Simone meets Al Jolson.

6 Jul


We’re in Pensacola for a stint, it won’t stop raining, and Simone keeps watching The Al Jolson Story with my dad.

She loves it. She can’t quite follow the story, so she’s been making up her own, narrating the movie into a bizarre quest where Jolson is looking for his sister, I think? And trying to stop the jealousy of his brothers by singing really well. It changes each time she watches it.

The movie is fascinating, very fine if eccentric and hard to define. It has a lengthy sequence where Jolson is cutting his teeth in the entertainment business as a minstrel singer. The minstrel scenes are unsettling to watch, but they are a faithful record of a major strand of entertainment, and the movie documents them well. Jolson isn’t racist—or, being Jewish, he’s less racist than the other people in the movie—and he wants to move the minstrel show out of its narrow confines, bring in Jazz and more modern ideas. For this, he’s bounced.

The movie then follows his ascendancy as a stage actor. His ego balloons. His need for validation and praise become a millstone around his neck, destroying his marriage and leaving him a dancing body and singing face with little heart or soul. He becomes a huge star on Broadway, at the expense of anything resembling a close friend.

The songs are great, if a touch dated, and the movie is fascinating, almost thrilling, despite its length and (relatively) slow pace. It’s a time capsule. And one of the best entertainment biographies ever made. Jolson’s voice is one in a million, deep and sonorous, kind of throaty, kind of scratchy, kind of bronchial and chesty, often booming. He’s one of the greatest of crooners, with a voice that rips and roars through the speakers.

Jolson wanted to play himself in the movie, as a young upstart making his way through the business. He was 59 when the movie was made.


Simone’s diet has changed. She doesn’t eat much, subsisting mostly on purple yogurt (yogurt with frozen blueberries) and Bebel cheese. She also loves chicken sausage, which pales my vegetarian heart. The trip has exaggerated these tendencies. Today, she ate two purple popsicles, a few bites of eggs, a few bites of noodles, and five kilos of cheese.

Pearl is the opposite. She eats constantly, like some medieval knight after a long day’s slaughter. Her favorite food is blueberries, which is also one of her first words. She also loves peaches, nectarines, eggs, avocado, noodles, and, yes, sausage. Also, scraps of paper on the floor, chess pieces, magnets, my shoulders and nose, and, when she’s angry, Simone’s arms.

She can run and climb, which is wild. It isn’t uncommon for us to find her sitting on a table or standing on a chair. She remains an impish presence. She loves to raise both hands in the air and scream, “Yeah!”


I’m slowly, with Beth’s help, working my way through the novellas for a third pass. More to come.

I’ve been reading a ton. I read James Salter’s All That Is. It’s superb, elegant, melancholy, and laced with exquisite sex scenes. Here’s one: “. . . . She wanted to be liked. Later they came into the kitchen and drank some wine. Eddins was sitting sideways to the table. Without a word she knelt in front of him and began, a little awkwardly because she was near-sighted, to unfasten his clothing. The zipper of his pants melted, tooth by tooth. She was a little nervous, but it was almost as she had pictured it, the Apis bull. Smooth and just swelling his cock almost fell into her mouth and gaining confidence she began. It was the act of a believer. She had never done it before, not with her husband, not with anyone. This was what it was like, to do things you had never done before, only imagined. The light was soft, late in the day. It just sort of flopped out, she later wrote in her diary. He must of been thinking about it. It was ready.” I’ve liked Salter for years, and his latest novel doesn’t disappoint.

Among other things, I also read Frye Galliard’s The Books That Mattered. It’s his personal evolution with literature and writers. I’m a sucker for book’s like this; David Denby’s The Great Books is one of the best books I read last year—he’s a film critic who decides to take the Great Books courses at NYU, when he was in his late forties—and probably the best book on the culture wars of the 1990s. Gailliard’s book is simpler, but very, very good. His picks are often predictable—who doesn’t love Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird?—but he manages to situate them in his own reading life in a way that makes them seem new.

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