Archive | June, 2014

Interlude 2: World Cup/random thoughts.

23 Jun

(Rewriting, editing, tweaking, obsessing, procrastinating. And reading. Just finished Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God. Now reading Eric Lundgren’s The Facades and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, with Balzac and A.S. Byatt and Ross McDonald waiting in the wings.)


Soccer is a cruel mistress. Ask any fan.

Last night, the U.S. conceded a goal with mere seconds left in the game, leaving us in the precarious position of having to draw with Germany to go through, or to lose by less goals than Portugal wins, or for a tie between Portugal and Ghana. We have once again snatched defeat at the jaws of victory.

The ecstasy of going ahead of Portugal with Clint Dempsey’s late-game stomach thrust was trammeled, flattened, paved over, forgotten. Leaving instead a dull feeling of foolishness. How did I let myself get sucked in again?

There’s this underlying notion—and I know it’s nonsense—that if I just care a little bit more, the U.S. will emerge victorious.

I’ve played soccer since I was six, club ball since I was 12. I had a scholarship to play in college. I was captain of almost every team I played on, and once I graduated I played in a number of very fine men’s leagues—including the top league in Atlanta, which is quite a tough league. I know the game. I’ve studied it, read books about its tactics, history, social importance; I’ve watched a thousand games in my lifetime; I’ve coached (which, by the by, I hated); And although I was far from the best player, I was hard-nosed, serious, strong and fast. I played to my strengths, and mitigated my weaknesses. In good form I was one of the best defenders around. So far I’ve called almost every game correctly.

Yet I never write about it. Ever.

Which is strange.

But here’s where I am with this particularly World Cup, which has been the oddest, wildest, least predictable competition in my lifetime:


  1. Costa Rica is the best-coached team in the competition. Their dual victories were not anomalies or mistakes. They managed each game to perfection.
  2. The U.S. has a good team. Bradley, however, must do better possessing the ball in the midfield. Despite what the announcers have been saying, he has been the biggest disappointment. Against Ghana, he was foolishly going back into our eighteen-yard box to receive the ball, or wandering around ineffectively in the midfield. Against Portugal, he kept giving errant passes. He must be better. (Johnson and Jones are great; Bedoyo was wonderful against Ghana, but ineffective against Portugal; Johanson should have been given some playing time; boy, do we miss Altidore’s muscle up top; and Clint Dempsey is a great striker.) I think we’ll make it through.
  3. Suarez is the best striker in the world. A goddamn genius. I love/hate him.
  4. England had a good team, rotten luck, and horrible fans.
  5. Spain made the same error Italy made four years ago; they brought the exact same team that had won the trophy, just four years older. (Klinsman is exactly right in his rigorous dismissal of older players; there is no room for sentimentality or loyalty in a national team.) Spain’s style of play, nonchalant passing in the midfield, seemed antiquated and downright silly in this tournament. Why?
  6. The game has evolved into a new phase, where possession and slowing the game down—tried and true methods, the classic Italian game—aren’t working. Attacking is the new thing, and teams attacking the most seem to be winning. It’s weird. The more direct a team’s attack, the more effective it seems to be.
  7. Speaking of Italy, they’ll be fortunate to go through over Uruguay. See number 3.
  8. Tim Cahill. I’ll miss watching him play.
  9. Luka Modric is the best center midfielder in the Cup. (Croatia was very unlucky to lose to Brazil.)
  10. France looks great attacking, but they are vulnerable. Ditto for the Netherlands. Neither team will win.
  11. Brazil is overrated and will not win. Maybe Chile? Maybe Argentina?
  12. Speaking of Argentina, something went askew in their soccer culture some 15 years ago; they’ve been living on former glory ever since.
  13. I haven’t seen any of the hard-battling tacklers of old. Even Germany seems to be missing those Neanderthal bruisers that used to define almost every backline. When did the game become so effete?
  14. European hegemony means nothing in South America.
  15. The MLS—and I don’t know who else has keyed into this—is a good league now, and many of the CONCACAF countries now have players coming through the league. It’s improved the CONCACAF teams immeasurably.
  16. And how in the holy hell did Algeria beat South Korea 4 to 2?


Interlude 1: Michael Herr’s Kubrick

19 Jun

(I’m working on fiction again, in earnest, I can feel my brain slipping into the obsessive writing mode, where every thing I read, see and hear filters into the subconscious, on its way to the artificial world of the new manuscript, so it’s taking me a bit longer to post. When I get like this, my brain becomes a sieve, my thoughts slippery; I’m often distracted and distractible, irritable when interrupted, I slide into automatic writing, pounding out thousands of words in a sitting if I’m left alone. I’m trying to finish up the manuscript tentatively titled, The Taunting Light.)


I just finished Michael Herr’s insightful, superb (almost) book-length essay on Stanley Kubrick, Kubrick. Herr wrote the definitive book on Vietnam with his Dispatches, and co-wrote Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. (Not a bad resume.) This little book is a stunning example of how to write a biography without spending sixty pages on the person’s usually dull childhood. Instead, Herr applies a razor focus to Kubrick’s personality, narrowing his films through Herr’s personal relationship with him. Herr had known Kubrick for years, with a running telephonic dialogue with him that ran at sporadic intervals. The phone calls were often late-night, rambling affairs, with Kubrick’s encyclopedic autodidacticism on magnificent display.

Books of this type can be screwy, narcissistic and thin. But Herr captures the essence of Kubrick in this lucid, thrilling series of anecdotes about his relationship with one of the great directors.

Here he is, explaining how Kubrick’s mind worked:

“He had more compartments in his head than anyone I ever knew, he would open or close them selectively to the people he was working with, or to each of his friends; the one with the money in it, the one where he kept all his toys, the one where he kept his most personal things, like his hopes and his fears, that sort of thing, and whatever he loved most besides work, his family and friends, his dogs and cats. And however adroitly he manipulated the doors to those components, now open, now closed, essentially Stanley was a very open guy. Still, none of these compartments ever sprang open accidentally.

“Beyond those compartments, and governing them, was a capability to take his intelligence up or down as circumstances required, without ever being either obscure or patronizing, a rather beautiful quality of mind.”

Herr wrote this shortly after Kubrick died, in the aftermath of the swirling, negative shit-storm trashing Eyes Wide Shut—you’d have to have been there to really get a sense of it, the endless left-handed compliments as obituaries, brutal negating assessments of Kubrick’s entire body of work, through the prism of his final film.


I’ve always admired Kubrick. He resists easy interpretation, all of his movies are intriguing, but they aren’t so much of a piece that they are predictable or boring. I find Herr’s aggressive defense of Eyes Wide Shut to be an exhilarating piece of criticism. I think Eyes is a great film, too, and I didn’t quite understand people’s negative response to it. Paths of Glory remains one of my favorite films, as does The Shining. I’ve never forgotten 2001, even if it’s a brilliant slog at times, and I never forgot watching Barry Lyndon, either, perhaps the first “serious” movie I can remember watching.

Full Metal Jacket is wild, wooly, uncontrollable in a way, propulsive, devastating and then interrupted by that late ironic self-awareness—like Coppola shooting war footage on the beach in Apocalypse Now—that doesn’t quite work, but it remains like a scar in the mind of everyone who watches it.

I never forgot A Clockwork Orange or The Killing either. Orange in particular remains an unsettling experience, still shocking, oddly moral despite the claims to amorality.

His Lolita is fabulous, drawing all the dark humor out of the novel[1]. James Mason is revelatory as Humbert Humbert. And then there’s Dr. Strangelove, his oddest film in many ways, funny and serious, two films really, a slapstick comedy and an austere military procedural rattling around in the space between George C. Scott and Peter Sellers.

Why anyone dislikes Kubrick strikes me as bizarre. Herr’s essay rescues him from the calumny, the over-attention on his phobias, obsessions and mistreatment of actors—this last one particularly odd because he gets the best performance out of so many actors, including Shelly Duvall—and instead delivers a full view of one of America’s towering movie directors.


[1] Adrian Lynne’s version took all of the humor out.

National Book Award winners, number 28: 1979’s Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.

12 Jun


In 1979, Tim O’Brien won the National Book Award for his superb novel of the Vietnam War, Going After Cacciato. It’s a spare, complex, and startling piece of writing.

Cacciato follows a group of American soldiers, including the main character Paul Berlin, pursuing a deserter through the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Cacciato is the deserter. He is also a baby-faced simpleton who seems to be a master at evasion. On foot, he leads them through Laos, on through Chitagong, Tehren, Athens, all the way to Paris. Along the way the soldiers fall into a subterranean maze, are captured by Iranian secret police and two of the men fall in love.

It’s an absurd, surreal, often violent journey, interspersed with flashbacks to the deaths of the other soldiers in the platoon from earlier fighting. Most of it takes place in the confused confines of Paul Berlin’s mind, as he tries to stay awake through a night watch at some time in the future.

There’s more than a touch of Catch-22 here—there’s even a sort of trial for Berlin that feels pulled directly from Heller[1]—with the narrative circling back to major events, shifts in tone, abrupt violence.

A fabulous novel by a very fine American author.

A fabulous novel by a very fine American author.

O’Brien belongs to a rarified group of writers carrying enormous critical acclaim and commercial success. He carries the burden—what a great problem to have!—well. His work is consistent. His lesser novels—In the Lake of the Woods and The Nuclear Age—are still well-written, intriguing. I’ve never regretted reading one of his books. (I cannot say the same about most authors.) O’Brien would go on to write The Things They Carried, one of the finest novel-in-stories ever written, highly influential, beautiful[2]. He’s a great writer to recommend to people who like to read, but stay away from serious books.

Vietnam plays a role in all of his books, and the very fine July, July in a sense picks up Berlin, or a character just like him, as he approaches middle age. His characters are haunted by their actions and inactions, by their participation in such a horrifying spectacle of depravity, by their laughter, murder, indifference.

The key to O’Brien is he’s easy and fun to read, but challenging in his refusal to fully delineate what is real and what is illusory. The narrative is fractured, intense, at times bewildered. Memory, desire, fear, violent soldiering and impossible fantasy intermingle in a labyrinthine narrative that can feel as meandering and formless as a routine patrol. What is real is never clear with O’Brien. In this way he belongs with the post-modernists. He’s often described as an American magical-realist—this is a descriptor that needs to be put to pasture—but this isn’t quite right. He isn’t Vonnegut. He’s writing about the Vietnam War directly; the fantastical elements occur in the different characters’ minds, or to all of them together, in a collective temporary madness[3]. He’s subtle with his oddities.


Of course the war is the thing for O’Brien, Vietnam and the soldiers who fought in it. He served as a foot soldier in Vietnam; his novels taken together serve as a type of epic autobiography. His work contains a seething rage against his war experiences—the whole endeavor deranged people’s moral sense—tucked into little tiny moments. And his time as a soldier explains the essential enigma to his novels. Here’s Paul Berlin meditating on the moral confusion of the war:


“They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory. No sense of order or momentum. No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels. No Patton rushing for the Rhine, no beachheads to storm and win and hold for the duration. They did not have targets. They did not have a cause. They did not know if it was a war of ideology or economics or hegemony or spite. . . . They did not know the names of most villages. They did not know which villages were critical. They did not know strategies. They did not know the terms of the war, its architecture, the rules of fair play. When they took prisoners, which was rare, they did not know the questions to ask, whether to release a suspect or beat on him. They did not know how to feel. Whether, when seeing a dead Vietnamese, to be happy or sad or relieved; whether, in times of quiet, to be apprehensive or content; whether to engage the enemy or elude him. They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish? . . . They did not know good from evil.”


Fabulous, moving, straight-forward—he has some Hemingway in him, a lot of Heller. His style is concrete and precise, with hallucinogenic flourishes. Curlicues of madness. Staccato bursts of emotional violence.

He’s funny. He has a superior ear for dialogue. Here he has Paul Berlin being interviewed by a three-man panel of officers:


“You an American soldier?” 

“Yes sir.”

“Yeah? Then where’d you get such a screwy name?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Sheet.” The major looked at the captain in tiger fatigues. “You hear that? This trooper don’t know where he got his own name. You ever promoted somebody who don’t know how he got his own fuckin name?”

“Maybe he forgot,” said the captain in tiger fatigues.


“Could be. Or maybe shell shock or something. Better ask again.”

The major sucked his dentures halfway ot of his mouth, frowned, then let his teeth slide back into place. “Can’t hurt nothin’. Okay, soldier, one more time—where’d you find that name of yours?”

“Inherited it, sir. From my father.”

“You crappin’ me?”


He’s a fascinating writer on nature. I could read his descriptions of Vietnamese landscapes for hours:

The land was luminous. Pink coral and ferric reds, great landfalls of wilderness, and they moved through it for twelve days at a buffalo’s pace. No villages, no people. Only the road.


He’s terrifying—you can get a sense of it from any random page—but he’s also wise:

In the morning the fifty new men were marched to a wooden set of bleachers facing the sea. A small, sad-faced corporal in a black cadre helmet waited until they settled down, looking at the new recruits as if searching for a lost friend in a crowd. Then the corporal sat down in the sand. He turned away and gazed at the sea. He did not speak. Time passed slowly, ten minutes, twenty, but still the sad-faced corporal did not turn or nod or speak. He simply gazed out at the blue sea. Everything was clean. The sea was clean, and the sand and the wind.

They sat in the bleachers for a full hour.

Then at last, the corporal sighed and stood up. He checked his wristwatch. Again he searched the rows of new faces.

“All right,” he said softly. “That completes your first lecture on how to survive this shit. I hope you paid attention.”


Simply beautiful.


1979 was a good year for American fiction. John Irving published his influential—but overrated and unsatisfying—The World According to Garp. Charles Bukowski continued with his poetry of the gutter with Women. Don DeLillo released his superb, and underrated, literary thriller, Running Dog. (It’s also, in a coded and intriguing way, about Vietnam.) Hubert Selby, Jr. published Requiem for a Dream. John Updike, Richard Yates, Gore Vidal all published novels. Cacciato is the best novel of an impressive year.

The blockbuster novel had already arrived. Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Richard Matheson, Mario Puzo all published books.

Around the world, the British continued their post, post-war boom: Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, Ismael Kadare, Gunter Grass, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Beryl Bainbridge, Kingsley Amis and Martin Amis all published novels.

And yes, there are few women on the above list, a continuing problem, and few minority authors, too.


Ambiguity, violence; a summation of the absurdities of the Cold War; the ragged edges of American military power; imperialism, Orientalism, racism—the Vietnam War affected everyone from Muhammad Ali to Oliver Stone. Yet we still argue over the root causes, even the ultimate result, of this most agonizing and divisive of American wars.

Films, comics, music—the Vietnam War is one of the most important events in our recent history. And yet, very few people can agree on anything about it.

Yet the ambiguity, the pastoral beauty of the country, the horrendous destruction of the U.S. bombing campaigns, and yes, the terrorism, the odd silence of the Viet-Cong—the war brings the best out of our writers because of the very things that make it so difficult to understand. The uncertainty gives the subject a mysterious power.

The Vietnam War has many fine books about it, including Michael Herr’s stunning book of reportage, Dispatches. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke—and it’s a fucking miracle of a book, perhaps his best—is about Vietnam. Robert Stone’s white-knuckle harrowing The Dog Soldiers is about Vietnam; it’s his best book. Stephen Wright’s bizarre psycho-fantasia, Meditations in Green, is about Vietnam; it’s his best book, too. Halberstam’s best (non-fiction) book, The Best and the Brightest, is about how we ended up fighting over there. Lenny Bruce’s best bits involved Vietnam. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is one of his finest works. And, yes, it’s about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, too.

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War—one of the finest science fiction novels ever written—is about Vietnam. And, it’s his best book, too.

The Punisher was a Vietnam veteran.

John Rambo was a Vietnam veteran.

James Crumley’s detectives are all haunted by the war. Ditto for most of the detective fiction from the 1970s.

And so we circle back to O’Brien, the best novelist of Vietnam, the writer closest to its horror and stink. Other writers fought in Vietnam, but O’Brien is the most haunted by it.

Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried, are much more than war novels. They stand as lyrical expressions of a singular American writer.



[1] If you haven’t read “The Trial of Clevinger,” from Catch-22, you’re missing one of the great comedic set pieces in American fiction.

[2] It also has the distinction of being the one book I’ve lent out three different times, and each time the other person kept it.

[3] A pretty good description of the war.