And Now For Something Completely Political…

John Cleese is the purported author of the Declaration of Revocation, a missive directed at the people of the United States. With Cleese harboring possible ambitions to run as mayor of Santa Barbara, it’s very possible that Cleese may have momentarily merged his comedy with his politics. However, at present, there’s no conclusive evidence that Cleese wrote this. (via Tom)

And If You Say Anything Ellison Considers Stupid, the Old Guy Will Call You a Cocksucker and Threaten You with Physical Violence

Harlan Ellison will be appearing in Cleveland and the Plain Dealer has the pre-appearance scoop. Apparently, if anyone in the audience uses “like” improperly, they will have to pay 25 cents. Additionally, the Plain Dealer reports that a straight-to-television adaptation of the comic Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor (think Ray Bradbury Theatre or Arthur C. Clarke Presents with Ellison stories as the catalyst) is in the works.

Solomon & Foer Sitting in a Tree

“I’m not interesting,” Jonathan Safran Foer announced when I asked him to come out of his palatial home and breathe some oxygen. “People assume that because I’m a writer, I’m naturally interesting. They couldn’t be more wrong. I’m a sad piece of driftwood and the biggest disappointment since Steve Perry left Journey.”

Of course, I tried to cajole poor Foer with some of the trademark wit I used in my one-page Q&As. I asked Foer if he considered stabbing himself because of his youth and his wealth, pointing out the slam-dunk posterity advantages of an early Sylvia Plath-like literary death. I asked Foer if he ever thought about throwing himself in an oven just to see what life might have been like for his grandfather, had not the mystery woman saved him. Casual jokes to make Foer smile. But Foer was adamant about his cipher status.

“I just watched Behind the Music last night,” he said. “I spent all day in bed, trying to work myself up to write. In desperation, I turned on the tube. When I saw Daryl Hall reveal how hard it was for him to write ‘Maneater,’ how he too had spent years working up the courage to be a great artist. I…I wish I could offer you something a little more….” He stopped midsentence and stared at my decolletage.

“Manly?” I ventured.

“No, something fierce and more representative of the Caucasian race,” he said by way of desperation. “Something along the lines of Daryl Hall. Have you been dating?”

“No,” I said. “Most people are afraid to talk with me because I’m such a bitch.”

I looked at his wiry physique and I saw a beautiful 28 year old boy rather than a writer. I saw a few of my own neuroses in Foer and wondered how he might feel against me in bed. Would he read me Nabokov? Could I be his Humbert Humbert?

My friends had warned me of Fatal Attraction types, but there was something of the easy conquest represented in the 150 e-mail messages he sent me every hour. I did everything in my power to resist his attraction, even comparing him to Liberace. But I realized that I could not resist the man who had penned Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Tanenhaus Watch: February 27, 2005

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WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climatet? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.

To determine this highly important question for our times, three tests will be conducted each week, along with ancillary commentary concerning the content.

THE COLUMN-INCH TEST:

Fiction Reviews: 1 full-page, 1 full-page round-up (4 books), 3 half-page reviews. (Total books: 8. Total space: 3.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 two-page, 3 half-page, 5 full-page reviews. (Total books: 9. Total space: 8.5 pages.)

While the number of books reviewed creates the illusion that the NYTBR is covering fiction, the column-inches reveal the truth! Of the 12 pages devoted to reviews, only 29.1% are for fiction. Tanenhaus has demonstrated yet again that he would rather devote his pages to yet another primer on Churchill (a gutless entry among many other poltiical essays, of which more anon) than concern himself with the exciting world of today’s literature.

While we’re always interested to see Tanenhaus experiment, we’ve long tired of Sam Tanenhaus’ hollow promises on the fiction front. And we will not rest until he devotes a minimum of 48% of his column inches to literature.

Brownie Point: DENIED!

THE HARD-ON TEST:

This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

We find it strangely curious that of the five writers contributing to the fiction coverage, three of them are women and two of them are men. We applaud the diversity in coverage, while remaining extremely concerned that only one woman writer has contributed to the nine nonfiction reviews. Beyond this, where are the women for the features? We’d expect this kind of attitude at an Elks Lodge meeting. Surely, in a political atmosphere concerned with women’s issues and with Condi Rice as Secretary of State, Tanenhaus could have found a cross-section of women writers from varying perspectives to grace his pages.

Brownie Point: DENIED!

THE QUIRKY PAIR-UP TEST:

Fortunately, Sam Tanenhaus recovers from his disgrace by having William Vollmann write about Pol Pot. Vollmann’s essay is a good one: erudite, combining personal experience with an attentive read, calling Short on his hubris, and as obsessive as just about anything he’s written.

Then there’s Gore Vidal hoping to restore James Purdy’s reputation. Vidal’s essay (by his own admission) is self-serving. But it’s still nice to see some space in the NYTBR devoted to a forgotten literary figure — even if Jonathan Yardley does this on a weekly basis.

Brownie Point: EARNED!

CONTENT CONCERNS:

Michael Kazin calls Martin Van Buren “the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents” — the sad stretch of an editor demanding a populist metaphor. And why does the population’s perceived failure to understand Stephen Hawking deserve a lead paragraph? It is disturbing to see a newspaper with the New York Times‘ resources not only devoting so much of its space to these desperate attempts to appease Joe Sixpack, but cop to this anti-intellectual tone.

Aside from the priapic instapundits going out of their way to make politics about as exciting as stale muesli, the only real piss and vinegar to be found this week is in Albert Mobilio’s review of J.T. Leroy’s Harold’s End, which is declared “a shiny postcard of a book that offers a paper-thin impression of the author’s talents.”

Where are the daring takes on today’s books? Where’s the wit? The solid arguments that a major newspaper can disseminate among its readers?

CONCLUSIONS:

Brownie Points Earned: 1
Brownie Points Denied: 2

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TOP JIMMY: Gore Vidal

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The great Jimmy Beck, a fantastic literary enthusiast who has made guest appearances at The Old Hag and Maud Newton, has offered the first in what I hope will be a semi-regular series that I've tentatively entitled "TOP JIMMY," whereby the great Beck observes literary figures at bookstores and readings, and weighs in. His first subject is Gore Vidal.]

BECK: If you were to read a transcript of Gore Vidal?s remarks at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC on Friday afternoon and use this alone as the basis for your impression, you?d probably come away thinking, ?Jeez, what a grumpy old bastard.? And sure, Vidal is full of bile and righteous indignation about the Bush administration.

gorevidal.jpgBut he?s also a lively conversationalist and a true raconteur. His comments were leavened with humor: ?These guys [Bush and Cheney] have turned me into creationists?Darwin was wrong!? And of course, it?s hard to imagine anyone else who knows so much about US history. His faculties remain undiminished by the fact he?ll turn 80 this year or that he now walks haltingly with the aid of a cane (he recently had knee surgery). He speaks in a deep baritone and, while regaling the packed house with his inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, treated us to spot-on imitations of JFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR, Orson Welles and W (natch).

Not surprisingly, most of his remarks — and the questions directed at him — were political in nature. The sympathetic lefty audience looked to him to answer questions along the lines of ?What the hell has happened to us as a nation over the last few years?? — a subject Vidal was happy to expound upon at length.

He was in town to assist with a revival of his play, The March to the Sea, a Civil War drama being performed at Duke University (that?s ?DuPont? for all you Tom Wolfe fans).

On the media:
Having just read the New York Times, Vidal said that Paul Krugman was the only reason to even pick up the paper anymore. ?The media is totally corrupt from top to bottom and paid for by the same interests that bought and paid for this administration.?

On Iraq:
?[The administration] seems to feel [it?s] watching a bad movie or a video game. Something?s gone wrong in the American psyche.?

On funny business during the US election:
?[Rep. John] Conyers [D-MI] went to Ohio during the election and has got a lot of material, but we may not get to hear about it. Silence at Appomattox, as it were.?

On Freedom and Democracy:
?We had freedom once, but never democracy. But if you go to an airport today, you know you?re not terribly free.?

On why we vote against our own self-interests:
?That?s the American way.? He went on to blame the media, saying that if a lie gets repeated often enough people will believe it. Here?s where he invoked Welles and War of the Worlds. ?I asked [Welles] once if he realized the ramifications of what he was doing [by broadcasting a fictional invasion from Mars]?? Welles said, ?No I didn?t. I didn?t realize people were that crazy.??

On the prospect of another constitutional convention:
The professional liberals (or professional cowards as I call them) worry about what the bad guys will get hold of [if we have another convention]. Well, they?re getting hold of it anyway. Jefferson thought there should be a convention every 30 years. He said, ?You can?t expect a boy to wear a man?s jacket.??

On the US?s role in the world:
?We are part of the concert of nations. We should play the oboe. Or the triangle.?

On the right wing media?s treatment of Hillary Clinton:
?Suddenly she was a lesbian who murdered her male lover [Vince Foster]. If I were writing that script, I would have at least said ?female lover.??

On John Kerry:
Vidal described Kerry in the 1950s as being ?ruthlessly on the make? for Janet Auchincloss, Jackie?s younger half-sister (and a relative of Vidal?s). Vidal said that Kerry wanted nothing more than to become a relation of JFK?s. He then brought up Kerry?s statement that he would have voted for the war even had he known there were no WMDs, which Vidal referred to sarcastically as ?very statesmanlike.?

On prospective leaders for the Democrats to lead them out of the desert:
?I don?t think you can look to individuals.? One notable exception in history: Lincoln.

On Ronald Reagan:
?The most crashing bore. But a very nice man. He always read all of the jokes in Reader?s Digest.?

On reasons for optimism:
?We have a great capacity to change our minds?look at Prohibition. And as we grow more broke, China will outdo us. Once we cease being imperial, we?ll be calling the troops home.?

On the book of his he wishes more people would read:
?Inventing a Nation. It?s Madison, Washington and Jefferson in their own words.?

On the internet and the emergence of blogs:
?The internet gave us Howard Dean. He not only raised money, he fueled people [to become politically active]. At the big march against the war, I spoke to 100,000 people on Hollywood Boulevard. Of course, the L.A. Times called it ?a scanty crowd.??

On television:
?I don?t watch the programming. I just watch the commercials.? He then launched into a perfect infomercial voice. Returning to the subject later: ?We know the attention span has snapped.?

On religion:
He talked about how religion was not much of a force in American life in the 1940s and said that TV evangelists had a lot to do with changing that. Here he did his best 700 Club TV preacher impersonation?priceless. He also called for revocation of religious organizations? tax-exempt status, calling it ?a vast source of revenue.?

On southern cuisine:
?You?ve got the best smoked ham, grits and gravy. I asked for a ham sandwich the other day and you can?t get one?or you get the rubberized kind.? I asked my mother once what the 19th century was like. She said, ?Well, the food was awfully good.??

On what he?s reading now:
?The History of the Peloponnesian War, and again and again, The Federalist Papers.?

On what kind of gay novel he would write today (versus The City and the Pillar in 1948):
?A pretty dour one.? He then said he rejected the terms of the question. ?There?s no such thing as a gay person. There?s only sex, which is a continuum. ?Homosexual? is an adjective to describe actions, not people. Neither Latin nor Greek has a word for it?it?s just sex.?

On reviews:
?I remember the review of my first novel (Williwaw, 1946). It said, ?Mr. Vidal has posed the problem but offers no solution.? Well, [the book] was a tragedy, for God?s sake. What am I supposed to say? That Sophocles wanted me to end it this way??

On the fate of literary fiction:
?Fiction? Well there?s always The Wall Street Journal.? Rimshot. ?Fiction has dropped to where poetry was when I started. I don?t know if the written word can ever come back. I tell ambitious writers to go and read Montaigne.?

(Thanks, Jimmy Beck!)

Joe Camp Presents Benjamin the Haunted

Up until Wednesday night, I didn’t believe in the afterlife. However, I was swayed from my skepticism when a Wiccan friend of mine, whom I had met through the personals section of my local alt-weekly rag, took my hasty notion of what Walter Benjamin might think about the Bush administration very much to my heart. My Wiccan friend (whom I shall refer to in these pages as “Broom Hither”) pushed me down onto her bed, tied me up with several painful strands of tight rope, carved a pentagram into my chest, and then demanded that I bark like a dog.

To her supreme credit, Broom Hither had delivered on every single promise she had pledged that evening. And since I was already bleeding profusely and had no wish to stain Broom Hither’s expensive carpet, I howled like a Baskerville hound while Broom Hither let loose a heinous farrago of salty aromas, pungent candles and various other paraphernalia designed to badger my sinus and presumably the olfactory senses of the dead.

While it’s safe to say that I won’t be dating a Wiccan again, I have consulted a plastic surgeon about what he can do about the pentagram scar on my chest. The answer is: not much. But it was all worth it. Because Broom Hither did manage to coax the spirit of Walter Benjamin to offer us two paragraphs from the Great Beyond, which I am happy to publish on these pages. Mr. Benajamin has not only been paying remarkable attention to current U.S. politics, but has, in fact, ably mastered the English language in the sixty-five years since his suicide.

What follows is Sections 4 and 5 of Mr. Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of Idiots:

IV

The human struggle, which is rarely present to a yokel influenced by White Zinfandel in a box and monster truck rallies, is a fight for the crude and avaricious desires which are often mistaken for upward mobility and, indeed, success. It is rarely the crude ones who allow for idiocy to rise, but the master manipulators in power who maintain the facade of idiocy. As American society has gravitated towards media mirages (c.f., reality television), the crude now see slim possibilities in their own futures. Thus, and I have not studied this as long as I would have liked, it remains my conviction that idiocy is allowed to flourish.

V

Please see Section IV.

At this point, Mr. Benjamin disappeared in a sepia haze. It is worth noting that he had no sympathy about my bleeding chest. However, he did admonish me for associating “arcades” with Mr. Do. So perhaps his lack of empathy was justifiable.

I have since learned that Broom Hither can be found in California’s Megan’s Law database. I suppose this is what happens when one lets common sense languish so that one may get laid.

Whatever the case, Broom Hither has disappeared from her residence. She has apparently listed me as her designated contact and I am flagging off the requests of dunners, creditors, and even a landlord from three years ago.

I will confess that I am not sufficiently familiar enough with Mr. Benjamin to corroborate his identity. It is quite possible that I was still reeling from the trauma. However, I leave this record up so that greater experts than I can make sense of Mr. Benjamin’s message from beyond.

There’s Also This New Rap Thing That Causes Teenagers to Shoot Each Other Up in the Streets!

I don’t know who this Michelle Malkin person is. But her claim that emo is a soundboard for self-mutiliation is instantly deflated when she declares emo as “a new genre of music.” Jesus, I’m over 30 too. But even I’ve listened to Sunny Day Real Estate. It was the dirty white sheets that were cut into strips, not the flesh.

As for this “new genre of music,” I’ve got two words for you, Michelle: Ian MacKaye.

You know, in a court of law, you can’t file a complaint without stating a statute. Having a supporting argument is one of those nifty things that maintain due process and keep a good subject matter convincing. The ignorance with which these so-called “higher beings” dispense their wisdom amuses me. But I’m troubled by how many hangers on are duped by their faux punditry.

The Oscar Pool

If you want to get into dichotimies, I suspect that there are computer mechanics and car mechanics. There are people who understand and appreciate comics and there are people who don’t. And when it comes to yearly televised fluff (that is, if we have to choose one), there are Oscar people and there are Super Bowl people. (And if you haven’t guessed already, I’m one of the former.)

Some folks in the know say that Chris Rock’s career is on the line. And they may be right. David Letterman was about as close as mainstream acceptance got to quirky and not even he could cut the mustard. And isn’t this the kind of sacrifice that fluff is all about? If you’re a running back who blows a reception in the Super Bowl, sure, the fans are going to kick your ass for a month or so and there’s a good chance you’re going to get traded. But if it’s the Oscars, not only can you not come back (unless, like Billy Crystal, your win-loss record is good), but you could end up thrown into coach. (Case in point: It may have been a fait accompli, but was it Oscar that fueled Whoopi’s sad slide into the mediocre world of Hollywood Squares?)

But if you really want to know what keeps me coming, it’s the gambling pools. I don’t bet on football anymore, but with Oscar bets, at least you can create some modest illusion that you’re throwing around money for something quasi-cultural.

With this in mind, I unveil my Oscar predictions. This is not a measure of who should win, but rather who will win. I’ve been wrong before, but let it not be said that I didn’t have flaunt around a crystal ball every now and then.

BEST PICTURE: The Aviator

Last year was Eastwood’s year. And Million Dollar Baby has had this weird tendency to alienate every female film geek I’ve talked with. Sideways is too character-based to win. Which leaves Finding Neverland, Ray and The Aviator vying for pure spectacle. And since The Aviator has planes, pathos and explosions (always a firm bet with Academy voters) and this is the second of the Harvey-Marty pairup pictures, my guess is that Marty will win after being denied so many years.

BEST DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese

I’m fairly confident this one’s in the bag. But if Taylor Hackford wins, then the universe is indeed cruel and without integrity.

BEST ACTOR: Jamie Foxx

He may have extended range, but they won’t give it to Leo. Million Dollar Baby was more about Swank than Eastwood. And Depp needs one more nomination before they give him a Sean Penn. Which leaves Jamie Foxx and Don Cheadle. Foxx will win for Ray because the Academy likes a depressing role, though up to a point.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Thomas Haden Church

This one’s tough to call. But I don’t think the Academy has it in them to give Foxx two Oscars the same year. Nor do I believe that Alan Alda pulls his weight in with the geriatric vote as much as he used to. (And, besides, his performance was too spastic.) Freeman’s role in Million Dollar Baby was a far cry from Street Smart and, as much as I like Freeman, let’s face the facts that it was pretty much the same performance he’s been giving us since The Shawhsank Redemption. Clive Owen is only a recent find. But Church has the Paul Giamatti guilt factor going for him, which will have the irony of making Giamatti feel worse for being snubbed if Church wins. Plus, there’s always at least one supporting winner that turns out weird.

BEST ACTRESS: Hilary Swank

Moreno and Staunton have no chance. Nobody remembers Being Julia. Eternal Sunshine is too abstract for the major Oscar nominations. But Hilary Swank has the Tom Hanks thing going. Everybody likes her. Plus, there’s the whole getting-in-shape-for-the-role thing. Plus, she’s a solid actor being molded by Eastwood.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett

Never mind that Madsen, Linney and Okonedo all deserve the award. Blanchett will win by way of giving the crowd-pleasing performance. And Portman will learn the hard way that taking off her clothes may win points with Internet downloaders, but doesn’t factor in at all with the Academy.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Because only in the writing categories does originality shine.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Sideways

Because Daddy always said, “Runner up, son, is Best Screenplay.”

Rushdie Rumored to Be Joining Stanley Crouch for Anger Management Class

We’re not quite sure what to make of Salman Rushdie chasing down journalists with a baseball bat. On one hand, we’d probably be a bit pissed if we had to live secretly while a price was on our head or the novels we turned out were declared more and more irrelevant. But Rushdie’s fury was driven by words against his wife. We only wonder how he’ll survive the acid barbs of Fleet Street.

Personally, We’ve Always Thought Hunger Involved Food Stamps, Barely Getting By, Remaining Isolated, Depressed and Lonely, Hoping to Hell That the Electricity Isn’t Shut Off — The Kind of “Hunger” Knut Hamsun Wrote About. But That’s Just Us.

Dave Eggers interviewed at the Onion AV Club: “I would disagree about “isolated” or “lonely.” Those are two things that I don’t know very well, so I can’t write about them. I think that most of the characters are people who aren’t settled in what they’re doing, and maybe have been uprooted in one way or another, by an event in the world or their own restlessness. Most of them are abroad and looking for something. This is what the hunger is about: whether they’re hungry for some kind of affection, or something else.” (via the Rake, who has a few theories of his own about this slightly different Eggers interview)

The Brownies Return

With Mark on deck with the Los Angeles Times Book Review and Scott Esposito watching the Chronicle, the time has come to restore the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch again. Starting this Sunday, we’ll be watching Sam with the same eagle-eyed stance of a jester and letting you all know whether or not Tanenhaus has earned his brownie.

(And, incidentally, should Sam Tanenhaus earn his brownie, we will in fact be sending them to him. Let it not be said that we didn’t honor our pledges.)

Now if someone else will step in with the Washington Post, the litblog community should have its bases covered.

Fuck the iPod

Will somebody give me one good reason why I should own a fucking iPod? Will somebody explain why I should give Steve Jobs 350 hard-earned George Washingtons to apply the Apple logo to my hip?

Sure, it’s a handy little device, I suppose. But then so is a garlic press. The garlic press, however, is much cheaper and will actually do something beneficial. Such as saving you some time when you’re cooking some pasta.

Frankly, I don’t get it. The little bastard doesn’t even allow me to record onto it. (To its credit, the Zen, Creative’s response to the IPod, does.) The least one can expect for this kind of money is a consummate fuck from a second-class Hollywood hooker. But from where I’m sitting, I’m looking at a bunch of teenagers and twentysomethings on the subway not really enjoying themselves, plugged into earphones and passing the time in the same banal way that non-iPod riders are.

Would someone explain why it’s so important to be completely out-of-touch with the waking world around me? If the iPod is about control, why don’t these folks use Nero to burn a custom CD for their pre-existing Discmen?

I’ll confess that music is important and that I listen to a lot of it. But who knew that one out of 10 Americans view the iPod as their fucking savior? Did we learn nothing from Ridley Scott’s 1984 commercial? We’re supposed to throw a hammer to the evil corporate overlords, right? Funny how the iPod has been airbrushed into a new version of the commercial. Never mind that this “Greedo shoots first” version is no longer available at the Apple site.

I’d like to chalk the iPod phenomenon up to a “kids these days” benediction. But I’m too young to be a scolding old man. Even so, I’ve seen grown men fucking around with this thing, as if the Apple Click Wheel was some technological justification for revisiting Billy Squier. Why subsidize some half-baked mofo who doesn’t even know how to spell “tonight?”

And what’s with this whole bullshit notion of the iPod empowering you? Am I missing something here? You mean to say that if I go into a Universal Unitarian church with an iPod strapped on and start talking with some slinky blonde that I’ll take her home and ensure her at least six orgasms? Wow, who knew? The iPod as muscle car. Throw the basic aspects of mutual attraction out the window, my friends.

I’m utterly convinced that historians will view the iPod in the same light that people remember the Olympus Pearlcoder: a half-baked technological tool that suggests something personal and refined, but that is ultimately about taking advantage of people’s inability to figure out the technological tools they have on their Dell computers. Namely, these things called CD burners, BitTorrents and MP3s, the latter being a format that isn’t particularly bad for something coming through your headphones.

HST: The River is Still Running

thompson-h.jpgI haven’t read the obituaries. I haven’t read anything. Hunter S. Thompson is gone and his unexpected suicide hit me hard. I was reduced to a blank, morose expression while sitting in a passenger seat in a moving car heading south for some fun. What fun could be had when America’s foremost nihilist and partygoer had decided that enough was enough? It took me about twenty minutes of explaining why Hunter S. Thompson was important and why his work mattered before I could go about my day.

Friends have often noted that I have an older man’s concern with the notable folks who die. But my concerns rest not with mortality, which is inevitable, but the more troubling question of enduring legacy. Who will replace these voices? What other tangible creative things die in the process?

Because Thompson, like all the others, was needed and irreplaceable. The landscape of American letters can never equal the strange mix of chaos and wisdom that Thompson threw into his work with inebriated gusto. It should be noted that Thompson repeatedly read the works of H.L. Mencken and the Book of Revelations in Gideon Bibles when holed up in hotels. Thompson was a man committed to a subjective form of journalism that he believed in with religious fervor, but he never lost sight of the number of the beast painted around Washington.

His work was as shoot-from-the-hip and as inconsistent as any prolific hack. His writings varied from incoherent screeds to astute examinations of American hypocrisy. But at his best (whch was often), he mattered. Thompson stood alone as a courageous voice, and he got people to listen.

A few years ago, Hunter S. Thompson stated repeatedly in interviews, “No one is more astonished than I am that I’m still alive.” I always chalked this up to the Good Doctor defiantly drinking Wild Turkey, imbibing drugs, firing guns into the night, blaring televisions and banging out political diatribes (even howling like a banshee on the commentary track for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), maintaining the same life that he had built his career upon. Here was a man who had openly settled for Clinton in his collection, Better than Sex, hoping that some spark of true progressivism would endure. Yet two years later, he was the only writer with the balls to eviscerate Nixon upon his death.

In his autumn years, Thompson had settled into a comfortable routine of writing a sports column for ESPN. He had recently married and was keeping busy. But no one can keep a good political junkie down. And it was no surprise when Thompson came out with high hopes for Kerry in Rolling Stone. His essay concluded:

We were angry and righteous in those days, and there were millions of us. We kicked two chief executives out of the White House because they were stupid warmongers. We conquered Lyndon Johnson and we stomped on Richard Nixon — which wise people said was impossible, but so what? It was fun. We were warriors then, and our tribe was strong like a river.

That river is still running. All we have to do is get out and vote, while it’s still legal, and we will wash those crooked warmongers out of the White House.

Thompson must have taken the results in November hard. Harder than anyone. For as much as any of us stupored around for days, feeling as if our last hopes were defeated when four more years of Bush were upon us, Thompson had to feel the pendulum swinging to the right more viscerally than any Poe character.

There’s the famous passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in which Thompson describes the death of 1960s idealism:

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda….You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave….

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

I always figured Thompson had found a way to go on and accept the hard realities of a nation thumping to a reactionary beat. And maybe he did for a while.

But make no mistake: despite Thompson’s ultimate answer to the predicament, that river is still very much running. And Thompson’s work will endure. The question now is this: Who has the courage to pick up the slack?

Cinematic Cockamanie?

It what might be the only bold move in Chris O’Donnell’s career, it looks like he’s set to star with Sarah Polley in a film adaptation of Will Self’s Cock & Bull, the infamous pair of novellas about a man who grows a vagina and a woman who grows a cock. It remains a mystery how such a film will get past the MPAA. Let’s hope that writer-director Matt Nix is, pardon the pun, ballsy enough to go for the NC-17.

Unlawful Common Knowledge

I’m no historian. I’m just a guy who reads books with a layman’s ambition of being well-rounded.

I can give you a brief overview of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ attempt to cut through the Isthmus of Panama without considering the mosquito problem and can suggest, without Googling, David McCllough’s The Path Between the Seas as a good book on the subject. I can tell you about why H&R Block does most of its business in January and why the working poor is terrified of filing 1040s on their own — this, well before reading David K. Shipler’s heartbreaking book on the subject. I can tell you how the umbrella came about and why men have Jonas Hanway to thank for keeping their heads dry.

I could also quote almost any line of The Big Lebowski, sing any Beatles song with pretty solid accuracy, and tell you who directed some random Val Lewton-produced film from the 1940s.

My intention here is not to boast, but to point out that there are just some things that happen to stick and that should stick. Shards of common knowledge that are the average Joe’s duty and responsibility to remember.

Lest the reader think that I am flexing my achievements here, I should also point out that despite several years of Spanish and some time knocking around in Germany, I’m a hopeless monoglot. I’m terrible with remembering first names, even when I use the name in a responsive sentence. Great with identifying sounds and voices, but sometimes the intimate contours of faces don’t always match up, even though I can tell you how a lighting scheme for a stunning shot in a movie works, can negotiate your couch through a tight crevice and tell you whether or not your car will fit into a curbside parking spot.

And I should point out that I often come up with idiotic conclusions, many of which are posted here. I also change my mind on a regular basis.

Seasoning my mind with bits of minutiae has always been a priority for me. Probably has a good deal with the way I was brought up (which was without a whole lot) and my overwhelming need to know things. Some shit, I just pick up. Other things like intricate swing dance moves (working on it) or the correct pronunciation of multisyllable words, not so easily. (In fact, not so long ago, I learned that, despite spelling it correctly on paper, I was pronouncing “mischievous” MISS-CHEEVE-EE-US. How’s that for ineptitude?) But despite the wide swath, I am, by no means, an expert.

But I’m wondering right now, after a pleasant though slightly disheartening breakfast in a diner, just how effective our current system is at turning out well-rounded folks.

Picture your humble narrator reading a book, grooving to Janis Joplin being played over the speakers, nursing a cup of coffee and digging into a fantastic chicken pesto crepe, and doing his best to resist the potatoes with sour cream. (Damn you, starch!) Suddenly, I feel two pairs of eyes seering into me. I don’t look up. But I hear a father talking with his kid, “You see, he’s reading a book.”

I use my peripheral vision to scope out Allen Funt. Not there. Oh yeah. He’s dead.

Is this a recreation of the famous Bill Hicks wafflehouse joke? No. Because reading has taken neither a positive or a negative impression.

“That’s what happens when you go to school,” continues Daddy-O. “You learn how to read and you read books! And you’ll be reading just like him.”

The father’s tone is encouraging. I dig any parent willing to get such a young child reading. The father apologizes. I tell him it’s no problem and scoot up to the edge of the booth, beaming a broad smile to the kid, “And in twenty-five years, another child will be looking at you as you’re reading a book in a diner.”

Nervous laughter, apologies. Really, it’s no big deal, I say. Just part of the natural human cycle that will go on into perpetuity. We are all the richer because of it. I’ll do the same thing myself if I ever have kids.

We start talking. The guy’s all right. This youngish father is there with his mother. To keep the excitement rolling for the kid, I note that Theodore Roosevelt would read a book in one night, starting at a late hour, and was then fully prepared to discuss it with his staff the next morning. The conversation shifts to U.S. Presidents.

The boy’s grandmother is a big Jefferson fan. “Oh,” I say, “have you read Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx? Great book on Jefferson’s character.” She’s read a few books on Jefferson but can’t remember the names or the authors. “Jefferson still lives,” I say.

“What?”

“Did you know that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day?”

I figure this would be common knowledge for anyone interested in Jefferson, let alone anyone who has ever taken a U.S. history class. That Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other, Adams croaks, “Jefferson still lives” just before meeting his maker, and that, to seal one of the greatest historical coinicdences in human history, the two die on July 4, 1826 — exactly fifty years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

But they don’t know this. And while they’re delighted to know, I’m a bit mortified. The young father is a history major. What’s more, David McCullough spoke at his commencement. I rattle off three McCullough books I’ve read, but the history major hasn’t read any McCullough.

Then there are more titles of books, more facts, more things that come to mind (which apparently is a lot) — all in the interests of historical boosterism. I talk briefly about Jefferson’s second catastrophic term as president, about Abigail Adams’ “remember the ladies” letter to Jefferson, and several other things.

“You must be a historian!” says the dad’s mother.

“No,” I say. “I’m just a guy who likes pesto.”

The funny thing is that, as several of my teachers may attest, history was never really my strong suit in high school or college. Even though I could bluff my muddled memory of historical facts in essay form.

But I’m thinking to myself that if these two adults, who are very nice and conciliatory, and who are everyday people, think I’m a historian, then we are in very big trouble indeed.

I’m not trying to smear these three people. They were very grateful for the titles they loosened from my tongue. And they had fantastic things to say about our founding fathers, based on what they could remember. They showed a keen interest and curiosity in the ways that our national quilt was knitted.

But the distinction here is that they had no real grasp on the details, even when, in one case, history was the primary base of knowledge.

This cultural stigma goes far beyond mere facts. I had a conversation with an acquaintance the other night and I mentioned the tea ceremony at the Asian Art Museum, which I was honored to attend last weekend. This acquaintance told me how she couldn’t possibly attend because she was mortified that only educated folks would find the ceremony interesting.

Nonsense, I replied. I knew almost nothing about tea ceremonies and Asian art. But I pointed out the atmosphere, some of the limitations, and the rules that I could remember, pointing out that my pulse rate was halved just by sitting down, taking in the relaxing rites.

When our motley group was strolling around the museum, I was audacious enough to call the artist behind one fantastic piece of chiaroschuro papyrus “the Aubrey Beardsley of Korea,” which didn’t sit so well with one self-appointed “expert” who thought that such comparisons were uncouth. Uncouth? I was just trying to remember. Who knew there was an unspoken code of acceptable associations?

I wonder if this “expert” (or any educator, for that matter) has any idea that strangling an individulal’s curiosity or telling someone how they should talk about culture is what leads to people like the history major who can’t remember basic details. I wonder if the experts are truly cognizant of the unnecessary chasm that separates the layman from the cultured. The strange stigma behind an enjoyable book like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which sets out to explain a good deal of science to a popular audience.

What we are seeing, I think, in this age of reactonary and results-oriented education, is a nation that is creating or pepetuating a knowledge class system. The disparity between the knows and the know-nots.

And it kills me to see the mad rush of curiosity suffering such an unnecessary crib death. Really, our countrymen are better than this.

Photographic Protest

So freelance photographer Steve Malik was taking some photos of MUNI Metro. Suddenly, a hodgepodge of fuzz came and tried to arrest him. But get this: there’s no statute in the books to prevent people from taking photos of city property.

Tomorrow afternoon, several photographers will meet at the Embarcadero Center at high noon and take photos out of protest.

I’m going to have to dig up my digital camera, but if you’re in San Francisco, bring your camera to Jackson West’s photographic protest. If I can find my cam, I’ll post the pics.

(via Smoke)

Rundown with the Devil

  • Gore Vidal’s Civil War play On the March to the Sea has been revived and revised. The protagonist’s name has been changed to Hal I. Burton, all paternal figures will be referred to as “Bagh Dad” instead of “Dad,” and the palatial home has been rechristened “The Other White House.”
  • The Man Booker International Prize nominees have been announced and already folks are stewing over who got left out. Which includes Salman Rushdie. In related news, it turns out that the fatwah was actually reinstated not by Iran, but by literary fans who have been annoyed by Rushdie’s inability to write a decent novel since Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
  • Spread the love for Dashiel. January Magazine and Pop Matters celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon
  • Larry McMurty’s son is a singer-songwriter? I wonder if he’s nabbed some tips from Kinky Friedman.
  • Random House has obtained a minority stake in Vocel, which specializes in educational content transmitted over cell phones. While Random House plans on distributing language study guides and video game tips, since e-books have for the most part failed, will cell phone users actually read a book over a Nokia?
  • And there’s more on the revival-in-progress of Upton Sinclair and Sinclair scholar Lauren Coodley’s tireless efforts.

Actually, It’s Unfair to Let Susanna Clarke Unleash a Longass Novel Without Hard-Hearted Editors

Mark says, “Perhaps it?s unfair to pit 19th-century magicians against Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany,” and selects Heir to the Glimmering World in the next installment of the TMN Tournament of Books. Mark’s being too kind when he calls Jonathan Strange a “Saturday matinee.” It is interminable cotton candy and deserves a through ass-kicking by the likes of Ozick before it’s too late.

Literary Media Bias? Nah, Just Good Books.

Chine Mi鶩lle, whose latest New Crobuzon book The Iron Council was just nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (and whose first two books, at least, you should read immediately), has a great list of 50 Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read. Of course, you don’t have to be a socialist to read them. With the possible exception of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Atlas Shrugged (I get the “know your enemy” angle, but it’s cruel and unusual punishment to subject the “Who is John Galt?” crap, which I made the mistake of reading in my late twenties, on any self-respecting reader), the books themselves are all pretty smoking in their own right. (via Maud)

Shut Up and Drive the Car

I just wrote an extremely long post about a post on another litblog. But it’s lost. Just as well. It was the kind of arrogant fury I’m trying to steer away from these days.

I’ll only say this: If you’re spending a good chunk of your time waiting for some journalist to call you up, you probably shouldn’t be blogging. Because that’s not what blogs are about. It’s certainly not what the top-caliber litblogs are about. Deep down, all of us care very much about literature. And I would venture that it’s the honesty of those convictions that gets people reading.

So knock off the pity parties. You haven’t been snubbed. There are no gates to crash. Just keep thinking and keep posting. And remember that you have the advantage of being outside the box, outside the mainstream. So what are you going to do with the Porsche now that I’ve given you the keys?

It’s Good to Be Right When You Have 500 Imaginary Parents Backing You Up

One thing that always amuses me about reactionary revisionists, aside from the fact that, on the whole, they have no sense of humor and rarely appreciate the finer joys of bowling or karaoke, is that the so-called legions of “citizens” championing “literary standards” have no names. In the case of the “Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools,” not so much as a “Joe” or “Orville” or a “Babbitt” can be found in the comments section.

It reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan. What better way to maintain the “safety” of your “controversial” perspective when stringing up another man and torching his home then by keeping a hood over your head?

For all I know, this group could be just one 42 year-old guy living with his mother who has a lot of spare time on his hands. I’ve sifted through this site and I’ve found absolutely nothing in the way of contact information.

Fortunately, with the magic of WHOIS, I’ve determined that the “Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools” is run by Janet Harmon and Gerry High of Lenexa, Kansas. The Kansas City Star reports that “five hundred residents” have signed a petition. But where is this petition? Why isn’t it displayed on the site, much less corroborated? If these people feel so strongly, what are their names?

Kansas City Star reporter Eric Adler tracked Harmon down for an interview. Among the highlights:

  • When the list was a mere fourteen books, Harmon hadn’t read all the books, thus rendering her conclusions highly suspect. (Even stranger, Barbara Kingsolver is listed twice.)
  • Ulysses was once listed as an “alternative” to these offensive books, only to be removed when someone had gone to the trouble of reading it.
  • Harmon didn’t like Lord of the Flies because it was “depressing.”
  • Harmon used to be a public school teacher. No word what her career is now. Her husband builds churches. And, not surprisingly, she homeschools her kids.
  • “Good books can deal with difficult issues and not use the f-word, use graphic descriptions of sex and violence. That’s what great books do.” No clue on where Harmon stands on Norman Mailer’s cowardly use of “fug.”

To which we reply, fuck that.

Apparently, Harmon’s efforts haven’t been very successful. The Blue Valley Board of Education voted to keep Tobias Wollf’s This Boy’s Life (the book that made Harmon’s head explode) on the curriculum.

(Hat tip: Michael Schaub.)

Excerpt from Jose Canseco’s New Book “Bright Lights, Big Baseball Stadium”

You can knock any ball out of the park. But you look at your biceps and you see that they’re lacking. You want muscles, the same way that young teenage girls want personal shoppers. You had a personal shopper once, but she didn’t like it when you ran around Saks Fifth Avenue with your shirt off.

So it’s come to this. Hank and his secret stash. You stop studying your credit card statements. You look at the needle and you stick it in your arm and you feel your muscles expanding. You know that you’re a better baseball player, a better man, and that you can stop anyone’s heartbeat with a single thought.

You’re unstoppable, kid. Who cares if you’re growing older?

Your friends think you’re out of control. But the nice thing about steroids is that you can get new friends. Glitzy people who will nod their head and tell you that your deltoid muscles are the Eighth Wonder of the World. And the locker room groupies arrive more frequently. You feel impotent, but you don’t care. They’re caught in the moment. And besides there’s that penis pump you borrowed from Number 34.

Steroids will cure disease. Steroids are your true compadre. Good thing you can operate as an athlete. Because the last thing you need is some bullshit allegation that you’re not a team player.

I Should Probably Sleep, But…

  • While we’d never expect USA Today to give us a call (we’d probably spend most of the time making fun of the infographs), we’re nevertheless delighted to see some of our favorite blogs get recognition.
  • And speaking of newspapers, we’re still wondering how the folks at the Scotsman find their fey subjects. A recent profile chronicles Francis Ellen, an author who has created a novel with music performed by the characters. The Samplist is expected to launch at the London Book Fair and a CD tie-in will feature a computer-generated, counterfeit piano piece.
  • Sarah Crompton wonders if anybody’s going to say anything bad about Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Saturday. Give it time, Sarah. Give it time. The minute Leon Wieseltier, Joe Queenan or Dale Peck get their grubby little hands on it, the reviews are almost certain to tip into the sensational. I suspect it’s a Yank thing.
  • We’d be terribly remiss if we didn’t remind folks that The Collected Stories of Carol Shields are now available, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood. In other Shields news, her daughters say that they learned a good deal about their mother working on their respective projects. (In Anne Giardini’s case, it’s a first novel.)
  • The word that appears the most in Birnbaum’s latest, an interview with Eva Hoffman: passport.

Formula for Dependable Novel: Gangbangs by Chapter Five

The incomparable Ms. Breslin, who has been posting portions of her novel, Porn Happy, over the past few months, has channeled her inner Gerard Jones and chronicled the history of getting this puppy published. Among some of the changes:

Last weekend, I reorganized the first fifty pages–again. I reorchestrated it such that the gangbang scene is now the, shall we say, climax of the first fifty pages, and, frankly, that seems, well, far more fitting.

We’re waiting to see what’s on page 69.