sense is conveyed that every encounter Hooper has with other locals just digs deeper into that festering sore of resentment that exists in his brain. Another recurring question–an unspoken one this time–is when is Hooper going to marry the very decent, sweet and understanding, Beth. Hooper’s relationship with Beth is another sore spot as far as he is concerned as everyone in town knows his business–how long he’s been dating Beth (too long), where their dates are (at the movies), and that Hooper isn’t playing fair by not popping the question (too bad).  Another interesting small-town tidbit included here is that Hooper knows that outsiders underestimate the locals, and yet he does the same thing himself.

Hooper is a perfect noir character–bitter, bored and trapped in a mundane life, he’s propelled into the undertow by the resentment of the respectable working life which has brought him nothing, and he’s fueled by his desire for an evil woman, and plenty of money to fund a new start. While the recently read German crime novel Silence is an exploration of guilt, Death’s Sweet Song is an exploration of the justification of crime & murder, and Hooper’s 1st person narrative gives us a ringside seat into one man’s dead-end life in which an opportunity to escape, a sex-lined exit appears–except that exit takes him straight to hell.

The out-of-the-way roadhouse is an iconic noir staple, and there’s just a slight variation here which reminds me of the setting of They Don’t Dance Much from James Ross. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank was the man who walked into Cora’s life and set the chain of tragic events into motion, but it was a chain of events that were waiting to happen. The day Paula Sheldon showed up changed Hooper’s life, but similarly  it was a fate that was waiting for Hooper. He just didn’t know it.

The one word that kept hitting me was “murder.” To me it didn’t have the usual meaning. It was like thinking of cancer or TB. You get yourself branded with it and it kills you, only with murder you die in the electric chair instead of in a bed.

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Filed under Adams Clifton, Fiction

His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

“I found myself thinking that, in the space of a generation, thousands of people south of the equator had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten. Who would answer for the fatal gale that had precipitously taken them all?”

The ironically titled, His Own Man, from Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro, follows the dubious career of Marcilio Andrade Xavier, otherwise known as Max, a Brazilian diplomat, over the course of several decades. The narrator, a younger diplomat, just a step behind Max in his career, begins the tale as one of Max’s “lunchable colleagues” in 1968. Unknown to the narrator, Max is already on a certain bloody political path chosen back in 1964 after the military coup. Throughout the rest of the book, the narrator pieces together Max’s career as Max is posted to Uruguay and Chile–countries which slide into military dictatorships. Max’s arrival in these countries at critical junctures in their history is, of course, no coincidence, and Max, although deeply involved in decisions related to political dissidents, is not directly involved in torture & murder. All of the dirt, the evil, the cruelty seems to slide off of the very well-educated, very polished Max who continues to move, elegantly, through the corridors of power thanks to his reptilian nature, natural duplicity, ruthless ambition and complete absence of conscience. The story of Max’s career is set against the backdrop of State Terrorism, Dirty Wars and Operation Condor waged by various right-wing governments of South America towards political dissidents, their friends, families, and sympathizers–in reality, anyone vaguely related to Socialism:

Writing a country’s history may be difficult, but tracing a man’s story presents its own challenges. For a country, there is a vast array of information in the form of books and treaties, maps and image, leaders, legends, and archives. But a man? What kind of history does he have? Where would his secret maps be found? Or his boundaries? What might be hidden beneath his façade or detected in his gaze should he give in to temptation and study himself in the mirror one night?

When the narrator meets Max in 1968, Max has a diverse reservoir of friends “of assorted leanings ranging from idealism to full-blown alienation,” and yet even these friendships are formed for reasons that are part of Max’s “master plan.” As the narrator follows Max’s career, usually from a distance, but also from occasional meetings, he realizes that clues to Max’s career and intentions existed all along–he just didn’t know what to look for.

His own manThere’s a mystification that obscures Max. Part of the mystification includes the disbelief that anyone who is refined, loves literature and discusses Flaubert, Proust, Chomsky and Chekhov is capable of throwing in his lot with right-wing governments who oppress anyone who poses a perceived threat or an independent thought. It takes the narrator some time, and he’s still reluctant at that, to grasp that Max is a chameleon–a man who uses friendships as disguises, who watches and mimics behaviour,–a man who delights in deceiving others, always  operating under cover. Of course the crucial question for the narrator, constantly compelled by “the urge to dig deeper,” is: does Max have a conscience about his involvement in the heinous crimes against humanity enacted in various South American countries?

The more we learn about Max, the more elusive a character he becomes:

He had split his personality in 1964 and, apparently unsatisfied with that particular accomplishment, had subdivided it further in Montevideo, as though trying to progressively reduce his individuality into less and less visible niches.

Through the eyes of the narrator, we see Max’s wife, Marina–a woman who’s driven to extreme measures just by her dawning suspicions of her husband’s duplicity and involvement in state crimes. It’s witnessing the fear of others, including her own father, that finally drives the truth home.

Given the subject matter, it’s probably not too surprising that the book occasionally reads like non-fiction:

The same was happening on the Chilean end, even though the local economy was still weak. But Max relied on a few solid ties in the country, derived from the contacts he’d kept with certain local upper-middle class groups over the twelve months preceding Allende’s downfall. These connections ran deep given that, on his successive visits to Chile, Max had shared with these groups the plan crafted by the CIA in Montevideo and carried out in Brazil ten years earlier–by force of which the government had been systematically destabilized.

Following the Brazilian model and, later, the Uruguayan one, the Chilean business community had operated in a way that was at once light-and heavy-handed. First, it funded strikes that paralyzed the productive sectors, creating panic among the middle class and immobilizing the labor and farmers’ movements. These actions were backed by investors who in many instances received support from the CIA. As a result, nearly all the crucial sectors of the Chilean economy had crossed their arms at one point or another, most notably the truck drivers. Without transportation, essentials wouldn’t be distributed, except with great difficulty.

While this is a novel, there are some very real political figures here–including Allende. Max and his wife arrive in Chile in 1973 right in time to witness the CIA sponsored military coup, and at one point there’s a character who sounds remarkably similar to Dan Mitrione. I couldn’t help but wonder if the name of Max’s one-time secretary, Esmeralda marked the floating torture ship used by the Chilean government during its years of military dictatorship.

It will help the reader to have some background knowledge of the period in order to understand the corrosive consequences of Max’s actions. At one part in the book, towards the end, the narrator meets with a retired spook–an ideologue whose deep belief in the Domino Theory seems not only antiquated but also dwarfed and patently ridiculous in light of the terrorism of the 21st century–a whole new war. As the novel concludes, the overwhelming theme, at least for this reader, is Max’s motivation. He’s hardly an ideologue, and the narrator’s meeting with the former spook argues that some of the participants in the heinous Operation Condor at least had political beliefs–however misguided or fear-driven they were. Max had nothing except ambition, but even this does not seem to adequately explain Max. According to a colonel, a character who knew about Max’s activities and is ready to render his opinion, Max can be summed up like this:

His actions were those of a strategist with a personal agenda. Max’s team had only one player: himself. Our friend realized very early on that his superiors, within and outside the ministry, would come and go and lose power and prestige, gradually disappearing, whether from age or ill-formed alliances, while he advanced in his career. So he used them strictly for his own needs. No more, no less. he gave each an amount of attention proportional to his potential usefulness. And he knew better than anyone else how to buy low and sell high.

Max ultimately is arguably a hollow man whose complete absence of morality and conscience explains his choices, and with each step, he seems to splinter apart until there’s nothing left but a walking suit. He seems oblivious of the damage he’s caused:

Did Max notice how doleful these people were? That they had no radiance, not to mention mundane qualities such as flexibility, malice or a sense of humor? Did he ever regret having helped–even indirectly–to liquidate the country’s intellectuals, the artists, the teachers, the students, the liberals?

Or was he so bedazzled by his own splendor that he’d become immune to such doubts, content to shine on a now deserted stage?

In spite of its low-key approach, His Own Man is an incredibly moving book which traces a shameful period in South American history. The plot explores how this time provided a stage for ideologues, the ambitious, the psychos, and the amoral, and while this is a large stage, there’s also the very small personal stage between Max and the narrator. Part of the novel’s power comes from its Hall of Mirrors approach to the main characters–the narrator is fascinated by Max, and we’re fascinated by that fascination–the cobra fascinates its prey. It’s also intriguing to read how the narrator is continually reluctant to acknowledge how bad Max really is–we are so often tempted to ascribe our own morality to others. Parts of the novel, just brief entries, introduce victims of the repression, and these sections are understated but pack a powerful punch. This is a solid entry into the canon of South American political fiction and should appeal to fans of The Secret in their Eyes.

translated by Kim M. Hastings

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Ribeiro Edgard Telles

A Coffin from Hong Kong by James Hadley Chase

The prolific author, James Hadley Chase, is probably best known for No Orchids for Miss Blandish. That book was my introduction to this British crime author. Then followed There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a much later Chase novel I couldn’t resist for its title and cover. There’s a Hippie on the Highway, the story of a Vietnam vet looking for work in Florida and stirring up some violent hippies, was a bit of a strange read, well come to think of it, so was No orchids for Miss Blandish, but of the two novels, No Orchids was a better novel, IMO.

So this brings me to A Coffin from Hong Kong, my third excursion into James Hadley Chase territory. This is a fairly standard, but good, PI tale of low-rent investigator Nelson Ryan, a man who takes it personally when he’s framed for a murder he didn’t commit.

A coffin from hong kongRyan gets a call one day from a man named John Hardwick who wants to hire Ryan to follow his wife. Hardwick claims he’s leaving on a business trip and that the timing is perfect for Ryan to stake out his house that night. Ryan initially objects as he likes to meet his clients in person, but Hardwick is leaving town and sends a courier over with $300 to seal the deal. Now Ryan, a man who it turns out does have a moral compass, feels obligated to take the job–in spite of the fact that something doesn’t smell right:

I had been working as an investigator for the past five years, and during that time, I had run into a number of screwballs. This John Hardwick could be just another screwball, but somehow I didn’t think he was. He sounded like a man under pressure. Maybe he’d been worrying for months about the way his wife had been behaving. Maybe for a long time he had suspected her of getting up to tricks when he was away and suddenly, as he was leaving for another business trip, he had finally decided to check on her. It was the kind of thing a worried, unhappy man might do–a split-second impulse. All the same, I didn’t like it much. I don’t like anonymous clients. I don’t like disembodied voices on the telephone. I like to know with whom I’m dealing. This setup seemed a shade too hurried and a shade too contrived.

Ryan should have listened to his instincts….

I liked the set-up for A Coffin From Hong Kong as it shows the inherent vulnerability of the PI, a train of thought I’d been following after a recent re-watch of The Maltese Falcon, and the scene when Humphrey Bogart’s partner, on a lonely stake-out, is abruptly snuffed out by an assassin. Both James Hadley Chase’s character, Nelson Ryan and The Maltese Falcon’s (Dashiell Hammett) Sam Spade are loners who discover a moral compass while investigating their respective cases. Both stories also illustrate that PIs mine territory on the fringes of police work. Lacking the protection of a badge, they are bottom feeders with shadier cases that frequently nudge illegality.

Ryan finds himself stitched up for the murder of a prostitute from Hong Kong, and he’s subsequently hired by a reclusive millionaire to discover who killed the girl. Ryan takes the case because he’s involved in the murder up to his neck, and in a bid to solve the crime, he travels to Hong Kong to try and trace the life of the dead woman.

There’s a lot of snappy dialogue between Ryan and the police detective on the case, Detective Lieutenant Dan Retnick. Everything points to Ryan as the killer of the prostitute, and while part of the detective would love to nail Ryan for the crime, part of him recognizes a frame.

He brooded for a long time, then he took out his cigar case and offered it to me. This was his first friendly act during the five years I had known him. I took a cigar to show I appreciated the gesture although I am not by nature a cigar smoker.

We lit up and breathed smoke at each other.

“Okay, Ryan,” he said. “I believe you. I’d like to think you knocked her off, but it’s leaning too far backwards. I’d be saving myself a hell of a lot of trouble and time if I could believe it, but I can’t. You’re a cheap peeper, but you’re no fool. Okay, so I’m sold. you’re being framed.”

I relaxed.

“But don’t count on me,” he went on. “The trouble will be to convince the D.A. He’s an impatient bastard. Once he knows what I’ve got on you, he’ll move in. Why should he care so long as he gets a conviction?”

There didn’t seem anything to say to that so I didn’t.

There are some racist remarks in the novel from the police–but Ryan obviously doesn’t share their views. I liked this novel, and while I guessed one element of the plot, I didn’t guess the identity of the killer. I also really liked the character of Ryan. He’s a bit sleazy–taking the case when he knows better because he needs the 300 bucks, taking whiskey on a stakeout and eyeing every female he encounters, but still at his core, there’s a sense of right and wrong, and even though he’s embroiled in the case initially because he’s framed for a murder, there’s a sense of justice at the base of his search for answers. Chase’s style is spare and unadorned, and goes well with the subtly understated moral undercurrents. The novel, a good place to start for those who’d like to try Chase,  concludes simply and yet very very poignantly.

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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

A Crime by Heinrich Mann

2014

 

For German Literature Month 2012 I read Heinrich Mann’s novel, Man of Straw, a book which follows the life of an ultra-patriotic, pompous, proto-fascist petty bourgeois. There’s a film of the book, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and both the book and the film are highly recommended.

Der Untertan

Earlier in 2012, I read The Blue Angel–also known as Professor Unrat. This is the story of a professor, a widower, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small provincial town.  He discovers that some of his pupils are hanging around a disreputable club known as The Blue Angel and he takes it upon himself to catch the boys. While on his moral quest, he runs into the nightclub singer, Rosa (Lola Lola in the film) and so begins a self-destructive obsession.  The book and film differ in significant ways with the book allowing the professor to exact his revenge against the inhabitants of the town while the film version, from director Von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, is tragic. My favourite scene in the marvelous film version is Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again.” This is the scene where the professor loses himself to the singer, but the scene is extraordinary for the presence of the delicious Marlene Dietrich. There’s a moment at the end of the song, as she’s sitting on the chair, and she gazes into the camera. She knows she nailed the scene.

blue-angel-marlene-dietrich-1930

I’m bringing up these two books (both made into excellent films) written by Heinrich Mann for a couple of reasons: 1) Thomas Mann seems to the Mann brother most talked about and 2) I found a short story by Heinrich Mann available for the kindle. 99c for 10 pages–well there’s an argument both for and against the purchase (hours of work for very little compensation vs I was hoping for a novel…), but since I loved both Heinrich Mann novels I’ve read, plus the fact I’m reading a Goebbels biography (almost 1000 pages) in which Heinrich’s books were part of the book burning ceremony, well, it only seems appropriate that this author should make an appearance for German Literature month. So here’s the short story : A Crime.

The story opens with a retired cavalry officer, Captain von Hecht giving some words of advice about women to a younger man, and from the way he’s talking, we know he has some experiences in mind.

As far as great passion is concerned, the problem is that it never happens to be equally great on both sides. If it’s greater on your side, it’s a misfortune, but here one can say: activity wards off sorrows, or at least it often does. If, on the other hand, a woman’s passion becomes too great, you are seeking rest at the foot of a volcano: a shower of sulfur will bury you.

Then von Hecht goes back to 1882 and tells the story of being stationed in the small town of M. He quickly discovers that the only house worth visiting belongs to a merchant named Starke who has a beautiful wife:

I had seen her on the street, only from behind, to be sure, but she exaggerated the swaying of her hips as she walked. She had an overly short and thus perfectly round waist and striking thick brown hair. Her nose, in addition, was of a delightful fineness, with slightly mobile nostrils. When she smiled, she would bite her blood-red lips with her sharp white teeth as if she were biting into a peach, and her gray eyes would flash with dreamy, veiled curiosity. Later, in moments of transport, I saw silvery serpents flicking out their tongues in them.

There’s some wonderful imagery in that quote which tells us a lot about Annemarie, the wife of the merchant. She’s beautiful, she’s passionate and she’s bad, bad, bad. She’s one of those kamikaze women, a term coined by Woody Allen in the film Husbands and Wives: I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women… I call them kamikaze because they crash their plane right into you. You die with them.”

One look at Annemarie and Von Hecht is hooked. Perhaps the attraction is bolstered by boredom or lack of choices in the small provincial town, but whatever the motivations, von Hecht can’t help but feel sorry for Annemarie’s poor clueless husband. Of course, he’s not so sorry for the husband that he keeps his hands off the man’s wife. The unattractive, seemingly thick Starke is obviously outclassed in the marriage–not by his wife’s status (she has none) or her dowry (she was penniless), but he’s outclassed by her slyness and avarice. She’s a demanding wife, and, of course, she’s also a demanding mistress–one of “those women who take possession of even the slightest fragment of their lovers’ private lives.” With her extravagance and love of finery, Annemarie reminded me of Madame Bovary, and when von Hecht “inadvertently calls her Emma” neither he nor the reader is surprised by the connection. But there’s also an Anna Karenina connection here:

Once a woman whose rightful lot had been to be the mother in a conventional family has set off down the wrong path, she takes madder leaps than any other.

Those ‘mad leaps’ are at the heart of the story, but that’s as much as I’m going to give away. After finishing the story, I ran a search on the translator’s name (thanks for translating Heinrich Mann) and came across many more stories from this translator available for the kindle, including a dual language version of one Stendhal title. I’ll be digging through the list, hoping for more Heinrich Mann but open to whatever’s there.

Original title: Ein Verbrechen: translated by Juan LePuen

 

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The Filthy Truth by Andrew Dice Clay (with David Ritz)

The Diceman Cometh… back.

“I wanted to show the world that a comic could be as big as a rock star.”

There was a time in the late 80s when I swore that one day I’d see Andrew Dice Clay in concert. In those years he was everywhere–the raunchy hottest comedian around; his shows were rude, crude and lewd–the sort of comedian bound to offend someone. In fact, even saying that you were an Andrew Dice Clay fan raised eyebrows. No matter, I love a good laugh and my sense of humour has always been in the gutter.

the filthy truthIn spite of my intentions to one day attend a Diceman concert, it never happened. Most of Dice’s fans are aware of the ‘controversy’ that buried Dice’s career–Dice was slated to appear on SNL (yes, that supposedly cutting edge comedy programme) when one of the cast members boycotted the show. The boycott was joined by Sinead O’Connor, and then MTV slammed a lifetime ban (lifted in 2011) on Dice following the 1989 MTV awards (come on, if you make Dice a live prime-time TV presenter what the hell do you think is going to happen?) and then the Puritanism snowballed from there. Dice, at the top of his game and able to sell out tens of thousands of seats in minutes, suddenly became a hot PC potato. He disappeared, reappearing briefly in a sadly harnessed performance for a drab television sitcom.

Frankly, it was startling to see how Dice’s career was eviscerated practically overnight. William J Mann’s book Tinseltown documented the witchhunt that threw Fatty Arbuckle to the ‘moral reformers’ and ruined his career. Perhaps we could expect scapegoating in the 1920s–those days of imminent film censorship, but it is startling to see the same sort of thing occur again in the 90s. And let’s not forget that Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder before emerging, an innocent man, from no less than 3 trials. The most Andrew Dice Clay can be accused of is bad taste, and I bet he’d gladly admit it.

If the press didn’t understand that the Diceman was a character who amplified certain attitudes that millions of people had–not only amplified those attitudes but actually made fun of those attitudes by making fun of himself–then the press had its head up its ass.

I’ve missed Dice over the years, but I’ve had the occasional Dice Nostalgia Night with a rewatch of one of the many Dice concerts or even his cult film: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and I was delighted to see Dice in the role of a disgruntled ex-husband in Woody Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine. Could this mean that the Diceman is back?….

The Filthy Truth, Andrew Dice Clay’s memoir, begins with Dice at the lowest point of his life. He’s “lost millions” and with two marriages behind him, “broke, grinding through the toughest decade” of his life, is about to play to an audience of 16 in the back room of a Las Vegas sushi bar–a far cry from the days when he sold out two consecutive days at Madison Square Garden–the only comic in history to do so. Dice says of the experience in the back room of the sushi bar,  “that night was the beginning of the ride back,” The book then moves from Dice’s childhood in Brooklyn, through the beginnings of his comic career, the formation of his Dice persona, the struggles, the successes, the marriages, the pinnacle of his success and his fall.

The book includes details of several sexual encounters, and this is when the book is at its weakest. Unlike Dice’s jokes, these encounters don’t come with a punch line, and the stories just read as titillation rather than interesting or even erotic. The details of Dice’s family, known as the Originals are wonderful; you just knew that he had to come from some pretty extraordinary people, and Dice’s parents (his mother especially) come to life in the pages. There’s the sense that Dice had an incredible career that was unique for a number of reasons, and Dice always seemed to be able to gauge the right moves at the right moment–that is until he drastically underestimated the power of Moral Righteousness and “the orchestrated campaign” which finally dragged his career into the undertow.

I ran down to the newsstand on the corner and picked up the paper. And right there, in a five-word description of the Diceman Cometh, I read, “The Demise of Western Civilization.”

I was half amused, half amazed that the Times took me so fuckin’ seriously. But I wasn’t upset. I was actually glad for the attention. Let the press write whatever the hell they wanna write. I work for the fans, not the press. All the press could do was bring me more fans. I didn’t see then–and remained blind to for months to come–the power of the press to fuck me up.

It’s clear that Dice, born and raised in Brooklyn, was always a ‘character,’ as we read of his childhood (he was a “third-rate student and a first-rate clown,”), how he “dated” his mother’s fur coat, his first and last trip to a bordello (“the madam looked like Bela Lugosi in drag,”) and worked at a men’s clothing shop selling cheap suits “a little better than papier-mâché.” But it didn’t take long for Dice to realize that he was not going to have a traditional career, and so we follow how he developed his first act and made the decision to move to L.A. where he built his routine at the Comedy Store. Reading the book gives the impression that Dice is in the room telling his story complete with frank admissions of mistakes and failings, and there’s the sense that a fall will occur as we hear about the houses bought, the huge gambling losses, the purchase of a car for sixty-nine thousand in cash, and the night he played Vegas with three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of chips stuffed in his pocket.

Included in the book are snapshots of various celebrities who befriended Dice or gave him a kind word along the way–including  Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, Mickey Rourke, and Eminen.

The Filthy Truth will appeal to all the fans out there who’ve missed Andrew Dice Clay and are still cheering for him. Those familiar with Dice will know what to expect in terms of language and subject matter, so readers can’t bitch when they find the first four letter word. Dice’s role in Blue Jasmine signals his triumphant return, but his fans never forgot him in the first place.

I got up onstage and I took my sweet fucking time lighting my cigarette with a flick of the Zippo and an over-the-shoulder back of the-head drag. I opened with the nursery rhymes.

Review copy

 

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The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann

2014

 

What would German literature month be without E.T.A Hoffman? I recently read Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson which I thoroughly enjoyed, and since the collection opened with Hoffmann’s short story, The Sandman, it seemed a perfect addition to German Literature month.

The story is just 30 pages and begins as an epistolary. A very troubled young man named Nathanael writes a letter to his friend, Lothar, but in emotional turmoil, he makes the mistake of addressing the letter to Lothar’s sister, Nathanael’s love interest, Clara. The letter details Nathanael’s childhood exposure to tales of the Sandman;

He’s a wicked man who comes to children when they don’t want to go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes; that makes their eyes fill with blood and jump out of their heads, and he throws the eyes into a bag and takes them into the crescent moon to feed to his own children, who are sitting in the nest there; the Sandman’s children have crooked beaks, like owls, with which to peck the eyes of naughty human children.

Yes, a wonderful thing to tell children especially at bedtime.

Nathanael relates a childhood in which a strange visitor he identifies as the Sandman (a creature who, according to Nathanael’s mother, does not exist)  periodically visits his father. These mysterious visits throw an atmosphere of gloom over the family and are accompanied by foul-smells suggesting the practice of alchemy. One terrifying night, Nathanael, after getting a good look at the Sandman, realizes that the Sandman in none other than Coppelius, an “old advocate.”

Years later, in the letter to Lothar, Nathanael, now a student, is convinced that he has met Coppelius again…

After 3 letters, the narrator of the tale takes over, and we shift from the Sandman as a major threat to Nathanael falling in love with Olimpia, the strange daughter of professor Spalanzani.

We could take the tale at face value or we can, from a psychological viewpoint, consider this a tale of obsession and madness. Clara, who believes that the “demon” exists only in Nathanael’s mind,  offers her fiancé some sensible advice:

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we must never otherwise have set foot on–if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task.

Nathanael is annoyed with Clara and considers her unfeeling, but no matter, to Nathanael, Olimpia seems to be the perfect woman–she sits and listens, never argues, never expresses an opinion of her own, and it seems only a small flaw that she can’t dance well. …

At around 30 pages, this is a short tale, and for its psychological elements,  I much preferred this to Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi. Nathanael makes an interesting main character and while we can sympathise with him, it’s easy to see that he’s his own worst enemy–a man who, haunted by childhood demons, seems to rush with both arms open towards his own fate.

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All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm

2014

Back to German Literature Month 2014 hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve mention already in my review of Silence that although I had a year to pick books to read for this event, I had no concrete plans other than to read something by Joseph Roth. As luck would have it, a blogging friend sent me an unwanted review copy of Swiss author Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night. I’d been meaning to read something by Peter Stamm, and since it’s German Literature Month, this was a perfect opportunity.

Titles can give a hint about content, and in the case of All Days Are Night–a book which landed on my doorstep, and a book I knew absolutely nothing about, I had the impression that I was going to read something about sad, lonely people. I was right.

All Days are nightAll Days Are Night is mainly the story of Gillian, a successful, beautiful television personality whose life, as she knew it, is wiped out in a moment by a drunk driving incident. Gillian survives with her face badly damaged while her husband Matthias, is killed. No one, except Gillian, knows the details of the fight or why Matthias was driving home from a party in a drunken rage, and when she wakes up from the accident in the hospital, moving back and forth in a semi-hallucinogenic, heavily medicated state,  she doesn’t initially remember what happened:

Gillian tries to concentrate. Everything depends on her reply. She wants to be herself, to get up, but she can’t. She can’t move her legs; it’s as though she has no legs. The radio stops, the nurse walks over to the window and draws the curtains. Gillian remembers; the rain, the low-pressure area. There must be a connection.

You should try and get some rest.

Rest from what? Something has happened. Gillian is hovering around it, the memory, she is moving closer and then getting farther away from it again. When she puts out her hand, the pictures disappear, and the blue water comes instead, the blue water and the empty space. But the other thing is there all the time, waiting for her. She knows there is a way out, and she will take it. Later.

After Gillian realizes what happened that night, she keeps the truth about the fight with Matthias to herself. She must go through a series of surgeries to repair her face, but her life in front of the cameras it is gone. Gradually the backstory about exactly what Matthias and Gillian were fighting about floats to the surface. She has a lot to feel guilty about….

That’s really as much of the plot as I’m willing to give away, but I will say that the second part of the book brings in artist Hubert to the central stage. Both Gillian and Hubert have breakdowns for different reasons, and the story follows the connections between these two characters and how they deal with their problems.

Veering away from the plot, I’ll focus on Hubert’s art–he’s known for his photos of naked women. That may sound salacious, and indeed many people try to make Hubert’s work sound salacious, but the photos are of women mostly performing everyday tasks … naked:

In the next tray were pictures of a small woman with wide hips and large, pendulous breasts. She had short blond hair and hairy armpits. Both her posture and her facial expression had something theatrical about them. She hung washing on a low rack in a tiny bathroom, baby things and men’s socks. She took a book from a shelf, hunkered down on the floor, and swept up with a small broom, maybe crumbs from biscuits she had given her child. The apartment was cluttered and untidy. In the last pictures, the woman looked close to tears.

She looks terribly lonely, said Gillian. Do you have any idea what you put these women through?

They agree to take part, said Hubert, switching the trays. Even in their nakedness they try not to reveal themselves. They hide behind their movements, their smiles, their way of exhibiting themselves.

Identity and authenticity are central themes in the book, and all of the main characters seem to be trying to find authenticity in their lives by various means. Gillian, with her badly damaged face, can no longer appear in front of the camera, so she loses her career, but even before the accident, she begins to feel that she’s “playing a part in a bad film” or “speaking lines from a script.” After the accident she looks in the mirror, sees a fragmented self and later realizes that her life “before the accident had been one long performance.”

It’s easy to see how an artist would constantly strive for authenticity, but in Hubert’s case, his drive is different. He feels like an “imposter” when he teaches, and when he asks his models to remove their clothes it’s as if in so doing, their nakedness will reveal an absolute truth–a tactic which fails, of course. Perhaps he’s driven to seek authenticity for another reason. His girlfriend (later in the book they’re married) is a seeker of some sort of deeper truth, but she’s hollow and superficial:

Astrid pursued her interest in energy and the body. Hubert wasn’t impressed by the esoteric life-help scene she started to move in. He passed occasional ironic remarks, to which she reacted so violently that he didn’t say anything the next time she registered for a weekend course in psychodrama or breathing therapy.

There’s also a terrific sense of emptiness and abandonment in this novel which is partly achieved through a complete absence of quotation marks (see the first and second quotes), but also Stamm’s spare style in this unpredictable, melancholy, yet ultimately optimistic story underscores a deep void which runs through the lives of his lonely, troubled characters.

Gillian clicked on “Gallery.” There were five pictures of unoccupied rooms: an office, a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. In all the pictures it was nighttime, and the rooms were dimly lit. Although not much could be seen, Gillian still had the sense that there was someone in all the rooms, hiding in a corner or else behind the onlooker.

Translated by Michael Hoffman. 182 pages.

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New Orleans: a quote from Gary Krist’s book, Empire of Sin

A quote from Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist:

According to one early historian, “Disorderly soldiers, black sheep of distinguished families, paupers, prostitutes, political suspects, friendless strangers, unsophisticated peasants straying into Paris–all were kidnapped, herded, and shipped under guard to fill the emptiness of Louisiana.”

French jails and hospitals were ransacked for potential colonists, while men with an opportunistic bent were enticed with promises of free transportation, free land, and the fabulous riches derived from a  region of unimaginable abundance. To deal with a chronic shortage of women, prospective wives were also imported from the Old Country, among them eighty-eight inmates from a Parisian house of correction known as La Salpêtrière. As a result, the town was–already famous as a den of iniquity, a place “without religion, without justice, without discipline, without order, and without police.”

My kind of town….

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Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist

Some cities have an aura of glamour–Paris, Venice, Vienna, St Petersburg, Budapest … perhaps that disappears when you live there, but for this armchair traveler, the city of New Orleans also makes the list of glamorous cities. Of course, the images of New Orleans took a hit with Hurricane Katrina–a natural disaster which lifted the lid on some very ugly behaviour. I’ll never go to Mardi Gras, and I’ll never go to New Orleans, but I’m interested enough in the history of the city to pick up Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist.

I expected an extraordinary history of this city. I expected a lot of vice & crime, and in this, the book, although occasionally dry, did not disappoint. Author Gary Krist presents a convincing portrait of a unique city built on vice. Eventually, as the title suggests, the powers within the city split into two camps–those who wanted to clean the place up (partly for tourism, partly for business reasons, and partly for the moral crusade), and those whose vested interests lay in Vice, and who knew that at least a large portion of the tourists were there to party!

Empire of sinThe prologue begins in 1918 with the mysterious axe-man murders (which are returned to later in the book), and then it’s back to the 1890s. A large part of the book explores the city’s history of Vice with some of the most infamous names of the day: Josephine Lobrano, one of the more successful brothel owners who’d been “driven into prostitution as an eleven-year-old orphan,” Lulu White, & entrepreneur, restaurateur and brothel owner Tom Anderson whose rise and fall mirrors the ascent and curtailing of the vice elements within the city. Josephine Lobrano seems to be one of New Orleans more colourful characters who decided to “turn over a new leaf” not by retiring but by upgrading her brothel to attract higher end clients. This was considered “going respectable” which says a lot about the place and the times.

Krist explains that this was the “era of High Victorianism” and that not even New Orleans was “impervious to the stringent ideals of the day,” and argues that “in nineteenth-century New Orleans, however, respectability was arguably more difficult to achieve and maintain than in almost any other place on the continent” as “threats to decency were everywhere, and the city’s lax cosmopolitan ethos hardly conformed to mainstream American norms of behaviour.” This seems to be the book’s main thesis–what passed as normal in New Orleans was certainly not normal elsewhere in most of America (San Francisco was pretty wild, I’d argue), and that due to the “unique history” of New Orleans, the city “scarcely seemed American at all.” Krist states that the city at the time was “largely Latin, Catholic

a strange and disturbing place to many–a place where married white men attended ‘Quadroon Balls’ to find mixed-race concubines, where macabre voodoo rituals occurred in shanties and back alleys, and where even prominent politicians might meet in City Park to duel with pistols or épées at dawn. In the city’s notorious tenderloin districts, brothels specialized in all manner of interracial mixing and arcane sexual practices, while narcotics, alcohol, and loud degenerate kinds of music filled the salon’s and dance halls, promoting deviant behaviour of all kinds.

The city was founded as a “French outpost in the early 1700s” but by the “latter half of the eighteenth century” was under Spanish rule. There’s a brief history sketched of the city’s shifting population, and I would have liked more, but the point is well made that New Orleans was a “confluence of races and ethnicities” that was decidedly different from other protestant, Lutheran or Baptist cities in America. I recently read 10 North Frederick by John O’Hara, and The Murder of Dr. Chapman, and even though both books (one fiction, the other non-fiction) were set in different centuries, the very fundamental protestant nature of the setting (Pennsylvania) was made quite clear.

Krist argues that by the end of the nineteenth century “respectability had become [such] a burning preoccupation among the ‘better element’ in New Orleans.” And although “gambling, prostitution, street violence, and bawdy entertainment had been a prominent feature of the city’s life for its entire history” many citizens wanted things to change. Part of the problem was that post-Reconstruction, “vice areas” had spread to both residential and commercial neighbourhoods, and it was not unheard of for a family to buy a home in a ‘decent’ neighborhood, but then wake up one day to find a brothel had sprung up next door.  By the “late 1880s, criminality of all types in the city seemed virtually out of control” with blacks and Italians frequently “scapegoated” for the rampant spread of crime.  Crime and Vice added to a corrupt city government burdened with debt left New Orleans, with open sewers and only a few homes with running water, “hopelessly backward, at least in terms of urban development.” The election of Joseph Shakepeare voted in on promises of reform began the “equivalent of an all out civil war” for the city.

There were plenty of casualties in the war, including police chief David Hennessy who’d cracked down on the wave of crime amongst Italians. This led to the infamous Parish Prison lynching–an incredible event–not only in its execution but in its complete lack of consequences in this so-called “spontaneous uprising of the people.” This is hardly the first or the last instance of vigilante justice in American history, but it’s certainly an extraordinary tale for the sheer number of people involved and the lack of anonymity in the face of frustration with the legal system.

Another large portion of the book, and for this reader the most interesting section of the book, follows the history (and the more famous inhabitants) of Storyville–an eighteen block area in which prostitution wasn’t legalized as much as it was made illegal outside of these limits. Also covered quite extensively is the rise of Jazz. Louis Armstrong’s memories of playing music in the brothels of Storyville are wonderful. Other salient sections include the exploits of the Black Hand and the crime spree of Robert Charles.

These are wild times, and of course, we know as we read the book that the wild times had to end. The demise of Storyville was celebrated by many, but there’s still a pervasive sense of desperation when we read about the secondhand dealers who flocked to Storyville to pick up antiques and opulent furnishings from “distressed prostitutes and madams.”

Louis Armstrong was there to witness the exodus. “It sure was a sad scene to watch the law run all those people out of Storyville,” he wrote years later. “They reminded me of refugees. Some of them had spent the best part of their lives there. Others had never known any other kind of life.”

Review copy

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No Strings by Mark SaFranco

“You know how it is. You hatch an idea, then grind it in your brain until it makes perfect sense. Until all the pieces fit–like when you finish off a big, elaborate jigsaw puzzle, except that you’re not playing a child’s game.”

No Strings from American author Mark SaFranco is a tightly focused claustrophobic tale which places us in the mind of a sociopath. 40-year-old Richard Martzen is married to the much older Monica, has a teenage daughter and lives in New Jersey. When the novel begins, would-be writer, Richard who works as a consultant with an ad agency, bored with his life, and fed up with looking at the cellulite on his wife’s legs, is planning on having an affair, but instead of just going out and actually doing it, Richard stages his plan. See the main problem is that Richard doesn’t want to put his cushy life with the very-wealthy Monica at risk. Trips to Europe, a swanky tudor-style mansion, and a black BMW convertible are some of the perks of being married to Monica, and Richard, the son of a dirt-poor coal miner from Pennsylvania, isn’t about to “downsize” by depriving himself of the goodies. First he deliberately “run[s] up the red flags of infidelity” and then after his wife’s suspicions are proven unfounded thanks to the efforts of an expensive PI agency hired by Monica, he strikes out on the internet. Using a fake name he places an ad for a ‘no strings’ relationship in Personal Connections, a “high-end, semi private newsletter that circulated throughout the entire metropolitan area.” Then he waits for the babes to reply with photos. The responses pour in…

It quickly got to the point where I could spot the mental cases a mile off, and right then and there I shredded their letters and pictures. The fatties and the anorexics, they went too.

Out of the stack of replies, Richard makes his top five choices, and then using a new e-mail address, he makes contact with his first choice, Gretchen–a looker who’s married to a much-older, wealthy Long Island estate attorney. To Richard, the set-up is prefect. Gretchen just wants hot sex and doesn’t want to lose her sugar daddy, and Richard wants afternoon adventures with no repercussions. What can go wrong?

No stringsThe single biggest problem with this novel is that Richard is so slimy, no downright nasty that the unpleasantness of being in his mind challenges the reader’s desire to read the story. He’s an absolute narcissist, self-focused, and repellent. The shell provided by Monica’s dough–fancy clothes, expensive wheels and the best address in New Jersey barely covers the machinations of this lowlife opportunist. For this reader, I knew Richard was going to get what he deserved, so I was committed to the ride. All of Richard’s self-congratulatory bragging about how clever he is in arranging for this ‘no-strings’ affair only builds the comeuppance we know awaits this slimeball.  The author never loses sight of Richard’s rock-solid-rottenness and so embellishes the tale with loads of darkly humorous details. Here’s a quote from Richard concerning Gretchen:

The last thing I wanted was a high-maintenance model on my hands full-time, and judging from her wardrobe alone, she required the best of everything. Good old Leonard was doing a better job of seeing to Gretchen’s needs than I ever could.

And here’s Richard, who perpetually sees himself as the victim of women, on why he can’t get published:

That’s what American editors and agents seemed to go for–foreigners. “Fresh voices,” they liked to call them. I guess that’s why I’d never gotten anywhere with my work–I was stale. I was white. I was American. I was a male. Publishing was run by women. Women were the agents. Women were the editors. Women were the readers.

Reminiscent of the works of Jason Starr, and written in a natural, straight-forward style, this was a quick read which slid along. In these days of the mega blockbuster Gone Girl (which annoyed me) and Before I Go To Sleep, both domestic thrillers which have been turned into films, No Strings, capitalizing on the visuals should make the Big Screen too.

Review copy

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