“Having disconnected myself from television…” –December 26, 2002

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.

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