Monday, December 21, 2009

The Generic Year-End Book Review And A Christmas Note

Because everyone else does this and I’m as much a conformist as anyone—put a single malt in my hand, point me to the nearest cliff and I’ll run faster than any lemming in town—I’ll share my literary cultural highlights of this typically distressing year in this fantastically weird decade where "I Like IKE” somehow passed for useful wisdom.

As I reached the end of 2009, my judgment that Shoot the Piano Player, David Goodis’s emotional and bleak tale of a hard-luck piano player, finely and sincerely told, was the best book I’d read all year.

But wouldn’t you know it? The great Russian magician himself Vladimir Nabokov (Na-BOE-kof) slipped a last card into the TBR deck at the last moment with his great and magical tragicomedy Laughter in the Dark.

Told like a classic fairytale in a deceptively light-footed cadences, this stunning light-footed 1939 novel (Nabokov translated himself) relates the downward spiral of a stuffy bourgeois art critic whose obsession with a lovely (but untalented, callow and cruel) nineteen-year-old actress unravels his tidy consciousness and dull, but happy life. Nabokov would revisit this plot again in Lolita, but readers who may find that novel too dense an experience (not me) will find a fast moving, ecstatically written and suspenseful tale where never a word is put wrong (and wait ‘til you meet arch-villain Rex). I find the idea of novels centered around matrimonial cheating to be dull, but this is one novel I want to throw into everybody’s lap. Take my word: you will be entertained.

Another book that made me smile during the year was another early Nabokov work, his novella The Eye which first appeared in English in Playboy magazine in 1966. This wry spin of gamesmanship featuring another of Nabokov’s toxified romantics who thinks he’s committed suicide and become a ghost (Nothing to say on The Invention of Laura, which quietly awaits my eyes, but I sense it’s of more value to Nabokov scholars and bibliophiles than general readers).

Moving on: Peter Straub and Borderlands Press dished up a disturbing appetizer to Straub’s upcoming novel A Dark Matter in the form of the novella A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter. As with many books I read, this is one of these things not for the sensitive among you,. Straub has taken a more stringent, spare approach to his prose in his recent novels and its works extremely well. The spareness makes this tale of young serial killer’s tutelage by a peripatetic uncle all the more upsetting and appalling, as it should be.

In a more historic-realist vein, Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer thrillingly dispensed with the notion that the Polish people failed to put up much of a resistance to the Nazi invasion of their country. It also made me wish I’d been hip to Furst’s work when it started appearing the late 1980s.

Loren D. Estleman pleased me for the fourth time in a row with another of his western tales The Wolfer. Published in 1978, it tells the story of a professional wolf hunter set against one of the great environmental disasters of the wild west—the near extinction of the timber wolf. With the passing in 2008 of Donald Westlake and the emptying out of the mid-list writers market (leaving nothing but God damned fucking juvenile YA zombie-vampire mashups--[Hey! Save it for the Ramsay Campbell discussion board!—Ed.]), Estleman seems to be one of the last practitioners of serious, finely-honed genre writing, a population I fear is fast-dwindling. I hope I'm wrong.

My favorite “new” writer of 2009 was David Corbett. The former private investigator published his first novel The Devil’s Redhead in 2002 and, I’m embarrassed to say, I only read it a few months ago. I promise to try to be timely when his Do They Know I’m Running? Comes out next year.

Another new old writer discovery was British author Nicolas Freeling whose entertaining, observant and nicely-titled 1966 mystery Because of the Cats this ailurophile came across in an obscure Berkeley used bookstore. Set in 1960s Amsterdam, it features a wry and world-weary Dutch detective and a nasty twist on Oliver Twist.

The Unique Novel of the Year award must go, however, to Motels of Burning Madness by a stage hypnotist named John-Ivan Palmer, who, if jacket copy veracity is to be trusted, personally researched this raunchy, wacky tale of a hapless, bone-headed, professional male stripper and his cross-country, cross-dressing journey through the grimy fringes of American show-biz society (I’ll undress—address--this entertaining, raunchy but good-hearted work at greater length in an upcoming piece.)


I like Christmas. Like Faith and Unbelief in their purest, most demanding forms, there’s no defense for this position in either science or law.

The reasons why I love Christmas I won’t discuss now, but I’ll note that for most Americans the holiday has devolved far away from the original intent of both church and Charles Dickens into the deepest gutter of human greed to become a spectacle of sterile glitter, every moment flavored with anxiety, desperation, despair and debt. No wonder so many hate it. So, what’s the use of a hated holiday?

But recently, the stone cockles of my icy heart were warmed to read in a Slate magazine article (elaborated on in Time magazine) that a new War on Christmas has begun--a war waged by . . .

. . . Christians . . . .

Apparently, a large segment of Christians everywhere has had it up to their mistletoe with Christmas as defined by WalMart, Glenn O’Breilly, James Donahue, et al. (Something about Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the temple, instead of giving them the run of the joint while piteously demanding that they greet customer with “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” . . . sheesh!)

Calling themselves the Advent Conspiracy, this Plot Against WalMart-mas was hatched by an Oregon pastor named Rick McKinley, who, while sitting around with some of his colleagues four years ago, suddenly realized they were all dreading the upcoming holiday. “None of us,” he admitted, “like Christmas.” (“A Time to Worry,” as wise Mr. Boffo might say).

And so the conspiracy was hatched: to take Christmas back from the Capitalists and their scolding Satanic reactionary collaborators to its Gospel roots of love, charity, patience, forbearance, hope . . . all the values that you just know Bill O’Reilly hates.

The Advent Conspiracy's concepts are these: Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Which leads me to ask a question for all of you: of all those concepts, which one would you find the most challenging to live by?

I'll answer first: number four.

And so, a True Merry Christmas to you Christians who happen to be surfing by and to the rest, Happy Holidays!

There'll be no going to Hell for that.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Take the Long Way Home

I should have stayed off Baker Street that night and walked the long way home instead.

My assailant stormed out of the San Francisco Saturday darkness, bellowing something along the lines of “Fuck you, motherfucker!” as his fists bounded across my surprised face.

In a certain world, one fantasized in Charles Bronson movies and by certain ideologies, I would’ve promptly battled back, finally sending my assailant crumpling to the sidewalk, bleeding and begging for mercy as I blew smoke from my gun barrel, twirled my pistol and dropped it into my holster.

(And then I would’ve performed my Lee Van Cleef laugh, always a winner at parties.)

I did attempt to fight back. I even cleverly retorted with as couple of “fuck you”s of my own. But neither clever riposte nor small soft fists were any match for strong, swift ruthlessness; in fact, my knuckles were nearly the only part of me left uninjured as I danced backward on my heels. “Fire! Fire!” was the next deathless line out of my mouth. (I’d read somewhere yelling “Fire” is more apt to bring help than “Assault!” Maybe the neighborhood didn’t want to get involved with the fire department that night either).

I sprawled to the sidewalk on my back and quickly surrendered the battle. Something sharp, like a box cutter, sliced smoothly down the outside left leg of my slacks, cut open my front pants pocket; and off my attacker vanished into the night with the treasure I kept there.

Despite his brute efficiency, this must have been my attacker’s initiation into the world of violent crime. All he got for my trouble was my handwritten pocket calendar while he completely missed the inside right pocket of my stylish camel hair black sport coat where I kept my wallet. (Unless of course my meager, illegibly noted social life possessed more economic value than I realized).

I rose carefully but quickly. One punch had connected solidly with my mouth, but my smile would remain intact. Despite the hammering, it still felt like my glasses had stayed on my face but when I tried to adjust them, I realize it was oozing flesh swelling around my eyes that I felt under my fingers. My right eye seemed swollen shut, but I could see out my left. My glasses lay undamaged nearby.

It was August 13, 1999. I’d been walking home from Frankie’s Bohemian Cafe on Divasadero and Pine to my apartment on Post Street in an area between the Fillmore and Laurel Heights neighborhoods. (The last similar incident took place in 1988: another thug—an aging one I think--pulled a knife as I waited for a bus at Geary at Fillmore. His prize: $15.)

Jazzed on adrenaline, I crossed Baker to a grimy pink adobe corner market on Sutter, across from the low income projects stacked across the street.

It was a dangerous area. A year or so before, a woman in the projects had been shot dead in her kitchen by her estranged husband. And not long before my Encounter of the Flying Fists, I nearly strolled into a failed ambush by one young gangsta on another (I actually witnessed the shooter blasting away before he slunk off). If I’d arrived just a minute or so earlier, I would have been greeted by three .45-caliber slugs flying by—or through—my head.

The latest victim of neighborhood violence walked into the little market. From the look on the proprietors’ faces, I was the evening’s surprise customer (but there was no door prize).

In a certain world, one fantasized in spaghetti westerns and by certain ideologies, I would’ve grunted, “Gimme a quart of Jim Beam” through my smashed and bloody lips. Then, with swinging arms, strode manfully home along streets I’d paved with my own hands, into the 4-unit apartment building I’d built by myself with cheaply paid labor. There in my one-bedroom apartment, I would’ve downed the whisky, broke out needle and thread, iodine and bandages and, with instructions downloaded from the Internet on my AOL dial-up, bent over the bathroom sink in front of the mirror and sewn up my own goddam lacerations.

“You should’ve seen the other guy, baby,” I’d wink as I spat another tooth into the sink.

But, being a card-carrying weakling, I surrendered to reality. The market man and his wife took one fast look and said they would call in Government Officials. Local Government Officials, but Government Officials none the less.

I agreed as I watched drops of my blood plash on the grimy floormat. I promised myself when I got home to spit at myself in the mirror and growl, “Davy Crockett didn’t whine for an ambulance at the Alamo!”

The government workers, two men and a woman, dressed in blue uniforms with shiny aluminum badges, arrived fairly quickly. Fearing I'd suffered possible brain injury, they advised me to take a seat on the sidewalk. I obeyed, instead of taking the opportunity to grumble about fascism and free men in a police state. Something about wanting to come out of this alive and cognitively intact.

The three civil servants interviewed me. (Yes, mere civil servants! Next time, I’m calling the mailman!) I had little to say. Young black male, maybe about my height, clearly stronger. We shook our heads resigned to this violent magician’s escape. Without a better description, another bad guy had escaped. Again the world had worked its violent way as it has since I can remember.

A battered black and white police ambulance van arrived. The Government Officials helped me into back and strapped my freedom-loving body onto a very simple gurney. They’d deemed, probably correctly by then, that my injuries were not serious enough to require a fully equipped ambulance, so thanks to taxpayer vigilance, the ambulance was bare of medical equipment.

On the short drive over to UCSF-Zion, three blocks away, my mood blossomed into shining hilarity. I bantered with the officers and felt a pang of sorry when our quip party quickly abruptly ended. They seemed like nice people--especially for freedom-hating Government Officials. For one, they did not give me forms to fill out in triplicate or force another tax hike on me.

My memories of what happened after I was wheeled into the UCSF-Zion emergency room, though vivid, are like shards of over-exposed film forgotten on the cutting room floor. I lay around a lot (From my medical file: “Difficulty concentrating.”) Out of my whirling mind spun the trivial realization that it was Alfred Hitchcock’s 100th birthday, a feebly poetic insight as I felt nothing like Richard Hannay and I hardly think that Hitch, bless his impish soul, would consider sneaking to me this kind of Gift from the Beyond.

It was also a full moon night. The ER doc told me they’d been extra busy and made note of the cycle that many statisticians claim does not exist. I recall another patient was there, an older Asian gent who’d suffered similar thuggery elsewhere in the City. The doc told me my blood was a little thin—I’d spilled enough to supply a high school production of Night of the Living Dead.

Later, they decided to give me a CAT scan. I was permitted to go into the bathroom on my own feet. “Wow,” I murmured at the monstrous portrait painted by the mirror: both eyes swollen and purple, the right a pulpy oozing slit; a large bruise, split and ballooning on my upper right forehead; and the fattest pair of lips since Pia Zadora, but nothing even she would want to kiss.

At this point, I believe, pain’s fire at last touched my nerve endings. I tenderly washed my face as watery blood whirled down the drain.

They slid me inside the CAT donut. Whirrs and clicks, nothing remarkable. I was damned lucky. No concussion, though my nose was mildly broken. Ten stitches on my forehead. I was driven home in a hospital van at 2:50
A.M., according to my file.

(Not long after, UCSF-Mt. Zion was closed down, I don’t know exactly why, but three reasons occur to me: 1) to save money; 2) to save money and 3), to save money. The hearts of oppressed taxpayers and supply-siders fluttered like butterfly wings throughout the state. Why, if it wasn’t for that hospital, I might’ve spent more time cracking wise with Government Officials in that sorry ambulance on the way to another hospital. Poor all of us.)

The next morning, sore, half-blind, my face a stiff puffy mask, I made phone calls. I explained to my boss, Susan MacTavish Best, at why I’d be late with my work for the Film Page that week. Not long after, a bouquet of flowers burst through my door stirring the soup of emotion as it sunk in how close (again) I’d come to something much worse and how glad I was there was a rest of the world outside my door.

Later, two other friends, Max and Janet Bran, brought me one of Frankie’s famous and no-longer available, cut-glasses brimming with Frankie’s beer (I still treasure that glass). Max asked me what I thought I had done wrong and I gave the answer you saw at the top of this article.

Later, they drove me down to Frankie’s where, bloodied and unbowed, I showed off my wounds (Ohhhh, I was a sight indeed!). I am told that some women lovingly throw themselves at such bloodied men and nurse them back to health with hot sex, marriage, et cetera, but in my case at least, I remained a bachelor in a half-empty bed. And as for the free beer, I was already mostly drinking gratis anyway.

I only had one that Sunday and went home before dark and by another roundabout route (one I walked ever after). I spent the next three days out of work and at doctor’s offices. The only remaining scar is a small stitching that remained invisible until the surrounding hairs left for good. The dry cleaner declared my beloved, but bloodied, camel hair coat to be beyond saving. At least the trash bin got to look sporty for once.

The expected emotional wounds opened quickly. The feeling of violation, of hatred for the thug, the continuous Dirty Harry/Death Wish Channel that broadcast twenty-four-hours inside my skull, all normal, even desirable, but not acted on. Yet, the failure to catch the criminal, while solidifying my already conservative stance on violent crime, has not turned me into a rigid rightist. If anything, walking our streets safely is also a civil right alongside all the others.

As for what I think now of my assailant, his life, if he’s even living it, is likely much worse than mine. That will be all the vengeance I can hope for.

How much money did this all cost me? It took nearly a year-and-half of dealing and appealing to both public and private bureaucracy but in the end, not a penny. (Of the two groups, the private proved itself no more efficient than the public.)

The state government (whose chains we are last throwing off, if the increasing number of pot holes, closed state parks and general air of glum chaos are any sign), has one of those nefarious welfare programs called the Victim Compensation Board, which only encourages lazy people to become crime victims so they can live off the dollars of hard-working taxpayers (a group that I could not possibly be a member of.)

Ten years have passed without another encounter like that one. The neighborhood I now live in—southeast Emeryville, glued against West Oakland--is no safer and much less charming. Except for a cozy nearby beer cafe, a friendly place for a decent drink is a mile away on Piedmont Avenue, a dreary bus ride through a dicey dour neighborhood. I avoid all dark corners and sometimes call for patient Elizabeth to come bring me home.

What set this reminiscence off, I guess, was the return of the shade of a favorite of the Bathrobe Warrior crowd, Ayn Rand, in two new autobiographies. Her beetling brow glower everywhere again. (I’d been reading The Fountainhead around that time; I hadn’t laughed so hard since I read Catch-22). I gather she may have regarded my assailant as something of a hero, a man who made his own world as though he lived in it alone. In a world run along her always straight, clean, transcendent lines, I
might very well not have survived that night, when, in the face of a relatively petty evil, the real mediocre world she and her fellow ideologues hold in contempt, reached back out to me when I needed it to.

(Photo by Author)