Thursday, September 27, 2012

Storyville: Treme Returns


Two years ago, I watched the first fifteen minutes of David Simon’s New Orleans post-Katrina HBO drama Treme, and turned it off, irritated and confused. Who were all these people? What was going on? And why should I care?
            Well, here are some reasons – and just in time, since the show began its third season Sunday night.
            I saddens me to think that a lot of other people might have had the same initial reaction I did, but it may explain the fact that the show has never been a big hit for the cable network.  I was lucky, though: Annie watched it while I was out one night and sat me down a few days later to give it a chance. I admire David Simon’s signature opus The Wire. I see why it keeps winning Best-TV-Show- ever competitions, much to Simon’s dyspeptic amusement, since that drama was never a hit for HBO, either. The Wire was great, no question. I enjoy The Wire and I respect The Wire.
 But I love Treme.
Let me count the ways. First of all, it’s a show about people –  It’s not a cop show, though there are cops in the mix, most notably David Morse, finally playing something besides a cardboard villain. It’s not a lawyer show, though there is one wonderful lawyer played by the sublime Melissa Leo. It’s not a doctor show, (Though one of the characters is a dentist), or a teen show or a reality show or a game show. It’s just a story about actual people – the musicians, cooks, barkeepers, contractors, fishermen, developers, neighborhood activists, politicians who make up the ongoing life of a
The Treme is a a famous neighborhood in New Orleans, described this way on the City Dictionary website:
Named after Claude Treme, the Treme (pronounced truh-MAY) neighborhood (often referred to simply as 'Treme') is the first free neighborhood of color in America. Treme is the location of Congo Square, where African folkways and music were permitted to flourish long before slaves were able to freely congregate anywhere else in the country. Treme is also the site of Storeyville, and is as close to any one place in New Orleans as can be considered the actual birthplace of jazz. Claiborne Avenue, which forms the northern border of Treme, was once the wealthiest African-American commercial district in the US, until I-10 was constructed in 1966. Today, Treme is still home to beautiful creole architecture, vibrant restaurants (like Dooky Chase, Lil Dizzy's, and Willie Mae's Scotch House), and live oaks. Louis Armstrong National Jazz Park is located in Treme, as is the Mahalia Jackson Theater of Performing Arts.

I had no idea. It sounds like a fertile location: storeyville, indeed. Co-creator Eric Overmeyer lived in New Orleans and saw the potential for a densely composed narrative about intersecting lives, everyone fighting to rebuild the damaged city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Great literature weds personal stories to the larger world, and the lives of Treme’s  people, lived against the backdrop of natural disaster, corporate greed and political corruption has all the scope and resonance of a novel by Balzac – or Tom Woolf. But ultimately it’s not the newsworthiness of the plotlines or the political acumen of the writers that draws us into the tale, but the characters – and the actors who play them.
First among equals would have to be Antoine Batiste, a big-spirited divorced and struggling trombone player; and Albert Lambreaux, a  dour mardi gras Indian chief  trying to restore his tribe, home and his neighborhood. They are played by Wendell Pierce and Clark Peters respectively, both of whom will be instantly familiar to fans of The Wire, where they portrayed police detectives Bunk Moreland and Lester Freamon. It’s the same old story … I liked and respected those hard working cops; but Antoine and the Chief are something else, something bigger and more complicated and more beautiful. They’re real. Antoine, short of cab fare to play a funeral procession, badgered by his new wife into teaching music at the public schools, still living large, putting bands together and firing them, playing his heart out at every opportunity, unwilling to give up the dream … and the Chief, stern and in flexible, as relentless with the intricate beading of his Mardi Gras headdress as he is with the electrical wiring in his ruined house, sad and bitter, and yet grinning like a ten year old with a train set when he hears the a song he recorded with his jazz musician son playing on the radio.
How did the song wind up on the airwaves? That would be the work of DJ Davis McAlary, played by the irrepressible Steve Zahn, a music besotted slacker always on the brink of getting fired from the station for his bizarre playlists, who it turns out is composing a funk and soul opera about the hurricane and its aftermath. His first girlfriend on the show, Janette Desautel, a cook played by Kim Dickens (who was so wonderful on two other great shows – Deadwood and Friday Night Lights) loses her restaurant to the flood in the first season and winds up working in New York City for a variety of real-life chefs, most notably David Chang, who has an effortless screen presence. It makes sense – big time restaurant cooking is a kind of performance art itself. Janette may be back this season – someone is offering her the chance to start a new restaurant in nNew Orleans. But Davis has a new girl friend, Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli), a classical violin virtuoso who’s learning to play jazz on the streets of the city.
There are so many more. Khandi Alexander (The Corner) plays LaDonna Batiste Williams, Antoine’s tough, sassy ex-wife, who runs a bar in the district but spends time in Baton Rouge now her new husband, as she recovers from the after- effects of a brutal rape; and Melissa Leo as Toni Bernette, a civil rights lawyer indefatigably searching for the truth about a young man killed by the police during the flood, with the often unwilling help of  detective Terry Colson (David Morse, in his best role since St. Elsewhere, more than thirty years ago). John Goodman played Toni’s outraged blogger husband in the first season. He’s off the show now, for reasons I won’t give away here, but his wife and daughter Sofia remain. India Ennenga plays the little girl, growing up fast, now falling in love with her first musician. Sofia interned for a crooked city councilman last year. He’s in jail this season, but Nelson Hidalgo, the Dallas-based contractor involved with the Councilman  in various urban redevelopment  real-estate schemes, schemes on, played by a pitch perfect, sleazy but somehow likable Jon Seda.
… and that’s just a start. The show teems with people, hustling and striving and playing music, and the music is everywhere. The Treme neighborhood seems like a blissful utopia of music, until violent crime shatters the dream. But the dream goes on: the dream of artistic fulfillment, of true love, of urban renewal and spiritual redemption. These people don’t quit. The gusto and joy of their crazy stamina is always inspiring.
One of the things I like best about this unique show is that you have to discover all this stuff for yourself. There are no information dumps, no awkward exposition in dialogue, no lengthy self-explanations. The charcacters just go about their lives – you can eavesdrop if you want. Of course that was what put me off at first – I had no idea that musicians were negotiating the price for participating in a funeral parade. I had no idea Antoine was one of them as he haggled with his cab driver. But the second time through I sat back and stopped asking questions. I remembered something ,my mother used to say when I would pester her about plot points on Bonanza or The Man fromU.N.C.L.E.
“Let it unfold.”
Turn on Treme this Sunday, listen to the music, watch the people, let it unfold.
You’ll be glad you did.

UnFriending Jesus: A Facebook Fable


It was a classic Facebook story.
I hadn’t heard from Jesus for a long time, I kind of left the Church in a huff over male pattern balding, hang-nails and Justin Bieber. He was all “It’s my Dad’s fault” but you have to take some responsibility for something  sometime! Plus it’s a drag when you’re trying to get across  the lake and your too-cool-for-school friend just strolls over while you’re trying to rent a canoe from some creepy local you can’t even trash talk without all that holier than thou “Don’t throw the first stone” stuff. So, okay, he is holier than me! Fine! He better be. But does that mean he has to rub it in all the time?
And he was cheap. Sorry, but he was! When they say ‘loaves and fishes’ you don’t automatically think “wonder bread canned tuna.” At least I don’t. I think fresh baguettes and pan seared swordfish. But not Jesus, no way.  And don’t even ask about the wine.  But let me just say -- I prefer water to Manischewitz!  Then, like, you ask him what to do, just some friendly advice from the Son of God and he’s like “What would I do?” That’s what I’m asking you, preachy pants! Heaven forbid  you ever  get a straight answer.  He won’t even explain the long hair and the beard.” It’s not 1968 any more!” I yelled at him one time. Like he cared.
So we just drifted apart. Then years later, I get a Friend request on Facebook. Totally out of the blue. Of course he has like millions of friends already, and we have at least three in common so I accepted the request and now it’s just constant status updates. He healed somebody here, he blessed somebody there.  Got into a bar fight and turned the other cheek, the guy broke his jaw. So he forgave the guy! There was some instagram picture attached, the two of them hugging.  And how many bodies of water do I have to watch him strolling across?  He stepped on somebody’s head, some other Facebook friend of mine, the guy was doing the Ironman and almost drowned.  He goes on-line in the hospital and sees
“You were tagged in Jesus’s photo.”  That’s nice to hear. He was like, “If someone offered me thirty pieces of silver, forget about it. I’d betray that jerk for a discount coupon at Red Lobster.”
Then Jesus went to Israel. You can imagine – twenty updates a day. “Hanging out at the money lenders temple. It’s looking kind of shabby! They should take out a renovation loan!”  “Checked out the Calvary escarpment.  Bummer.” “Walking the stations of the cross Total Déjà vu.” “Had to check out the garden tomb. That’s one huge rock!”  And on and on.
The worst thing is the name dropping. Everyone cool winds up in Heaven I guess. And they just hang out, I guess, drinking Passover wine and eating tunafish sandwiches on white bread. “Reminds me of something John Lennon said to Freud last week,” he’ll comment on some post of mine.  I’m glad Jesus ‘likes’ it, but I don’t need to know that Camus, Goethe Elvis and Johnny Carson disagree. I’m supposed to take his word for that! No Facebook in Heaven – yet. Supposedly he’s talking to Zuckerberg about it. He’s big buds with all the guys who invented the computer in the first place. George Boole, Kurt Godel , Liebnitz, Lebedev, you name it. Or don’t bother, just let him do it.  He won’t quit.
Talk about endless? Check out his time line.
Finally I had to unfriend the guy. It was just too much.
I love him and I know he loves me, but from now on he can use e-mail.  And good luck getting past my spam filter.

Saving Nantucket: An Open Letter to Wendy Schmidt


Dear Ms. Schmidt
First of all yes, I’m glad you saved Mitchell’s Book Corner, and I’m sure the new arts center will be very nice. The bus system is a convenient way for the working class to get to work.  But your shiny new bakery belongs on a movie set and only serves to make old Nantuckers pine for the real French delights of the long-gone Patisserie Marti. 
The new Dreamland  – the cornerstone of your efforts here so far -- is ill-conceived, uncomfortable  and generic , just like any other mall multiplex,  except that the off-island  theatres don’t treat the audience to five minutes of self-congratulatory promotional videos and fund-raising before the movie starts. You tout the place as a ‘game changer’, whatever that means.  So far all it means is a lot of rich people drinking cocktails on a deck with the best view in town. You claim you’re  out  to ‘save’ Nantucket. The one chance Nantucket had to be truly saved was Ted Kennedy’s  Nantucket Sound Islands Trust bill, proposed back in 1974. But locals fought against it, fearing for their property resale values. Fortunes would have been lost if that bill had passed, but the idyllic island many of us remember so fondly would still remain.
Walter Beinke didn’t ‘save’ Nantucket by making the harbor a tourist hub and you aren’t going to ’save’  it by building a parking garage or turning lower main street into a shopping mall. It’s very simple: people with money will mess with this island at will, just because they can. Some are more sanctimonious about it than others. But the mess remains.
You profess to be shocked and saddened by the empty streets downtown in the off season. What you don’t get is that the people who actually live here are counting the seconds until that yearly “apocalypse” arrives again, and we get some inkling of the way this island used to be. In fact our winter population now is bigger than the summer population was in the old days. Maybe you think that’s progress, but most people don’t. Nantucket isn’t some crumbling rust belt city that needs a rescue. It was doing fine before you showed up and will continue to do fine after some other place strikes your fancy and you move on.
Here’s what enormously wealthy people like you don’t understand, and will probably never understand as long as everyone around you is groveling for your money and allowing you to feel like some creepy new uber-Capitalist royalty. Money alone isn’t enough. Taste is required if you want to help a unique and beautiful town like Nantucket, and not simply make it over in your own image. You have to respect  its history and love its traditions.
A customer of mine once ordered a full garden imported from England, complete with the strutting, self-important ‘landscape engineer’ who promised to install an instant botanical fantasia worthy of the garden club back in the days when the women who belonged to it actually worked in their own backyards.  It was perfect except for one thing: no one had bothered to consider the pattern of light and shade behind the big mansion. It was diabolical, and funny in a nasty way: the plants that needed light were placed in the shadows and the flowers that needed shade were  left to wither in the August sun. Perhaps this imperious plant expert thought he was ‘saving’ my customer’s yard.  But that ruined landscape told a different story. Just dowsing things with money can backfire in grotesque ways, tragic or comic, and occasionally both at once.
That being said, and in the spirit of full disclosure … I must admit that if you were giving away a hundred thousand dollars to writers who could, I don’t know …  ‘chronicle and celebrate’ your adopted island, and wanted them to line up with  proposals and flattery, just  as the various would-be book-sellers did, scrambling for a piece of Mitchell’s book corner, I would  be first on line. I grovel with the best of them and would  gladly retract this entire letter. I might even deny I wrote it in the first place as I busily crafted a fulsome apology,   written in blood and hand-delivered on my knees. Money makes a gutless boot-licking toady out of me, I confess.
But I’m not proud of that.  And no one else should be, either.

In Praise of Tom Cruise


Everything you hate about Tom Cruise is none of your business. And none of it matters.
Sorry, but it’s true. He belongs to a bizarre religion, but any religion looks bizarre from the outside.  Christianity has a guy walking on water, a God who turns disobedient woman into salt-lick, and a talking snake. So – cast not the first stone. 
You think you know Tom Cruise, but you don’t.  You don’t know Jennifer Anniston or Cee-Lo or Jay Z either. None of us knew Tony Scott, and none of us know why he killed himself. He left a note and we’re never going to see it. At least I hope we aren’t. It’s none of our business.  We do know that Tom cruise was a good friend of his and we have a lot of anecdotal anecdotal evidence that Tom Cruise is a good friend to have. He helps his friends. He helps total strangers. He has more energy than most people and he seems to divert it into good directions. He works hard. We know that, too. It’s obvious. He’s fifty, with the physique of a thirty year old. That’s not liposuction and trick photography. That’s hard work.
He was a gentleman about his recent divorce – he didn’t contest it. He took it like a man and moved on. Was he a bad husband or a controlling religious demagogue? We don’t know. Was his marriage some kind of cynical deal? Was Katie Ho0lmes just a ‘beard’ to cover his homosexuality? Is he gay? It’s none of our business. I don’t give a shit and neither should you. We don’t have to marry him or sleep with him or bear his children. We don’t have to go out to dinner with him or even make small talk with him at Hollywood parties. That’s not the role he plays in our lives.
He never asked us to live vicariously through him. He never invited our speculations and our judgments – unless you think that simply putting yourself in the public eye creates that dark contract.  Marcel Proust famously said “Beauty is permission.” It was not one of his finer moments, but he would certainly agree with the army of tabloid writers and paparazzi who have dogged Tom Cruise and his colleagues over the last twenty years, that fame is permission. Let’s face it – there’s money to be made nosing through the trash bins of the celebrated. Jackals never go hungry.
But we don’t have to involve ourselves in that cynical predatory circus. Don’t read the creepy articles festooning the supermarket check-out (How many times can Brad and Angelina break up, anyway?); don’t watch the sleazy shows; avoid the drooling web-sites. Think about your own life and leave Tom Cruise alone.
Well – not quite alone. Go to his movies and enjoy them. They’re enjoyable. He’s made occasional forays into dramatic acting – Jerry Maguire,  Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July, Interview with the Vampire and Rain Man among them. Even Anne Rice had to admit he was brilliant as Lestat, going so far as to retract an embarassing screed she had published in the L.A. Times dismissing him. Jerry Maguire was a masterpiece, a wonderful film that required him to emboidy a complex, ambitious, idealistic character and he rose to the occasion superbly. Just the silent home movies that revealed Jerry’s  tragic discomfort with his own marriage deserved an Oscar. But I’m not even talking about that stuff. Other people could have played Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man (Keanu Reeves? Billy Crudup? Jason Lee?). Tom Hanks was on the short list for Jerry Maguire. Russell Crowe could have pulled off Ron Kovic or the manhood guru Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia  -- so could  Woody Harrelson.
Still, Cruise is committed, whether he’s mixing the drinks in Cocktail or doing his own singing in Rock of Ages. He put on a fat suit and danced in Tropic Thunder. He was hilarious. The film was considered a ‘comeback’ after all his embarrassing behavior. He shouldn’t have jumped on Oprah’s couch or berated Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressives. He made mistakes and annoyed people. Woody Harrelson and Tom Hanks and Matt Damon are far more circumspect, with much better publicists (Cruise had just fired his).
But here’s what Woody Harrelson and Tom Hanks and even Matt Damon can’t do: they can’t climb the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – the world’s tallest building, by the way -- or launch themselves off a Shanghai rooftop. Cruise does his own stunts – no one else does, except Jackie Chan and he’s more or less retired now.  Cruise is crazed and obsessed and fearless and that’s just the way I like him.
Yes, he had digitally erased cables on him when he was scrambling around  2,700 up on that Arab hotel. But cables break, connections snap, harnesses slip. Would you rappel down the glass face of a sky scraper, holding on to a firehose, with a cable attached to you?
No, you wouldn’t. Neither would I. Neither would Matt Damon. None of us are fearless crazy or obsessed enough. Cruise did his own driving on Days of Thunder – working with Tony Scott . He did his own fighting in Knight and Day … and Collateral and all four Mission Impossible films. He learned Japanese sword fighting the hard way for The Last Samurai. We watched it happen on screen.
His scenes don’t require the elaborate jump-cut trick photography that allow Matt Damon to fake it as Jason Bourne. Cruise is an actual action hero, an American icon of single minded dauntless ingenuity and grace under fire. When he loops his belt around and electric cable and leaps off a Moscow ledge in Ghost Protocol , sliding down the wire and leaping to the roof of a bus then bouncing in an acrobat’s roll to the street below, we believe he did because we know he did it, because he actually did it. Probably several times, to make sure he did it right.
He’s a perfectionist, too.
This gives the action sequences in his films a unique excitement. They generate real suspense, even though the rational side of your brain knows that nothing bad is going to happen to the star of the franchise. When a helicopter blows up in a train tunnel (don’t ask) in the first Mission Impossible movie, you know that of all the people clinging to the hapless machine, only the ones with no monetary value in the world film market are going to die. But the fact remains: Cruise was really hanging onto that helicopter.
Maybe it’s no big deal. What’s a big summer explosion fest, anyway? Just one of several ways to while away a hot evening in the air conditioning. An excuse to eat candy bars and big bags of pop-corn in the dark. What could be more disposable? And they cost so much to make. But as Steven Spielberg (who directed Cruise in Minority Report) pointed out, the real question isn’t “Was that movie worth a hundred million dollars?” The real question is – "Was it worth the ten dollars you paid for it?"
And Cruise, above and beyond everything else, always gives full value for your ticket price. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but most big action stars just don’t and their movies, with stars as diverse as Angeline Jolie (Salt, Tomb Raider)  and Sylvester Stallone (The later Rambo movies, The Expendables movies) so often disappoint us.Guilty pleasure or not, some of us love those movies and  we get a visceral satisfaction from seeing them done right.
That’s why I was pleased to hear that Cruise is going to be playing Jack Reacher, even though Lee Child’s creation has eighty pounds and at least eight inches on him. Cruise makes up for his size with sheer intensity. Lee Child understands that – you won’t see him making a fool of himself the way Anne Rice did. He wanted the best for his character and he got it.
Cruise is simply the best at this peculiar thing, this bizarre profession of action movie star. If Scientology keeps him fit, let him study Xenu, if  clearing his body of Thetans helps him concentrate, more power to him.  I don’t care about the details and neither should you. Leave him alone, give yourself a vacation from judging the behavior of total strangers, and let the crazy guy ply his crazy trade. There’s a lot to be said for crazy, at least when it stays up on the screen.
 Glamor is a function of distance. Let’s keep ours – the way we did in the old days when no one knew that Rock Hudson was gay and William Holden was a drunk. Ignorance is bliss, and so is silence when we turn down the corrupt hiss and crackle of the modern media machine – the cultural leaf blower that scatters information without purpose or perspective.
Tom Cruise movies are electric, big spirited boisterous authentic fun. And that’s good enough for me.

Cyberguy: Confessions of an Internet Addict


When I was a kid, I loved science fiction and spent hours speculating about the future, imagining how the miracles of science would change my life. Cities on the moon! Jet packs! Flying cars! I could hardly wait.
Of course none of those wonders ever came to pass. My utter failure to predict the real engines of change that would define my life in the exotic twenty-first century can be excused, though: no one else figured them out, either. Even the pioneers who developed the world-wide web never saw its potential, or guessed at the dominant force in modern life that it has ultimately become.
The internet was intended for secure military communications, for sharing of academic research. Dismantling the music business, revolutionizing the book business, supporting insurgencies, inciting uprisings revealing government secrets and hooking people up with the old girlfriends from high school?
Not so much.
Not to mention putting people’s favorite movies, their business and personal correspondence even their banking and their taxes onto their computers.
The world-wide web changed everything for everyone and I realized recently that I’m the perfect case in point. Everything essential in my life is caught in that web. I communicate with my friends through e-mail and Facebook, keep track of my money with Bank of America on-line; everything I buy read and listen to drops out of cyberspace. I check my e-mail four or five times a day and my favorite websites almost as often.
The standard complaint at this point would be that the internet has eaten my life, dissolved it into pulp of procrastination. I often read about writers valiantly disconnecting from the web in order to get any work done. But that reminds me of the people who adamantly refuse to watch television for fear of becoming TV junkies, hopelessly tethered to and endless series of CNN crisis reports, Weather Channel updates and Law &Order re-runs. If you have an addictive personality I suppose you can get hooked on anything. One grizzled contractor I used to work with told me “I used to be addicted to booze. Now I’m addicted to coffee and work.”
For those of us who don’t share that particular personality disorder, the web is nothing to be afraid of. I use it as I write, checking Google and Wikipedia a dozen times over the course of a morning’s work. When I’m describing a field I haven’t mastered or a city I’ve never seen, I use a combination of attitude(usually debunking; people tend to dismiss ort take for granted the places and things they’re most familiar with) and well-chosen details. I know what sounds convincing to me, which little sound-bite or factoid has the ring of truth. From the peeling blue trim at Corcoran State prison, to key computer geek terms like “hanging a worm” and Jedgar, I get everything I need from the search engines of the net.
I think about the dim old days when people actually had to go to libraries, and use the Dewey Decimal system and be polite to astringent squinty librarians and page through dusty books for these same few snippets of information, and pity them as I would pity people who have to haul water out of a community well. “Google” is a common verb now – that’s much more astounding to me than flying cars or jet-packs.
But the internet has had a much more profound effect on my writing life than this unlimited effortless well-spring of information, vital as it is. I connect to my agent and my editor entirely through email, and the public writing I do – it’s hard to call it ‘published’ in this new world – is mostly bound up with various web-sites and e-zines (Numero Cinq, The Good Men project, Big Glass Cases Blog, Salon) that feature my work. Even the print magazines like Pulp Modern and Big Pulp that run my stories take submissions on-line and pay with Pay-Pal. All my novel submissions – including the one to Poisoned Pen press which has advanced to the third full re-write stage – take place on line. I don’t even bother with publishers or magazines that use snail mail. So Twentieth Century!
The best thing about this new world is the interaction with readers. Social media may not really ‘build a platform’ for selling my work (I have three twitter followers), but a good post on Open Salon generates a lot of comments and my four years on the site have allowed me to be part of a community of friends who read and appreciate each others’ work. As an audience, it’s small – I seem to get a steady fifty or sixty visits for every post. But if that many people showed up for a reading on Nantucket it would make history. The friends I have made on this site, unlike my two hundred and something Facebook friends (most whom I don’t even know), actually like and respect each other, based on something real: the words we string together to express ourselves.
As for Nantucket, itself, the island has suffered with the rise of the internet. “Buy local” used to mean to go off-island to do your Christmas shopping. Now it’s a pallid protest against Zappos and Eddie Bauer and Amazon. Sorry, everything is cheaper on line and I only buy ink and paper books when there’s some special reason … like I want the maps in A Dance With Dragons or I like the design of the newest McSweeny’s book. For text, you can’t beat the e-book. And for convienience. I see Jon Stewart interviewing someone about a Bin Laden biography; before the interview is over, I’m reading the book. You can’t compete with that, brick and mortar stores. I even read the New York Times and The new Yorker and Entertainment Weekly on my Nook. I haven’t bought a printed newspaper or magazine in years.
People say, your whole life is tucked away in some internet ‘cloud’ – what if it fails? But I remember the days when I typed my manuscripts – with carbon paper! – and I still managed to lose most of those hard copies without any help from some technological apocalypse.
If something horrendous enough to take down the internet happens, checking the comment trail on my latest post will be the least of my worries.
For the moment, I’m addicted to the internet and more than happy to stay that way.

Work in Progress: The Editor's Touch

locals art
 Cover art by Robin Breeding

We normally think of editors as people who trim and cut our work, fix our mistakes and help us “kill our darlings” as William Faulkner memorably put it. What you don’t realize until you’re involved with a gifted editor at a real publishing house, is how they can inspire you to write more and better. It doesn’t always happen in a direct linear way, with the editor saying “You should put more detail here” “Flesh this out.”, though of course that sort of editorial direction does happen.
More often, a vital change comes out of a conversation,  that can even start out as an argument. You always feel at the same disadvantage with an editor, with a real published book and the possible start of a meaningful career at stake. They have the power. They’re agreeing to put your book out into the world under their imprint. It’s their money and influence and reputation on offer. If they want you to change things, you’d be foolish to refuse. Sometimes it seems the only real option you have is the nuclear one: just packing up your scribbled pages and walking away.  Of course you could bluff it. But that’s a dangerous game to play. You had better be prepared to follow through if you make a threat like that.
 There are other alternatives. The primary one: pick your battles carefully, andput your own writing on the front line.
The Police Chief hero of my Nantucket detective novel happens to be a poet. Perhaps that common invocation of coincidence for faux impact (“I happen to disagree with you) was part of the problem. My editor didn’t like the idea. Why a poet? It seemed so random. Why not a ballet dancer or tree surgeon? Beyond that she felt that poets were stigmatized by the section of the reading public that made up her company’s audience.  Poets were “floppy haired, limp wristed” emasculated wimps you couldn’t rely on in a tough situation. Her readers wanted a man who could disassemble a Glock auto-loader not someone who wrote smarmy verses to his children (probably on scented pink paper). Leaving the creepy stationery aside, why couldn’t he do both?
We went back and forth on this for several weeks. Then I had an idea. But I guess my point is … it was her idea, too. Or at least, that the idea was the natural outgrowth of our debate. I said, “I’ll write a scene that shows how poetry fits into his police work. Read it with an open mind. If you still think the poetry idea is bad, we’ll cut it.”  I was gambling on my own ability to write a knock-out scene, but under my bravado lay the implicit point of my editor’s intractable resistance: I hadn’t proved, in moment-by-moment narrative terms, that Chief Kennis’ poetry avocation added anything meaningful to the story.  I believe she didn’t say it directly because she knew it would be better for me to figure it out for myself.
Anyway, I came up with a pretty good idea for a scene. It was long done and I was working on other sections of the revision, the second full rewrite I had embarked on with the editor, this one involving more than 70 new pages of material from the villain’s point of view. These new pages, incidentally, took the book fifty pages over the publisher ‘s length limit. Now I’m cutting the whole book by that many pages, which is an interesting challenge to discuss in another post.  Back with the last re-write, it was  taking a while and the editor wrote me saying essentially, “Don’t waste your time on the poetry scene. It’s going to get cut anyway.”
I was furious.I wrote her this email:
Alas you have a very jaundiced and inaccurate view of poetry and poets.
Byron kicked ass and e.e. cummings was known to mix it up in a bar fight from time to time.
Ezra Pound was a fascist thug.
Dylan Thomas was a carousing drunk.
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon served valliantly in World War I, and would be profoundly offended by your comments.
Randall Jarrell served heroically in World War II (Check out his "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner")
Most recently, the Iraq War has produced some notable war poets including Brian Turner whose début collection, “Here, Bullet”, is based on his experience as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from November 2003 until November 2004 in Iraq. The book won numerous awards including the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the 2006 Maine Literary Award in Poetry, and the 2006 Northern California Book Award in Poetry. The book also was an Editor's Choice in The New York Times and received significant attention from the press including reviews and notices on NPR and in The New Yorker, The Global and Mail, and the Library Journal. In The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear wrote that, "As a war poet, [Brian Turner] sidesteps the classic distinction between romance and irony, opting instead for the surreal."

I wouldn't mess with that guy. Just saying.

In fact poetry requires a style of thinking very similar to the deductive reasoning applied to  criminal investigation ... particularly at that crucial moment when no logical way forward manifests itself and a leap of intuition is required. Henry is not a wimp; hardly a pacifist. His hair is cut short and so is tolerance for bullshit and moral relativism. He is not a Navy Seal, either and I'm sure you don't want a book about one. Those books (and movies) are dull because their protagonists are tedious and one-dimensional.
We made a deal, boss: I write my ass off and give you  the best possible  scene that PROVES my point about police work and poetry. You take it or leave it. I abide by your decision.

But you have to read it with an open mind. That's the mind (yours, wide open) that I'm writing it for.
That's fair. And I know you're fair -- I've felt that about you from the start.
Read it and see what you think.
I'm right about this one. That's why I'm writing this scene,  heedlessly, recklessly even -- with full knowledge that I'll probably have to cut it. Because it's good and what it does for Henry is good and I think you'll see that, too. If not, not – onward. But let me take my shot.
And give Henry his.
So she agreed and I wrote the scene and I just got the hard copy edits back from her.
The scene stays in. And Henry Kennis remains a poet.
Best of all, I was forced by our clash of wills to write a scene that should have been part of the book all along. I was pushed to do my best work by an editor who appreciated it.
That’s a victory for everyone.
Here’s the scene:
The phone rang. It was my chief detective Charlie Boyce on the line: Chief Selectman Dan Taylor’s kid, Mason, had barricaded himself inside his room with one of his father’s guns, and he was threatening to commit suicide.
At least he hadn’t done it yet.
The big problem was Dan Taylor himself. That was why they called me. Dan had run the Board of Selectmen since long before I arrived on the island and he acted like he was the Mayor and Nantucket was Chicago and the year was 1893. Well, with the island caught up in the new Gilded Age, at least that part made sense. In addition to authorizing new stop signs and illegal parking zones, Dan spent most of his time ingratiating himself with people like Preston. Lomax.. Dan did caretaking for half of them and he was working on the rest. His idea of caretaking was making sure the water was turned off in the winter and a bottle of Peter Michael Les Pavots was standing on the dining table, beside a vase of his signature blue flag irises, when his clients arrived on Memorial Day.
Like most professional suck-ups, Dan turned into an insufferable bully with anyone he ranked lower in the social pecking order. That included most of my officers, the other town employees; and his own son. I had always pitied Mason, being raised by that petty tyrant. But it turned out the suicide stand-off had nothing to do with Dan.
Mason Taylor was killing himself over a girl.
It wasn’t so strange; I’d researched the phenomenon after a couple of teen suicides the winter I first got to Nantucket. The synapse in the brain that helps us understand our own mortality is still under construction with teenagers.  They just don’t get it that impressing the girl you love with the seriousness of your passion by killing yourself ultimately won’t do you much good, since you’ll be dead afterward. There was no point in in trying to explain that to Mason. The most important thing to do now was getting his father away from the scene.
They lived in Nashaquisset, a subdivision off  Surfside Road, walking distance from the high schoolYou could tell so much about the owners by the quarterboards that named their houses. Here they ranged from the literal (“Summer House”) to the venal (“Billable Hours”) to the cute (“Bedside Manor”). That’s right – lots of lawyers and doctors in Nashaquisset. The old-time Nantucketers showed their character in their quarterboards, too – names like “It’ll Do” and “Helzapoppin”, and “Pflueger’s Roost”. Just in the time I’d been on the island someone had bought the mansion on Brant Point whose little boat house had been called “Pflueger’s Roost” Of course, they re-named it “Boat House.” They were Dan Taylor’s kind of people.
His own little Cape Cod style three bedroom was called  “Home Sweet Home”, which seemed ironic, under the circumstances.
On the second floor, Dan was trying to break down Mason’s door. I took the stairs two at a time, bounded half the length of the hall and caught Dan’s shoulder just as he started another charge. Randy Ray stood by, haplessly looking on, side by side with  Charlie Boyce, who should have known better. He’d been smart enough to call me, but “call the Chief” shouldn’t be the default response to a crisis. What if there were two crises going on at once?
I took the Head Selectman off balance and spun him around. He staggered a few steps as he turned to face me.
“Stay out of this, Chief,” he snarled. “This is none of your  goddamn business.”
I watched him, waiting for a movement. “Your boy has a loaded firearm in that room, Dan. That makes it my business.”
“The hell it does.”
“Step away. Let us handle this.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off
“I’m going to have to ask you to vacate the premises,” I said, hoping the official-sounding jargon would calm him down. Nice try.  He launched himself at me, throwing a big sloppy roundhouse punch at my head.  I stepped outside of it and gathered his arms together from behind in a tight bear hug.
“Stop it,” I said. “Don’t make this worse than it is.”
He relaxed at little and I let him go. Then he was charging the door again. I tackled him at the waist and we both went down on the hardwood floor, as my two officers stumbled back to stay out of our way.
 I landed on top. Dan’s breath exploded out of him. I yanked his arms behind his back, cuffed him, pushed myself up, stepped away and turned to Charlie. “Get him out of here,” I said. “Take him to the station. Lock him up but don’t book him.”
I helped Dan to his feet. “I have you right now for felony battery, assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest, Dan. But I understand the extenuating circumstances. I feel bad for you, okay? This sucks. So shut up and behave and you’ll be back on the street, no charges filed by this afternoon. Sound fair?”
He nodded, sullen but defeated.
I jerked my thumb over my shoulder and the boys got the message. They hustled Dan downstairs and out of the house. I was alone with Mason Taylor
I knocked on the door. “Mason?”
“Go away!” The voice was high-pitched, muffled through the door, clotted with tears.
“It’s Chief Kennis, Mason. Remember me? You stood up during the Q&A at my drug lecture last year and said ‘When I say no, the drugs think I’m playing hard to get.’ You made me laugh.”
“I got in trouble.”
“Well, yeah. Smart mouthing the Chief of Police in front of the whole school. But I remembered it.”
“I got suspended.”
I played a hunch. “Did you impress the girl, though?”
“How do you know about Alana?”
So: Alana Trikilis, daughter of a local garbageman. Sam Trikilis was a good guy, one of the few authentically happy people I had ever met. He enjoyed his customers and the drive to the dump and even the dump itself. The trash pile was his archaeological dig site.
 I had seen his daughter’s drawings in Veritas, the NHS student paper. The most recent one, which showed the members of the Conservation Commission and the town Selectmen dressed as clowns, clambering out of a tiny circus car, featured an especially cruel and accurate caricature of Mason’s dad. Alana probably got in a fair amount of trouble herself. Maybe she and Mason were kindred spirits.
“Hey,” I said. “I read Veritas  for Alana’s cartoons. She’s brilliant.” Silence from the other side of the door. “Mason?”
“She doesn’t even know who I am. But now she will.”
“What? She’ll come to your funeral?”
“She’ll be crying at my funeral. Then she’ll realize. Then she’ll know.”
I took a breath. “There has to be a better way.”
Another silence. I waited, heard the front door open and close; footsteps on the stairs. Haden Krakauer appeared in the  hallway. I put a finger to my lips. Haden crept forward, cocked his head in a question. I shrugged. Not much progress yet – the kid was still in there and he still had the gun.
“I wrote her a poem,” the kid said. “She likes poetry. Yeats and Eliot and Billy Collins,” I smiled. The ex-poet laureate would be flattered to be placed in that company.
“Was your poem any good?”
“It sucked.  I couldn’t even finish it.”
“So you don’t know what Alana would have thought about it.”
“She would have hated it,”
“Not if it was any good.”
That might be the worst possible word to hear from a suicidal kid – the essence of giving up, in three descending syllables.
“I write poetry,” I said. “We could work on yours together.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Give it a try. Girls love a good poem, written just for them. It could turn things around.”
“I don’t know.”
He was wavering. “Put the gun down. Pick up a pen. Actually, that’s a pretty good philosophy of life.”
“Is that what you do?”
“It’s what I’m doing right now. Come on, let’s see what you’ve got.”
“It’s bad.”
“That’s why we’re working on it. Writing is re-writing.” Another silence. “Mason? You still with me in there?”
“Okay I have it. But – it’s just …  I can’t  -- the idea is I don’t know what to say, or that, I don’t know … I want words to do more, you know? More than they really can. Like if I had the right words … like a spell, like Harry Potter or something. But I mean … so -- ”
“That’s good, that’s a start. Like what?”
“I don’t know – massage her neck or put cold towels on her eyes? She gets really bad headaches.”
“There you go – that’s a beginning. Start a list. It can be a list poem. Use all the senses. What words can make her taste? Just wing it, whatever comes to mind.”
“Raspberries? And chocolate? The first sip of coffee in the morning.”
“That’s great! The first sip of coffee. That’s definitely the best one. How about smell? What do you want words to make her smell?”
He was getting into it now .“Old books? Cut grass? Roses? Not the ones you buy in the store, they don’t even have any smell. I mean the ones that grow here in the summer. Real roses.”
“Fantastic, that’s a cool distinction. And it’s kind of a metaphor, too – she’s the real thing. The Nantucket rose.”
Another long silence. “This won’t work. Words can’t do anything and this stupid poem won’t do anything either. It’s just a stupid waste of time.”
I could feel him reaching for the gun.
“But that’s the whole point,” I blurted. “That’s what the poem’s about and that’s your ending, that’s how you wrap it up.” I was already writing it in my head. “I’ll tell you what. I have an idea for the last quatrain. If you like it you can have it, you can write up to it, and know you have a strong finish. What do you say?”
“What is it?”
“Okay ….  Something like -- this is tragic, this is why I rant. I want words to do magic. And they can’t.”
A pause. Haden stared at me. I knew he wanted to break down the door, just like Dan did.
Then: “That’s pretty good, Chief.”
I let out a breath. “Then use it, go for it, write the hell out of it. It sure beats a suicide note. Can you do that?”
“I think so. I think I can.”
“Then let us in and give me the gun. You’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Walking away from the house a few minutes later, Haden said, “Nice work, Cyrano. You’re going to be ghost writing poems for that kid forever.”
“I don’t think so. I think he’ll do okay on his own. The first sip of coffee? That was a nice line.”
We paused at my cruiser. Randy and Charlie had cleared off the lookie-lous. “Who’d ever think a cop could use poetry on the job,” Haden said.
“It’s happened before. Back in L.A we had some gang-banger in a hostage situation in Compton. I knew the kid, I knew he was a rap battler. So I got into a rap battle with him.”
“Come on.”
“I’m serious.”
“Okay Eminem, what did you say to him?”
“I don’t exactly remember … a lot of black-white trash talk.”
Haden grinned. “I have to hear this. Come on, you must remember a little of it.”
“Well …let’s see –  the last part went, ‘yeah I’m cool, I went to high school, and I graduated, fool that’s why I rule your black ass now, check it out how, Mr fish belly, Mr. Ofay, Mr. Pig, and you’re the jig, bingo nigger I know the lingo, too and I’m bigger than you, I’m not frontin while you hunting for a word, drop back and punt runt,  them drugs is stunting your ass, you flunk this class you been tested and bested now your ass is arrested,’ Something like that .”
Haden was laughing.
“Hey, it worked. Like my old Captain used to say: bullshit baffles brains. The kid was working on his response, you know? Figuring out what he was going to say against me. And before he knew what was happening someone had a gun at his temple and they were taking the nine out of his hands. On the way out he said. “I would have whipped your ass you wigger motherfucker.” Wigger – that’s a white boy trying to be black. Hey, whatever works.”
Haden patted my shoulder. “No wonder you were a legend in the Department.”
“Yeah, right – a legendary fuck up. But not that day.”
We got into our separate cars and drove back to the cop shop. I was hoping Mason would get the girl, and thinking about poetry in general. Of course, I hardly ever used it directly in my police work, but the type of thinking poetry requires, that willingness to follow an idea when you don’t get where it’s going, or trust a connection that occurs to you out of nowhere, that odd giddy sense of being not quite in control of your own thoughts, had always been essential for me when I confronted the aftermath of unexplained violence or the mystery of a crime scene.
Haden would demand examples if I tried to make that case to him. As it turned out, it was only a matter of time.
 The first bomb threat was waiting for us at the station.


In Defense of Jonah Lehrer


I just found out that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will refund me the money I spent on Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Thanks anyway, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I like the book and I’m keeping it.
Mr Lehrer invented some quotations from Bob Dylan, and though -- as David Kinney pointed out in the New York Times today – such fabulist inventions and distortions were a basic component of Dylan’s own memoir, Chronicle – Mr. Lehrer is suffering a ritual media flaying that Dylan himself would never have experienced. Lehrer is a pariah today. His career is over. An academic of my acquaintance called Lehrer’s crazy behavior “professional suicide.”  There’s no doubt that he did a bad, foolish and unprofessional thing. Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter, weighed in with a think piece about what drives a successful young writer to such extreme errors of judgment. The article had the same tone I heard in all the other writing on the subject of Lehrer’s downfall:  the rueful perspective of an early obituary.
Somewhere around the fifth or six smug elegy, the shadenfreude started to annoy me. The shrill note of vindicated jealousy sounded a little too loud and dissonant. What no one mentions is that Lehrer’s book was fascinating and engrossing, keenly well-written, bristling with insight and anecdote. It reminded me of a Malcolm Gladwell  book, and I can imagine Gladwell  breathing a small quiet private sigh of relief this evening, something like what Honda executives must have felt when the Toyota scandals broke two years ago: one less competitor to worry about. In a sane world the author and publisher would apologize and future editions of the book would excise the errant quotes.
The book’s section on Bob Dylan is a tiny fraction of the whole. Mr. Lehrer also talks about the way creativity has been nourished by environments and social structures as diverse as ancient Atehns and the Pixar writers’ room. He discusses the fallacy of brain-storming and the invention of the Barbie Doll, the corporate culture of the 3M company, the chemical changes in the brain that occur during a jazz improvisation and the benefits of daydreaming. He illuminates everything from dopamine reward pathways to the excess genius phenomenon to the bizarre way the Swiffer mop was invented and the reasons why the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts has  produced so many major talents. He talks about creativity in business and finance and advertising, medicine and local government, not just the arts, and certainly not just Bob Dylan.
Finally he writes:
The mystery is this: although the imagination is inspired by the everyday world – by its flaws and beauties – we are able to see beyond our sources, to imagine things that exist only in  the mind. We notice an incomp;lateness and we can complete it; the cracks in things become a source of light. And so, the mop gets turtned into ther Swiffer and tin pan alley gives rise to Bob Dylan, and a hackneyed tragedy becomes Hamlet. Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.
So I have to wonder, do we throw out more than two hundred and fifty pages on insight and information, anecdote and analysis, because of a couple of invented quotations? It seems Draconian, Puritanical and cruel. Cruel not just to the author but to his millions of readers, most of whom, I suspect are saddened that there will be no next Jonah Lehrer book to savor, and who will probably do as I plan to do – let the publishers keep their money and read the book we have again.

Figuring it Out: Genre Fiction & Literature


There’s been a small flurry of writing about genre fiction and literature lately – Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker, Lev Grossman in Time magazine. As I try to write in both worlds, and having set opposing heavy weights Lawrence Durrell and Len Deighton against each other in my MFA graduate thesis, I feel the need to add a small comment to the discussion. Krystal feels as do most academics, that literary fiction is different and essentially better (or more important) than genre fiction. Grossman takes a lot of words and a fairly tortured set of rationales to make the case for horror and mystery and crime and romance. Of course there’s plenty of horror, mystery, crime and romance in literary fiction.  But what are they doing there, and why?
 I saw one answer to this question in my own work this morning.  Trying to sell a mystery and working on a piece of mainstream fiction at the same time, I can’t help noticing how the techniques of the detective story have penetrated my ‘literary’ prose. 
In the mainstream book, two old friends who loved the same woman many years before come to a rapprochement in the days before one of them succumbs to cancer. The presentation of this material started out static and verbose – two old geezers slinging what my MFA professor Douglas Glover distastefully refers to as ‘backfill’. When I decided to dramatize this material, to have at least some part of it take place in the present, with the momentum and impact of on-going events, I found myself rooting around happily in the mystery writer’s toolbox.  Some aspect of the infidelity had to have remained a secret, and that secret had to be revealed. This is the basic conundrum of the detective story: the hero figuring out what’s really going on, usually well in advance of the police, the villains and hopefully the reader. The basic unit of this mental transaction is the clue. Of course the trick of a clue is that it must not present any obvious relevance to the case at hand It must ‘hide in plain sight’, its true significance concealed, but organically. Any hint of contrivance feels like a cheat to the reader matching wits with the hero. While Gregson and Lestrade busy themselves looking for a woman named Rachel (all but the last letter of her name was written in blood at the crime scene), Holmes knows that “rache” is German for revenge. We know in a soothing way that when Harry Bosch goes through the ‘murder book’ one more time he’ll find the little detail he missed.  This process, the intellectual work of figuring things out, is fascinating and compelling wherever we find it, and whatever the purpose.
 If I wanted my widower Harlan Mallory to grasp the full extent of his friend Oliver’s betrayal, he would need a chain of clues. Oliver had spent two summers with Harlan’s wife in her little beach house on Nantucket, while Harlan was away traveling and their son was at camp. All this took place in the early nineties. I needed Oliver to say something perfectly innocuous that would give his illicit visit away to Harlan but not to the reader. So I did some research, looking for a restaurant that came and went on the island during that brief time frame.  I found one, and when Oliver suggests stopping by ‘that frozen yogurt place’ he gives himself away. So he was on the island during the years when he was supposedly in exile. But did he ever go to Ruth’s house? Harlan takes him there during a rain storm, and Oliver automatically side-steps the drip from a perennial leak over the front door. But the leak is long gone: Harlan had the roof replaced years before.
A casual request and an unconscious physical gesture reveal everything, and the long delayed confrontation begins.
At some point during the planning stages for this sequence I realized that I was thinking like a mystery writer, organizing my clues, setting the story up back to front so that everything would pay off at the big reveal without the reader feeling cheated. I was grateful that I had practiced the craft of crime fiction for so many years. It came in handy.
So does that mean genre fiction and literary fiction are in fact the same? No, and it all comes down to the purpose for which these devices are used. A mystery story is ultimately an artificial construct, a puzzle, devised for the amusement of brain-teaser fans. Grossman takes some pains defending Agatha Christie’s prose in his Time magazine article, prose which Krystal dismisses as utilitarian. But finally the quality of the prose doesn’t really matter. Ford Madox Ford (the representative of  authentic literature in Krystal’s formulation) writes in richer detail, but that matters less than the fact that he’s using his prose and the tricks of plot and the chimera of character development to show us some essential truth about his life and our own. Agatha Christie just wants to build a Chinese box we can’t open.
And sorry, Lev, but that’s not enough.

My Simple Cure for American Politics


In one sentence:
Ban political ads from television.
That's it. That would do it -- stymie the billionaires, circumvent the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and turn America back to the rule of its own citizens . That's right -- democracy is just a single step away. We banned cigarette ads from the airwaves, and political ads are even more toxic. All the money that superpacs raise goes to attack spots on television. Without that venue there would be no place to spend the billions and billions of dollars our mini-pharohs are pouring into the system. If politicians didn't need those massive infusions of cash to fight the reprehensible prime-time propaganda wars, they wouldn't come to Congress as the wholly owned subsidiaries of the men who are going to be financing their next campaigns.
It's staggeringly simple, a 'silver bullet' that could cure the metastacizing corruption of our political system with one shot.
Without television, candidates would have to campaign the old fashioned way, one hand-shake, one stump-speech, one baby kiss at a time. Voters would have to form their own opinions by  -- I hesitate to even whisper the word -- reading about the issues. When a politician won, it would be fair and square and they could vote their conscience on the floor of the house, not the Koch brothers' pocket book.
This would be an authentic revolution. How would Senators sound, unfettered by the need to please a corporate master? I have no idea. Maybe they've lost the knack of having their own opinions, maybe integrity can wither like any other unused muscle. Like those lions who pace their newly-opened cages, unequipped for freedom, perhaps the members of Congress will be unable to grasp the concept of free speech. But I believe they'd figure it out eventually.   They'd get to know their own minds, start hearing themselves think again and begin the unique adventure of actually representing their constituents.
Of course there would be problems. This plan could bankrupt every local television station in the country, who thrive on elections like a summer town in tourist season. But the govertnment pays farmers not to grow certain crops. It should pay these stations not to run political ads. It would be government subsidy money well spent.
To sum up, in the terms a modern politician can understand best:
My name is Steven Axelrod and I approved this ad.

"The Newsroom": Aaron Sorkin Vs. The Praise Cycle


Aaron Sorkin’s  The Newsroom premiered on HBO last Sunday night, to the groans and eye-rolling of the critics. I suppose this was inevitable. There is a cultural phenomenon I call the praise cycle. I described here four years ago, and nothing has changed since then:
Modern criticism and political journalism have created a toxic new manifestation of Jung’s collective unconscious. Masses of critics and pundits, without any apparent connection (there is no evidence of a yearly town meeting where they decide this stuff), arrive at a universal consensus. It might concern a political party (The Democrats are ineffectual wimps) or an artist (Bob Dylan is a better than ever!). But it never has much to do with reality, except by coincidence. It’s satisfying when someone whose work you detest finally comes full circle and their best work in years is universally vilified. But more often it’s infuriating. You can almost smell it before it happens. I had a sense that no matter what kind of book Tom Wolfe wrote next, he was going to get slammed. And I Am Charlotte Simmons got exactly the irrational pasting I thought it would. Maybe by the time he publishes his next book the cycle will have turned 180 degrees and they’ll all praise it … even if it sucks.
What can I say? It’s Sorkin’s turn now to pay his penance on the dark side of the cycle. He’s just been too successful lately, what with the Oscar for The Social Network and the nomination for his  work on Moneyball.
So his new show, quick talking, cynical and idealistic at the same time, brilliant and mercurial, has to be dismissed as ‘preachy’ (as if we didn’t need the sermon!) and dull. It would be called “inspirational’ and ‘challenging’ if the praise cycle had come around to the positive setting, and that’s exactly how I felt about The Newsroom,  perched on the edge of my couch for the rousing, full (cable-generous) 77 minutes of the pilot.
The critics who call its characters and situations ‘repetitive’ and ‘familiar’ would turn those glib judgments inside out on the positive turn of the cycle, and leave us with a much more accurate view: The Newsroom is “Sorkin-esque”, as it should be, distinguished as one would hope, by Sorkin’s world view, his battered idealism, his strong, sharp-witted, tough-minded characters and their rapid-fire confrontations. The various conflations of new characters with old ones, in New York magazine, on the Collider wedbsite, among other places, show a facile lack of attention to the new program. McAvoy is President Bartlett? Why, because they’re both gruff and idealistic? As most of us learned in fifth grade, there’s more to a character than a glib inventory of ‘traits’. Sorkin’s new characters share the DNA of his creative imagination with the old ones, but that should be a cause for celebration, not contempt.
Ironically, Sorkin is being ridiculed in the press for imagining that the press itself might still matter.
But even his own characters, particularly news anchor Will McAvoy, show some skepticism about this premise. Sorkin is a Utopian writer, his  fictional network is named after the mythical lost city of Atlantis ... but he knows that someone has to think in those terms, to imagine a better world, or call us to return to an earlier one where, as McAvoy stingingly puts it “We had a war on poverty, not poor people.”
The problem with Sorkin's last network series was that a skit comedy show was the wrong venue to air the issues and problems that concern him. A CNN-like news network is far more appropriate, and Sorkin proves this point by reimaging the shoddy press coverage of the 2010 BP oil spill and asking, “What if there had been one news agency smart and fast and committed enough, with the guts -- and the sources  -- to tell the real story, right from the start?” The result is great television, both elating and troubling. It could have been done so easily … just by deciding to, as the pilot’s title suggests. But it wasn’t, any more than Barack Obama’s administration resembled Jed Bartlett’s.
Sorkin keeps us thinking about the way things ought to be, and he actually believes change is possible. He presents that optimism by dramatizing the struggles and ambitions, the victories and defeats, of a fascinating group of smart committed people, from Alison Pill’s suddenly promoted Associate Producer to Sam Waterson’s drunken News Division President to Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy and Emily Morton’s incoming producer MacKenzie McHale. The acting is needle sharp. The actors know how to land a joke as well as make a speech and they work together like they’ve been doing it forever.
In short: the show is brilliant, and Aaron Sorkin is back.
Yes, the same Aaron Sorkin who created Sports Night fourteen years ago and A Few Good Men nine years before that. If you didn’t like him then, if you think The West Wing improved in the fifth season after he left the show, then you’ll probably agree with the critics and find The Newsroom a pompous snooze-fest.
But if you loved Sports Night and thought The West Wing turned into a zombie parody of his former self when its show-runner got fired, if you still sometimes find yourself muttering “You can’t handle the truth” under your breath in a breath-taking variety of situations, then you may just believe that  Aaron Sorkin is one of the great auteurs of our new Golden Age of television, and you’re just grateful to have him back. I know I am. Ignore the critics and their predictable praise cycles and give The Newsroom a chance. Let yourself feel a moment of hope, admit the secret pleasure of hearing someone “Speak the truth to stupid.”
You’ll be glad you did.

Escape and Escapism: Running Away With Jane Whitefield

This post originally appeared in Douglas Gover's internet literary magazine Numero Cinq:

I have always been drawn to stories of escape; not just simple escapism but actual escape. At the age of ten, I obsessed over World War II prisoner of war literature. I may have been the only sixth-grader in the audience for The Great Escape, John Sturges’ stirring adaptation of Paul Brickhill’s memoir of the break-out from Stalag Luft Three, who sat squinting critically at the screen making an inventory of trivial inaccuracies: The living conditions were worse than the film portrayed; the ambitions of the escape team, more modest. And the POW camp, intended to gather all the allied escape artists in one place, was actually Colditz Castle, a one-time mental institution in the town of Colditz, near Leipzig.
The claustrophobic tunnel digger was not the heroic Pole played by Charles Bronson but Paul Brickhill himself, and unlike Bronson’s Danny, he was ultimately banned from participating in the escape, which may have saved his life.
I’ve seen The Great Escape many times since that rainy afternoon in 1963, first in revival theaters and when it became possible I purchased it on every known format: Betamax, VHS, RCA video disk, DVD, Blu-ray, and finally, the digital download. I watch it to the end whenever I chance upon it, clicking through the channels on my TV. I’ve even rented it on Netflix.
The thing that keeps drawing me back is the way the film expands in the final third, from the airless prison stockades and dark tunnels into the open rolling fields, quaint towns and snow-capped mountains of Bavaria.
Richard Attenborough fleeing across the roofs of a sleepy village; Charles Bronson floating down a placid river to the sea on a stolen rowboat; James Coburn following a French Resistance fighter into the sun-dappled foothills of the Pyrenees, heading for Spain; and of course, most of all, best of all, Steve McQueen tearing across an alpine meadow on a hi-jacked Nazi motorcycle, finally attempting to leap a wall of crossed timbers and barbed wire in an exuberant, gloriously futile bid for freedom. Those images captured everything I longed for as a child.
But why should that be? I was a cheerful, cherubic little boy living a pampered life in a great city. I had a loving mother, a glamorous father, my own dog, my own record player, my own room. And yet I loved to imagine that the six-foot, ornate dark wood-framed mirror hanging in that room was in fact a secret door to – where? Someplace more exciting, more mysterious, more free.
I happily followed the Pevensie children through that wardrobe into Narnia and could have jumped directly into the television every Easter when we watched the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on CBS. It didn’t matter that all we had was a black-and-white TV.
I provided the color.
Looking back, I realize I was frightened most of the time growing up, afraid of looking foolish or clumsy, cowering at the thought of bullies at school and on my block at home, trying to avoid stern teachers and arrogant camp counselors. The city itself made me nervous. I never explored it until I returned as an adult, after college. I never even visited Greenwich Village until tenth grade when I found a friend who happened to live there. I attended one of the best high schools in the Western Hemisphere, but I was too intimidated to take the most interesting classes Dalton offered. I still regret missing Donald Barr’s Shakespeare seminar and the great Jane Bendetson’s “The Bible as Literature” elective.
The Los Angeles side of my own family frankly terrified me but with good reason: drug addled, bizarrely seductive half-sister, sociopathic step-brother (did he really try to drown me in the swimming pool that day? Or was he just ‘fooling around?’), authentically demonic step-mother (“I would gladly see all of you LAYED OUT DEAD if it meant helping your father IN ANY WAY.”) and of course my brilliant, troubled, phobic, mercurial, unknowable father.
Fear itself is corrosive. My father understood that as well as FDR did, and I knew it, too. That’s why I spent so much time in my early adulthood confronting mean people, flying kamikaze seductions at women far out of my league and surfing waves too big for me. I got defeated, dumped and nearly drowned. I won an argument or two, went on some wild dates, caught some extraordinary waves. But none of that changed anything.
I still wanted to escape — to the Yellow Brick Road with a motley crew of impaired friends, to the city of Helium under the hurtling moons of Barsoom with Dejah Thoris; down the Mississippi on a raft with Nigger Jim. Maybe I just wanted to stake my freehold in the unclaimed territories of the imagination. I’ve always felt more comfortable with stories than with real life, anyway – they’re so much better organized.
My adult reading remains tinged with that longing for other lives and alternate worlds, from Mann’s Zauberberg to Hemingway’s Pamplona, From Michael Chabon’s Sitka, Alaska to (perversely, I know) George Orwell’s Airstrip One.
That path led me through the guilty pleasures of crime fiction to the imaginary upstate New York town of Deganawida and the extraordinary half-Seneca Indian ‘guide’, Jane Whitefield. Author Thomas Perry’s seventh novel featuring Jane – Poison Flower – was released in March.
Perry’s first novel, The Butcher’s Boy, came out in 1982 and won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel a year later. He hasn’t made much of a splash since then, partly because his books have never been made into films. He advanced a theory about why this might be during a 2003 exchange with Roger Birnbaum:
TP: In a way I don’t really think about it much anymore. My first book, The Butcher’s Boy, was in option continuously for 18 years. It was never out of option. There are studios that don’t exist anymore that had these things. At some point every working screenwriter in Hollywood has a bad script for one or another of my books. Which is why they all hate me. So, I don’t know.
RB: I’m not seeing the connection. They write bad scripts and they hate you?
TP: These are people who have written good movies. And they are hired to write a script of one of my books and it just doesn’t work out. It’s partly an obvious problem. Most of my main characters spend most of their time alone. And when they are not alone, whatever they say aloud is a lie. So, it’s confusing and very difficult to make a movie out of that. You have to invent some bogus character who is going to be the interlocutor. That’s one thing. And very often you have to soften the protagonist because he is amoral or something. Or has some other minor drawback.
I’m convinced there’s a different explanation.
Perry’s books resist adaptation for the same reason that many books do: their literary quality is simply not translatable to the medium of film. Thomas Perry writes escapist fiction. I’m sure he’d be amused to hear me accuse him of making literature. And yet, in his small and particular way, that is precisely what he does. The one thing that all the books I take seriously have in common is a feeling in the text of the author’s personality and point of view, his unique slant on the events he’s describing his sensibility.
That ought to be the explanation, at least, since the books move through one extraordinary cinematic set-piece after another. The chase across the roofs in The Face Changers, the escape through deep woods in Shadow Woman where Jane uses every trick from her Seneca heritage to hide her trail, not knowing that a pair of dogs are trampling her cunning diversions guided by her scent alone. When she stumbles into a clearing, exhausted and hopeless, and finds herself face to face with a giant brown bear she turns this final calamity into her salvation. She distracts the huge beast with the last of her food and lets the dogs rush headlong into the bear in an improvised Darwinian ambush that covers her escape. I’d watch that in a movie: relentless pursuit foiled by improvisation and ingenuity.
Of course you know Jane will always win, whether she’s leading a trio of murderous sociopaths through the bowels of a deserted rust-belt factory or ambushing a platoon of killers in a deserted country house in the North Woods. That’s the brown savory crust on the macaroni and cheese of this narrative comfort food, the thing people both love and despise about genre fiction in general: Kenzie and Gennaro, Elvis Cole and Spenser will always figure things out; Bubba Rugowski, Joe Pike and Hawk will always get there in the nick of time.
And somehow, the phrase “nick of time” will always be apposite.
So, yes, Jane will always ferry her charges to safety but this sets her apart from the other heroes and heroines on the thriller shelf. She’s not trying to steal anything or solve anything; she’s just trying to help.
Plus she’s cool. She can run forever and she knows where to get false documents. She can tell you that a second floor apartment is best for fugitives (you can see people coming but still climb down to the street); she can teach you to memorize the escape routes from any town and how to destroy the fingerprints and DNA evidence in a car with a fire extinguisher.
Also, she’s fearless. At one point in the 6th book, Runner, she spins her car 180 degrees and drives straight at her pursuers, running them off the road. “You can’t play chicken like that!” her panicky passenger screams. But her bravado is based on ruthless calculation: They’re running for their lives – the mercenaries in the other car are chasing them for cash, and no one’s going to die for a dollar.
Dance for the Dead, perhaps the best of the books, opens with Jane fighting her way into a Los Angeles Court House with nine-year-old Timothy Phillips so that the boy can prove he’s alive before the sinister financial holding company Hoffen-Bayne can declare him dead and take control of his inherited fortune. After a dramatic scene in the courtroom, the judge asks to see Jane in his chambers. “I hear you’re one of those people who could kill me with a pencil,” he says. Jane answers simply: “If I am, I wouldn’t need a pencil.”
To give a better sense of who Jane is and why I find her so compelling, I’m going to turn over some page space to her and present the revealing final moments of her talk with Judge Kramer.
Wrapping up their post-mortem, Jane says:
“ … I can’t prove any of it. I only saw the police putting handcuffs on four of the men in the courthouse, and there won’t be anything on paper that connects them with Hoffen-Bayne or anybody else. I know I never saw them before, so I can’t have been the one they recognized. They saw Timmy.” She took a step toward the door. “Keep him safe.”
The Judge said, “Then there’s you.” He watched her stop and face him. “Who are you?”
“Jane Whitefield.”
“I mean what’s your interest in this?”
“Dennis Morgan asked me to keep Timmy alive. I did that. We all did that.”
“What are you? A private detective? A bodyguard?”
“I’m a guide.”
“What kind of guide?”
“I show people how to go from places where someone is trying to kill them to other places where nobody is.”
“What sort of pay do you get for that?”
“Sometimes they give me presents. I declare the presents on my income taxes. There’s a line for that.”
“Did somebody give you a present for this job?”
“If you fail, there’s nobody around to be grateful. My clients are dead.” After a second she added, “I don‘t take money from kids, even rich kids.”
“Have you served in your capacity as ‘guide’ for Dennis Morgan before?”
“Never met him until he called. He was a friend of a friend.”
“You – all three of you – went into this knowing that whoever was near that little boy might be murdered.”
She looked at him as though she were trying to decide whether he was intelligent or not. Finally, she said, “An innocent little boy is going to die. You’re either somebody who will help him or somebody who won’t. For the rest of your life you’ll be somebody who did help him or somebody who didn’t.”
So that’s Jane Whitefield: one-woman witness-protection agency. As she concludes about Pete Hatcher, a client on the run from mobsters who own the gambling casino where he works, “The way he would defeat his enemies was to outlast them. While they were staring at computer screens or loitering late at night in airport baggage areas or sitting in cars outside hotels at check-out time studying each male who came out the door, he had to be somewhere, living a normal, reasonably contented life. If he could do that for long enough, they would give up.” (Shadow Woman)
Perry weaves Jane’s Indian heritage into the fabric of every story, as in this moment as she is about to go to the aid of a small orphan boy in mortal danger from criminal financial predators trying to steal his inherited fortune. Jane has just received a ‘present’ from a previous client named Rhonda Eckerly – Jane never accepts formal payment for her work. The two hundred thousand dollars will come in handy for the task ahead:
As she locked her door and took a last look at her house, she thought about the old days, when Senecas went out regularly to raid the tribes in the south and west in parties as small as three or four warriors. After a fight they would run back along the trail through the great forest, sometimes not stopping for two days and nights.
When they made it back to Nundawaonoga, they would approach their village and give a special shout to the people to tell them what it was they would be celebrating. (Dance for the Dead)
As Perry said in an interview several years ago,
…one of the things that having a Seneca as my heroine does is give me a way to show the area in several dimensions: the modern place we see, the historical place where armies clashed in deep forests, the mythical place, where deities and supernatural creatures live. The roads in that part of the country are simply Iroquois trails paved over, or short-cuts made by the British Army to connect their forts.
Despite her Ivy League education and upper middle class lifestyle, Jane remains a Long House Seneca at heart. But she is caught between two worlds and the binary nature of reality figures prominently in Seneca lore, as well. Two brothers, Hawenneyu the creator and Hanegoategeh the destroyer, struggle over the world, fighting each other at every turn:
Hawenneyu makes a little boy. Hanegoategeh gives him a virus. Hawenneyu strengthens his body to give him immunity, and Hanegoategeh makes the virus mutate and sends the boy off to kill eighty thousand people. Hawenneyu has made sure that one of the eighty thousand is a man who would have started a war and killed eighty million. (Blood Money)
Jane is exigent and unsentimental, ruthlessly clear in her judgments, sharply articulate in expressing them … rather like Perry himself. The astringent perceptions speckle the books and touch you as you read like summer rain on your face. Of a silent woman in a county lock-up he remarks, “She never spoke to anyone, having long ago lost interest in what other people gained from listening, and having gotten used to whatever they expelled by talking.” (Dance for the Dead) Hiding out at the University of Michigan, the 28-year-old guide makes this unflinching assessment of herself: “There were places where she could still pass as a college girl, but college was not one of them.” (Dance for the Dead) Of her own husband, a successful surgeon, she notes, “Carey was very good at constructing fair, logical solutions to other people’s problems.” (The Face Changers) Of the three urban gang-bangers she entices to help her follow an escaping villain, Jane thinks, “The part about killing seemed to have raised their level of interest considerably. She had forgotten for a moment about seventeen year old boys. There had never been a moment in human history when anybody hadn’t been able to recruit enough of them for a war.” (Dance for the Dead)
In Poison Flower, Jane Whitefield confronts some of the logical consequences of her Quixotic profession: these windmills fight back. Every person she has rescued over the years has someone still hunting for them, and these hunters are ruthless persistent criminals, organized or not. Jane has always known she might be captured by one of them and tortured to reveal a location of the victims she’s rescued. Like the Seneca scouts left behind to assure the escape of a raiding party, she has always been willing to sacrifice herself for her tribe.
Poison Flower puts this determination to the test.
Jane helps a man named named James Shelby escape from jail in Los Angeles. Shelby’s sister had found Jane in Deganawida and convinced her that Shelby had been framed for murder. No one else was willing or able to help.
Jane gets the man out of jail but she is shot and captured in the process. Her captors begin what our government calls “enhanced interrogation” (unless some other government is doing it) but stop hastily when they realize Jane has more to offer than the location of a single runner. A little research identifies her as a valuable commodity, and soon she’s on the auction block, with every abusive husband, sociopath and career criminal she ever defeated bidding for the right to extract her secrets.
She escapes – the thugs are more worried about someone stealing her before the auction and make the blunder of underestimating a slim, unarmed, badly wounded woman.
With no identification, no money and no cell-phone, some stolen clothes, a thug’s gun and a pair of bolt cutters that were meant to be used on her own fingers and toes, Jane steals a van and winds up several hundred miles away, at a battered women’s shelter in Las Vegas. She knows the staff there will help a woman in her condition with no questions, judgments or demands.
It’s typical of Jane that she acquires a runner, even as she is on the run herself, protecting one of the women at the shelter from the abusive husband who has tracked her down. The last thing he expects, when he breaks into the place, is a moment like this:
Jane swung her good leg to the floor, stood up beside the bed and aimed her gun at him with both hands. “I know you can probably scare her into saying something she doesn’t want to. Now I want you to take a long, careful look at me. If you think I haven’t fired a gun into a man before, or that I even have a slight reluctance to do it again right now, then go ahead. Try to get to me.”
He does, and she shoots him. But it’s not a fatal shot, and as Jane flees the shelter, the hunted wife begs to join her. The woman knows that as long as her husband is alive he’ll keep trying to find her. This is not a request Jane is constructed to refuse.
Once she connects with Shelby the next concern is getting his sister to safety. She’s the obvious next victim. They’re almost too late in attempting to rescue her, and Jane is captured again. The auction is on. Once more she escapes, aided in part by the razor blade taped to her instep but mainly by the greedy ruthless violence of the bidders themselves. They all bring cash to the auction and the temptation of those sacks of money proves too great. The civilized Sotheby’s façade soon disintegrates into total warfare and Jane spirits Shelby’s sister away in the firefight.
With her charges safe, the task should be complete, but now a lifetime’s worth of very bad people are hunting her, so Jane takes the initiative and goes to war. Of course the outcome is preordained, predictable as the next Godiva chocolate. One might say, as nutritious as the next Godiva chocolate as well, and this installment — more violent and plot-driven than any of the others –makes you hungry for the steamed fish and arugula salad of a more demanding literature. As such it may be the perfect book to ease yourself out of Jane Whitefield’s world into Jane Austen’s, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s.
Of course, Perry isn’t the equal of those women. But he has something in common with them that his colleagues can’t claim: he makes a particular sound, he owns a particular tone of voice, and you keep the compassionate asperity of that voice with you long after the details of chase and pursuit are forgotten.
So if it’s my own stubborn fears that draw me to Jane Whitefield, the question persists: where do those fears come from? That’s what I’ve been wondering since I finished Poison Flower.
It might be genetic – my father was a quivering mass of phobias: narrow spaces, open spaces, enclosed spaces … space in general terrified him. In his later years he refused to fly because of a toxic Long Island iced tea of debilitating terrors: agoraphobia, claustrophobia, vertigo – too anxious to fly without a stiff drink and too shy to ask for one. That’s the “Nature” side of the debate; on the Nurture side we have the fact of his leaving my mother when I was six months old. Of course I was too young to register his absence, but reliable sources tell me that my mother was a broken-hearted unstable mess for more than a year after his departure. That could throw a good scare into the average toddler. And that’s the main reason I didn’t leave for California when I got the offer of agency representation and a career writing television sitcoms. My son Nick was nine years old and teetering a little at that point. His father lighting out for the territories would have knocked him over decisively.
So I didn’t follow the fantasy and I didn’t escape my life. I stayed home and raised my kids instead. I may have settled the nature-nurture debate, at least within my own family, since both kids are cheerfully indomitable and fearless. Tellingly. Nick has never shown the slightest interest in works of fantasy. He prefers history; he reads Robert A. Caro, not Robert A. Heinlein, and his “Glory Road” was I-95 South. He’s living in Washington D.C. now, working for the World Wildlife Fund.
He loves The Great Escape though, especially that iconic image of Steve McQueen in flight, leaping for freedom, knowing he’s going to land defeated in a tangle of barbed wire and eternally not giving a shit. And perhaps it’s just because of him and his sister Caity, fighting on the barricades of bureaucracy struggling to help the infected and the afflicted in the halfway houses of Boston, that I have found a rare contentment on this tiny island thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts. I don’t require the skill and ingenuity of a Jane Whitefield, I no longer yearn to vanish, jump the boat and drive off into a new life.
But I still love Jane Whitefield, and I still feel the delinquent thrill when a new book of her adventures comes out. Like many of her old clients, settled in their new lives, far from danger or pursuit, I might not need Jane Whitefield any more. But it’s nice to know she’s there.