Search results for 'steps'

National Book Award winners, part 21: 1968’s Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski.

16 Feb

(Took a long time with this one, as I explored Kosinski’s larger oeuvre; Kosinski is under my skin, and if you read him, he’ll burrow under yours, too.)


In 1969, Polish émigré turned American celebrity Jerzy Kosinski won the National Book Award for his diabolical novella of short stories, Steps.

Steps is nestled somewhere between a novel, a collection of short stories, and a prose poem. But this isn’t quite right. It feels almost like a novel, or perhaps like a collection of short stories, or just maybe a prose poem. It’s such a singular reading experience I’ve never been able to get over it, and here I am reading it again.

The spirit of Baudelaire—not really his work—stalks these pages. Steps has no plot, few characters. It’s a series of beguiling impressions, knitted together with jagged violence and a detached—and supremely disquieting—narrative voice. Here’s a taste:

Work was scarce during the war; I was too thin to work in the fields, and the peasants preferred to use their own children or relatives on the farms. As a vagrant, I was everybody’s victim. To amuse himself the farmer with whom I was finally boarded would take hold of me by my collar, drag me up close and then strike me. Sometimes he would call his brother or his friends to share in a game in which I had to stand still—staring ahead with open eyes—while they stood a few paces in front of me and spit at my face, betting on how often they could hit me in the eye.

This spitting game became very popular in the village.

The flowers of evil indeed.

This passage reveals a lot—about the narrator’s passivity in the face of suffering and humiliation—and yet very little. Where is this taking place? How old is the vagrant? And so on.


Kosinski haunts American letters with his controversies, his books both good and bad, and ultimately his absence.  He was a major writer for years. He appeared on television talk shows and in films. His books won awards. He was a judge on the P.E.N. committee.

And now he is a disturbed presence on the fringe, facing the long plunge into the abyss of forgotten literature.

There are reasons. Kosinski is accused of plagiarizing books written outside the U.S., and stealing work from writers he hired to help him. Neither charge has been fully substantiated, although there’s evidence in the works themselves for both. He’s also accused of lying about his wartime suffering, exaggerating his experiences. Worst of all, he’s been accused of capitalizing on the wave of Jewish survival novels in the shadow of Dachau, Auschwitz to make a name for himself.

There are rumors. Of a bizarre sex life[1]. Of an immense yearning for fame. Of a blank emptiness at his core.

His books are uneven. Being There is a lightweight Candide, a satirical parable of a simpleton gardener who manages, through his vague aphoristic speech, to convince others he’s a genius[2]. Blind Dates is a dastardly novel of corporate raiding—plus incest and rape and terrorism—amidst bizarre sexual encounters; it’s intriguing trash written in polished, chilly prose.

Intriguing trash could be a good descriptor of much of Kosinski’s work. He operates  in a sleazy, leering mode. And yet, there’s something wild and dashing about his books, even the bad ones, that make for fun reading. He has some of that magic many of the popular authors have. Reading his books creates and fulfills a craving, like eating popcorn. Or twizzlers. Or smoking crack.

Kosinski is the type of beguiling writer tht brought me to literature in the first place: frustrating, titillating, dark dark dark.

But Kosinski is a dark presence for other reasons, too. He committed suicide in a ghastly manner, ingesting lethal doses of booze and pills and then suffocating himself with a plastic bag. His suicide note could be a postscript to Steps: “I am going to put myself to sleep now a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity.”

How long did he think on those words before writing them down?

A harrowing tunnel through a disturbed mind.

A harrowing tunnel through a disturbed mind.


Back to the work at hand. Steps flows from a haunted, landless twilight world, following disembodied voices in a surreal, disturbed land.

The prose is crystalline, taut. Here’s a sample, of a narrator discovering a naked woman kept chained in a barn:

A naked woman sat behind the grating, babbling meaningless words, staring at me with wide watery eyes.

I approached her. The woman moved, but she did not seem frightened. She stared at me, then began crawling toward me, rubbing her body, scratching and spreading her legs. I noticed her pock-marked face, her gnawed fingernails, her emaciated thighs stippled with bluish bruises. It occurred to me that we were alone in the barn and that she was totally defenseless.

Sex, violation, temptation, violence, apathy—it’s all there in this passage, and throughout the book.

It might be a work of genius. It might be a work of putrid exploitation. (I think it’s a little bit of both.) Steps is undeniably fascinating and strange, exhilarating to read and deeply unsettling. I can’t find an analogue. The films of Claude Chabrol but filmed by Bela Tar? Perhaps the movies of Gasper Noe, if they were just a touch more subtle?

I can’t figure out if Kosinski is using a disturbed narrative voice to unsettle the reader, or if he is himself unhinged, and this is the book where Kosinski’s derangement is exposed. Steps is, at its core, a potent dark work animated by sexual violence and moral passivity. The narrators—except for one lone example—don’t give a shit about the horrors around them, and often take part in the mayhem.

There’s a story about a giant fat woman servicing faceless men. A retarded village woman kept in a cage. An office worker who uses his friend to screw a woman without her consent. An old man killed for no reason. Sections of it are absolutely horrifying. There’s a monstrous ego-centricism and a skewered eroticism.

The vignettes are set off by little bits of dialogue between a man and a woman. It’s never clear if the dialogue is all part of one ongoing conversation or bits of many.

How much of this is Kosinski and how much of it is fiction gives the book it’s humming energy. Here’s a passage, near the end, that might serve as a summary of his life’s work:

I envied those who lived here and seemed so free, having nothing to regret and nothing to look forward to. In the world of birth certificates, medical examinations, punch cards and computers, in the world of telephone books, passports, bank accounts, insurance plans, wills, credit cards, pensions, mortgages, and loans they lived unattached, each of them aware only of himself. 

If I could magically speak their language and change the shade of my skin, the shape of my skull, the texture of my hair, I would transform myself into one of them. This way I would drive away from me the image of what I once had been and what I might become; would drive away the fear of the law which I had learned, the idea of what failure meant, the yardstick of success; would banish the dream of possession, of things to be owned, used, and consumed, and the symbols of ownership—credentials, diplomas, deeds. This change would give me no other choice but to remain alive. 

Thus the world would begin and die with me.

Steps is the predecessor to Denis Johnson’s superb short story collection, Jesus’s Son, but its presence can be felt in other writers, from Roberto Bolaño’s odd, jarring violence and creepy pornography to the extreme fiction of Dennis Cooper, Michel Houellbecq (imagine being stuck in a conversation with these two at a party), even a faint trace of him in Patricia Highsmith and Joyce Carol Oates.

Welcome Kosinski into your life, and he won’t easily leave.


Steps beat out some very fine works of fiction from 1968.

Richard Brautigan continued his countercultural nonsense with In Watermelon Sugar. Gore Vidal published his soon-to-be-camp-classic Myra Breckinridge. John Updike released his spicy, erotic mini-masterpiece, Couples. Norman Mailer published his “non-fiction” novel, Armies of the Night. Frederick Exley’s fake memoir, A Fan’s Notes was released. Joyce Carol Oates, John Barth, Frederick Rogers all published novels.

And Philip K. Dick, at the time still rutting around in the world of pulp paperbacks, released his fantastic, one of the all time great novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Sheep is a better novel than Steps—equally crazed, just in a religious as opposed to sexual sense—but Steps feels right for the times. A sense of disembodied violence. A portent of impending doom. An unraveling of any moral consensus, these Kosinski delivers. And in the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. What can literature offer, Kosinski seems to be asking, besides titillation and despair?

[1] This is a terrible thing to write, but reading his books, with their repeated rationalizations on sexual assault, I kept thinking, “At some point, this guy raped someone.”

[2] It’s fine, but it would work better as a short story.


Jerzy Kosinski and The Painted Bird.

30 Mar

(I’m not dead and I’m still writing. All the time. I just have a lot of irons in the fire. Anyway, still here. Have a new pre-strike entry coming and loads of movie/book stuff.)

Good title, great writing, horrifying novel.

Good title, great writing, horrifying novel.

In 42 points!

  1. I just finished Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. Yowzers.
  2. I’ve written on him before, on his award-winning Steps, one of the few works of fiction that I think could be categorized as evil. (My review is here.) It’s also a masterpiece of creep and menace, a one-of-a-kind collection of stories.
  3. The Painted Bird is his World War II novel. His Holocaust novel.
  4. And it is a catalog of atrocities. A road show of horror. An astonishing menagerie of depravity.
  5. Incest, rape, bestiality, mutilation. Check.
  6. The story is simple: a young child wanders the countryside of Poland during the war. He bounces back and forth between various villages. He is . . . ill-used by each and every one.
  7. Put another way: peasants spend the entire novel abusing, tormenting and torturing him.
  8. One widower hangs him from ceiling straps above a hungry dog. A farmer whips him twice a day for no particular reason. A group of children try to drown him in ice. A mob tosses him into a pit of excrement. And more and more and more.
  9. For most of the novel, the boy is under ten years old.
  10. Kosinski is breaking one of the unspoken rules of fiction, inflicting harm on a child. Most writers will only dip into this pool, but then pull back, or have the harm happen off-page, or have some type of comeuppance for the perpetrators.
  11. Um, not here.
  12. The boy also encounters strange peasant beliefs, backcountry anti-Semitism, and scorched earth poverty.
  13. (Some of the scenes reminded me of Bela Tarr’s last movie, The Turin Horse. A kind of end of the earth desperation.)
  14. The running commentary on peasant superstitions got him in trouble. For he isn’t just describing them, but rather arguing that the horrors of World War II were at least in part caused by the irrational beliefs, and tremendous suffering, of the countryside peasants. Superstition equals murder.
  15. How do I read this? How am I supposed to take this?
  16. The boy witnesses astonishing acts of cruelty to animals. The book is first and foremost an index of maimed and mutilated animals.
  17. Here’s a scene, where the boy is tasked with killing a rabbit before skinning it:


First I cut the skin on the legs, carefully separating the tissue from the muscle, anxiously avoiding any damage to the hide. After each cut I pulled the skin down, until I got to the neck. That was a difficult spot, for the blow behind the ears had caused so much bleeding it made it hard to distinguish between the skin and the muscle. . . .

I starting detaching the skin with added care, pulling it slowly toward the head, when suddenly a tremor ran through the hanging body. Cold sweat covered me. I waited a moment, but the body remained still. I was reassured and, thinking it an illusion, resumed my task. Then the body twitched again. The rabbit must have been only stunned.

I ran for the club to kill her, but a horrible shriek stopped me. The partially skinned carcass started to jump and squirm on the post where it was suspended. Bewildered and not knowing what I was doing, I released the struggling rabbit. She fell down and started running immediately, now forward, now backward. With her skin hanging down behind her she rolled on the ground uttering and unending squeal. Sawdust, leaves, dirt, dung clung to the bare, bloody flesh. . . .

Her piercing squeals caused pandemonium in the yard. The terrified rabbits went mad in their hutches, the excited females trampled their young, the males fought one another, squealing, hitting their rumps on the walls. . . .

The rabbit, now completely read, was still running.

  1. I’ll stop there. The passage only gets worse, ending with the young narrator stomped so hard he is bedridden for weeks.
  2. It’s strong writing. Muscular, vivid and evocative. And it’s a precursor to a Kalmuk raid on a peasant village full of slaughter and rape, equaled in ferocity only by Blood Meridian. I won’t quote from either here.
  3. I love Blood Meridian. Through it’s astonishing prose and mythic underpinnings, it somehow leaves me warm and inspired. (It also has a thesis, that war is god, and so the poetic and lyrical descriptions of bloodshed seem fitting.) McCarthy carries weird religious convictions, and is the direct inheritor of Melville. McCarthy cares about the horrors he’s cataloging somehow. Life matters to him.
  4. Kosinski leaves me cold and terrified. And also a bit disgusted. There’s something slick and sinister and overly sexualized to his work. He doesn’t seem to give a shit about anyone.
  5. My god, there’s a disgusting rape scene in every one of his novels I’ve read, but here there must be a rape every five pages. Kosinski was, by all accounts, quite the kinkster in his own life, although I’ve only stumbled across innuendoes.
  6. I’ve said it elsewhere, but every time I read one of his novels I have a startling feeling that he raped someone in real life.
  7. An unpleasant sensation.
  8. Kosinski carries no religious belief, weird or otherwise. And in its absence, without some type of spiritual or moral balance to the peasant superstitions and the repugnant violence, the novel feels like a shopping list of perversity.
  9. Why am I reading this?
  10. (I read the bulk of it in the emergency room of a suburban hospital, on Easter morning. How’s that for a sequence of non-sequiturs? I wondered, while reading it, if I were the only person on earth in this exact situation? And, why am I reading this?)
  11. Kosinksi alluded that the novel was, in essence, a true story. That he was the little boy.
  12. Which makes the novel that much more powerful, a survivor’s tale. Truth casts the atrocities as documented; writing about them gives the author some power over the experiences, and helps expiate guilt.
  13. Only, well, it probably isn’t true.
  14. Which makes the litany of dismemberment much, much harder to understand. As well as the chilly, amoral point of view.
  15. The Painted Bird has the most heinous murder scene I have ever read on page 55—I won’t write it out here), and I’ve read DeSade, Bataille and the gamut of horror fiction. The gamut.
  16. I shudder.
  17. A few more things.
  18. Kosinski isn’t a minor writer. He was a full-blown celebrity, appearing on the Tonight Show. He was also a judge for a variety of writing contests, and the president of P.E.N. He won dozens of awards. He was feted. He was praised.
  19. Kosinski was close friends with Roman Polanski. By all accounts, he was supposed to attend the get-together at Polanski’s house the night the Manson family attacked. This strikes me as so fucking strange, and in a way I can’t explain, helps me understand his novels, even the ones he wrote before the murder of Sharon Tate.
  20. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it makes sense to me. Charles Manson is everywhere.
  21. Kosinski was critiqued for much of his later writing life. He was accused of all manner of malfeasance, including plagiarism, and paying unknown authors to write books under his name.
  22. Paul Auster, in one of his biographies, either alludes to this or outright claims it. (The book he says he wrote some of is Pinball.)
  23. Kosinski eventually killed himself. Here’s his suicide note: “I am going to put myself to sleep a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity.”
  24. How long did he consider those words? Is that supposed to be . . . funny? It isn’t.
  25. I won’t recommend The Painted Bird, but you will never forget it. You just can’t un-read it, either.
  26. The consistent vision of his books is one of moral decrepitude and fathomless evil. Self-analysis?


My reading year, 2015.

1 Jan

(I had another good reading year, but don’t be overwhelmed by this list. There’s a lot of graphic novels. I was drawn to literary biographies this year, and read a number of books for research purposes. The best books of the year, for me, were probably The Orphanmaster’s Son, My Brilliant Friend, My Friend Dahmer and Station Eleven. This is almost a complete record of my reading year; I also read a handful of monthly comics; movie reviews and the book sections in The New Yorker and the New York Times; The Chicago Reader every week; and an ever-dwindling set of blogs and websites. Of all of these, the best thing I read this year was Jill Lepore’s epilogue to Joe Gould’s Secret, where she attempts to track down the oral history of Joe Gould—the great Joseph Mitchell’s last biographical subject—and instead falls into a series of interlocking, and sinister, mysteries, missteps, and mis-directions. Astonishing.)


Fante—Dan Fante’s memoir of his father, the great writer (whose self-loathing failure is essential to his novels) John Fante, is really a memoir about Dan’s alcoholism, recklessness and years of hard living. A good book, but offers way too little about the elder Fante.

The United States of Paranoia—Jesse Walter’s overview of American paranoiac conspiracies attempts to classify and categorize the major strands of conspiratorial belief. He makes his arguments well; when you finish, you’ll believe that the notion of conspiracies is not unique to the lunatic fringe, but rather marbled into the very center of our body politic. Lots of good anecdotes, too.

The Good Soldiers—David Finkel’s story of the Surge—of the soldiers deployed in Iraq, who fought, killed, and died for a war that none of them really understood (who does?)—is an astonishing feat of reporting, writing and empathy. Heart-breaking, thrilling, harrowing.

Beware of Pity—Stefan Zweig’s only novel, a psychological study of moral weakness and how it is pity, the attempt at decency, at generosity, at charity, that causes much of the pain and hardship in human lives.

Stones for Ibarra—Harriet Doer’s first novel, published when she was in her seventies, about two Americans attempting to run a mine in Mexico. Elegant and subtle, well-crafted.

Dreams from R’Lyeh—Lin Carter’s cycle of sonnets, based on a character in the Lovecraftian mythos. Slight and short, but a bit better than it sounds. Fun? Yes, fun.

Westerns—Richard Dankleff’s collection of poems all fit in the theme of revisionist westerns. I thought his was going to be great, but it wasn’t. And it began my shift away from browsing the poetry section of the library.

The Grand Design—John Dos Passos’s third Washington novel, and perhaps the one that gets him most in trouble. He has dozens of characters in the backdrop of the waning New Deal and the beginning of militarization before the U.S. entry into World War II, and his handling of leftists is troubling. Still, there are some dynamite scenes.

The Republic of the Imagination—A personal history of Nafisi, a very fine reader, and her journey to America. She reads America through three books, Babbitt, Huckleberry Finn, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with Go Tell It On the Mountain as an epigraph. Elegant and excellent, literary criticism as memoir as cultural critique.

Plainsong—Morris Wright’s lyrical study of Nebraska farm women and the hard lives they lead. A very fine novel, if a bit undramatic, considering the subject matter. And what are feel-good stories for? The effects don’t last. The euphoria is false. Only drudgery remains. Hard-bitten stories give us reasons to value our own, often shitty, lives.

Mad as Hell—My second Paddy Chayevsky biography in two years, and a very fine piece of inside the media reportage. Chayevsky was such a powerful, talented, self-sabotaging writer, it’s a blast to read about him.

The True History of the End of the World—Short essays about different belief systems and their view of the apocalypse. Diverting but only just.

Hellblazer—Garth Ennis’s run on the quintessential British comic was excellent, focusing on his shiftless drinking and haunted enduring, despite a myriad of magical foes after him.

Invisibles, vols. 1 and 2—Best comic book series of the 90s. I try to re-read it every few years. It holds up.

The Alienist—Nope, couldn’t do it. I made it about forty pages into this well-reviewed historical thriller, but it left me cold.

Armageddon in Retrospect—A collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s shorter pieces, as well as a speech, a letter, all revolving around his anti-war beliefs, and the experiences that shaped them. Dynamite.

Songs of Unreason—Jim Harrison’s astonishing book of poetry, detailing in ravishing language the same obsessions that drive his fiction: sex, booze, good food, horses, rivers, aging.

The Whites—Richard Price delivers a crime novel stripped of the larger social and cultural malaise that characterizes so much of Lush Life and Samaritan, instead giving us a straight-up piece of all-pistons genre writing. He’s better than this, but it’s still riveting stuff, following a group of cops, each of whom has a “white,” a murderer that got away, and an unseen presence that seems to be stalking them.

Where the Dead Voices Gather—Nick Tosches pursues a minstrel singer born in 1873, ruminating in his inimitable style on race, music, culture, sex, and, well, black-face minstrelsy. I liked it but didn’t love it. The Tosches’ train passed me by.

Cast a Cold Eye—Mary McCarthy’s urbane stories of men and women and the spaces in-between. She’s a fine writer.

Thousands of Broadways—Robert Pinsky’s poetic rumination on small towns across various media, and a seriously undercooked piece of writing in book-length form.

White Girls—Hilton Als’s critique of tortured souls vacillating on the razor’s edge of American culture—Richard Pryor, Eminem, Michael Jackson, Flannery O’Connor—is a very fine piece of writing and criticism, if a bit messy near the end. Got a ton of press, this book.

The Hannah Arendt Reader—Research, but a very fine book. Her Eichmann in Jerusalem remains an astonishing and powerful (and acerbic, good God) piece of writing.

I, Noah—Aronofksy’s screenplay turned into a comic and the artwork is beautiful. The story sounds cheesy, but somehow works, re-casting Noah as an oddball mage in a world gone mad. And there’s three-armed giants.

Marx—Corinne Maier’s witty biography of Marx filters through superb line dawings from Anne Simone; I loved this book.

The Gnostics—A work of scholarship that turns weird and prosletyzing, but it has some very fine middle sections about the early Christian church and the heretical strands of Gnostic thought.

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology—Joseph Campbell’s idiosyncratic tour of various primitive mythological isomorphs, written in his intriguing style.

A Short History of Myth—A must-read, Karen Armstrong’s overview of the first belief systems. Wonderful reading.

World’s Fair—E.L. Doctorow’s coming of age novel is professional, well written, but a bit safe.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces—The book that made Joseph Campbell, and a great primer in the hidden architecture of stories. Campbell is an idiosyncratic writer, bouncing from one culture to another.

The River Swimmer—Two novellas from Jim Harrison, a middle-aged artist returns to Michigan to watch his ailing mother, and a teenager addicted to swimming in rivers finds water babies. Not Harrison’s best, but still rich, lush, funny, insightful.

The Golden Ass—Apuleius was an ancient Roman writer and this book, a kind of proto-novel, is the only book to survive in its entirety. Funny and a bit strange, with diffident pacing.

Sugar Skulls—The final installment to Charles Burns’s superb, and supremely creepy, story of a fucked up loser wandering in a nightmarish dreamscape of blood and other human effluvia. Ties up loose ends and will blister your eyeballs. Unexpectedly, it’s also a touching story.

Brother Lono—The creative team behind the overrated 100 Bullets returns to tell the story of the single Minuteman who escapes. And it is ghastly indeed. Feuding Mexican overlords, Catholicism, extreme violence. Azarello and Risso are not great writers or storytellers, but with their heads in the gutter they know how to keep the reader’s attention.

Victory over Japan—Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories, and they are absolute dynamite. Her characters feel both lived in and real, as well as wild and absurd. Her storytelling abilities are immense.

Counter-narratives—John Keen’s short stories come wrapped in blurbs galore, but they left me flat. They felt calculated, almost cutesy with their conceits. And

Invisibles, vol. 3—The end of the Invisibles, the wildest and most moving of the series.

A Fan’s Notes—Exley’s smashing autobiographical novel about a hard-drinking loser obsessed with football. One of the best of its kind.

The Timeless Myths—Not a book at all, but more a series of clever, well-written essays, mostly on artists and how they relate to the mythosphere.

Myths To Live By—Joseph Campbell’s lectures, wise, knowing, intriguing, and perhaps the best place to enter the eccentric world of Campbell’s comparative religion.

Great Book of Horrible Things—A very fine overview of historical atrocities by a statistician.

Coronado—Short stories from crime writer Dennis Lehane. They’re fine, but they two-act play at the end of the book is terrific. (I picked this up after watching The Drop, a very fine crime film he scripted.)

A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell—An epic, detailed biography of Joseph Campbell, well-researched but even-handed and a bit worshipful.

Soil—Killer southern novel a la William Gay, about a cracked up farmer attempting to turn a discovered dead body into soil. Why would he do this? Go and read it.

Signs Preceding the End of the World—Yuri Herrera, called Mexico’s greatest young novelist, writes a lean, idiosyncratic border crossing novel. Good but not great.

My Friend, Dahmer—A marvelous, unnerving gem of a comic, equal parts sad and chilling, of a man remembering his odd friendship with a bizarre loner at his school. One of my favorite books I read this year.

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities—John Ellis provides a sharp, incisive critique of the New Criticism, while embracing the grand tradition of Renaissance secular humanism. Hard-nosed criticism.

Hip Hop Family Tree, vol. 2—Ed Piskor continues his comic book history of early hip hop, and it is a wild ride. His thesis is simple: hip hop started in the Bronx, loosely affiliated with street gangs, and then grew out of these initial relationships in an observable manner. Great fun, with great art.

The Ivory Grin—Ross McDonald, baby. Solid, witty, fast and lean, another Lew Archer mystery with murder and molls.

Silver Screen Fiend—Patton Oswalt’s very fine, and inspiring, memoir of a brief period in his life when he was addicted to movies. I wish he had given more of his insights into the movies themselves; he’s a witty and refined critic.

Heidegger’s Children—Research, but a pretty intriguing exploration of the ideas of Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Lowith, and Herbert Marcuse.

Invisible Man—I’ve been trying, and failing, to read Ralph Ellison’s epic novel for twenty years. Finally made it. Excellent and prescient.

On the Craft of Poetry—An elegant distillation of so many of Borges’s major themes, this lecture in print form is marvelous. It’s a very fine primer for Borges’s stories.

“The Open Boat”—Stephen Crane’s bleak short story about shipwreck survivors facing indifferent nature and the limitations of their own survival machinery.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew—Thomas Bernhard’s slim, half-memoir novel is intriguing, if a minor effort. Two men in a hospital renew their friendship, but the form of the novel is a wide-ranging riff on Wittgenstein’s family.

Roth Unbound—Claudia Pierpont gives Roth’s biography with a focus on his novels as a way of reading his life. An intriguing book, if a bit laudatory.

The Landbreakers—John Ehle’s re-discovered novel of the frontier is a beautiful piece of writing, following three families in a valley right at the beginning of the United States.

The Big Seven—Jim Harrison’s sequel to The Great Leader has his retired detective run afoul a nasty family of rifle-toting neighbors. Plus lots of sex and fishing and butt reverie.

In Search of Small Gods—Harrison’s astonishing poetry, revolving around fishing, totems, dogs, sex, drinking and false memories is a wonderful book for non-poetry fans. For fans of poetry, it’s an even richer feast. He does it all.

Raymond Chandler: A Biography—A very fine piece of biographical writing, which manages to capture Chandler’s essence while also dealing with the many virtues, and faults, of his Marlowe detective novels.

A Game of Swallows—A graphic novel similar in tone and look to Persepolis. Pretty good.

Avengers: Infinite Avengers—Intriguing time travel take on the Avengers, with Captain America and the infinity gems, all of it better written—Hickman and Remender are good writers—than expected, but also convoluted.

Avengers Academy: Permanent Record—Better than average teenage superheroes in the marvel universe. Not sure why I read this.

Iron Man: Stark Wars—A nostalgic journey for me, following late 80s/early 90s Tony Stark and his vengeance against the supervillains who stole his technology.

Hawkeye: L.A. Woman—The comic shifts to Hawkeye’s nearly hopeless female protégé as she navigates hoodlums and crime syndicates in Los Angeles. Pretty damn good.

Light Years—James Salter’s elegiac, haunting and very beautiful novel about a marriage, crumbling, re-constituting, and its ups and downs is a very fine, if ultimately bleak and grim.

Live by Night—Denis Lehane’s epic crime novel follows an Irish hoodlum, the son of a police commissioner, as he moves his way up a criminal empire in Tampa during the 1920s. Very good stuff. (I later read the other two books in this trilogy.)

Chester Himes: A Life—Himes’s life is the stuff of great literature; he was a thief, carjacker and convicted felon who wrote literary stories from jail. Once out, he turned towards crime novels. James Sallis, himself a pretty nifty crime writer, tells the tale. Oddly, the book is just okay.

Borges: A Life—Borges is one of the most important writers of the 20th century, yet he was a shy, withdrawn, mercurial man. (These descriptors apply to his fiction, too.) Author Woodall attempts an old-school biography with Borges, and it mostly works. Yet I kept hoping he would critically discuss Borges’s tales.

You Remind Me of Me—Dan Chaon—both a fabulous writer and storyteller, which is rare—writes of ghostly characters on the margins of society, attempting to start over through radical re-invention. A haunting, very fine novel.

Thanos Imperative—Wow, Marvel has lost control of itself here. Convoluted, poorly conceived, accidentally parodic, derivative, and ultimately pointless, this is precisely the kind of storytelling that forced me into non-superhero comics as a teenager. (Luckily I have Daredevil to balance things out.) [I later read the Hickman run on Avengers and the lead up to Secret Wars and was blown away.]

The Warren Commission Report: A graphic Investigation—A comic version of the events leading up to JFK’s assassination, and the resulting investigation, and a pretty good book. Che was better (really excellent).

Kill Everything That Moves—An excellent, if heart-breaking, book of reportage on American military policy during the war in Vietnam. One that will blister your eyeballs. Should be mandatory reading.

The Razor’s Edge—Maugham’s Moveable Feast, less artful than Of Human Bondage, but still intriguing character study of American and British expatriates. Good, but perhaps not as good as its reputation. Maugham does Fitzgerald, only not as interesting as that sounds.

One More River To Cross: The Collected Works of John Beecher—Protest poet, and descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, John Beecher’s poems hit at the core of the very issues of racism and poverty we’re dealing with today. Plus, he’s funny. Great.

Euphoria—Lily King’s spare, sharp novel of Margaret Mead and two rival lovers living among tribal peoples in New Guinea is sexy, lush and ultimately heart-breaking. A very fine novel.

Danse Macabre—Stephen King’s meditation on horror and why it works is a very fine—and weirdly important—book that came out some thirty years ago. I revisit it from time to time. King is a very cagey and careful reader/consumer, and he has exquisite theories as to why some stories succeed, while others fail. Also, he’s funny.

The Round House—Louise Erdrich’s masterful novel sits at the intersection of a thriller, a coming of age story, and a moving (and terrifying) deconstruction of a family. An American Indian woman is raped on a reservation, and her teenage son tries to solve the crime.

Colder—Oddly unsatisfying horror comic about a nightmare world where the insane go when they are having episodes, and a evil dandy who eats the sick.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves—Karen Russell’s story collection is lush, well-written fiction, lacking in the storytelling department.

The Bottom of the Harbor—When in doubt, go with Joseph Mitchell. A collection of his pieces concerning the harbors and wharfs around the Hudson. “Up in the old hotel” remains one of his finest pieces of writing.

Criminal: The Sinners—Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips best entry in their Boston Criminal series.

The Hair of Harold Roux—After a weak start, a fabulous novel—and recently re-discovered—of a selfish novelist coming to terms with his own misanthropy in an in-progress novel based on the writer’s school days.

Night of the Ripper—Robert Bloch’s take on Jack the Ripper. I wanted to read some semi-literate horror novels and started with this one. It’s fine; Bloch is a professional genre writer, and there’s little fat a more than a few intriguing scenes.

The Black Beetle—Francisco Francavilla, one of the premiere comic book artists, tries his hand at writing too with this homage to 1930s pulp radio heroes. It’s a mixed bag, fun to look at but in need of some writing work. (Lobster Johnson, a similar hero over in the Mignola universe, is much better.)

Fatima: The Blood Spinners—Comic legend Gilbert Hernandez returns to ghastly science fiction in his peculiar take on the zombie apocalypse. A drug is turning people into zombies. A cure has been found, but the self-appointed police out to eradicate the drug keep killing people close to a cure. A minor work, but kind of fun in a kooky way.

The Infinite Horizon—A stunning retelling of The Odyssey—perhaps the best adaptation I’ve come across—in comic book form, following a black ops soldier in Afghanistan making his way back to upstate New York. Excellent.

“The Goldbug”—Edgar Allen Poe’s bizarre little short story about buried treasure in post-colonial Virginia. Not very good.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”—I don’t know, I always return to it, and it always leaves me cold and a bit irritated. Not great, either.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (audio)—Stevenson’s seminal tale of a man and his dark side. Riveting, if familiar stuff.

The Consolations of Philosophy—De Botton’s wonderful introduction to six philosophers, and how their lives and works can help us through hard times. Excellent and elegant.

Nightfall—When in doubt, David Goodis. A man is wrongfully accused of murdering a bankrobber and stealing the loot. Only, he’s guilty of the crime. Sort of. A near-perfect crime novel without an inch of fat.

The Orphanmaster’s Son—So good I never wanted it to end. A North Korean soldier goes from kidnapper to something else in this epic novel of maintaining individuality in the face of oppression.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (audio)—J.K. Rowling’s detective procedural follows a war veteran and his new temp working to solve the apparent suicide of a young pop star. Very fine, if a bit schematic.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty—Understated, patient, humane but also well written stories about southerners of every stripe.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang—Pauline Kael’s best book, and for me one of the seminal works about movies. Funny, scathing, profound.

The Gospel Singer—Harry fucking Crews! A famous gospel singer returns to his hometown. One of his steady girls (a wretched sex addict) has been murdered, his family (disturbed farmers) want him to stay in town and a traveling troupe of circus freaks continue to haunt all of his revival appearances. Doomy, funny, and fucked up—Harry Crews’s first novel, and it’s a doozy.

On the Other Side of the Wind: The Making of Orson Welles’s Last Movie—A very strong introduction to Orson Welles and his methods, his legend, his self-propagating mystique, alongside his shortcomings and his bad luck.

The Third Policeman—Flann O’Brien’s short, strange, surreal little novel about a murderer who sees his victim a few months later, followed by all manner of cosmic hijinks. A word to the warning: Do not read any introduction or background material if you plan to read this; the spoilers in this case really do ruin a good book. (It happened to me.)

The Book of the Dun-cow—for the National Book Award winners series, and basically a children’s book with talking animals and that fable-magic feel. Not for me, but not terrible. (But it is a terrible title.)

Vermillion—The fabulous science fiction comic, written by intriguing author Lucius Shepard, that should have been a cult hit and run for years but only made it twelve issues. The entire universe has been changed into a single, endless city. One man remembers how things used to be, and the creatures responsible for it.

The Emperor—Kapuscinski’s oral history of the decline and fall of Haile Sellassie is more for people who already know the story of the Ethopian Emperor. I didn’t know the story, and felt a bit lost. Still love Kapuscinski though.

Nosferatu—Short story author Jim Shepard’s take on Murnau, and it seemed perfect for me, and I didn’t enjoy it, not at all.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.—A story we’ve seen so many times before, a self-centered writer in New York, a son of (some) privilege, grappling with relationships. Weirdly compelling, if also a bit dreary and predictable.

Life During Wartime—Lucius Shepard—author of comic series Vermillion—writes a science fiction novel of psychics traveling through huge swaths of central America, attempting to survive a forever war that no one seems to understand. Shepard is an astonishingly gifted writer when describing shanty towns, makeshift bridges, squalor as well as beauty. His storytelling powers are here still a bit shaky.

So Long, and See You Tomorrow—Laconic novel of memory and loss and heartbreak and betrayal. William Maxwell recreates a crime from his childhood, where infidelity between two married farmers leads to murder. An elegant paean to a lost time, that Maxwell artfully (and sneakily) implies might have never existed in the first place.

Voss—Australian novelist Patrick White tells a riveting story of a German explorer wandering through the newly discovered outback. Half Victorian-era comedy of manners, half Heart of Darkness adventure tale, White balances the chamber rooms and tea parties of high society with the jaw-dropping violence of the desert. An absolute stunner.

Deadly Class—Teenage assassins run amok in this new comic series by hit or miss Rick Remender. He hits it out of the park here.

Uri—Some 1970s biography of a man with supposedly psychic powers. Not sure how this got into my queue, I tried it and didn’t finish it. Nope. There’s a reason some books are forgotten.

Sinister Forces: The Nine—A terrible cover, but an intriguing—and probably dangerous—book. Levenda is a very fine writer, a very fine journalist, and a very disturbed human being. His premise is that European pagan culture is interwoven with early American societies, and that religious belief has shaped, altered, and at times dismembered American politics. The book is dangerous because Levenda’s agenda, similar to other conspiracy theorists, rests on a lot of conjecture that most writers can’t pull off. Levenda has plenty of skill and verve to spare, and thus makes his arguments alluring, to alluring.

Infinity—Jonathan Hickman’s epic, epoch-defining, cosmic re-arranging of the Marvel Universe has an ageless group of builders, who guide the evolution of life in the universe, attempting to destroy the earth. The Avengers, along with all the space races, band together to fight them. Meanwhile, Black Panther and Prince Namor are waging a war against each other and Thanos is invading earth while the Avengers are away. Complex, convoluted, yes, but also unforgettable. At least to nerds like me.

Old Filth—Jane Gardam, having an immense rediscovery in her dotage, wrote this novel of an aged barrister in England, flashing back and forth to times in his life. Truly superior stuff, thrilling, weirdly sinister, woven with immense skill. (I kept thinking, am I the only person on earth reading Infinity and Old Filth at the same time?)

The Hollow Land—Following up on Old Filth. A collection of stories about two boys from different backgrounds spending summers together in the country. Weirdly compelling.

The Age of Selfishness—Graphic novel following Ayn Rand’s life and thinking and then detailing how her ideas, through Greenspan, played a major role in the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic meltdown. Excellent.

The Wars—Timothy Findley’s novel of the first World War, and it is brief, concise, horrifying, poetic and excellent. A Canadian officer ships off to the western front, where he finds a pointless existence of random violence to people and animals.

After Claude—Iris Owens very funny, raunchy little New York novel about a self-involved woman who is dumped by her French boyfriend, only she refuses to leave his apartment. At one point, it was banned.

Ghost Story—Ramsey Campbell, you’ve failed me again. A great set up: a shock jock radio host and a rising psychic star run afoul of each other. They have a past, and are interfering with each other’s present.

Fordlandia—Henry Ford attempted to build a utopian mixture of farming and industry in the middle of the Amazon. He failed. Part of Heart of Darkness, part history of industry, this intriguing book is very well written.

Soldiers of Salamis—I read this because Roberto Bolaño, one of my favorite authors, is one of the main characters. Kavier Cercas sets out to write a true novel, in the fashion of Capote and Mailer, and mostly succeeds. For Bolaño fans, it’s a major treat.

Any Given Day—Dennis Lehane returns to South Boston—as incubator of crime, cruelty, and sometimes redemption—only in the past, in the 1920s. He evokes the civil unrest and the nascent movement for workers to unionize in this very fine historical novel, only written in his signature lean style. Very fine, if a bit lengthy.

Year of Fear—Non-fiction about 1933, where gangsters and bank robbers began kidnapping wealthy scions, and J. Edgar Hoover used this crisis to beef up the F.B.I. I love this stuff, and this is a very fine introduction to the interlocking problems—the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the murder rate (close to a hundred thousand unsolved murders in 15 years!), bank robbers, organized crime, and widespread civil unrest—that beset the U.S.

Do What Thou Wilt: A life of Aleister Crowley—Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Philip K. Dick is one of the great biographies. Here he turns his immense skill and attentions to the Great Beast, the poet, occultist, novelist, mountaineer and mage. Crowley’s life is too full of events and high weirdness to believe, but Sutin delivers another very fine and entertaining biography. (The introduction, covering the alchemical tradition in Europe, is excellent.) Still, I couldn’t read it straight through. Had to break it into smaller doses.

Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir—Joyce Johnson’s stunning memoir of her life with the other Beat writers is an evocative, spare and beautiful piece of writing. Johnson situates herself, and other females, inside the aesthetic movement. Why did I never read this before?

.red doc—Anne Carson’s sequel to The Autobiography of Red—my favorite book from last year, a novel in verse—picks up with Hercules and Geryon and some of the others, now in different incarnations. It’s stirring writing, just wonderful and weird, but it’s not as good as Red. Of course, few books are.

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong—An intriguing bit of detective criticism, where the reader attempts to uncover the truth in a novel, by looking at the credibility of the other characters. Here the author “proves” that Holmes gets it wrong in The Hound of the Baskervilles; the real murderer goes free.

Lightning Rods—Helen DeWitt’s funny, satirical, pornographic novel of business is a very fine piece of writing, even if it peters out a bit near the end. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, in places, which is very high praise.

Regeneration—Pat Barker’s first World War I novel follows Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owens and Robert Burns as they recuperate from wounds, both physical and psychic, while the war continues to turn men into meat into mud. A very fine and serious novel.

The Eye in the Door—Barker’s second novel is a major departure, and a much weaker novel, from the first. Here she follows some of the characters from the first novel, as they engage in subterfuge, surveillance and oppression over the issue of homosexuality and the pacifist movement. There’s something missing here, and I’m not sure what. Didn’t finish.

She-hulk: Law and Disorder—Beautiful art from Javier Pulido drives this funky, multicultural take on the cousin of Bruce Banner. Similar to Mark Waid’s Daredevil, this clever relaunch is excellent, until the artist changes.

Notable American Women—After being floored by Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Birds,” I picked up this early novel. It’s . . . hard to describe, and a bit full of itself. Didn’t like it, didn’t finish it. Will try him again with The Flame Alphabet.

A Lesson Before Dying—Ernest Gaines’s very fine novel follows an African American teacher who has been guilt-tripped into tutoring a death row inmate, who is also a former pupil. Subtle and Superb.

Joyland—Stephen King’s coming of age novel is a very fine piece of fiction, if read the right way. (The ghost and the crime are the least important aspects of this novel.) A young man gets his heart broken and takes refuge in a summer job at a low-grade amusement park. The park is haunted.

My Brilliant Friend—Elena Ferrante’s magnificent novel of two friends coming of age in Naples struck me as gothic and even cosmic horror with a light smattering of social commentary. I loved it.

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed—Patricia Cornwell excavates the medical and police files around the White Chapel murders and solves, or so she claims, one of the mysteries of history. A good book, but I couldn’t stick with it.

The Rim of Morning—Two novels, actually, re-released by NRYB. Subtle, extremely disorienting horror from William Sloane, who wrote these two and then stopped writing. The first follows two men as they attempt to piece together why a third committed suicide. They bump against a menagerie of terrifying, cosmic implications.

Trumbo—A fantastic biography of Dalton Trumbo, an intriguing, funny, and acerbic man.

Station Eleven—Hot book of last year, and a very fine novel. A plague has eradicated most of mankind, and a traveling group of actors and musicians eke out a living in a traveling caravan. The flashbacks connect the characters from before the plague, in an intriguing, often exhilarating plots.

The Year of Reading Dangerously—A bullshit artist forgets the joy, pain, love and fear of reading great literature, so he sets out to read 50 great books for a year. Funny and wise and very, very good; author Andy Miller is a very fine companion.

Lookout, Cartridge—Eccentric novelist Joseph McElroy’s crime novel of Vietnam, at least that’s how the jacket copy situates it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, as the narrator is reliving various strands of memories that are happening simultaneously in his mind and on the page. I quit at the third chapter.

We Need To Talk About Kevin—Made it one-third of the way through, but will probably finish it. A mother writes her ex-husband letters about their psychopathic (and homicidal) son. Chilly, pitiless and very difficult to put down. (And, weirdly, very unsettling to read.)

Wolf in White Van—John Darnielle, lyricist extraordinaire of The Mountain Goats, writes his first novel, and it’s pretty fucking good. A disfigured young man makes a living with a mail-in Dungeons and Dragons type game. He narrates the ins and outs of his life through simple, direct and heartbreaking prose. Marked by a complete lack of irony.

Pale Fire—Nabokov’s opaque novel is beguiling, bewitching and difficult to describe. An academic has delivered an annotated version of his dead neighbor’s lengthy poem. Or has he? The novel requires concentration, but offers plenty in return. I loved it, but like many readers, was confounded by it.

Black Sun—Novelist of solitary men in nature extraordinaire, Edward Abbey, here with his first novel (yet published in the middle of his career), and it’s a doozie. A man tasked with watching fires in an immense forest has a brief love affair with a young woman. Simple, but profound, with gorgeous writing and superior dialogue.

Henry Miller by Brassai—A personal account of Henry Miller’s Paris years, by the famous photographer. Miller becomes more intriguing to me as I get older, and here he emerges as kinder, yet wilder. A good book for fans.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning—Most likely the last book I’ll read in 2015. And it’s a good one. The author revisits 1977 in New York, with the Yankees struggling, the Son of Sam murders in full swing, terrifying gangs running amok, and all of it leading up to the blackout and crime spree.

Spirits—Bought this for a quarter. Richard Bausch’s short stories are haunting and masterful. Great stuff, if a strange and downer ending to my reading year.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe—Thomas Ligotti, yowzers, is he bleak. Combining Lovecraft and Poe and Borges, Ligotti writes short horror that is astonishing when it works, and simply alienating and unsettling when it doesn’t. Unforgettable in its way.

Mystery Train—Greil Marcus, a fabulous critic, uses a number of artists (Sly Stone, Elvis Presley, Randy Newman, The Band, Robert Johnson) to express his belief that American art must grapple with the terror of America’s failures and the promise of America’s virtues at the same time. A great book. I was reading it on New Year’s Eve.




NBAW, part 38: 1975’s The Hair of Harold Roux.

29 Jul

(Have been writing like a banshee, but have neglected the blog a bit. More to come over the next week and a half, some movie reviews, a True Detective season 2 rant, and other miscellany.)


In 1975, Thomas Williams won the National Book Award for his fabulous academic novel of the 1960s, The Hair of Harold Roux. Williams split the award with Robert Stone’s The Dog Soldiers.

Roux begins with an English professor, nearing middle age and with children of his own, suffering from writer’s block, self-doubt, and existential unease. His name is Aaron Benham. He’s facing a long weekend alone, as he’s mistakenly forgotten a family trip and his wife has left him behind. His star pupil, named George, is nearing the deadline for his dissertation, and George cannot seem to gather the strength to finish it. Another former student, named Mark, has gone missing, and Mark’s mother has asked Benham for help.

So Benham attempts to help George and save Mark, at the expense of taking care of his own family. Here’s an early interaction between George and Benham, on why George won’t finish his dissertation:

“. . . I think I may be going off my nut, and I don’t like it, Aaron.” His eyes are still unfocused. “I mean I can’t shake it. It’s like my head’s in a vice and all the assholes of the world are turning the goddamn handle. We haven’t learned lesson number one. Maybe we don’t even know what it is. But we’re killing the world, Aaron. . . . That’s psychotic, man, and I think I’ve caught it and what’s the use? How can you not think about something, Charles? Nerve gas, radioactive wastes that have to be kept refrigerated for eight generations or else, not to mention being located in earthquake zones. Television fucking outright lies, brain rot, money worship, rivers in hell that catch fire. . . . And the whole stinking race is born of rape. . .”

“So why bother finishing your dissertation?”

“Oh, that. I don’t mean that. I don’t know, maybe so. But everything is dying, so what does anything matter? . . . . We’re deliberately killing ourselves!”

“I am the asphalt; let me work.”


“Get your dissertation done and then worry about all that.”


And if all of this sounds like the stuff of a good novel, there’s more, for the bulk of the story follows a novel inside this one, Benham’s manuscript titled, of course, The Hair of Harold Roux.

It’s a clever, perhaps too clever, way of dealing with the knotty challenges of writing compelling stories about real people; you occlude through the distance of fiction. Benham’s manuscript details an incident from his college years—his fiction is almost entirely autobiographical—where his alter-ego, Allard Benson, seduces a Catholic school girl named Mary. Benson leads Mary to believe he’ll marry her if she sleeps with him.

This interior story is rich and complex and lovingly detailed, with a dozen or so other students moving around the edges of the plot. One of Benson’s friends is a young man named Harold Roux, a comedic, pathetic, prematurely aged student who wears a ridiculous hair piece and refuses to acknowledge he’s balding. He’s so sensitive that he even walks funny so that a strong wind won’t knock it off. Harold loves Mary, while Allard is screwing Mary’s roommate, and Allard juggles the feelings of the other characters against his own desires with astonishing self-rationalization. The saga plays out against the burgeoning student radical movements of the 1960s.

The manuscript story grows so compelling, that when the novel switches back to Benham the writer, it’s a bit boring. It’s clear, as the novel progresses, that Benham is using the novel to work out past transgressions. But his current predicament—being alone in the house with his memories and too much drink—is so much less compelling than the flashbacks.

The novel grows in power as you read it, becomes more intriguing, more arresting as the pages pass. I was elated to find, near the end, that Williams was a novelist of the first order. And here I had almost given up around page 30.


Williams was a major rising talent in the 1960s, and is now largely forgotten. He is similar to Wright Morris, a feted author and winner of numerous recognitions, short stories in The New Yorker, reviews on the front page of major publications, blurbs from top authors and on firm critical footing who has, somehow, slipped into the dustbin.

Which is a shame, for on the basis of Roux[1], Williams is a major talent. He’s funny, almost unruly in his savagery, sexy, raunchy, clever, thrilling and fun to read. Here he is, describing Benham trying to make a little extra money working on a boat chartered by rednecks:

“The boat moved gently beneath them, and the smell of the cove was powerful: that salty compound of life and rot, chemical, natural, speaking of the dense life of the sea. Through the clamshells on the mud bottom, and crabs moving sideways over white strings of fish parts someone had thrown out.

“. . . When the bus finally came, it was three-quarters of an hour late, having had a flat tire, and the troops had obviously been at the booze. They filed slowly out the front door, a little too careful on the steps. Some carried spinning rods and tackle, but most carried, with many grunts and deep breaths, cases of beer, plastic coolers, and cardboard boxes of food. The logistics of the operation were complicated.

“. . . They were men from their late twenties to early fifties, but all their aces, beneath their story hats or long-bulled caps, were equally blasted, the younger haunted by the finalities of the older. Except for the starved, thin bodies of the burnt-out, gut-troubled types, most were soft-bellied. Though thin elsewhere, they carried a feminine roll over the hips, and navels or pale hairy mounds of flesh were visible between T-shirts and low-slung belts, or between the gaps of printed sport shirts. . . . Flesh colors were tones of gray; they must have all worked indoors, and in their evenings . . . the television set above the bar must have chrome-tanned them into its own metallic tones. They were shades of green, or bruised blue—all on the side of the spectrum away from blood and life, toward the dank, the enclosed.”

You can read that final descriptive paragraph half a dozen times and marvel at the economy, the concision, the humor, the dread, the worry, the anger and the skill. Marvelous stuff.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

So he writes well. There are some clunkers here and there, flush up against the brilliant writing, but he has plenty of talent.

There are reasons why Williams slid out of view, although they all rest on a number of conjecturing suppositions. But here goes.

He has no one big book. I said this before, but a magnum opus goes a long way to securing an author future readers. (Think Moby Dick or Catch-22.) It provides an entry-point for fans and ballast for college literature courses. He didn’t write any autobiographical coming of age novels, either (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Black Swan Green), which, when written well, gives a writer a chance at a coveted spot on high school required reading lists.

He’s similar to other writers. In this case, with the academic setting, he’s writing in a very specific genre, crowded with masterpieces. Herzog is an academic novel, of sorts, as are John Williams’s Stoner and Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life—three of the great novels of the twentieth century. Roux fits with this company, with more than a little of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom added to the mix. Only Williams, as good as he is, and he is a very fine writer, isn’t quite up to the level of these other novelists.

There isn’t a riveting story about Thomas Williams the man. (Cheever was a bisexual drunk; Norman Mailer an ass-worshiping wife-beater; Flannery O’Connor was a death-obsessed cripple who probably never went on a real date; James Ellroy was a homeless drug addict; Katherine Anne Porter was blinded in one eye by an abusive husband; and so on.)

Williams also comes out of the college writing programs/workshop tradition. This doesn’t endear him to future readers. There’s something overly worked out in his prose.

And, I don’t know, the title? It’s a bad title. All of his titles seem forgettable—A High New House, Town Burning, The Followed Man—or just badly weird: Whipple’s Castle, Tsuga’s Children. Ugh and double ugh.

Perhaps its random fate. Faulkner was almost forgotten. Don Carpenter was forgotten. Some make it, some don’t. Not very cheery, but perhaps that’s all there is.



The Hair of Harold Roux revolves around Benham’s moral ineptitude, and the casual treachery of his fictional alter-ego. Aaron Benham is complicit, self-loathing, lazy, cheating, rationalizing creature, a lumbering armchair philosopher who ignores his wife and forgets family gatherings. His fictional creation, Allard, is somehow worse, nearly inhuman in his callousness, devoid of even a modicum of empathy, conniving and mean-spirited. If Roux has any major flaws, it’s in the nasty disregard both of the main characters have for other people.

And, well, we’ve seen this type of character before, the womanizing intellectual. In fact, despite capturing the campus life of the sixties rather well, Williams fills the pages with themes so common in American literature they’ve become tropes: Philandering intellectuals, constantly rationalizing their choices; an undercurrent of biology to the proceedings, men aren’t meant to be monogamous, etcetera; and writing fiction as the hardest job there is[2].

Williams—and Robert Stone—beat out a number of fine novelists for the top award, including Donald Barthelme, Gail Godwin, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrsion, Vladimir Nabakov, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and Mark Smith, who was nominated for his underground Death of the Detective.

[1] The novel was re-issued in 2011, and there seems to be some renewed interest in Williams’s other novels.

[2] Which is patently absurd.

Books I read in 2014.

5 Jan

So, I wrote a play. My second. Or third. Or fourth, depending on how you count it. (I wrote a miserable screenplay, plus a play with another writer. I’ve also written some short plays, and I helped a friend write a play, uncredited of course.) I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I’m rewriting and editing now.

You can tell how much work I’m doing on fiction by the lack of entries here. Hence the lack of entries for most of December.

Anyway, here’s my reading list for last year. With a few caveats and asides.

The problem is, I never record what I’m reading in the first half of the year. So I have to reconstruct the books I read. And I always forget things. And I don’t read bad books, so if a book slips on me, I drop it. I’ve tried to record the dropped books at the end. But the nature of the books I gave up on is, well, they’re forgettable.

So this is most of the books I read this year. I discovered six great new writers (for me): Anne Carson, Richard Brautigan, Richard Flanagan, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bruce Duffy and Ted Hughes.

I read tons of comics, too—I collect five or six monthly comics titles—and tried to list the graphic novels when applicable. I also re-read Grant Morrison’s run on X-men (better than I remember), as well as Roger Stern’s run on The Avengers (pure delight). I read the NYTimes Book Review and Arts section every week, plus all the movie and book reviews in The New Yorker. Plus a few random articles here and there, although as I get older this gets less and less common.

The books I read in 2014 (mostly in order):

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History—Really a series of lectures, intriguing in their outlook but vague, lacking in the zesty anecdotes I look for a book like this. MacMillan’s thesis is that history is misused, either on purpose or through poor scholarship, to a variety of ends.

Marathon—Graphic novel about the runner, the battle, the Persians and the Greeks. I didn’t love it.

The Sour Lemon Score—A Richard Stark Parker novel following a double cross and Parker, once again, stalking his quarry for revenge.

Behind the Scenes of Otto Preminger—This was for research, and I love Preminger, and the book has interesting anecdotes, but I felt like the man remained a bit cloudy.

At the Mountains of Madness—The Lovecraft novella I re-read every few years, and this comic book version is very fine.

The Underwater Welder—A bizarre little comic from Jeff Lemire. He’s a very fine writer, when he isn’t prostituting his talents for bloviating DC comics. (His superhero stuff—and I’m not snob, I love superheroes—is horrible.) The same issues of time, sadness, regret, mistakes, and cosmic re-alignment all play out here.

A film education unto itself.

A film education unto itself.

Truffaut/Hitchcock—A film education unto itself, and a must-read film book for all movie fans. Truffaut interviews Hitchcock, and his answers are enlightening and intriguing. Great full-page photos, too. Hitchcock’s mind is so visual, and film-oriented, reading his analysis of his own movies makes for a fascinating exercise.

The Time of Illusion—Schnell’s thesis—that Nixon was the first president obsessed with the projection of his image out in the world, more concerned with his image than with reality—and his book is very good.

Enemies, a Love StoryIsaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about the Holocaust and a philandering Jew in Brooklyn, as he finds himself stuck between three women. Funny and acerbic.

The Crown of Feathers—Singer’s short stories are better than his novels, though. He remains one of the masters, and he can evoke a time and place and complex feelings in a few lines. My favorite is “One Day in Coney Island,” about a Jewish man in the late 1930s about to be deported back to Nazi-occupied Poland. He knows he will be killed, but cannot seem to bring himself to try and save himself. Funny and harrowing.

The Fixer—Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite writers, fires on all cylinders in this novel about a Ukrainian Jew who is wrongfully accused of murder, and his long incarceration and torture at the hands of the Czar’s operatives in prison. This is the second time I’ve read this, and it retains all the surprise and jolt and power.

Poems of the NightJorge Luis Borges’s collection of poetry, and unsurprisingly, it’s good. He’s succinct and deft and thick with classical allusions. He’s melancholic and witty. My favorite line: “Know that in some sense you are already dead.”

Film in the Third Reich—A major study of the movie industry under Goebbels in the 1930s, is an anecdote-rich story of the Nazi propaganda machine. I was doing research, but found this book to be a good starting point for the subject.

Men of Tomorrow—An academic-ish study of the first comic book creators. A lesser book than The Ten-Cent Plague, and inferior to Supergods, too. Still, worth reading for fans of the funny pages.

The Ministry of Special Cases—Nathan Englander’s novel about the disappeared in Argentina. Heralded to the heavens, but I can’t see it. I did not love this novel.

AmericanaDon DeLillo’s first novel, and it’s as if his talent emerged fully formed. If you like him, then this novel will make you happy. If you don’t, then all the shortcomings of his other novels are present here.

Disaster Was My God—I was so excited to read this after falling in love with The World As I Found It. And I love Rimbaud. So this “non-fiction novel” arrived with high expectations. But the author is too close to Rimbaud, somehow, to really make his sections come alive. Somehow, he knows too much about Rimbaud and cannot invent anything insightful about him. Good, interesting, even memorable, yes, but a major step down from his other novel.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

The World as I Found It—Probably the best novel I’ve read in ten years. It follows Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittengenstein and G.E. Moore through four decades of life, as they collide with each other across multiple countries. A non-fiction novel, I suppose, and thrilling, heart-breaking, terrifying, moving, and perplexing. I cannot recommend it enough.

Friday at Enrico’s—Don Carpenter—Hard Rain Falling is one of my all-time favorite novels—wrote this novel about writers passing through their lives and it remained unpublished at his death. Jonathan Lethem helped bring it to publication, and he should win some award for it. Enrico’s is touching, sad, harsh, gentle, insightful and thrilling, while remaining realistic, natural. His was a rare talent.

Sailing to Alluvium—John Pritchard’s third Junior Ray book and it’s probably the funniest. Profane anecdotes, x-rated recipes, japery and tomfoolery. The second half of the book follows Leland Shaw, from the first novel, in his undulating poetic journals, obsessing over the askew in nature and time. Somehow encompasses the entire Southern literary canon in its pages.

Galveston—After True Detective, I rushed out to read Pizzolotto’s novel. I needn’t have bothered; the things that made Detective fantastic—the darkness, the narrative trickery, the high weirdness and occultic ambiguity—are all missing from this crime novel that is pretty run of the mill.

Hawthorn & Child—Stunning. A crime novel that has no crime and no detection, instead a series of finely etched scenarios where two detectives, Hawthorn and Child, perambulate in and out of this snaking narratives. I loved it.

Annihilation—Oh boy, a misfire. The first in a trilogy about nature run amok, a group of scientists push into the zone, to discover what happens to their predecessors.

Swamplandia!—Hmmm, a tough one. Russell writes good sentences—she captures the wild fecundity of swampy Florida with perfection—but her storytelling is off. The characters do odd things, the story flits from different points of view, all to the detriment of the novel. I wanted to read more female novelists this year. This was not a great place to begin.

Chess StoryGrand Budapest Hotel brought Stefan Zweig back into my life. This, his last manuscript he mailed to the publisher before committing suicide, details a chess match between two chess players, one an idiot savant, the other a refugee who mastered the game by playing games in his mind, while incarcerated.

Erasmus—One of Zweig’s many biographies, a hollering cheer for one of the most learned men in the Middle Ages, and filled with accolades. A fascinating book.

The Good Lord Bird—James McBride won the National Book Award for this fine and funny picaresque following a cross-dressing freeman who joins up with John Brown. Modeled after/inspired by Little Big Man.

Young God—A short story or novella stretched to novel length through white space. Still, a pretty good book. She details the rise of a young white trash hooligan in her father’s drug and prostitute trade. Fun to read in a brutish, nasty sort of way.

A Good Man Is Hard To FindFlannery O’Connor’s best collection of stories, and one of the greatest collections of the Twentieth Century. She’s artful, horrifying, and haunted by a dark Catholicism and a half-hidden racism.

Wittengenstein’s Mistress—David Marksen’s last woman on earth story, filled with mystery and word play and rumination on two thousand years of western civilization. A challenging but rewarding wonder.

Going After Cacciato—Tim O’Brien’s first Vietnam novel. An evocative, witty, and heart-breaking novel of American magical realism, and a very fine compendium to The Things They Carried.

Collected Short Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—It’s sacrilege to some, but these stories just aren’t as good as they should be. Wordy, a bit deflated, pales in comparison to his good novels.

Sailor & Lula—I’m not a big fan of Barry Gifford, and the Sailor and Lula stories—the basis for the great David Lynch movie, Wild At Heart—served as another confirmation of this. When reading Gifford, I always think, “There’s something missing.

Tres—Roberto Bolaño’s best book of poetry.

Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman—Ernest J. Gaines’s very fine novel of a long-lived woman, who as a child is freed from slavery and lives to see much of the 20th century. Gaines is a somber, dedicated craftsman, and an underrated writer.

Southern Cross The Dog—Not a good book. A pastiche of half a dozen Deep South tropes—the sinful preacher, the bluesman who sold his soul, etc.—held together by over the top writing. How this got a front page review on the NYTimes is a mystery.

The Collected Stories of John Cheever—What can I say? A must-own, must-read book by an American master.

Kubrick—Michael Herr’s insightful, conversational study of Kubrick through the years. Lucid and enjoyable.

Augustus—I reread this John Williams’s novel every other year. He tells the story of Julius Caesar’s death and the rise of his appointed heir through letters between various parties. It’s at once learned, thrilling, elegant and dignified. I cannot praise it highly enough.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet—A misfire from Saul Bellow, but a fascinating one. Sammler is a Holocaust survivor wandering around New York, seemingly pursued by a buff African American criminal. There’s other stuff going on, and Bellow’s prose is sometimes a bit overheated, but he never, ever bores you.

Conspiracy Against the Human Race—A summary of the pessimistic philosophers—including Schopenhauer—who argue for an anti-natalist position: the human race should stop having progeny, collectively, and die out. A bizarre book, mainly because it was kind of boring.

Them—A group of characters in a dysfunctional information system, writ against the backdrop of social unrest in Detroit. Joyce Carol Oates has written bucketloads of novels of varying quality, but this is a very fine piece of fiction.

Dog Soldiers—Robert Stone’s novel of drug dealing and Vietnam follows a handful of hippies who have stumbled into a drug deal gone sour. One of my favorite novels.

Steps—Jerzy Kosinski’s bizarre, cryptic, but marvelous short story collection is a study of perverse sexuality, aggressive machismo, and innate evil.

Blind Date—A wild, violent, rapey novel by Kosinski that is well-written, intriguing, and it feels artful, but it’s mostly filth. Perhaps the most evil novel I’ve read this year.

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter—One of the more heralded short story writers, and she has plenty to say. The form has rocketed along, however, and Porter’s stories feel quaint and dated.

He Slew the Dreamer—William Bradford Huie paid James Earle Ray to tell him everything he did in the years leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Huie then checked out each claim, finding some to be true and others false. But what he discovers is that Ray did indeed kill King, and kill him alone. (He might have been helped by one other man.)

Clark Gifford’s Body—Bizarro cult writer Kenneth Fearing (of Big Clock fame; and despite appearances, he’s American) wrote this pastiche novel about a pirate radio station being taken over by militants. Not as good as it sounds.

The Galton Case—Heir to the Raymond Chandler tough guy patois (and very fine writing), Ross McDonald’s most famous novel, partly the basis for the Paul Newman movie, Harper.

The Great Gatsby—I decided to re-read Fitzgerald’s slim masterpiece after suffering through twenty minutes of the Baz Lurhmann doggerel. I found the novel spare and moving, and also misunderstood; the characters aren’t facile, they’re damaged. They’ve found a way through their suffering and indignity is a derangement of the senses.

An Empire of Their Own—Jewish moguls brought Eastern European shtetl values to a new, mythic vision of America; this is Neal Gabler’s thesis anyway, in this very fine history of the first movie producers and the empire they built. Gabler makes a very convincing case that each studio reflected the values of the men who ran it.

Seriously Funny—An episodic tour of the outlaw comics of the 1950s and 60s, including Mort Sahl, Bob NewHart, Sid Caesar, and Woody Allen. Good but not great.

A Ghost on the Throne—The history of the civil wars that followed in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death. Perhaps the best book on ancient history I’ve read, with detailed accounts of all the major players, lucidly written, with an eye on novelistic pacing. I couldn’t get enough.

The Time of the Assassins—Henry Miller’s astonishing manifesto on Rimbaud, which reads as equal parts autobiography, exegesis, and defense of poetry. Perhaps Miller’s best book (a claim which will strike many as sacrilege).

Slayground—Darwyn Cooke continues his superior adaptations of the Richard Stark novels on Parker. This is the weakest of the series so far, but still filled with fantastic drawings and design.

Five Ghosts, Volume 1—Intriguing graphic novel of a man who is possessed by the ghosts of literary characters. Great art, great conceit, we’ll see if the writer grows into his creation.

Ship FeverAndrea Barrett’s erudite short stories detail scientists struggling at their profession in an age of superstition and distrust. A very fine collection.

The Jugger—Another Parker novel, and as good as the rest of them, as Parker grapples with small town hoods and an unscrupulous doctor.

Travels with Herodotus—Krupskinski tells of his early travel writing days, juxtaposing his adventures with those of the great Herodotus. Charming, insightful and very, very good. A masterclass in autobiographical writing.

Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in America—Dave Itzkoff tells the backstory of Network—one of my all-time favorite movies—and although this book is diverting, it seems to sidestep something vital about the movie. Not as good as it sounds.

Going Clear—Oh my God, the book gave me nightmares. Lawrence Wright unearths the genesis, evolution and (alleged[1]) abuses of the church of Scientology through some of the most harrowing reportage I’ve read in years.

The End of Vandalism—Tom Bissell’s small-town novel of manners, following half a dozen characters through quotidian crises that resonate with a warm comic glow. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, only Bissell is a major talent all his own. One of the best novels I read this year.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Gabrielle D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War—One of my favorite books of the year, a sprawling, epic study of the Italian writer who decided to set himself up as dictator of a tiny island after World War I. Excellent, excellent, excellent.

The Poison Belt—Droll, arch, possibly it’s the end of the world science fiction comedy from Arthur Conan Doyle, who accomplishes a lot in the course of this little novella. My favorite line was from a butler to his employer, hearing the world is going to end that very night: “Very good, sir. Can I have the rest of the evening off?”

Grove Book of Hollywood–Vignettes and letters from the producers, writers, and stars that haunted Hollywood for the past forty years. A very fine book, with a thousand anecdotes. Research, but worth reading.

The Dinner—Herman Koch’s over-praised and just, well, not very good novel about manners and lurking criminality and I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either. I would re-read another novel on this list before returning to it.

“The Man Who Would Be King”—I hate to say it, but I think the movie might be better. Kipling’s tale of two soldier-adventurers who journey into Afghanistan to set themselves up as kings in the tribal areas. It all goes so very, very wrong.

After Earth—I wrote this title down, and I must have read it, but I can’t remember it and I can’t find it online. Which is puzzling. The mind is a strange thing. Either the book was bad, or I have the title wrong, or I’m crazy.

The Education of Little Tree—Asa Carter—the author of George C. Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech—writes a touching, funny and wonderful autobiographical novel about being raised by his American Indian grandparents in Depression-Era America. So much better than it sounds.

Educating Esme—Written about the very school where I work! Esme keeps a diary of her first year teaching, filled with witty little asides and her observations about her students. It’s a fun, if thin and self-congratulatory little book.

The Talented Mr. Ripley—A book I should have read a long time ago. Ripley is a beguiling, sexually ambiguous schemer who is paranoid and cruel. Here he navigates murders and intrigue through a miasma of self-pity. Patricia Highsmith rules.

The Noir Years—A nonfiction account of the 40s, and I cannot remember a single word of it. (Which, for people who know me, is very, very rare.)

Shosha—Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about a Jewish writer in Poland juggling his personal and professional failings as the Nazis inch closer and closer. Philosophical, funny, bitter, heart-breaking.

Dissident Gardens—Lethem’s wordy novel about leftist radicals in Brooklyn, I wanted to love it but I didn’t, every character has a dozen qualifiers, every sentence is too dense by half, everything is working too fucking hard, I didn’t finish. Another Lethem disappointment.

Have You Seen . . . ?—David Thomson’s book of 1,000 mini-essays on movies he loves, and I love it, too. I dip into it every few weeks, read one or two, and put it back on the shelf.

Moments that Made the Movies—The first David Thomson dud, a closer look at two dozen scenes from famous films that Thomson argues created cinematic language. Great photos, though.

Warlock—Jim Starlin’s fabulous—and stunningly strange—odyssey of a cloned man who sacrifices himself to save a fake world, is resurrected, worshiped as a god, and must defeat the worst evil the universe has ever seen: a future version of himself. Wonderful, silly, chatty nonsense from one of the great comic artists in his prime.

A Sentimental Novel—Alan Robbe-Grillet’s last novel, and it’s a doozy. Increasingly violent descriptions of pornographic violence towards adolescent girls, rendered in not that interesting prose. The French condemned it as the perverse ramblings of a semi-demented man. Having read most of it, I can’t disagree. One to avoid.

To Urania—I didn’t read all of Brodsky’s sad, trembling poems, but enough. He’s dense, erudite, serious and melancholic.

Beautiful Ruins—Wow, what a disappointing novel. The first fifteen pages are excellent, then Jess Walter lets his narrative slide into sludgy drivel. I won’t tell you the plot; it’s not half the novel it’s blurbs pretend it to be.

Collected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks—Brooks is a fine poet, and her cycle of poems about Bronzeville, much of it included here, is very fine indeed.

Assumption—Percivel Everett remains an overlooked writer of immense talent and ambition. Here he tells what seems to be a straight-forward tale of a shaggy dog police officer in a small town, but there’s darkness and plenty of it afoot in his sleight of hand trickery.

Girl lit only by fireflies—Jim Harrison’s three novellas, and the first one, Brown Dog, is fantastic. Brown Dog is a summation of many of Harrison’s heroes: grumpy, aging, epicurean, philosophical, ribald. He gets stuck with a corpse and—just go and read it.

Complete poems of Raymond Carver—Excellent, terse poetry from a hard-drinker, and every bit as good as his stories (if you are a fan; better, if you are not). The book that got me back into poetry.

The Great Leader—Jim Harrison—one of my favorite novelists, for he is so very, very wild—returns to the detective story, of sorts, as a retired police detective hunts for a cult leader, while taking time to get drunk, peep at his young neighbor, genuflect at the alter of the derriere, and walk through the upper peninsula of Michigan. A great novel.

Crow—Ted Hughes’s bizarre poems about a character here at the dawn of existence. Simply great.

Wodwo—Another Ted Hughes bizarro book of half-poetry, half-prose. One of the weirder poetry collections out there, written by a master.

Shirley—I was excited about this half-homage, half-creepy character study of Shirley Jackson. But the best thing I can say about it is that it sent me back to her stories. Not very good, and perplexingly so.

“Seven Types of Ambiguity”—Shirley Jackson’s simple, short, ultra-disturbing tale of a small act of viciousness.

A marvelous conundrum of a book, simple and complex, funny but sad.

A marvelous conundrum of a book, simple and complex, funny but sad.

Trout Fishing in America—Richard Brautigan’s superb book, that appears to be nonsense, but is a profound statement on living in a country that makes less and less sense. Still relevant, and still superior, and yet also a time capsule of the various counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. I loved, loved, loved it.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster—Brautigan’s whip-smart collection of poems; the best follow Baudelaire through various American cities and events. Maybe my favorite poetry collection this year, although there is some truth that Brautigan is, like Maugham’s self-deprecating analysis of his own work, the king of the second-tier writers.

In Watermelon Sugar—A very fine, if thin, novel from Brautigan, nestled somewhere between The Journals of Albion Moonlight and Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope.

“Charles”—Shirley Jackson’s chilling story of kindergarten malfeasance and parental apathy. Great.

James T. Farrell Literary Essays—Pretty good little pieces on a variety of 1920s and 1930s American writers. His piece on Dos Passos—one of my favorite authors, and the writer of the last book I read this year—is probably the best of the bunch. Still, I wouldn’t run down to the bookstore looking to buy it.

Selected Non-fictions by Jorge Luis Borges—Borges’s essays fit perfectly with his short stories, which fit perfectly with his poems; all of it is a superior, magical, oblique mind at work, that loves paradoxes, labyrinths, antiquities. Borges seems to have understood his body of work as a body of work.

Best American Comics, 2013—Meh.

Flex Mentallo—Perhaps the key comic to all lf Grant Morrison’s varied obsessions, themes, motifs, and multi-linear narrative brio, the comic to unlock the Morrisonian conundrum at the center of his vast oeuvre. A junkie is dying in the rain. The last superhero in the world is looking for one of his former colleagues. A little boy sees the future in comic books. Circular, self-perpetuating, comics as mimetic virus—brilliant. And who will choose to save the world?

Confederate General at Big Sur—A step down for Mr. Brautigan, from Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar, this novel feels the most like a Beat novel. In some ways, it’s a comic equivalent to Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Still worth reading.

Captain America: Winter Soldier—I re-read most of Ed Brubakers run on Captain America, and it’s a historic run. He heightens the various side characters, including Sharon Carter and Sam Wilson and Arnim Zola, but he also brings in the Winter Soldier, one of the best resurrects Marvel has pulled off. Michael Lark and Jackson Guice and Steve Epting are three of the finest pencilers in the business, so the art is great, too.

Downstream from Trout Fishing in America—A writer and friend of Richard Brautigan, Keith Abbott, writes a very insightful, and heart-breaking, account of his friendship with Brautigan. A very good book.

The DreamerCharles Johnson’s novel of Martin Luther King and the vexing swirl of philosophy, Christianity, and non-violent ethics that surrounded him. Being Johnson, he creates a doppelganger—a rough and tumble rogue who happens to be a dead ringer for MLK—as the entry point to this very fine novel of ideas. Johnson is underrated.

Fibonacci Batman—Poems by Maureen Seaton, and pretty good ones at that.

Agostino—A short novel about a young boy and his burgeoning sexuality, as filtered through his falling in with a band of young hooligans. And yet, all of Italy’s racial and political problems seem to be contained in the boy’s peregrinations. One of the best short novels I’ve ever read.

Dreaming of Babylon—Richard Brautigan’s wry, oddball take on the detective story is amusing, but thin. Not his best book.

A novel in verse you won't soon forget.

A novel in verse you won’t soon forget.

Autobiography of Red—Anne Carson’s brilliant, astonishing, hard to describe novel in verse is one of the best books I read this year. It follows Geryon and Herakles, both the myths and as two teenage boys.

The 47 Ronin—Comic book version of the classic Japanese tale. The story explains a lot about the extreme nature of Japanese honor and the Bushido Code.

The Henry Miller Reader—Dense, intricate, full of verve and brio, with highs and lows, a very fine book. Miller remains one of the great outlaws of American letters.

The Lifetime Reading Plan–Clifton Fadiman’s outline of the western canon—it’s all the reading you’ll need for a lifetime, as he suggests—is a very fine overview of the great writers of the past. This is the third time I’ve read it. The only caveat: books like this can supplant the reading of the books they’re about. Put another way: it’s a very simple trap, to read summaries, introductions and overviews, as opposed to the real thing.

Nixonland—One of the best books I read this year, 800 pages following the rise, fall and rise of Nixon, while also encapsulating the student movements, the Vietnam War, the Black Power movements, the urban riots, the various commissions and the despicable black bag tactics of the increasingly paranoid Nixon. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Seventies—Historian Bruce ‘s survey of the American cultural and political landscape in during the 1970s. I read this for background research, but it’s very good.

Plainwater—Essays and poems from Anne Carson, one of the best writers I “discovered” in 2014. Her pieces on the Camino de Santiago are superb.

The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story—The author’s father was the lead detective on the Green River Killer case for two decades, and this graphic novel follows the ups and downs of the case. A white-knuckle comic and a touching monument to a father.

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews—Interesting bit of ephemera that is more hagiography and self-love than anything else. Still, Bradbury was a warm, generous person and it shows. There are some worthwhile little nuggets in here, too.

The Penultimate Truth—One of Philip K. Dick’s lesser novels, following the bulk of humanity working underground, believing the surface is unlivable; on the surface, wealthy ad men keep the subterranean slaves working, through false news feeds and a fake leader. Dick being Dick, he focuses on mid-level office workers being bounced back and forth between near-omnipotent powers. (And there’s a time traveling American Indian.)

A Girl and a Gun—An overview of the best crime films from the 40s and 50s. A reference book I return to every few years.

Drown—I finally made it around to Junot Diaz, and he is a very fine short story writer.

Lila—Masterful return to Marlynne Robinson’s Gilead, delving further into the complicated theology of Calvinism, sin and redemption.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

The Laughing Monsters—Denis Johnson’s slender novel of international intrigue follows an American agent in a convoluted triple cross. The novel starts poorly but the last fifty pages are dynamite: bizarre, thrilling, and unsettling.

Tales of Ovid—Ted Hughes translates Ovid in a very fine and oddly disturbing version of the Greek shape-shifting opus.

The Company—Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s main confidantes, wrote a couple of mediocre novels in the early 1980s. This is one of them. I read it because I stumbled across this doing some research. It follows a story similar to Nixon’s, and it isn’t very good at all.

The Book of Strange New Things—Michel Faber’s science fiction first contact novel, and it’s a heartbreak. A Christian minister travels to a distant planet to witness to an alien race that is excited—perhaps too excited—about the Bible. Meanwhile, his wife faces crisis after crisis here on earth. A very good novel, but saturated with melancholy and loss and sadness.

The Ladies’ Man—A lesser known Richard Price novel, following a confused protagonist through a week of hard-living in New York. Funny, harrowing, sexy.

Gaudette—Still working my way through this novel in verse, by the inimitable Ted Hughes, and it’s a doozy. A pastor slips into the underworld and is replaced by a manqué, who tries to live as the pastor does. Disaster follows.

The Sportswriter—Always wanted to read this, and now I have. Frank Bascombe was once a promising fiction writer but he’s turned his back on all of it to write about sports. He’s a dreamy, disassociated fellow, and the novel follows a chunk of his life. The writing is clean. The characters are interesting. And the novel is significant. But it’s also infuriating, with a poisonous undercurrent of malaise and ennui. (It isn’t clear how much of this is actually Ford’s point of view.)

Andre The Giant—Box Brown’s comic autobiography of one of the greatest wrestlers of all time is touching, taut and thrilling

The Dead Circus—Bouncy crime novel of Hollywood in the 1960s and the 1980s, as imagined by a screenwriter, the author Kaye, who is interested in neatly constructed scenes and ultimate redemption. He’s picked the Manson family as part of his saga, and looking for redemption there is a futile endeavor. Kaye isn’t a bad writer, but he isn’t a great one, either.

The Words—Jean Paul Sartre’s autobiography focuses on his childhood in the French countryside. His evocation of the falling-in-love feeling of learning how to read is a superbly moving experience. I forget, and so does much of the culture, that Sartre was a writer of fiction, first.

“No Exit”—Sartre’s one-act play about three characters in hell. His argument—and he grinds the reader’s face into it—is that it’s other people, with their petty desires and jealousies, that make us miserable and insane.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North—A novel of Australian POWs in World War II, being worked to death by their Japanese overlords, who are simultaneously starving them. Elegant, sophisticated, grim, violent, funny, jarring, sexy, ingeniously plotted and told out of sequence, this intricate novel follows a handful of characters, and their wives, through fifty years of their lives. Winner of this past year’s Man Booker Award, and I loved every page of it. A story that stays with you.

Books—Larry McMurtry’s comforting and solid book about his love of reading and his related passion for antiquarian bookselling, as well as the eccentric lessons he’s learned from being a book-dealer for the last 50 years. Feels like chatting with a well-read friend, while sitting in a comfortable chair.

The Corpse Exhibition—Short stories, a la Bolaño, from the first major Iraqi writer to emerge from the war-battered country. The stories deal with horror, terror, murder, alienation, confusion, but what should we expect from a title like this? I liked these stories, but I didn’t love them.

Sixty Stories—Barthelme is an important writer, a serious writer, a comic writer, and an acquired taste. His stories follow no set pattern; they belong to no genre; they veer from the sarcastic to the ironic to the violent to the silly to the slaptstick; they offer no resolution; and yet, they stand as a major achievement. A love it or hate it kind of book. I like it just fine.

Number One—John Dos Passos is one of my favorite writers, and I try to read one of his novels a year. Number One is the story of a political consultant falling to pieces as his candidate rises in stature. A propulsive and shattering experience, leaner and less verbally pyrotechnic than his great U.S.A. trilogy, but still one of the better political novels I’ve read.

Books I failed to read much of:

The Enormous Room—I’ve wanted to read e.e. cummings’s World War I autobiographical novel for almost 15 years. I got the chance and . . . I hated it. Cummings emerges as a pompous, bloviating, self-loving ass.

The Annals of Chile—More poetry, only this collection, which is pretty good, didn’t blow my hair back.

Leapfrog—Just . . . nonsense.

Hard to be a God—the best argument for good writing being a priority. This very fine idea—future humans have found an earth-planet with humans on it, going through a period of the middle ages, and one of them decides to descend from his perch and declare himself a god—is ruined by really bad writing. A friend of mine says he thinks it’s a bad translation; I think he’s being generous.

Redeployment—I made it through three of Phil Klay’s stories before the library asked for the book back. He can write. He deserves praise. I will make it back to his collection in the new year. I hope.

Renoir, My Father—Lovingly rendered, textured and highly readable account of Renoir, the painter, and his life and times, by his son, the filmmaker. I will read the rest of it, but I wanted to savor its evocation of a lost time in small allotments.

A Death in Belmont—Well, I was reading this in a pinch, as I had read all the books I brought with me on vacation and this was only a quarter. It’s by Sebastian Junger, and follows a man wrongly accused of a murder done by the Boston Strangler. Not bad—I have a guilty pleasure kind of relationship to lurid true crime books—but once I returned home I cast it aside.

The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie—God, I tried to make it through Muriel Spark’s novel of a teacher and her students, where the teacher oversteps her mission and begins to manipulate her students. I tried and failed.

There were others, but I cannot recall them. And that’s it. Here’s to the books of 2015.

[1] Must be careful.

National Book Award winners, part 24: 1972’s Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

8 Apr

(In 35 magnificent bullet points! And one footnote.)

• In 1972, Flannery O’Connor won the National Book Award for her collected short stories. They are, in a word, magnificent. They are also wicked, wild and weird.

• O’Connor had been dead for eight years. She deserved the top honor.

• What to say about O’Connor that hasn’t been said a dozen times before?

• Much of her adult life she suffered through Lupus. She also lived much of her life with her mother out in the country.

• Illness. Deformity. Rural locales and weird familial relations. Not too bad a description of O’Connor’s work.

• Two of the judges that year were Joseph Heller and Joan Didion. Wow. American fiction in the seventies.

• Themes: spoiled children, haunted Christians, fear, worry, anxiety. Lack of sexual experience. Lack of social experience. Outbursts of violence. Social wolves, dressed as sheep, prowling amongst the weak.

One of the masters of the form, O'Connor is devious, wicked, cruel and unsparing.

One of the masters of the form, O’Connor is devious, wicked, cruel and unsparing.

• There’s racism, my God, and it isn’t just reporting. Something in her art seems tilted towards a seething resentment and near-hatred for southern African Americans. Apologists argue that she is setting up the ironic disconnect between dreamers (often liberals) and reality (the rural, often violent south).

• I think this a generous interpretation. Here we have a boy and his grandfather in “The Artificial Nigger”:

“Nelson turned backward again and looked where the Negro had disappeared. He felt that the Negro had deliberately walked down the aisle in order to make a fool of him and he hated him with a fierce raw fresh hate; and also, he understood now why his grandfather disliked them.” 

• Great writing. Intriguing point of view. But, also, something disturbing in the coded language, the total subjectivity. I don’t detect irony here; I see O’Connor revealing something about her own beliefs.

• More on O’Connor’s racism, or rather, more on her unsparing racial commentary. Here she is, in “The Circle in the Fire,” with one of her characters thoughts after upbraiding one of the poor blacks: “Her Negroes were as destructive and impersonal as nut grass.” Ouch.

• Is she using her character’s racism for some end? Is she delving into the racism that saturated so much of the South? Or is she portraying the world as she thought it was? A hard question for her fans to answer[1].

• Let’s move on.

• A Good Man Is Hard To Find remains one of the greatest short stories ever written—terse, yet somehow large and spacious as a novel. The characters have life in them that seems to exist far outside the boundaries of the story. It’s only 23 pages and it’s goddamn, fucking perfect.

• The first line: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”

• More themes: suicide, religious confusion—simple minds incapable of grasping the true meaning of Christ, sacrifice. Bullets, (just hinted at) perverse sex, children at the mercy of a vicious adult world.

• O’Connor’s progeny: Harry Crews and William Gay and (to a lesser extent) Barry Hannah.

• Hannah is sillier, more playful, less wicked, more obvious, more in love with his own words, more in love with life and booze and sinning. Less enthralled by asceticism, less likely to leave a disabled woman stranded with no possible way home, as O’Connor does in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”)

• Here’s the first line to that splendid story:

“The old woman and her daughter were sitting on the porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time.”

• William Gay—a great novelist prone to the same excesses of O’Connor. An almost reductive tendency toward the abused and the grotesque; casually racist characters unexplored and unexamined; a specter of violence and decay unfettered by life’s little joys. Having said that, Provinces of Night is an absolute masterpiece. Here’s the first line:

“The dozer took the first cut out of the claybank below Hixson’s old place at seven o’clock and by nine the sun was well up in an absolutely cloudless sky and it hung over the ravaged earth like a malediction.”

• Ditto for Crews. Feast of Snakes is one of my favorite novels. What the hell, here’s the first line to that, too:

“She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.”

• Gay is O’Connor plus love. Crews is O’Connor plus sex. Taken together with Hannah they form a bizarre buffet of southern grotesquerie.

• O’Connor’s novels are problematic. Her short stories feel richer, more multifaceted. The sentences read like scrubbed stones. She’s an absolute master of the short story; they are wonderful, complex, fun to read. The novels, not so much.

• One of my favorite sentences, from “The Artificial Nigger”:

“He felt he knew now what time would be like without seasons and what heat would be like without salvation.” Wow.

• A great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: merciless.

• Another great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: prophetic.

• Yet another great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: devious.

• She seems to thrive on humiliation, negative epiphany, casual cruelty. She is so wicked. (I love her for this.) She has hate in her heart the width of a mile-long stone. Her conscience—and I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary—is malformed.

• More themes: terror of sex, horror of cities, of throngs of people, of the riot of everyday life.

• Deceased and probably just bones in the ground, and yet in 1972 she still beat out some very fine writers: Stanley Elkin, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, Walker Percy, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, Jerzy Kosinski, Ernest Gaines, Richard Brautigan, Frederick Buechner and E.L. Doctorow. That’s a hell of a list. American fiction in the seventies! Still, O’Connor deserved the win.

• Tom Tryon published The Other that year. It’s overrated, but fits in with O’Connor somehow. Dark spiritual doubles. Murder. Mania and jittery nervousness.

• Yet, in O’Connor, the same elements are elegant, hard-edged, crystalline.

• This same year, B.F. Skinner released Beyond Freedom and Dignity. That would be a great title for an O’Connor biography.

• Clark Ashton Smith released a book of poetry. This has nothing at all to do with O’Connor or her work. Just weird. Who would want to read his poetry?








[1] Read her letters if you have any doubts. Yowza.

National Book Award winners, part 12: 1958’s The Wapshot Chronicle, by John Cheever.

30 Sep

(recuperating from pneumonia in fits and starts; balancing working on my new manuscript with writing about award winners from the past; finding that old anhedonia creeping into the daily grind)


In 1958, John Cheever won the National Book Award for The Wapshot Chronicle. He deserved to win, it’s a superb novel, and a foundational text on which his reputation rests.

The story follows three generations of the family Wapshot: an old salty sailor Leander; his prodigal son, Moses; his other son, Coverly; and his eccentric, elderly aunt, Honore. It’s a sprawling, lively, lusty tale, written in beautiful, poetic prose. The novel swoops in and out of the four characters lives. Moses has wild peregrinations, living penniless in New York and pursuing insane love affairs. Coverly grapples with his homosexuality, his ambiguous feelings towards his father, while attempting to marry a decent woman. Honore struggles with the swift social changes all around her. And Leander spends much of the novel trying to maintain his dignity through aging, increasing irrelevance.

One of the 20th century's great novels.

One of the 20th century’s great novels.

It might not sound like much, but the way Cheever writes it, this novel contains multitudes, a vastness, a rich zestiness, an epic scope and feel. These four characters traverse an immense emotional terrain, and by the novel’s end you feel elated, giddy, excited to be alive.

And the writing, good God, it’s spectacular. Cheever spent eight years working on Chronicle, and it shows. The sentences are perfect. Here’s a section following Honore as she wanders around town:


She eats two frankfurters and a dish of ice cream. “That was delicious,” she tells the counter girl, and gathering her things she starts down the street again toward the bus stop where she notices the sign above the Neptune movie theater: ROSE OF THE WEST. What harm can there be, she thinks, in an old lady going to a movie, but when she buys her ticket and steps into the dark, bad-smelling theater she suffers all the abrasive sensations of someone forces into moral uncleanliness. She does not have the courage of her vices. It is wrong, she knows, to go into a dark place when the world outside shines with light. It is wrong and she is a miserable sinner. She buys a box of popcorn and takes an aisle seat in the last row—a non-committal position that seems to lighten her burden of guilt. She munches her popcorn and watches the movie suspiciously.

And here, Leander writes his memoirs of his early days:


Found self, although not yet of legal age, powerfully attracted to opposite sex. Picked up hooker on riverbank. Big hat. Dirty linen. Girlish airs, but not young. What matter. Writer on fool’s errand. Red hair. Green eyes. Talked. “What a pretty sky,” says she. “My how nice the river smells,” says she. Very ladylike. River smells of mudbanks. Bad breath of the sea. Low tide. French kissed. Groin to groin. Put hand in front of dress. Little  boys in bushes giggled. Tomfools. Walked in dusk, hip to hip. “I have a little room on Belmont Street,” she says. No thanks. Took her to railroad embankment. Cinders. Cornflowers. Stars. Big weeds like tropical vegetation. Samoa. S——d her there. Grand and glorious feeling. Forget for an hour all small things. Venalities. Money worries. Ambitions. Felt refreshed, generous towards sainted old mother. Hooker named Beatrice. Met often afterwards.

If I could only read one novel for the rest of my life, I would probably pick Wapshot. It’s that good.


Cheever was famous for his short stories by 1957, and he is a superior craftsman of the short form. He wrote hundreds of them. He won all the top awards, sold boatloads of books and was heralded by critics and peers. He’s been called an American Chekhov.

But I think Cheever is worthy of all these accolades and more. I would list him as one of the great stylists of the 20th century, with a few important caveats.

Here we go:

One, he’s odd. There’s a rattle in his fiction, opposing forces fighting for control, and the battle seems to be taking place within Cheever’s mind. It’s as if his dark self and light self picked fiction to battle for control. The effect can be unsettling. As if Cheever himself were as unhinged as some of his characters.

Two, he’s inconsistent, in a way that I love, but academics often hate. He breaks every rule of writing, his style is difficult to identify and he tosses bizarre stuff into his stories at random times. This makes him fun to read, but hard to critique. And without academic reappraisals, it’s tough as hell for a writer to remain in the American consciousness.

Three, his fans are split; some think he’s a short story writer who dallied with the novel with varying degrees of success, while others feel like he’s a novelist who happened to write killer short stories. (I’m in the second camp.)

Four, his body of work (mostly) deals rich people drinking too much and having affairs. Almost two thousand pages of the stuff, and taken as a whole, it can seem like an enormous WASP pity party. Look at us rich, white people! We can be so mean-spirited and sad!

Five, expanding on his oddness, there’s a tension in his work, basic decency dueling with cruel avaricious lust, and the lust often wins. His humanism and decency often feel outweighed by meanness and despair. It’s what makes reading him fascinating, but also in the aggregate unbearably sad.



But, really, what can I say about Cheever that hasn’t already been said? Three years ago I read everything he’s written, save for that last little fable thing[1] that I can’t bring myself to try. He’s a magician with his sentences, tucking in bizarre little things in the middle of his paragraphs. He was a major American artist who slipped into near-anonymity and has now returned. I love him. I rate him higher than Bellow, equal to Roth[2], and probably just a bit below Malamud[3].

Philip Roth called Cheever “an enchanted realist.” This is the best description of his allure I can find. Cheever’s stories are realistic[4], often detailing upper crust new England families. But there are ghosts of despair, loneliness, melancholy and even murder rattling around between the lines. Cheever balances a big-hearted empathy and genuine affection for his characters with a vicious, and often deranged joy at their unraveling.

Cheever—especially after the publication of his journals and then later Blake Bailey’s award-winning biography—is less a novelist and more a brand. He’s read psychoanalytically; readers know of his late-in-life homosexual dalliances, as well as his infamous alcoholism, and read his novels looking for clues. His novels and stories are chock a block full of homosexual encounters amongst “straight” men and epic consumption of liquor. But it’s a classic fallacy in dealing with artists, interpreting the art through the life of the artist. And his work transcends the borders of his life and carries within it an otherworldly vitality. Reading it as his unclaimed autobiography is a miserable way to experience his talent, humanity, weirdness, and skill. But that seems to be how many readers now approach him. ’Tis a pity.

Yes, there probably is whiskey in that coffee, but who cares?

Yes, there probably is whiskey in that coffee, but who cares?



Anyway, to the books.

My favorite novel of his is Bullet Park. It’s lean, taut, eerie, complex, erotic and thrilling to read. I would recommend it as a good entry point into Cheever. It’s split into two sections. The first seems like a realistic novel detailing the lives of middle class suburbanites, intriguing and well-written, but middlebrow and safe. The second half follows a neighbor as he wanders through an increasingly nightmarish world of drugs, gay encounters, and weird religious mania, deciding that he has to murder his neighbor’s son. It’s fabulous.

The Wapshot Scandal is a good novel, a continuation of the Wapshot family troubles, but a much simpler and less rewarding read than Chronicle. It’s funnier, more overtly ribald, easier to read and more streamlined—it has none of the Leander reminiscences that make Chronicle so rich and dense—and Cheever does some fascinating things with the characters. But it’s a parenthetical work, a must-read for fans, but not essential reading.

Falconer is a prison novel, about an upper class dude adapting to his new surroundings and taking a gay lover behind bars. It’s a very fine novel—many writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, cite it as their favorite and it’s on a handful of best of the century lists—but not his finest[5]. (I would recommend Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, or Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, if you want a killer prison novel.) He feels a touch out of his element here.

And the collected short stories—which won the National Book Award in the 1980s and I’ll return to it on another post—is essential to any library. It’s spectacular.


Although Cheever deserves the top award, 1957 was a good year for American fiction. Bernard Malamud’s superb, heart-breaking The Assistant was released. So was Andre Lyttle’s The Velvet Horn (I’ve never read it but it has a sterling reputation). James Agee published A Death in the Family. Jack Keroauc released his manic, zeitgeist-defining On the Road. Vladimir Nabokov published his Pnin, one of his thinner, lesser works[6].

In the bad fiction category, Ayn Rand did her best to ruin the world with Atlas Shrugged (boo, hiss, please go away forever).

Over in jolly old England, the postwar flood of British novelists continued. John Wyndham, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick White (okay he’s Australian), Murial Spark (Scottish?), Nevil Shute, Daphne Du Maurier and Lawrence Durrell all published novels. Something fabulous was going on over there, in the first decade after the end of the war.

I’d like to stay with Cheever for longer, but it’s time to move on.

[1] Oh What a Paradise It Seems. I don’t even like typing the title. Of course, it’s probably good. Malamud’s God’s Grace sounds lame on paper, but is astonishing.

[2] Sacrilege to most, I know.

[3] After Cheever, I went through a Malamud binge, and fell in love all over again.

[4] Sort of.

[5] There’s something cutesy, for lack of a better word, about it. And it’s predictable.

[6] I’ve yet to make it all the way through it, but I’m not crazy about Pale Fire, either.

Salvation Songs, part 6: Loser.

14 May

(They aren’t always good songs. Sometimes they’re terrible. But they’re the right songs. Ordained by God, and transmitted through an invisible stream of auditorial alchemy. Salvation songs. Read parts 1 and 2.)


I knew Beck’s “Loser” was special the first time I heard it. The guitar is so distinct and pure, the drum machine and loops and the superb, mystifying lyrics. Despite the numerous records and the shifting, mercurial sound, Beck wouldn’t make a song as perfect again. Sometimes you get it right the first time. It came out in 1993. I was 16 years old. It was one of the first Buzzclips, back when MTV still had musical cache and when the label alternative meant something. Although I was characterized by punk and power pop, some of these early alternative bands made the cut. Beck was one. Tool, strangely, was another.

My sophomore year of high school, I started hanging out with a handful of juniors: Chad B., Tim H., and Matt W. They introduced me to a lot of things. Tim lived in a little side room off his parents’ house, and we spent a lot of time in there. He was an artist and a poet, he listened to Pink Floyd.

I knew Matt from soccer. He was hilarious, caustic and disparaging, an old kvetch in a young man’s body.

Chad was honest, sincere, yet mysterious. He lived nearby[1]. He had a mystical slant to his thoughts.

I don’t know why, but they liked me and included me in their group. They brought introspection, poetry, oddball literature and drug music into my life. We spent our time driving around town or hanging out at Tim’s. Wild man Robert (I’ve mentioned him before) often came along. (Jeff and Chris had their first girlfriends.)

One night Chad and I drove an hour out towards Alabama to go to a party at Braden Rogers’s house. Braden’s name means nothing to most people reading this, and I didn’t and don’t know him well. But I feel an enormous debt of gratitude towards him. When I was fourteen, just a fifteen months earlier, he saved my life.


Like all high schools, Pensacola Catholic had some bullies, those ’roided up, prematurely muscled assholes who stalk the hallways looking for hair to pull and faces to smash. Some bullies drape their immense self-loathing with mean-spirited, always close to violence joking (a dude named Clayton operated in this mold, sort of like the joker, laughing maniacally while inflicting pain); some bullies are simply transferring their unhappiness from their homes; and some are just vicious and violent and mean. Chance W. was this third kind of bully. He had huge pectoral muscles when he was in tenth grade. He had three o’clock shadow at 15. He was rich and strong and rotten to the core, an unfeeling, nasty shell of a person. Most people from those years at Catholic have some story of a Chance encounter. This is mine.

One day Chance and two other sophomores named Neil and Tony came up to me in the lunchroom. “That’s him,” Tony said.

“I hear you been talking about my mama,” Chance said.

I looked around. I was over six feet tall and I weighed under 150 pounds. I was a walking skeleton, scrawny and under-muscled and absolutely not a fighter at all. I minded my own business. I kept to my friends. I had no clue what was going on.

“That wasn’t me,” I said. I tried to walk back to my table.

“No, I heard you were talking about my mama,” Chance said. Neil and Tony smiled and nodded their heads.

“I swear I didn’t.”

After lunch I went outside to wait for the bell with a kid named Cody. Chance and the others followed me. Where the teachers were I had no idea. Chance continued with his bullshit. The day was warm but not hot, and the interior quad was small. A little group formed. I continued with my protestations of innocence, but I was feeling exposed and threatened.

Then Chance shoved me and, remembering all the idiotic anti-bullying literature and after-school specials, I shoved him back. Cody took a deep breath and took a few steps back. He was terrified of blowback.

Chance swelled up right in front of me like some cartoon villain. He puffed up to swing. Time stopped. I had no skills to fall back on. I had my bony hands in fists and thought, Well, here comes your first thrashing. I was afraid, but there was a tinny little internal voice saying, How bad can a beating be?

Then Braden appeared.

“Nah, man, leave him alone. He’s cool.”

He pulled Chance aside and cooled him down. I waited. The bell rang. I didn’t move. Chance came back over. “So you weren’t talking about my mama?” he said.

“No, man, no,” I said.

He let me go.

I had known Braden from middle school. But we hadn’t been friends, and I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I didn’t really speak to him after that, either. But I felt and feel an immense debt of gratitude to him. I wasn’t cool. I had nothing to offer him. He protected me because it was the right thing to do. And, well, I’ve always loved him for it.

(As for Chance, he would later infamously kick Devin Kennedy in the face! after Devin and Peyton fought in front of half the school, and Peyton had knocked Devin down. Chance had nothing to do with the fight and didn’t know either of them very well. He told me later in a rare moment of candor, and I’m not making this up, that he was pissed because “they both fought like pussies.” We were at a basketball game, the only two upper grades students in attendance, and I was wise enough to sort of nod my head, a very minor betrayal of my values, and in retrospect, totally worth it. Chance didn’t mention our little dust-up and I was happy to let bygones be. Later that year he slapped me in the back of the head at a party. Chad ushered me out before I did anything stupid.)


Back to Chad in his little white Honda and our late night trek to Braden’s house party.

We got there late, close to ten, and stayed under two hours. It wasn’t our kind of people. There was a bonfire and the others were mostly hunters and fishers and outdoorsy types, Alabama folk, good country people. The antithesis of Chad and me, basically.  Braden was there in full country regalia, camouflage and a hunting cap, the kind of vibe I would have mocked on another person, but suited him just fine. I didn’t speak to him, not really, but I wanted to hug him and say thanks. I never did.

Chad drank too much and I had to drive us home. I drove cautiously, just at the speed limit. We ambled along some forgotten highway in the country, surrounded by immense black trees and the gray night, the kind of evening that feels like it could go on forever and ever.

The whole car ride we listened to “Loser” over and over, some twenty times. We both sang along.

[1] I still know him.

Best movies by decade: The 2000s (21-25)

13 Aug

The story of an infighting family of self-pitying geniuses.

21. Royal Tenenbaums/Shaun of the Dead—Wes Anderson’s last good movie for a while, or perhaps the movie where things begin to go wrong. Bold colors, beautiful designs, eccentric characters and a killer soundtrack, yes, but also mannered acting, offbeat (and off-putting) storytelling and a smugness that feels petulant and unearned. Gene Hackman plays Royal, a sneaky scoundrel exiled from his family of former child prodigies. In an attempt to win them back, he pretends to be dying of cancer. Hackman is superb, a feisty end of career performance, and Angelica Huston is excellent, but it is Alec Baldwin’s narration that is the real wonder. Anderson’s skills are on full display, but it his design acumen that gets him into trouble; the emphasis on style has diminished his storytelling abilities. All of Anderson’s films are interesting, but it isn’t until The Fantastic Mr. Fox that he would fully regain his footing.

Two slacker fools try to navigate a zombie apocalypse.

Shaun of the Dead—Inspired horror comedy that limps along with a slacker’s gait. An underemployed Brit loses his girlfriend due to his inability to grow up. Then a zombie apocalypse hits, and he must try to stay alive, win her back, and lead his ragtag group of friends across a city bloated with the undead. His plan is to hole up in his favorite pub and eke out their survival until the cavalry arrives. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost co-star, and their comic on-screen chemistry is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Hot Fuzz, their second film together, is equally funny, a send-up of action films in the Naked Gun mold (although the movie wears out its welcome about two-thirds of the way through). An effortless first movie from a very talented bunch of comedians.

The dark and dreary world of America’s first spies.

22. The Good Shepherd/Inglorious Basterds/Punch Drunk Love—Robert DeNiro’s epic character study about one of America’s first spies. Matt Damon plays the title role, a quiet, intelligent spy in the George Smiley mold. The characters are loosely based on real OSS, and later CIA, operatives. Damon is there at the beginning of the American spy apparatus, just at the end of World War II, and the movie follows his moral decline as the job demands more and more compromise. He becomes increasingly paranoid as the job gets nastier and nastier. With his first directorial debut, DeNiro borrowed from Scorsese in the very fine A Bronx Tale. Here, fittingly, he pulls from Coppola, and the feel and sweep of this exquisite spy movie is reminiscent of The Godfather, Part II. (Coppola was originally signed on as the director.) The movie divided critics; some, unaccountably, found it boring. Shaggy and full of ideas.

Murderous counterfactual history at its tawdriest.

Inglorious Basterds—Tarantino had a hell of a decade, first with the Kill Bill movies, followed by Grindhouse, and then this, his war movie about war movies. The Kill Bill movies have a lot going for them, with exceptional fighting sequences and an intriguing mythology of female globe-trotting assassins. But it’s excessively self-involved, a kind of Moebius strip of self-references, and the second movie is too damn long. Grindhouse was a novel concept, two B-movies shown together with a stock set of actors, but the real problem was the budget. Tarantino and Rodriguez should have limited themselves to the same budgetary constraints as the movies they were aping. Instead, you have enormously expensive trash. (The fake previews were great, though, and to be fair, the car chase scenes in Deathproof, Tarantino’s half of the movie, were incredible.) But with Basterds, Tarantino continues to defy—and strangely fulfill—expectations with this fantastical re-imagining of World War II. He sets a crew of tough, special forces Jews into the treacherous world of occupied France. Their enemies are the Nazi high command, in Tarantino’s hands an urbane, swishy and deranged group of dandy killers, embodied in Hans Landa’s performance as the multi-lingual Nazi officer who uses words as the most basic of weapons. A smashing tour through a counterfactual history.

A love story, pulled through some cosmic distortion field.

Punch-Drunk-Love—Paul Thomas Anderson’s lightest movie, a romantic comedy-drama stretched through a strange cosmic distortion field. He pulls the arrested man-child character out of Adam Sandler into a more complex personality, adding damaged layers of sadness to the raging core. His is a short fuse. He comes to loggerheads with an unscrupulous businessman with anger management issues of his own, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman sends some goons to beat up Sandler, Sandler tries to woo Emily Watson, and the whole thing watches somewhere between a farce and a tragicomic episode of the Twilight Zone.

Two friends on a journey to change the world.

23. The Motorcycle Diaries/Pulse—Before he was Che, he was Ernesto, an earnest medical student with the wanderlust bug. The year is 1952, and with his best friend Alberto, Che rides a junker motorcycle on a 3,000-mile trip through South America. That was the plan, anyway, but when the bike breaks down, the two men hitchhike their way through labor camps, copper mines, and a leper colony, picking up odd jobs along the way. They drink, they fight, they woo. Che keeps a diary, and slowly starts to realize the immense inequality, and suffering, of the various South American peoples. The episodes hang together by Che’s burgeoning revolutionary consciousness and the excellent performances from its two leads. A faithful dramatization and a stirring movie. Beautiful stuff.

The terrible dread of being alone in the universe.

Pulse—A new, peculiarly Japanese mental illness appeared in the late 90s, where young people would lock themselves into their rooms and refuse to come out. Pulse takes this very real social problem and turns on the scares. Japanese horror—nicknamed J-horror—starting in the 90s, took on dark new dimensions, combining elements of social decay, Buddhist religious notions, mass communication and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The horror often stems from social isolation, loneliness. A whole batch of these appeared, kick-started by Ringu, and they operate with a disturbing techno-occultic language. Ghosts inhabit televisions, videos, telephones, and the world wide web. They don’t kill you; they destroy your capacity to live. They cause suicidal loneliness, they turn your heart to ice. Pulse is the scariest of the lot, a terrifying vision of the pointlessness of the universe, a kind of 21st century The King in Yellow. Terrifying stuff.

Pitch-perfect comedy from the Katherine Hepburn school.

24. Bridget Jones’s Diary/All About Lily Chou-Chou/Munich—The lightest of movie confections, held together by a strong cast, a witty script, and on-point, unfussy direction. Renee Zellwegger, prone to over-acting, is excellent as an always-out-of-love British working woman tripping through a variety of romantic misadventures. She’s a self-involved, neurotic bumbler, infatuating with detailing her own physical shortcomings. Two men vie for her affections, Daniel Cleaver, played by the rakish Hugh Grant, and Mark Darcy, by the stalwart Colin Firth. Daniel is playful and witty, Mark serious and dour. Far from the riots, the social unrest, the brutal bullying and the soccer hooligans, London here is a type of upscale restaurant and shopping scene. A very funny, pleasant and quaint movie.

A boy left alone to the vagaries of a bullying existence.

All About Lily Chou-Chou—Japan has a thriving film culture, but it can be unwelcoming to outsiders. They have their own genres, and an acting style influenced by Kabuki. The result is a film culture that is, at times, insulated and strange. I often feel that I’m missing the context when I watch Japanese movies; I often feel I’m watching a sequel to a movie I’ve never seen. There’s a perverse undercurrent to their cinema, which gives their movies an edge. I’ve seen boatloads of these—I went through a Japanese period in the mid-2000s—but I think Lily Chou-Chou is the best, better even than Battle Royale—itself a very influential Lord of the Flies murderous romp. (While Departures, the best foreign film of 2008, is diverting treacle.) Chou-Chou is about a group of young boys obsessed with a pop star Lily Chou-Chou. The boys exist in a dreary twilight, half-child and half-adult. Hoshino is a popular, handsome student, who outside of school pimps out his classmates and humiliates his friends. Yuichi is a decent, if disaffected outsider who falls under Hoshino’s influence, and must endure a series of increasingly cruel tribulations. Told in a disjointed, intentionally confusing style, the film is equal parts genius and blowhard, a riveting yet strange meditation that like a complicated mandala disappears and withers into nothingness when examined too closely. Still, we must look, and upon looking, weep for the future. Kids these days, they be scary.

The killer with a mission and a conscience.

Munich—Steven Spielberg is a dynamo, a one-man moviemaking machine. He produces, develops his own projects, and directs an astonishing output of films. His technical abilities are superior, as is his understanding of how stories play out on screen. He only occasionally missteps, and even his weaker movies are well made. He operates in the old studio mold; he makes lots of movies and there’s quality control in the product. In the oughts, he made Catch Me if You Can; Minority Report; A.I.; War of the Worlds; The Terminal; and this, the best of the lot. Munich tells the truish story of a group of Mossad agents who are sent to assassinate those responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The five assassins travel all over the world in their quest, falling into a complex web of international spies from all over the world. Eric Bana is very good as the leader of the group, grappling with the moral consequences of his increasingly immoral actions. A sinister feeling that very bad people run the world begins to sink in. Paranoia and confusion, misinformation and deceit, the band of loyal Israelis are soon immersed in the impossibility of their quest; they cannot murder their way to any kind of peace or safety. Bana carries the weight of the movie in his face, and the supporting cast, including Geoffrey Rush and Claran Hinds, are also very good. The visuals are excellent, but it’s a different, rougher Spielberg, coming to terms with the two American wars in the only way he knows how, on celluloid. Tony Kushner wrote the script. The movie would be much higher on my list, save for a snaking sideplot that is implausible and distracting. Like A History of Violence, Munich is interested in cause and effect, how violence spirals out of control. In a way it’s interrogating itself, pondering the morality of its own message.

A near-perfect comedy about a young man attempting to reverse history and encase the world in amber.

25. Goodbye Lenin/Pan’s Labyrinth/Moscow, Belgium —A young man’s mother—a dedicated East German revolutionary—falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall. To protect her fragile heart from the shock of the enormous changes taking place in her beloved city, her son attempts to recreate the Soviet-era world. This very funny, and ultimately very touching, movie has great set pieces, such as how he explains an enormous Coke billboard outside her window, and the amount of work he must put in to maintain the illusion exhausts him. The very talented Daniel Bruhl plays the son, and he had a great decade with parts in The Edukators and Inglorious Basterds, among others. One of those great, effortless movies, where everything sort of clicks and unfolds, and a pleasure to watch over and over again.

An evil flesh-eater lurking beneath the world; above, the Spanish fascists are so much worse.

Pan’s Labyrinth—Guillermo Del Toro is a talented director in love with old school special effects. He also loves monsters, Victorian-era horror novels, ghosts and ghouls and goblins and adventure stories. He’s a pulp scholar, a well-read connoisseur of weird fiction. His first film, The Devil’s Backbone, is a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. The key to the movie is that the ghosts are murdered young boys, whereas the actual villain is a fascist sympathizer. Del Toro’s message is clear: all the phantasms in the world are less dangerous than one evil man. Hellboy is very good, a funny, faithful adaptation of the comic. (Hellboy II is bad; Del Toro let his love of fantastic pageantry and monster building interfere with a good idea.) But Pan’s Labyrinth is a continuation of Backbone’s theme, and Del Toro’s best movie. A young girl’s mother marries a fascist commander of a Spanish prison camp. The bookish little girl, dropped into a wretched existence, escapes into a dark inner world of mythological creatures, quests and spells. In that world, she must complete three gruesome tasks to become princess. The best sequence in the movie involves the little girl fleeing an eyeless, bleached white creature in a baroque chamber beneath the earth. The movie stays focused on the all-too-human cruelties of the girl’s stepfather, however. By the movie’s end, the flesh-eating creatures feel harmless in contrast. Del Toro makes argument with cleverness and panache: We are infinitely worse than our worst nightmares.

The touching, funny story of an oddball relationship sprung up in the most unlikely of places.

Moscow, Belgium—A little gem of a little movie, the story of love found in the unlikeliest of places. Matty, a sour-faced, bitter woman raising two children while her husband has an affair with a much younger woman, begins to re-engage with life when she meets a bullish, younger truck driver named Johnny. Improbably, the two begin a love affair, and soon are in something akin to love. Barbara Sarafian, the actress playing Matty, gives an incredible performance of a woman slowly remembering how to feel. A very fine comic drama filmed in Belgium of all places. A warm, open-hearted movie made with skill and plenty of funny lines, this is the type of romantic comedy Hollywood used to be able to produce all the time. A Flemish Two for the Seesaw.

Honorable mention: Sexy Beast; Memento; The Wrestler; Love, Actually; The Pianist; Almost Famous; High Fidelity; Chicago; Million Dollar Baby; Grindhouse; Revanche; Half Nelson; Battle Royale; Nicholas Nickleby; Sweet Sixteen; The Battle for Algiers; Adventureland

(Intro and part 1 here; parts 2 and 3 here and here)

Henry horrorific and the dark life.

12 Sep


Simone’s first movies were—god help me—The Strangers and Hostel II. (I’ll come back to this later.)

Like a first kiss, or getting married, you never forget your first horror movie.

The first horror movie I can remember is The Mausoleum.  It was a low budget movie about demon possession. With my background—demon possession was and is treated as a real thing—the movie terrified me. There are plenty of murders, and even a guy’s head exploding. (You can see it here.)  I was eight years old.

The Hearse is my second horror movie. It’s a classic haunted house/poltergeist film, and it scared me, too, although now I find it silly.

And then there was Black Christmas. Holy God, did this movie scare me. (It still does.) The story follows a group of sorority sisters receiving obscene phone calls during the Christmas holiday. It begins like many other slasher movies, but then builds into an unbearably creepy film. I couldn’t breathe, it was so scary. It ruined me as a child. I still have nightmares about it.

The scariest scene in one of the scariest movies of all time.

I watched these on television. My parents had a second TV in the apartment above the garage and on Saturdays I would sneak up there and watch USA’s Saturday Nightmares, the best thing television has ever produced. The movies were often followed by episodes of the Hitchhiker, which I watched but never really liked.

Television's greatest achievement.

It was here I saw The Brood, Halloween III, Motel Hell, Rawhead Rex, The Sentinel, Willard, Basket Case, Exorcist III and Slugs among forty or fifty others.

The beginning of a not-so-sentimental education.


Other people have seen more horror movies than I have, but not many. A number of countries have a tradition of horror, and one thing I love about scary movies is that different countries catalog and exploit fear in different ways. It says a lot about a people, the types of stories they tell to scare themselves. The big horror movie traditions are Japan, with their creepy, vengeful, pale-skinned avenging girls; Germany, with its roots in madness, chaos and fear; England, with its Mike Hammer studios and its perpetual collision between pagan and Christian values; Italy, with its gruesome, over the top gorefests; the U.S., which has half a dozen subgenres, including the serial killers, haunted houses, supernatural creatures and the like. And then there’s Australia, which has at its core a motto of anything for a buck. Here’s a quick summary:

Japan: Solitude is terror in the face of a vast, cosmic nothing.

Germany: Man is a vile and violent creature.

England: Christians and pagans can both kill you.

United States: What you don’t know can kill you, and what you do know can kill you, and the only chance you have for survival is chastity.

Italy: Torture and dismemberment are unavoidable; try to enjoy them.

Australia: Show me the money.

Horror works because the snake-part of our brain, where fear lives, took millions of years to evolve, whereas movies have only been here for a century or so. We cannot differentiate between reality and what we’re watching, not in the moment. It’s what gives horror films, even bad ones, their eerie power. It’s what makes the basics universal.

Of course, the real allure of horror is this: when its good, it’s a primal purge of fright and catharsis. When it’s bad, it’s hilarious. Unlike dramas, where a complex array of things need to align for quality—good actors, a good script, a good director, good editing—horror films operate in an weird, counterfactual universe, immune to these prerequisites. Bad editing is a boon, terrible acting a celebration. Some movies can be scary and still have bad acting, a weak script, and bad special effects. (Evil Dead, being a good example, and Pet Semetary, at least with the acting, being another.)

Cheap, gaudy, tacky, grotesque . . . and yet still scary.

There’s a downside. I was a jittery kid, although I hid it pretty well, and I’m a bit jittery as an adult, too. I know why; it’s the fear, plain and simple, that I imprinted into my cellular memory as a child. I’m jumpy at night. I dread long corridors. I always imagine dreadful things going on behind the façade of normal families in normal houses. I always assume the worst.

When you gaze into the abyss . . .


In high school, I started watching horror movies with other people. Robert was my main partner in crime. We lived on the fringe of horror for years. Instead of doing homework, playing sports, or pursuing girls, we would rent the worst looking horror movies we could find. Doctor Gore, Trick or Treats, Pieces (!), we wandered way beyond basic decency. We sprinted past aesthetics, morality, philosophy, beauty and art. We went for the vilest shit we could find. (Within reason; neither of us liked the Faces of Death movies, although I’ve seen some of these, too.) We usually did this just the two of us, but sometimes other people would wander into our orbit. This sort of thing has become more popular, but at the time it put us on the outskirts of normal.

One night we had a double feature. Robert picked Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I picked Confessions of a Serial Killer. We didn’t realize they were both based on real-life wacko Henry Lee Lucas, a serial killer in the 70s and 80s. Both films document a series of unrelated murders. Henry is set in a gray, watery Chicago; Confessions is set in the shadowy backroads of middle America.

We were 15 years old.

Henry—the second vilest movie ever made.

We watched Henry first. Robert’s mom decided to watch with us. If I could unwatch one movie, it would be Henry. Michael Rooker plays the ultimate sadist, a murderous asshole who commits just about every imaginable atrocity—including stabbing an obsese guy with a soldering iron—sometimes alone, sometimes partnered up with some gap-toothed redneck. It isn’t a film, it’s a knuckle punch to the gut. There’s no real plot or story; it’s just a series of beatings, assaults, and murders. The last few minutes is a montage of dead bodies. The film was and is invasive, nasty, and unforgettable. Robert gasped and gulped and laughed as we watched. His mom and I stayed quiet. I felt sick, tarnished, dirty, regretful.

The second movie is a little more subtle, but no less vile. The murderer is accompanied by some doughy fatman named Moon, who defecates on the floor in the middle of their crimes. It’s much easier to watch, but also a disturbing murder romp with no real plot or even story, and the low grade, grindcore production values amplify the movie’s sleaze.

The haircut says it all.

Halfway through, Robert’s mom stood up, looked at us, and said, “You guys are fucking sick,” and promptly stomped out of the room.

We kept watching.


A year later, Robert and I rented I Spit on Your Grave.

God. Give me a time machine and I would shoot the director of this movie in the foot, or administer fifty lashes with a cat o’ nine tails, hire a script doctor and remake the movie into a musical.

Even though we had seen the cover dozens of times, the back of a half-dressed woman holding a hatchet in her right hand, we didn’t know what we were getting into. We were 17 years old.

The most repugnant movie of my lifetime . . . and I watched it twice.

I Spit On Your Grave has three parts. The first is a meek school teacher moving to a small house at the edge of a forest. The second part has her raped, tortured, and tormented—for over 30 teeth-grinding minutes—and then left for dead. The third section follows her revenge on her tormentors, where she hangs, disembowels and destroys the men who raped her. It’s a brutal, unsophisticated movie with no twists or turns, just a relentless display of human depravity. The experience is a bleak, humorless immersion into a savage world, offering nothing redemptive, or even interesting. It’s sort of like Henry, only worse.

I’m not proud of it, but I watched it twice.

And, revealing how depraved our world really is, some Hollywood asshole remade this movie just last year. Unbelievable.


I would list the best horror movies in no particular order, as follows:

The Shining

The Exorcist

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me


A Tale of Two Sisters

Black Christmas

The Innocents

Night of the Living Dead

Dawn of the Dead

Lost Highway

Session 9


Jacob’s Ladder



The Ring


Hour of the Wolf

The Lost Boys


Picnic at Hanging Rock

Evil Dead II


These are the scary movies I return to, and most of them are by consensus the best ever made. I could add Eyes Without A Face, The Haunting, The House on Haunted Hill, The Amityville Horror, The Entity, The Thing, or a movie I despise but has an undeniable diabolic power, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Many great films utilize the language of horror movies. For instance, Chinatown, It’s a Wonderful Life, Kiss Me Deadly, The Seventh Seal, and La Dolce Vita all dabble with the scares.

Lurking at the edge of most great literature—and all great movies—is some gruesome villain, heinous crime, or vicious consequence of inaction.

Finally, beyond movies, there are far more terrifying monsters in real life than on celluloid. Look at any century and you’ll find hundreds of serial killers, sadists, perverts, and stone cold killers.


We developed a taste for bad horror, too. Robert led the charge here—Jeff hated watching what he thought were a waste of time—but Tommy, Mike, Chris C., and Robert’s brother Sam often joined us. We even had a beer and B-movie bash one night, to see who could pick the worst movie. Bad movies need bad acting, strange directorial decisions, stupid stories, and wretched special effects. I will write on this later, but here are a few gems:


976 Evil



Uncle Sam

Head of the Family

Evil Toons

The Hearst

Lurking Fear

The Brain

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things

It’s Alive

Mother’s Day

Mardi Gras for the Devil



I Still Know What You Did Last Summer


A horrible movie, with the greatest ending of all time.


Back to Simone and her first movies.

It was a freezing December night. We were staying out at Beth’s parents. Simone was six weeks old. The house was cold, dark. I couldn’t sleep from worry. Simone awoke shivering in the cold. It was 3 in the morning. I kept hearing footsteps outside in the night.

I tucked her against my bare chest and draped a blanket over my shoulders. I didn’t want to fall asleep holding her—this is one of the many, ongoing nightmares I have, that I drop her while I’m sleeping, or she suffocates in the pillowcase, or that she’s kidnapped—so I turned on the tv. Beth’s parents have on-demand video, so I searched through the list of movies, settling on The Strangers. My reasoning was simple: how better to insure you stay awake than scare the shit out of yourself?

I watched the film while Simone slept. It’s a short movie, intense and very creepy. Still chilly and dark in the house, I watched Hostel II next. Even I felt a bit queasy watching these two films back to back while holding my newborn in my arms.

When I finally handed her off to my wife and headed bleary-eyed to the bedroom, I dreamed of endless knives hovering over my daughter’s head and heart.