Late night streaming on Vudu: The Humbling is an adroit adaptation of Philip Roth’s novella. Co-scripted by Buck Henry, who adapted The Graduate and Catch-22 for Mike Nichols. Al Pacino as a morose suicidal actor. Greta Gerwig is his bisexual love interest. Zaniness ensues. Comparisons to Birdman are not misplaced: The Humbling employs fantasy sequences (in a departure from Roth’s novella) that dramatize Pacino’s scrambled state of mind, including a Birdman-like dream of Pacino being locked out of the theater in the middle of a performance. The movie substitutes a more ambiguous ending than the novella’s brutal finish, but it’s well worth a look. Directed by Barry Levinson of Rain Man and Wag the Dog.
Tags: Al Pacino, Barry Levninson, Birdman, Buck Henry, Catch-22, Greta Gerwig, Philip Roth, Rain Man, The Graduate, The Humbling, Wag the Dog
Tags: Bangtail Press, Ben Armstrong's Strange Trip Home, David Allan Cates, Freeman Walker, Hunger in America, Tom Connor's Gift
Tom Connor’s Gift
David Allan Cates
Bangtail Press 2014
Reviewed by Bob Wake
The time frame of David Allan Cates’s bravura new novel, Tom Connor’s Gift, covers roughly three weeks that Janine McCarthy spends alone in a Montana cabin both evading and confronting her grief over her husband Mark’s recent cancer death. Janine, a 49-year-old doctor, is in a bad way, not even certain she wants to join her two grown children for Thanksgiving back at their family farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. She’s soon drinking more than she should. Smoking cigarettes. Neglecting her appearance. The cluttered cabin begins to smell bad from piled garbage. She can’t muster the energy to name the small dog she’s acquired, simply christening him “Puppy.” Cates fashions a rich and elaborate narrative by recognizing that we are never really “alone” with grief. Memories loom large and become persistent companions. Reality takes on the heightened near-mystical quality of a waking dream.
Consider, for instance, Janine’s standoff with a bear snooping and foraging ever closer to the cabin:
I sit up in bed and turn my feet onto the floor and struggle with my boots. I suddenly remember the terrible, slow breathing of the bear through the door and remember shooting the pepper spray and it feels as if it were a dream. Did I really do that? Did I really have a bear right outside the door and still dare to open the door? Did I spray into the wind?
After all, we experienced the bear at the door too—at least we read about the bear in Janine’s own telling—and the pepper spray blowing back into Janine’s face causing acute distress to her eyes and throat. Pretty much, we’re convinced. But other times, Janine imagines seeing the bear outside in the shadows. On another occasion, the bear’s face appears at the cabin window and morphs into the smiling face of her dead husband. Despite her steely ER-tested nerves, Janine warily muses: “Do dream memories and other memories get stored in the same place? And if you forget which memory is a dream and which is a waking event, does that mean you’re insane?”
Deeply entwined with Janine’s story is the parallel narrative of the novel’s eponymous gift-giver, Tom Connor. They were briefly lovers when Janine was sixteen and Tom was twenty. Sorted into stacks on a table in the cabin are nearly one hundred and fifty letters she subsequently received from Connor—freelance journalist, frustrated novelist, drunkard—through the years. Janine doesn’t merely share many of Connor’s vivid letters with us, she struggles to contextualize them for us and for herself. The violence that Tom Connor is witness to in 1980s Central America—era of the CIA-funded Contras and the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—is unflinchingly recounted. (Cates’s work has never shied away from articulating the brutality at the heart of so much U.S. history, most notably in his powerful 2008 novel on the subject of slavery, Freeman Walker.)
Cates is a seasoned storyteller—this is his fifth novel—and Tom Connor’s Gift is awash in stories that are by turns raucous, hair-raising, and heartfelt. The author orchestrates a series of climactic chapters that range across memory and time with breathless page-turning dramatic force. While Cates has spoken of his new novel as completing a “homecoming trilogy” begun with his well-received 1992 debut Hunger in America and 2012’s award-winning Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, each of these novels can be experienced on their own as satisfying individual works. Taken together, however, they represent a unique and eye-opening expression of epic American themes encompassing landscape and desire, love and loss, social justice and historical accountability.
Tags: Cambridge Book Review Press, Dale M. Kushner, Doug Moe, Dwight Allen, Kindle ebook, Madison Magazine, The Conditions of Love, The G.O.D. Club, Wisconsin State Journal
Tags: Alpha the Moralist, Andrzej Wajda, Ashes and Diamonds, Communist Poland, Criterion DVD, Czeslaw Milosz, Heinrich Böll, Holy Week, Jerzy Andrzejewski, Northwestern University Press, Orson Welles, Oscar Swan, Penguin paperback, Stefan Szczuka, The Captive Mind, Writers from the Other Europe, Zbigniew Cybulski
The 1948 Polish novel Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909-1983) is probably less appreciated today as a literary work in its own right than as the basis for Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film adaptation. The wildly entertaining movie, designated an “Essential Art House” choice in Criterion’s DVD catalog, owes more to Orson Welles’s baroque cinematic influence than Andrzejewski’s blend of socialist realism and tragic irony. Both novel and film are compact (239 pgs./103 mins.), while at the same time reflecting a panoramic near-epic cross-section of Poland’s clashing societal and political factions at the close of the Second World War. Neither the novel nor the film have escaped criticism over the years, although for different reasons.
Poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), who defected from Communist Poland in 1951, wrote a scathing smackdown of his former friend Jerzy Andrzejewski in The Captive Mind (1953), the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s classic study of writers and intellectuals “adapting” themselves to totalitarian regimes. Milosz—who refers to Andrzejewski pseudonymously as “Alpha, the Moralist”—is especially tough on what he sees as pulled-punches in Ashes and Diamonds (discussed at length in The Captive Mind without mentioning the novel’s title). According to Milosz, the novelist was nicknamed “the respectable prostitute” by fellow-writers who saw Andrzejewski as a Stalinist suck-up.
Film director Andrzej Wajda, in a fascinating interview included on the Ashes and Diamonds Criterion DVD, talks candidly of having initially refused to read the novel because of its state-sanctioned popularity in the 1950s. In the notes to a 2007 translation of Andrzejewski’s earlier novel, Holy Week, commentator Oscar Swan writes: “The year 1954 found Andrzejewski politically sanitizing a new edition of Ashes and Diamonds, which had become required reading in the schools.”
German writer Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), like Milosz a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is altogether kinder to Ashes and Diamonds in his introduction written for the 1980 Penguin “Writers from the Other Europe” paperback edition of the novel, and reprinted in the 1997 Northwestern University Press edition. Almost as an aside, Böll notes that “the reader feels” that Andrzejewski “has a sense of kinship” with the novel’s “young Socialist and Communist functionaries.”
While both the Penguin and NUP editions of Ashes and Diamonds use D. J. Walsh’s 1962 British translation (with its battle-hardened Polish adults and nihilistic teenagers alike saying “cheerio” and “bloke” and “rotter” to one another), only the NUP edition includes five pages of previously deleted text. No explanation is given as to whether this was perhaps material removed by censors or, more likely, added in later to placate censors (possibly for the 1954 “sanitized” edition). A long speech by Stefan Szczuka, the sympathetically portrayed Communist Party official marked for assassination by the Polish underground, goes on and on for a mind-numbing two full pages of Soviet-era boilerplate:
For only those truly die who believe in isolation or who serve false truths which are illusory and incompatible with the one great truth of our time. Future generations will only despise them and will blame them or condemn them to oblivion. Those people, however, who have understood the forces of history and who have been in solidarity with their comrades, will discover in the future the praise of soldiers fighting for humanity, for one’s own fatherland and for mankind, for the world order.
Wajda sharpened the book’s edges by infusing the film with the Catholic iconography of Polish nationalism and by emphasizing the charged performance of Zbigniew Cybulski as the Home Army resistance fighter tasked with assassinating Szczuka. The combined effect was a cleverly coded rebuke to the postwar Soviet control of the country. Although the movie’s striking visual metaphors have sometimes been criticized as heavy-handed, the stylistic strategy clearly succeeded in Wajda’s intended aim of circumventing Communist Party censorship.
Tags: Cambridge Book Review, Finishing Line Press, Norma Gay Prewett, The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart
I recently had the pleasure of writing a back cover blurb for Norma Gay Prewett’s poetry collection, The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart, now available from Finishing Line Press (cover art by the author). Four of the poems appeared online in the Spring 2010 issue of Cambridge Book Review with audio of Gay reading her work: “Cottonbound,” “Knowing that Most Things Break,” “Calling You Back,” and “Bill of Lading.”
—Back cover blurb—
Norma Gay Prewett is a gloriously tactile poet, whether sharing childhood memories of her school-janitor father in ‘Shorty’ (‘scraper of Pleistocene gum / from under chairs…’), or ‘Grape Jellying at the End of the Century’ (‘Never will the grape be as sweet, the juice as hot’). She is a pragmatist of earthly practicalities (‘Knowing that Most Things Break’) and a fearless limit-tester in love (‘Finding the Bottom’). A bracing American wilderness beckons and challenges us in the title poem, ‘The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart’ (‘Opening the cabin on April 29, we found snowpack / Had kneecapped the bee-keeping shack…’). Prewett’s survival skills are hard-won and true. You can trust her navigation. Her poetry is a GPS tracker for our lost souls.—Bob Wake, editor, Cambridge Book Review
Tags: Big Bill Broonzy, Common Ground, Dave & Phil Alvin, High Noon Saloon, James Brown, Lisa Pankratz, Madison, The Blasters, What's Up With Your Brother?
A capacity crowd at Madison’s High Noon Saloon last night greeted Dave and Phil Alvin performing with their three-piece backup band, The Guilty Ones. In a word (or two) we were blown away. They played for two and a half hours without a break, including four encore numbers. The Big Bill Broonzy tunes from their new album, Common Ground, were only a portion of the ambitious set list, which ranged through 80s Blasters songs, material from Dave’s solo albums, and a cover of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.” Phil’s voice was spellbinding and powerful, confirming a miraculous recovery from 2012 health concerns.
Couple of highlights: a monstrous drum solo from Lisa Pankratz on Dave’s song “Dry River”; and Dave telling the story of composing “What’s Up With Your Brother?” after a Madison solo gig a few years ago at High Noon Saloon: he kept getting interrupted on his way to use the bar’s bathroom by audience members asking about his brother. The story, of course, was followed by Dave and Phil’s bang-up rendition of the song.
Tags: Dale M. Kushner, Doug Moe, Dwight Allen, ebook, Judge, Kindle, The Conditions of Love, The G.O.D. Club, The Green Suit, The Typewriter Satyr, Wisconsin State Journal
Now Available from
Cambridge Book Review Press
The G.O.D. Club
A Story by Dwight Allen
$2.99 Kindle ebook
“The G.O.D. Club” is a new short story by Dwight Allen, author of two novels, Judge (2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (2009), and a collection of short stories, The Green Suit, reissued in 2011. Bonus features of this exclusive ebook single from Cambridge Book Review Press include an introduction by Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe, and an afterword by novelist and poet Dale M. Kushner (The Conditions of Love). Also included is “The Thread of It,” an excerpt from Dwight Allen’s memoir-in-progress.
“The unnamed loss, the unspoken terror in ‘The G.O.D. Club’ is the loss of time itself.”—Dale M. Kushner, author of The Conditions of Love.
Tags: David Carr, Evan Williams, Medium, online fiction, Recall, short story, Twitter
I just posted a new short story of mine, “Recall,” to the website Medium. What I love about the site is the elegant simplicity of the page design, which makes for one of the very best environments I’ve seen for digital reading. The brainchild of Twitter’s co-founder, Evan Williams, Medium wants to do for long-form work what Twitter has done for focused brevity. Techcrunch.com has an excellent write-up on Medium from last fall.
[Update: Also worth checking out is David Carr’s May 25, 2014 New York Times column: “A Platform and Blogging Tool, Medium Charms Writers.”]
Tags: Bon Iver, Eau Claire Wisconsin, Justin Vernon, Nickolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs
Spent a pleasurable Sunday barnstorming through Nickolas Butler’s buzzworthy debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. My baby boomer sensibilities detected a Big Chill for Millennials familiarity to some of the material, but this was always offset by Butler’s keen eye for rural Wisconsin seasonal detail (“The October air filled with corn dust enough to make each sunset a postcard, with colors like a benign nuclear explosion”), and, above all, the novel’s clever use of the mythology that’s grown up around the music of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who shares with Butler the hometown of Eau Claire.
Tags: Future Islands, Gerrit Welmers, High Noon Saloon, Late Show with David Letterman, Madison Wisconsin, Michael Lowry, Samuel Herring, SXSW, Tim Jonze, UK Guardian, William Cashion
Last Thursday night’s sold-out Future Islands concert at Madison, Wisconsin’s High Noon Saloon was an opportunity to see something that I’m sure happens from time to time but rarely when you’re privileged to attend the show. The scenario is this: A long-touring band with several indie-label releases is given an unexpected and explosive career boost—in this instance, a March 4th appearance on Late Show with David Letterman and a subsequent viral YouTube video of the performance—and suddenly the smaller venues they’ve been booked into are bursting at the seams. (High Noon Saloon’s capacity is 400.) Tim Jonze, music editor for the UK Guardian, titled a March 6th blog post, “My mind has been blown by Future Islands on David Letterman.”
As mesmerizing as Future Islands singer Samuel Herring is in the Letterman video, it was surpassed a hundredfold on the Madison concert stage. (You can get a pretty good sense of this from another YouTube video of the band performing at SXSW in Austin the week before they hit Madison.) Herring was backed by expert bandmates (Gerrit Welmers on keyboards/programming, William Cashion on bass, and drummer Michael Lowry) who kept the synth-pop groove anchored while Herring ferociously sang, shimmied, thumped his chest, whacked the side of his head, growling one moment, crooning the next, writhing on the stage floor, his voice switching from primal punk to Motown soulfulness on a dime.
At one point in the show, mid-song, Herring’s microphone broke apart, torn wires dangling in his hand. He kept going and led the energized crowd in a singalong by mouthing the words and never missing a beat. “First time that’s happened in eleven years of performing,” he said, laughing, once he was again wired for sound. A young girl in front of us hugged him as he came off stage at the end of the night. She was both gleeful and drenched, as Herring was trailing an ocean of sweat.