Monday, November 23, 2015

Not Good-Bye, But See You Later: Remembering the Jon Carroll Column


I washed out of a bus onto the streets of San Francisco in the late May 1982, a quasi-Boho, faux-hippie stoner with an anxious, teeming brain, fleeing the Midwest to nowhere, drawn by obligation, not desire.

I started out living in the Tenderloin, first at the YMCA, then at the former Will Rogers Hotel on Post and Taylor.

Later, I found a small room in an apartment at 25th and Bryant in the Mission, for ninety dollars a month. That room alone probably goes for nine hundred now I’d bet.

I read the San Francisco Chronicle of course, acquainted myself with its team of veteran columnists, by then all lifted by time to their upper years, echoes from as far back as the 1930s—Citizen Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Stanton Delaplane, and Charles McCabe. I didn’t know it then, but they were quite a team.

I mention McCabe last, not because he was more important than Caen, but because he is the more crucial link in this story.

This is because one day, as I recall, McCabe fell down some steps and broke his leg.


There is, I’d think, only so much even the most productive writer can do with his leg encrusted in plaster. With McCabe on the sidelines, laid up, out of the action, pining for the fjords, the Chronicle gave a member of the “hip new generation” a seat at the table with the grizzled veterans.

Everyone assumed Mr. McCabe would return to his post, but it didn’t work out that way. He passed the following year. And then, for the next thirty years, we had the Jon Carroll Column.

The first Jon Carroll Column I recall was a mock memoir about Lenin. (That’s LENIN—L-E-N-I-N. No no, not the one who played in the band, fer chrissakes! That’s—oh, never mind!)

I don’t recall the columnar details, but I chortled and laughed, my brain stem lit by the bright splash of whimsy, obviously written under the influence of S.J. Perelman, Monty Python and other conjurers of cheery nonsense and daft impudence.

Beaming, I showed this Jon Carroll column to one of my roommates, a man of some humor himself.

“Look!” I cried. “Funny humor!”

“Satirists!” he spat, indignant and aburst with pious outrage. “I hate them! They should be banned! Thrown in jail! March them to the salt mines!”

The man, as I was reminded, was a fundamentalist Communist. The Lenin under satiric fire was a sacred figure to him, a god. (Not for the first time had I offended someone with humor. My heels are crusted with the blood of dozens, hundreds, of wounded souls—chin-up patriots and pacifist vegans, jihadists and atheists alike. Yeah, I went too far on occasion. And likely I will again, God forgive--)

[No, not the band that did “My Sharona!” Please pay attention!]


I read the Jon Carroll Column for almost thirty years and missed but a few. I delighted in the offhand mention of a favorite character actor in a garden column about villainous weeds; a tribute to Monty Python involving a man with a bomb. And those darn cats, who became a substitute for an ailurophile who seldom had any of his own. I played with the cats in the Jon Carroll Column.

I also recall an odd fact he mentioned: No matter how much we may love a particular column, Jon Carroll may not have the slightest memory of writing it.

I occasionally wrote to him in my own (unmarketable) voice of nonsense. After he turned me on to the Golden Age of Mystery author Michael Innes, I penned a mock tribute to his Powers of Influence: “I am a Creature of the Media!” I declaimed. “When Jon Carroll says we should all start smoking, I run out for a carton of Marlboros! And why not? Jon Carroll told me to!”)

In response to a column about names and how we live with them, I told my story about how I evolved from my birth name to the one I own now. Imagine my surprise when, days later, he tucked my birth name into the pull quote on the side, indicating he would pursue that topic later. But, as often happens in this column biz, the idea was run over by other, more urgent notions.

One day, I found an issue of Playboy I’d purchased years before for a refracted profile of Thomas Pynchon. A few pages away, I found a profile of Dick Clark . . . penned by Jon Carroll. It was both funny and made Mr. Clark seem a genuinely likeable fellow (whereas Mr. Pynchon remained elusive). I learned there had been a world before the Jon Carroll Column.

We met once during the late 1990s, at one of his popular workshops on column writing (via the Learning Annex). He suggested we start our own e-mail columns, as a door into the news business. I was still bright-eyed and naïve then and I imagine many others of us followed this good advice.

Afterward, he signed my copy of Near Life Experiences, his collection of his columns. He knew well who I was, expressed genuine delight that I had come, praised my work. He also enjoyed several of my subsequent e-mail essays, especially an adventure in which my comic avatar wrecked both our chances at captaining the helm of The New Yorker.

But success eluded me. Even Jon Carroll didn’t know what vast changes awaited, how fast and hard those doors would close.

Jon Carroll had a great arm, threw a lot of different pitches. Like mine, his interests covered the world. He was good funny, he was good serious and so he rarely tired. Nor did he change much, even as the world he wrote from, the platform from which he declaimed, changed radically under and around us all.

Those changes changed our relationship. The “analog” Chronicle dwindled along with newsstands (I never subscribed, always kept myself in quarters) and migrated online. I read the Jon Carroll Column for free—pinched by guilt--for a few years. Then the Chron erected the pay wall around Jon Carroll (and also Leah Garchik, another frequent correspondent who dropped my name into her column a few times.)

I made no attempt to cross that moat. I was sinking back into mild poverty then, where I still remain. (Ironically, while I was drifting away, I moved to the East Bay and then into Oakland, not far from Jon Carroll’s garden domicile: The farther you get, the closer you are.) I contented myself with occasional free Facebook postings. Occasionally, I’d mutter I’d get an online Chronicle subscription as soon as my econometrics improved. But they haven’t.

Another consequence of procrastination. And another consequence of the Internet.


The Internet has perfected the craft of nickeling and diming us to death. Its tentacles have choked off many a business, especially the business of writing. On the Internet, “freedom” only means getting stuff for free and that means a lot of people, talented people, working for nothing.

I don’t blame the Chronicle, or The New York Times, The Daily Racing Form or The New Yorker (which I do cling to) for erecting paywalls. Not one bit. Writers have to be paid, not to mention the hard-working teams that get them published. Good anything should cost money. So when you start grumbling about my misplaced commas, wrong spellings, and general errors of fact, remember YOU’RE GETTING THIS FOR FREE! And what’s more--

Wha--no, he wasn’t one of the guys who sang “Girl You Know It’s True!”


The Jon Carroll Column could shake me out of my deepest doldrums. It could inspire me when my writing was no better than a subprime nursery reader. Pure humor, the well-turned joke for the sake of mischief, seems out of fashion, at least in prose. But Jon Carroll kept the practice going. Jack Handey, John Hodgman and the spotty “Shouts and Murmurs” corner of the New Yorker seem the only magicians remaining. I’ve mostly withdrawn from this most tiny field.

As of last Friday, the Columnist Jon Carroll has retired now to become the . . . Writing Something Else Jon Carroll, for life and work do not, and should not, end with professional retirement (I’m a strict retirement atheist. Even if I were trumped up with wealth, I’d prefer a job in a shoe store to slow absorption by my couch.)

Jon Carroll recently stated on Facebook that he had much prose left in him and would continue in another fashion.

That’s a cheery thought. There are times when I need good laugh, more than anything. There may be no more Jon Carroll Columns but Jon Carroll will be around to deliver.

This I know! Because Jon Carroll told me so!

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Carter Cartel

I oughta have my head examined.

Through no design on my part, I wound up reading two of the toughest, grimmest, most violent novels of the year in tandem. It was like running a bloody gauntlet between Taxi Driver and The Wild Bunch over two weeks of late nights in my reading chair. Toward the end, my nerves were so splintered, I added some light theology to plane away the righness.

One of these novels was written and set years ago. The other was written and set in the present. One was violent.  The other, mega-violent. They were Get Carter, by Ted Lewis, and The Cartel, by Don Winslow. (The oblique rhyme of the titles is also noted.)

Get Carter was my annual trip back in time (or “Cloudland Revisited” as S.J. Perelman might call it.). I first read Ted Lewis' Brit-noir as a Popular Library paperback tie-in to the Michael Caine-Mike Hodges classic crime film of 1970 (available on video; it also occasionally peers darkly from the vaults of Turner Classics). Originally titled Jack’s Return Home, it seemed daring to this male high schooler in content and style, a violent tale spun in the first-person by a vile, reprehensible character.


Get Carter is a Jacobean revenge story—but not a tragedy—of a small-time London gangster, Jack Carter, on a trip home to Yorkshire to bury his late brother, Frank, and dig up the mucky truth surrounding his mysterious death. To complicate the matter, Jack and Frank, who was a square-living bloke, have been bitterly estranged for years. As with Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer, Carter and his brother had little use for each other. But it doesn’t matter what you think of your brother: When he’s killed, you gotta  do something about it.

Forty years on, Get Carter still hits hard, an tightly muscled bulldog that bites with prose as gimlet-eyed as Hammett's.  This time around, I noticed how vividly Lewis paints its particular corner, the late 1960s underworld of industrial England, a coal-smoked world where cosier mysteries dare not tread. The swinging ‘60s swing far out of sight; a place that stands apart from its era, a world trapped in the seedy amber of postwar England.

Both the novel, and the film it inspired, were shocking then. They still are. They came out during a time when criminality was glorified in popular culture as rebellious, romantic, even noble (Butch Cassidy, The Godfather and the like).  Get Carter, both novel and film, will have none of that. Crime doesn’t pay, period. While there is plenty of pathos, not a speck of glamour gleams anywhere, especially in its depiction of how women fare in the underworld. (Not good. At all.)

Gentler readers will not want to enter. But for the rest, Get Carter remains a first-rate icon of modern crime fiction.

Now to the violent novel . . . .

Get Carter draws much of its its power from a combination of real-life backgrounds and well-contrived plotting. The Cartel by Don Winslow, is ripped and torn right from the headlines. Based closely on the Mexican Drug War that raged during the first decade of 2000s, just across our southern border, this is a righteously angry novel that takes aim at this “War on Drugs” with both hammer and blunderbuss.

And a war it truly is. Norte Americanos may talk a good war game, but the Mexican people are actually living it. Tens of thousands have died in what, in any other nation, would be called a civil war. The violence, depravity, and horror from this war crash from The Cartel’s six-hundred plus pages in towering waves of carnage.

The main hero is Art Keller, an ex-DEA agent who, in George Smiley fashion, returns from bee-keeping retirement to track down his arch-nemesis Adan Becerra, the most powerful drug lord in Mexico. Becerra, in turn, has put a high price on Keller’s head.

Early on, the story takes a turn into de Sadean fairyland as Magda Beltran, imprisoned for smuggling, falls under the spell of fellow prisoner—and real prison boss--Becerra, who runs the co-ed penitentiary with the same fatal aplomb Dracula uses to run his castle. His powers seem to border on the supernatural.

This cat and mouse also involves numerous rival cartels battling to control the drug pipelines to the United States. In that it's as complex as a Le Carré novel. But beyond the intrigue, the violence and cruelty boil over into vicious, pointless insanity. Murder becomes a drug, an addiction that claims boys as young as nine. The situation becomes so desperate, Keller and his tiny band of untouchables go far outside the law to put a dent in it (a development that will make strict civil libertarians uncomfortable.)

In the end, dents are all that are made. The carnage has subsided for now but the Cartel remains in business. The war goes on. So long as Norte Americanos fail to come up with any useful ways for controlling demand, there’s simply too much money to be made off human weakness. Not only by the cartels, but also the politicians, businesses, the military, and law enforcement. Everyone, it seems, works for the Cartel.

There are other heroes besides Keller. He crosses paths with Mexican journalists struggling to expose and condemn the war, at enormous personal risk. (The novel’s dedication lists over sixty journalists who have been murdered while covering the war.).  Keller also finds himself involved with the activists striving to help the civilians caught in the insane crossfire. The novel is a genuinely angry, and deserved, memorial to them.

The Cartel is a hard read, a novel I admire more than like. It's a soapbox novel, howling with rage at the top of its lungs.  The violence, while relentless, is described with hard-boiled restraint. Still even hardboiled veterans may find it a numbing experience.

I also found it a little thin and hollow, maybe because it’s too much ripped from the headlines. During the course of its bloody pages, I researched some of the events it’s based on (including an excellent Frontline documentary). The factual accounts seemed to have more depth and urgency to them. (A list of sources used by Winslow appears at the end.)

“History,” a friend of mine once insisted, “is better than fiction.” The Cartel may serve as an example how even well-meant fiction can wind up a carbon copy of the events it rightfully strives to memorialize.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.