Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Big Short: And Idiot's Guide to the Financial Crisis

Michael Lewis has done it again.  And this time he has truly outdone himself.  He has taken, what is quite possibly the most boring subject on the planet earth, and made it palatable.  Not just palatable, but actually quite interesting.  And during the process he’s also managed to explain the cause of the Great Recession in terms that even book blog editors and chimpanzees can understand.
The Big Short is Lewis’ finely crafted attempt at distilling the housing market bubble and the eventual collapse of the global financial markets.  He revisits the well-trodden world of Wall Street bond trading, the subject of in his 1989 debut book, Liar’s Poker.  For the uninitiated, this area of debt derivative investing is so byzantine and obscure that the lecturing of its finer points should be banned under the Geneva Accord.  Suffice to say, this confusing and completely made-up investment universe is basically incomprehensible…by design.  Even the people immersed in this paper world of complicated bets don’t understand what’s going on most of the time, and there lies the crux of the financial market meltdown of 2008.
Fortunately, Lewis expertly guides us through the process, while providing insight, understanding and even a few laughs.  Instead of diving into the nuts and bolts of it, in typical fashion, he paints this highly pedantic subject with a humanistic flourish.  He uses a group of peculiar hedge fund managers and traders as his instruments for spicing up the dry subject matter with heroes and scoundrels.  These peculiar characters belong to an exclusive fraternity of less than two dozen or so hedge funders that actually understood what was going on.  And in the face of great ridicule from their peers -and at times themselves- actually bet against the market and made a killing while most people lost their shirts.
What makes this small group of investors extraordinary, aside from their market vision, is their idiosyncrasies and Lewis has a masterful gift for not only spotting such traits but mining them for narrative adhesive as he weaves the storyline together: an Aspergers suffering neurologist turned hedge fund manager; a pair of garage band investment nerds operating out of a shed in Berkeley, CA; a New York Jew intent on exposing the myths of the Talmud and destroying the financial system as we know it; an apocalyptic trader holed up in a survival compound in the mountains; a bond-buyer villain named Wing Chau -these are the narrative vessels that Lewis uses to deconstruct the mortgage-backed securities mess.  And without their colorful personal contributions this subject matter would be impossible for most humans to digest.
And that’s the art of Lewis’ craft.  He’s a thinker on par with Malcom Gladwell and his lively writing is reminiscent of a young Tom Wolfe.  He has a knack for taking impossible to understand, and seemingly unappealing topics, and brilliantly repackaging them into beautiful things like the The Blindside, Moneyball, and The New New Thing, among others.  With his mix of academic understanding and deft treatment of the human experience there simply isn’t’ anyone writing today with his rare skill-set.  Read anything by Lewis you can get your hands on.  You won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality by Bill Peters

Aaron and I had a vision a couple of years back when we first discussed writing a blog by the name of The Literate Man: to ferret out the best works of modern literary fiction from among the unknown masses, which we were (and are) certain are all too often overlooked by the commercial establishment.  We continue to seek out works that not only entertain but challenge us as readers and break new creative ground in the process.  Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality is precisely what we had in mind.  We give it our highest recommendation.

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

A River Runs Through It : Man, Nature and the Art of Fly Fishing

Editors Warning: This is one of the manlier books we’ve ever reviewed at The Literate Man so if you’re not ready for a blast of testosterone handle with care; side effects may include a sprouting of chest hair, deepening of voice and referring to women as subordinate and marginal plot devices.  But if you’re not the type of reader frightened off by such things, a beautiful story and some mesmerizing writing lays ahead.

A River Runs through It is a haunting tale of sorrow and regret as the author, at the age of 71, attempts to make sense of the painful and complex relationship with his gifted, but troubled, brother.  He begins with the opening sentence, “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” and he ends with this: “I am haunted by waters.”  In between these two poetic bookends lies a treasure of manly and moving prose.  There’s nothing sentimental in his powerful words and the poignancy of the writing is delicately and expertly balanced against the ruggedness of the characters.
Set in Northwestern Montana during the early decades of the 20th century, when the Wild West was still alive, and bold and cavalier men carved their existence out of the mountains around them, Maclean and his brother grow up Presbyterians and fisherman; not necessarily in that order.  Their relationship was a volatile one, as brotherhood can be, and there’s an incurable lament in the author’s tone as he re-examines their relationship, their adventures, and the unspoken words between them.
A River Runs Through It is also a love letter to the art of fly fishing.  If you’re an aficionado of the sport, Maclean’s ode to his family’s pastime and passion will hypnotize you.  There may be no more beautiful writing about fishing anywhere in literature.  The care he takes to describe the detail and joy of the sport, and above all, the reverence, seemingly explains man and nature in such pure and simple terms, that if Maclean was even half as good a fisherman as he was a writer, than he was truly a master of the fly-rod.  His skillful words tease out the artistry of everyday life and the in-the-moment perfections of an imperfect world.  And he makes you feel like life is a bit fuller with a fly-rod in your hand.
The obvious comparison to Hemmingway is unavoidable.  From the onset, the economic and minimalistic writing style, as well as the subject matter, and aforementioned chauvinistic tones are abundantly evident.  But Maclean, using the same methods and tools, achieves an intimacy that we rarely, if ever, find in Hemmingway’s writing.  And this is no small feat.  The writing is Spartan at times but rings with a clarity and poignancy that is rarely achieved in this –or any- genre of novel.
Originally published as part of a three story collection, and spanning 161(tiny) pages, A River Runs Through It is a novella of extraordinary quality.  For the book collector/fishing enthusiast, we suggest the Pennyroyal Press hardcover edition with wood carved lithographs by Barry Moser. It’s a handsome book that includes a dozen exquisite imprints of flies, fishing scenes and the author.  This book is one of our favorites, and certainly one that every literate man should have on his bookshelf.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Midnight’s Children Gives Every Novelist Something to Aspire to

Contrary to what the Grand Ayatollah may have to have to say on the subject, Salman Rushdie is a damn fine writer.   You may recall the Iranian Book-Critic-in-Chief’s dissatisfaction with the fatwa-spawning Satanic Verses, but we can assure you that even his “Supreme Holiness” was impressed by Rushdie’s masterpiece, Midnight’s Children.   The story of a man born on the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947, the same moment that India gained its nationhood, and the intertwining of their own dysfunctional histories and futures; it’s a brilliant bit of storytelling and literary genius. 
Midnight’s Children is a work of such rare excellence that there’s not really much more to say about it.  Every conceivable superlative has been slapped on this book and far finer minds than our own have sung it’s praise and lauded its merits.  No less than the Man Booker Prize committee deemed it the best novel of the past 40 years when it awarded it the one-off Best of the Booker Award in 2008.  And now Mr. Rushdie your finest hour: a shout out on The Literate Man.  Well done, old boy!
But lengthy intro aside, this book is so obviously extraordinary, with so many flattering reviews already in print and in cyberspace, that posterity would probably thank us for ending this piece right now.  But we won’t!
Instead, let us count the ways (five) in which our minds were staggered by this work.  First, the sheer ambition and scale of this saga is enough to turn your brain into sawdust.  Rushdie’s packed enough content inside the 533 pages for a dozen novels.  It’s an epic on the scale of War and Peace or East of Eden, but condensed into half the pages.  There’s so many competing themes at work here (coming-of-age, the birth of a nation, ageless religious conflict, culture clashes, family dynasty, etc.) that in the care of a lesser writer this story would be stillborn.  But Rushdie’s mighty talents allow him to weave these ideas into a seamless tapestry that never feels forced, confusing, or worse: boring.
And how does he do this?  By narrating the journey through the eyes of a self-important crackpot.  The Quixotic protagonist adds levity to the heavier themes with his distinct and whimsical voice.  And this is the second point: a fresh, original, and fantastic protagonist point of view. 
Thirdly, the pell-mell stream of consciousness narrative, jumping from present to past and from one scattershot thought to the next add an element of artistic flair that elevates this tale above almost every other literary epic.  Protagonist Saleem and the country of India become one and the same through Rushdie’s brilliant allegory, which is teased to the surface through an earthy mix of magical realism that comes as close to distilling the essence of India onto a sheet of paper as is possible.
Which brings us around the fourth point: Rushdie’s use of local dialects and cultural detail.  He brilliantly mimics the local pigeon and mannerisms of the various subcontinent’s cultures, further deepening the reach of the story and providing a hard-earned authenticity.
And if that weren’t’ enough to convince you to pick up this book than a fifth and final note of praise is due to the author for his courage.  And not his courage in tackling such vast and broad-ranging subject matter, but real courage for attacking the authoritarian regime that nearly strangled the life out of the young nation-state in the 70’s and 80’s and which earned him a libel lawsuit from none other than disgraced former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
In summary, -and after five hundred odd words of redundancy- Midnight’s Children is one of the finest novels ever written in the English language.

(Editor’s Note:  This review coincides with the recent release of Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton. It’s been well received by critics, and for any lovers of biography, you’re guaranteed top-notch writing and certainly an interesting subject matter as he delves into his years hiding from Muslim assassins.  Enjoy!)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Aesthetic Experience, by Lucas Hunt

[Editor's Note: We at TLM have been fortunate to have made many friends in literary circles around the country and the world.  One such friend is Lucas Hunt, who both writes beautiful, critically-acclaimed poetry and contributes from time to time to our meager efforts here at TLM to spread the good word.  Enjoy.]

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. --T.S. Eliot

Our reactions to works of art differ from our reactions to other things in a remarkable way. We look at paintings, listen to music, read poetry, and grow conscious of the distinct impressions they have on us. In a perhaps more tangible way, we stand near buildings with architectural presence, watch films with emotional resonance, and come to realize how powerful representations of life can be.

We become aware of something in ourselves as we experience works of art. There may be a strange, yet familiar, force at play, which changes our understanding of things. There may be a sudden clarity, or wild disorientation, as we participate in a dialogue with an artist who is neither present nor sure of our existence. And we pass a subjective judgment, deeply informed by the unconscious, on a work of art, that might last forever.

To better identify the aesthetic experience, let’s look at poetry, for a poem can burn brighter in the dark. It is a foot in the door of time, a kind of entry that makes uncommon sense to the soul. Poetry is a threshold to possibility, which incorporates all things, even death. Who does not want to come into more direct contact with life, especially thru words?

Poetry is the most exceptional form of human language. It expresses our passion with an exactness that defies rational thought. It is the man who is alive, and the man who is dying, walking in the same direction, down the same road. When you read a poem or hear one read aloud, a lyrical transformation occurs in the heart. The rhythm of breath and pulse alter to receive the message of the poem. Its essential feeling becomes yours for a spell. It all depends on how you take it.

It was his nature to suppose,
To receive what others had supposed, without
Accepting. He received what he denied.
But as truth to be accepted, he supposed
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.

It occurs to the artist that there is something more to life than already exists. They use the inspiration to create, and suffer from it. It is generally perceived that all people experience a type of artistic motivation at some time in their lives, but often, the impulse gets diverted to other types of experience. However, that does not mean the desire or appreciation for a purely aesthetic experience disappears in those who do not personally express it. On the contrary, the hunger grows. Witness our passion for popular music, cinema, and sporting events. (The latter is an experience with multiple aesthetic qualities, the beauty of athletic performance just one.)

Because the artist makes and does things, others can get a sense of their own creative powers thru the various forms of art. Artists act as mediums to the great aesthetic experience human beings crave. We are mortal, but that’s not it. There has always been a sense of something more, beyond ourselves, that finds expression in the notes of a song, the colors of a painting, or the words of a book. There is a fleeting thing that takes flight when we experience a work of art that comes to represent our very souls.

We were born with the ability to appreciate things not just for what they are, rather for what they might be. Aesthetic experience goes back to childhood, when our imaginations were more potent than the world. Nothing really mattered; it was what you made of things. There was an active, participatory, wildness about experience that swirled in a mix of uncontrollable fascination. If we could have spoken during our early lives (but why break the silence?), it would likely have been in poetry. The poetry of aesthetic experience.


Lucas Hunt was born in rural Iowa, and is the author of Light on the Concrete, published in 2011 to critical acclaim. He studied at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and in the M.F.A. program at Southampton College. He is the recipient of a John Steinbeck Award for poetry, and lives in East Hampton, New York, where he works at a literary agency.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Try The Geography of Bliss For Your Next Bookation

With summer practically over, and many of us lamenting the vacation that we didn’t take, Eric Weiner offers the next best thing: a bookation!  That’s a made-up word, of course, but it refers be any book that so thoroughly transports the reader it’s like going on a trip without ever leaving the comforts of your reading space.  And The Geography of Bliss: One grump’s search for happiness is one of the most enjoyable bookations we’ve been on in awhile.
There are million of books in the world that profess how to be happy, but Weiner gives us something we can really use by showing us where to be happy.  Admittedly, the study and search of happiness is a little like a hunting Sasquatch or unicorns, but more and more people with really big brains, and even governments, are dedicating an increasing amount of time and resources to this emerging field.  And (spoiler alert!), while anyone looking for an “x marks the spot” guide to happiness will probably not find it, what you will find is a clever, entertaining and thought-provoking examination of people and cultures around the world and a pretty respectable attempt at isolating the keys to happiness. 
Wiener, a long-time foreign correspondent for NPR and reporter for The New York Times, sets out to find the happiest place on the planet and unearth the essential components to this harmony.  He does this by not only searching out the so-called happiest places, according to various polls and studies, but by also venturing to the least happy places –according to these same measures- on earth as well.  He travels to nearly a dozen countries (India, the Netherlands, Singapore, Moldova, Iceland, Bhutan, Qatar, Great Britain, Thailand and the US) to see what happiness is all about. 
Over the 325 pages we learn that happiness is many things to many people.  For example, binge drinking and vocational failure apparently translate to happiness in Iceland.  That Bhutan’s government actually measures the mountain kingdom’s contentment through its Gross National Happiness index, in place of GDP.  That Moldovans love misery.  That the Swiss are uptight, and yet, very happy.  That the Thai people have a scientific method for spotting fake smiles.  But perhaps most revealing is the counterintuitive concept that the more a person focuses on being happy the less happy they’ll likely be.
A self-admitted “grump” Wiener fortunately doesn’t let any of his personal discontent spill over into the narrative and the writing is crisp, lively and full of insight.  And it’s often pretty funny.  Equal parts philosophy guide, travelogue and social commentary, it never drags and there’s always something new to discover on the next page.  The book touches on many scientific studies and academic interviews, but it’s hardly a scientific or academic work.  Wiener includes just enough of the starch to prop up his colorful narrative and give it a point of reference.
Aside from creating a hugely readable and revealing book, Wiener manages to successfully take the reader on a trip around the world from the comfort of an arm chair.  His disarming writing style and investigative journalist skills puts the reader right in the middle of a temple in Bhutan, or the back of van in Moldova, or a coffee shop in Amsterdam, or a grimy strip club in Bangkok.  And while we may never know exactly where the happiest place on earth is (“happiness is a moving target”), Weiner’s given us a pretty good idea of where to start looking.  TLM highly recommends The Geography of Bliss. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

The House of Tomorrow: Punk Rock and Geodesic Domes

Sid Vicious, geodesic domes, and Buckminster Fuller…these are not themes you typically build a sentence around, let alone an entire work of fiction.  However, that’s exactly what Peter Bognanni has done.  And we’re glad he has because he’s not only created an immensely readable novel but he’s managed to put a fresh spin on the coming of age genre, which let’s face it, after several millennia of story-telling, is not easy to do.
The House of Tomorrow is, at times, both irreverent and poignant, charming and devastating, and this contrasting balance stemming from its odd couple protagonists makes this an engrossing book from the first page to the last.  At first glance the pairing of two very different teenage boys seems improbable at best and gimmicky at worst.  But it works.   And after several chapters into the book it seems not only plausible but natural that these students of such divergent gurus (Johnny Rotten and Buckminster Fuller) would join together.
Sebastian Pendergrast is a 16-year old shut-in orphan raised by a Fuller-obsessed grandmother in a geodesic dome on a hill.  Jared Whitcomb is a sickly and chain-smoking punk rock wannabe with a new heart in his chest and arguably the most bitter 16-year old on the planet.  When Sebastian’s grandmother is incapacitated by a stroke he’s left to his own devices and, for the first time in his life, has access to life outside the dome.  It doesn’t take long before the siren song of teenage temptations (think punk rock, cigarettes and girls) beckons.  After a chance meeting through the kindness of Jared’s mother, these two loners strike up an unlikely friendship and the baddest punk duo North Branch, Iowa as ever seen.   
Sebastian plays the straight man to Jared’s ball of fury and neither has been dealt a very good hand in life.  But they make each other better and their respective lives richer and that’s what makes these characters so compelling.  Neither one emerges as a wholly-formed young adult, but for the brief sliver of time we’re allowed in their lives, they lead the reader on a journey of unexpected and satisfying discovery. 
Bognanni‘s prose drips with angst, but a good angst, and he never allows it to suffocate the story.  He keeps the tone on target with inventive teenage dialogue that generally hits the mark.  And that’s one of the surprising things about this book:  his ability to mimic the mostly mindless chatter of teen boys in a way that’s not only engaging, but revealing.   Using Fuller’s creative philosophy as a strangely effective prop, he maintains a narrative that is unexpectedly moving and creates a surprising tenderness amidst the barren void of young male adolescence. 
The House of Tomorrow won the LA Times award for new fiction in 2010 and critical acclaim from various media outlets.  According to his website, Bognanni is hard at work on his next novel. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

The News From Paraguay: All's Fair in Love and Megalomaniacal War

In the past 15 months, 18 days, seven hours and nine minutes, The Literate Man has featured exactly one review of a book authored by a woman.  The reason: we are chauvinist pigs.  But in a meager attempt to right our wrongs we offer up high praise for The News From Paraguay, a delightful book from the very talented author, Lily Tuck (and we’re pleased to note that the National Book Foundation shares our good taste, having named this novel the National Book of the Year in 2004).
The News From Paraguay is the classic love story of girl meets dictator, runs off to the South American frontier to be his mistress, raises a family, and helps run the country into the ground.  That old story.   And Tuck presents this real-life account -loosely based on actual people and events- in a refreshingly original voice, spread over an economic and stylish 245 pages. 
Irish-born Ella Lynch is hardly won over by the rough-edged Franco Lopez at their initial meeting on the Paris party circuit in 1854.  A coarse man from Paraguay with bad English, body hair, and a seven-piece Indian band that follows him like a shadow, Franco is hardly the definition of Parisian chic.  But when Ella’s Russian lover decamps and leaves her penniless and destitute, Franco’s silly boots and his seemingly endless supply of gold suddenly seem a lot more attractive.  Within months Ella’s pregnant and on Franco’s personal yacht sailing for his magical South American kingdom.  Shrouded in mystery and full of surprises, Paraguay might as well be a far-off planet, as Ella musters all her strength and courage, in anticipation of her new life. 
What follows next is a sad and enlightening story of excess, outsized ambition and the self-destruction of a man and a country.  While Franco is a larger-than life character with enormous and lusty appetites, this is mostly Ella’s story to tell as both an outsider (to Paraguay) and an insider (an intimate advisor to the Franco).  It would be easy to fall into a sentimental or predictable tone of lament and loss but Tuck is confident in her writing and presents a powerful and flawed female protagonist that embraces her role in the ill-fated drama.  The author’s consistent narrative remains true to her characters and ultimately reads something like Nero’s diary as Rome (Paraguay) burns around them.   
Tuck is an inventive and disarming writer and she pens a fascinating account of Paraguay’s obscure history using an imperfect love story as her vehicle.  She achieves complexity of narrative not through any single, multi-faceted character but rather through an ensemble of marginal people that provides an impressively broad scope of perspective using relatively simple characters.  And that’s the book’s charm, deftly mixing the viewpoint of the indigenous, ex-pats, mestizos, elites and the victims of one man’s narcissistic ambitions into a recipe of sheer literary pleasure.  Tuck threads these conflicting perspectives together like a handmade quilt and the book reads like a collection of singular, but related paragraphs, each featuring a different and unique narrator. 
This is hardly a definitive history of Paraguay, but that’s not really the point, as Tuck includes just the right balance of true events and research to lend the storyline credibility without bogging down the human elements of the book.  The News From Paraguay is first and foremost the tale of a strong-willed and sometimes delusional woman in love; but the early struggles of the Paraguayan republic and it’s insanely determined dictator provide a fascinating backdrop for Ella’s story.   Anyone that picks up this creative and engrossing work will be glad they did. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Holy War: Jesus was Vasco de Gama's Co-Pilot

History is riddled with injustices: taxation without representation, the OJ trial, Super Bowls XXX and XLIII and Vasco de Gama second-fiddle status on the list of great European explorers.  Thanks to centuries of reimagining his exploits by popular culture and the Catholic Church, glory-whore Christopher Columbus is the best known and regarded explorer from this era.  But for anyone hoping to see de Gama placed above his seafaring rival on the pantheon of “discovery” Nigel Cliff provides plenty of ammunition for the cause in his terrific and engaging Holy War: How Vasco de Gama’s Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations.  

This is hardly the definitive work on de Gama's life nor is it anywhere near the first to poke holes in Columbus’ “achievements” (this book, in fact, devotes only a few chapters to Columbus ' doings despite a teasing reference to a “great rivalry” on the inside flap).  But what set's this work apart is the impeccable research and accessibility of the historical context surrounding this pivotal moment in history.  There's nothing really new here but Cliff's presentation and narrative are refreshing; he book flies-by as he wraps historical facts in personal details.  He deftly balances the historical nuts and bolts with human levity adding lightness to a subject matter that tends to be gruesome and greedy.    

There’s very little known about de Gama’s personal life but Cliff enhances this information by detailing an abundance of little known personal info about the Iberian monarchy, their courts and other explorers.  This is where Holy War shines, thanks to a mountain of foot notes (arguably the most impressive we’ve ever seen) and the author’s vision.  Cliff’s version truly is a people’s history and his attention to these details makes this usually academic terrain, we dare-say, riveting –and we’ve never use that kind of word to describe historical non-fiction.

Where the book falls short is its promise to unearth any original Huntington-like “clash of civilizations” moment in this well-trod ground.  And as Cliff painstakingly points out, de Gama’s voyage was motivated by a search for heathen souls, treasure and revenge –themes that would actually seem to bind 15th century Iberia and the Islamic East.  Cliff also fails to connect the dots between the modern “war on terror” and 15th century clashes in any sort of meaningful way as the introduction seems to promise. 

But don’t read this book for a re-defining of the civilization cornerstones and ethics that have carried us to the present; leave that to the tweeds in the ivory towers.  Read this book as a rich and colorful glimpse into the place and context of the Age of Exploration.  If you do you’ll be well rewarded. 

With only two books under his belt (The Shakespeare Wars, Schuster & Simon, 2005; look for his forthcoming Last Crusade, Schuster & Simon, 2012), Cliff  has already placed himself among the most readable historians working today thanks to his historian’s eye for detail, his writing talent and rare foresight in arranging the details.  In the tradition of venerable contemporaries such as Howard Zinn or David McCollough, cliff tells the story from the ground up rather than the top down ensuring that the information is not only accurate but engaging.

This is a lively and fascinating re-telling of one of history's greatest naval expeditions and the powers behind it.  Historical non-fiction simply doesn’t get any better than this.   

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: Giving Voice to the Madwoman in the Attic

The premise of Wide Sargasso Sea is fantastic: to present the back story of Antoinette Cosway (also known as Bertha Mason), the infamous "madwoman in the attic" and wife of Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. And, if you're a lover of the character of Mr. Rochester, you may wish to stop reading here, because Jean Rhys is more than moderately successful in exposing his prejudices and placing the blame for his wife's alleged "madness" squarely upon his shoulders.

The work is even more impressive when it is considered in historical context: published in 1966, the book came just four years after Jamaica's independence from the United Kingdom, and can be read largely as a rejection of the long period of British imperialism and subjugation of the Afro-Caribbean populations of the West Indies. In short, Rhys (a native of Dominica) argues that the British never understood the culture or the motivations of their unwilling subjects, and it is this misunderstanding, labeled as inherited "madness" by Rochester, that condemns his wife to solitude and leaves her only an act of desperation.

Beautiful, powerful, and occasionally scattered (like the culture it describes), Wide Sargasso Sea is number 94 on Modern Library's list of 100 Best Novels. Weighing in at less than 200 pages, the minimal effort is well worth the reward. For both literary and historical reasons, this is a novella that is not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rivertown: A Marco Polo Journey for the 21st Century

In case you hadn’t heard China is a pretty big deal. It’s not only a massive place but it’s home to one-fifth of the world’s population, fifty-six distinct cultures, over two-hundred languages and is poised to become the most colossal economic force in history by mid-century. But there’s only so much you can learn about a country through statistics and in the case of China it’s not much.

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

Work Song: Another Doig Hit

Ivan Doig is a terribly inventive writer. As one of the preeminent writers of the American West anything he puts on paper is worth reading. Doig provides us with a thinking man’s glimpse into the Wild West; always looking beyond the cowboys and gunfights and providing a more complex –but always fun- account of the settling of this unsettled land.

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 clichĂ©d 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

Author Interview Series: James Warner, Author of All Her Father's Guns

At The Literate Man we enjoy and take pride in shining the light on new authors and unheralded books, especially those from independent presses. James Warner recently released his first novel (All Her Father’s Guns, 2011, Numina Press) and he was kind enough to take a few moments and talk with us. Warner has produced a book that is clever, funny, at times enlightening and always entertaining. He’s also a man who knows his craft and offers us a deeper glimpse into his characters, writing technique and British campaign slogans.

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

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.

(About the author: James Warner is the author of the novel All Her Father's Guns. His short fiction has appeared in Narrative, Agni Online, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He writes an almost-monthly literary column for the political webzine openDemocracy, and organizes the San Francisco reading series InsideStorytime. His website is

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Guest Post: Lucas Hunt on Poetry and The Literate Man

[Editor's Note: TLM is honored to have decorated poet, Lucas Hunt, discuss the significance and importance of poetry to the literate man (and woman, for that matter) below.  Any errors in formatting in Mr. Hunt's piece or the poem that follows are entirely the fault of TLM.  For more about Lucas Hunt, and his most recent collection, Light on the Concrete, please see our previous post here.]

What is the grass?

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.

--Walt Whitman

Today we will address the subject of what is poetry to the literate man. For poetry inhabits a span between that which appears indefinable and that which we know to be absolutely necessary. It is the link between hunger and food. It is the effort that finally leads our philosophical thoughts into the positive sphere of action. It is the microscopic distance from synapse to synapse in our brains. And it is the vast yet palpable darkness from star to star in the night sky.

Poetry might be understood to be the great connector of the universe. It is what essentially allows us to name things, and thus to begin to have an understanding of their unique presences. For while the exact substance of a material may be unknown to us, we can get an idea of what something is, once we have established at least a sense of what its individual nature comprises.

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.

--Lucas Hunt

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
the vegetation.

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
for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
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

In the first of TLM's author interviews series, the Editors sat down with Larry Closs, author of Beatitude, a novel of friendship, love, and idolatry of the Beat Generation, to discuss themes of masculinity and literature, then and now.  A more detailed TLM review of Beatitude will appear in the coming weeks.  


TLM: The prominent players among the Beats were all men. Is this a coincidence or is there something inherently masculine about the philosophy of the Beats?

Larry: You have to begin by viewing the Beats in the context of their times. The Beats were a product of—and a reaction to—the conformity, conservatism and materialism of the 1950s. In the wake of the abject austerity of the Great Depression, the relative prosperity of the fifties inspired a focus on suddenly affordable housing, cars and appliances and the development of a suburban lifestyle reflected in TV shows like Ozzie & Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. The new nuclear family was the ideal and every family member had very narrowly defined roles: Fathers were breadwinners, mothers raised the kids and took care of the house and kids did their homework, stayed out of trouble and aspired to be just like their parents.

The Beats tapped into a burgeoning feeling that there was something wrong with that picture. The Beat philosophy expressed itself in the rejection of repressive social norms and the embrace of an experience-for-experience-sake approach to life embodied by an open-minded attitude toward sex, drugs, relationships, religion, travel and the fellaheen—the outsiders.

Women were just as likely as men to feel stifled by the middle-class conventions of the 1950s. They were less likely to act on that impulse, however, because they risked far more severe repercussions. Also, despite the progressive attitude the Beats advocated across the board, they generally viewed the women in their world in much the same way as the world at large, confining them to girlfriends, housewives and mothers.

One could argue that Beat philosophy was inherently—even unabashedly—masculine, as evidenced by the fact that the great works of literature and poetry the movement produced were all produced by men. One could also argue that the Beat philosophy was inherently sexist, like the society itself, because the movement’s tenets were near impossible for women of the times to embrace.

There were Beat women (Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation profiles 40 of them) who injected a feminine element, but, with few exceptions—poets Diane di Prima, Hettie Jones, Ann Waldman—they are unknown even to Beat fans and best known for their relationships with Beat men rather than their creative contributions to the Beat canon. One of the best and most prolific, Joyce Johnson, wrote five novels that are no longer in print. However, her two memoirs—Minor Characters (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award) and Door Wide Open—both of which hinge on her brief romance with Kerouac, remain popular long after their release in paperback.

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.

There’s a scene in Beatitude where I describe a television interview that Kerouac did with Steve Allen in 1959, after On the Road had catapulted Kerouac to fame and introduced the Beat Generation to America. Allen asks Kerouac how he would define beat. Kerouac pauses and says, “Sympathetic.” I think that single word expresses the essence of Beatitude.

Larry Closs is the author of Beatitude, a novel, and a New Yorker who often wanders far from home. Follow him on his website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram (larrycloss).


Follow Larry Closs as his blog tour continues tomorrow, January 26, 2012, at The Picky Girl.