Having disconnected myself from televisionatleast for the short termI expect I avoided innumerable promotionsfor broadcasts of what has become a Christmas holiday cliche, Itsa Wonderful Life. As I have also pulled the plug on that othergreat American past time, shopping, it is no wonder that my growingalienation from the mainstream sparked a deeply lodged contrarianimpulse that led my hand to pull out The Grapes of Wrathfrom my video library and spend the evening of Dec. 25th watchingJohn Fords version (for which he won an Oscar in 1940) ofJohn Steinbecks epic novel. Maestro Ford certainly did nothingto quell the great egalitarian values espoused by Steinbeck andsustained by Nunnally("Only a hack is consistent") Johnsonsscreenplay. I especially enjoyed this exchange in a scene wherean Okie farmer, as he is being informed that he must vacate theland he and his family have lived on for 75 years, questions:
You mean I have to get off of my own land?
Aww, dont go blaming me, it aintmy fault.
Whose fault is it?
You know who owns the land. Its theShawnee Land and Cattle Company.
Whos the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?
"It aint nobody. Its a company."
They got a president dont they? They got somebody whoknows what a shotgun is for, aint they?
Son, it aint his fault, hes only doing what thebank tells him to do.
All right, wheres the bank?
Tulsa. Whats the use of picking on themanager? Hes half crazy trying to keep up with orders fromthe East.
Then who do we shoot?
Of course, these days of the new world order inthe new century we are (us Americans) not so susceptible to suchrabble-rousing indignation. Waving the flag and beating war drumsrequires lots of energy and attention. Times may be tough, but withexemplars of public service like Trent Lott and Henry Kissingerand Bernard Lawwell, we should be confident that we can muckon through. Right? Having survived a great depression and a worldwide war and a yet another totalitarian attempt at world dominationthere is some security in knowing that some part of the Americanelite is still hell bent on making the world safe for democracy.Or at least safe for the New York Stock Exchange. Oh well, the operamay change, but the aria stays the same.
As the end of the calendar year draws near and thereal world is subject to the inertia of the holiday season, impendingwar and football bowl games not withstanding, I have found it auseful time to do more of what I usually doread. In the lastweek Ive already read the best novel of 2003, Richard PricesSamaritan, and caught up with Elmore Leonards deliciousand delighting story collection When The Women Come out to Dancesomeof the stories of which appear to be precursors to novels, likeOut of Sight and whatever one featured Raylan Givens. AndI have rejoined Thomas Perry, in whom I had lost interest afterhis second Jane Whitehead novel (maybe he finally did too) devouringhis new novel, Dead Aim. In addition to the necessary arsenalof skills required to craft and sustain a good story, Perry hasa very good sense of the minutia that make up various human enterprises,and more importantly he knows how to employ those details to advancea story. Since my good friends at Knopf sent me the new, three-volumeEveryman Raymond Chandler, I dipped into it to read TheHigh Window, which had somehow escaped me when I was on a Chandlerbinge some years ago. Hes always fun to readhow coulda man who wrote, "he had more chins than a San Francisco phonebook," not be? Ann Patchetts Bel Canto is a wonderfulbook, which I would have probably missed had not Dorothy Allisonreminded me of it in the course of a recent conversation. I wasprivileged to be allowed to read John Ushers (a pseudonym)unpublished novel, Mattie and Jem. For reasons that neednot be explored here (there is always the fail-safe of my forthcomingmemoir, Badly Dealt) I read Michael A. Thomas firstnovel (published in 1980), Green Monday. Thomas, who fora long time was the reason that I subscribed to The New YorkObserverhis pungent and unbridled observations about suchsacred cows as Barbara Walters and Herr Dr. Kissinger, as well ashis finely honed articulations of the follies of various and sundrypower brokers and short-fingered vulgarians were both hilariousand on targetapparently had left that paper and my belateddiscovery moved me to catch up on his fiction. I found GreenMonday to be very much in the mode of Colin HarrisonsAfterburn. And both very much a New York kind of book. Anyway,Thomas seems to know his wines, his mens clubs, tactics ofstock manipulation, art, Italy, four star international hotels andin general the trappings of the good life. And, also, how to tella story. Which Steve Almond does as well
Steves storycollection, My Life In Heavy Metal, came well recommendedby novelist Patricia Henley. And despite a youthful and understandablefascination with sexual encounter and relationship there appearsto be more there, there. Almond is also a very nimble wordsmithwhich can be a good thing onto itself. Two pieces in this collectionstandout despite or maybe because of their brevity. Moscowand Pornography satisfy in the way that a well intendedhors d' ouvre serves us; a good taste, a craving for moreand not too filling.