Having disconnected myself from televisionat
least for the short termI expect I avoided innumerable promotions
for broadcasts of what has become a Christmas holiday cliche, Its
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 Fords version (for which he won an Oscar in 1940) of
John Steinbecks 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") Johnsons
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, dont go blaming me, it aint
Whose fault is it?
You know who owns the land. Its the
Shawnee 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 who
knows what a shotgun is for, aint they?
Son, it aint his fault, hes only doing what the
bank tells him to do.
All right, wheres the bank?
Tulsa. Whats the use of picking on the
manager? Hes half crazy trying to keep up with orders from
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 Lawwell, 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 doread. In the last
week Ive already read the best novel of 2003, Richard Prices
Samaritan, and caught up with Elmore Leonards delicious
and delighting story collection When The Women Come out to Dancesome
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. Hes always fun to readhow could
a man who wrote, "he had more chins than a San Francisco phone
book," not be? Ann Patchetts 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 Ushers (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
Observerhis 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 targetapparently 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 Harrisons
Afterburn. And both very much a New York kind of book. Anyway,
Thomas seems to know his wines, his mens 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 Steves 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.