July 30th, 2014

“Lady with a Pretzel,” from Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher (1940)

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The waiter slammed the shallow basket of pretzels down on the table, and turned away. It never occurred to him, evidently, to pass the pretzels to each person at the table. That was the sort of place it was. Rough! The lady sighed with satisfaction. This was Life. Life in the raw. She was seeing Life.

At the same moment she saw herself in the dingy mirror opposite, and her satisfaction was in no way diminished. While seeing Life she retained all her own perfect style. She was pleased now that she had not borrowed her maid’s hat, as she had thought of doing while planning her costume for this excursion into the underworld. In novels great ladies always borrowed their maids’ things when circumstances compelled them to venture in dubious regions. But Cécile’s hats were grotesques, and there was no sense in making a comic of yourself just because you were going to dine with gunmen. It was only fair to them to try to look your best. Poor things, they had so few chances to view the authentically chic! She had no doubt that these various persons about them, though not outwardly as sensational as she had hoped, were gunmen and gangsters of the deepest dye, for she had been assured that this place was the real thing, and not faked in the least. It ought to be. They had had a hard enough time finding it.

She would have to stretch across the table for the pretzels. The others of her own party were absorbed in their beer, and their own noisy foolish familiar jokes. They weren’t paying any attention to her. The men felt obliged to forget their manners as soon as they got in a dive like this. The waiter, of course, had put the pretzels at an awkward distance from her. She was sure that he had done it just to annoy her. She had noticed the minute she saw him that he had taken an instantaneous dislike to her. He resented her. She was sorry that he did. He probably thought that she was just a sheltered, nurtured parasite, exquisite and fragile. He could have no comprehension of the peculiar problems that made her life hell. She felt very helpless and unhappy and weak. He wasn’t even looking at her!

A criminal type, obviously. He was too strong to be a Waiter by rights. A criminal temporarily disguised as a waiter to evade the police. Then a waiter had to be strong in a place like this. He must also be a “bouncer,” she believed. A bouncer? Such an odd word. To be bounced. Wasn’t there a song: “I Want to be Bounced by You”? If she got Oswald to take him into their house as a butler, he would look distinguished behind her chair, or behind Oswald’s chair facing her. . . . “Really, Adele, what an unusual-looking butler you have! Quite handsome!” . . . “I shouldn’t say he was handsome, my dear. We found him in one of those awful drinking places Oswald is always dragging me to. Marvellous beer! He’s an ex-convict. . . .”

She couldn’t understand how that couple in the corner who had just ordered two more beers from the ex-convict ever got to such a place as this. They looked so respectable. Iust a respectable married couple from the suburbs. Drab middle-class people. It was disconcerting to see people like that here. You only expected to find underworld types, and perhaps a few smart adventurers like themselves. But this couple was so obviously married, plain good honest shopkeeping people. The maid’s night out. Or their wedding anniversary. They gave a drab dull note to the whole room. Why was it that you could never get away from the respectable? They popped up everywhere, with their ethics and their morals and their good sensible shoes, and their appalling appetite for nutritious food.

Not that the food here was likely be nutritious. She eyed the remote pretzels skeptically. Hard, crustaceous edibles they were. Heaven knows how long they had been exposed to the dusty draughts of this place. Countless calloused hands had doubtless pawed them over, the hands of killers. Brutal hands! She shivered. She couldn’t imagine the submerged, distorted depths of society where such ugly contortions of pastry would be looked upon as really palatable and a delicacy.

But it was proof of the independence of the true aristocrat that she did not scorn an interest in the underworld. One must be amused at all costs. Had not great ladies long ago sneaked out of the Tuileries to have supper with the apaches? What she was doing now was all in the great tradition.

It required courage, too, to be here. Any moment there might be trouble. A fight! Some row. Someone at a near-by table might jump up and pull a gun. For all she knew they might keep a machine gun in the pantry. The respectable married couple in Hie corner would jump up and scream and carry on, but she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t flicker an eyelash. She had courage, the courage of the great lady. That waiter was looking at her now, scornfully, icily. He thought she was fragile, did he, and afraid? She would show him. She straightened in her chair, leaned across the table, and took a pretzel.


Cover of first US edition of 'Celibate at Twilight'Celibate at Twilight is a collection of fifty short stories (most under five pages long), many of them published in The New Yorker between 1925 and 1940. (I will probably get in Dutch with the magazine for daring to post this without their permission, but this book has been out of print for 70+ years). Mosher went to work for the magazine about a year after it debuted, and worked more as a manuscript-reader and editorial staff member than a writer until he started writing the “Current Cinema” column in 1937.

About fifteen of the stories deal with Mr. Opal, a middle-aged, mild-mannered bachelor most popular among members of the better society as a last-minute man to round out a dinner party. Mr. Opal is an upper-crust equivalent of cartoonist H. T. Webster’s timid soul, Caspar Milquetoast. But I prefer the character sketches like “Lady with a Pretzel,” which is such a perfect distillation of the stereotype society woman indulging in a bit of slumming so she can see “Life in the Raw.”

Mosher served as an orderly in a U. S. Army hospital in France in World War One, and after kicking around the Continent for a while after the war, returned to the States and eventually landed a job with the magazine. He was friends with Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, Wolcott Gibbs, and James Thurber and was one of the first members of the Manhattan gay community to make Fire Island his summer base. He died of a heart ailment at the age of 50 in 1942.

In one of the few obituaries ever published in the magazine, Wolcott Gibbs wrote of Mosher,

His editorial judgment has been responsible for much of the tone of The New Yorker and the appearance in it of a great many new writers. The fiction he produced from time to time, and collected in a book called Celibate at Twilight, was a very accurate mirror of its author’s personality–witty, perceptive, and informed by a deep and tolerant knowledge of the world. He was one of the most delightful companions we have ever known, and we record his death with a heavy sense of loss.


Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher
New York: Random House, 1940


 

July 26th, 2014

“For a Wordfarer,” from Green Armor on Green Ground, by Rolfe Humphries

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wordfarer

For a Wordfarer

Speak them slowly, space them so:
Say them soft, or sing them low,
Words whose way we may not know any more.
Still, before the days go,

Sing them low, or say them soft.
Such a little while is left
To counterpoint the soundless drift of Time,
Let rhyming fall and lift.

Space them so, with lift and fall
Decent in their interval,
Late, archaic, who could say?–but always
Graceful, musical.

from Green Armor on Green Ground, which is subtitled, “Poems in the Twenty-four Official Welsh Meters and Some, in Free Meters, on Welsh Themes,” by Rolfe Humphries
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956

Available on the Internet Archive (link)

Humphries writes that this poem is written in a meter known as “Englyn Unodl Crwca”:

This is also a four line stanza, reversing the pattern of Englyn unodl union, in that the syllable count of the lines runs seven, seven, ten, six, respectively. The same principles apply in the echoing of the syllables that follow the main rhyme in the long line.


 

July 22nd, 2014

He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford (1950)

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threecovers

I stumbled onto this book while rooting around the Internet Archive, as I like to do from time to time, in search of interesting titles somewhere in the region between what’s in print and what’s been out there long enough to enter the public domain. He Feeds the Birds is one of those texts you can find in the Archive–but only for borrowing in Adobe Digital Edition format, which means for reading on a computer, which I can’t stand. (I don’t mind using a Kindle or Nook, but still prefer real books.)

So I went off to find a used copy, and quickly discovered this novel’s odd publication history. It was first published by the Dial Press, in hardback, in 1950. Then, two years later, Avon Books brought it out in paperback but decided for some reason (OK, the reason was to grab attention and sales) to change the title to The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. Seven years after that, Berkeley Medallion Books brought it out as a cheap paperback for a second time, only with yet another title: Easy Living. All three publishers learned that a dud by any other name is still a dud.

Well, like Billy Mumphrey, I’m a cock-eyed optimist–at least when it comes to looking for diamonds in the rough and dusty shelves, and I was determined to find out what got three different publishers to give this novel a shot, and ordered the cheapest copy I could find, which turned out to be a near-mint copy of The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. I’m easily awed when I find in excellent condition something that should be even more beat-up than me, and so I carefully opened its cover and began reading with some respect, not to say reverence.

It wasn’t the most promising beginning, I have to admit. The book opens with a fight between Rex Lannin and his wife, Betty, both in their cups, then introduces us to several other men and women of their acquaintance. The main thing that seems to bring them together is booze, time on their hands, and enough money to buy one to kill the other. Ford does make a point to specify that the story is set in the summer of 1939, but events in Europe affect their lives about as much as a termite infestion in a house on the other side of town. “A hell of a summer,” Rex grumbles a few weeks after Betty moves out on him:

Hot days, drunken nights and a crummy furnished room and Hitler in the headlines and in the back-buzz of barrooms and Hitler on the radio in the furnished room without Betty where getting drunk was the easiest thing to do and Hitler and Smigly-Ridz and Danzig and no Betty and Smigly-Ridz, Smigly-Ridz, Smigly Ridz. . . .

Gradually, though, Ford seems to gain confidence in himself and his story. Instead of just swirling around in some boozy imitation of a dance, his characters start to take directions. Some start heading on, some head out, and at least one, an heir to a small fortune starts spiraling down into self-destruction after the last of his money runs out:

Here was another day. Another day of living in the streets aglare with the hot sun and its cruel revealing light. Another day of walking without destination. Up one block, down another. Turn west for three blocks. Down four blocks. Across to the park. Now ten blocks north. Or ten blocks south. Across and up and down and across. No place to go. Public libraries. Toilets. Park benches. Streets. And always the ache of hunger chiseling inside him, driving him on and through the empty, timeless hours.

Rex, on the other hand, spends his time bar-hopping, moping around his little apartment, and pretending to write a play with one of his friends. A little monthly allowance from his mother is enough to keep his going and enough to keep him from wanting to make any great changes. He suggests that he could blame his stagnation “on the fact that I’m one of the half-generation that was a half-step behind the Lost Generation. Call it the Unclaimed Generation.”

The whole cast of characters appear to be unclaimed–unclaimed, that is, but any force or motivation strong enough or persuasive enough to ally with. Communism, fascism and capitalism are all equally unconvincing, at least compared to another round. Even love seems a dead-end street for most of them. But Rex is at least honest enough to admit that his problem is simple laziness: “Right now, I’m the laziest guy, pound for pound, in the world,” he jokes.

The book ends in early 1940, with war going on in Europe, newspapers speculating about Roosevelt running for a third term, and most of the characters having been forced to take some decision or action. One man attempts suicide. A woman who spends most of the book bouncing between lovers decides her salvation lies in staying with the husband she already has and having a baby. Rex, having been signed off on the divorce papers and sent them back to Reno, leaves New York to try writing away from his old haunts and drinking buddies. And one Joe Gould-like carries on as a bum and self-proclaimed poet.

Whether the reader or the characters really learns anything in the course of the story seems beside the point. Whatever reason Ford had for writing the book, it clearly wasn’t to deliver a moral lesson. He Feeds the Birds takes its title from a religious tract: “Live close to God, your faith renew, he feeds the birds and he’ll feed you” (which, in turn, comes from Matthew 6:26). Ford’s God takes care of some, seems to abandon others, has no effect at all on others.

My guess is that Ford wrote the book for no other reason that to try his hand at it. About a third of the way into it, he started to stretch out and give into his lyrical impulses, and my own assessment is that he was pretty successful at it. As an evocation of a particular time and place–America while it was standing outside the war in Europe–it’s far less successful than John P. Marquand’s So Little Time. But there are some great descriptions like the one above or another about waking up drunk and self-disgusted or a third about passing spots known in better days (“I wish I was as successful as I thought I was at twenty”). And he manages a multi-player cast in a multi-threaded story without getting either tangled up or lost. I think he rates a solid B and some extra marks for some of the passage. Not a diamond in the rough, but hardly a paste gem, either.

Terence Ford was in his early forties and working as a public relations man when he wrote the book. Before that, he had quite a varied resume:

I worked on a couple of newspapers, was an actor, an oiler on coastwise ships, a barker on Broadway for baseball batting cage, the manager of a Park Avenue antique shop, the maitre d’hotel of a 3rd Avenue bakery lunchroom, a barrel jockey in a shellac factory, the ultimate assistant editor of a trade journal, a barely perceptible contributor of satirical pieces to The Bookman and Vanity Fair. . . .

He Feeds the Birds was his first and only novel. He stuck with the PR business until he died of a heart attack in late 1958 at the age of 52.


He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford
New York: The Dial Press, 1950

also published as The Drunk, the Damned and the Bevilled
New York: Avon Books, 1952

also published as Easy Living
New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1959


 

July 18th, 2014

“Venice, California, 1950s,” from The Slide Area by Gavin Lambert

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venice

She lives in Venice, near the furniture store. A mouldering unfinished little town along the coast beyond Santa Monica, it began fifty years ago as an imitation of the Italian city. Moonstruck, an industrialist from the Middle West decided to create a romantic resort on the dreary tidal flats. He built some florid villas, a copy of St. Mark’s Square, a network of bridges, canals, lagoons, colonnades. The aged Sarah Bernhardt was imported to play La Dame aux Camelias on what is now a tadry, neglected amusement pier. Hardly anyone went to see her. Hardly anyone hired a gondola for a trip along the mosquito-ridden flats. Then oil was struck, machinery converged upon the lagoons. A few bridges still remain, spanning dried up canals, with pumps and derricks stretching away beyond them. Drugstores, banks, service stations have settled in the empty spaces between colonnades, and the villa are apartment house with rooms always vacant.

As we pass St. Mark’s Square, I notice a group of young motor cyclists dressed in black, with tight belts and slanted caps, leaning against the colonnades. Pigeons cluster nearby, then disperse as the cyclists set off with a roar, speeding along the empty boulevard, past a neon sign announcing BEER, past the Bridge of Sighs and the derricks in silhouette..

The noise rouses Zeena. She blinks, looks out of the window and recognizes landmarks: a closed-up hotel with broken windows, a plot of waste land with an abandoned moonlit sign, BOATS FOR SALE. She murmurs: “Why, I’m almost home.”


Gavin Lambert’s 1959 short-story collection, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, is one of the best works of fiction to come out of Los Angeles. He followed it a dozen years later with The Goodbye People. Both are out of print now, which is inexcusable, given the quality of writing in both books.


The Slide Area, by Gavin Lambert
New York: Viking, 1959


 

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