Review: ‘First Man’

Image result for first man
Image from DreamWorks.

Like many children growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I wanted to be an astronaut. The idea of traveling into space – viewing Earth from thousands or even millions of miles away – seemed entrancing.

I’m too old now for space travel, and I wouldn’t be able to go anyway. It’s too hard – on the body, and perhaps on the soul as well.

Which brings me to “First Man,” which should have been titled “Unknowable.” Or “The Space Between.” Or “Loneliest Man.”

This is not meant as a knock. Far from it. I really enjoyed “First Man.” But Damien Chazelle has made a surprisingly existential film about Neil Armstrong and his passage to being the first man on the moon. It’s a Terrence Malick film with Hollywood derring-do.

The performances – Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, Claire Foy as his wife Janet, Jason Clarke as fellow astronaut Ed White – are uniformly excellent. But despite the frequent close-ups and documentary-style shaky-cam (Damien, would it have killed you to use a tripod or dolly track once in awhile?), you never quite connect emotionally with anyone, save perhaps Kyle Chandler’s Deke Slayton or anybody in a scene glaring at the incorrigibly blunt Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). (I once interviewed Aldrin, and though he was engaging, it was obvious from the outset that he doesn’t suffer fools and doesn’t much care for niceties.)

That, I believe, is the point. Armstrong, in particular, is a closed-off man, particularly after he loses his young daughter to cancer at the beginning of the film. Years later, even when he’s trying to reassure his two sons about the Apollo 11 moon mission – a request his wife demands of him while he tries to sneak out of the house — he speaks in the flat, you-can’t-be-100-percent-certain cadences of the engineer, keeping a lid on the depths of his emotions.

Still, despite the restraint, “First Man” isn’t boring. The scenes in which Armstrong goes into space are powerful exhibitions of pure moviemaking. You hear the groan of the bolts, the click of the dials, the rumble of the enormous engines underneath the seemingly helpless astronauts. (I was reminded over and over of John Glenn’s apocryphal line, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind — every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.”) Chuck Yeager had derisively called the NASA men “spam in a can,” but the brilliance of Armstrong (and others) belies Yeager’s belief. He continually maintains control when his machines fail. Indeed, when it came time to land on the moon, Armstrong took over from the overloaded computers and did it manually.

Chazelle is well aware of the film he’s trying to make – one in which his hero is trapped amid the dreadful rattles of a claustrophobic cockpit, whether it’s his machine or his head, and grittily overcomes. He’s also aware of the films he’s trying to evoke. I particularly liked one of the many nods to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (my favorite film), in which Armstrong – having returned to our alien planet – is shown to a utilitarian bedroom almost devoid of furniture. It’s a nice wink to “2001’s” David Bowman lost in his baroque suite at the end of the film.

“First Man” is also the story of Armstrong and Janet, and it’s a story told more in the silences than the dialogue. In some ways, the home scenes are harder to take than the space-shot scenes: theirs is a marriage of two people who obviously respect each other, love each other, but find it hard to connect.

Tragedy doesn’t help her yearning. Her child is dead, her friends become widows, her husband risks his life. You see her willful denial of bad news in every cigarette she chain-smokes and every attempt she makes to reach for her husband, even when he’s behind a window in quarantine.

I liked “First Man.” Still, I’m a little shocked that its studio expected it to be a box-office hit. (This ain’t the ‘70s.) Anyone who expects to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” and see Armstrong and Aldrin fire Roman candles over the American flag should go see something by Michael Bay. The space program of “First Man” is, as the speech from John F. Kennedy declared, “hard.” Billions of dollars were spent and many people died to blaze the trail. It was a lonely road.

Indeed, if “First Man” reminds me of any film, it’s “All Is Lost,” the underrated J.C. Chandor’s quiet, thoughtful film with Robert Redford as a lone Job alone at sea. Now, I loved “All Is Lost”; I think it’s is one of the best, most moving films of the 21st century. I can’t say I was equally moved by “First Man,” but it did make me think about the vast distances between heaven and earth, the stars and ourselves – and the vast distances between a man and a woman separated by a pane of glass. Only connect? I may not be headed into space, but I’m grateful to take that journey.

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‘It’s catching, isn’t it?’

There’s a scene in the movie “Time After Time” in which H.G. Wells, having tracked the time-traveling Jack the Ripper from 1893 London to 1979 San Francisco, tells him that they “don’t belong here.”

The Ripper, who in Victorian England is a doctor named John Leslie Stevenson, scoffs the way only the perfectly villainous actor David Warner could. He turns on the television and shows Wells horror after horror: terrorist attacks, violent cartoons, bloodied protesters.

We don’t belong here? On the contrary, Herbert. I belong here completely and utterly,” he responds. “I’m home.”

Then Stevenson dismisses Wells’ utopian fantasies of the future. Malcolm McDowell’s Wells slaps him in the face. Stevenson is unmoved.

“It’s catching, isn’t it?” he says. “Violence.”

I’ve been thinking about that scene a lot. I feel that like Wells, who crossed over from a hopeful era to a pessimistic one, I’ve gone from one kind of America — one that struggled, one that had its awful moments, but one that attempted to live up to certain ideals and become a more perfect union — to another, one that’s set its worst impulses free, thanks to the pro wrestling, all-or-nothing chaos twitted down from on high.

You know I’m talking about President Reality Show.

It’s not just the surface behavior — the insulting tweets, the “people are saying” falsehoods, the sense that he’s riding a wave that will wreck those below him while he sails on obliviously — but the overall lack of shame that comes with it. It’s an all-or-nothing, brutish Hobbesian world, and he’s inured to any criticism. That’s just “fake news.”

And maybe he’s right. Maybe this is, at bottom, a corrupt, remorseless Hobbesian world. Maybe honesty and trust and compassion is just the thin veneer many of us suspected, but didn’t want to admit, because who wants to live in a world like that?

Apparently, many of us do.

We’re seeing it all over the globe, whether it’s Brexit or Hungary or Brazil or Venezuela or Myanmar. (Was it only 27 years ago that Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize? Now her country, in which she’s a leader, is persecuting journalists and the Rohingya.) We see it in Trump’s lack of condemnation over the possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the “on both sides”-ism of Charlottesville.

You think our country’s so innocent? (No, but we used to at least tell ourselves to do better.)

It’s anger spilled over, and nobody wants to turn the other cheek. (I think some prophet, who allegedly has hundreds of millions of followers, said that.)

It’s not like I have any answers to this anger. It simply makes me sad. It will probably get worse before it gets better. I was just reading the profile of Newt Gingrich in the new Atlantic, and the one-time bomb-throwing congressman still believes in a zero-sum world.

Twenty-five years after engineering the Republican Revolution, Gingrich can draw a direct line from his work in Congress to the upheaval now taking place around the globe. But as he surveys the wreckage of the modern political landscape, he is not regretful. He’s gleeful.

“The old order is dying,” he tells me. “Almost everywhere you have freedom, you have a very deep discontent that the system isn’t working.”

And that’s a good thing? I ask.

“It’s essential,” he says, “if you want Western civilization to survive.”

Lord knows there are many elements of “the system” that I hate as well. (Such as bomb-throwing former congressmen making $75,000 a speech for talking about the demise of the old order, presumably while talking to the old order.) But Gingrich, student of history he is, should know that revolutions seldom work out the way the revolutionaries plan. For one thing, when you rid the culture of trust, it becomes every person for him- or herself … which means that the Robespierres and Marats end up just as dead as the order they destroyed. For another, revolutions are usually ugly: wars, civil and otherwise, are seldom bloodless. Eventually, everybody’s exhausted and bitter and bereft; mothers generally don’t like to send their sons and daughters off to die, even if they’re convinced the cause is just. (Not that Newt, who famously sidestepped service in the Vietnam War, cares about that.)

So it might not be Western civilization that survives. It might not be any civilization that survives. That OK with you, Newt?

Listen: For all of my cynicism, I try to believe in a positive future. (As George Carlin put it, Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.) Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the sheer torrent of bad behavior, bad news or plain old stupidity makes me despair. Now that we’ve entered the downward spiral, my guess is we’ll follow it down until it’s interrupted by some cataclysm. I imagine John Leslie Stevenson would appreciate that.

But hey: Are you not entertained?

Review: ‘Twilight of the Gods’ by Steven Hyden

Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic RockTwilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock by Steven Hyden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was Steven Hyden, once upon a time.

I, too, spent my teen and college years reading collections of pop/rock criticism (Dave Marsh! Lester Bangs! Greil Marcus! Ed Ward!) and loving classic rock before being able to move forward to the more adventurous stuff. I, too, noticed that sometime in the mid/late 1980s rock seemed to lose itself in self-inflicted nostalgia, with the old standard-bearers suddenly unsure of what to do with themselves and the new folks making carbon copies of the already-carbon copied stuff of the previous generation and the major record labels trying to milk every dime from the pap, as they always did.

And I, too, grasped that the cycle kept going, to the point that suddenly every Rolling Stones or Who tour felt more like a large-print version of those PBS specials that reunited the great folk artists of the ‘60s. I mean, didn’t this stuff once MATTER?

However, as I gleefully read Hyden’s “Twilight of the Gods” – in which he breaks down classic rock into its trends, clichés, cultural baggage and modern perceptions – I thought of two ways in which Hyden and I are different. For one, I’ve got 12 years on him, so I’m old enough to remember when “classic rock” was simply called “rock”: when “Hungry Heart” first came on the radio, when everybody was buying “Rumours,” when “Hi Infidelity” inexplicably topped the album charts.

And second, he’s a much better writer than I am.

“Twilight of the Gods” is part memoir, part pop history, on how the titans of rock music (or what was called rock music, since some of its lower-tier stars didn’t rock very hard) found their early works and images encased in amber while time and the music business changed all around them. Hyden has what are called “big ears” – he’s cheerfully open to pretty much anything, including execrable material like Styx’s “Kilroy Was Here” – but he also has a razor-sharp wit about the business and himself.

For example, in attempting to determine classic rock’s defining artist, he runs through the Who (too eccentric), Led Zeppelin (too mystique-y), Bruce Springsteen (too earnest) and Black Sabbath (too dark), before settling on the unfortunately obvious: the Eagles. (Whoa, sorry, Don and Glenn: Eagles. No “The,” as I once read in a Frey interview in which he was adamant that the band’s name was simply “Eagles.” Based on old “American Top 40” countdowns, Casey Kasem obviously got the message.)

Hyden points to the storytelling perfection of the documentary “History of the Eagles” (who let that “the” in there?) to make his point. “(It’s) a … story about craven capitalists who labored for years over spotless, perfectly constructed pop-rock songs, and then played them forever on the road, even after they openly expressed their intense dislike for one another,” he writes. “If you’re looking for a three-hour summation of how classic rock went from the pre-corporate folkie idealism of the late sixties to nostalgic late capitalism by the end of the nineties, ‘History of the Eagles’ is the best lesson you’re going to find.”

And that lesson is told and retold through “Twilight of the Gods”: how many artists are now worth more dead than alive, or how streaming services essentially killed the album as an artistic statement, or how the list of classic albums has been more or less frozen since about 1990. At one point, he reprints the top 20 albums of all time from Rolling Stone’s 1987 20th-anniversary issue. Many of the entries – “Sgt. Pepper,” “Exile on Main Street,” “Astral Weeks,” “Blood on the Tracks” – could still be found on such a list 30 years later. Hell, I’ve got a book called “Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums” from 1978 and the list was pretty much the same then.

Another lesson: What’s now accepted was once dangerous, or least perceived to be dangerous. The truth is, it was more a way to piss off your parents, and these days – given that the parents (and grandparents!) were once the ones doing the pissing off, with their hair and their clothes and their copies of “Kiss Alive II” – if anything, they’ll lend their kids their copies of “The Velvet Underground and Nico” and ask them what they think of “Venus in Furs” before their offspring have moved on from the Woggles. (Update: I meant the Wiggles, the colorful Australian kids’ band. The Woggles are a neo-garage band.)

So, does it still matter?

In recent years, I’ve thought it was a good thing the Beatles broke up when they did, because they never had to go through this crap. Indeed, Mark Shipper’s 1978 novel “Paperback Writer,” one of my favorite books, offers an alternative history of what would have happened had they gotten back together. It wasn’t pleasant.

However, you’re never more emotionally at pop music’s mercy as to when you first hear it as a teenager, and the fact that it still has power decades later is worth something. “Twilight of the Gods” notes that the power of classic rock is in the community it fosters, whether it’s between you and your friends, or you and the groove.

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” Noel Coward once wrote, to which a respondent to a bad-song survey added, “The truth of the matter is that even the most hated of the hated songs will touch at least one little fiber of your beating heart, and make you yearn.”

Or, as Hyden puts it, “What can I say? I still believe.”

May classic rock always touch a few souls, and may Steven Hyden still be writing when a “Twilight of the Gods Golden Anniversary Special Edition” is due out. Lester Bangs is smiling.

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Now and then we wonder who the real men are

 

Image result for manly man
Image from Sippican Cottage.

In 1982 — a year that’s suddenly taken on great significance — Bruce Feirstein published a book called “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” It was meant to be a satire, a tongue-in-cheek look at the difference between manly men and what were once called metrosexuals (does anybody use the term “metrosexual” anymore?), but Feirstein’s jokes were sharp enough that, for a time, they passed into the language. Quiche was a frou-frou French dish, after all; real men ate bacon and beef jerky, probably at a campsite after pissing on a tree. We all knew what a “real man” was, never mind that it was largely real men who cooked quiche and other frou-frou dishes as knife-wielding chefs in Michelin-starred French restaurants.

The book was a response to the growing role of women in society. All these women taking jobs in corporate America, making real salaries (or presumed to — the truth was somewhat different) and dressing in clothes resembling men’s suits — how were men supposed to act? You mean you couldn’t send women out for dry cleaning and coffee anymore, and chase them around the desk like in some old sitcom?

(Just the concept of “Mr. Mom” sounded … emasculating.)

But society adapts slowly. There were still remnants of 1952 in 1982 — in fact, perhaps because of the Reagan presidency, they were asserting themselves for the first time since the ’60s. (Caitlin Flanagan sums it up well.) It was a clash of cultures.

Some things never change, do they?

I was 17 in 1982, the same age as Brett Kavanaugh, who’s about six weeks older than me. I wasn’t a drinker — I’m still not much of one — and I tended to hang out with a small group of friends rather than attend boisterous parties. When I got to college that fall, I decided Greek life (which, whatever the truth, I perceived as filled with hard-drinking partying) wasn’t for me and also hung out with a small group of (male) friends, as I was awkward around girls and barely dated. Which is to say, I had only second-hand knowledge of the Georgetown Prep/Yale frat-type atmosphere that’s been talked about these past few days. It wasn’t my crowd.

But, of course, there were always whispers. Back then, it wasn’t any louder than that. I’m glad they’re not whispers any longer, though I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through the pain of what I’m reading in the stories that are coming out.

Because — aside from the left-right politics, if that’s possible — a lot of the Kavanaugh drama is about “becoming a man,” and what “being a man” means.

I can remember feeling that I wasn’t quite cutting it as a “man” in 1982 — I didn’t drink, I was sexually awkward, I didn’t even lie a good game. I may as well have ordered a big plate of quiche. I’d like to think we know better by now, that the definition of a “man” is more about integrity and honor, and has nothing to do with gender stereotypes and treating women like objects. Be a man, indeed.

But some things never change, do they?

Here’s a song from 1982.

Aretha Franklin, 1942-forever

There’s little I can add to the Aretha Franklin tributes made today. The best ones were from everyday fans testifying to the power of her music — praising that bold voice, that spirited piano, that chasm-deep groove.

That soul.

I don’t know about you, but my soul hurts, thinking about her gone. She died of pancreatic cancer, the obituaries said. What an awful way to go. She should have been picked up by golden chariots and regally escorted to the Pearly Gates.

Well, her soul is set free, which is as it should be, because she elevated every soul she touched with song. There are so many songs to hold on to.

RIP, Aretha, and thank you.

Review: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ by Philip Roth

Portnoy's ComplaintPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Review lowered to three stars from four.)

Philip Roth is one of my favorite authors.

His books routinely leave me impressed, even awestruck, at his sheer facility with words. The descriptions of glovemaking in “American Pastoral”; the funhouse wit of “The Counterlife”; the haunting boldness of “Everyman” – in recent years, as I finished a Philip Roth book (even ones I tired of, such as the latter volumes of the Zuckerman trilogy), I thought that he was an author of boundless talent.

When he died last month, I thought I’d revisit his first major bestseller, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I’d read it sometime in my early 20s — 30 years ago! — and I’m sure much of the humor (and more of the sex) was lost on me. How did it fit in the Roth canon, this rich, blazing torrent?

I’d say it fits in the bottom half – with his more forgettable works.

That’s not to say the book isn’t bold. Few novels have such energy, the pure headlong squawk of torment. Alexander Portnoy is a neurotic Jewish son of midcentury, smothered by his mother, shrugged off by his father, caught between 5,000 years of tradition and the anything-goes permissiveness of postwar America. His book-length monologue, to his new psychiatrist, is occasionally hilarious and often wince-producing.

But it’s also tiring. There’s something two-dimensional about Portnoy, who can’t free his mind from sex (whether it’s during his masturbational teen years or his free-living adulthood) and who lashes himself for not being a better person (his job is as a lawyer for the administration of New York mayor John Lindsay – a very late-‘60s position of hopeless progressive). His mother is dominant, shrill and without reason; his father, his poor constipated insurance agent father, is a cog in the lower reaches of establishment business. His sister barely registers beyond the fact that she manages to marry and perhaps continue the pattern. For all the funny/sad set pieces – the ejaculation-soaked livers, the description of a neighbor boy who died in the war – the book lacks weight.

And then there’s the Monkey, the stupid, hillbilly girlfriend Portnoy wrestles with (sometimes, it seems, literally) in the latter half of the novel.

I’m not sure whether the Monkey – so called for her banana-eating, and you know what THAT means – is meant to be sympathetic, underneath her sexual prowess and psychological insecurity. I doubt Roth gave her that much consideration, frankly. So she ends up yet another two-dimensional character, a sad harpy whom Portnoy regrets bedding, because sex has consequences, you know?

But even if Portnoy is desperate to free himself from her clutches – clutches that craze him with their misspelling of easy words – I would have expected more from Roth, who even in his mid-30s had proven to have depth along with wit. (See the short stories in “Goodbye, Columbus.”) Instead, she seems to be the foundation of the “Roth the woman-hater” label that followed him to the end of his life – a label that had some truth, but also sold him short, because, well, sometimes he was a full-bore misanthrope, never mind misogynist. (To be fair, he was also a full-bore humanist, even if a disappointed one.)

Ironically, the one section where “Portnoy’s Complaint” takes flight and starts to measure up to Roth’s other novels is near the end, when Portnoy takes a flight to Israel. Here, Portnoy gazes in wonder at the utopia carved out of the desert … and then impotently attempts to bed a local sabra, a kibbutznik and soldier. Though Portnoy’s side of the conversation is embarrassing, at least he’s paired with someone of strength (even if it’s a kind of clichéd late-‘60s Israeli strength, the little country that won the Six-Day War and made the desert bloom).

If only there had been more.

But in the end, we’re left with Portnoy’s rant and the final punchline, and that leaves “Portnoy’s Complaint” very much a book of its time. In 1969, when it was released, it was shocking to use the c-word and talk about sex so bluntly. It was shocking to air so much Jewish dirty laundry in public. Hell, it was shocking to fuck a piece of liver. (Now, we have the whole series of “American Pie” movies.)

Some of it’s still shocking, but more of it’s embarrassing and not worthy of the post-1980s Roth. He’s written in “The Facts” that he found the writing freeing, much of it coming as it did after the 1968 death of his first wife, Margaret Martinson, whom the Monkey was partially based on. If it made him a bolder writer, all to the best, but if I had to pick the best Roth novels, “Portnoy’s Complaint” would be far down the list.

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Death haunts an evening: Harlan Ellison and the Annapolis shooting

I am writing this from a lonely hotel room in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It’s less than five miles from my home, but it feels like it may as well be on the other end of the earth. A contractor is renovating the bathroom, and today’s the day he removed the toilet and, for various reasons, won’t be able to install the new one until tomorrow. There’s only one bathroom and only one toilet in the house, and the last thing I want is to wake up and need to go (especially if it’s more than a 3 a.m. urination).

So here I am. 

And I’m sad. Not just because of the hotel room. Not just because I had to leave my cats — to whom I’ve become frighteningly attached — behind for an unexpected night. (I’m sure they care less than I do.) But because death is haunting the evening.

Earlier today, a gunman shot up a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. At least five people are dead. And Harlan Ellison, one of the formative writers of my youth, has died.

Harlan first. I seem to recall meeting him many years ago, and he was as impish and fiery as I’d imagined. Or maybe I DID imagine it, because I inhaled his books in college — not just the short story collections and “Dangerous Visions” (which he edited), but his fine, pointed essays on television, collected in “The Glass Teat” and “The Other Glass Teat” — and talked to him in my head so often it felt like I met him.

He was singular, Ellison was. He was relentlessly cynical and yet startlingly optimistic. He had the balls to tussle with Frank Sinatra and the bleeding heart to write heartfelt appreciations to his heroes. He sued at the drop of a hat and laughed about everything.

His stories were much like him: sprawling, laser-hot, unkempt, brazen, challenging, empathetic. 

I haven’t read more than an interview with him in years. But he made his mark. I’ll miss him.

There’s a perverted irony that he should die just hours before the shooting in Annapolis. Irony because he would have expected such an act in this razored country, but he would have howled at it, too, just as he always howled at injustice and meaningless violence.

Once I was a journalist. I wore the description reluctantly, because I worked among the real thing — people who’d worked their way up to CNN through a half-dozen local newspapers, who made calls to cops and widows, who could crank out a perfect 600 words with the deadline dragon breathing on their necks. Me? I was an old English major who loved to write, but thought I’d end up in a safer, less frenzied place. Nobody was more surprised than me when timing plucked me from free-lance “content” writing and quickie features and placed me in the CNN newsroom. I tried to earn my keep every day.

CNN, you may have read, is an “enemy of the American people.” I don’t know how that can be said. The CNN.com newsroom is full of hard-working staffers who simply try to tell the truth. And if the TV network side can get sensational — and I have my complaints, too — blame the medium and its corporate masters, not the folks in the field.

I’m still a journalist, I guess. Not a daily grinder and not for a media organization, but still a guy trying to tell stories and stick to the facts. That’s all most journalists do. And most have spouses and children and live where they work and do their jobs the best they can. That’s harder than you think given the hits local press has taken, financially and otherwise.

Think of them. And think of Harlan, that old storyteller. They make a difference in this cold world.

Review: ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

Time's ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been putting off writing this review of “Time’s Arrow.”

It’s not because I disliked the book. I didn’t. It’s well written (of course; it’s Martin Amis) and thoughtful and even, dare I say it, clever – a tale about a Nazi doctor told in reverse chronological order.

But it’s not because I loved the book, either, and was unable to put my excitement into words.

The thing is, I felt no excitement. I felt admiration, as if watching a magician pulling off a particularly difficult trick, but not excitement. There seemed to be no stakes.

That’s the thing about Amis, at least for me: The man is such a wizard with language, erudite and even astonishing, and yet his facility puts a distance between his subject and me, the reader. He is not visceral or emotional. His abilities are impressive, but cold to the touch.

And with a story like “Time’s Arrow,” I felt he needed some emotion. This isn’t “London Fields” or “Money: A Suicide Note,” in which numerous characters are contemptible or, at least, an easy source of mockery – phony strivers, posh twits or thick-headed chavs. This is about a Nazi doctor — an assistant to a thinly disguised Josef Mengele — who leaves destruction in his wake, though given the book’s conceit, that destruction eerily re-forms into the whole: broken relationships become passionate and innocent; money is refunded for goods and services; shit re-emerges from toilets and is taken back into the body; and, most movingly (or as close as Amis gets to “moving”), ashes recede down chimneys, becoming living, breathing people, who are eventually transported away from Auschwitz and back to their lives of ever-increasing freedoms.

It’s not like Amis doesn’t take his subject seriously. He wrestles with the depths. The main character is introduced as Tod Friendly (his name bestowed by a trafficker named Kreditor); we are guided on his reverse path by what may be his unknowing soul, a spirit careful to note the good things Friendly appears to do. As time is wound back, Friendly works as an illicit doctor in New England, arrives in New York after World War II, hides out in Portugal and eventually is revealed as Odilo Unverdorben, a mediocre medical man with a dim but questioning wife.

The scenes in Auschwitz, which start about two-thirds of the way into the slim book, are harrowing in their detail. “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat. Next, the façade of the Sprinklerom, the function of whose spouts and nozzles (and numbered seats and wardrobe tickets, and signs in six or seven languages) was merely to reassure and not, alas, to cleanse; and the garden path beyond.”

The gold removed from prisoners’ teeth is reattached; their hair is brought in, “freight car after freight car,” and put back on their heads; the guards give the women back their rings and valuables and stop their wailing.

It’s powerful stuff. Amis is trying to make sense of what he knows is madness. But in doing so, he reduces it to the clinical. Perhaps this is for the best; there’s a whole body of literature devoted to chronicling the Holocaust and its aftermath, and yet it somehow still resists understanding.

Still, I think of another fictional assembly of details, the passages of Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried,” and I wonder why the lists of items in O’Brien’s work convey such weight and sadness. Maybe it’s because his soldiers have an essential humanity that Unverdorben lacks: “Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.”

In the end, of course, Unverdorben becomes nothing, a being that enters his mother, “how she will weep and scream.” He is also an infant, his dreams “all colors and noises,” before he will grow up to become a monster – a banal evil that not even Amis can explain.

“Time’s Arrow” is a valiant effort. I wanted it to work. I wanted to be moved and dazzled (well, I was often dazzled). But as I closed the final page, the last thing I wanted to do was start again from the beginning. Sometimes you don’t want to know how the trick is done. And sometimes, you wish it weren’t a trick.

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Philip Roth, 1933-2018

philip-roth
Image via Showbiz411.com (of all places).

Philip Roth died last night. He was 85.

I don’t have much to say to add to the appreciations and accolades he’s received in death, as he did in life. Baseball writer Bill James once noted that Hank Aaron ended his career with a brilliant “finishing kick,” piling up home runs in what should have been his waning years to surpass Babe Ruth. Roth, too, had an amazing finishing kick: In his last 20 years as a writer — after he turned 60 but before he finally put the pen down for good in 2012 — he wrote “Sabbath’s Theater,” the amazing “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America” and “Everyman.” Roth should have been rewarded with the Nobel Prize, but for whatever reason — anti-Americanism, distaste with the accusations of Roth as misogynist (ironic, given the reason there will be no Nobel Prize for Literature this year), simple dislike of his work — he never got the award.

It’s the Swedish Academy’s loss. Everybody knew Roth ranked as one of the greatest writers in the world, and perhaps — along with Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo — the greatest living American novelist, period. The Nobel would have been a mere rubber stamp, if an incredibly valuable acknowledgement.

I’ve probably read just under half of Roth’s books, and I’ve rarely failed to be bowled over, even with slighter works such as “Indignation.” Simply put, the man could write, and his later works had an energy — a distillation of force, rage, empathy and, yes, humor — that I could only envy.

“American Pastoral,” in my opinion the greatest Roth novel, bursts with such power and fluidity that I sometimes felt I was inhaling it, particularly his exacting scenes of glovemaking in Newark (how does someone learn about that lost trade and describe it with such poetry and precision?) and the appearance of Swede Levov’s daughter as a squalid Jain. I’ve always felt the book falls apart during the closing dinner party, full of Levov’s ruminations, but the material before that is among the greatest I’ve read.

“The Plot Against America” is painfully prescient and “Everyman” is a gorgeous, if melancholy, eulogy.

I haven’t loved it all. I was bored by the Zuckerman books, particularly the one largely set in Eastern Europe. And I’ve put off reading others — “I Married a Communist,” notably — because … well, his books can be heavy, and it’s easier to deflect.

(Of course, they’re also brave. In “The Facts,” he talks about his feelings upon hearing that his ex-wife — a troubled woman who caused him much grief — has died. He was thrilled, freed of alimony payments and practically skipping home, if I recall correctly. Roth often used his life as a jumping-off point, fictionalizing many elements to the point where the reader wondered if he was writing memoir or simply playing with literary convention or both, but this has the ring of truth.)

For a Jewish (and American) male, I came to Roth late. I never had to read “Goodbye, Columbus” in high school and didn’t really get into him until the ’90s, though I’d read “The Counterlife” and “The Great American Novel” years before. (I should pick those back up … but I say that about a lot of books. I’m just now reading “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” for the first time in 30 years!) He was an author I always admired; in his later years, though, he became undeniable.

When I was at CNN, I desperately wanted to interview him, but his publisher’s PR rep couldn’t convince him. He apparently expected interviewers to be highly conversant with his work, and he had a narrow set of news outlets he talked to — The New York Times, NPR, the Guardian. CNN (or CNN.com), he probably felt, wasn’t in their league.

He was probably right; he would have had to announce he was fucking Britney Spears to move the needle on traffic. Even then, the average CNN.com reader would likely have wondered what this Roth fellow did for a living. (I seem to recall that Saul Bellow’s obituary was one of the most poorly read stories the day it appeared, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez probably did well only thanks to international users.)

Anyway, the giant is gone. May his memory be a blessing — and may the rest of us never look at a “maddened piece of liver” without laughing.

 

 

Tom Wolfe, 1930-2018

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Image via Rolling Stone.

The story goes that Tom Wolfe, having spent months reporting and not writing a story on car customizing in California, was pressed by Esquire editor Byron Dobell to come up with something, anything, because Esquire had just spent $1,000 on a photograph of some of the cars and was going to run a piece in the next issue. Wolfe had until Friday, Dobell told him; the photograph would go to the engraver on Monday.

On Friday Wolfe called back. He was blocked. Esquire editor Harold Hayes made plans for another Esquire editor to turn Wolfe’s notes into a workable piece. So Dobell told Wolfe to type out his notes.

According to Carol Polsgrove’s “It Wasn’t Pretty Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties,” Wolfe sat down at 8 p.m. that night. Ten hours later he pulled the last of 49 pages from his typewriter. Dobell pulled the “Dear Byron” salutation, made some minor edits, and the piece ran in full as “There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy Kolored (THPHHHHHH) tangerine-flake streamline baby (RAHGHHHH!) around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM …” (The headline was courtesy of David Newman, who with Esquire pal Robert Benton later wrote the “Bonnie and Clyde” screenplay.)

That Wolfe story has been told in pretty much every Wolfe obit I’ve read today, as the great American author died Tuesday at 88. (Some sources list him as 87.) And no wonder; it’s symbolic of the beginnings of what’s been called the New Journalism, which is the kind of journalism most every journalist aspires to write — not just AP-style inverted pyramids, but colorful, rapturous, liberally punctuated reportage that reads like fiction.

I know I wanted to write like that, and I didn’t even aspire to be a journalist. I just wanted to have one-fourth the zest Wolfe instilled in his works.

Gay Talese may have been more formal — Wolfe could never have gotten away with “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or that great Joe DiMaggio story in which Marilyn Monroe tells DiMaggio, “You never heard such cheering,” and DiMaggio responds, “Yes, I have” — and Wolfe’s New York Herald Tribune colleague Jimmy Breslin may have been more earthy. (Breslin’s story of John F. Kennedy’s gravedigger, written on deadline when the rest of the journalism world was looking in the opposite direction, is one of my all-time favorites. I wish I could write like Breslin, too.) And no tribute to Wolfe should be without a tribute to his editors, including Dobell, Hayes, Clay Felker and Jann Wenner. Somebody had to let the greyhound run.

But Wolfe, who coupled hyperbole (all those exclamation points!) with such precise detail that it seemed like he lived in his subjects’ lapels, was a style unto himself. (Literally, too.)

He chronicled celebrities and their milieus, but he never wrote the expected hack profile. Tell him to talk about the New Yorker, and he positively sneered at what was then the fattest, richest magazine in America. Let him in to Leonard Bernstein’s Black Panthers fundraiser, and you got “Radical Chic.” Even when he did approach hagiography, as in the portrayals of Chuck Yeager and the Mercury astronauts in “The Right Stuff,” it was leavened with such grit and realism — what they call reporting — that it was earned.

Wolfe could drive me crazy. Sometimes, particularly after he became the regularly best-selling brand name Tom Wolfe, his reported essays approached polemics. I share his dismal opinion of Brutalism, for example, but his shots in “From Bauhaus to Our House” feel gratuitous.

The same attitude could infect his novels. “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” his debut novel, had a brilliant eye for ’80s New York, but upon my rereading it a few years ago its characters were revealed as cardboard cutouts. “A Man in Full,” his expansive novel set partly in my longtime hometown of Atlanta, managed to miss the more cosmopolitan aspects of what is admittedly still a provincial place — of course, so is New York in its own way — and also had one of his characters making an impossible trip from Midtown to Buckhead. (There’s poetic license, but should it carry over to making Piedmont Avenue one-way in the wrong direction?)

By the time I finished “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” I thought he’d let his reporting become almost superfluous, a few glittering details he could attach to laments on the demise of Western civilization.

Still, the glittering details and the language was what mattered, so that’s not taking much away from a man whose descriptions of clothes, accessories, vehicles, housing, and even genitalia bordered on the fetishistic, they were so rich. (It’s no wonder his phrases — “Me Decade,” “the right stuff,” “radical chic” — entered the lexicon.) In doing so, he captured whole worlds — often those of the wealthy, but also those of the rest of us, scrambling to climb the American ladder. Indeed, Wolfe’s works, taken together, were nothing else if not the story of the United States in the last chunk of the 20th century.

All in all, it makes for one hell of a story. I’m glad Wolfe got to write so much of it.

RIP, Doctor.