Just as the last embers are flickering out on the latest Open Letters Monthly Summer Reading feature, The Weekly Standard has trundled out one of its own, and in addition to items one suspects were selected for non-literary reasons (right-wing screed-histories and the like), there were some gems:
If Wilson’s texts are stellar, his plates have their own, quieter beauty. The birds he drew and then, often, hand-colored seem to delight in their difference from humans.
There’s also an intelligent, perceptive review of Rick Atkinson’s magnificent The Guns at Last Light by Nelson Lankford, although something of The Weekly Standard‘s mildly lax editorial standards glares through in the fact that no editor at the magazine saw fit to delete Lankford’s bizarre, monstrous characterization of WWII as “Europe’s second bloody 20th-century civil war.”
Those lax editorial standards crop up again in the issue’s best piece, a look at that most unlikely of sub-genres, Christian hardboiled crime fiction. The piece is by Jon Breen, and it’s on balance very good, but we can take it as a given that, for instance, OLM‘s shark-tank editorial process would have caught this repetition: “But Bertrand may be the finest of the lot” followed shortly after by “While the three novels are of nearly equal merit, Nothing to Hide (2012) may be the best of the lot.” (A more attentive editor might also have questioned Edwin Yoder’s assertion that the first line of Pride and Prejudice “may be the most famous open sentence in novelistic history,” since A Tale of Two Cities will always win that contest).
Fortunately, there’s almost never a need to worry about editorial laxness over at the mighty TLS, which this time around, among its usual bounty, features a very solid review by Bruce Boucher of Daniel Savoy’s Venice from the Water:
In the most creative part of his book, Savoy suggests that the waterways of the lagoon both defined and enhanced the manner in which Venice presented itself to natives and visitors alike. Early navigational maps established sightlines to bell towers like the Campanile of San Marco, which could be seen several kilometres away and served as lighthouses as well as markers along a ceremonial route.
Savoy’s book is one of those curious items that seem to improve in the memory long after the reading, so the added attention from the TLS is encouraging. Only one more brutal month of official summer remains to flatten and charbroil Boston (with the only source of relief coming from repeated viewings of Disney’s “Teen Beach Movie”), but Summer Readings at least form seasonal highlights – and the majesty of the TLS is evergreen.
Our book today is the 2006 DC Archive Edition featuring “The Shazam Family” but overwhelmingly devoted to the exploits of “The World’s Mightiest Boy,” Captain Marvel Junior. The character is – as you might guess – a spin-off of Fawcett Comics’ best-selling flagship super-hero, Captain Marvel, and this Archive Edition reprints his first ten appearances in Master Comics in 1941and his own title, plus a mini-masterpiece of an Introduction by the world’s authority on all things Captain Marvel, P. C. Hamerlinck.
An Archive Edition like this one really serves to underscore an observation I’ve been making for years: Captain Marvel Junior might just be the strangest superhero of them all. He starts out life as teenager Freddy Freeman, who’s crippled by the villainous Captain Nazi (during the same attack, the Captain kills Freddy’s grandfather) and saved from death only by the intervention of Captain Marvel, who manages an arrangement whereby when young Freddy says his name – “Captain Marvel!” – he gains a portion of Captain Marvel’s powers and transforms into a dream version of himself: beautiful, muscular, not crippled, and sporting a skin-tight blue costume and a cape. Captain Marvel Junior has all of Captain Marvel’s powers: he can fly, he’s super-strong, he’s invulnerable to harm. But even from the first, despite being usually cheery, he seemed more serious than Captain Marvel, more mood-driven and intense – more of a teenage boy, that is. He can become deeply affected by the things that happen to him. He can cry tears of outrage. He can act out of anger. He was an edgy Marvel teen hero long before there were any at Marvel.
He gets his powers directly from his hero – he’s the ultimate fanboy. He’s crippled – and orphaned – directly by the guy who’ll go on to be his arch-enemy (which might not sound like much in comic book terms, but name me another hero for whom it’s true). He’s the only superhero who can’t say his own name in public, since before he got to the “Junior” part, the “Captain Marvel” part would abruptly transform him back into Freddy Freeman. And what about Freddy Freeman? The kid is virtually penniless, lives in a shack, and crutches around with a permanent limp – he’s the single worst secret identity in the history of secret identities. In Captain Marvel Junior’s origin story, Captain Marvel forbids him from simply staying in his super-powered form permanently – says Freddy needs to be Freddy so his body can heal properly. But his leg never does heal properly – it’s natural to think that at some very early point, he told the good Captain to go suck an egg and never turned back into luckless, sad-sack Freddy Freeman again.
These adventures – drawn in a darkly and vivid style by Mac Raboy – must have seemed a world away from anything Captain Marvel fans were expecting. Gone are the bright sunny colors of the parent hero – it’s jarring how much of Captain Marvel Junior’s world is shrouded in the shadows of run-down tenements and alley-ways. And the darkness extends to the stories as well: when Captain Nazi (who is, despite everything, an oddly charismatic monster – as fine a recurring super-villain as the 1940s turned up) hatches a fiendish plan to kill Allied scientists or poison American soldiers, good people actually die, and nothing Captain Marvel Junior can do brings them back again.
Reading these old issues really made me wish there were a DC Archive Edition that reprinted more of Captain Marvel Junior – say, the first ten adventures he had once robust sales allowed him to leave Master Comics and get his own title. As far as I can tell, no such volume was ever made – but I can dream.
Our book today is a modern-day classic from 1987, The Norton Book of Travel Writing, edited for the ages by the great Paul Fussell and featuring a stellar roster of the greatest travel-writers of all time (with one incredibly glaring exception: there is no Mary Kingsley here). We have Freya Stark, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Jan Morris, John Crowe Ransom, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Bowles, and even Fussell’s rival editor of a classic travel-writing anthology (in this case 1985’s A Book of Travellers’ Tales) Eric Newby, and we also have Fussell himself, writing with his usual psychological insight about the underlying illicit pleasures of travel:
Homesickness is one of the traveler’s ailments, and so is loneliness. Fear – of strangers, of being embarrassed, of threats to personal safety – is the traveler’s usual, if often unadmitted, companion. The sensitive traveler will also feel a degree of guilt at his alienation from ordinary people, at the unearned good fortune that has given him freedom while others labor at their unexciting daily obligations. If a little shame doesn’t mingle with the traveler’s pleasure, there is probably going to be insufficient ironic resonance in his perceptions.
And while Fussell’s psychological insights always say more about him than they tend to say about observable reality (The Great War and Modern Memory ought to be subtitled “My Dad Often Ignored Me”), in this case he’s on to something: that “unearned good fortune” really should inform even the humblest of travel adventures, that reflexive remembrance that the kid behind the counter at the sunglasses hut isn’t on vacation – he’s working, and even in paradise, he’s looking forward to the end of his shift.
If there’s one weakness in Fussell’s anthology, it’s that he tends to gravitate toward travel writers who are every bit the inveterate bookworm that he himself is, writers who are far, far more concerned with after-the-fact polish carefully applied in book-lined studies than they are with immediacy (hence, perhaps, the absence of Mary Kingsley). One of worst offenders in this regard is surely Ralph Waldo Emerson, as Fussell himself obliquely observes: “As a traveler and a travel writer he is unique, an itinerant ethical philosopher prone to effuse constant metaphors, interested in places largely as providing insights into people, customs, usages, identities. A sophisticated wonder is his customary tone …”
The resultant passages in Emerson smell more than a little of the lamp:
Every Englishman is an embryonic chancellor. His instinct is to search for a precedent. The favourite phrase of their law is, “a custom whereof the memory of man runneth not back to the contrary.” The barons say, “Nolumus mutari [We will not change];” and the cockneys stifle the curiosity of the foreigner on the reason of any practice, with “Lord, sir, it was always so!” They hate innovation. Bacon told them, Time was the right reformer; Chatham, that “confidence was a plant of slow growth;” Canning, to “advance with the times;” and Wellington, that “habit was ten times nature.” All their statesmen learn the resistibility of the tides of custom, and have invented many fine phrases to cover this slowness of perception, the prehensility of tail.
At the opposite end of that spectrum would be an impressionistic writer like D. H. Lawrence, whose 1921 mini-classic Sea and Sardinia is as passionate, vivid, and repetitive as a dream:
Cold, fresh wind, a black-blue, translucent, rolling sea on which the wake rose in snapping foam, and Sicily was on the left: Monte Pellegrino, a huge, inordinate mass of pinkish rock, hardly crisped with the faintest vegetation, looming up to heaven from the sea. Strangely large in mass and bulk Monte Pellegrino looks and bare, like a Sahara in heaven: and old-looking. These coasts of Sicily are very imposing, terrific, fortifying the interior. And again one gets the feeling that age has worn them bare; as if old, old civilizations had worn away and exhausted the soil, leaving a terrifying blankness of rock, as at Syracuse in plateau, and here in great mass.
Some of these two dozen writers are hyper-observant but not very ruminative; others are filled with impressions and memories even by the sight of a single tidal pool (or half-naked market boy). The one thing they all have in common is that when they got that “unearned good fortune” they seized it, prolonged it, and most of all wrote about it. I harp on all my traveling friends now (and especially the ones who are already earning their money with their pens) to take notes on those infrequent trips – write them down, write them up, sell them. Even in a world where no point is more than 30 hours’ travel away from any other point, there’s a bottomless market for travellers’ tales.
Instead of harping, I should send those traveling friends copies of this great anthology, as a subtle hint …
Our book today is Robert Harris’ drum-tight 2003 historical novel Pompeii, written in the formidable shadow not of Mount Vesuvius but of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 corker The Last Days of Pompeii. Bulwer-Lytton’s book has famously lodged in reading history as perhaps the single worst novel ever written (an unjust claim – the title clearly belongs to Catherine Schine’s The Love Letter), and the faint whiff of bathos has clung to the whole subject every since. Vesuvius erupted during the reign of the Roman emperor Titus, throwing enormous amounts of ash into the atmosphere and sending bolt-fast sheets of pyroclastic flow coursing down the slopes of the mountain to bury everything between the peak and the Bay of Naples. The popular seaside town of Pompeii was entombed in an afternoon and lay frozen and unchanging for two thousand years while the grass grew and the seasons changed far above it. Only in the modern era did excavations begin to uncover its quietly stunning secrets – right down to the graffiti on the whorehouse walls.
As a backdrop to fictional drama, it couldn’t get much more tempting. We know the inside floor plans of dozens of specific buildings; we know the names of just the kind of non-emperor everyday folk who so often go unrecorded, and although dozens of haunting body-casings have been discovered, they don’t bear any identification – so a novelist gets the best of both worlds: he can take advantage of his readers’ knowledge of the coming disaster to ratchet up the tension, but he can also contrive to have his characters survive the doom that’s coming their way. Of course, that ready-made dramatic backdrop also makes the whole thing seem extra contrived; writing a Pompeii novel that doesn’t feel artificial is much trickier than it seems.
Harris’ book succeeds completely, and it does that mainly by a process of diversion so subtle and assured that you almost don’t notice it as you’re reading: he switches crises. Dependable, haunted young engineer Attilius has been sent out from Rome to Pompeii not because of Vesuvius, which has been dormant for a very long time; he’s sent out as aquarius because there’s a problem with the great imperial Augusta aqueduct that supplies water to the Roman fleet stationed on the Bay (and commanded by Pliny the Elder, the famous polymath and old salt who would become the only person we know by name who certainly died during the eruption).
Each chapter of Pompeii bears an epigraph taken not from the ancient world but from more or less contemporary geological reference works (I initially thought that was a disastrous decision on Harris’ part, but it’s actually a stroke of genius), so the reader is informed – or reminded – of things Attilius can’t possibly know, including the fact that volcanoes on the brink of major eruptions often rumble and shift the deep-ground all around them in the immediate build-up. The catastrophe of the Augusta’s failure is just a prelude to the much worse catastrophe coming in just a day or two, but Attilius doesn’t know that – readers instead watch him grappling with the immediate problem of water supply, and assessing it with an engineer’s grasp of the inevitable
The map showed him as clearly as a painting how the calamity must have spread, the matrix emptying with mathematical precision. He traced it with his finger, his lips moving silently. Two and a half miles per hour! If Nola had gone down at dawn, then Acerrae and Arella would have followed in the middle of the morning. If Neapolis, twelve miles round the coast from Misenum, had lost its supply at noon then Puteoli’s must have gone at the eighth hour, Cumae’s at the ninth. Baiae’s at the tenth. And now, at last, inevitably, at the twelfth, it was their turn.
Harris has done a huge amount of research on volcanoes and the ancient world, and he matches that research with a wondeful ability to put a human face on it all:
Around it was grouped the usual twilight crowd – sailors dousing their befuddled heads, ragged children shrieking and splashing, a line of women and slaves with earthenware pots at their hips and on their shoulders, waiting to collect their water for the night.
Our engineer faces a fractious work-crew under his command, but he also has to deal with imperious local rich landowners who don’t want to face the tough realities he has no choice but to break to them:
Attilius wondered how many of the owners, relaxed and torpid as this sweltering August stretched and yawned and settled itself into is fourth week, would be aware by now of the failure of the aqueduct. Not many, he would guess. Water was something that was carried in by slaves, or which appeared miraculously from the nozzle of one of Sergius Orata’s shower-baths. But they would know soon enough. They would know once they had to start drinking their swimming pools.
Looming over Attilius’ frenzied efforts to fix the Augusta (and, thrown in for good measure, solve the mystery of the disappearance of the previous aquarius), looming over everything and exquisitely employed to do so, is nearing eruption. The reader knows the sheer scope and power of that coming disaster, and Harris beautifully plays on that knowledge, parading plenty of hints in front of Attilius before even his sharp mind begins to guess what’s coming. It’s so well-done you’ll find yourself periodically re-reading the whole thing just for the fun of it (something that’s very unlikely to be true of Harris’ subsequent forays into ancient Roman historical fiction, for instance).
At least, you’ll periodically re-read it until the super-volcano underneath Yosemite blows. But that’s a whole ‘nother novel!
Our book today is 1867’s So Excellent a Fishe: A Natural History of Sea Turtles by the great Archie Carr, the one-time professor of Zoology at the University of Florida who also wrote the classic natural history memoir The Windward Road (recently re-issued in a lovely paperback by the University Press of Florida – hint, hint!). So Excellent a Fishe is Carr’s account of the magnificent animals who swam through his imagination for so many decades of his life, the five genera of sea turtles left in the modern world: loggerheads (Caretta), ridleys (Lepidochelys), hawksbills (Eretomochelys), green turtles (Chelonia), and leatherbacks (Dermochelys).
The great Carl Safina, in his own book on sea turtles, 2006’s Voyage of the Turtle, indulges in one of his predictably beautiful flights of enthusiasm (if we have a better living writer of natural history, I’ve never heard of that lucky person): “Through jewel-hued sultry blue lagoons, through waters wild and green and cold, stroke these angels of the deep – ancient, ageless, great-grandparents of the world.”
Crusty old Carr, with his watery eyes, his carapace of brusqueness, his odd, out-of-element grace, and his unfathomable kindness, is much less poetic in his book than Safina, and he’s in some ways concerned with much more practical things. In his day as in ours, sea turtles are routinely slaughtered by humans and served up as delicacies in restuarants, and Carr devoted the whole of his life as a teacher, a writer, and a conservationist to saving the world’s sea turtles before they were gone completely. The fact that there are any left in the world today is owed more to Archie Carr than to any other single person (“You’ve done a lot for turtles,” his absolutely wonderful wife Marjorie once grinningly summed up, with her typical matter-of-factness; “They’ve done a lot for me too,” he replied, in a rare, wild excess of excitement).
So Excellent a Fishe is one of his many studies of those turtles, and it’s his best. He was fascinated by every aspect of turtle life, including the abiding mysteries of their navigation abilities, which seem present right out of the egg:
The trip of the little turtles to the water begins when they break out of the nest. This may be located on unobstructed beach sloping evenly toward a sea that lies in full view. More likely, however, teh location of the nest gives the hatchlings a first view of nothing but sand and sky. In either case the little turleds have got to find the water, and unless they are eaten they nearly always do. After a few short false starts they begin to crawl, and almost at once swing into the general direction of the sea. They move around, through, or over obstacles, and go up or down slopes with unswerving “confidence” in whatever sign it is that marks the ocean for them. They can find it by daylight or at night, in all weather except heavy rain, with the sun or moon hidden, or shining brightly in any part of the sky. The main guiding cue is not yet wholly understood.
While plumbing these “senses beyond the sense of man,” Carr came in contact with a great many sea turtles and had the weird, thought-halting experience of encountering these enormous creatures when they’ve crawled up onto the alien world of their birth:
At breeding time, when survival is in the most delicate balance, all sea turtles leave the familiar safety of the sea, where they have grown to a size that makes them almost immune to predation, and lumber ashore and expose themselves and their offspring to the hazards of the land. A green turtle on shore is almost defenseless. She weighs an average of nearly three hundred pounds but seems almost wholly unable to use her bulk and strength in active self-defense. She is awkward of gait, myopic of vision, and single-track of mind.
So Excellent a Fishe is in many ways a battle report, and the original version is full of black-and-white photos of turtles clambering laboriously out of the surf and overcoming all obstacles in order to reach their breeding sands. For hundreds of years, the worst of those obstacles was, as Safina puts it, “a man with a machete,” and although there are occasional conservation success stories, it’s a grim likelihood that sea turtles, like all other megafauna on Earth, won’t survive the press of ten billion humans who’ll inhabit this planet before the present century is out. So Carr’s books may serve as unintended epitaphs as well to these creatures whose kind was old when the dinosaurs appeared and who placidly watched them disappear.
However that goes, Carr gave them a small extra lease on life – and this smart, informative book is the story of how he did it.
Our book today is the fantastic 1998 novel An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis, a volume I’ve recommended and gifted countless times since it first appeared, even more times than its predecessor, Merlis’ stunning 1994 debut American Studies (and would be happy to gift again, should any of you want a copy), mainly for two reasons: a) though extremely intelligent and moving, American Studies is couched in very much the same ease of AIDS-era gay self-pity that seems to inform 99 percent of gay fiction from the era (see Laura Argiri’s The God in Flight, or Christopher Bram’s In Memory of Angel Clare, even, underneath its flint, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance), and b) I have a rather pronounced soft spot for the mythical world of the Homeric epics – and for Homeric pastiches of all kinds, but especially novelistic ones (some of you – a very few, naturally – will even have read one or all of my own trilogy of such novels, Troy War, Steve Donoghue’s Ulysses, and The Telemachiad).
I’ve been reading what could lightly be termed ‘Trojan War fiction’ for a long time, reading the infinite variations that are all the spiritual descendants of the great, the mighty Troilus and Criseyde by Chaucer. I have championed Homeric adaptations in all their multiplicity, from the youth of the 20th Century (the late and very much missed Christopher Morley’s The Trojan Horse, for instance, or John Erskine’s deceptively subtle The Private Life of Helen of Troy) to the early 21st – in fact, it’s probably safe to say I’ve read virtually every such pastiche that’s ever been written in English, and I could read two more tomorrow without boring of the conceit.
Likewise gay fiction, which went from the long decades of being deformed and fugitive (see David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell’s heartbreaking anthology Pages Passed from Hand to Hand for a good overview of some of the bizarre shapes ‘gay’ writing took in the long years when openly declaring itself would have meant prison or even death – certainly career death – for anybody who dared to do it) and then came into its gruesome, unwanted heyday when the AIDS epidemic struck and unthinkable tragedy had at least the silver lining of catalyzing works of genius.
So naturally I was predisposed to read An Arrow’s Flight when it appeared and very likely predisposed to like it – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s Merlis’ great book (like most of his readers, I’ve given up hope of seeing more long fiction from him than the three novels he’s already written, and 2003’s Man About Town was just strange in its underlying compulsions – it read like the work of a recluse, even though it wasn’t written by one), and every dare it takes succeeds. It relocates the Trojan War to the more-or-less present day and situates it in the long stalemate during which the Greeks are looking desperately for anything to tip the scales in their favor. One of the foremost such x-factors is Neoptolemus, the son of legendary Achilles. There are prophecies that say Troy can’t be taken unless Neoptolemus is a part of the victory, but in Merlis’ book the gorgeous boy has fled from all responsibility and goes by the name Pyrrhus, working as a go-go dancer and rent boy in the gay ghetto of a derelict city, rooming with hapless, good-hearted Leucon, who distracts himself one evening from the muffled conversation Pyrrhus is having with one of his tricks by watching some desultory television:
He sat in the living room and turned on the TV with the volume as low as he could get it and still hear. There was some standup comic telling hate jokes in a nondiscriminatory fashion, everybody got theirs, but especially queers and women. Leucon felt righteously uneasy, laughing at that stuff. But the guy was funny; pussy farts and limp wrists might be funny in a world that could stop at laughter.
You catch the sharp, sad notes of the narrative right way, and those notes are carried along magnificently by Merlis’ edged, elegant prose as he contemplates the exquisite waste of Pyrrhus’ life as it trembles on the edge of mattering:
This is as close as most of us come: when there is a change ahead, so certain that we refuse to make ourselves at home. Then we may, for a little while, be awake to everything. As Pyrrhus was, while he waited for his real life to begin. His days were endless and his nights hectic with the narrowest facts: parts of bodies; the pictures on people’s walls; the code words in telephone calls; the different ways people swore; the various deities they called on when they came.
Because the gorgeous boy can’t escape the prophecy of his key role in Troy’s downfall, any more than one other key player can escape it: Philoctetes, inheritor of the fabled bow of Hercules, who was afflicted with a poison early in the Greek campaign, an incurable disease that made him a pariah among his own comrades and drove the Greek captain Odysseus to maroon him far away from the action. The same muddled prophecy – or maybe it’s merely desperation – says that Troy can’t be taken without Philoctetes and his unbeatable arrows, and things are going so badly at the novel’s beginning that Odysseus is forced to re-think his actions all those years ago. He has a tense exchange with old Phoenix, the wily corporate lawyer baiting the faithful retainer:
“Now who’s the superstitious one? Philoctetes and his magic bow. The bow’s not actually going to do anything. It’s a symbol or something. Maybe Philoctetes is superfluous. I don’t know why we should bother with him.”
After a moment, Phoenix said, “Maybe you need to right a wrong.”
Odysseus was involuntarily impressed that Phoenix should have come so close to guessing his thoughts. This was probably a necessary skill for a career lackey, but not one Phoenix would have had much opportunity to practice, working for Achilles. Achilles didn’t have very many thoughts to guess. I want to eat. I want to sleep. I want to kill somebody.
“I didn’t commit a wrong. I did what any practical captain would have done. He was destroying morale. I would practically have had a mutiny on my hands if I’d left him on board.”
“You don’t have to persuade me.”
“No,” Odysseus said. “Do you know, I had forgotten him? In the heat of everything else, those first years, before we settled down into this eternal stalemate. Since then I’ve had altogether too much time to think.”
“And you think about Philoctetes.”
“Understand, it’s not that I think some god or other is literally punishing us, keeping us from victory until we bring him back. It’s that I can’t go on. It – I don’t know – it breaks my concentration.” He had begun pacing. “Do you know, I’ve never won a case without believing that my side was right?”
“You’ve never defended a guilty client?”
“Oh, of course I have. Innocent people don’t need to pay my rates. Anyone who hires me is guilty almost by definition. But they are procedurally innocent. I don’t get nearly so outraged by someone embezzling or taking a bribe or even killing somebody as I do by the state proceeding improperly.”
“So now that you’re the state, you think you’ve proceeded improperly and that’s why we can’t win?”
“Something like that.”
Phoenix smiled. “I hate it when people say ‘something like that,’ as if I were a bit dense and we’d all better settle for a near miss.”
As the novel progresses, Pyrrhus decides to go to Troy and maybe reinvent himself, and his encounters with bitter, haunted Philoctetes are charged with double and triple meanings. The whole book is, really: there are meditations here on the bleak joys of survivors, on the impartiality of war, on the searching of youth, on the nature of beauty, and on the unthinking brusqueness of the straight world toward the gay world, especially in the immediate wake of an epidemic that brought those worlds into such close and ragged contact. That epidemic is masterfully, crushingly summoned in the book’s brutal, beautiful final scene, but it would be mere reportage without Merlis’ gift for drama.
You’ll never read a piece of gay fiction or a piece of Trojan War fiction even approximately similar to this one (Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles comes close in some ways but lacks – couldn’t help but lack, really – the historical urgency of the undertone); I highly recommend it.
I thought my week’s Penny Press highlights had already passed, but the hits just keep coming! The New Yorker issue sporting the now-famous Bert & Ernie cover, for instance, features a great piece by Louis Menand called “The Color of Law,” about the systematic suppression of the black vote in the American South – an oppression that’s just been given the green light (by the same court that occasioned the Bert & Ernie cover with a marginally generous gay rights ruling) to resume full-strength, so that in the 2106 presidential election, black and other minority voters can be turned away from their polling stations if they don’t have five forms of picture ID or the ability to answer a battery of questions in Latin. Menand’s piece starkly and eloquently relates the historical iniquities that gave rise to voter protection legislation in the first place – it’s a masterly piece of writing, and it’s unfortunately more relevant than ever.
Pointedly relevant too, on a rather less pressing (or maybe more pressing) topic is “Cape No Fear” by the always-enjoyable Abe Streep in the latest Outside magazine; the brief piece deals with the resurgence of shark-sightings in New England, the spiritual birthplace of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The protected seal population has been booming, and with it comes the also-booming population of sharks that prey on seals – and so human/shark encounters have been on the rise, and Streep briskly summarizes the change in public attitude: “When the Denver tourist was attacked, local consensus was that he had it coming: he swam 100 yards out to a sandbar near two seals.” Although the piece’s money quote comes from a scientist who warns that public acceptance might take a nasty turn “if a 12-year-old kid gets attacked.” Fans of Jaws (especially Steven Spielberg’s great movie adaptation) will know exactly which 12-year-old boy is being alluded to here; that scientist is almost certainly right – little Alex Kintner is all that stands between a healthy shoreline ecosystem and the barbaric shark “cullings” only recently contemplated in Hawaii.
But the highlight of the week in the Penny Press – indeed, one of the clear highlights of the year – came in the latest Esquire: a piece about best-selling author and general-purpose fraud Eben Alexander, author of the nauseating mega-bestseller Proof of Heaven. The essay is called “The Prophet,” and it’s the best thing Luke Dittrich has ever written. It takes the reader through the entire story of Alexander’s tawdry, appalling life until now, leading up to the creation of his book, and the genius of the piece is its remorseless, almost inhuman restraint. At no point does Dittrich call Alexander a charlatan, a quack, a serial liar – instead, he just doggedly tracks down every real-world underpinning of everything Alexander has ever done or said or written and lays it before the reader. It’s a stunningly effective performance, the single most thorough demolition of a man’s reputation that I’ve read in years (any writer who’ll double-check Alexander’s weather-references against the national weather bureau is deserving of public applause) – and the fact that it’s done without any ad hominem dashes makes the blade that much sharper. I myself couldn’t possibly have written such a piece; Alexander’s book clearly outraged Dittrich as much as it did me, but he channels that outrage into ribbonizing the man who wrote it. A pure joy to read – and a joy that would be missed by anybody who dismissed Esquire itself as just a glossy lad-mag.
As I’ve had occasion to note more than once here at Stevereads, one of the things I love most about the continuing bounty of the Penny Press is the unpredictability of it all. Talented freelancers are always getting drunk with each other at parties, sharing soccer pitches in the glaring sun, ogling each other in too-tight clothing at poetry readings – and so, like voles fur-transporting dandelion fuzz, the continual cross-pollination of willing writers and susceptible editors is always fermenting new opportunities for the lucky, the well-placed, and the attractive, and sometimes those same favored ones can also write, in which case everybody wins!
No one or even ten periodicals have a lock on the kind of quality pieces that leap off the page – there’s a very encouraging over-abundance of such pieces, and they can crop up almost anywhere (I’ve found moving prose in such far-flung outposts as Yankee, Birdwatching, and even poor bro-zine Details). Just the other day, for example, I found three:
“Liquid City” by Justin Davidson in New York magazine, a smart, breezy piece that uses the devastation of Hurricane Sandy as a springboard to talk about man-vs.- water:
New York’s relationship with its waters is a long and crazy romance, fueled by manic energy, gilded dreams, violence, abandonment, and elated rediscovery. The story begins on a claustrophobic block of Pearl Street between Broad and Whitehall Streets, shadowed by office towers on all sides. In the seventeenth century, this was both the edge of New Amsterdam and its center. The town’s greatest house, Peter Stuyvesant’s two-story mansion, sat beside the serried shops, wooden homes, taverns, and warehouses. Ships moored at the sole wooden dock poked into the East River. Sailors unloaded their cargo, hauled it across the dirt road to the Dutch West India Company, and lifted it into the upper-level storeroom by a pulley fastened to the brick facade. Colonists from a country under perpetual threat of drowning knew to keep their valuables raised.
“Paging Summer” – this was from Time magazine, their version of the near-obligatory “Summer Reading” feature that crops up all over the book-chat world once the Western hemisphere’s fifteen days of spring turn into its four and a half months of crushing heat, humidity, and drought. Time asked several authors to talk about their summer reading projects (they also asked several non-authors – “luminaries in tech, fashion, science, film and TV” – presumably because a book-feature entirely by bookworms and for bookworms might be off-putting to illiterates, fakers, and cokeheads). Some of these guest opinions were fun – Susan Choi (recently author of the intensely boring My Education)’s 100 words on defiantly reading War and Peace one summer is utterly charming, for instance – and they serve as appetizer for the real meal, a dialogue between Time executive editor Radhika Jones and Time’s great book critic Lev Grossman about the reading they’ve done this summer and in summers past. Some of this dialogue is scarily depressing – I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching “booktubers” on YouTube lately, and the same kind of blandly unthinking conformity I found there seeps into this little talk as well (it’s just a calmly assumed given that both Jones and Grossman will love the novels of Kate Atkinson, or the Hunger Games books even though they were written for children, etc.) – but a good deal of it isn’t, and it’s always interesting to eavesdrop on two book-people talking shop, as it were.
“The American Beginning” (once again, I offer my services to every editor of every periodical in the world, for help with titling pieces) by Alan Taylor in The New Republic – Taylor is one of our most brilliant working historians, and this fascinating essay of his, nominally a review of a new reprint of Letters from an American Farmer by Crevecoeur, is really a soaringly confident re-assessment of that author and his best-known work, which Taylor rightly points out isn’t all that accurately known to start with:
Most readers know Crevecoeur only from his famous third letter with its sunny optimism. That selective reading creates a misleading impression of his entire work, which ripens into a long expose of the American Revolution as brutal, divisive, and hypocritical. Often misread as a champion of American independence and democracy, Crevecoeur instead mourned the demise of British America. In its full arc, Letters reveals a descent into political madness: it better resembles Heart of Darkness than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Informal book-gossip, Manhattan flooding, and Crevecoeur – and the week’s reading is still young!
Our book today is John Gardner’s 1973 epic poem Jason & Medeia, and it … screeching halt, right? Yes, “epic poem” – a literary form about as dead as the dodo, an intentionally, defiantly recherche choice for any modern-day author to make, a thumb in the eye of prospective new readers, a pretentious fling of the scarf over the shoulder, a way – perhaps the most signature way – for pedants to advertise their time-shares on Mount Helicon. Western literature was born in the epic poem, and it was refined to adulthood in the epic poem, and it colonized the barbarians in the epic poem, and it reconciled the ways of God to man in the epic poem … and then it unanimously and resolutely left the epic poem behind, or else consigned it to one ratty shelf at the Grolier Book Shop.
And yet, epic poems continue to get written, and some of them continue to be great. Anthony Burgess never managed that, despite a couple of tries (and the less said about Melville’s Clarel the better), but a handful of other authors have – Derek Walcott’s Omeros comes to mind, of course, and Kenneth Koch’s Ko, and W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs. There’s Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, which is almost as lumbering as Burgess but much more heartfelt, and more recently there’s Campbell McGrath’s Shannon, one of those books that seems to age and marinate in the mind’s back rooms, ‘improving’ as time goes on.
And there’s Jason & Medeia, born of its author’s life-long love of the classics (they’re liberally quoted throughout, especially Apollonius of Rhodes and Euripides), telling the story of Jason and the Argonauts and the terrifying self-inflicted tragedy of Medeia, ranging over the whole landscape of the Homeric world, stopping now to admire a shield, now to take the reader into the heart of a hot battle:
We lashed torches to our spears and hurled. The city went up
like oil. Ye gods but we were good at it! Mad Idas shrieked,
dancing with a female corpse. Leodokos, strong as a bull,
pushed in the palace doors and we saw white fire inside.
And one struck at my left, and I whirled, and even as the spear
plunged in, I saw his face, his helmet fallen away:
Kyzikos! He sank without a word, and when his muscles jerked
and his head tipped up, there was sand in his open eyes. Too late
for shamed explanations now; too late to consider again
the warning of the seer! He’d had his span: one more bird caught
in the wide, indifferent net. Nor was he the only one.
And of course presiding over all of it are the gods and goddesses on Olympus, who talk frankly not only with Gardner’s bespectacled stand-in but also with each other, as contentious and direct as always. When Hera accuses Athena of caring only for abstraction, of putting obstacles in Jason’s path out of mere whim, Athena’s ventured defense has bitter, contemporary resonances. Her reply is in part about Vietnam, but Homer would have recognized it in an instant just the same:
… You’re wrong, this once, to reproach me, Goddess.
I do know the holiness of things. I know as well as you
the hungry raven’s squawk in winter, the hunger of nations,
the stench of gotch-gut wealth, how it feeds on children’s flesh.
I’ve pondered kings and ministers with their jackals’ eyes,
presidents sweetly smiling with the hearts of wolves. I’ve seen
the talented well-meaning, men not chained to greed,
able to sacrifice all they possess for one just cause,
fearless men, and shameless, earnestly waiting, lean,
ready to pounce when the cause is right – waiting, waiting –
while children die in ambiguous causes, and wicked men
make wars – waiting – waiting for the wars to reach their streets,
waiting for some unquestionable wrong – waiting on graveward …
Precisely because of all that I’ve done what I’ve done, raised men
to test this lord of the Argonauts. I have never failed him
yet, and I will not now; but I mean to annoy him to conflict,
badger till he racks his brains for proof he believes, himself,
of his worthiness. I mean to change him, improve him, for love
of Corinth, Queen of Cities. You speak of Space and Time.
No smallest grot, O Queen, can shape its identity
outside that double power: a thing is its history,
the curve of its past collisions, as it locks on the moment. What force
it learned from yesterday’s lions is now mere handsel in the den
of the dragon Present Space. And therefore I raise opposition
to Jason’s will, to temper it. His anguine mind,
despite those rueful looks, will find some way.
John Gardner is remembered today exclusively for his school-friendly novella Grendel, and even if his wise, garrulous, witty novels were to enjoy a rediscovery, it’s doubtful Jason & Medeia would be invited along for the ride, and that’s a shame. Exotic it might now be (long narrative poems were disappearing from the literary landscape even while Longfellow was writing some of the most exquisite ones every created, and he knew it, and he himself disappeared from the literary landscape not long after), but it’s not recondite at all – as one or two critics appreciated at the time, the book is on many levels a boisterous, fascinating novel, only raised to the pitch of poetry (one of those critics, nudged by the author himself, even seemed to realize that this holds true for all epic poems: they exist to tell stories, not to be willfully opaque like the most diseased of their modern offspring). The Jason story has had countless re-tellings over the centuries, and Jason & Medeia stands with the best of them.
Our book today is Hamilton Basso’s 1954 runaway bestseller The View from Pompey’s Head, which brought its fifty-year-old author the one thing he’d once upon a time wanted more than anything from the world, the one thing he’d slowly, gradually convinced himself he’d never have: renown. The book was a huge hit. It spent close to a year on the bestseller lists, was translated into half a dozen languages, was a selection of the Literary Guild (back when that really meant something!), was adapted into a movie, and was the book requested by every other bookstore customer for the whole year (causing a good deal of reflexive bitterness in the breasts of frustrated bookstore clerks in love with classical literature, since most of those customers came into the store asking for “that book about Pompey” – but alas, Pompey’s Head is the name of the fictional Southern town where the novel takes place). It unstoppered what its author semi-ironically referred to as “the streams of providence” and permanently floated a bank account that had seen its share of shallows.
The novel tells the story of Anson Page, a young lawyer (“a slender dark-haired man with serious brown eyes and a grave expression on his thin, well-modeled face”) at a New York firm that represents most of the best-known authors in America. One of Page’s bosses has been alerted to a possible problem: there are allegations that Phillip Greene, an editor at one of the houses the firm represents, may have embezzled twenty thousand dollars from the royalties of the novelist Garvin Wales, whose 1917 blockbuster Cenotaph was “banned in Boston, outlawed in Atlanta, burned in Baltimore, and denounced on the floor of the Senate.” Greene, a Maxwell Perkins stand-in, discovered Wales and labored to bring his books to the reading public, and now Wales, old and blind, has retired to an island just offshore of Pompey’s Head, where his privacy is guarded by his formidable wife, who detested Greene despite all the success he brought her husband.
Wales and his wife aren’t popular with the locals, needless to say. “Friends?” one of them tells Page, “With him? Anybody who’d write the books that he does, with all that rape and incest and somebody catting around on every page, making it seem like that was all we did down South …”
The catch is, Page is a local too, and his boss sends him to Pompey’s Head to handle the whole business. It’s a fraught homecoming, since Page is both disdainful of the snakepit aspects of the place (“God, what an awful town!” he thinks at one point, “The things it does to people!”) and emotionally in love with his memories of it:
Everything came back to him. He could see the squares that everyone was so proud of, not only for their oaks and magnolias and masses of azaleas but also because they had been laid out at least a decade before the squares in Savannah, a circumstance that Savannah was reluctant to admit but which was a matter of historical record just the same, and he could see the narrow Georgian streets that ran off from the squares, each house built close to its neighbor and the streets filled with sunlight that fell through the trees and stippled the sidewalks with a pattern of leafy shadow that shook and trembled with every current of the wind. It probably wasn’t the same any more, not after fifteen years, but on mornings like this there were no fifteen years.
The further complication – the one that sends lightning through the veins of an otherwise slightly conventional you-can’t-go-home-again Southern novel – takes the form of Dinah Blackford, Page’s old love, who has since married a crass and dim-witted businessman named Mico. When Page returns to Pompey’s Head, the novel immediately takes on a dual harmonic: Page is interrogating the past involving Garvin Wales, and the past is interrogating him involving his long-dormant feelings for Dinah, and hers for him. The steadily increasing simmer of these balanced plots gives Basso some incredible dramatic opportunities, and he makes the most of them. The actual revelations surrounding the embezzlement mystery, though well-deployed, are a bit tepid – but the character of Dinah takes on a wrenching depth of tragedy as the novel builds to its climax, a harrowing scene in which, over Page’s anguished protests, Dinah angrily confesses all the secrets of her life:
“You’ve been wondering why I married Mico, haven’t you? It’s been in the back of your mind all the time. Well, I’ll tell you! ‘Swear, fool, or starve, for the dilemma’s even; a tradesman thou! and hope to go to heaven’ – and someday I’ll explain what that means, though I hope to God that I never see you again until you’re so old and wrinkled and horrible that I can laugh myself sick over ever having been in love with you!”
It goes on for pages, and in all its torrid excess it’s one of the best things Ham Basso ever wrote.
He wrote endlessly – it was his profession. He turned out eight novels before he wrote The View From Pompey’s Head (they’re all rock-solid, even his requisite precocious debut, Relics and Angels, and especially what might just be his masterpiece, Wine of the Country), and he did his beloved travel-writing whenever he could, wriggling his toes in the sand at Samoa, letting the waves lap around his knees, he’d grin and say “This is office work!” (some of that travel-writing was collected in a wonderful book called A Quota of Seaweed), and in addition to a slew of newspapers, he also wrote for many years for The New Republic and The New Yorker (as usual with so many authors, the vast, intensely good book-review work he did all those years has never been collected, much less lovingly reprinted). But he never struck gold until he wrote The View From Pompey’s Head.
Naturally, once he struck gold he had no idea what to do with it (sudden ample money often has this effect on ink-stained wretches), and a few years elapsed before his next novel, which ended up being a ‘prequel’ to The View From Pompey’s Head and which more than a few critics considered superior to the earlier work (it was put up for the National Book Award and lost out to Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus). He’d scarcely typed the words “the end” on his last novel when his Creator typed those same words on him; he died in Connecticut in 1964, and his reputation didn’t wait long to follow him into the ground. He himself had often noted how brusquely the American literary scene could deal with those who had only years before been its darlings; he always expected it to happen to him, so he might not be chagrined to know how thoroughly he’s forgotten in the 21st century.
Forgotten, but not entirely gone: plenty of copies of The View From Pompey’s Head can be found ready for purchase online.