Having disconnected myself from television—at least for the short term—I expect I avoided innumerable promotions for broadcasts of what has become a Christmas holiday cliche, It’s a Wonderful Life. As I have also pulled the plug on that other great American past time, shopping, it is no wonder that my growing alienation from the mainstream sparked a deeply lodged contrarian impulse that led my hand to pull out The Grapes of Wrath from my video library and spend the evening of Dec. 25th watching John Ford’s version (for which he won an Oscar in 1940) of John Steinbeck’s epic novel. Maestro Ford certainly did nothing to quell the great egalitarian values espoused by Steinbeck and sustained by Nunnally("Only a hack is consistent") Johnson’s screenplay. I especially enjoyed this exchange in a scene where an Okie farmer, as he is being informed that he must vacate the land he and his family have lived on for 75 years, questions: “You mean I have to get off of my own land?” “Aww, don’t go blaming me, it ain’t my fault.” “Whose fault is it?” “You know who owns the land. It’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company.” “Who’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?” "It ain’t nobody. It’s a company." “They got a president don’t they? They got somebody who knows what a shotgun is for, ain’t they?” “Son, it ain’t his fault, he’s only doing what the bank tells him to do.” “All right, where’s the bank?” “Tulsa. What’s the use of picking on the manager? He’s half crazy trying to keep up with orders from the East.” “Then who do we shoot?” Of course, these days of the new world order in the new century we are (us Americans) not so susceptible to such rabble-rousing indignation. Waving the flag and beating war drums requires lots of energy and attention. Times may be tough, but with exemplars of public service like Trent Lott and Henry Kissinger and Bernard Law—well, we should be confident that we can muck on through. Right? Having survived a great depression and a world wide war and a yet another totalitarian attempt at world domination there is some security in knowing that some part of the American elite is still hell bent on making the world safe for democracy. Or at least safe for the New York Stock Exchange. Oh well, the opera may change, but the aria stays the same. As the end of the calendar year draws near and the real world is subject to the inertia of the holiday season, impending war and football bowl games not withstanding, I have found it a useful time to do more of what I usually do—read. In the last week I’ve already read the best novel of 2003, Richard Price’s Samaritan, and caught up with Elmore Leonard’s delicious and delighting story collection When The Women Come out to Dance—some of the stories of which appear to be precursors to novels, like Out of Sight and whatever one featured Raylan Givens. And I have rejoined Thomas Perry, in whom I had lost interest after his second Jane Whitehead novel (maybe he finally did too) devouring his new novel, Dead Aim. In addition to the necessary arsenal of skills required to craft and sustain a good story, Perry has a very good sense of the minutia that make up various human enterprises, and more importantly he knows how to employ those details to advance a story. Since my good friends at Knopf sent me the new, three-volume Everyman Raymond Chandler, I dipped into it to read The High Window, which had somehow escaped me when I was on a Chandler binge some years ago. He’s always fun to read—how could a man who wrote, "he had more chins than a San Francisco phone book," not be? Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a wonderful book, which I would have probably missed had not Dorothy Allison reminded me of it in the course of a recent conversation. I was privileged to be allowed to read John Usher’s (a pseudonym) unpublished novel, Mattie and Jem. For reasons that need not be explored here (there is always the fail-safe of my forthcoming memoir, Badly Dealt) I read Michael A. Thomas’ first novel (published in 1980), Green Monday. Thomas, who for a long time was the reason that I subscribed to The New York Observer—his pungent and unbridled observations about such sacred cows as Barbara Walters and Herr Dr. Kissinger, as well as his finely honed articulations of the follies of various and sundry power brokers and short-fingered vulgarians were both hilarious and on target—apparently had left that paper and my belated discovery moved me to catch up on his fiction. I found Green Monday to be very much in the mode of Colin Harrison’s Afterburn. And both very much a New York kind of book. Anyway, Thomas seems to know his wines, his men’s clubs, tactics of stock manipulation, art, Italy, four star international hotels and in general the trappings of the good life. And, also, how to tell a story. Which Steve Almond does as well… Steve’s story collection, My Life In Heavy Metal, came well recommended by novelist Patricia Henley. And despite a youthful and understandable fascination with sexual encounter and relationship there appears to be more there, there. Almond is also a very nimble wordsmith which can be a good thing onto itself. Two pieces in this collection standout despite or maybe because of their brevity. “Moscow” and “Pornography” satisfy in the way that a well intended hors d' ouvre serves us; a good taste, a craving for more and not too filling.
About The Author
Robert Birnbaum’s Social Security number ends in 2247. He lives in zip code 02465 and area code 617. He was born in the 2nd month of a year in the 20th century. He doesn’t social network (used as a verb) except through his Cuban retriever Beny (named after Beny More, the Frank Sinatra of Cuba). Izzy Birnbaum also has cloud storage and uses electronic mail. He hopes his son Cuba is the second coming of Pudge Rodriguez. He mutters to himself at Our Man In Boston. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org