Thursday, August 29, 2019

OREGON HILL – Howard Owen

Just because it doesn't take long to figure out whodunnit and whydunnit doesn't mean we can't call Oregon Hill a mystery. And just because we're pretty sure we know who murdered Isabel Ducharme, cut off her head and mailed it to her father doesn't mean we have a leg up on our narrator, investigative newspaper reporter Willie Black. He knows as much as we do because he's the one telling us what we know, which is what he knows. But being a newspaper reporter he has to nail down his suspicions and hunches before he can to put them into the paper without getting the paper--and himself--sued, thus costing him his job. Willie has more at stake than we do in keeping suspicions tentative as a check on leaping to premature conclusions. We as readers have only private pride on the line with our guesses. Engraved on the hard drive of a professional skeptic like Willie is the rule of thumb, If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

And Willie Black is already on the bubble. He's a drunk who's been demoted back to the night police beat from covering the Virginia Legislature because he refused an editor's request to sneak into a dying man's hospital room to get a story. We also know he's carrying guilt for writing stories that helped send a man to Virginia's gas chamber, who was later proven innocent. On top of all this, Willie's newspaper's been taken over by a chain that's squeezing the life out of it, dumping employees overboard left and right (I almost wrote willy nilly, but...well, you know), and pressuring its editors to stem a bleeding circulation that drags precious ad revenue down with it.
Howard Owen

In this dynamic of booze-sodden guilt versus very sober job peril Willie stubbornly follows up on little indications police have arrested the wrong man for murdering Isabel Ducharme. Willie is virtually alone in this quest, angering his bosses, who don’t trust his motives, the police, who are satisfied they’ve solved the case, and the victim's mother, who believes he’s taking the side of the man who killed her daughter, spits in his face when he goes to the Ducharme home in search of information. Willie has a dicey history with the police lieutenant who heads the investigation. They grew up in the same tough neighborhood but had never been friendly. This subtle enmity remains, in addition to their natural professional adversity, and Willie admits to us he still finds the lieutenant intimidating.

These circumstances, the characters and dialogue, and the milieu in which Willie Black persists in his search for the truth—both in the “word factory,” as he calls the newspaper, and on the street, are rendered with the realistic feel of someone who knows the terrain from intimate experience. Howard Owen’s forty-four years in daily journalism included a stint editing sports for The Richmond Times-Dispatch. The city and the newspaper, which is unnamed, provide the setting for the novel. I liked Oregon Hill so much that I’ve downloaded Evergreen, the last in the eight-book Willie Black series. I may even go the whole stretch and read them all.

I learned a long time ago that a writer should concentrate more on showing the reader than in merely telling what things look like and what takes place. In book reviews I’ve taken to providing an example of the writing and voice, which are even more important to me than simply plot. In that light, here’s a taste from one of my favorite scenes in Oregon Hill:

I was waiting for the new one to brew when one of our Sarahs came in. This one actually is named Sarah. Sarah Good-night. U.Va., Class of ’08. We generally have two kinds of people in our newsroom. We have the old farts like me, mostly male, trying to hang on to our sorry-ass jobs in a dying industry in a tanking economy. And you have the Sarahs. They’re mostly women. They’re young, they’re talented, they’re motivated, and they’re very politely, very respectfully waiting for us to get the fuck out of the way so they can get our jobs, which they’ll do just as well for about half the salary. If we don’t get out of the way, they go to law school, which many of them do anyhow.

Here’s one more:

I think I’m kind of a mascot for the kid reporters. They might not want to be me, but they want to think that they work in a business that has so-called characters (if not character) in it. think I’m some kind of romanticized embodiment of a reporter who probably never really existed, except in the minds of old-fart editors who embellished and polished stories until the hopeless alcoholic with no talent and less scruples—the guy they wished in hell many times as deadlines were blown, participles were dangled and newsrooms were trashed—morphed into a Bogart-Gable hybrid.


Speaking from personal experience, that, my friends, is pretty damned close to how it was. 

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

Thursday, August 22, 2019

HOLLYWOOD – Charles Bukowski

The only notion that's stayed with me from initially reading Norman Mailer's extensive report on the Apollo 11 lunar mission is a vague recollection of Mailer lamenting that something so unique to human experience as viewing Earth from afar should be communicated to us not by mission-absorbed engineers but by poets. I've forgotten if he mentioned a particular poet he thought appropriate to accompany Armstrong and Aldrin on the flight, but I sensed an uncharacteristic wistfulness in his tone that he, Mailer, calling himself "Aquarius," would have liked to be the one.
I remembered this anew while reading Hollywood, Charles Bukowski's novel based on the making of Barfly, a darkly comic movie depicting two days in his life as a drunken young poet. Many of the novel's characters are easily recognizable behind their fig-leaf pseudonyms. One of them is Victor Norman, "perhaps the best known novelist in America. He appeared on tv constantly. He was glib and deft with the word. What I liked best about him was that he had no fear of the Feminists. He was one of the last defenders of maleness and balls in the U.S. That took guts. I wasn’t always pleased with his literary output but I wasn’t always pleased with mine either."
When they meet, Bukowski's alter ego, pseudonymed Charles Chinaski, tells us “I liked his eyes. He looked calm and knowing...I shook hands with him, said, ‘The barfly meets the champ.’ He liked that.” Later they’re driving to a party in Chinaski’s black BMW. “‘I’ve got a black BMW too,’ said Victor Norman. ‘Tough guys drive black BMW’s,’ I said.” Some literary conversation between these two macho writers at the party:

Victor looked at me. “You doing anything now?”
“Fucking with the poem.”
Victor looked a touch sad. “They gave me a million dollars to write my next novel. That was a year ago. I haven’t written a page and the money’s gone.”
“Jesus won’t help.”
“I’ve heard about your alimony, all those x-wives…”
It was when Chinaski mentions noticing Victor Norman staring at him curiously that my vague memory from “Of A Fire on the Moon” came to mind. Here was the wistful macho man who could write about the giant leap for mankind only via his imagination, seated across from the macho poet who wrote the screenplay for a movie about a piece of his own life.
Sure, to us the notion is ludicrous, and it might well not have been anywhere near the minds of either Bukowski or Mailer, but if it had… No they did not fight. After a trip to the men’s room, Chinaski tells us, his wife “leaned over and whispered, ‘Victor Norman came over while you were gone. He says that it’s very nice of you that you haven’t said anything about his writing.’ […] I looked over at Victor Norman, got his attention. I gave a little nod, winked.”
Whew, major literary macho puncho averted. How much of it is true is hard to say for sure. I know some of it is, which is why I lifted the pseudonym fig leaves above to introduce the scene. Because the publisher has pronounced Hollywood a work of fiction its author has some leeway with the narrative and characterizations. Some exaggeration is to be expected. Most of the characters would have been unknown to me even if Bukowski had used their real names. One I recognized instantly without any name: “I saw the famous actor with the perpetual tan. I’d heard that he went to almost every Hollywood party, everywhere.”

The pseudonym for this one wasn’t really needed: “It was Jim Serry, the old drug guru of the 60’ s. He too went to many of the parties. He looked tired, sad, drained. I felt sorry for him. He went from table to table. Then he was at ours. Sarah [Bukowski’s wife, Linda Lee Beighle] gave a delighted laugh. She was a child of the 60’ s. I shook hands with him. ‘Hi, baby,’ I said.”
Bukowski captures the craziness and unpredictability of the film industry with a feel of authenticity, yet there are times it seems he pushes the envelope a tad too far, even for Hollywood. One of them is a stunt Chinaski’s director pulls with a wheeler-dealer producer who has cut off financing for the project. The director, whom Bukowski calls Jon Pinchot, threatens to cut off one of his own fingers if the producer won’t honor his company’s contract. Pinchot buys an electric saw, takes it to the producer’s office, plugs it in, turns it on, and places his pinky on the desk.. The producer caves. I laughed, but thought, Oh hell, Bukowski wrote this scene after too many bottles of wine. But I checked it out.

I knew where to check because in one scene Chinaski and his wife meet “Rick Talbot” at a restaurant. We quickly catch on that Talbot is Roger Ebert. They hit it off. Talbot is fascinated by the project. Soooo, I Googled Ebert’s review of Barfly.
He liked it. Called it one of the year’s best films. Here’s what he said about the finger incident:Barfly was directed by Barbet Schroeder who commissioned the original screenplay by Bukowski and then spent eight years trying to get it made. (At one point, he threatened to cut off his fingers if Cannon Group president Menahem Golan did not finance it; the outcome of the story can be deduced by the fact that this is a Cannon release.)”
I haven’t seen Barfly, which stars Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, with a cameo of Bukowski seated at a bar with them, but I gladly give the book, Hollywood, two thumbs up.
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, August 15, 2019


Meg Pokrass is celebrated among her flash-fiction peers for her deft hand arousing glee in the darkness and sober reflection before laughter’s quite finished its happy sputter.”
I wrote the above in my review of her last collection of mini-stories, Alligators at Night. I meant it then—every word—and the opinion still holds. Pokrass not only remains at the top of her game, she's ramped it up a notch in her new collection, The Dog Seated Next to Me, due out in a month. She includes several blurbs with the new collection, all of which I wish I had written. But she left out another one, my favorite, which I found on her publisher's page where you can pre-order a copy (click title above). If I thought I could get away with it, I'd pretend I had written the blurb I like best. Unfortunately, the name of the blurb's author comes with it:
To enter the portals of Pokrassland is to go on a magical journey: here there are sex-charged buffalo men and melancholic women who fear six-foot spiders and fall in love with their therapists. It’s a place where people make bald statements and odd connections, where there are strange animals, purple stars and ‘a deep-ruby moon’. Unpredictable, funny and charming, the world Meg Pokrass builds in The Dog Seated Next to Me is a location readers will enter gladly and, mesmerised, they will most definitely want to stay.
-- Nuala O’Connor, author of Joyride to Jupiter and Becoming Belle.

Were a good enuf lawyer affordable to me I might have been able to "forget" to credit Nuala O'Connor on some technicality and start a small business as The Great and Well-Lawyered Blurbist, but, as we heard the crumbling President Milhous Nixon remark on his infamous Oval Office tapes about authorizing something that rhymed with alter fate, deliberately pointing his pursed presidential lips at the hidden microphone: "that would be wrong." The accompanying sound lingers of his eyelid flapping in a series of awkward winks as he said it. How quaint in retrospect, considering...wink wink.
But that was then and now we're in Pokrassland, about to embark "on a magical journey...[where] there are sex-charged buffalo men and melancholic women who fear six-foot spiders and fall in love with their therapists." Interjecting here for readers who might be intimidated by the mere mention of a six-foot spider, this is one of Pokrass’s many female characters’ frequent exaggerations. The man in this story—either a husband, ex-husband-to-be, lover, or ex-lover-to-be—tried to reassure the woman that the spider was a “dot” and nothing more. The two points of view appear in a story called—ninnies should brace themselves--Spider. Perhaps to mitigate the shock of such a title, she tells us, “It’s frigid here in Siberia. Outside, nothing can live for long. We humans and insects are all in the same boat, hoping for food, praying for love.”
And herein lie the thematic fulcra of Pokrass’s magic: food and love. I suffered hunger pangs frequently reading these little paeans to things that taste good (or should) and things that excite the libido (and not always separately). Here’s what I mean, several sentences from from The Big Sleep: The police popped in one night to see if our fights were murderous. We’d been arguing loudly in the kitchen about the texture of a birthday cake I’d baked for the twentieth anniversary of our sweet dog’s death. It was hard as a rock, and nothing had ever been different. Arguing was part of the cake-eating experience...
I idled into the living room wearing my ‘Munch Me’ shortie night shirt, and my long-nosed barracuda slippers. Not much else. My legs were still shapely, and tan from bronzing gel.”
To clear up a possible misunderstanding about my use of the word “libido” above instead of the more commonplace “love,” knowing the latter frequently serves as a euphemism for the former, and understanding the two are virtually inseparable in modern romantic literature, I assure you The Dog Seated Next to Me is neither romantic nor lascivious as the terms are ordinarily applied. Nor am I trying to appear literary, something I ordinarily find supercilious. No, the point I am so laboriously edging toward is to note what seemed to me a confusion of the two concepts, and this mostly in the minds of the female characters. In fact it is solely the female characters’ sensibilities we experience in these sixty-seven fascinating vignettes—especially fascinating to me, a man. The heretofore eternal question what do women want? is addressed in each one.
The answer? Haha, I could simply say, Read the book! But that’s not enuf of a tease. In truth, as I found it—and maybe my impression reflects a denser sensitivity than I should admit—the answer to the existential question of what women want, as found in The Dog Seated Next to Me is akin to the only acceptable response to one of those infuriating one-hand-clapping Zen questions: a beatific smile that suggests understanding and acceptance of all whimsically inscrutable nuances the Cosmos chooses to reveal. In a more prosaic sense, Go gently with the flow, grasshoppah.
As one would expect, arriving at this enlightenment cost me some emotional distress and cognitive exercise. I can’t help but empathize with the male characters, hapless and dependent as they are on the women they encounter. And these women are brutally perceptive of our shortcomings. Maybe we could start with an ant farm,” the woman in The Capacity to Love tells us the man she was with said. “I almost laughed. I had just noticed that he resembled a large ant, his head larger than human heads were supposed to be. He couldn’t find any hats that fit.”

This crushingly unromantic description caused my hand to rise up and touch my own head, despite its being more in the “pinhead” class (fortunately my narrow shoulders offset the tiny head, giving my appearance a perhaps normal, proportional cast, and yet…). You see what she did? This woman in The Capacity to Love, as, in fact, all of the women in this collection of disturbing, male-ego-deflating quickies do? She made me doubt my natured, nurtured, Norman Mailer-affirmed male supremacy! And then, while I’m still patting my head uncertainly, she yanks me back from looming despair: He stuck me with a kiss. His lips on my neck made a popping sound, like a suction cup. I let him keep me close, and we sat together like one load-bearing creature.”
Nice, huh. Yet I remind you these stories do not remain within the traditional corral of warm, furry romantic endings. These Pokrass women have a quirky, whimsical nature that seems to preclude confusing or merging the concepts of love and libido no matter what they might say to us or themselves, e.g. “‘Take it out,’ she told the man she was with in Cartoons. “He did not want to hear this, but he took it out. Now what? he asked. Cartoons, she said. Put cartoons on, please.”
So are these women completely flaky? Incapable of love as, say, a Pasternak or Byron knew it? I hope you’re not expecting me to answer this, but let’s hear one of the Pokrass women on the subject:Love is a dumbass in an old, red car, sputtering even going the right speed.” I could do that for love. I qualify. But, then I’d hafta hold myself in a constant crouch of anticipation, for rejection, for as dumb a reason as the sputtering old, red car. You’ve seen it by now, in these few examples. We’re at the mercy of these women. We get action, oh yes. As do the women, getting it with us, altho there are exceptions, such as, “She had not made love with him for a year and she didn’t know why.” That’s in Fire Eater. I didn’t find it quite as amusing as hoped, and I did know why.
Pokrass makes up for the abstinence, tho, in Cured: “Here she was in love with a man who could not laugh, and she was going out of her mind. She felt like a spider, or a monkey, or a toad. She just so wanted to soap him up, get down to things.” I don’t recall if she does it on the page. I’m still enjoying the soaping, knowing it could end at any second, as she warns us in A Detached Kind of Imaginary Cruelty, “I administer pleasure, and then disappear, because I can, because I am a splinter, that is all I am when not making an animal happy.” I’ll be the grinning puppy--me, me!
Here’s another blurb that can shed light on The Meg Pokrass Experience: The instantaneous back and forth between twinkle and anguish give Pokrass a dangerous edge, like a cat purring when its belly’s scratched switching in a blink to jungle mode, all teeth and claws. A lightness of style pulls us into a queenly Dorothy Parker mind where nothing ameliorates the keenest and meanest of observations. Her delivery is sly, indirect, and her cuts frequently self-inflict.” Wish I’d written it…oh, wait…
The link below is to a blogging collective that posts links every Friday to reviews of a variety of books, many of which have been out of circulation for a while. Occasionally a new one shines thru the almost forgotten. The Dog Seated Next to Me still has a month to go before you can read it. You’re getting a sneak preview! Therefore do not let the link below confuse you—or, in the time-tested vernacular, pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain.

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Engaging the Fire

Image result for bukowski images
The poet and the monk
and all
when they awaken to this Paleo inheritance
are stepping away
from a part of their

The mother
of my childhood friend
helped a bunch of us feel
the light
when she burned Fred’s fingers
for playing with

On Fiji long ago
Tunaiviqalita on a dare
walked on burning coals
siring down his lineage
a lucrative

The poet
treats as metaphor
this roaster of loins, searer of egos
care to close the gap?”
his boozy breath dares
the grinning, gaping pareidolic

The monk
saw an ally in this elemental conceit
of staring down delusions
of coveted
nothing grander than love
with Thích Quảng Đức
incinerating himself
as click bait
for a world inured