Tag Archives: prohibition

Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis (1929)

Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth is another look at that fascinating figure in literature: the American Abroad, and this time it’s 50-year-old car manufacturer, Sam Dodsworth. In this novel which contrasts American and European values and manners, Dodsworth’s business sells to a larger competitor, and feeling at loose ends, he is persuaded to take an extended holiday to Europe by his wife, Fran. The book opens with a short chapter depicting Dodsworth as a young man courting Fran who has just returned from a year in Europe with a veneer of European sophistication. The first chapter is important as it lays a foundation for the story to come. When Sam’s business sells, Fran, leaps at the opportunity to travel. According to her, the small mid-western town of Zenith, a place they’ve “drained everything from,” offers nothing in comparison to the proposed delights of Europe.

Dodsworth, ambitious and driven, is an extremely successful, well-liked man and yet somehow, his wife always manages to diminish him. It’s clear that a trip to Europe will make Dodsworth, very much a home-body, feel like a fish out-of-water. And at first this seems to be true. Trouble begins for Dodsworth quite quickly in the novel when Fran begins a flirtation on board the liner sailing to London. The flirtation becomes one of a series of relationships Fran, a vain, shallow, selfish, pretentious woman, has with various European men.

Dodsworth and Fran, now in middle age (although Fran is quite a bit younger) are depicted as suffering their own crises. Dodsworth’s identity has long been tied to his automobile company, and so he’s cast adrift when he sells his business. Fran, on the other hand, is frantically trying to escape from her age. From almost the moment she raises the idea of a prolonged European sojourn, the desire is connected to the key, transparent revelation that European men admire older women and appreciate them. Then there’s the way she hides the fact that she’s a grandmother.

One theme in the novel is the topic of American snobbery (yes snobbery is alive and well in America!) We meet several ex-pat Americans, and it’s fashionable, possibly even essential in the company of these ex-pats to denigrate Americans and American culture. This is somehow part of the separation of ‘those’ Americans from other Americans who either want to, or imagine that they can blend in with the locals. Fran is insufferable. As the wife of a Zenith car manufacturer, she was a big fish in a small pond. She ruled the roost, and Sam was fine with that as she had a limited, constricted role. Unleashed in Europe, Fran’s snobbery embarrasses Sam repeatedly, and he discovers that in her new environment, Fran’s worst characteristics emerge. In the marital relationship, she’s in the wrong repeatedly, but with “a genius for keeping herself superior,” she flips the cards and turns herself into a victim who is always trying to ‘help’ Sam learn how to behave. It’s no surprise that genuinely nice people drop Fran so that ultimately she’s surrounded by European versions of her nasty self.

But really this is Dodsworth’s story and the tale of his growth as a human being. At first he doesn’t want to travel to Europe, but he goes along with Fran’s desires. Sam very quickly learns that he’s an unwanted presence at Fran’s side, but he opens himself to experience and all that Europe has to offer while Fran intrigues, flirts (possibly misreads signals), and plays the coy innocent with various men. Then when things with Fran become untenable, Sam returns to America. He toys with an ambition to become involved in building a community but when Fran’s telegrams (demanding more money) become alarming he returns to Europe–which, to his surprise, he liked more than he expected. The man who never wanted to leave Zenith discovers that while he still loves his country, the American way of life is different from the European way of life; the values are different.

Do you know, I had the feeling of leisure in France and England. I felt there as though people made their jobs work for them; they didn’t give up their lives to working for their jobs. And I felt as though there was such a devil of a lot to learn about the world that we’re too busy to learn here. 

One striking aspect of Dodsworth is how prohibition looms prominently in the novel. On returning to New York in the Aquitania, Dodsworth can’t wait to set foot back on American soil, and he and fellow American passenger, Ross Ireland exchange comments about how much they missed and love America. Reality hits when Dodsworth is caught smuggling booze into the country and then, facing a dry evening, he decides to call his bootlegger. The hustle and bustle of American life, while it was longed for in Paris, soon grates on Dodsworth.

He realized that this capital, barbaric with gold and marble, provided every human necessity save a place, a cafe or a plaza or a not-too-lady-like tea-shop, in which he could sit and be human.

This is a slow, imperfect novel, and it took me quite a while to finish it–not to mention that it took me 28 years to pick it up and start reading it. Dodsworth isn’t exactly an exciting or witty fellow. There are some racial slurs and at one point, Dodsworth threatens to spank Fran–a threat that has not aged well. Sam and Fran’s inequitable relationship would have seemed a little unbelievable if not for the first chapter which sets the scene for Sam seen as socially inferior by Fran, but even so I had to remind myself of that first chapter from time to time. And Fran’s whole European trip as a teenager brings up the issue of European exposure as a sort of tainting experience since Fran comes home to Zenith with an inflated idea of herself and then more than 20 years later prances around Europe acting as if she knows everything and can speak French like a native. There are some marvellous, marvellous moments here–at one point, Sam’s friend Tubs comes to Paris with his plump wife, Matey, in tow and when Sam takes them to a posh restaurant, Tubs’ behaviour is horribly embarrassing. He calls the poor waiter a Frog and asks if he “sprechen Sie pretty good English.”

And here’s a final quote as an example why this novel is well worth reading in spite of its flaws 90 years after its first publication.

We boast of scientific investigation, and yet we’re the only supposedly civilized country in the world where thousands of supposedly sane citizens will listen to an illiterate clodhopping preacher or politician setting himself up as an authority on biology and attacking evolution. 

Advertisements

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lewis Sinclair

Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets by Scott M. Deitche

“People act differently sometimes when they’re drunk. They bother me.” (Lucky Luciano)

Scott M. Deitche’s book, Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets pays homage to the “intertwining of alcohol and the underworld.” Watch any classic noir or crime film, and you can’t help but be impressed at the way the characters knock back booze regardless of the time of day or the company they keep, and Deitche’s book effectively taps into that by-gone era. This book’s first chapter: The Dark Corner with Cocktail in Hand talks about “the rise of cocktail culture,” the revival of certain classic cocktails and includes recipes of such cocktails as the Negroni, the Stork Club Cooler and the Sloe Gin Fizz.

After this introduction, the author moves to the subject of Prohibition and discusses the various types of alcohol prevalent during this period: Rum, the entrepreneurial upswing in Moonshine, and Whiskey. While I knew about the Volstead Act’s “ban on consumption of alcohol up to twelve miles offshore,” I was unaware that this law paved the way to the birth of the “booze cruise.” Make a law and people find ways to get around it….

cocktail noirOther chapters (all with an emphasis on alcohol) include: Crime Novelists and their Characters, Mob Authors, Cocktail Noir on Screen, Bar Noir (“A tour through the best of these watering holes,”) and Gangster Bars (includes a page on the Stork Club and another on The Cotton Club). Each chapter includes photos and, of course, cocktail recipes, so we read about authors’ favourite drinks, crime bosses’ chosen drinks and the various places they hung out.

This is not an in-depth non fiction exploration of prohibition, but short, fact-filled, theme-based chapters, accompanied by some great quotes, and with the content leaning towards trivia, linking alcohol and organized crime. Some of the trivia is regarding figures from the 70s and 80s, so this book is not about prohibition–although that’s where it starts. I could almost call this a coffee-table book, but that would not be accurate. While the book has 237 pages, it’s undersized; you can hold it in one hand and have a cocktail in the other. This book is targeted for noir/crime lovers, those who wish to try some of the classic recipes mentioned in noir fiction and film, and would make a great gift for the noir aficionado in your life. And honestly, you have to be curious about a drink called The Corpse Reviver, don’t you?

Review copy

16 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

Whom Gods Destroy: Clifton Adams (1953)

“The Blue Star was one of those cement-block and stucco buildings that you seen thrown up along highways around towns like Big Prairie. In the daytime they look like misplaced chicken houses, but at night, with their neon trimmings and their tinted floodlights bathing false fronts in soft blues and purples, they take on a kind of cheap glamour.” 

Death’s Sweet Song, is the story of Hooper, a WWII vet saddled with a mortgaged gas station and five cabins which theoretically are supposed to be filled with tourists. Many people would envy a man who owns his own business, but to Hooper, the gas station is a trap which threatens a lifetime of hard work and very little recompense. When a man and his blonde sexy wife drive into the station, Hooper throws himself headlong into a life of crime, hoping that he can escape to the type of life he longs for. After reading, and thoroughly enjoying Death’s Sweet Song, I quickly turned to Whom Gods Destroy as both novels come in a double-bill from Stark House Press.

Death's sweet songWhom Gods Destroy, also from Clifton Adams is an examination of the corrosive nature of hate and revenge as seen through the rise and fall of Roy Foley, a man who returns home to Oklahoma following the death of his father. Foley, born in an Oklahoma slum in the small town of Big Prairie, once had dreams to attend college on a football scholarship and become a doctor or a lawyer, but taunted by wealthy teen beauty, Lola, Foley ran off rather than face his humiliation. When the novel opens, Foley is working as a cook in some hash joint when he gets the news of his father’s death.

I was in Bakersfield, California when the news came. It was the busiest part of the lunch hour and I was slicing tomatoes to go with two orders of cutlets when the Western Union kid came back to the kitchen and said, “You Roy Foley?”

I said I was and he handed me the telegram and a pad to sign.

Somebody was dead. I knew that much because, in my family, that’s the only thing a telegram can mean. For a moment I held the envelope in my hand, looking at it, knowing what was in it, and feeling absolutely nothing. Not even curiosity. The orders were piling up and it seemed more important to get those orders out than to see what was in the telegram.

So I went ahead and fixed up the two orders of cutlets and dished up the vegetables and put the two platters in the service window. Then there was a little breathing spell so I took out the envelope and opened it. It said; “George passed away today. Funeral Friday.” It was signed “May Lou Smothers.”

So help me, it took a full minute or more before it finally came to me that “George” was my old man.

About that time Charley Burnstead, the counter man, put his head in the  service window  and said, “Burn two on one!”

I put the two hamburgers on the grill and split the buns and put them on to toast. That was the way I  got the news.

Foley sells his car and heads back to his small hometown of Big Prairie, Oklahoma where he reconnects with Sid, a man who once lived in very similar circumstances. Now Sid, although almost perpetually drunk, has managed to climb the rungs to success. He drives a flashy car, lives in a nice house, and appears to have hit the big time. His secret…Prohibition. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, Prohibition was not appealed in Oklahoma until 1959, and when Foley meets up with Sid, Sid is making sure that the voters keep Prohibition alive and well in Oklahoma. Hell, it’s good for business!

Foley takes one good hard look at boozed-up Sid and decides that if this idiot can make it, so can he, and he expresses interest in learning the bootlegging business. Sid is only too happy to throw a carrot his friend’s way. Soon Foley, starting at the bottom of the ladder as a humble runner, is learning the business and plotting to take over the town.

While Death’s Sweet Song is the story of a heist, Whom Gods Destroy is the story of how hate and revenge fuel one man’s rise and fall. Foley arrives in Big Prairie and decides that he wants some of the sweet money action for himself, but he’s initially a powerless punk. He makes a grab for a higher rung on the ladder but continually finding himself thrown out of the game, he scrambles to find a way back in in an ever-repeating cycle of creating bargaining chips. In Death’s Sweet Song, there were two women on opposite ends of the decent-rotten scale. The two women in Whom Gods Destroy,  Vida married to Sid and Lola now married to the county attorney, aren’t so easily defined. Foley has a love/hate thing for Lola, and those two feelings are so twisted together, they can’t be separated.–at times his desire for her blinds him to all other considerations, and it seems as though with his obsession to ‘show’ Lola he can’t make a move without being reminded of his humiliation, back in high school, at Lola’s hands.

Just as Hooper in Death’s Sweet Song lays bare his raw justification for murder, Foley painfully, and unsparingly rolls out his humiliations and the rage that carries the seeds of his own destruction. Lola is the first and most significant person to humiliate Foley, and then the novel comes full cycle when he learns just what a coward he is in an incident involving Vida. In between these two events: Lola at high school, and much much later with Vida, a lifetime has passed. Foley has beaten and murdered his way to the top, but what has changed? Absolutely nothing, and that is the moral abyss that faces Foley–not what he has done, but what he failed to do. I can’t praise this little known noir novel enough.

8 Comments

Filed under Adams Clifton, Fiction

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

“The night,” Joe said. “Tastes too good. You live by day, you play by their rules. So we live by night and play by ours.”

While I watched the film Mystic River and enjoyed it, I’ve always passed on Dennis Lehane novels, but his latest, Live By Night sounded too good to miss. The book, which screams for a film adaptation, is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, the son of a prominent Boston police officer. Just as I finished the book, I read that Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company bought the film rights. I hope that DiCaprio takes the main role as he’d be my pick for Joe Coughlin.

The book begins very strongly and drops us right in the action with Joe about to meet his death:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life–good or bad–had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

Now with an opening like that, how can you not continue?

From this point, the novel goes back in time and the story picks up in 1926, with Joe, a 19-year-old hood who works for bootlegger Tim Hickey, knocking off a speakeasy with the Bartolo brothers. Joe is initially unaware that the joint belongs to Hickey’s arch-enemy Albert White, and he’s also unaware that the cool, unflappable girl who serves the drinks, Emma Gould, is also Albert’s mistress. Joe is too young and too smitten to read the danger signals:

Behind Emma’s pale eyes and pale skin lay something coiled and caged. And not caged in a way that it wanted to come out. Caged in a way that demanded nothing come in.

It’s with the introduction of Emma that we see Joe’s major character traits–both the flaws and the weaknesses as he makes decisions that will come back to haunt him for the rest of his life. Live By Night is the bio of Joe who eventually becomes a major Irish-American gangster–or outlaw as he prefers to be called. Joe’s life is defined by its times, so the backdrop to Joe’s illegal life is the fallout from the 1919 Boston Police Strike which devastated Joe’s family, Prohibition and the Depression. While Joe’s former Boston Police force brothers have been cast adrift by the strike, Joe has taken another path entirely, and at thirteen, he was a ‘juvenile delinquent,’ knocking off newsstands with his partners-in-crime, the Bartolo brothers. Joe makes the choice to “live by night” and doesn’t see too great a difference between supposedly legal and illegal lives, and gradually he builds an empire, an illegal life built in response to the times.

There are a couple of times throughout the novel when it’s not certain whether Joe will survive, and so it’s evidence of the novel’s strengths that the scenes are packed with tension even though that we know on the first page that he has survived at least several decades. The plot, packed with some great scenes, is arguably stronger for about the first half of the novel as Joe struggles to survive through various hostile situations, and as Lehane illustrates, through Joe’s choices, we see that character is fate.

“Someone else–a real good egg of a fella–will stand up for you in the yard or in the mess hall. And after he backs the other man down, he’ll offer you his protection for the length of your sentence. Joe? Listen to me. That’s the man you hurt. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough to hurt you. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough again to hurt you. You take his elbow or his kneecap. Or both.”

After the halfway point, for this reader, the novel’s pacing slowed down, and the second half of the novel is dominated by a love story. While I still enjoyed the tale of a gangster’s genesis shaped by the excesses and lucrative vices buried deep in the repressive layers of American culture, and the faithful creation of a flawed man, there’s a tiny bit of moralizing that creeps in here as he faces off not just other gangs but the KKK and religious nutcases, so that Joe becomes an iconic figure, wise, just, and meting out decisions that would have made Solomon wonder if he’d done the right thing. It’s just a bit overdone, and for this reader, Joe’s not a ruthless enough creation. We see Joe, an intelligent character make choices that are not always the smartest but which are pivotal to his character. There’s part of Joe, no matter how succesful he becomes, that’s uncomfortable with the uglier side of his life, but Joe chooses to bury those aspects of his profession, and the author follows suit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is undermined by having Joe as the most self-actualized character in the novel, and the result is a dissonance that introduces character credibility issues.  That complaint aside, I can see this will make a brilliant film.

Live by Night is flawed but I’d hazard a guess that the flaws won’t deter Lehane fans, and I would certainly read another novel by this author. Apparently Lehane’s earlier novel The Given Day (called the author’s opus by some of his fans) includes the story of Joe’s family against the backdrop of Boston history, and after finishing Live by Night, I bought the earlier novel.

Review copy

 

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lehane Dennis