Tag Archives: class

The Living is Easy: Dorothy West

From the Harlem Renaissance, Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy is set in early twentieth century Boston. Cleo Judson, one of 4 daughters of black Southern sharecroppers, is the much younger wife of Banana King, Bart Judson. Immaculately dressed and constantly admonishing Judy, her 5 year-old daughter, in matters of deportment, Cleo is on a mission to move out of her current home–three rented furnished rooms “and the use of a kitchen and clothesline” in South Boston. With Judy “nearing school age,” Cleo has “no intention” of sending Judy off to school in the South End. She’s passed the schools often and doesn’t even want Judy to see these children–let alone mingle with them:

These midget comedians made Cleo feel that she was back in the Deep South. Their accents pricked her scalp. Their raucous laughter soured the sweet New England air. Their games were reminiscent of all the whooping and hollering she had indulged in before her emancipation. These r’aring tearing young ones had brought the folkways of the South to the classrooms of the North. Their numerical strength gave them the brass to mock their timid teachers and resist attempts to make them conform to the Massachusetts pattern.

Armed with forty-five dollars for upfront rent she wrested from her husband, Cleo is determined to leave South Boston behind. After all, “the nicer colored people, preceded by a similar class of white, were moving out of the South End.”

For years these Northern Negroes had lived next door to white neighbors and take pride in proximity. They viewed their southern brothers with alarm, and scatter all over the city and the suburbs to escape this plague of their own locusts.

Bart isn’t ready to easily discard their currently home with its modest rent, but Cleo argues that the rental is a great opportunity as they can send Judy to a school without “hoodlums.” They can also rent out rooms and make money. But Cleo’s private plan is to install her three sisters and their children in the home. She has no intention of running a boarding house. This act, this decision, is emblematic of Cleo’s relationship with her indulgent husband and her drive to leave her poverty-stricken roots behind. Brookline is a much desired neighborhood, and it’s here that Cleo meets the white owner of the ten-room house he intends to rent to a “respectable colored family.

Cleo’s potential landlord, the supposedly enlightened Mr. Van Ryper is moving from his current home due to an influx of Irish. To Van Ryper, “the Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians,” and he “refuse[s] to live in a neighborhood they are rapidly overrunning.” When Cleo misunderstands the motives behind Van Ryper’s White Flight, he gives Cleo a lecture about his family’s involvement in the Underground movement, but acknowledges that he can’t stand the Irish.

Once Cleo gets a rental agreement, we soon get the measure of her “secret life” when she inflates the cost of the rent and begins fabricating any expenses she can think of. In spite of the fact that all three of her sisters are in relationships, Cleo finagles the situation to get those sisters in Boston and away from the husbands she considered worthless. Poverty shapes people and race shapes people too. Here’s Cleo so determined never to be anyone’s slave that she keeps her husband, a man who adores her at arm’s length. There’s so much to admire in Cleo, a woman who’s come a long way, but the scars of gender and race inequality have crippled and blinded her emotionally and those nearest and dearest pay the price.

It had never occurred to her in the ten years of her marriage that she might be his helpmate. She thought that was the same thing as being a man’s slave.

She had told Mr. Judson on the night of their marriage that she wasn’t born to lick the boots of anybody living. It was dawn before she got through telling him what she would and wouldn’t do, and by then it was time for him to get up and go downtown to regulate the heat in his banana rooms.

The tale shows Cleo’s sharp nature–especially when she deals with people who stand in the way of what she wants and judges best–even if those decisions involve the personal lives and loves of her sisters. There’s a great scene which involves Miss Johnson, a former maid and the Judsons’ soon-to-be former landlady. The elderly Miss Johnson, who has no children of her own, loves Judy but Cleo considers Miss Johnson to be a contaminating influence and is horrified to think that through Miss Johnson, Judy may have learned about slavery. Cleo wants her daughter to “hold her head up first,” before she has to learn about the recent past. There are a few overly sentimental scenes involving “the Duchess,” and a marriage based on business which seemed a little out of place with the rest of this tart tale of the clash of races, classes, and gender.

Review copy

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Filed under West Dorothy

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the mini-series The Slap–the story of what happens when a man slaps a child at a neighbourhood barbecue. The premise itself didn’t sound that gripping to be honest, but the reality, as the episodes followed the fallout, was riveting. So when Sue (aka Gummie) from Whispering Gums read and reviewed Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda earlier this year, I knew I wanted to read it. Barracuda is just one of the two nicknames given to Danny Kelly by other young boys on his swimming team. The other nickname, not so pleasant, is Psycho Kelly. Which one is accurate? Answer: well they both are.

BarracudaDanny Kelly, the son of a Irish/Scottish long distance lorry driver and a glamorous attractive Greek hairdresser mother, comes from an intensely working-class background when he’s poached from his working class school by the swimming coach of “Cunts College” as Danny likes to derisively call it. Cunts College is an elite Melbourne school and with a full scholarship, Danny transfers from his socioeconomic peer group into the school for the “filthy rich.” Just given the basic premise, this is a recipe for disaster.

It was like his two worlds were parts of different jigsaw puzzles. At first, he’d tried to fit the pieces together but he couldn’t do it; it was impossible. So he kept them separate: some pieces belonged on this side of the river, to the wide tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Toorak and Armadale, and some belonged to the flat uniform suburbs in which he lived.

While Danny doesn’t blend in with the boys at his new school, there’s one place he’s can’t be beaten, and that’s in the school’s swimming pool. He’s not at the school long before he feels that “only in the water did he feel like himself. Only in the water did he feel he could escape them.” While other boys have their body hair removed professionally, Danny’s mother uses an old-fashioned razor. While the other boys have “shiny new speedos,” Danny wears cheap trunks. The difference between Danny and the other boys at the school cannot be breached, and even when slight relationships form after Danny’s talent, bravado, and aggression win him a tentative acceptance, these relationships are fraught with tension and class-awareness and everything is held together by Danny’s ability to win at swimming competitions: “he knew that hate was what he would use, what he would remember, what would make him a better swimmer.” This makes for a high stakes situation with an Olympic gold medal as the eventual goal and his ticket to fame and success:

He hated them, he absolutely hated them, the golden boys. He hated their blondness, their insincere smiles, their designer sunglasses, their designer swimmers and their designer sports gear. They made him feel dark and short and dirty. He detested them and he couldn’t wait till he was wearing those sunglasses, till he had those brand names across his sweatshirt

The novel  begins with Danny living in Scotland and then goes back to 1994  when Danny first transfers to the posh Melbourne school. The novel concludes in 2012 for a total time span of 18 years and covers significant incidents in Danny’s life–a life in which Danny’s self-loathing coats his actions. This self-loathing is an impenetrable membrane, and it doesn’t matter who believes in Danny–his mother, his coach, his handful of friends, Danny loathes himself so much, that we know the anger summering beneath the surface will eventually explode in the most self-destructive manner possible. Danny’s coach, at one point, tells Danny that he can help him build muscles and improve technique, but that he can’t do anything about what goes on in Danny’s head, and as it turns out, this is Danny’s greatest stumbling block: not other swimmers, not other students at the school. He is his own worst enemy.

That afternoon, when he dived into the pool, that was when he finally spoke. He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every kick and stroke declare his hate. And the water obey; the water would give him his revenge. No one could beat him, not one of the pricks came close.

We see Danny make horrendous mistakes. Removed from his socioeconomic peer group, and given this fantastic ‘chance’ to train for Olympic competition there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Danny, and author Christos Tsiolkas conveys that pressure while very cleverly making Danny’s self-loathing the central issue rather than his homosexuality. The book really gets to the heart of class conflict. Danny, in a David Copperfield sort-of-way, is invited to share space with some of the wealthiest people in Melbourne. Danny is made to feel inferior, and he reacts with more self-loathing and shame, but there’s also no small amount of class envy. In one great scene, he’s invited to a dinner party for the matriarch of the Taylors, a wealthy family whose members fall over themselves to pay homage to the Grande Dame who holds the family purse strings.

The old woman whispered, “Come closer.”

Danny lowered his head.

“I’ve always admired the working class, my dear, always. Like us, you know exactly who you are. But look at them.” She waved a hand dismissively at the others at the table. “They have no idea how abysmal they are. Lord, how I detest the middle class.”

Danny looked into her bright shining eyes and knew he had just been given a gift, but he didn’t know how to unwrap it, could not figure out how to accept it. The old woman shrugged and rose from her chair, dropping her napkin onto the table.

Mrs. Taylor looked up. “Mother,” she blurted out, “you mustn’t smoke.”

“Oh, fuck off, Samantha,” the  old woman replied as she followed her son out to the courtyard.

Danny’s self loathing is so destructive that he lashes out at everyone who tries to help him, and there are times when Tsiolkas risks, alienating his readers from this character. He’s angry, unpleasant and yet we realize that there’s a brittle ego underneath. A deadly combination as it turns out. I found myself trying to reason with Danny at several points, but of course Danny has to hit rock bottom before he can turn his life around. On one level, the book argues well that talent and skill are not the only elements to make a champion, but there’s a bigger picture here, and that’s taking responsibility for your actions:

You construct a ladder and you climb that ladder, out of the hell you have created for yourself and back into the real world.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Tsiolkas Christos

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal

Somehow or another I missed all the headlines about the man who posed as a Rockefeller for over a decade, so when I came across a non-fiction book on the subject, I decided to read it. After all, it taps into my crime fetish, and I was curious to see just how a penniless German teenager managed to pretend he was a Rockefeller while he mingled with the upper-crusty set in America.

For those who know nothing about this case, Christian Kark Gerhartsreiter, a 17-year-old German came to America in 1978 on a tourist visa and stayed. How he morphed into Clark Rockefeller, and more importantly how he convinced everyone in his social orbit that he was one of the members of this famous family, is at the heart of this incredible tale.  As author Mark Seal notes, Gerhartsreiter’s story is “more bizarre that any gifted writer of fiction could possibly invent.”

Seal painstakingly tracked down people who knew ‘Rockefeller’ in all of his many manifestations and various personas, and he also actually went to the places that Gerhartsreiter lived. The book begins with the July 2008 parental kidnapping of Rockefeller’s daughter, and then tracks how the FBI got involved, and how the FBI discovered that Clark Rockefeller did not exist. From this point, the author goes back in time covering Gerhartsreiter’s life in Germany, his relocation to America in 1978, and just how his identities began shifting once he arrived. This really is an amazing story, and for anyone remotely interested in this particular story or shapeshifters in general, I can heartily recommend this well-researched, highly-readable book.

One of the points that the author makes repeatedly is that the fake ‘Rockefeller’ (and I’m going to refer to Gerhartsreiter as that) was like a “human sponge.” From the moment he arrived in America and started being obnoxious with his “host” family (he pretended to be a student), he soaked up everything he saw or watched on television. It wasn’t long before this shapeshifter moved onto California which makes perfect sense as he was thrilled with film. In California,  Gerhartsreiter developed what was to become his MO. Given Gerhartsreiter’s intelligence, it can’t be a coincidence that he picked San Marino for his hunting ground. It’s a wealthy community and here from 1981-1985 with the new name “Christopher Chichester” he hung out at the churches of the rich and lied, smarmed, and name-dropped his way into everyone’s homes:

It made sense that Chichester had chosen to live in a city with one of the foremost libraries in America, since libraries were a key part of his existence wherever he went. He spent much of his time in them, studying how to become someone else.

Seal painstakingly tracked Chichester/Gerhartsreiter/Rockefeller’s adventures in America and the various aliases and personas he adopted as “he tried on various names for size,” and there’s a very long list: Dr. Christopher Rider, Chris Crowe, Charles Smith, Chip Smith, Christopher Chichester, Christopher Chichester XIIIth baronet, Christopher Mountbatten Chichester (my personal favourite), and of course, the biggie–Clark Rockefeller. The fake names were accompanied by the most fantastic stories of his background; he was  “passing himself off as a computer expert, film producer and stockbroker,”  related to British Royalty, the son of a silent film star, blah, blah. These are just some of the creative and fictional details added to the tall tales he told. And the crazy thing is that some of his stories didn’t even make sense; at one point for example, he claimed to have inherited a medieval cathedral and that he wanted to relocate it to San Marino. The preposterousness of this plan didn’t even raise any eyebrows!

At one point, Gerhartsreiter/Crowe was bragging about the Ferraris, the Alfa Romeos, and the Lamborghinis he owned, but then he showed up with a ’65 chevy that was “belching more smoke than Mount St Helen’s.” He certainly wasn’t short on audacity. The author emphasizes Rockefeller’s “customary uniform,” the particular outfits he wore: “he dressed exclusively in the uniform  of the Wasp aristocracy,” and the props he used that convinced the people he met that he was a stray yachtsman:

Well-worn khakis, a sky blue Lacoste shirt with the crocodile embroidered over the heart, Top-sider shoes (as always without socks), and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the word Yale. He adjusted his heavy black-framed glasses, which some people thought brought Nelson Rockefeller to mind.

Chichester/Gerhartsreiter moved on from San Marino rather suddenly, and as the book reveals, in 2011, he was charged with an 1985 murder that occurred in a house in which he lived. In 1985, leaving San Marino behind,  Gerhartsreiter headed back east, and then became Christopher Chichester Crowe who’d managed the mythical Battenberg-Crowe-von Wettin Family Foundation. Apparently just hanging out at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, showing off photos of the fantastic houses he claimed he owned, our man pretended to be a bond trader/ TV producer and landed a $125,000 a year  job (not counting “perks and bonuses.”). Apparently no one checked to see if Christopher Chichester Crowe (also known as CCC) was who he claimed to be or if his credentials were legit. He was eventually fired BTW. And in 1988, CCC disappeared….

But no matter, because CCC now morphed into Clark Rockefeller, and what a succesful deception that turned out to be. As Clark Rockefeller he wooed and in 1993, he  married a talented, ambitious woman who was soon earning millions a year. My favourite part of the book takes place when the author travels to Cornish, New Hampshire where the “Rockefellers” settled. Big mistake–the Cornish natives didn’t exactly take to Rockefeller’s notion of being landed gentry. The people of Cornish seem to operate on the principal that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or what your last name is, you still can’t go around acting like a dickhead.

In spite of all the tall tales Rockefeller eagerly told, NO ONE checked him out or tried to substantiate the wild fantasies that spewed forth regarding his background. He was invited into people’s lives, their homes, their businesses and was handed high-paying jobs, free meals, you name it.

Ultimately The Man in the Rockefeller Suit tells us a lot about America, and the attitudes and protections afforded to those who claim the so-called great names and/or wealth (Not that it’s much different anywhere else, but there’s this myth that America is supposed to be a classless society). As the author interviews those duped by Rockefeller while he operated under various aliases, he reinforces the idea that “Rockefeller had the kind of peculiarities” that were expected from the very rich, so people accepted Rockefeller’s at-times bizarre behaviour as the sort of normal eccentricity of the filthy rich. Here’s one example: Rockefeller invited people to lunch at expensive restaurants but then they had to pay as he didn’t carry cash!!!

In many ways, the story of this serial imposter reminds me very much of the man who impersonated Stanley Kubrick. There are some glaring similarities in the two cases when it comes the imposter’s ability to wedge himself in and exploit people, and also the fact that in both situations, people really wanted to believe that they were rubbing shoulders with Kubrick and Rockefeller. It’s important to keep in mind that the many, many people fooled by Rockefeller and then interviewed for this book operate in hindsight. A few people noted that his accent wasn’t quite right, but it’s rare that anyone interviewed says something along the lines of ‘I was an idiot,’ or ‘the clues were staring me in the face.’ Instead for the most part, those who knew this faker state that he was very credible, “brilliant” and carried himself like a blue-blooded New Englander.  Author Seal is very generous to those who granted him interviews, and he doesn’t ask some of the hard questions that I found myself asking.

The fake Rockefeller comes across as a terrible snob, and he deliberately mingled with the sort of people who went all gooey about the Rockefeller name. You can almost hear those he fooled falling over themselves, and if I had to carry away just one thing from this incredible story it’s that if you can convince people that you’re a Vanderbilt, a Getty, or a Rockefeller, doors will open wide for you, and you will be able to get away, quite literally, with murder.

Review copy courtesy of netgalley and read on my kindle.


Filed under Non Fiction, Seal Mark

The Old Romantic by Louise Dean

Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Louise Dean’s novel, Becoming Strangers, and then this year I was fortunate indeed to get my hands on a review copy of Dean’s latest, The Old Romantic. It’s reviewed at Mostly Fiction, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but here’s a brief outline:

The novel begins with a reunion-from-hell for the long-estranged Goodyew family. Barrister Nick has spent years avoiding his parents, and part of that avoidance is manifested in his attempts to reinvent himself. He used to be called Gary, and when he dropped the name and attended university, he left his working class roots behind. Or so he thought.

The reunion takes place at Xmas with Nick and his girlfriend, upwardly mobile spa owner Astrid, picking up Nick’s grumpy old dad, Ken and his second wife, June for Xmas dinner at the home of Nick’s younger brother Dave. Within just a couple of pages, we see a tangled mess of relationships and the sort of nasty remarks that are only ever directed towards family members. The rest of the novel follows the relationships between the Goodyew family as various events occur.

If you’ve ever wondered why you bother with your relatives, then chances are you will enjoy the book. It’s lively and very, very bitterly funny in its exploration of family politics.  Nick’s dad Ken is arguably the star of the show, and as the book continues there are many hilarious scenes which made me laugh out loud. One of the best scenes takes place at a swanky restaurant at dinner attended by Astrid’s parents, the snobbish Linda and Malcolm, Nick and Astrid, and Nick’s dad Ken. This is an important meal, Ken is the unexpected guest, and Astrid’s parents receive no advance warning. Ken (who reminds me a great deal of Albert Steptoe) dominates:

Ken slapped the closed menu down onto the table. ‘All too dear,’ he said, tight-lipped and final.

Nick’s professional experience in dealing with difficult people in challenging circumstances persuaded him to coax the old boy.

‘It’s actually very reasonable, Dad. A nice, elegant menu, not too pretentious. If you tot it up, it works out quite a good deal if each of us takes the prix fixe.’

But he wasn’t speaking Ken’s language. ‘Too dear.’ Ken reiterated.

‘There’s liver and bacon, Dad, on at fifteen. You like liver and bacon, don’t you? That’s right up your street.’

‘Do me a favour! Fifteen nicker for a bit of offal. They sin you coming, sunshine.’ Ken made a bid of the other couple’s opinion. ‘What d’you think, Malcolm? Dear, innit?’

Nick leant back in his chair, putting his mouth close to his father’s ear, to escape the audible range of their table.

‘Just fucking order something, all right?’

Ken closed his eyes.

A bit later, Ken makes his menu choice:

Ken cleared his throat. ‘I’ll have the tamada soup.’

‘The…what’s that? I can’t see it on the menu….’ said Linda, with murderous eloquence.

‘There’s always a tamada soup on the menu.’

Malcolm tried to look wry and debonair, both old-fashioned and modern, with one side of his face doing the 1950s and the other lost in space.

‘Tomato soup.’ Astrid came to the rescue. ‘As in Heinz.’

‘That’s the job,’ said Ken.

‘He doesn’t get out much,’ said Nick to the waitress.

‘And tap water, please,’ said Ken. ‘From the tap, please, miss. Yes. Thank you. And I’ll have some bread with my soup, ta. I don’t drink much, do you Linda? Don’t feel the need.’

So two winners in a row from Dean. 


Filed under Dean Louise, Fiction