Mother Land: A Review for Mothers Day

Stephen King reviews Paul Theroux’s new novel, Mother Land at the New York Times this week (PeaceCorpsWorldwide brought it to my attention).

King gives voice to the love-hate relationship so many readers have with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, novelist and travel writer, whose prolific career spans nearly six decades and whose vicious pen reaches the furthest places on the globe—including home.

“All self-educated readers (that would be most of us) have holes in our curriculum vitae, and I’m no different. I’ve read Dickens and Tolstoy but not Austen; most of Faulkner but little of Hemingway (and regretted what I did); all of Philip Roth, but none of Saul Bellow. Paul Theroux was one of my holes, a prolific writer I had always meant to get around to. Now that I have, I’m not exactly sorry, but I’m certainly gobsmacked, and although I knew next to nothing about Theroux’s life, by the time I’d read the first 100 or so pages of “Mother Land,” I began to suspect that what I was reading was not so much a novel as a kind of masked autobiography.”

Why the love-hate relationship? One answer here: Crossing Paths with Paul Theroux.

Let Us Not Be Quiet

Revisiting Remarque before peace eludes

My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is a tattered thing. The cover, already coming apart in brittle pieces, fell off entirely as I read. It was appropriate to the fate of narrator Paul Baumer to see that cover come away.

It is the father of all modern war writing (though it disdains fathers).

It gives us the Lost Generation in its rawest form. It came out about the same time as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Remarque seems to have tapped the same narrative vein as Hemingway. Is it the standard voice of those who witnessed firsthand the horrors of WWI; or is it the standard voice of all warrior-writers? Mailer, Heller, Tim O’Brien, Kevin Powers write with the same wry tension when they write of the Second World War, Vietnam, the most recent war in Iraq.

Heller is far windier than the others, so it surprises me to think that so much of Catch-22‘s invective can be found in Remarque. It is invective born of rage at the military as an institution, at institutional blindness writ-large.

Remarque’s first big battle comes in Chapter 4. The next big battle—bigger than the first—is recounted in Chapter 6. In between, the reader is introduced to Corporal Himmelstoss, the squad’s chief tormenter, and it’s no mistake the chapter opens with the difficulty of crushing lice. Killing each separate louse is a tedious business when a man has hundreds. The little beasts are hard and the everlasting cracking with one’s fingernails very soon becomes wearisome.

Thereafter Himmelstoss, chief military louse, makes his appearance. He taunts the squad about responding to his authority. But Himmelstoss is a man from camp and his authority is viewed as vapid. “Stand up there, bring your heels together when your superior officer speaks to you,” Himmelstoss orders Tjaden. The soldier waves him off. “You take a run and jump at yourself, Himmelstoss.” Himmelstoss is a raging book of army regulations. The Kaiser couldn’t be more insulted.

The only peace that comes of this exchange is that the command comes down light on Tjaden and gives him open arrest. Baumer and Kat sneak off, pillage a goose, and bring him the roasted meat. Himmelstoss is soon crushed like a louse, shown for the coward he is during the great battle that rages next.

Remarque aims his barbs at the military’s institutional rigidity and ignorance time and again. On home leave Baumer fails to salute an old major and is forced to practice the protocol. It enrages him. What does the major know of sacrifice? The military hands out new uniforms in time for the Kaiser’s inspection—then collects them again when its over. The military sends fresh recruits with no training, and two companies are mown down by a single airman. What do they know of cover?

My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is in tatters. It is well read. It is a well-read copy with lines like these underlined: There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly… They ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress—to the future… While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.

As I read All Quiet on the Western Front these past two days Remarque’s strong prose consumed me entirely. The story is timeless. So many have read this book, yet still our current leadership would tear down the very institutions dedicated to preventing similar stories from being re-lived—the State Department, USAID, the Peace Corps—to build up a store of arms and creative means for killing our fellow man.

How has a book so well-read managed to be so poorly taken into account?

Love and Protest

Amy’s Story by Anna Lawton sets a tempestuous romance against the turbulent half-century of global change that erupted in the 1960s and flowed across the land like a modern Great Flood. The novel plants the seeds of these decades in the post-World War One migration from Europe to the United States and reveals the newest fruits—poison to some, nectar to others—in the closing pages. The private romance and the public turmoil work together to create a story as much about love as it is about progress, about aspiration and success as about longing and loss.

A third conflict, the subtle struggle between the adventurous Amy and childhood friend Stella (with whom she shares a surprising connection) can be summed up in a line: ‘She tried to pull me back and make me think before jumping into action, although my instinct often prevailed.’

At every level the book addresses the question, ‘Where are you from?’ And the structure suggests there is no true answer without first understanding the history that brings you there.

The protagonist arrives in L.A. from Turin as the lover of a charming, if arrogant, Fulbright scholar. Jim is writing an industry-shattering book about Italian film’s influence on Hollywood, an anti-establishment work that will keep him struggling for years to win his place at the table. The pair struggle together; they’re a team; and their struggle occurs at a time when baby boomers around the world are struggling to upend the status quo.

We know the reasons: the war in Vietnam; political assassinations; craven and unstable American leadership; beats and hippies and drugs and music; the push for racial and gender equality. A trip to Mexico during these years reveals the nightmare women endured in the years before Roe v. Wade, a stunning description of the harrowing limits being pushed in the struggle to maintain control over a woman’s own body.

But as her mentor makes plain, not all protestors understand exactly what or why they protest. ‘These kids fill up their mouths with words such as Marxism, Communism, class struggle, revolution, but they don’t even know their true meaning. They lack historical knowledge, never went to the roots.’

The roots he refers to are the ideas from Europe that stitched themselves into the fabric of the American Constitution. And his lesson carries an eerie foretaste of the conformity and demagoguery that duped 46.1% of voting Americans last fall: ‘The ‘mass’… this is one of the favorite words in Marxist parlance because the mass can be easily manipulated. All you need is a charismatic leader, a simplistic doctrine, smart images on posters and banners, and…. A new dogma is born, an absolute truth, and all genuflect to it.’

Continue reading Love and Protest

Miles of Fun, Miles of Files

Paul Panepinto is bored at work. How could he not be? He’s a painter trapped by lapsed policies, cold chocolate in a Federal Funding mug, and long stints of muzak while on hold with Mortgage Depot. Also there are his smarmy daydreams of ‘better times’ with Suzanne Biedertyme to get him through the monotony.

Panepinto works in insurance.

As with most of the office hacks in Michael J. Sahno’s Miles of Files, Panepinto’s silver lining is that he works for not just any insurance company, but for Flambet Insurance. As the name suggests, the place is about to go up in flames.

Enter Graham Woodcock, the British second-in-command to Flambet’s witless heir, James. Woodcock’s embezzling from the company IRA through the phony accounts of non-existent employees Dolores Buenas and Philip Banks.

When Panepinto stumbles across the accounts with a few errant keystrokes, the novel’s central thread is set. Miles of Files is on its way to being a literary PI story focused more on the innocent and the victimized than on the PI or the crook.

Continue reading Miles of Fun, Miles of Files

Murder and the Father of American Diplomacy

We all know Ben Franklin as one of the nation’s earliest Renaissance Men: scientist, printer, writer, businessman, scholar, politician, diplomat. Fireman. In David R. Andresen’s short mystery Murder in a Blue Moon Ben takes a break from his more gentlemanly pursuits, such as chess, to solve a serial murder in Philadelphia.

It’s fall of 1752, the American Experiment still a quarter century from Independence. Constable Geoffrey Hunter turns to his friend over glasses of Madeira to mull the facts of a case involving prostitutes with broken necks and surprised looks on their faces.

The short mystery develops quickly, clues tying the mystery together sparse, the time between each murder so great they go undetected for nearly a decade. The narrative style befits the times. We take our modern P.I. and dial the voice back to the 18th Century. Andresen succeeds at doing this without slowing the yarn or making it stumble:

I’m not known for being a quiet man, but much of my work required discretion and the rest was so much a simple litany of common greed, sin, and sheer folly that I found it best to spare him and me the despair and disgust so many of my duties as Constable entailed.

When our good Constable does unburden his heart of the details of his case,  it requires the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac to put this puzzle together.

An imaginative slice of early American life that’s a tad more lurid than average, Murder in a Blue Moon is a quick, entertaining read.

D. W. Hitman

Warning: the reading police, disguised as the media, have infiltrated the State Department.

Based on a stroll through the Harry Truman building cafeteria, one journalist for The Atlantic pretends to understand our present condition: “As the staffer and I walked among the tables and chairs, people with badges chatted over coffee; one was reading his Kindle.”

Forgive me for not pausing to gasp at the news.

Federal workers everywhere hang badges, like nooses, around their necks. Continue reading D. W. Hitman

From Blogs to Books

answer-coming-soonI surprised a colleague yesterday with the news that his book would be published today. Ironically the title of the work is Answer Coming Soon.

The author, Dan Whitman, believes his books should be left behind on commercial airlines for the next passenger to come along and read. That humble disposition toward his work is exactly what makes his prose so engaging.

I know this because I’m in the middle of his previous release, Blaming No One: Blog Postings on Arts, Letters, Policy. Each of his essays—they are more than blog posts, frankly, such a nasty phrase—is perched on a distinct moment in time and accented by light swats at the folly of man. Except where a heavier blow will do. Continue reading From Blogs to Books

Crook v Crook v Crooked Cop

nothingHardboiled noir fans: Bob Truluck delivers a lot more than promised in The Big Nothing. That’s no backhanded compliment.

The promise includes a vicious series of showdowns, a coterie of sadists and pervs, and a few well-intentioned rubes caught up in a game bigger than the pile they’re after.

The cast of criminals and dirty cops range from two common thieves of dubious mutual allegiance to a pair of sophisticated professionals with international pedigree and wild libidos. There’s the shifty lawyer and his boy-toy lover who play-act sex games of Russian Kapow, and a mothballed old crook bringing up the rear with his neophyte hacker.

Middle of them all is the sad-sack FBI gumshoe and his mysterious handler, who may or may not be running the game: ‘Milky wasn’t even sure what the guy was, if he was armed services, Special Forces, DEA, Secret Service or a fucking spook. Milky’d been led to believe the latter, but found out if you called the CIA joint in Virginia they’d say they didn’t know anyone by that name.’ Continue reading Crook v Crook v Crooked Cop

Writing Prompts, Spellcheck, and Academic Advice

51mb7-k9ztl-_sx331_bo1204203200_There are many, many reasons not to read Flash Fiction Funny while riding public transportation. The first and perhaps best reason is Taylor Mali’s The the Impotence of Proofreading, which will leave you bent over double and wheezing for breath, the workaday passengers all around contemplating the emergency brake at the back of the train.

In examining the pros and cons—mostly the cons—of relying on spell-check, Mali’s story reminds readers that ‘It only does what you tell it to douche. You’re the one with your hand on the mouth going clit, clit, clit. It just goes to show you how embargo one careless clit of the mouth can be.’ Continue reading Writing Prompts, Spellcheck, and Academic Advice

When the Music Is the Trip

journeySpeed-reading fans will rejoice in Ted Prokash’s latest gift to literature, Journey to the Center of the Dream.

Pills, beer, and blow fuel this fast-paced account of a rock band’s tour of 30 cities in five weeks, but even more than the chemical enhancements and a whole lot of weed besides, this epic road trip book thrives on the narrator’s rage: rage at complacency and artlessness, at the general dearth of vision in America, at the plight of artists and the absence of passion and respect for those madmen among us who dare to live their dreams.

In that, the book transcends its debauchery and elevates the whole enterprise to the level of euphoria.

The narrative zips, a trim account of Marlow, Leo, Dante, and Dessy bringing Black Darkness into the bars and basements and empty art spaces of America, small venues that sometimes conjure exactly zero fans. They plug in and strap on anyway, because that’s what you do when the music is the trip.

The pace is a testament to Prokash’s narrative control. One can only imagine the buzz saw it would take to trim the fat off the recollections of an addled mind, jotting notes god-knows-how in the back of a crowded van or while flopping for weeks to sleep on floors and sofas and soiled mattresses in places the like flood-damaged squatter homes of New Orleans. And after grinding off hunks, he appears to have worked with a precision scalpel. So while the principal concern is with the art and artlessness of modern times, the corners into which the music scene has been driven with indignity, Journey is itself a testament to the art of writing, the craft of prose, the channeling of human energy and spirit into a precise tale that informs, entertains, bewilders, inspires, angers, thrills, and so much more.

Part of this joy is in imagining for oneself what sounds Black Darkness conjures in the night. While his rendering of the bands and barkeeps, show promoters and rock devotees, drop-outs, drag-queens, drug abusers, artists, queers and even a few churchgoers in between capture the world he’s running in, Prokash spares few words on the music. His sets are summed up neatly: “We filled that big, empty room with the mournful sound of our souls’ lament” (Baltimore); “‘One, two, three, four…’ The little space exploded in sound and the four of us were engulfed” (Middletown); “We played our shit real cocksure and loose” (NYC); “Black Darkness played to nobody. We played purely for our own glorious gratification. Which isn’t all bad. A good, loud sonic blast will knock the cobwebs out the soul, anyway” (Olympia).

The expression “Living the dream”—usually uttered in grim acquiescence to its irony—seems to have gained a broad fraternity of users in my workaday world. But now these colleagues and others unable to break away from their timecard lives, who can’t for themselves live a bit of the dream, can soak it up here. A modern-day revision of On the Road and Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestJourney calls to mind so many accounts of artists turning vision into reality.

Maybe it all sounded like this.

Slightly more is revealed in this longer review.