Thursday, December 13, 2012
Sunday, November 18, 2012
A few disclaimers are necessary here: I grew up in Western New York, in farm country about 60 miles southwest of Rochester, the self-proclaimed "City of Quality," and the setting for Bill Peters' debut novel. And like Bill Peters, my appreciation for Western New York and my own formative years, has grown with age and perspective. We both seem to have great, vivid memories of the Golden Age of the Buffalo Bills, who made it to (and lost) four straight Super Bowls from 1991-1994. The entire region's preoccupation with that brief glimpse of respectability on the national sports page is reflected again and again in the pages of Maverick Jetpants, not in references to American football per se, but in the holdover Bills-themed clothing worn by Nate and his cohorts. It is one detail among many that depicts the slow, creeping desperation of daily life in a region in perpetual economic decline since the 1970's. And Bill Peters captures it with art and precision.
By way of overview, Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality is the entertaining portrait of Nathan Gray, an aimless but sympathetic young man, just a few unproductive years out of high school, as he and his small group of friends grasp about awkwardly (and, perhaps, violently) for what is to become the next stage of their lives. Nate seems particularly unsuited to make the jump into adulthood, as evidenced by his near obsession with his group's past collective experience and an irrational fear that his best friend, Necro, is poised to leave him behind. It is a novel that speaks to our common experience in coming of age and our common fears of being left behind by those closest to us.
The most impressive aspect of the novel, however, is Bill Peters' innovative use of dialogue. The characters speak to one another (and Nate occasionally speaks to the reader) in a lexicon largely unique to his small group of friends--a series of humorous names and labels affixed to their common history. It is a habit in which we all engage, but rarely notice, and beyond glimpses of the technique in Thomas Pynchon and the writings of David Foster Wallace, it is the first time that I have seen such a device become the centerpiece of a work of fiction. It makes for a seemingly disjointed (but extremely enjoyable) tale that is woven together by the reader's intuitive understanding of the relationships and events described. The novel becomes a post-adolescent version of Gravity's Rainbow, where Pirate Prentice is not a delusional American mercenary, but a retiring Generation X slacker, and post-World War II Europe becomes the post-industrial decline of the American rust belt.
Reportedly ten years in the making, Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality announces the arrival of a powerful and innovative young voice in American fiction.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
To receive what others had supposed, without
Accepting. He received what he denied.
A truth beyond all truths.
This passage from Landscape with a Boat by Wallace Stevens fits perfectly with the notion of aesthetic experience as it differs from other experiences. There are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and sexual experiences, to name just a few. Such experiences can be described in terms that are recognizable. We can be relatively certain that our bodies, thoughts, feelings, religious attitudes, and erotic appetites can in some way be shared with others. Aesthetic experience has another dimension.
Monday, August 27, 2012
Friday, July 27, 2012
Friday, July 20, 2012
Friday, May 4, 2012
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
To really understand something about China you need to know the people and Peter Hessler knows the Chinese people. He is perhaps the world’s foremost foreign authority on what makes the people of China tick -at the very least the most insightful writer of such things. After spending two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the backwater Sichuan town of Fuling and becoming fluent in Mandarin Hessler stayed on in China for the next decade as a correspondent and contributor for The New Yorker and National Geographic, respectively. He has since become the go-to chronicler of the turbulent remaking of modern China and just might be the first “Genius Grant” recipient ever featured on TLM.
But it’s his two years in Fuling, his initial impression of the “sleeping giant,” that he focuses on in Rivertown (Oracle Bones, Harper Collins 2006 and Country Driving, Harper 2010 are his other books about China) and it’s one of our favorite books regardless of genre. It’s part memoir, part examination of a culture unfamiliar to the West and entirely engrossing. Hessler’s elegant and revealing prose achieves a rare clarity for a subject matter often clouded with misunderstanding and bias.
In Rivertown Hessler paints a picture of an ancient past coming to terms with the radical upheaval of several recent decades of reform and how the current generation –unwittingly thrust into this tumult- is coming to terms with this uneven transition. Embedded in a university classroom in the Sichuan hinterland Hessler writes from a privileged position surrounded by the unvarnished optimism of his student’s youth and the excesses and atrocities of their parents’ generation forever lurking in their thoughts.
Hessler’s done what almost no other observer of China has been able to accomplish: paint an even-handed portrait of present-day China as seen through the eyes of ordinary people and written in an accessible, perhaps even heartwarming, style. He captures both the innocence and indoctrination of his students’ thoughts and behaviors and presents these contradictions in a lively and engaging metaphor for an entire country. But his principal triumph is that he doesn’t try to simplify the complexities of modern China or compare them with the ways of the West; he simply tries to understand them.
What gives Hessler’s work such accessibility is the fact that he’s neither an academic (although his collective knowledge of Chinese culture, language and history would seem to qualify him as such) nor an outside observer as almost every other voice on the subject is. Hessler is as close to a Chinese insider as a waiguo ren can be and his writing style and introspection border on the literary.
This is one of the most tender, poignant, insightful and clarifying examinations of Chinese culture and society ever written. As purely memoir, it stands apart for the author’s piercing self awareness and the articulation of dislocation that foreigners experience in an inward looking society. As a glimpse into the human side of the changing social and culture currents in present day China it stands alone. TLM highly recommends Rivertown.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
In his most recent novel, Work Song, he has found the perfect backdrop to showcase his storytelling and writing talent: Butte, Montana. At one time during the past century Butte not only had the largest red-light district in the US but was also home to more millionaires per capita than any place on the planet thanks to its massive copper deposits which earned it the reputation as the “richest hill on earth” (curiously enough, Butte also produced the great Evil Knevil -arguably its greatest natural resource). Naturally this promise of instant wealth drew every type of character imaginable to the little town at the foot of the Rockies and this melting pot provides a rich and fertile canvass for Doig and his talents.
In Work Song Doig bring backs the popular protagonist Morrie Morgan from The Whistling Season (Harcourt, 2006) and he provides the same insightful narrative as an educated fish-out-of-water in his new surroundings among immigrant miners. Hoping to strike it rich in Butte he instead stumbles into a position as librarian overseeing “the finest set of books west of Chicago.” It’s while working at this fantastic library under a bearded mountain of a man known as the “strangler” that he runs into a former student and quickly finds himself embroiled in a battle between the powerful mine owners and the miners’ union. He manages to complicate his situation even further by falling for the widowed –and apparently off limits- owner of his boarding house.
The book begins a bit uneven and some of this has to do with the assumed familiarity of the reader with Morgan from Doig’s previous work. But the reader needn’t be familiar with any of his other books to appreciate Work Song and patience is generously rewarded once the book hits its stride. By the time we were midway through we couldn’t put the book down. There are times when the writing seems more clichéd than folksy and some of the characters are memorable only for their caricature-like qualities. But this takes little away from the overall enjoyment of the book and as a protagonist Morgan is a complex and compelling figure whom Doig skillfully uses as a vehicle to project elements about the broader time and place he occupies as he reveals the various layers of the man.
Doig’s real skill is telling a story and using the historical context of the West to paint a memorable setting; he’s done a masterful job bringing a turn-of-the-century mining town to life. Work Song hums over the final 150 pages and the ending proves to be more fulfilling than expected as the story works to a plotted crescendo with the writing getting tighter with every turn of the page.
Work Song is a quick and fulfilling read and while perhaps not Doig’s greatest work it’s well worth a look. He’s a fascinating man and a fine writer and his latest book is a unique period piece that you won’t forget any time soon. Highly recommended by The Literate Man -as are most of his Doig’s books.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
All Her Father’s Guns is a contemporary portrait painted in American cultural extremes which Warner deftly deconstructs through tender moments and universal bits of humanity, ultimately convincing the reader that maybe we’re quite as crazy as we think we are. It’s a terrific debut novel rich in characters and a warm core underneath its “absurd” veneer. TLM urges you to checkout Warner and his novel at http://www.jameswarner.net/.
TLM: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us James. Just finished All Her Father’s Guns and we really enjoyed it. It’s such a unique book that we’ve got to ask: what planted the idea in your head to write this story?
James: I think before I knew anything else about All Her Father's Guns, I knew it was about a younger British guy –Reid -- and an older American guy – Cal... It's always hard to remember origins – probably the real beginnings of any creative project are subconscious. But looking back at the period when I started writing the book, that was around the time my father died and my daughter was born, events which occurred close together and obviously changed the meaning of fatherhood for me, just as having an American daughter must have altered my perspective on Americanness.
TLM: What is that makes the Bay Area, from Silicon Valley to “Berzerkley” and points in between, such an interesting place and such fertile ground for a book setting?
James: The Bay Area is a good place for a satirical political novel – Berkeley, where Reid lives, is famously liberal, and Silicon Valley, where Cal lives, leans more libertarian... and then one doesn't have to drive too far into the hinterland to find the rest of the political spectrum.
It fascinates me the way the flaws in an ideology, obvious when contemplated from the outside, become invisible once you're sucked into becoming a convert.
TLM: You’ve created such distinct and opposing characters in this book, from liberals and conservatives to feminists and male chauvinists, etc., which was the most difficult character to write and why?
James: Lyllyan – Cal's daughter who is also Reid's girlfriend – was maybe the hardest. There's a writing exercise where, for each character in a book you're writing, you have to say what they have in their pockets. This is a good exercise since it turns out that, if your characters have fully come alive, you know instantly what's in their pockets! Lyllyan was the character whose pockets it took me the longest to see into, but I'm pretty sure she has a nail file and a flyer for a band I'm not cool enough to like.
G.K. Chesterton – “Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.”
TLM: There are overtly political themes throughout the books. Did you set out to write a political book or simply a book with politics as the backdrop?
James: One of my hopes with Cal was to create a pro-gun, pro-life character who readers could empathize with even if they're unattracted by his policy positions. Guns and abortions aren't partisan issues in most countries, and I had a theory that the issues that are uniquely controversial in the U.S. must tell you something interesting about the U.S.
While Cal takes his ideas to an illogical extreme – although check out some gun culture websites before you accuse me of exaggerating! -- his politics are a natural outgrowth of his life story as he interprets it. And when you can see that about someone, it makes them more sympathetic. Many men adopt belief systems they subconsciously hope will compensate for their personalities.
TLM: Do you see any interesting story ideas hatching out of our current election season?
James: The struggle for the Republican nomination for 2012 has felt more than usually reminiscent of a reality TV show where contestants keep getting “voted off the island.” Both in electioneering and in reality TV, one's rewarded for being able to make up a sustainable story about oneself – which puts the people editing the footage in a powerful position.
For most of history, a leader's role was to live out a personal drama of honor and shame that symbolized his people. That's no longer what our leaders are officially supposed to do, but on some level we still expect it of them. To sell yourself, you need a narrative – when a job interviewer says “So tell me something about yourself,” they're saying “Make up a story that inspires me to invest time or money in you!” Reid will always be completely dumbstruck by this question - - a question which Cal can hit right out of the ballpark. But the stories we tell about ourselves become less true over time, until eventually we need new ones, which is Cal's big problem in All Her Father's Guns – when the story you tell about yourself stops being true, how do you handle that?
TLM: What writing influences did you have when creating All Her Father’s Guns?
James: My favorite writer when I was about twelve was P.G. Wodehouse, and when I was about sixteen, Evelyn Waugh. Waugh is probably the biggest influence you see in All Her Father's Guns, although the plot, it occurred to me after completing it, is Wodehousian: the story is driven by a series of escalating blackmail attempts within a family. I can't think of any other books with that plot that aren't by Wodehouse.
TLM: Several of the main characters including Reid, Viorela and Boris belong to the “Department of Theory.” What inspired you to create the colorful cast of characters and dialogue that inhabit that crazy world?
James: I guess the idea was to encapsulate the “crisis of the Humanities” in a single dysfunctional Department.
Business people prefer theories that simplify the world – popular business books reduce everything to a simple formula or list. Humanities professors are more into complicating things – in the conclusions of their papers, academics may even take credit for “problematizing” or “difficultizing” an issue. The clash between the business and academic ways of looking at the world is one of the inner conflicts I was trying to work through in the book.
TLM: As an outsider looking in on U.S. political culture what’s your take on all the madness?
James: You're implying I myself are somehow outside of the madness! Actually I've lived in the U.S. for about the same period of time that I lived in the UK. My daughter certainly thinks the British are the mad ones.
Americans are more likely than English people to see the glass as half-full – David Cameron's campaign slogan was “We Can't Go On Like This,” a thoroughly British utterance which sounds weirdly negative to the American ear. If Obama was British, he'd have had to run on a platform of Guarded Enthusiasm and Mild Tinkering – which come to think of it isn't a bad description of what he's been able to deliver so far.
TLM: We’re always curious, and it’s not always apparent, but how did you arrive at the title?
James: I went through a bunch of titles – a lot of them had “father” or “guns” in them. All Her Father's Guns has the right cadence, rhythm and tension to it, and kind of a sardonic Western resonance. I like titles to evoke mysterious unexplored realms...
TLM: Why would you recommend All Her Father’s Guns to the followers of The Literate Man?
James: Uh oh, so now you want a stump speech! Well, many readers have commented that this book is about people from different backgrounds trying to find common ground – an affirmation that, even when the ideologies we cling to are opposed, we still have a shot at sympathetically entering each other's worlds. But mostly for me it's about the jokes and the language and the story.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.
We come to know people like this as well, for it is certain that different persons embody different characteristics, which directly lead to our formation of opinions about them. Some of the most recognizable names of all time are those who strongly represent to us inner qualities that became associated with historical precedents. Achilles, Moses, Buddha, Michelangelo, Napoleon, Shakespeare; each has a specific poetry to it.
The literate man might ask himself, what does poetry mean to me today? As the process of human invention accelerates, our desire to connect with one another (and ourselves) is also at an all time high. We find ourselves in a landscape of separate entities, where expanding options threaten to rip the fabric of social consciousness apart. Now, more than ever, poetry can provide us with a coherent view of our shared existence.
The best way to show how poetry works is to compare it to something as elusive and necessary as love. For the best poetry leaves a very lasting impression. It has the resonance of a thousand moments that came before it, embodies the spirit of dreams, and happiness. Poetry, like love, cuts through the complexity of life to present a simple, undeniable truth. We care for one another in a way that ultimately transcends language, yet find vital approximations in words. Poetry is a man’s love in just a few words.
When perhaps the greatest American poet Walt Whitman repeated a line from a child’s voice in one of his poems that asked, "what is the grass?," he was getting at a question essential to the literate man and to humanity in general. For it is how we relate to the world around us that defines who we are, and by extension, how we come to view each other in this life.
What is the grass? (from Song of Myself)
by Walt Whitman
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any
more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken
soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Author Interview Series: Larry Closs, Author of Beatitude, Discusses Men and Literature Among the Beats and Today
TLM: Kerouac's fiction and his life revolved around traditionally manly pursuits—football and railroading, the time spent as a lookout at Desolation Peak and even the freewheeling travels described in On the Road. Was this a part of his personality or part of a carefully crafted image?
Larry: The most famous photograph of Jack Kerouac is a broody black and white of him at 31, ruggedly handsome and pensively smoking a cigarette on a New York City fire escape in 1953. Jutting from Kerouac’s jacket pocket is the Brakeman’s Manual for the Southern Pacific Railroad, where Kerouac was working at the time. Allen Ginsberg snapped the shot, which he later aptly titled “Heroic Portrait”—aptly, because that photo more than any other evokes the image of Kerouac embedded in the collective consciousness. The “Heroic Portrait,” however, was taken before Kerouac ever had an image.
In 1953, Kerouac had only written two of the dozen or so books that would be his literary legacy and only one had been published—The Town and the City, in 1950, an indifferently reviewed homage to his hero, Thomas Wolfe. Kerouac had also completed what would become his most famous and revolutionary work, On the Road, in 1951, but it wouldn’t be published until 1957.
Until then, Kerouac went about his life like anyone else, unselfconsciously indulging in pursuits that interested and supported him. He wanted to be a writer since he was a kid. He was also naturally athletic. He played football in high school and went to Columbia in 1940 on a football scholarship, but when he broke his leg in the first season he refocused on his real passion, literature. He met Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, served in both the Merchant Marines and the Navy, married and divorced twice, crisscrossed the country with Neal Cassady, worked as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad and spent two months as a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington.
By the time On the Road was finally published—to instant acclaim—in 1957 and the Beat Generation emerged from the underground, Kerouac had already done everything that would contribute to his image, with no thought of doing so. The media would craft his image for him. While Kerouac called himself "a strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic,” the media called him King of the Beats, a reductive title he would reject and despise for the rest of his life.
TLM: What, in your opinion, was the nature of the relationship among Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg. How did they balance friendship and (unrequited?) love among them?
Larry: First and foremost, Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg were close friends—that was the basis of their relationship—friends who loved one another, who connected instantly on a subliminal level and admired and respected each other’s outlook, talents and heart. Beyond that, it was complicated, as recorded in their literary efforts and voluminous letters to one another, and as suggested by biographers reading between the lines of their lives.
In 1944, Ginsberg fell in love with Kerouac almost at first sight when Lucien Carr introduced them. Ginsberg was 18, Kerouac, 22. Both were attending Columbia and sleeping in the same dorm room one night when Ginsberg confessed his feelings, saying, “Jack, you know, I love you, and I want to sleep with you, and I really like men.” To which Kerouac said, “Oooooh, no.” Kerouac’s response was not a rejection of Ginsberg, but a comment on the complications he envisioned as a result of a one-sided love.
Two years later, when classmate Hal Chase introduced Ginsberg and Kerouac to Neal Cassady and his then-wife, LuAnne Henderson, just arrived from Denver, Colorado, Ginsberg fell head over heals with Cassady, who also promptly took to Ginsberg, “attacking him with a great amorous soul such as only a con-man can have,” as Kerouac writes in On the Road. “I didn’t see them for about two weeks, during which time they cemented their relationship to fiendish allday-allnight-talk proportions.”
In the end, their feelings weren’t mutual or equal. Ginsberg was infatuated with Cassady, and although they had a sexual relationship for many years, it was never a truly romantic one. Cassady was ultimately more interested in women, as indicated by his three wives (two of whom he married simultaneously). Still, Ginsberg was crushed by his unrequited love for Cassady, following him to Denver at one point and writing a collection of poems titled Denver Doldrums when he was once again rejected.
Kerouac was also infatuated with Cassady, but in another way: Kerouac viewed Cassady as a romantic, free-spirited masculine ideal who was everything Kerouac wished he could be. Likewise, Cassady loved Kerouac for his empathy, curiosity and discipline as a writer. They did what best friends do—they balanced each other, brought out the best in one another. What they shared was an enthusiasm for experience. As Dean yells out the window of a speeding car in On the Road, “Ah, God! Life!" Ultimately, they were brothers.
Whole books have been written about the complexities of Beat relationships—Ellis Amburn’s Subterranean Kerouac posits that Kerouac was torn between his attractions to men as well as women while Ginsberg claimed that he and Kerouac were intimate on several occasions. But no one can ever really know the nuances of Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg’s feelings. Who but them possibly could? What we do know is that they were an integral part of each other’s lives for much of their lives—despite the additional complications of other overlapping relationships—and that speaks volumes. They were each willing to sacrifice something of themselves for the sake of their love for one another and that’s about as pure as love gets.
Ginsberg wrote one of the most touching elegies in an Afterward to Kerouac’s Visions of Cody titled The Visions of the Great Rememberer: “Couldn’t ever hold on to that early Love, all bodies change & die, fall from life to life, but the sad heart now comes still expecting there was something more Neal & Jack could fulfill, or there was more love I wanted to give them than they would let me, and imagined delights in their presence they felt toward me, love & kisses they never laid on my timid body—except the sweet care they both offered me their little melancholy tender Allen….”
TLM: How are themes of masculinity and the relationships between men treated in Beatitude?
Larry: While I didn’t give any conscious thought to conveying ideas about masculinity in Beatitude, I did make a very deliberate decision about how I wanted characters to emerge—on their own, with no assistance from the author. I wanted readers to meet and come to know the characters by virtue of what they say and do, not by any editorializing. Several reviewers have described Beatitude as a dialogue-driven novel, and to some extent that’s true. I’ve always found that I learn more about someone in a few minutes of talking with them and just seeing how they move than any amount of description by a friend beforehand could ever convey.
Tied to that was a desire to explore how our experience and outlook can affect our interpretation of what we hear and see. In the same way that Harry doesn’t always perceive things as they are—doesn’t always want to perceive things as they are—I wanted readers to question their own assumptions. I wanted to smash stereotypes and reductive ideas, who’s likely to feel this way versus who’s likely to feel that way. The ultimate goal was to underline the importance of viewing the world through another’s eyes and heart. All three of the main characters ultimately come to that realization: Harry puts himself in Jay’s place, Jay puts himself in Harry’s place and Zahra puts herself in both Harry and Jay’s place. Each takes a step forward by doing so.