The colonel is dead

The colonel died yesterday. Gabriel García Márquez may have passed away in a hospital in Mexico City, but for many who affectionately called him Gabo, he simply walked into the forest of his Macondo. I call him the ‘colonel’ because if there ever was a general of realismo mágico it was Juan Rulfo, who minted the phrase ‘Latin American Boom’, and whom Márquez revered and said inspired his 1967 masterpiece, Cien años de soledad. I don’t think Gabo would disagree with me.

Márquez memorized Rulfo’s 1955 novella Pedro Páramo until he could recite the text in full. Prior to Páramo, in 1953, Juan Rulfo had produced a slim collection of short stories, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain or The Plain in Flames, in English). In the pantheon of Latin American literature, Rulfo would become a living legend, an influential essayist, and a highly respected photojournalist of the Mexican landscape; but Borges and Márquez are the two names most associated with ‘magical realism.’ Márquez would credit his grandparents with having planted the seeds for his love of storytelling, but he placed Rulfo next to Cervantes within the canon of Spanish-language literature.

Readers either love or hate Gabo’s style, but nobody denies his imagination. In my opinion, the difference between a good writer and a great writer is that their work gets better and better with each new work; the writer takes chances. Track Gabo’s short stories from the late forties on into the sixties, and you’ll find that the writing becomes uniquely Gabo – disorienting narrative threads, dislocated point of views and unnamed speakers; and then there are the erotic, poetic and surreal elements, and the touches of the sinister. His short stories, going into the sixties, enabled him to write One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Márquez would resent the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude like an excellent actor fears becoming typecast. He feared (erroneously) that all his later works, any attempts to take his imagination elsewhere, would be compared to Solitude. That he would receive the Nobel Prize in 1982 for the novel seems to have solidified his fears, for he was rumored to have said to his wife Mercedes after the phone call: “¡Estoy jodido!”

I am screwed.”

In order to appreciate the magnitude of the man’s writing chops, I think it is really necessary to see him as a curious blend of Hemingway and Faulkner. Gabo had said in interviews that he knew he wanted to be a writer from a young age. There is no doubt that he had worked hard to fulfill that ambition. The question becomes an issue of influence and model that either helps or damns the young writer. I find in Gabo’s writing, depending on where you look, a curious blend of the two aforementioned writers.

Márquez was first and foremost a journalist. Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, serialized for El Espectador newspaper in 1955, is a newspaperman’s coverage of a sailor lost at sea, and News of a Kidnapping (1996), is about a Medellín Cartel kidnapping that reads like an episode of 24. These two works use Hemingway’s journalese, with clean, uncomplicated sentences. Faulkner, on the other hand, with his mythmaking, ability to show love, sanity and insanity, and cruelty through sprawling sentences, haunts all of Márquez’s novels. His choice of diction when he turned to Faulkner is what allowed Gabo to enjoy mass appeal.

Rulfo wrote realismo duro, a hard realistic style that is closer to Hemingway had Papa written noir or investigative journalism, as Steinbeck did. Márquez would create a magical realism that combines Hemingway’s insistence for the truest sentence, accessibility, and combined it with his own gift for allegory. Gabo spoke out against General Pinochet’s right-wing overthrow of democratically elected Allende in 1973. His friendship with Fidel Castro, which he claimed was a common love for literature and not political sympathy, resulted in the United States’s banning him for a decade under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. He supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It was not until 1995, when President Clinton invited him, did Márquez visit the United States.

Márquez chose allegory to criticize Latin American politics, where others used realismo duro, the hard style in cinema and literature. The Brazilian film, Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad, in English) shows the Rio that tourists do not see. Paulo Lins’s novel City of God (Cidade de Deus, in Portuguese) is another example. In choosing allegory, he elevated national and regional issues, with their particular flavors, and questioned the roles of history and violence on a universal level. Remember how the massacre of the 3,000 banana workers in Solitude is publicly denied? In refusing to moralize and provide a verdict, he gave millions of readers his humorous wink of an eye.

Gabo the writer revised ruthlessly. He purged Chronicle of a Death Foretold until it had 1 adverb. Love in the Time of Cholera has none. The result is an intoxicating, fertile world that has snakes in the trees and crabs everywhere on the ground. People make love on the ground next to the ants. The ants also come for the child. A storm will erase the fictional Macondo out of existence. The village existed for 108 years. Gabo’s will last longer.

He was true to his words. He will be missed.

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World War I: Haunted Faith

“I am haunted by humans.”

–Death, our narrator, in the last line of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Maiakovsky are not two writers most readers of Russian literature would put in the same sentence. Even their appearances suggest differences in attitude and temperament. Gorky, with his swept-back black hair, his Nietzschean mustache and high forehead, suggested dormant nobility, when, in fact, he came from the artisan class. Vladimir Maiakovsky, without a mustache, without any hair on his face or head at all, glares out from most of his photographs with intense eyes, pronounced bone structure, and a long face. He claimed descent from Cossacks. Both of these writers, differences in personality aside, had some things in common: they both visited America, for example, but the most dangerous and disturbing parallel is their engagement with Communism and how ideology would haunt their faith in literature, if not humanity.

Gorky’s full name was Aleksei M. Peshkov. His last name ‘Peshkov’ means ‘pawn’ in Russian. His pseudonym, Gorky, means ‘bitter.’ He gained his initial fame from his short stories about a proud and fierce people, the “bosiaki” or ‘the barefooted people,’ he had observed in his travels as a young man. The collection earned praise from Tolstoy, who noted his ear for lower-class speech. Gorky interpreted Tolstoy’s remark as an ambiguous compliment. Readers not familiar with Russian literature have to understand both sides of Tolstoy’s compliment. Up to Gorky’s day, nearly all of the recognized writers were aristocratic, or were tied to the land somehow. Gogol was from petty nobility. Chekhov, the grandson of a serf, still had that tie to the soil. Gorky’s pedigree associated him with the mercantile and materialistic, the dirty hands that touched money and less noble than those who had touched the earth or had the leisure time to read and write. Gorky’s ear for demotic speech is what made his stories seem real, relevant, and a time capsule.

Gorky was also a compassionate man. His grandmother, Akulina, who had an extraordinary gift for reciting folktales, was illiterate, but in no way ignorant just because she had never been given an education. Gorky wanted all Russians to receive an education and acquire affordable translations of the classics of world literature. He would fund and champion this effort, with mixed results. The humane Gorky helped writers financially. He saved a few from firing squads, too. His final split with Lenin and self-exile to Italy was over the execution of the poet Nikolay Gumilev. The poet’s crime had been his refusal to inform on his counter-revolutionary friends to the secret police. Gorky had gone to Lenin to save the man. Lenin told him that he would dispatch a telegram. Lost telegram or not, Lenin’s trickery or not, Gumilev was shot. Gorky had words with Lenin and went off to Sorrento, Italy.

The years of exile helped Gorky produce some of his best work. While in Italy, where he also convalesced from TB, Gorky would pen his autobiography and memoirs in which he provides vivid recollections of the majestic but difficult Tolstoy, places and times, and the full humanity of Chekhov, a man well aware that he was writing against the clock since he was terminally ill with tuberculosis. Most importantly, Gorky presents his political and literary development.

Gorky’s exile in Italy after his argument with Lenin had not been his first experience of exile. Late, with the Fascists to his back in Italy, little money in his pockets, and Stalin in front of him (literally), Gorky returned to Russia. He spent his last years in forced isolation, writing about the “socialist realist” literature Stalin expected from party writers. Not quite the political hack and never the political radical, Gorky must have been aware, given all that he had survived, that he was a tool of the Communist Party. The state-sponsored and state-approved literature, MASSOLIT, was often very bad, proving that ideology and literature should not mix; but Stalin had chosen Gorky because he was respectable, the one writer with a pedigree traceable to the early days of the Communist Party.  Gorky would die under suspicious circumstances in 1936, right before Stalin initiated one his infamous purges.

Maiakovsky was a different man altogether. In terms of names, ‘Vladimir’ is a noble name, and ‘Maiakovsky’ contains the word ‘maiak,’ meaning ‘lighthouse.’ Everything about Comrade Maiakovsky was about Maiakovsky the Poet. He stomped and stormed. He was also a Futurist. His behavior outraged and scandalized. Once, when asked to sign a guestbook, he threw the book on the floor and pressed his muddy boot to the page as his signature. Maiakovsky believed in Art of the Worker in capital letters, in an ideal society, and most of all, in The Party. Unlike Gorky, he saw no value in the art and literature of the past, before the Revolution, because he looked forward. As an avowed Futurist, Maiakovsky called himself the “Revolution’s tribune.”

In his 1920 poem, “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Happened to Vladimir Maiakovsky in a Summer Country House,” he equates himself with the sun in that they both share the responsibility of illuminating the world. A lighthouse, indeed. Bombast and monstrous ego and behavior aside, Maiakovsky evolved and, like Gorky, would arrive at an unfortunate conclusion about his art that was serving political ends. Later in his career, he would mock the New Economic Policy (NEP) in his brilliant play, The Bedbug. The NEP was a brief suspension of Communist ideals in which capitalism was encouraged; and in an irony of ironies, Maiakovsky would travel to the United States in 1925. Gorky had visited the U.S. in 1906.

These two visits are worth discussing. Gorky’s purpose in 1906 was to drum up support for the revolution back home. The American perception of events in Russia was favorable because Americans believed that Russia was moving towards democracy, or to a form of government similar to that of the United Kingdom, with a ceremonial monarch. The outcome was for Gorky is a combination of his poor judgment and the shameful behavior of the American literati. Gorky signed an exclusive contract with a Hearst newspaper for travel essays as he moved about the country. He had not anticipated that this would enrage other newspapers. Since his mission was to win hearts and minds and lighten pockets for a political adversary to Czar Nicholas II, the Russian diplomats in DC dropped the dime and let reporters know that Gorky was traveling with a woman not his wife. Prudish Americans would not know that divorce was impossible in Russia. Gorky and his companion appeared in newsprint as immoral degenerates. Numerous newspapers would also misspell Gorky’s name as ‘Gorkyh,’ and ‘Gorkey.’ The hotel expelled them. The shameful part about this whole affair is that the man most responsible for deserting Gorky was the head of the welcoming committee, Mark Twain. Jane Addams and William Dean Howells were among the notables who had slinked away. Gorky and Maria Andreeva could not speak any English. President Theodore Roosevelt changed his mind about hosting the couple. John Dewey, the future philosopher, rescued and sheltered Gorky and Andreeva.

Maiakovsky’s poetry, before Lenin’s success, addressed the horrors of war. Into the Twenties, the poet’s outsized personality and charisma deepened, as did his taste for satire. He traveled extensively, visiting the United States in 1925. In a not so surprising turn since he was a Futurist, he found inspiration in technology in the form of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, Maiakovsky had become disillusioned, having seen destitution and degradation in his travels around the Soviet Union. He noticed and observed the sycophants within the Party. Having seen poverty at home and admirable living conditions in the lair of his ideological enemy, capitalist America, Maiakovsky felt that the NEP was a sign of failure. He praises the Brooklyn Bridge and the U.S., although, towing the line, he interjects some criticism at the forgotten sacrifices of the laborers. His poem concludes with the suicide of one of the laborers. The man jumps to his death in the Hudson River. The Brooklyn Bridge is over the East River.

His play The Bedbug (1929) is biting satire, sci-fi, and horror. The play mocks social climbers, depicts Communism fifty years in the future with a new type of man, Homo sovieticus, and ends with an allegorical image of the gulag. Stalin had created concentration camps in 1917, which he later expanded into the gulag. The main character finds out the future is no Utopia, but it is too late. He is accused of corrupting society with his bad behavior and with his love of beer. The protagonist seeks compassion and understanding, but finds none. The image at the end is of Prysipkin and his bedbug friend on display at a zoo as Bedbugus normalis and Bourgeoisius vulgaris, respectively. The audience stopped laughing. The play was performed only once in Maiakovsky’s lifetime and banned after that first and only performance. Maiaikovsky’s reputation declined. He wrote one last poem, “Past One O’Clock,” that demonstrates that he was one of the great lyrical poets of the twentieth century, so said Pasternak. Depressed, he would tempt fate and play Russian roulette. He lost, on April 14, 1930. He was 36 years old.

Gorky documented and reflected on the best of Russian literature, particularly from the Nineteenth Century. He knew Chekhov and Tolstoy. He may have thought that the literature of bourgeois society of the last century could be transformed into socialist art. He was empathetic and sympathetic to all of Russia’s peoples. He witnessed pogroms and despised racism. He saw hunger and initiated a campaign to feed others. Most importantly, he protected writers from destitution or execution. As political idealism disintegrated into violence, Gorky had no illusions about the character of Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. He would return to the lion’s den.

Maiakovsky, for all of his blustering bravado, believed in a new world. He may have taunted and teased other artists, equating their work to sewing patches on Pushkin’s coat, but he believed through his fiery rhetoric and lyricism that he could motivate others to create a better society. Unfortunately, he had not anticipated that others were of less integrity. Both men lived to see what came after the Bolsheviks had won, their Russia, now called the Soviet Union. The more they wrote, the more haunting they became.

Millions of Russians died in World War I, a war that ignited a political system that would kill many more Russians before the Second World War and millions more during it. The British historian A. J. P. Taylor argued 1917 was the year world history started because Lenin had succeeded and America had entered the war that April; and war, since then, is all about ideology. I believe that Gorky and Maiakovsky’s deaths anticipated Mikhail Bulgakov’s assessment of ideological governments in The Master and Margarita: there is always that Faustian deal, always flawed human beings as devils.

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An Irishman’s Revenge

In the literary hallway the footsteps of John O’Hara have faded to less than an echo. I have my theories as to why that is the case, but I’d like to explore the verdicts in three distinct prefaces to O’Hara works. Frank MacShane, who also edited Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, offered his estimation of O’Hara’s short stories. John Updike, the very WASP that O’Hara disliked and pilloried, wrote a preface to O’Hara’s bestselling novel, Appointment in Samarra. Last but not least, Fran Leibowitz offered wit and swift dissection in her few pages before the text of BUtterfield 8.

I read somewhere once that, amongst writers, John O’Hara was the equivalent of James Cagney trying to imitate Cary Grant. It’s a slanted, but workable, comparison, if not for the fact that O’Hara, unlike the two actors who had come from hardscrabble youths, had the silver spoon and the slippers until his father’s untimely death. His father, a physician, and their relationship were immortalized in the short story, “The Doctor’s Son.” That his father died intestate is a cautionary note to parents to have Will & Testament drawn up and notarized. O’Hara went from polite society and white gloves to dirt and dust in the blink of an eye, but not without losing the lump of Pennsylvania coal on his shoulder. O’Hara resented that he was overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature, that he was not admitted to the Yale Club, although he did mellow out some in his later years, but not without leaving some serious scorched earth in his wake. It is undeniable, O’Hara, much like the late Mavis Gallant, was a prolific contributor to The New Yorker. The comparison is not hyperbole. O’Hara had over 200 short stories appear in The New Yorker. At the end of the day, hat on the rack, O’Hara had 400 short stories scattered throughout 11 short- story collections, three novellas, and 15 novels. No slacker there. The problem – the O’Hara conundrum – was O’Hara himself. He was the difficult writer in residence, and I suspect that it altered his posthumous reputation. The man was a synonym for SOB.

“Wukkan I do fya?” is a line Frank McShane quotes as an example of O’Hara’s ear for dialog. Dialect aside and the current prohibition to use it, McShane places O’Hara within the pantheon of storytellers of the oral tradition. He doesn’t mean Homer or Twain. What McShane shines the light on is O’Hara’s ability to capture linguistic revelation through vernacular speech: class, style, and conflict. No doubt that there is the uncomfortable hint of the voyeur, the eavesdropper at the bar counter and the sociologist all rolled into the one person of John O’Hara, but he, like the late George V. Higgins, had an uncanny ear for capturing speech of the lower class and middle-class aspirants to the better life. O’Hara should know, because he was one of the bourgeoisie who fell from grace. McShane describes O’Hara’s approach to writing as, for lack of better words, imagining the scene from behind the typewriter’s roll: starting with a face and then hearing the conversation flow. O’Hara was famous for sitting down and cranking out a story during the lunch hour. O’Hara could have written any of the scenes in Mad Men because he understood the civility above and below the line of social propriety. William James and Tennessee Williams come to mind. O’Hara can calibrate the register of speech. In a few cut-and-polished phrases John O’Hara created real characters. More to his credit, he, for a man of his generation, imbues women with all kinds of appetites. I think that this is neglected. He wrote about sex in candid but pointed terms. Read McShane’s forward and then decide whether or not O’Hara was prescient about his critique of the so-called American Dream.

“An Irishman’s revenge on Protestants who had snubbed him” is how John Updike characterized O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, considered O’Hara’s masterpiece. While Fran Leibowitz compares O’Hara to Fitzgerald, I do think that Appointment gnaws at the gritty underbelly to Gatsby that would have come to the fore had Fitzgerald described it in less romantic terms. Jay Gatsby’s fate is tied to an automobile and the same can be said to numerous characters in O’Hara’s novel. The automobile is ubiquitous and symbolizes the capricious, almost Darwinian selection of success and failure in American life. O’Hara sat at the bar and drew a bead on the tab. Updike writes from the position of O’Hara’s better, and he knew that O’Hara was writing against him.

BUtterfield 8 – the camel-case title references retired telephone exchanges – is O’Hara’s ‘ripped from the headlines’ novel. A real murder inspired the novel. Elizabeth Taylor as Gloria Wandrous earned her her first Oscar in 1960 for the 1935 novel adapted to the big screen. The novel is provocative: it details up-town and downtown adultery with cross-town machinations. Fate hinges on a telephone number and a mink coat. The novel uses the word ‘slut,’ which should remind readers that their grandparent’s era was not so innocent or halcyon.

Fran Leibowitz presents some cultural signposts in her preface to BUtterfield 8. 1935 America roiled in the grinding despair of the Depression, but the one factoid that I think is crucial to understanding O’Hara’s novel is the 13 years of Prohibition, which ended in 1933. Leibowitz sees Prohibition as “oddly democratizing” on sexual mores. O’Hara, in a word, applied the stethoscope to America’s “animal impulse(s).” The opening scene is a girl waking up in a married man’s apartment. Leibowitz dispatches her verdict and mentions that O’Hara was all of twenty-nine when he wrote the book. Her phrase that had troubled me at first until I digested her concluding paragraphs is her valedictory tone in, “I was about thirteen years old the first time I read it, which was around 1964. Understandably, I did not, at the time, think of it as a young man’s book. Now, alas, I do.” She would realize, with time and experience, the nuance between knowing and knowledge.

O’Hara might be, to some readers, a time capsule of Americana, but – and I say, but – the overhead conversations, the heated resentment between schlep and boss, no matter how wrong or misunderstood, are still alive. John O’Hara died in Princeton, bellicose to the end. The Nobel Prize was never to be his. He had striven to present the elevated and universal condition, a seeming prerequisite of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and had believed that he had done just that. The Committee might not have seen that, but there is no denying that he did capture the pulse of privileged and not so privileged America.

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M is for Mississippi in March

There is no greater joy than discovering a new writer, for it justifies the thumb’s mileage, the ho-hum trudge through lifeless prose. There are those missteps, those false glimmers of promise and then the inevitable dissatisfaction. There is a lot of mediocrity and pretension out there. One of life’s cruelties for the reader is the uncertainty that they will ever find their writer. A second cruelty – and I’m saying this as a writer – is that they do meet their writer. In my experience of the latter type of cruelty, I have encountered a select few writers, writers who convey a language and experience so alien to me, so admirable, that I know that I could never write something like that, or would want to, and that’s fine by me. But then I learn, to my dismay, that they are longer with us. It happened to me with Michael Dibdin, with Larry Brown, and it happened again recently; it’s bittersweet. Meet Lewis Nordan.

I don’t know how or why, but the American South has produced some of the most astonishing writers. I don’t know whether it is some occult confluence of stars and soil and water, along with the awful legacy of slavery that has given us blues and spirituals, but there is no escaping the fact that southern writers, especially from Mississippi, use the English language in provocative ways. It could be hereditary: William Faulkner and Walker Percy were both from distinguished literary families. Just consider this list of living writers from Mississippi: Ace Atkins, Howard Bahr, Fredrick Barthelme, Richard Ford, Tom Franklin, Ellen Gilchrist, John Grisham, Charlaine Harris, Thomas Harris, Beth Henley, Greg Iles – and I haven’t even reached the midpoint of the alphabet. Let us state the obvious: every writer from Mississippi contends with the shadows of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. It’s unavoidable. Nordan was compared to them, Erskine Caldwell, and James Thurber.

Southern writers seem to turn phrases of the Queen’s English in ways that are odd, exotic and yet truthful. “There’s not a nickel’s worth of taste in a fly, even if you do happen to eat one” is one such phrase from the late Mr. Nordan. There is authenticity, economy, the simplistic and impish in that phrase. “Old as dirt and rich enough to burn a wet bull and all he can think to do is devil a bunch of children” is another one that makes the head cock. The wisdom that bubbles up throughout Nordan’s prose appears deceptive, homespun and eccentric, but it is wisdom borne out of attention to daily behavior, from a determination to laugh at no matter what life slings. Faulkner terrifies, O’Connor unsettles, but Nordan, like Welty, creates laughter, although he can write about the macabre. Eunuchs, a suppository-wielding attendant, midgets, a sin eater, wild dogs, and other freaks populate his fiction.

Mississippi. It has an ugly, ugly history: Till’s murder in 1955; the disappearance and subsequent murders of the three civil rights workers in 1964; the assassination of Medgar Evers in his driveway in 1967. The Confederate Stars and Bars remain on the state flag. In 1964, Nina Simone provided the public with an angry, but accurate, portrait of Mississippi’s racial violence. Lewis Nordan befriended Emmett Till’s mother and he knew the men who killed him. He had said in an interview that it took him a long time to be able to write about violence. His novel Wolf Whistle from 1993 revisits the infamous murder. While not quite the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez or the Shakespearean sprawl of Faulkner, Whistle has talking vultures that witnessed the Civil War, a murder trial, town drunks, and a teacher who takes her fourth-grade class on a tour of a funeral home. It is not easy reading.

Nordan’s literary career began at age forty-five with the publication of his first collection of stories, Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair, in 1983. His second collection, The All-Girl Football Team, appeared in 1986. Before Nordan died in 2012 at the age of seventy-two he had written four novels, one memoir, and two volumes of short stories, which are difficult to find, but a selection from them exists in Sugar Among the Freaks (1996) from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. In the introductory essay to Sugar, Richard Howorth describes Nordan’s narrative strategy as “inverted truth”. In “Rat Song” a daughter’s affection for two pet rats unsettles her father because he perceives rats as nasty, disease-bearing vermin. Dad struggles. Domesticated rats are affectionate and loyal pets, so I have been told, but I also have a vivid memory of my grandfather doing battle with a feral black rat that stood on it hind legs ready to box with a shovel. Is “Rat Song” a metaphor for prejudice? In another story, “One-Man Band,” a preacher arrives at a wake and confronts a grieving young man who finds no solace in religion. Again, it is the adult versus the child. Pilkington assumes that the boy doesn’t understand grief, but at the end of the story Preacher realizes that he has spent his entire life avoiding grief. Lewis “Buddy” Nordan shares with T.C. Boyle the predilection for the way-out-there and the subversive.

In “The All-Girl Football Team,” Nordan reverses cultural and gender stereotypes. A young boy and his father – another prevalent theme throughout his works – like to cross-dress. The father, a real man’s man, educates his son on exfoliation, bras, makeup, dresses and slips, and wigs. In the fictional town of Arrow Catcher men dressing in drag is accepted and, during football season, girls are on the football team while the boys are on the sideline as cheerleaders in skirts and pom-poms. The girls are coarse, insensitive jocks, and our cheerleader boy pines and lusts for them at first, until he realizes that what he desires is Beauty, to feel beautiful. He envies womanhood. In one hilarious scene, he finds himself attracted to the football coach because the man exudes authority, charisma, and the tragic, when the team loses. Our young hero panics and thinks he is a lesbian! As the story progresses – and Nordan’s prose is evocative for anyone who had football games in their childhood – there is this realization that what adults know is the essence of childhood captured in amber:

Suddenly I knew that my father was right, that I did feel beautiful, except that now beauty had a different meaning for me. It meant that I was who I was, the core of me, the perfect center, and that the world was who it was and that those two facts were unchangeable. Grief had no sting, the future was not a thing to fear, all things were possible and pure.

Martha Lacy Hall discovered Nordan, and saw to it that Louisiana State University Press published him; but sales languished, although praise and prizes slowly mounted. Hall shuttled Nordan over to Vintage Contemporaries but the sales just did not happen. Serious praise from critics and a respect from other writers made Lewis Nordan the writer few people knew or read. Nordan wrote about underdogs because he was one. He kept writing. He was teaching creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh when his son committed suicide. Nordan would write his way through depression and publish again. Then, death came. In the short space of three months, the American South lost three talented writers: Harry Crews and William Gay in February 2012, and Lewis Nordan, in April. The following words could have been his epitaph:

I was a boy in costume for one night of the year, and I was my father’s child and the child of this strange southern geography, I was beautiful, and also wise and sad and somehow doomed with joy.

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World War I: “War—the world’s only hygiene”

Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, Carl von Clausewitz wrote On War, and both texts have been rather disturbingly, in my opinion, reinterpreted for self-help and business-management books. Business as war or the overcoming of personal difficulties cast as a battle is a rather grotesque, vulgar metaphor for violent conflict. Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz are indeed considered ‘philosophies,’ and the latter is famous for the statement: “War is the continuation of Politik by other means.” In 1915, the Futurist Carlo Carrà would rewrite that phrase as “war meant nothing but art pursued with other means.” The Italian Futurists dared to promote the idea that War is Art and then reversed it à la palindrome: Art is War. The Guggenheim is now hosting an exhibit, Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, from 21 February to 1 September 2014.

The reason I chose to focus on the Italian Futurists in this series on World War I is because their legacy has informed art and politics today. Chromatic colors, explosive energy, dynamic movement, are all the hallmark traits of Futurist art. Electricity, light, man and machine, speed and violence were their obsessions. Futurist architecture is Art Deco. Futurist painting is the dog in motion in Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912. Futurist musicians created new instruments and sound systems, often made with mechanical tools. Futurist literature is F.T. Marinetti’s sound-poem book and typographical experiment Zang Tumb Tumb, which took its title from the sounds he heard as a journalist during the Bulgarian artillery bombardment of Turkish Adrianople in the Balkan War.

I believe that the Italian Futurists irrevocably changed advertising, consumerism, the psychology of influence, and most importantly, media. They would show future governments and terrorists that ‘manufacturing consent’ is essential to their interests, and that ‘consent’ requires a systematic and panoptic media machine. The Italian Futurists, just as Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz had, wrote brief handbooks.

Their manifestos, with their inflammatory rhetoric, attacked and redefined architecture, fashion, food, literature, music, and sculpture. They declared War on the past and asked that all art forms glorify violence in order to return Italy to international cultural and political prominence. Their founder and spokesperson F.T. Marinetti declared, “War — the world’s only hygiene.” He saw violence as a cleansing, transformative experience. In all fairness, however, many of the combatant nations welcomed World War I as a ‘good-bye to all that,’ as Robert Graves put it, but the ‘good-bye’ every one expected was a ‘hello’ to a new social order. Not quite the case with the Italian Futurists. They wanted ‘total art.’

Read the list of avant-garde movements of the last century. Note their nations of origin and approximate dates: Cubism, France, 1907; Vorticism, England, 1913; Dadaism, Switzerland, 1916; Constructivism, Russia, 1919; and Surrealism, France, 1920. All these movements that I have just named, in all their artistic permutations, were interpretations, reactions and statements against World War I. I will write about the Russian Futurists in a future essay on Vladimir Mayakovsky. Italy had the only art movement that was for War.

F.T. Marinetti would lob the bomb, his Futurist Manifesto, where no Anarchist could ever gain legitimacy: on the front page of Le Figaro, the major French newspaper, in 1909. The Futurists did not seek to overthrow a government; they sought to change the way people thought and perceived the world around them. The Futurists imagined possibilities through a sensational reformation of art. The common trait of revolutions is that they wish to topple an existing order, and return to some idealized past or state. The Futurists rejected the past and sought the technological Future. The only thing of the ‘past’ that they desired was Italy’s ‘unredeemed’ lands, the places where Italian was spoken, but where the inhabitants were under foreign rule. Eyes turned to cities along the Adriatic coast and the Trentino province. World War I provided the opportunity to reclaim these lands. Italian irredentism is a contradiction to Futurist ideals because a unified Italy is a nineteenth-century ideal.

The Italian Futurists used polemic as their means to convince Italians that War is necessary, both moral and justified; and their use of multimedia sharpened how governments used propaganda and businesses influenced consumers after World War I. Using the pamphlet as their model, the Futurist manifestos used a simple format of either one page or short essay. There is a preamble in which a context for the complaint is explained, followed then by a numbered list of prescriptive declarations.

Art was not ‘decadent’ or racial, just old and passé. These manifestos, however, did not use the persuasive argument and logic found in Thomas Paine’s pamphlets; they were single-page screeds. The fundamental and profound difference is that the Futurists were not dismissed as fringe lunatics; they were organized and systematic. They ventured out into public squares, plastered manifestos on walls, interrupted theater performances, and they created art. They owned a printing press, formed a political party, and they counted architects, inventors, journalists, musicians, painters and sculptors amongst them. They were grass-roots artists, not politicians, although none of the architects of Futurism was from a lower-class family. This fact is important.

Italy at the time was a relatively new nation, with a high illiteracy rate, mostly agrarian and poorly industrialized. In pop psychology terms, the nation lacked self-esteem. They had a glorious past for an artifact, but not much else, and Marinetti would exploit it. How the Futurists would influence future governments and their use of media is through their insight into crowd psychology. Marinetti, Mussolini, and Hitler had studied Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) and developed their own ideas from this book that explained group dynamics and, unfortunately, also propagated race theory. Marinetti would focus on the arts, Mussolini on the reification of Imperial Rome, symbolized by the bundle of sticks and axe, the fasces; and Hitler, on Germanic myth and folklore. All three men would spew out words full of xenophobic and racial prejudice.

The aesthetic of the Italian Futurists is pervasive in modern popular culture. We associate speed with progress, technology with affluence and social mobility, even superiority. The new is strong; the old is archaic, irrelevant. These are all Futurist values. Marinetti despised museums because he saw them as houses of the dead, as places of worship that kept people in thrall to Italy’s Renaissance. The city is Action; the countryside is Rest. Where Baudelaire the flâneur observed Ennui in Paris, Marinetti reveled in noise and pollution in Milan. Bronze and steel are modern; marble is old-fashioned. Aluminum was the metal of the Futurists. Tea is colonial and quaint. Coffee is liquid speed, clarity of thought, invigorating, and it isn’t just brewed; it is available on the stove top, ready when needed. Automatic. There is no better example of the Italian Futurist ideal than the Bialetti Moka Express, the twist-top brewer on the stove. There is hardly an Italian home without one. The next evolutionary step was the espresso machine that dribbles out potent coffee in seconds. Man in control of a sleek machine that provides instant access to power  — think of car adverts – is iconic Futurism.

Speed was both literal and metaphorical to the Futurists. The first cars ran on electricity and then on steam, not on gasoline, because it was a minority power source. Enrico Bernardi built a gas-fueled tricycle car in 1884. Giovanni Agnelli’s first car for Fiat was capable of speeds up to 22 mph in 1900. Italian automobiles would get faster and faster in the subsequent years. The so-called Italian Motor Valley, the area around Modena that is home to Ducati, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati, is in the Emilia-Romagna region, the birthplace of Futurist and later Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Coincidence? Marinetti wrote: “a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Marinetti would claim that Futurism was conceived from an automobile accident that he had had in 1908.

While the motion-picture industry was in its infancy, television in the far distance, the Futurist had the written word and radio. The early Twentieth Century saw a lot of experiments with language, but I find some interesting parallels between what the Futurists had to say about language and how writers today are told to write. Journalistic and telegraphic prose is clean, lean, and quick to the point. Hemingway would retire Henry James. Copy has that economy and speed that the Futurist found so endearing. Here is what Marinetti has to say about language:

We must destroy syntax by placing nouns at random as they are born.

We must abolish the adjective so that the naked noun can retain its essential color.

Writers are told today to eschew darling adverbs, to prune their prose of adjectives, and use active voice. Passive voice is verboten: it is flabby, weak; put another way, not active. Active voice is present, immediate, and vigorous; in other words, action. Think for a moment about all the implicit violence in this aesthetic. The past tense is relegated to back-story. Action, movement, spectacle leave little time for reflection, but we should exercise some caution about passivity, about the Italian Futurists’ impact on literature. I believe that their influence is far-reaching in visual media such as painting and sculpture. Film was a relatively new form. Reading a novel before the Twentieth Century was passive in that details slowed down the action (read plot), whereas post-Hemingway novels have become cinematic, where the reader is along for the ride and reflects afterwards. Then again the fascionable Aero Portrait of Benito Mussolini the Aviator (1933) was a sign of what was to come out of the cult of man, machine, and violence.

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Uncle Bill and the Dutchman

February 5, 2014 would have marked William S. Burroughs’s one-hundredth birthday.  Sadly, the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman overshadowed the centenary. Burroughs — famous Beat author, accidental murderer, expatriate, icon for Punk musicians, and an early pioneer of gay liberation — struggled with numerous addictions throughout his life. At the time of his death, at the age of 83 in 1997, he was on methadone, a substitute drug to mitigate heroin withdrawal. I will soon talk about a neglected Burroughs work that I think deserves greater attention.

The young, financially well-off Burroughs – his family had sold their rights to the Burroughs Adding Machine before the Stock Market Crash – who lived on a monthly allowance of $200, which was big money then, had attended Harvard, studied medicine in Vienna, and lived a hobo’s existence of dead-end jobs, until 1943 when he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The second pivotal movement of his life occurred on the night of September 6, 1951 in Mexico, when a party-trick turned fatal. Instead of an apple on her head, Joan Vollmer had balanced a water tumbler. Burroughs missed and shot his wife in the head. His heroin to her Benzedrine should have said that they were doomed from the start. WSB was convicted of manslaughter in absentia and given a two-year suspended sentence. Burroughs wrote in the introduction to his novel Queer (1953) “the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”

Write his way out of it he did, indeed, and with critical success. Naked Lunch (1959) put WSB on the map, so to speak, and the obscenity trial in its wake, which he and his publisher won, was the kind of publicity that secured a literary reputation. In Naked Lunch, a man teaches a bodily orifice to speak. The story starts out funny and raw, but quickly devolves into a nightmarish struggle between appetites and self-control; body over mind and the body wins. Novels about drugs and homosexuality were taboo in late-fifties America. Burroughs, at first a closeted gay man, lived in an era when homosexuality was considered a form of mental illness.

In 1969, Burroughs offered up to readers what I think is a neglected masterpiece: The Last Words of Dutch Schultz with had the intriguing subtitle “A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script.” No film was ever made, though. His kinky humor is there in the script and so is the nightmare, but earlier reviewers had missed one crucial fact: Burroughs had used the last words of the gangster Arthur “Dutch” Flegenheimer verbatim, a mere 2,000 of them, which police stenographers had captured at his bedside after he had been shot at the Palace Chophouse in Newark in October, 1935. The cops had hoped to learn who had shot Dutch and his three colleagues. Tough guy to the end, Dutch was no rat.

There is a famous photo of Dutch face down at his table, which would lead any viewer to conclude that he was dead. Wrong. Dutch was shot in the men’s room and, not wanting to die on a bathroom floor, staggered out to his table, sat down, and requested someone call him an ambulance. That someone was Schultz’s bodyguard, “Lulu” Rosencrantz, who was mortally wounded, and like a scene out of a black comedy, the big man gets up off of the floor, had staggered over to the barkeep, who was hiding under the counter, and demands change for a quarter so he can use the phone for an ambulance. Dutch had a brandy and tipped the medic $10,000 to get the best care. Dutch would die two days later.

Burroughs took the transcript and crafted a narrative from Dutch’s humorous, stream-of-consciousness ramblings and moments of lucidity. There are cracks about dogs and navy beans. Sure, WSB provides the back-story of the Dutchman’s rise from thug to Emperor of Beer Suds and the Harlem Numbers Racket. We get the deal-making, back-stabbing power-plays, the rogue’s gallery of criminals, including Bo Weinberg, whom E.L. Doctorow would depict ready for his one-way swim in concrete shoes in the opening pages of Billy Bathgate. One expects to hear a dying man’s non-sequiturs, the cliché of the ‘life flashing before one’s eyes,’ but WSB goes beyond that. Way beyond.

The script layout is in two columns. Burroughs imagines what the audience should see, with instructions to the cameraman in the left column while, in the right column are Dutch’s actual words, at least for the hospital scenes. The left side of the page becomes a running commentary, a call-and-response interaction with the dialog on the right. The reader really gets a glimpse of WSB’s extraordinary command of cinematography. He frames each scene with a painter’s eye for detail. The dying man’s words are what they are from the official transcript, but the genius is in how Burroughs plays the forensic writer who fabricates scenes in a logical yet illogical, coherent yet incoherent mélange of sights, sounds, and utterances.

WSB creates a memorable character named The Whisperer, who speaks without moving his lips; he uses a tape recorder and his voice sounds like Dutch’s. He is Kafka creepy, uncanny. The Whisperer can also speak backwards. He looks like a “grey, anonymous corpse.” It is as if WSB had created a Marvel Comics character, but has him emerge from a drug-induced vision.

Photographs of Dutch Schultz litter the pages, including the dead Dutchman, the German-Jew who died Catholic, sins expunged with Last Rites, the wife in the hallway, father to one son, and millions supposedly locked away in a water-proof safe in the Catskills. It is dark, disturbing, and very gothic in the way only Uncle Bill could write it.

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Social Media for Authors: Is it 1% S&M and 99% Graffiti?

Twitter has become, for most authors, one third of the Trinity in self-promotion. The other two members of the divine toolkit are blogging and Facebook. Tumblr lags in the background, although I did steal the idea of using Pinterest for my novels from Laurie King. I have my misgivings about social media for authors, and not because I am a techophobe.

There is not enough data that proves that any of the Big Three amounts to authorial success; in fact, it is total BS. Ewan Morrison, writing for The Guardian, has exploded each and every self-promotion myth and strategy. Though the focus of his piece is on self-published authors, the conclusion remains the same. Kathryn Schulz, taking Dante’s cue, has written her Secular Commedia and documented the addiction, exhibitionism, and other pitfalls of the electronic Inferno.

Rather than label social media as ‘self-promotion’ or ‘networking,’ I would call it The Scream to Existence – the sadomasochistic plaint of “I exist” not unlike urban graffiti except the art is on virtual walls. The scream is a broadcast through one of many public masks people wear because society denies the Self though it glorifies the Ego. Self-promotion is, after all, a side effect of ego glorification, inasmuch as success and money are modes of ego glorification. But you work with whatever tools you have on hand until something works, right? James Baldwin’s character Creole summed it up best with, “The only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Bleak and cynical, I know, but consider this: at small presses PR budgets are practically nonexistent, and the lack of marketing support from the Big Five publishers has made it incumbent upon authors to write their own success. Authors pine for discovery, to be read and loved, if not saved from the brimstone of obscurity. The logic behind social media is this: bloggers get ‘traction,’ and tweets get ‘RT’ (retweeted) or ‘Favorited,’ while Facebook gets ‘Likes’ and ‘Views,’ all of which adds up to the fuzzy algorithm of ‘word of mouth’ and ‘visibility.’ The truth is that marketing is more paradoxical: authors become successful through what is known as bootstrapping, a process by which an author sells his or her books, which is a far more mystical process than social media. The only analogy that I can think of to extend Creole’s words is that the author is lighting a match in the dark, knowing he or she has only so many matches. All one can do is keep trying.

Social media is hip and addictive, all shiny in latex, but I must be old school because: 1) I am a very private person; and 2) I had teachers beat it into me not to use the first-person subject pronoun in any species of writing because it is egotistical, bad form, unless it is for emphatic communication…and never, ever start a sentence with a conjunction, or end one with a preposition; but ironically, I type so much now that to use a pen to write and sign my name or scrawl a simple sentence is an Olympic event in fine-motor-skills. The point is this: ‘self promotion’ is anathema to me and the impersonal seems more natural to me, and if and when I use ‘I’ it is a deliberate narrative decision. In short: I prefer to write, leave the Me out of the equation, and tell the story. Back to flogging the topic…

Every day I see people tweeting, thumbing, and Facebooking their way to Starbucks, on and off the subway, wading and wending through traffic on sidewalks, oblivious to all sentient beings in their path. There is a cost to this narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior. In September 2013, a man was shot and killed on a train because nobody had bothered to notice the shooter brandishing his weapon; they were too preoccupied with their smartphones. It is as if technology allows us to communicate with others in the Twittverse, but our collective ignorance fails to save one life. We are so connected, yet disconnected.

Blogging is not so expeditious as a tweet or a Facebook update because it requires some solitude behind a desk, needs some neurological transaction between brain and keyboard, but never more than 1,000 words of content because attention spans have decreased. The mouse finger itches to click elsewhere. In all fairness, there are some incredibly informative blogs out there. Technology, however, is never what it seems.

Once upon a time inventions glowed with the promise of saving users from drudgery, often mechanical and repetitive acts. Technology automates processes. A vacuum cleaner replaced the broom. Electricity replaced unsafe kerosene lamps. Antibiotics eradicated illnesses. Blogging, Facebook, and Twitter do not automate anything; they are sociological documents, no different than a diary without the clasp lock. Social media is show-and-tell, point and click: informative and helpful at best, banal and childish at worst.

Inventions generated leisure, that trouble-free time once the province of the über-rich. But is technology free, or liberating? Reading Elizabeth Bennet in the context of leisure time there is a possible subtext about maintaining power, about social distinction; that is the real Pride and Prejudice. The Bennets, who are landed gentry, sipped tea, read leather-bound volumes in their library, but their anxiety was about ‘alliances,’ about maintaining their social status and their wealth in perpetuity. Social media is faux status without the material wealth. Generations later we sip lattes, read paperbacks, and worry about our own ‘reach.’ We are intolerant of ‘down time.’ The democratization of technology has made it nearly possible for everyone to own a hand-held device, yet the anxiety is there to belong to a ‘community’ and have a ‘brand.’ In the past, an author’s ‘brand’ was his or her ‘voice,’ or ‘themes.’

Without getting all Marshall McLuhan about media, visual technology was intended to be an educational tool, to reach people across space and time, but radio and television haven’t quite worked out that way. Sci-fi writers have written reams about machines acquiring consciousness, about the dangers of technology replacing the human being. For all the optimism in technology, we have neither kept up with the Joneses nor lived like the Jetsons. Television is the 24/7 sales pitch and it’s all about ‘market-share.’ Viewers are consumers and we can multitask, too; in viewing multimedia, we suspend fiction between the commercial breaks that are our lives. In the 24/7 worlds of interactive social media, our lives are fictions.

The seduction of technology has that siren call of numerous choices, which shouldn’t be a bad thing, but it is if there is no discernment. Nobody likes to use the word ‘discrimination’ because of its racial connotations, but discrimination in this context is a good thing, although such discernment depends on an educational process, and individuals’ unique development, informed by their cultural and personal values. This presumes that education has engendered critical thinking and not mindless conformity. We want ‘it’ now and without any preface. It is throw the spear and run, or click that mouse and close out. Technology may have hacked into nucleus accumbens, our center in the brain for instant gratification. People might say, to each his or her own social media.

Twitter appeals to writers because of its textual constraints — only 140 characters, including #hashtags and @callouts. Twitter is a glorified IM, a way of chatting with family members and like-minded folks; it is tribal and hierarchical in that it has leaders (Twitterati) and followers. ‘Conversations’ are threads. Twitter has a lot more chatter – what Henry James would call “the mere twaddle of graciousness” – and yet it is a serious forum for news and scientific research all over the Web. This last point is ironic since geeks created HTML and communication protocols to share their scientific research. It does say a lot about news outlets when people go to Twitter or Reddit for their news first.

Facebook is different in that it is a web of interrelated connections, a gated community. There are Timelines. If Facebook is the high-school mixed-tape and intercepted note in class, then Twitter is the grade-school spitball. Zuckerberg started out with a class directory, with very limited membership at first, before he transformed it into a worldwide forum, rebranded as a ‘social network.’ A ‘brand’ is no longer a mark of property but an autonomous property itself. Caveat lector: ‘Brand’ is personal or corporate, or both.

Then there is the issue of Big Brother. There is a scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally in which Harry Burns comes on to Sally Albright. She orders him to ‘take it back,’ and he says that he can’t ‘because it’s already out there.’ Anything and everything done on computers and mobile devices is ‘already out there’ for Eternity. People with Facebook pages who have died don’t have their pages terminated; they are memorialized. Troll comments, wherever they appear, are immortalized. Anonymity behind keyboards and screens has fattened the Snarks. Linkedin – the worker’s forum — provides profiles for HR, recruiters, and identity thieves. User Agreements for all social-media outlets collect personal data for marketing analytics. Memes are today’s slang and tomorrow’s outdated expression. Twitter became the vector for Franzenfreude. Call it concision or literary accomplishment to craft a viral tweet, but the worrisome ethics of privacy, snooping and Big Data storage are real. Hemingway invented telegraphic prose in response to Henry James’s florid style, and Snowden has reminded us that somebody is watching us, taking notes.

Legend has it that Steve Jobs, inspired by the Olivetti Company, had driven his staff bonkers with his quest for purity and simplicity in UI design. The story goes that when his design team had come out of the lab, toy in hand for their leader, he took the new-fangled iPad and handed it to an African child and, without any prompting, waited to see whether the kid could intuit how to work the device. The Jobesian ‘paradigm shift’ was unleashed and it was truly Hobbesian. The technology that Jobs usurped was the difference between thumbs and the other fingers. Hand-held devices, up to that point, had been all poke and prod, with the thumb as the key determinant. He reduced energy inefficiency and replaced it with one-finger slides across a screen.

Apocryphal or not — the image of the tall Steve Jobs, in his trademark khaki slacks and black turtleneck, handing an African child an iPad, is Conradian and surreal. Africa needs medications and clean drinking water before it needs Apples. If the thumb and 1% of DNA are what separate us from other primates, then what other senses and forms of awareness will we surrender to turn the next doorknob? The revolution might be televised, but everybody will be too distracted to understand the cost or know the perpetrators. Winston Smith, who thought he was invisible, might hear the knock on his door. Social media is possibly the ultimate community, or it is Manifest Destiny, natural selection, and self-incrimination all wrapped in a pleasant shade of blue.

There is no safe word.

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