Thursday, January 28, 2016
Thursday, January 21, 2016
THE SHIFTING REALITIES OF PHILP K. DICK: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings – Edited by Lawrence Sutin
Years before my first experience with psychotropic drugs I came across an observation by Edna Ferber that her everyday consciousness seemed to her similar to the heightened perceptions reported by people who'd experienced chemical psychedelia. She said she'd not tried them herself.
Meanwhile in a parallel universe Philip K. Dick wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, considered by some to be the classic LSD novel, two years before he took any psychedelic drugs. This, according to Paul Williams in his extensive 1975 Rolling Stone piece on Dick. Dick told Williams he did try writing once on LSD, to disastrous effect: “It came out all in Latin and Sanskrit.” Williams attributes “probably” Dick's internal chemistry for the “stunning, almost hallucinogenic sense of reality” Dick created in his writings.
This “internal chemistry” apparently extended even to the dizzying pace of his creative imagination. He admitted he wrote his first thirty-some novels on amphetamines, but then was told by psychiatrists who tested him for possible drug addiction that the drugs had not been working. He was told his liver detoxified the chemicals so they never reached his brain. He found he'd been fooling himself.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Shell Scott? Meh—today's chichi word that describes my reaction to the first Richard S. Prather mystery novel I read some serious decades past, when I was a serious fan of serious fictional private eyes with names like Spade, Archer, Marlowe, Hammer, and Continental Op. Scott, in my serious opinion then, was a fop.
And I never looked back at the silly, smartassy, white-crewcutted, embarrassing imitation of the “real” P.I.s a mature guy like me could dig. Mature. That was me. So much older then. Thanks be to God's grace and Bob Dylan I'm younger than that now, although I did cringe at the thought of revisiting the extensive Prather canon when crime author Patti Abbott suggested that contributors to her blog's weekly Friday's Forgotten Book feature might consider picking a Prather novel to write about. She dropped this hint just before Christmas. I dragged my feet and finally downloaded the cheapest Prather book on Kindle I could find: three short stories called Squeeze Play. It's named for one of the two Shell Scott stories sandwiching a non-Shell Scott story called The Spirit of the Convention, which I liked. The two Scott stories? Meh. Same reaction essentially I had before.
But as we moved closer and closer to the deadline—it's this Friday—I decided to give Shell Scott another chance. On Monday I downloaded Shellshock, his last published novel before he died on Valentine's Day nine years ago next month. Enjoyed it so much I am now a devoted fan. Scott is a hoot, and Shellshock was a masterful mix of parody with enough serious, twisty plot to keep me scrolling down the Kindle pages. Evidently I didn't appreciate parody when I was older. At the same time, I don't believe parody works in the short story form—at least not Prather's style. The limited length simply cannot accommodate the complex plotting and exaggerated attention to certain details that worked so well in the novel.
Monday, January 11, 2016
Blow became aware of a sense of disconnectedness as he followed Gobble from the judge's chambers into the courtroom. It was similar to the feeling—relief tainted by a vague disenchantment—that had come over him once in his acting days. He'd stepped back onstage, outside the curtain, following what he knew had been one of his finest performances. He was in his street clothes. The spotlights had been extinguished and the voices of stage hands working behind the curtain swept away any lingering wisps of illusion the performance might have left.
What he faced when he looked out over the rows of emptying seats where moments before a packed house had risen to its feet and given the players a sustained ovation with commanding applause, shouts of bravo! and the occasional shriek of a tooth whistle, what he faced now was an indifferent reality, the diminishing sounds of shuffling feet, private chatter, the mockery of one hand clapping. He had no presence.
The tension of pendency takes up residence in a courtroom during a trial. It hovers as a palpable current at all times, relenting only by degrees during the inevitable hiatuses—the restroom breaks, lunchtimes and overnight recesses in trials that last longer than a day. Blow had returned one night early in the Bacon trial to retrieve a file folder the janitors had found on the floor under the defense table. The bailiff had called him at home. He was eating dinner with his father and Lila. Embarrassed, he drove to the courthouse and was let in by a sheriff's deputy who waited for him at the front door. The janitors had finished up and gone home, leaving the folder on the table. Blow's relief to find nothing in the folder of any special importance was dampened by an odd feeling he was being seen, although the courtroom was deserted and contained no security cameras. He knew no one was watching him, yet the feeling persisted. It was the courtroom itself, he concluded. The courtroom was at rest but remained poised, as was the trial itself. It wasn't over, and until it was, until Judge Pendleton banged his gavel for the last time and delivered the word adjourned, the benches, the tables, the chairs, ceiling, lighting, portraits on the wall—everything, the very air in the room--hung in apprehension, waiting.
Thursday, January 7, 2016
As it seems so often many true artists must die to earn their recognition, so it was with me and Robert Stone.
In my mind, when I learned this time last year Stone had died, he was a mean old drunk who as a young man had written a couple of novels. I'd read one—Dog Soldiers—and had not been able to get very far in the other, his first novel, Hall of Mirrors. I remembered Dog Soldiers as compelling but bleak. Hall of Mirrors was giving off the same artfully crafted sense of doom when I started it, and I just wasn't up for another downer. Life moved on. There were plenty more downers to come, more than enough as I see it, but without Hall of Mirrors.
Never got back to Stone. I recall seeing his name once in a feature article. He'd been recognized in a bar drinking alone, somewhere tropical, I believe, looking uncommunicative. When I saw his name again, on novelist Ed Gorman's blog, it was accompanied by news of his death at age 77. Gorman lauded Stone as suffering from “the Graham Greene problem--yes he was a brilliant novelist but he was also a brilliant storyteller. There are Those who distrust this combination, notably, as William Goldman maintains, The Nobel Prize Committee.” The New York Times obituary Gorman included mentioned that Stone had published a memoir “about his years in California as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.”
Monday, January 4, 2016
The first image that drew his focus when Blow pushed through the courtroom doors was the small white face atop the billowing black robe of Circuit Judge Roger Pendleton. He (the judge) was perched on his leather-padded throne at the very center of the elevated, polished walnut furniture ensemble that comprised The Bench. As the doors swished shut behind Blow he saw the judge tilt his face downward and fix his countenance upon him. Blow's peripheral vision detected his client seated at the defense table; five yards away, the prosecutor at his. The air snapped with electric anticipation.
“Your honor.” Blow's salute as he brisk-walked up the aisle between the rows of empty benches.
Pendleton spoke into a little black curved microphone on his desktop. He sounded friendly. “Sorry to interrupt your lunch, Mr. Stone. Hope you had time to get something to eat.”
“Yes, sir, Judge.” He pushed through the bar gate and headed for the table. Elvin Bacon was facing him. The vacant look was gone, replaced by something new, unfamiliar. No smile, no sneer. The eyes were focused, but there was something strange in them. Bacon returned Blow's polite nod. It occurred to Blow that Leonard wasn't present. Another flag.
Blow went to his chair. The judge held up a hand. “Not yet, Mr. Stone. I'd like to meet with you and Mr. Gobble in chambers.” Blow heard Gobble push to his feet. Bacon started to rise, but Pendleton checked him.
“Just counsel, Mr. Bacon, for now.”
“I'm an attorney, your honor.” Bacon's voice was tense.
“You're also the defendant. Unless you're representing yourself you will allow us this conference. We won't be--”
Bacon shot to his feet. “Dammit, Judge, I have a right--”
Friday, January 1, 2016
The first thing I learned from Robert Pirsig was that I'm a romantic. A mildly unsettling discovery as I started reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values shortly after the paperback edition came out in the mid-'70s. I had assumed romantics were dreamy sappy sorts who loved show tunes and craved syrup on their stories. Couldn't be me, the cynical Army vet, digger of Mailer, Jones, the Dead and the Stones. It wasn't until later, postPirsig, that I read somewhere cynics are disenchanted romantics, and it resonated.
But I wasn't there yet when I started Zen. My “cynicism” was more unconscious affectation than true, akin to whistling in the dark with a secret faith in the happy ending. I was a romantic in disguise from myself.
Pirsig's skill at leading me to this reluctant discovery was masterful. It started with the title. For me, Zen Buddhism was a one-hand-clapping fad, the kind of esoteria that enabled hipsters to sneer at the Mr. Joneses for not knowing what was happening. I identified with Mr. Jones. But paired with something so two-handed as mechanics, and with the ingenious embellishment of the pragmatic with “art,” the book felt more than accessible. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance intrigued me. It didn't hurt that mainstream critics raved about Zen, lauding it as, in one review, “profoundly important, disturbing, deeply moving, full of insights, a wonderful book."
Such endorsements on top of a sly title sold me the book. Pirsig's voice did the rest.