Saturday, March 31, 2012

Donald Westlake: Once More from Beyond

Donald Westlake, one of the best genre writers ever, may have passed away in 2008, but his master's voice still calls through the shade.  After his realist novel Memory was pulled from oblivion’s ashes by Hard Case Crime in 2010, it was thought that was it—no more treasures stashed in rusty drawers or musty attics; but, happily, we were wrong: Hard Case has unearthed one more: The Comedy is Finished.

Judging from the title and much of Westlake’s other work, you may mistake this for one of his broadly comic novels, maybe another Dortmunder caper. But that’s not quite the case, though there are darkly hued laughs throughout.

The Comedy Is Finished is a kidnapping caper, set in 1977. The kidnappers: the People’s Revolutionary Army, a fractious, scruffy band of leftover leftie radicals. They’re comprised of Peter, their insecure, but fanatical ringleader; Larry, the house intellectual who sees the world through a melted window of rhetoric framed by spindly theory; Liz, a woman so burned out, she has only dry ice left for a soul; Joyce, a seemingly innocent hippie chick who may not be so innocent; and Mark, a cold, but inwardly raging shark who shares a secret with their victim.

The times are passing this gang by. The country is drifting conservative, but they have not. Desperate to regain lost momentum and the old revolutionary spirit, they select as their victim, no, not a politician or ruthless capitalist, but a legendary comedian, name of Koo Davis, jester to Presidents and U.S. troops overseas. (Readers of a Certain Vintage will immediately envision a certain Bob Hope by the pattern of his personality and his patter.)

The first problem this troubled army faces after they kidnap Koo is that, like them, their prize is also fading into irrelevance. It turns out that getting anyone to care about a guy on the Road to Has-Been City is a little trickier than they imagined: The only person who cares for Koo is his agent. (In our times, imagine a band of right-wingers kidnapping Keith Olbermann . . . really, who would care?)

As for the FBI, their hair isn't exactly on fire either, so they assign Mike Wiskiel, a disgraced agent who seeks to right a ruined reputation and regain past glory, to the case. After while, even he wishes he were back investigating Watergate.

Meanwhile, the kidnappers start to crumble due to the inevitable divisions from within and some surprising intrusions from without. Though their outlook seems quaint—the novel is much too topical—Westlake does an excellent job of portraying their their conflicts, both internal and interpersonal, and their state of physical, spiritual and intellectual exhaustion; of people who have burned too bright and too fast, and who can’t fathom just how little the world cares about their passions. (Even the imprisoned former fellow bomb throwers whose release they demand in exchange for Koo’s have moved on.)

It isn’t just Koo Davis’s comedy that’s finished—theirs has, too.

According to the introduction, The Comedy is Finished was written in the 1970s and reached its present state in the 1980s, when Westlake mailed a copy to fellow mystery writer Max Alan Collins, who hung on to what seemed to be the only copy for thirty years. Westlake is said to have abandoned the novel because it too closely resembled Martin Scorsese’s unsung bizarro classic movie about a celebrity kidnapping, The King of Comedy, released around the same time. Even so, the resemblance doesn’t seem to me to be that strong beyond the initial concept.

Actually, I would have been more worried about Bob Hope and his lawyers, because Koo Davis resembles Hope in his glib, strolling personality, delivery, and mannerisms down to his buttons and collar. All that’s missing is the ski nose. The portrait, though completely different in biographical details, is nearly a mirror image of the totemic comedian.

To my mind, in fact, Westlake’s portrait of Koo is this novel’s strongest suit. Westlake successfully inhabits the mind of a compulsive comic, a guy who has been spinning jokes and gags for so long, that even when he’s in mortal danger, it’s only another excuse for a round of wisecracks: silly, lame (like a lot of Hope’s material), and sometimes even funny.

I recall John Cleese once saying, in a long-ago Dick Cavett interview, that “you don’t learn very much from comedy.” Koo Davis sure hasn’t—his knee-jerk jokery and love for show biz’s glittery nonsense has cut him off from the world, kept him from seeing deeper into the life both around and within. (He’s barely aware he has a family, and they return the compliment). Like many professional humorists, he’s always mining for the next gag and once he’s found it, continues in search of the next one, seldom looking deeper.

I’m not crazy about the title (as I’m not crazy about the titles of some other Westlake novels) and, like other manuscripts-in-a-drawer, it could have used a final polish from its polished author. Still, the appearance of this book is an entertaining, happy occasion, not only for Westlake’s admirers, but for those new and curious. 

Hard Case insists that is really really the last one we can expect from Donald Westlake. But I hope they’re wrong.

(Re-edited 4/2/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Angle of Research: Author Gray Brechin Replies

[Here’s something that doesn’t happen every day: The following is a response by Gray Brechin to my review of his book, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, which, with Gray’s kind permission, I’m now sharing with you.]

Dear Thomas,

Belated thanks for the kind and fine review of ISF. Despite its success hereabouts, it was never reviewed by the East Coast press which, apparently, thought it was only about some pretty city west of the Hudson. Nonetheless, it continues to sell since there is nothing else (for SF, at least) quite like it. 

I'm pleased that you got that it is a critique of cities throughout time since it really was inspired by a winter I spent in Venice, a city I still love despite what I learned about how it got that way. The Metro Desk editor of the SF Chronicle and I had a testy exchange last year; she loves ISF but insists that her Hearst newspaper is different than it was under the deYoungs, so she didn't understand that the book is only partly about the past. That is why the three central chapters are about how thought is shaped by a few people almost totally unknown to the little people who read, hear, and see their product. As I said in the Hearst chapter, what is not said is far more powerful a tool of thought control than what is, and there is so much that isn't or can't be said. 

If you think that ISF is a jeremiad, try Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream which I was working on at the same time. The hardest thing I've ever written was the final chapter of that book since UC Press wouldn't have published it and the Oakland Museum wouldn't have exhibited Bob Dawson's photograph without a slightly upbeat ending about California's fate. What I wrote is a lie. 

Don't get me wrong: I love great cities like London, NY, — and San Francisco. They offer extraordinary opportunities for personal growth and freedom, especially if one has money. (If one is poor, they are places of torment.) Enough has been written about that, however, such as this recent offering: I wanted to do something that illustrates Lewis Mumford's ecological ideas about urban parasitism, and the very small coterie of people for whom that works best: chiefly the people who have the land and the mass media. 

War and the city were born together, and that has never ceased. The creation of the United Nations was an attempt to abort that immemorial process in the wake of the worst war and the worst weapon, but as far as I can see, it has failed miserably. As those in the Earth's growing cities become ever more dependent on remote control of a planetary contado, they become less aware of their dependence by the illusions the city throws up around and in them. (Have you ever visited a trading floor where nature and humans are transmuted into glowing numbers and frenetically dancing brokers?) We are now all marinated in 24/7 fantasy and desires concocted by others and thus are largely incapable of comprehending let alone dealing with the multiple crises overwhelming civil society and our fellow creatures. Few bother to remember that the planet is trip-wired for instant annihilation except when that detail can be used to persuade them that shock and awe must be applied to other cities to prevent that from happening to ours. 

Cassandra's curse was her compunction to tell the truth that no one wanted to hear. And so Troy burned and fell. 


Copyright 2012 by Gray Brechin

Photo by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Butchertown Chronicles: Angle of Research

Though my WIP novel Butchertown is set in a highly fictionalized—but recognizable—East Bay city, San Francisco (also fictionalized) exerts its own tug from across the Bay through the chilly fog that covers the entire story from beginning to end. A bigger tug than I realized, as I’ve learned from one of the books I’ve been consulting.

Despite my manipulations, research into the real history of the real Bay Area continues. Since my last piece on this topic, the stack of books on my desk has shrunk by several (and grown by two). Some books I consulted only briefly for isolated queries; or, I put them aside because they turned out to be less relevant than I’d hoped. (At least one I threw against the wall).

One of the books I did read board-to-board provided an essential historical perspective, which I’d like to share with you: Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, EarthlyRuin, by Berkeley historical geographer Gray Brechin.

Brechin’s compelling, strongly asserted thesis is that all major cities, from ancient Athens to the super-megacities now sprouting all over China, grew as they did through the ruthless extraction of natural resources, especially earth minerals, such as gold, silver, wood, and, of course, coal and oil.

The book describes how the mining industry built on its wealth creating a kind of pyramid that helped it concentrate and extend its power; and how most of us still live within the porous, loosely defined walls of these still-growing “imperial cities.”

It’s a subject as sprawling as Los Angeles, as dense and towering as New York; so, to get a better handle on it, Dr. Brechin frames his thesis around L.A.’s rival to the north, the City by the Bay, San Francisco—from its beginning as a sand-blown village, population 1,000, to its dizzying rise as the “Rome of the West.” San Francisco once rivaled New York and was, for over 60 years, by far the largest city on the US West Coast. And one that sought to create its own empire, extending as far as Japan and the Philippines.

The myth of the 1849 California Gold Rush casts a gilded glow, but in truth, it was an often sordid, bitter, and gritty saga, with wide veins of intrigue, criminality, and exploitation.

San Francisco was its base and it reaped the benefits of this exploitation like a Dracula, invading all corners of California and beyond and bleeding them dry. The cost has been tremendously high in environmental destruction and wasted resources, both natural and human. For example, every single conifer tree around Lake Tahoe was cut down to feed San Francisco, the mining industry, and its surrounding “contados.” The trees you see there now are all second and third generation growth.

The Sierra environment was dug and ripped to shreds like this throughout. These raw wounds still scar the landscape, and will remain for eons to come. The daguerreotypes from that era look like moonscapes, bleached beyond repair.

The main beneficiaries were the few, the white, and the rich, the men of finance, rather than the actual workers. Their crumbs trickled down from the linen covered tables to the underpaid, over-worked miners, often fatally sickened by their occupation and exploited by the other extractive businesses that grew up around them to strip them of their measly pay.

The power cliques that ruled San Francisco—the mining corporations and ancillary industries; “thought-shapers,” such as the Scott Brothers, the deYoungs, and the Hearsts, and even the power brokers who built UC Berkeley—did whatever it took, at whatever cost, to build and maintain their empires, justifying their naked greed and bellicose racism with soaring, biblical propaganda. It’s a creepy, discouraging, often infuriating story.

Imperial San Francisco blasts away like a water cannon against the environmental destruction, waste, and injustice that resulted from San Francisco’s drive to become City of All Cities. (That it fell short seems due to Los Angeles’s superior luck and skill at extracting the number-one natural resource no human settlement can do without—water.)

I don’t doubt that the human species has grown itself into a zone where we’ve endangered our own existence. Still, no matter how much I accept its critique, Imperial San Francisco is a jeremiad--one-sided and relentlessly angry. Its breathtaking assertions are applied in a slab of absolute black, without a word given to benefits that human beings may have achieved by gathering into cities. The building of cities had to have been driven by more than greed.

It never asks certain questions: If cities are so bad for us, why did we exert the backbreaking effort it took to build them in the first place? And, if not cities, then what? I can’t see humanity heading back to rural life anytime soon. (One modern leader, Pol Pot of Cambodia, tried to do just that and murdered nearly 2 million of his own people.) Life on the farm wasn’t always just, either, and it was never easy.

(re-edited 3/27/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, March 9, 2012

When Boy Wizards Go Bad: Thoughts on "Chronicle"

Harry Potter: Good KId or . . . DEMON FROM HELL!?

As the Harry Potter phenomenon was dawning in the late 1990s, I surfed across an online analysis claiming the books were especially appealing to boys because of how “empowered” J.K. Rowling’s tales made them feel.

Oh? I thought, my eyebrows arched and brow crinkled by memories of those horny, violent, and tempestuous years. And is this always a good thing?

The novel I subsequently tried to conjure from my furrowed brow in response never formed properly, but screenwriter Max Landis and director Josh Trank found some ingredients I didn’t and came up with Chronicle, a predictable, but nonetheless suspenseful, entertaining, and extremely well-acted sci-fi thriller fable of those tormenting teenage years, that also jabs an elbow at our media-addicted age.

Steve (Michael B. Jordan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Andrew (Dane DeHaan) are three Seattle high schoolers. (Seattle here played by South Africa!) Of the three, Steve is Mr. Popular; Matt stumbles and stammers about, but shows promise; Andrew, the last and lowest, is most marginal of all: extremely abused, extremely lonely, and, obviously, extremely angry. Morbidly shy and socially inept, he can only corral his volatile passions within the refracting lens of his digital camera. Outside the frame, the world means little.

One night, after being pounded through the floor by a bully and thrown out of a rave, Andrew runs into Steve and Matt who drag him and his camera over to some mysterious woods and down into a colon-contoured cave. At the end of this cave nests an alien blue-green arachnoid crystal that emanates a strange force.

After the boys return to the surface, they find they are slowly developing telekinetic powers, the ability to move objects at will. Impulse control is almost always an issue at that age and while they try their best to keep their growing powers within moral bounds, well, with young Andrew’s world falling apart everywhere he turns, we just know that’s not gonna work out.

The film’s camerawork is especially intriguing. The camera becomes a character and also another object in the film that Andrew can manipulate, as he lifts it into the air to place himself in the frame, making himself a narcissistic god. As director Trank controls what we see, Andrew also controls the world through the lens.

Chronicle is not clever plotwise, but the movie knows itself and its genre well. At the same time, it avoids drying up with post-modern ‘tude. There's a funny nod to the Quidditch game in Harry Potter and even a hat-tip to Stephen King’s Carrie. Otherwise, it admirably sticks with its story, its characters, and their impact on their world.

Stylistically, Chronicle is a “reality” or “found-footage” film, a genre popularized by 1999’sThe Blair Witch Project. The bare-bones technique seems very well-suited for contemporary genre pictures and has been pleasurably exploited in Cloverland, [REC] (and its American remake Quarantine), and Paranormal Activity.

With their “live” footage shot with digital handheld cameras, these movies turn their budgetary and technical limits in virtues. The best of them stir a claustrophobic terror within their anxious frame, helped by the apparent spontaneity of their performers. The good ones at least (and there aren’t many) seem more “real” than more expensive movies.

Also, in the tradition of earlier sci-fi horror films (especially those from the 1950s), they are pleasingly short. Chronicle skips by in 83 minutes. The genre permits—maybe demands--more efficient use of screen time. The use of jump cuts—pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard—refract the antsyness of our shaky times, especially as young folks experience it. These movies have a refreshing on-the-fly energy.

The success of these movies does not depend at all on their screenplays (which seem to have been scrawled on coffee-shop napkins), but on their camerawork, editing, special effects (added later) and—most importantly--the skills of their actors. On this last point, Chronicle scores a hit--all three young actors are excellent. Their rapport, seemingly improvised, feels real and affecting, and even though we can predict every plot point, the expression of feeling between them and their unformed inner lives add greatly to the suspense, which, as Hitchcock used to say, is character.

Text copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

(Re-edited 3/23/12)

Photo from Movie Insider

[Note: I’m off next weekend, but do not despair! I shall return the following week!]

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Son Also Sets: Dmitri Nabokov, 1934-2012

I was saddened last week by the passing of Vladimir Nabokov’s son Dmitri at the age of 77. He was VN’s only child. He never married and left no immediate survivors.

(You’ll note that the following contains little criticism of the deceased. Since Andrew Breibart’s sudden death this week, between the wailing and popping champagne corks, there’s been another of those dreary Online Kerfuffles, this time about when or ever it’s appropriate to attack a Recently Dead Person.

In weary anticipation, I will stipulate that Dmitri Nabokov did not walk upon the waters. I refrain from mocking his shade because (a, his shortcomings are not the point of this piece; and b), when I gaze through the windows of my glass house, there, barely reflected in the dusty panes, is my own snobbish mug staring back in innocent surprise, my throwing arm at full cock.)

Dmitri Nabokov was more than a great writer’s son: Starting in the late 1950s, with Invitation to a Beheading, he became a translator of many of his father’s Russian novels and stories into English, most of which hadn’t been translated up to that time. If you know VN’s work, you know what an exacting writer he was, and his ideals became finely ingrained into his son’s translating work.

Dmitri had enough confidence to continue translating his father’s work even after VN’s passing in 1977. I recently read one of his solo efforts, The Enchanter , and, from what my poor sight could glean, he didn’t fumble a line. Even though the novellas is a minor work, the buoyant prose of this slim precursor to Lolita—poised and stirring between delight and queasy horror--is like nothing else I’ve read.

Still, without the old man by his side—tender and patient by most accounts—it’s easy to wonder if translating his father’s work alone was a fraught adventure, more perilous than of the mountains Dmitri Nabokov climbed in his off time.

After I heard of Nabokov’s passing, I purchased a pictorial biography of VN at Walden Pond Books, here in Oakland. There, on page 107, is a photo of Dmitri towering over his father and his mother, the amazing Vera, in full costume for the role of Raimondo in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor.  They seem every inch the family, a tight, fiercely supportive unit, extremely protective of each other (as many who tried to breach their carefully built castle walls learned; Vera was the chief and most vigilant guard). They’d been through a lot together.

Like his father, Dmitri was beloved by both his parents (“a cocoon of love” as he once described it). He shared their peripatetic life and decades of privation from his birth in 1934. In some of the photos from the 1930s, the parents look a little underfed while Dmitri looks reasonably nourished.  

He traveled with them in their flight from Berlin, then through Paris and on to America and more years of hardship as his father struggled to find footing in wild and wooly America, where, in between and during butterfly trips and teaching, he composed his masterpieces Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire before moving to The Palace Hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland, where VN lived the rest of his life.

The Nabokovs seemed to be always on the move, as though, after being driven from their wonderland in Old Russia, no place could ever be like that first home. VN chose a hotel to settle in, I’ve read, because there, life’s everyday needs could be easily met while he took care of his essential work. Maybe it also refracted a sense that it was unwise to become attached to a place. Never know when history will crudely storm through, bellowing for blood and attention.

I’m struck, in my slow walk through VN’s work, how little I sense the privation the Nabokovs experienced; how its author’s joy in being alive remains bright, as though suffering were simply a brute distraction, or a minor side effect of happiness. What privation that’s portrayed in his work is moral and spiritual, seen through the isolation of Hermann Hermann (Despair) and Humbert Humbert (Lolita). Though the most passionate of individualists, VN seemed also aware of individualism’s dangers.

Dmitri Nabokov led his own active and interesting life. In between translating work, he was also a professional opera singer and race car driver. Both these careers crashed to halt after a near-fatal racing accident in 1982. His mountain climbs also nearly took him over the precipice a couple times. Closely bound with his father’s work as he was, he still lived his own eventful life and seemed more than happy. He even had a page on Blogger (which now stands empty, as eerie as a room where a corpse has just been surreptitiously removed, perhaps through an invisible door).

I followed with sympathy the debate over whether or not he should publish the very early draft of what would have pupated into The Original of Laura.  (VN willed that the manuscript be burned after his death, but neither widow nor son could bring themselves to strike the match).

I couldn’t blame him for his reluctance and thought he should publish. Even so, I winced when I saw the darkly bloated Knopf edition and read the withering reviews, which misrepresented the novel as a finished work. Anyone unacquainted with Nabokov might be tricked into thinking they would behold a full and free butterfly, not the outlined creature barely formed in its pupa. A sensible approach would have had the book fluttering by in a modest small press edition, quietly released for the nets of scholars and Nabokov Nerds.

Dmitri Nabokov was the keeper of his father’s bright fire. Now that’s he’s gone, I sense a vacuum forming. No doubt arrangements for an able executor were in place, but Dmitri, in the prickly tradition of familial executors, was more than protector of his father’s legacy. He was its last living face and link to a vanishing world.

I’m anxious that, once again, something essential to us is fading behind as we barrel on into the future. As life races faster, to numbing speeds that feel like death approaching, so does our art, especially our fiction.

I’ll miss a reassuring face to tend those fragrant winding garden paths planted by Vladimir Nabokov, meant to be savored and pored over, to be walked through, once, twice and looked at closely, ever more closely, before the light dims.

Copyright 2012

(photo by author)

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.