Archive for the 'Literature' Category

Shotgun Lovesongs

shotgunSpent 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.

Rosebud 56

Rosebud56Rosebud 56 (Winter 2013/14) has arrived and it’s as strong an issue as editor Rod Clark has given us in twenty years of Rosebud goodness: From the vibrant nature-fueled Americana of featured Vermont artist Patricia LeBon Herb, to a selection of poetry from postwar Spanish writer José Ángel Valente newly translated by Thomas Christensen. Another must-read highlight is Rod’s Voice Over column, “Recuerdos: Guatamala 1976,” a harrowing first-person recounting of a notorious Latin American earthquake.

Film lovers will find a treasure trove in issue 56: “Shadows on a Screen,” a knowing coming-of-age short story by Thomas Fuchs, son of Hollywood screenwriter Daniel Fuchs (Criss Cross [1949]); Victor A. Walsh’s fascinating essay on Nellie Crawford (a.k.a. Madame Sul-Te-Wan), “Breaking the Color Barrier: Hollywood’s first African-American actress”; and Jack Lehman’s haunting “fictional autobiography,” “Orson Welles in Wisconsin.”

Also included are a pair of warm reminiscences of two iconic Wisconsin authors: Robert Zoschke’s “Norbert Blei (1935-2013): A writer with a capital ‘W,’” and Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe’s classic piece on Madison poet John Tuschen (1949-2005), “Poet is a Stranger in His Own Land.”

Believe me, I’m only scratching the surface of this issue (cf., P.S. Mueller’s illustrated exploration of Baby Boomer obsolescence, “Fader”; Rick Geary’s cheerfully sinister Afterwords comic, “My Home Town”). And, sure, let’s not forget to mention my short story, “Ty-D-Bol Blue,” which I’m delighted to see in print after first appearing online in last summer’s Cambridge Book Review.

From Shame to Sin

From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity
Kyle Harper
Harvard University Press 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

FromShametoSinKyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity from Harvard University Press is rigorously academic in its range and depth. The good news for the rest of us is how lucid and enjoyable Harper’s writing is throughout. He describes, for instance, the escalating denunciations of Roman carnality by early theologians as an “arms race of sexual invective.” Monks helping to reform the life of a prostitute are “like a modern sports team that courts away its rival’s most valuable player.”

While pagan Rome represented a more open sexual culture—legal brothels, tolerance of homosexuality, equality of property and divorce rights between men and women—Harper is quick to remind us that their worldview and economy were framed by slavery and a strict hierarchy of social status.

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Photo: Roman Terracotta Erotic Lamp, c. 2nd century CE. Value: $6,000.

On the one hand, eroticism’s secular deregulation lost out to the Church’s decreeing procreative marriage as the singular outlet for sexual expression. However, Harper also sees epochal societal gains with Christianity’s forceful condemnation of prostitution and the redemptive cloistering and rebuilding of broken lives. But there’s plenty of tyrannical exploitation on both sides in From Shame to Sin to suggest that abuse and victimization were no less disentangled from Eros two millennia ago than today.

Harper, a 2007 Harvard Ph.D. history grad, is currently an associate professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Classics and Letters. More than the work of a first-rate historian of antiquity, From Shame to Sin is equally a supreme work of literary criticism. Harper’s analysis of ancient Greek novels and the Apocryphal Acts and Gospels—with a nod to influential literary critics like Northrop Frye and Stephen Greenblatt—is fascinating for the manner in which he detects recurring themes and shifts in emphasis that are shown to emerge alongside cultural changes.

Sauk City Halloween

Even on a rainy and foggy Halloween morning, it was a pleasure to drive 50 miles to Sauk City to deliver six cases of one of our Cambridge Book Review Press titles to the school district for an upcoming conference. Sauk City is the hometown of August Derleth, master of spooky stories and founder of the still active Arkham House Publishers. (Also after whom our son Augie is named.)

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Commemorative plaque on downtown Sauk City bridge spanning the Wisconsin River. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Nightmare Alley

nightmarealleyCopyright litigation kept Nightmare Alley (1947) out of circulation and generally unavailable for home viewing until a much-heralded DVD release in 2005. Since then, its reputation has grown from cult favorite to film noir classic. Running nearly two hours with a generous budget and A-list cast, Nightmare Alley is an anomaly for its genre (defined by crime novelist James Ellroy, in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, as “cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people”). Swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power leveraged his stardom to lobby for the starring role as carny con artist Stanton Carlisle, whose sole redemptive quality is his genuine bafflement—“I wonder why I’m like that?”—as to why he’s compelled again and again to act on his most ruthless instincts. The sexual heat generated between Tyrone Power and the film’s three supporting actresses is combustible and gives Nightmare Alley its strongest jolt of noir cred: ripe-to-bursting Joan Blondell as sideshow mentalist Zeena; Coleen Gray as Molly, a.k.a. Electra, scandalous to county sheriffs because of the tin-foil two-piece she wears in her sparks-a-flying electric-chair act; and, higher up the social ladder where Stanton longs to dwell, the movie’s femme fatale, Lilith (Helen Walker), a crooked psychotherapist to the wealthy.

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Tyrone Power & Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley.

Even with a prestige director in Edmund Goulding, and lurid expressionistic lighting by cinematographer Lee Garmes, Nightmare Alley was not a success. Tyrone Power subsequently returned to more conventional roles, which is a shame, because he’s clearly enjoying himself here, especially in the opening carnival scenes, all working-class T-shirt and chewing-gum and an oil-drum’s worth of pomade slicking his hair. In his early thirties at the time, Power initially seems beyond the ideal age for the role of Stan Carlisle, who is a youthful twenty-one in the first half of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. The actor’s full-on commitment to the role, however, sells the characterization as handily as Stan’s doggedly mastered sleight-of-hand scarf and coin tricks. Power doesn’t evince a comparable set of skills in later scenes that are actually keyed closer to the actor’s age. Stan’s descent into alcoholism feels abrupt and unconvincing, in spite of our having been tipped off and conditioned to expect it. We’re meant to see parallels both to the drunken carny shill Pete Krumbein (played with aching pathos by veteran stage and silent film actor Ian Keith), whose death Stan inadvertently brings about earlier in the film, and the specter of the sideshow geek that so forcefully haunts the novel and the movie.

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1949 paperback edition of Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Cover art: James Avati.

The geek is a severely alcoholic freak-show performer who earns his daily allotment of booze by savagely biting off the heads of live chickens for the amusement of wide-eyed rubes. Nightmare Alley never for a moment lets us forget the addiction-addled beast that presumably resides within each of us. The geek’s frenzied delirium tremens screams echo subliminally on the soundtrack as if erupting from Stan’s unconscious during several doom-laden moments throughout the movie. Alcohol unleashes monsters in Nightmare Alley. No amount of psychological insight is adequate to quelling or even comprehending our primal depravity. Psychotherapy, like telepathy and spiritualism, is exposed here as just another con game for exploiting human weakness.

William Lindsay Gresham’s novel doesn’t waste its breath suggesting that alcoholic Pete Krumbein might have benefited from taking “the cure,” a plot point added to the movie by ace screenwriter Jules Furthman in all likelihood to soften the story’s cynicism. For every pulled punch in the script adaptation of Gresham’s still shockingly grim novel (Nick Tosches, in his 2010 intro to the reissued book, goes as far as to suggest that Gresham may have been binge drinking while writing it), there is often a compensating layer of irony or ambiguity. At the film’s finish, where viewers usually note a more hopeful outcome than in the novel, our worst expectations are momentarily overturned by a glimmer of rescue—or is it enabling?—in the downward spiral of Stan’s now nightmarish life. In our guts we all know what’s in store for Stanton Carlisle. His fate was sealed the moment he first set eyes on the geek.

Europe Central

Europe Central
William T. Vollmann
Viking 2005

Reviewed by Bob Wake

EuropeCentralCoverA recent painful outbreak of shingles on my left upper torso and back rendered me unfit for much of anything but Vicodin and bed rest for a couple of weeks. Mostly I wanted seclusion, earplugs to blunt neighborhood traffic and lawnmowers, and an enormous all-consuming novel to occupy my focus. I had earlier this year tackled Roberto Bolaño’s extraordinary epic about Mexican border murders and literary obsession, 2666, on my Kindle. I felt cocky and confident I could do the same with William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central, an 800-page 2005 National Book Award-winning novel about the Eastern Front in WWII and, perhaps the most celebrated element of the book, composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s soul-crushing struggle with creative expression under the jackboot of Soviet-era Communism. My Kindle has so spoiled me that although I already own Vollmann’s book in hardback, I downloaded a digital copy and began click-click-clicking away, often late into the night, blissfully dosed on hydrocordone 5/325.

Europe Central combines deeply researched verisimilitude and at times disorienting and highly effective surrealism. (For instance, a chapter titled “Airlift Idylls,” a 47-page Jungian representation of postwar East Germany’s totalitarian “unconscious” personified as Shostakovich’s self-punishing “shadow” assassinating the composer over and over again Groundhog Day-style.) The months’ long Battle of Stalingrad and siege of Leningrad are told from both the German and Russian sides in multiple perspectives, pampered high command to malnourished and frostbitten frontline soldiers to civilians and combatants slaughtered and piled into mass graves. Vollmann writes from character-driven voices—government bureaucrats and secret police hacks with rigid political biases—giving the novel a kind of cognitive dissonance that parallels the conflicted harmonic dissonances of Shostakovich’s most radical musical works (banned or denounced by Soviet authorities as “formalist,” “repulsive” and “ultra-individualist”).

 

Best listened to in a windowless room, better than best in an airless room—correctly speaking, a bunker sealed forever and enwrapped in tree-roots—the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody. The soul strips itself of life in a dusty room.

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William T. Vollmann at 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony. Photo: Robin Platzer/Twin Images.

The novel is dedicated to the Serbian writer Danilo Kiš (1935-1989), author of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, a collection of short stories that Vollmann has long prized (he wrote the afterword for a 2001 Dalkey Archive reprint edition). Vollmann’s sensibility is uniquely his own, but it’s not difficult to discern the influence of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Kiš’s stories, with their interlocking storylines and recurring characters, are concerned with the blinkered psychological makeup of communist and fascist “true believers” and the ideological masks that excuse and even encourage murderous depravity and anti-Semitism. Both authors provide penetrating insight into the cultural megalomania and racist folklore that underpin the Holocaust. Accepting the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central, Vollmann said:

I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what this book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.

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Harper’s Magazine, September 2013

What Vollmann has had to think about and what became the topic of an article the author published last month in Harper’s, “Life as a Terrorist: Uncovering my FBI file” (paywalled online, unfortunately, but the issue is worth seeking out at your local library), is the startling revelation that for years he was under surveillance by the U.S. government. Turns out that—unbeknownst to him at the time—Vollmann was an FBI suspect in the 1990s Unabomber case and, later, a Homeland Security suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks. While in no way is Vollmann in his Harper’s piece comparing U.S. domestic spying to Russian political repression, it’s impossible not to find his FOIA-obtained (and heavily redacted) FBI file eerily prefigured in the portrait of Shostakovich’s anxiety over surveillance in Europe Central. As Vollmann writes in Harper’s:

Were I to be shown in accurate detail why it was necessary for me to be kept under surveillance, possibly for the rest of my life, I might be able to accept these invasions of my privacy for the collective good. The ostensible purpose of this surveillance is to protect us, and our freedoms, from terrorists. What remains uncertain, since secret, is how terrifying the terrorists presently are, and to what extent rights and liberties may be undermined in order to save us from them.

Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated

Coming September 2013
Cambridge Book Review Press

0989402517Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated
By Judy Endow, MSW

$30.00. Buy from PayPal or Amazon

“Working 13 years with students who are diagnosed with severe autism, my colleagues and I have often wanted to visualize and better understand what our students were seeing, feeling and thinking. Judy Endow’s Painted Words takes us on a picturesque journey into the mind of one autistic person through her vivid and breathtaking paintings and sculptures while also explaining in detailed description and poetry what she sees and, via sensory, how she experiences it. Helpful suggestions for working with individuals on the spectrum open a treasure box of insights. Having this ‘backstage pass’ into autism will be priceless for educators, parents and individuals on the autism spectrum.” —Joanna L. Keating-Velasco, educator, and author of A is for Autism, F is for Friend: A Kid’s Book for Making Friends with a Child Who Has Autism.

“Judy Endow combines her art, poetry, and prose to create a thought-provoking book of self-discovery that viscerally captures the essence of a world which only few experience—a world of subtle beauty that can turn too bright, loud, and overwhelming. The practical advice at the end of each chapter has helped me understand and be a better parent to my autistic child. Painted Words is a book to read, reread and share with other parents, educators, physicians, and therapists so they too can learn to appreciate the autistic experience. I’m buying it for all of my friends!” —Debra Hosseini, author of The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions.

“Judy gives us a compelling view into her world through words crafted on the page, connected with images that illustrate her experience of being autistic. She encourages the neurotypical world to change their perceptions and assumptions about people with autism, to ask ourselves questions. Painted Words challenges our thinking, leading us to examine beyond what we see on the surface. Your view of autism is bound to shift after experiencing autism through Judy’s words and paintings.” —Maureen Bennie, Director, Autism Awareness Centre, Inc. (www.autismawarenesscentre.com).

“By sharing her paintings and poetry in Painted Words, Judy Endow provides rare insight into a person with autism, including her heightened sensory awareness, her need to establish predictability, her social needs, and much more. This captivating book tempts the reader to learn more about the uniqueness of autism and its neurological impact. Judy shares her experiences, asks thoughtful questions, and challenges the reader, by putting words and visuals to her early childhood. She provides her vision of the world, and her perspective will flood you with emotions and leave you looking through fresh lenses at those with autism. Painted Words is a wonderful gift to us so-called neurotypicals. We may very well feel like we are the ones that are lacking and, thus, not measuring up. Using her own words, I summarize Judy’s contribution with this book by saying, ‘The girl her mastery shows!’” —Danette Schott, M.A., executive editor, special-ism.com.

“Judy Endow has long been one of my finest and clearest teachers when it comes to understanding autism. In Painted Words, Judy takes me into a new, deeper comprehension of her experience of autism using the mediums of poetry, prose and visual expression via her paintings. Her strong activist voice takes no prisoners, requiring me to examine how my own neurotypical arrogance can be a contraindicator in forming relationships with those in my life with autism. This strength is juxtaposed by the clarity of Judy’s paintings, which provides both visual representation and softness, entering my consciousness in a manner completely different than the words that accompany and explain. Judy’s ability to use her own experience to provide ideas and strategies for working with others is a treasure which she shares in each section of the book. Painted Words is a book that will appeal to autistics and neurotypicals alike, as we move forward to bridge the differences in how we experience the world to forge relationships and create better lives for those we love with autism.” —Kate McGinnity, M.S., educational consultant, and co-author of Walk Awhile in My Autism and Lights! Camera! Autism!.

“Judy Endow’s Painted Words is a sensitive and beautiful portal into a life lived with autism. Through evocative paintings and poetry, Judy explores her own experiences and offers invaluable advice to parents, teachers and other professionals who work with people on the autism spectrum. This heartfelt book sparkles and glitters. Highly recommended.” —Jeanette Purkis, author of Finding a Different Kind of Normal: Misadventures with Asperger Syndrome.

“Judy Endow’s Painted Words is an immersive, artful, and educational experience in understanding autism. Judy reveals her autistic neurology or ‘operating system’ by showing her way of perceiving, thinking, and learning. Painted Words is a step up from autism awareness. It is about understanding and accepting diverse minds.” —Jill Jones, filmmaker, currently researching and producing a documentary about autism and sensory perception (www.spectrumthefilm.com).

“Judy has brilliantly demonstrated her skill as a writer and an artist who proudly lives and loves autism. Her candid words and stunning art light up the spectrum as an example of the endless potential of all autistic people.” —Malcolm Mayfield, specialist/consultant, founder of Autism STAR (Autism Spectrum Training, Advocacy and Recruitment), www.autism-star.com.

Painted Words takes the reader on an unforgettable journey far beyond written text—to a place where visual imagery dances with poetry to provide an intimate understanding of the world of an autistic. Judy Endow’s powerful use of personal art work, poetry, and written text is a must read for every professional working with individuals on the spectrum.” —Ellen E. Eggen, MS LPC ATR-BC, Art Therapist, Director of Planning and Operations, Common Threads Family Resource Center, Madison, Wisconsin.

“What a wonderful book! In combining her talents in both writing and the visual arts, Judy Endow has given us an intimate look into her life with autism that is informative, engaging, beautiful, and thought-provoking. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this book.” —Peter Gerhardt, Ed.D., Director of Education, Upper School for the McCarton School, and the Founding Chair of the Scientific Council for the Organization for Autism Research (OAR).

“Judy reveals her unique sensory experience in this generous and compassionate offering. Here, as always, her words provide keys to understanding the autism experience. Yet more remarkably, Painted Words reveals her experience through pristine and seminal art images that open the autism experience in ways that words cannot. The vivid colors and textures of her art invite us into her experience. Her ability to define crucial aspects of the autism experience is matched by precise suggestions to guide neurotypical connection and relationship with persons with autism. I hope Painted Words helps you listen and see with new eyes. Prepare to leave misguided conceptions of autism behind you.” —John B. Thomas, M. Ed., educational consultant, and a principal author of TEACCH Transition Assessment Profile (TTAP).

Painted Words is an especially valuable book because it weaves together, in a single volume, the prose, poetry, art and sculpting skills of the author with autism demonstrating how they interlink, interact and complement each other. That is an interesting experiential venture in its own right. But the book doesn’t stop there. Additionally, the ‘Considerations When Working With Others’ section at the end of each chapter provides very useful and practical advice distilled from all of the above. These useful hints, tips and pearls are easily understood and applied, put forth in a very reader friendly fashion, for anyone wanting to better understand the differences between autistic and neurotypical thinking and behavior.” —Darold Treffert, M.D., author of Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant, and a consultant on the movie Rain Man (www.savantsyndrome.com).

About the Author

judyendowAuthorPhoto

Judy Endow

Judy Endow, MSW, is an author and international speaker on a variety of autism-related topics. She is part of the Wisconsin DPI Statewide Autism Training Team and a board member of both the Autism Society of America, Wisconsin Chapter and the Autism National Committee. In addition, Judy works with the Autistic Global Initiative (AGI), a program of the Autism Research Institute. She maintains a private practice in Madison, Wisconsin, providing consultation for families, school districts and other agencies. Besides having autism herself, she is the parent of three now grown sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. Judy’s website is www.judyendow.com.

cbr 20 / summer 2013

cbr

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cbr 20 / summer 2013

The Burning Monk
A short story
Dwight Allen

Yellow Sky
A short story
Rod Clark
Illustrations by Weshoyot Alvitre

And If It Be Mean
A short story
Norma Gay Prewett

Ghosts in the Library
A short story
Jack Lehman

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home
An excerpt
David Allan Cates

The Tiger’s Wedding
An excerpt
James Dante

Telling Time
An excerpt
Lee Jing-Jing

Bad Axe
An excerpt
Ann Morrison

The Silent Witness
An excerpt
Steven Salmon

Ty-D-Bol Blue
A short story
Bob Wake

Polyester
A short story
August McGinnity-Wake

~

The Last Tycoon

Photo: B & B Rare Books, Ltd. A 1941 First Edition of The Last Tycoon. Value: $4,000.

Inspired on several fronts (after seeing Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and rewatching the 1974 Gatsby, followed by revisiting Elia Kazan’s 1976 film of The Last Tycoon), I just finished reading again after many years F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous The Last Tycoon, edited by Edmund Wilson and published in 1941. The Last Tycoon is the title by which I still prefer to think of the novel. There’s an updated 1993 reconstruction by Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli which uses what Bruccoli believed was Fitzgerald’s choice for the novel’s title, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. Fitzgerald originally floated some curious titles for The Great Gatsby, too. How does Trimalchio grab you? By whatever title, The Last Tycoon is a great novel, even in its incomplete form. (A worthy contemporary comparison: David Foster Wallace’s unfinished but much-admired novel The Pale King, edited by Michael Pietsch and published in 2011.)

Thirty-five-year-old Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr’s obsession with an Englishwoman’s resemblance to his late actress wife might at first seem superficially similar to Gatsby. Fitzgerald in his letters and notes about The Last Tycoon, many of which were famously appended to Wilson’s reconstructed text, writes:

If one book could ever be “like” another, I should say it is more “like” The Great Gatsby than any other of my books. But I hope it will be entirely different—I hope it will be something new, arouse new emotions, perhaps even a new way of looking at certain phenomena.

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Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon (1976).

Stahr’s self-awareness evolves over the course of the narrative and differs significantly from Gatsby’s static and deluded nostalgia. This perhaps reflects Fitzgerald’s own battle with despair and loss in the years following Gatsby’s publication. (See Edmund Wilson’s posthumously edited collection of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical essays, The Crack-Up.) The Great Depression coincided with Fitzgerald’s falling fortunes: money woes, ill-health, his wife Zelda’s confinement to a mental hospital, and his career slide into near-obscurity. After living extravagantly as one of the country’s highest paid and most famous writers of the 1920s, he was an out-of-print and largely neglected author by the time he was writing his final novel. The romantic obsession at the core of The Last Tycoon is less about nostalgia than Stahr’s struggle to micromanage a psychological corner of his life while everything else seems to be spiraling beyond his control. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the Hollywood that Stahr once dominated as an autocratic whiz-kid producer is becoming decentralized. “At that time the studios feared mob rule,” runs one passage. Stahr’s preparation for a meeting with a communist union organizer has a political edge that signaled the author’s broadening skills as a satirist and social observer:

Afterwards Stahr told me that he prepared for the meeting by running off the Russian Revolutionary films that he had in his film library at home. He also ran off Doctor Caligari and Salvador Dali’s Le Chien Andalou, possibly suspecting that they had a bearing on the matter. He had been startled by the Russian films back in the twenties, and on Wylie White’s suggestion he had the script department get him up a two-page “treatment” of the Communist Manifesto.

Monroe Stahr is wonderfully alive in his sometimes cruel complexity (heightened by the novel’s occasionally spiteful narrator, a rival producer’s daughter who’s secretly in love with Stahr). His confidence is shaken and something new and untested is awakened in him. “I want to show that Stahr left certain harm behind him just as he left good behind him,” Fitzgerald writes in another of the supplemental notes. Stahr isn’t adverse to change, but he wants change on his own terms, unshackled from the studio’s cash-driven bottom line. “For two years we’ve played it safe,” Stahr says at one point to a gathering of suspicious studio heads and money men. “It’s time we made a picture that’ll lose some money.” No dewy-eyed idealist, he adds: “Write it off as good will—this’ll bring in new customers.”

The Last Tycoon was also a reawakening of Fitzgerald’s preternatural talent for writing about romantic infatuation in a manner that manages to embrace clichés while at the same time reinvigorating them:

“I don’t want to lose you now,” he said. “I don’t know what you think of me or whether you think of me at all. As you’ve probably guessed, my heart’s in the grave—” He hesitated, wondering if this was quite true. “—but you’re the most attractive woman I’ve met since I don’t know when. I can’t stop looking at you. I don’t know now exactly the color of your eyes, but they make me sorry for everyone in the world—”

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Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson in The Last Tycoon (1976).

Elia Kazan’s 1976 film of The Last Tycoon never quite catches fire, but it’s a fascinating attempt nonetheless, in its Harold Pinter script (remarkably faithful to the more polished sections of the novel), and many of the performances, especially Robert De Niro’s elusive and darkly internalized portrayal of Monroe Stahr. A notorious flop when released, the movie ended Elia Kazan’s directing career. Kazan devotes seventeen painful pages to the making of the film in his 1988 autobiography, A Life. He was dealing with his mother’s failing health and, finally, her death, during production. Moreover, there were clashes with producer Sam Spiegel. The film deserves reevaluation. It’s never revived or talked about anymore. There’s a strong and richly amusing climactic scene with Jack Nicholson as Brimmer, the novel’s communist union organizer, playing a spirited match of Ping-Pong with De Niro’s Stahr. It’s taken nearly verbatim from the novel and it’s a highlight of the movie. Kazan’s film would make for a great double feature with Last Call, a surprisingly eloquent 2002 Showtime movie based on Francis Kroll Ring’s memoir about working for Fitzgerald during his final days in Hollywood writing The Last Tycoon.

Fox 8: A Story

Fox 8: A Story
George Saunders
Random House 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Fox8According to the L.A. Times literary blog Jacket Copy, George Saunders chose to leave “Fox 8” out of his recently published collection Tenth of December because he felt it was “asking one stretch too many from the reader.” I get that. In fact, I much prefer reading the occasional Saunders story in The New Yorker rather than compiled in short story collections. His stories, artfully spun and eccentrically self-contained, can seem overly precious and “worked up” when set side by side. That said, he’s written more than his share of masterful short stories. “Fox 8,” which began life as a failed children’s book, is as memorable as anything Saunders has written, which is to say it will stay with you because of qualities it shares with timeless, even mythic storytelling.

George Saunders. Photo: Chloe Aftel.

George Saunders. Photo: Chloe Aftel.

The story is narrated by a visionary fox unable to convince his starving den comrades that their only chance for survival is to strike out in quest of food at the newly constructed shopping mall that has displaced their habitat. “Fox 8” is actually an epistolary fable, written as a beseeching letter to the humans whose language Fox 8 has learned, if not precisely mastered, as a kind of earthy Chaucerian Middle English: “Stay in your awesum howses, play your music lowd, however you make it play so lowd, yap your Yuman jokes, sending forth your crood laffter into the nite.” Also worth noting about this very cool 99-cent ebook are the wonderful illustrations by graphic designer Chelsea Cardinal (the sharp cover design is hers as well).


Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

Order Caffeine to Go ($2.99 on Kindle)

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