Thursday, June 27, 2019


Roger Loring's genius in writing essays that provoke continual knowing grins combined with constant affirmative nods of head and occasional irreverant vocal bursts is matched only by his market-savvy title selection. That last, the market-savvy thing, applies only to the two collections of his provocative essays. For his first collection he chose the title of one of his essays to lead the pack that would most certainly attract both men and women: Why Men Don’t Ask for Directions. I needn't explain, need I? Okay, I will, but by simply asking you to picture the heads of every woman you know nodding vigorously as their voices utter sounds like "oh yeah" and "ego" and "so what excuse is this guy gonna give?" etc. They bought a copy, read enough of it to feel good about themselves and the men they know, and bought more copies for the men. Men bought it to see what kind of lame-ass excuse this Loring guy had for something all men have done naturally for ever because they are men. And they, too, laughed, read all of the essays, and felt good about themselves.

Now comes Loring's second collection, which I've just finished reading—grinning, laughing, nodding, etc.--and now feel good, not necessarily just about myself, but good. Again, Loring picked the perfect cross-gendered title from among the more than two dozen available essay titles, and this one also has a generational attraction. From a marketing point of view, I cannot in my wildest imagination picture a woman or man born within a few years after World War II, now dubbed "Baby Boomers," not grinning and nodding affirmatively when seeing on the cover of a book, I Don't Text While Driving, Walking, or Standing Still. Full disclosure: I sure as hell did! And I didn't have to hunt down the table of contents to find the eponymous essay. It sits right at the top. I read it, but I didn't have to to be able to divine the answer to the implied question, which has nothing to do with safety or a preference for hearing voices to reading esoteric symbols on a tiny screen. The correct answer is that Roger Loring hasn't learned how to text, and has no desire to do so. Moreover, he doesn't own a "smart phone" and has no desire to upgrade from his "flip" phone because all he wants a cell phone for is to "make phone calls!"

Loring continues in this essay to confess that he's so unskilled vis a vis the digitalized information superhighway "I am still stuck in my garage, because I haven’t figured out how to work the remote control for my automatic garage door opener."
Roger Dale Loring

Now, youngsters (younger than the Boomer generation) who find this book lying on a coffee table or in the waiting area of the garage while their vehicle's being inspected might feel their lips curl into a smirk or even a sneer at the title. Here's what Loring, who optimistically believes they might pick the book up and start reading, advises in his introduction to I Don't Text: "I...hope younger folks—the Gen X and millennial crowds—will read the book with an open mind, which was the opposite of my mind when I was their age."

The more I think about it, I Don't Text is indeed the perfect marketing title compared with the other couple dozen or so heading the essays precisely because it reaches out, with a certain perverse reverse psychology, to those youngsters who still read books when not forced to do so for school. Consider some of the other titles: The Difference Between Men and Women. Can you imagine any youngsters old enough or bold enough to watch "adult" TV shows and movies featuring interaction between the principle genders not believing they know everything there is to know about le difference? To be seen reading a book with that title would subject them to shaming condescension from their peers, whose dismayed faces would tacitly diss them with, "Like, you don't already know, dude?" [Disclosure: I learned some things, and I also know attitudes of political correctness would best be suspended in the interest of enjoying the satiric ironies Loring dishes out, tongue planted firmly in cheek while composing the piece, no doubt.]

Or this one: The Hardest Part-Time Job in America. I mean, what kid would feel compelled to dare to open the cover of a book that promised to remind him or her, or some hybrid combination of the two, that one day, probably sooner than later, they would have to consider actually finding a job? Any job? But you Boomers most likely do want to know which part-time job is the hardest in America. Right now that's for me to know the rest. [Click the boldface title at the top of the page, which will link you to Loring's author's page, if you wish to buy the book and find out. For those of you digitally challenged Boomers not completely comfortable with the scrolling thingy, here's the link again: RogerLoring's author's page.

Now, the essays in this book cover a wide range of topics and offer opinions gained from decades of wisdom-rending experience, many of them spent spent on golf courses, watching sports on TV, and teaching high school yout's in Gloucester, Virginia. Did I just write "yout's?" Yeah, yout's. [Apologies. My Cousin Vinnie is one of my alltime favorite movies, next to Holmes & Watson and The Big Lebowski, and I know this isn't about me, and I don't how that happened to slip out like that but I'm wondering if maybe I Don't Text's outrageous essays didn't somehow open up a door in my psyche better left closed at a time like this, but...okay, I'm done.] One of I Don't Text's most gut-splitting-hilarious essays is on the clichés used by TV announcers covering sports. After giving us pages of examples he combines many of the worst lines into this one compact paragraph:

I am bothered by sports clichés used on TV broadcasts, but I’m not exactly sure what to do about it. The fact of the matter is that the ball is in my court. Instead of just complaining, I need to step up to the plate. I have a great work ethic, so I need to generate some offense, because I know what it takes to win. I need to give 110 percent. I’ll leave it all on the field, because it is clearly time to play hardball. At the end of the day, I should just take one game at a time and then—turn down the volume! Okay, I used a few clichés there, but turning down the volume does seem to be the best solution.

And then there's golf. Golf, I'm pretty sure, is the main reason Roger Loring wrote this book. Golf is a serious matter with Roger, and his essay on it, while giving us some of his usual thigh-thumping insights, also some serious—deadly serious, as other serious golfers might agree (I'm not one)--complaints. But first, I must note that I Don't Text also contains some poetry. Here is one of several shorties known as haikus:

up in the gray sky

geese begin a long journey

without GPS.

Now then, back to golf. The title of this essay signals its theme, and it's not a pretty one: I’m Gonna Tell. What really irks him [I've finally just now fulfilled a lifelong dream of being able to write the word "irk" in a sentence. Sorry again. No more interruptions!], what really irks Roger Loring is knowing that many many people who watch golfing tournaments on TV are more interested in catching the pros violate one of the game's myriad rules than in admiring the brilliance of their golfing skills. "These people apparently are willing to devote hours and hours of their time—it takes a professional golfer between five and six hours to complete a round—just to be the person who happens to catch a pro illegally ground his or her club in a sand trap or possibly take an illegal drop after declaring an unplayable lie...'I think his ball moved on his downswing! He better give himself a penalty! I’m gonna tell!'” And tell they do, he says, noting that the PGA not only accepts calls from these couch-potato snitches, they have a special number to receive the snitching.

"It never would have occurred to me that the number for the PGA Office of Squealers and Busybodies Reporting Possible Rules Infractions would be on anyone’s speed dial, or better yet, that such an office even existed," he grumbles.

Loring cites two reasons for this: there are way too many rules, and because there aren't enough officials monitoring the tournaments and, because pro golfers are presumed to be honorable, the players are expected to report their own infractions. His advice: "The PGA needs to bring this [snitching] to an abrupt halt. Just let the golfers play the game as brilliantly as most of the pros do, and let the 'I’m gonna tell' folks go outside and play with the kids in the neighborhood. If someone misbehaves there, then they can go inside and tattle to their heart’s content."

I haven't played golf in years, in part because I was a lousy golfer. I probly even cheated a time or two and certainly lost my temper and broke a club or two. I have no desire to return to the links--ever again, but I agree with Roger, this snitching bullshit has got to be stopped!

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Saturday, June 22, 2019

HOLMES & WATSON (movie – 2018)

“I loved this movie from the start when I spilled my nachos and cheese all over my pants to the part where the guy behind me broke his whiskey bottle on the floor when he fell asleep...”

I thought the above might be the only positive review I’d been able to find, anywhere, of Holmes & Watson, last year’s critical/popular bomb with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly doing the Conan Doyle duo, which I watched three times in as many days last week, laughing all the harder with each viewing. I peed my pants a little during one vocal eruption, but this was due in part to prostate hysteria, an engrossing topic in and of itself, but for another time.

Inasmuch as Holmes & Watson is the only movie I believe I’ve ever watched so many times in such close proximityexcept possibly The Big Lebowski—I went online to see if the critics were as enchanted as I. They were not. The professional “experts” were virtually unanimous in their disgust:So painfully unfunny we're not sure it can legally be called a comedy,” bawled David Fear in Rolling Stone. Common Sense Media pronounced it a “shockingly misguided assault of repetitive bad slapstick and sexual innuendo,” while Sandy Schaefer of Screen Rant, (no doubt predictably) slammed it as “a lazy comedy that wastes a fun premise and talented cast on tired jokes, tasteless gags, and sometimes bafflingly outdated humor.”

It was after scanning these and other critics’ takes on Holmes & Watson that I went to Google’s audience reviews section, where I perked up a tad seeing the nachos/cheese affirmation posted by “alexander greene.” Reading a little further, unfortunately, I soon recognized the clotted sarcasm dripping from his smartphone’s miniature keyboard. I scrolled down and scanned several more of the 1,361 posted amateur reactions, none of which proffered enough insight to stem the rush of abnegation swarming my aesthetic equilibrium.

I was floundering. This was the “two” of the “one-two” punch combination boxers try to deliver rather than receive. The “one” had come a couple of months ago as a light jab to the heart by a social media “friend” peremptorily advising me she wanted no “idiot bullshit” posted in her domain. My response was sensitive and insouciant in that I withheld defensive inquiry while assuring her all idiot bullshit I posted would be restricted to my domain. I took heart from what I deemed my gentlemanly response, yet felt the sting that any friend, even a virtual one, would regard me so suspiciously. Her admonition continued to fester, like a stubborn bruise refusing to heal, as a questioning reminder that maybe, just maybe, my notions of humor could use a little update of wokeness, or at least a brushing of mindful scrutiny.

Now this. The funniest movie I’ve seen since Spike Jones’s Fireman, Save My Child, and I’m the only one saluting it with full-throttle eruptions of howling, honest, primal appreciation. The most I could find in the more prominent reviews was the admission of an occasional “chuckle.” That was all. Not one inadvertent chortle escaped into print, not to mention the utter absence of so much as a single gut-hurled guffaw. Now, ordinarily something apparently so nearly unanimous would oblige one to assume the problem was with the minority response, the lone horse’s ass (played by Al Pacino) disgorging thunderous overtures of inappropriate emotion during, say, the delivery of an encyclical to the College of Cardinals. It would seem my sense of humor was so out of whack with the rest of Western society's as to strand me in aesthetic outer space. It would, wouldn’t it? I mean, seem this way? And if it does, theoretically, would it not then be prudent to accept such an appearance as an a priori-case-closed-move-along-nothing-to-see-here-ignore-the-poor-howling-idiot-don’t-let-him-get-any-spit-on-you-hurry-kids-we’ll-be-late-for-My-Dinner-With-Andre aberration? Wouldn’t it? Take a moment...

I move now from the arguable conditional to the stark condition of real, where the congenital imperative to defend family dignity prohibits any reasonable alternative to this disparity of emotional response to Holmes & Watson being NOT MY FAULT!! I assert this with maximum emphasis, which, of course, obligates me to delve boldly if a tad recklessly into socially questionable conspiracy theorizing. You’ve been waiting for this, I know, but I’ll keep it brief, as my qualifications are perhaps shockingly thin.

I am not noticeably current with comedies--feature or TV. For example, I saw only a few minutes of Talladega Nights years ago when the boys were watching it at home. I hadn’t heard of Game Night until just now, researching for this diatribe. I no longer own a TV. My ex-wife was in the movie business before I met her, and our daughter is in it now. Yet, I am ill-at-ease with the word “cinematography,” and have no intention of Googling it in order to contribute a smidgeon or two of credibility to this inquiry despite the word being de rigueur for film critics (I do know “film” is the preferred critical term, not—cough--“movies”). I also know we are a herd species that hates to admit this reality, opting for the more comfortable “tribal” when pressed. And I know Sony did not hold the routine special pre-release screening of Holmes & Watson for the critics, which undoubtedly pissed them off enuf to secretly agree to SINK THAT GODDAM FLICK!!! at first by ignoring its release and then panning the living shit out of it after having to pay to see it. And I know the hipster herd amongst us takes its cues from the “better critics” and pretends to prefer cerebral humor to mugging, slapstick silliness and crudity, which Holmes & Watson offers in abundance.

As for me, I was completely taken in by the chemistry, the ebullient synchronicity among the characters, and the sense the direction and (o lort) cinematography were in complete agreement with that magical brew. In a word—two words, actually—it works. Two more words: for me.

And now it’s full-disclosure time. I became hopelessly infatuated with one of the actors. She first appears as the pathetic, mute, chinless, Marty Feldman-eyed ward of the beautiful Rebecca Hall, who plays an American psychiatrist. Lauren Lapkus, whom I’d not known of in any context, plays the ward. She was raised by feral cats, Hall tells Watson, and has the IQ of a child. Holmes, who has the sexual intelligence of a child, falls in love with her. And (and I don’t care what anyone might think this might say about my, intelligence) so did I.
At first it was those eyes. She’s all eyes and no chin. And then [spoiler alert] in a dance/song sequence with Ferrell/Holmes she breaks into song with the theater-shaking voice of a trained operatic panther. OMG, as the kids text each other on their smartphones. Blew me away. Lauren Lapkus was the real reason I Googled the movie. Wanted to find out what other movies she’s in. Disappointed to find she’s done mostly TV. Doesn’t matter. I can watch Homes & Watson again and again, maybe this weekend. Maybe tonight! Those eyes, that voice...

Okay, so maybe it does all come down to idiot bullshit. Maybe that is my forté. Sure as hell ain’t cinematography.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

ALL THAT I HAVE – Castle Freeman Jr.

There are so many things I like about this little novel, All That I Have, I'm struggling with how to prioritize them. The general categories are humor, philosophy, mystery, voice (maybe that should be first), bad guys, evil Russians, and a county sheriff in Vermont who doesn't tell us the name of his county, doesn't wear a uniform or carry a gun, and who philosophizes more than Hamlet and Plato put together. That last is a slight exaggeration used for emphasis.

The only thing slowing me a little at first was Sheriff Lucian Wing's rural (I presume) Vermont dialect. Ordinarily I find prolonged written dialect tedious. I was afraid this would be the case with All That I Have, but I very quickly came to adore it. Maybe because it went so well with Wing's droll sense of humor and half-earnest attempts to understand and justify how to do his job, which he calls "sheriffing."

Here he is explaining what sheriffing is by using the example of his overeager, ambitious young deputy's approach to solving a burglary he presumes was done by a likely suspect: "He says that because he knew right off who it was broke into the Russians’ house, and he thinks if he knows who did the deed, and he takes them in, his job is done. But his job is sheriffing, and that ain't sheriffing. That's car repair. A car won't start, you say, Well, maybe the alternator's shot. You test it out. It don't work. You pull the old alternator, throw it away, put in a new one from the parts store, and you're done. Sheriffing's different. You can't do it with spare parts. It's a whole thing you're working on. It's a whole thing you have to keep going."

Wing learned from his former boss, the now retired, longtime Sheriff Ripley Wingate, whose bedrock philosophy was to be visible but appear laid back, to wait and watch until the solution to a problem manifests itself, then act on it. That's not how either of them would put it, however. Here's how Wing puts it: Wingate "ran a kind of—what is it where everybody sits around and asks questions and nobody ever answers them? A seminar. Wingate ran a kind of a seminar on sheriffing. The end was always the same: do your job."

One last Wing analogy before we get to the job at hand: "Sheriffing is like being the bouncer at the Ladies’ Aid lunch," he tells us. "When things are going normally, they don't work you too hard."

The "hard work" at the moment involves the Russian gangsters who own the burgled mansion and are intent on recovering a portable safe taken in the burglary they assume was done by the local likely suspect who'd been working on a construction job at the mansion. The gangsters send one of their thugs to get it back. Sheriff Wing learns of this after being called at breakfast (where his wife was turning her back on him because of a quarrel the previous night, which left Wing sleeping on the couch again) by a state trooper reporting a badly beaten nude man tied to a tree. The trooper says the man is speaking a strange language. The wife, by the way, hearing the call on her husband's "squawker," thinks the trooper said "new" man, which leads to a new argument between them about what is a "new" man, as Wing, who tells her he is a new man, heads out the door to meet the trooper.

At the scene, Wing tells the trooper the language is Russian. Wing doesn't say it might be Russian, he says it is Russian, and the trooper, naturally, demurs. Wing then confides in us: "Do I know Russian? I do not, no more than Trooper Timberlake does. ‘Course I don't. With my crack about how he hadn't been trained right and I had, I was taking a little shot at Timberlake. I was sticking it to him, a little. Sure, I was. With the Timberlakes of this world, you almost have to stick it to them when you can, don't you? Timberlake don't mind. He's—what are you when you're padded all around, when they can't get to you? He's invulnerable. Taking a little shot at Timberlake is like shooting an elephant in the hindquarters with a BB gun: not only is he not hurt, you can't tell for sure whether he knows he's been hit."

Any wonder yet why I like this book and will probly read the others by Castle Freeman Jr.? Despite the country dialect, and the lack of chase scenes, gunfights, fistfights and the like, which there are—lack of, that is? Might it be because Lucian Wing is a hoot? Well...course it is. Large part, anyway. Large part. It's short, too, by the way. The novel.

So what is it with these mysterious Russians, who own the fanciest, mansion in the county but are never there? Except when they come to try to get their safe back (which someone tells Sheriff Wing contains documents presumably vital to the criminal organization. Back in the wings I'm shouting—out loud because I read this on Sunday when the hair salon I share a building with was closed--"GO TO THE FEDS!! WE KNOW THE USUAL SUSPECT HAS THE SAFE AND CAN'T GET IT OPEN AND WILL PROBLY BE KILLED BY THE RUSSIANS! SEND A THOUSAND FBI AGENTS TO GET THE DAMNED THING...etc. etc."

But this is not how Sheriff Wing operates. He wants to get rid of the Russians, of course, but he does not want his sleepy, friendly little tight-lipped Vermont county invaded by federal agents, either. Just don't go thinking he's soft on the Russians! I mean, here's what he tells us about them: "They're a gifted people, the Russians, but they do nothing by halves. And also, of course, they're all quite mad. The Russians, don't you know, have a claim to be the fourth-craziest people on earth, after ourselves, the Japanese, and the French—and I'm not sure they might not have the edge of the French, in an impartial trial."

I don't consider what I'm about to tell you to be a spoiler. Nosirree Bob's your uncle, or whatever. Because by now you know Sheriff Wing is a hoot, and you know if he wants to get rid of the Russians he will (and you'll recall I've already told you the only physical violence in this novel, that I recall, was a severe beating off-page of the nude Russian—oops, I just remembered another beating, also off-page, of the ambitious young deputy, by the Russians). He does. Wing gets rid of the Russians. I'm telling you this, so you won't be expecting any trumped-up fake suspense. There is none, but Wing gets rid of the damned Russians!

You might also wish to know if Wing's wife ever catches on that despite her husband's claim to being a "new" man the word she heard the trooper say on the squawker was not "new." I'll leave that for you to learn yourself. I will say, tho, he does sleep on the couch again, later on. But I wouldn't read too much into that. Not with a hoot like Wing.
Castle Freeman Jr.
In case you're finding this "review" on par with Wing's unusual, lazy-appearing attitude toward sheriffing—he says his predecessor's rule was "Don't be lazy, but it's okay to look lazy," I'm giving you a link to a conventional review so you can decide if this one is the literary interpretation of Wing's philosophy or whether it's just plain lazy. Here's the link (it's such a good review it intimidated me, which is why I did mine like I did): Vulpes Libres

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, June 13, 2019

THE EVERRUMBLE – Michelle Elvy

One of the many beauties of The Everrumble is its overt independence from sequence, without confusion. I don’t recall previously reading a novel in which events hop around the calendar so willy nilly. Yet, in retrospect it is obvious the subtext of Michelle Elvy’s short novel (132 pages) has its own linear integrity corresponding neatly with the awakening curiosity for an idea so unusual and subtly crafted there are moments one must remind oneself to breathe.
Everrumble’ s ingeniously compressed story spans all 105 years of Marjorie Hanna’s life—from her very first gasp to her final, silent thought. The name “Marjorie Hanna” has now appeared twice as many times in this review as it does in the novel. I include it here only to give to Zettie a conventional perspective, however fleeting, as she may well be the oddest human being ever portrayed in literary fiction.
The name “Zettie” comes about on Marjorie’s second birthday. Her Aunt Zettie has given her a blanket. During the birthday festivities Marjorie’s five-year-old brother Brent “pointed back and forth between Auntie and his sister and said, Big Zettie, Little Zettie. Little Zettie wore the blanket on her head all day and the name stuck.” Five years later, on her seventh birthday, she makes two decisions: to talk no more, for any reason, and to stay under the blanket, where she spends the rest of the year.
She spends the rest of her life living richly and wondering at the special gift she’d accepted at birth. On her last day, ninety-eight years after she stopped talking in order to listen to the sounds no one else could hear, understanding comes to her. “The moment of clarity comes in the morning, and it is later in the day, just before the rapid darkening that is the tropical night, that she will die.
It’s not so much a vision as a full-on worldly orchestral movement. Overtones and undercurrents. Chantings and crashings. Rowdy and dreadful but also melodious and beautiful. It happens in a flash, yes, but its layers are as deep as oceans, as wide as the space between stars...”
Her special gift arrives at the moment of her birth. A screaming no other person in the world hears. It drifts in through the open hospital window and vibrates her timpanic membrane. Of course the newborn has no way of identifying this sound, becausehow can you identify anything over the suckingslurpingslipping surroundsound of your own birth?”
Soon other sounds reach her. A bee buzzing across town in a garden, a toad croaking in a pond miles away, someone coughing on the other side of the world. At age five she senses these sounds seek her out, and she does her best to listen. But there’s something else besides the random buzzes and voices that reach her ears. It’s a low rumble. “It bores gently into her ear and winds down the canal, vibrating through her whole body, her throat, her chest, her tummy. It moves out to the tips of her limbs, to the very ends of her long brown hair. Once she hears it she can’t un-hear it.
The rumble is here to stay.”
We peek in on Zettie at different stages of her life. By age twelve she’s learned to narrow her focus on the origin of individual sounds. Hearing a mosquito flying through a broken screen three streets away, she counts the wingbeat: 111 times per second.
At fifteen, her uncle forces himself on her. She knew he trusted she wouldn’t talk. Her silence follows him. To his job, to his weekly poker game, and when he dies three years later she hurls her silence at him “one last time, screaming down his ear.”
Once she stops talking, the absence of verbal distractions heightens Zettie’s other senses, especially her ability to concentrate. Words fascinate her. She reads widely, goes to college, studies languages, graduates with high honors. She still doesn’t speak the languages, but she understands them, and makes a career of translating new editions of literature. She travels widely, living here and there, never staying more than a few years in any one place. She marries and has two daughters. She and her husband eventually go their separate ways. She raises their daughters alone. but maintains “a loving distance relationship” with their father.
In a journal she notes the only time she wanted to speak aloud was to read to children. This was before her daughters were born, and we do not know if in fact she read to them when they were small. Presumably not, because surely that would be a highlight in her story, and we are not privileged to know. I do know Zettie, though, feel I’ve known her all her life. And I feel she knew me, as well. She knew us all, one way or another. At the very end we learn what she concludes of the everrumble:The heartbeat of every living creature.” So loud it hurts her ears. “They’ll soon start bleeding. And why not? Her form will turn to liquid, then dust. Blood is just blood. It’s nothing. It’s nothing.

Her skin is dancing. Telling the story of the world.”

Michelle Elvy is an editor and widely published writer of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The Everrumble is her first novel. She lives in New Zealand, and is an avid sailor.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, June 6, 2019

KON-TIKI – Thor Heyerdahl

Wow! What a book!” So shouted W. M. Krogman in the Chicago Sunday Tribune of Kon-Tiki, saying the aforementioned exclamation could easily comprise his entire review. But he went on anyway gushing, "It has spine chilling, nerve tingling, spirit-lifting adventure on every page and in every one of its 80 action photographs. It is the fiction of a Conrad or a Melville brought to reality. It might be added that the writing is of itself worthy of either pen.”
Krogman wasn't the only reviewer enthralled by the story of six Norsemen who sailed 4,300 miles on a balsa-wood raft from Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl's account won wide critical acclaim upon its publication in 1950 and went on to bestsellerdom, translations into more than five dozen languages, and the ultimate stamp of approval: inspiring an Oscar-nominated movie.
Today it's considered a classic. But its fate might have been oblivion outside Norway (where the first edition sold out in a couple of weeks) had William Styron's opinion held sway. The young manuscript reader at McGraw-Hill rejected the book presuming no one would want to read about six guys on a raft in the South Pacific. Fortunately Styron's counterpart at Simon & Schuster saw enough merit in Kon-Tiki to persuade senior editors there to take the risk, and they gambled. And, as we know, won big.
I'd be wondering if sheer luck hadn't been in play in the future classic's denial by a future Pulitzered novelist were it not for Styron's admittedly shitty attitude at McGraw-Hill. His “failure to project an appropriate work-man’s appearance and...slacking on the job” got him fired a couple months after being hired, which he fictionalized in his celebrated novel Sophie’s Choice further down the road. Else I’d be tempted to juxtapose the role of any of the gushing critics with that of the budding literary star, and guess then who would do the gush and who the flush—a fantasy that appeals to my cynical perception that despite its pretensions mainstream publishing’s all about the sizzle and to hell with the steak.
None of this mattered to me at the time as I shared Styron’s sense of Kon-Tiki, not at all intrigued by the prospect of reading the log of a long, lonesome sea adventure (I’d thought at the time it involved only Thor Heyerdahl, whom I assumed had to be more than a little nuts and probably a mediocre writer at best). It was a disinterest I carried for decades despite knowing of Styron’s embarrassment and the book’s ultimate wild success. I carried it right up until a couple of weeks ago when a friend who’s a regular visitor to Peru and student of its history and culture recommended Kon-Tiki in a way that Styron, had he actually read the book, should have recommended it to the editors at McGraw-Hill.
I am now in agreement with W. M. Krogman’s enthusiastic “Wow! What a book!” with the qualification, however, of substituting “story” for “book,” as I cannot agree with his assessment of the writing as rising to Melville’s or Conrad’s lyrical heights. Heyerdahl was a scientist. His writing is accomplished and engaging. But it’s his story that matters, that excites and astounds. He gives us in minute detail such a vivid depiction of six men with no seafaring experience—Heyerdahl couldn’t even swim—alone on a raft for 101 days at the mercy of the planet’s greatest ocean merely to prove a theory, that present-day Polynesians had done the very same thing a millennium earlier, led by Kon-Tiki, their chief, floating on balsa rafts from Peru into, for them, The Great Unknown. Heyerdahl’s story begins with his finding evidence of Peruvian culture during scientific study on a Polynesian island. It continues with his winning support for his dream of recreating the oceanic journey, gathering his five crew members and building and outfitting his raft to approximate as closely as possible the same conveyance used by the earlier Peruvians to flee their country and start a new life in another world.
In his foreword to the book’s 35th anniversary edition, he calls the 1947 launch of Kon-Tiki “the most decisive moment in my life, when I, a sworn landlubber with a fear of water deeper than to my neck, cut all ties to the land and steered out into the largest and deepest body of water on earth, into a strange adventure and an unknown future.”

The Kon-Tiki’s bold journey, he said, “proved that a prehistoric voyage from South America was possible, contrary to the predictions of scientists and sailors. The South American balsa raft, which scholars had claimed would sink if it were not regularly dried out ashore, stayed buoyant as a cork. And Polynesia, held to be inaccessible for a watercraft from ancient America, proved to be well within the range of aboriginal voyagers from Peru.”
Here’s part of an entry to the daily logbook he kept during the crossing: May 17. Norwegian Independence Day. Heavy sea. Fair wind. I am cook today and found seven flying fish on deck, one squid on the cabin roof, and one unknown fish in Torstein’s sleeping bag...
He continues in the book, “If I turned left, I had an unimpeded view of a vast blue sea with hissing waves, rolling by close at hand in an endless pursuit of an ever retreating horizon. If I turned right, I saw the inside of a shadowy cabin in which a bearded individual was lying on his back reading Goethe with his bare toes carefully dug into the latticework in the low bamboo roof of the crazy little cabin that was our common home...
Outside the cabin three other fellows were working in the roasting sun on the bamboo deck...”

He had no trouble raising his crew. All five were enthusiastic volunteers when they learned of Heyerdahl’s quest. Getting financial support was another kettle of fish. “We could apply for a grant from some institution, but we could scarcely get one for a disputed theory; after all, that was just why we were going on the raft expedition. We soon found that neither press nor private promoters dared to put money into what they themselves and all the insurance companies regarded as a suicide voyage; but, if we came back safe and sound, it would be another matter.”
Help came finally in Washington, D.C. from the Norwegian military attaché, Col. Otto Munthe-Kaas. When he learned of their trouble raising funds, an early enthusiast of Heyerdahl’s proposal, he stepped up to the plate.
You’re in a fix, boys,” he said. “Here’s a check to begin with. You can return it when you come back from the South Sea islands.”
I grew up in a town named after the man I’d learned in school represented the epitome of heroic adventure, the man who “sailed the ocean blue” in either the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria. Later on I added “Lucky Lindy,” who flew the ocean blue in the Spirit of St. Louis. Over the past two weeks I discovered six more heroic adventurers—each more adventurous, I might add, than the first two put together.
Wow! What a story!

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]