The Patriot, by Harold Bienvenu

Cover of Avon paperback edition of "The Patriot" by Harold BienvenuWhen I picked up an old paperback edition of Harold Bienvenu’s 1964 novel, The Patriot, I was hoping it might turn out to be a forgotten gem. From the cover blurbs, it was clearly a scathing view of right-wing Southern California politics from the heyday of Barry Goldwater. A young public relations man sets up shop in a fictional version of San Bernardino or Riverside, and stumbles into a connection with right wing minister. Together they decide to form the American Patriots, a group blending the tenets of the John Birch Society, the NRA, and Senator Joe MacCarthy.

“I am an American Patriot. I believe in a Supreme Being. I believe in the American Republic. I believe in the American Constitution. I believe in the American Enterprise System. I am an American Patriot.” So goes the group’s oath. At first it’s little but a flag-waving version of the Rotary, but with the help of a local millionaire (modelled on Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm) and the PR man’s hard work, it soon becomes a force in local politics and business. Stores are pressured into sponsoring the group and displaying American Patriot cards. A not-too-subtle boycott is organized: “No member who is an American Patriot would trade with any professional man, or any businessman, who is ashamed to proclaim himself a patriot.”

At this point, The Patriot could have developed into something promising. But having created the situation, novice novelist Bienvenu (a professor of economics by trade) quickly loses all control, and the story spirals off into lurid silliness. In the course of a few chapters, the PR man dumps his lounge singer girlfriend, agrees to become a bagman for a Howard Hughes-like billionaire in return for a shot at the local Congressional seat, and rapes and then marries the Knott-like millionaire’s lesbian daughter. Bienvenu might have started out with the aim of writing a serious book, but he caught the Harold Robbins mojo and ended up with a gawdawful mess.

Hands down the worst book I’ve read this century.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus, by Edward Whittemore

Cover of first US edition of 'Quin's Shanghai Circus'I first read Quin’s Shanghai Circus around my freshman year in college, when I was hot off devouring the whole series of Vonnegut’s novels in their Dell paperback editions. I found a used copy of the Popular Library paperback edition of Circus and was convinced to buy it from the first three sentences alone:

Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue. The owner of the collection, a huge, smiling fat man named Geraty, presented a passport to customs that showed he was a native-born American about as old as the century, an exile who had left the United States nearly four decades before. The collection contained all the pornographic works written in Japan during the last three hundred and fifty years, or since the time when Japan first closed itself to the West.

I took the book straight home and proceeded to read it in the space of about two days. It was wild, complicated and constantly over the top in its details: Geraty’s penchant for stuffing gobs of wasabi up his nose; Baron Kikuchi, the Japanese aristocrat and spymaster who could sleep with his glass eye open, making others believe he had superhuman powers of concentration; Father Lamereaux, the pederast priest; the horrifying account of the Japanese army’s atrocities in its rape of Nanking. Whittemore made Vonnegut seem tame in comparison. The book remained in my memory as one of my most intense reading experiences and that paperback has traveled with me through a dozen moves since then.

So it was on my books to devote a long post to when I started working on this site. I felt certain I would be offering up a wonderful box of treasures in bringing it to light again.

I was wrong–others had already written posts about it, even before I started the site: Jeff Van Der Meer on the SF Site in 2002; the late Bob Sabella on his Visions of Paradise blog in 2005. Others followed thereafter: Dan Schmidt on his Dfan blog in 2009, Chad Hull on his Fiction is Overrated blog in 2010. And it turned out that a small press, Old Earth Books, had reissued Circus, along with the four books in Whittemore’s subsequent Jerusalem Dreaming quartet, with an introduction by novelist John Nichols, in 2002.

Still, with such a vivid memory of the book, I knew I had to give it a second reading.

Ah, there are some experiences best left in memory.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus is, without a doubt, an impressive work of story-telling. Although the novel is set mostly in Japan and China, Whittemore’s approach more resembles the intricacies of the most ornate Islamic scripts, in which one wonders how anyone could manage to unravel a text from the twists and coils and overlapping strokes. It’s not surprising that he shifted his setting to the Middle East after this book.

According to his biographies, Whittemore spent some years working in the Far East for the CIA. Doing just what is never revealed. Personally, I find the fact that he let this be mentioned revealing. From my experience, people who consider themselves espionage professionals are exceptionally tight-lipped and discreet. There’s a joke in the DC area that you can always tell that someone works for the CIA when they respond, “I work for the government,” to questions about what they do for a living.

On the other hand, I’ve run into ex-GIs who weave elaborate accounts of their “black ops” days, who describe suitcases full of cash and unbelievably precise surveillance technology, who seem to have inhabited a world where everyone was on the take and nothing was as it seemed. Personally, I have become a great skeptic of conspiracies and secrecy. If conspiracies were managed as well as they’re usually claimed to have been, then it seems to me that the easiest way to solve the world’s problem would be to make everything a conspiracy. Do we really save our most extraordinary ingenuity and very best organizational skills for conspiracies, making do with second-best for everything else in life?

Which leads me to suspect that Whittemore was only a very accomplished version of those ex-GIs whose bullshitting verged on the rococo. Reading Quin’s Shanghai Circus as a middle-aged father and mortgage-payer was a considerably different experience than it was when I was a virgin teenager. Today, the book seems to belong with what I call the Playboy Magazine school of fiction.

Back in the days when men would claim that they read Playboy for the writing, there was a certain type of brittle sophistication to the stories it would publish. Brittle like the magazine itself, for poke through the ads for Scotch and cigarettes and English sportscars, and you would find each month’s installment of Little Annie Fanny.

Probably a big reason I thought better of Quin’s Shanghai Circus in recollection was Whittemore’s graphic description of the horrors of the assault on Nanking (you can find a long excerpt in Jason Lundberg’s post on the book). It is so brutal, it has the effect of giving the rest of the novel a solid base of seriousness. But reading it for second time, I found the passage more offensive in its use than in its contents. To be honest, it seemed to have been included more for its shock value than for its function in developing the story, and I questioned Whittemore’s right to appropriate the event for what would otherwise be just an entertainment (here I’m appropriating Greene’s use of the term).

I’m sure that not everyone would have the same reaction to the novel or Whittemore’s other works. At least one thesis (“Opening the Window to Edward Whittemore: Systems that Govern Human Experience”, by Joseph Winland, Jr.) has been published, and more will probably follow. Anne Sydenham has created a website, Jerusalem Dreaming, devoted to his work. There you will find numerous expressions of praise, including this quote from Tom Robbins: “One of the best-kept secrets in American literature, the novels of the mysterious Edward Whittemore are like bowls of hashish pudding: rich, dark, tasty, amusing, intoxicating, revelatory, a little bit outlandish and a little bit unsafe.”

All I can say is: if a bowl hashish pudding sounds good to you, go right ahead and dig in. Don’t let me stop you.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus, by Edward Whittemore
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974

Young Woman of 1914, by Arnold Zweig

Cover of first US edition of 'Young Woman of 1914'Young Woman of 1914 (1931) is the first in narrative order and the second in order of publication of Arnold Zweig’s tetralogy of the First World War (the others are The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1927), Education before Verdun (1935) and The Crowning of a King (1937)). Calling this a tetralogy, however, should not imply that there are such strong links among the books that they need to be read in sequence or even in totality. Aside from the character of the writer and draftee Werner Bertin–a major character in this novel and a supporting one in the others–and a few other minor characters and events, the common bond among the books is one of context, not content.

The young woman of the title is Leonore Wahl, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker in Berlin, university student and eager follower of the intellectual radicals of her time. She meets and has an affair with Werner Bertin, a rising young writer of a more modest family. I hesitate to say that she falls in love with Bertin, because although the two develop a relationship that continues when Bertin is enlisted into the German Army Services Corps and shipped off to a series of postings, Zweig makes it clear that neither is quite ready to put head over heart.

Until Leonore finds that she is pregnant, that is–or at least, until she deals with this fact. If Young Woman of 1914 is remembered at all today, it is as one of the earliest and frankest accounts of abortion. Given her youth, her situation as a single woman, and her awareness of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of her feelings for Bertin, she decides to have an abortion. Although illegal at the time, safe but surreptitious abortions could be found if one had sufficient funds and guile. With the help of her brother, Leonore locates a doctor who performs the procedure:

Leonore, outstretched on the examination chair, uttered no more than a sharp gasping moan as she clutched its metal edges. On each side of her a Sister held down her arms and shoulders with dragoon-like fists. The violence of the onslaught almost deprived her of consciousness. Her heart seemed to change into an organ sensitive to pain, and she felt as though it were splitting within her breast; an engulfing surge of torment swept over her forehead and temples.

“Poor creatures, they always had to pay the bill,” the doctor muses.

This excerpt gives a sense of the ham-fistedness of Zweig’s style–or at least of Eric Sutton’s translation–that turns the experience of reading his novels into something akin to hiking through thick underbrush. It’s unfortunate, as the basic story here is actually quite modern. When Bertin meets Leonore again, he does feel and express some remorse, but mostly to be seen to care. In truth, what she’s gone through is alien and a little distasteful to him.

Having seen a little of combat and a great deal of the drudgery and boredom of army life, though, Bertin has a much greater appreciation for the comfort of a loving relationship, and Leonore herself seems prepared at last to find refuge in the tenderness they feel for each other. They decide to marry, if only to postpone Bertin’s quick return to the front. And as she sees him off at the train station, she thinks, “It was none other than love that had come upon her–love that suffers, schemes, creates: just love.”

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s full of fine moments, such as a walk Bertin takes through the streets of a Bosnian town while serving on the Balkan front, where Zweig captures the flow of life that goes on despite the big-H history happening all around it. And in the relationship of Leonore and Bertin, he does a good job of conveying the awkwardness of lovers who need to establish an intellectual equality before confronting their real feelings for each other. On the other hand, what would have been a little masterpiece if pared down a to around 150 pages takes Zweig over 380 pages to tell. And this is one of Arnold Zweig’s shortest books! It’s no surprise to discover that he went on to become a key literary figure in East Germany. There is a certain Marx-like windbagishness in his writing. Stefan Zweig–no relation–would have dealt with this in a novella.

Young Woman of 1914, by Arnold Zweig, translated by Eric Sutton
London: Martin Secker, 1932

The Survivor, by Carl Marzani

I have to admit that I rarely pick up a book without at least Googling its title, confirming that it’s out of print, and checking if it has at some time had something favorable written about it. Finding Carl Marzani’s The Survivor in a $1 book box outside a bookstore while getting my son settled at Drexel University last month, however, I bought it and then stuck it in my backpack for the flight back to Brussels without the usual due diligence.Cover of first edition of "The Survivor" by Carl Marzani

One could argue that it’s best to approach a book with as little prior knowledge as possible, to prevent one’s perceptions from being contaminated by others’. After almost 50 years of reading, however, that’s almost impossible for me. Turning the first pages of The Survivor while sitting in the passenger lounge of the Philadelphia airport–and then through much of the seven hour flight home–was the closest I’ve come to an unadulterated encounter with a book in many years.

The Survivor starts strongly and I read the first hundred pages almost without a break. Marc Ferranti, a senior State Department official, has been asked to appear before a departmental hearing on his fitness for maintaining his security clearance. Although a veteran of the Official of Special Services (OSS)–the wartime pre-cursor to the Central Intelligence Agency–Ferranti had been an activist as a student in the 1930s. He left a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and after his return to the U.S., he dabbled with membership in the Communist Party. Having sniffed out his radical connections, the department’s security officers want to make a showcase of Ferranti, anticipating President Truman’s decision to require Federal government employees to sign a loyalty oath.

The hearing is chaired by former Senator Richard Aldrich Bassett, a liberal Virginia Republican in his eighties. Much of the novel focuses on the meeting of minds between Bassett and Ferranti. Although a symbol of the American Establishment, Bassett had been strongly influenced by the Populist views of Tom Watson, a Populist politician from Georgia he ranks with Jefferson and Eugene V. Debs as the most important radicals in American history. An ally of FDR and recently-appointed Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Bassett is repulsed by the tactics of the Red-baiters now rising within the Truman administration and Congress. Through the efforts of his superior, an assistant secretary, Ferranti has learned that Bassett is, at least in principle, sympathetic to his case.

By far the strongest elements of The Survivor are the conversations and reflections of Bassett and Ferranti on the realities of politics and power in Washington:

“… You do not know much about the art of compromise, perhaps, but I do. Indeed I do. The Senate is the finest training ground for the art. You thunder no, and you murmur yes. Everyone saves face, always, everyone obtains a little of what he wants, alway. Compromise is the very soul of statemanship. The one time it failed in America we had a civil war, and the fault, in my judgment, lay squarely in the lack of a compromiser in the South, for the North had one of the greatest compromisers in our history: Mr. Lincoln.”

The Survivor takes place over the course of the three days of Ferranti’s hearing. The novel was Marzani’s first and only attempt at fiction, and one of the many ways in which this shows is the amount of activity he manages to shoe-horn into less than seventy-two hours.

Another is the awkward use of an manuscript Ferranti has written–a novel about his early years in America as an immigrant child. Ferranti believes he’s been singled out for persecution in an attempt by the Catholic Church to ally itself with reactionary forces within the Federal government, aided by his brother, a conservative Congressman. Ferranti manages to pass along the manuscript to Bassett, who then reads it in what appears to be one marathon evening. The passion and truth of Ferranti’s novel tugs at long-dormant radical allegiances within Bassett, and also evokes an empathy for the plight of foreigners learning to survive in America.

By this point, two hundred or so pages into The Survivor, my initial interest began to shift toward irritation. Through much of the middle of the book, Marzani tries to weave the narrative of Ferranti’s encounters between sessions of the hearing, the text of the manuscript, and Bassett’s reflections on Ferranti’s novel and life. It all becomes a rat’s nest I doubt anyone should ever bother to unravel.

In the end, Ferranti passes muster, keeping his job and opening up his chance to move on up the State Department ladder. Bassett is driven home to his Virginia estate, wondering if he hasn’t failed to live up to the radical ideals of his early mentor, Tom Watson: “The men and women his era has shunned and ridiculed might well turn out to be the precursors of a new life, a new country, perhaps a new civilization.” And this last line should give you a strong hint that The Survivor has a lot more in common with the works of Tom Clancy than those of Camus or even Koestler. It’s certainly not well-written or constructed, although I would say that it’s full of fine observations of bureaucratic manners.

Only after finishing The Survivor did I have a chance to research the book, and that’s when things became really interesting.

Carl Marzani, around 1958
Carl Marzani, it turns out, bore more than a little resemble to his fictional counterpart, Marc Ferranti. Like Ferranti, he was born in Italy and emigrated with his family to the U.S. in his early teens. He excelled academically, earned a scholarship to Oxford, and left to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the Lincoln Brigade. He did not just dabble with Communism: he joined it outright and worked as an organizer in the late 1930s. After the U.S. entered the Second World War, he was recruited into the OSS and then moved over to the State Department.

As early as 1942, he was questioned by the FBI about his Communist Party membership. Feeling secure in the support of his OSS superiors and reluctant to give up his position, he lied. There were no immediate consequences.

In 1946, however, he was questioned again and determined to have perjured himself. In instructing Marzani’s jury, his judge said: “This court is not concerned with Communist vices. The issue is whether the defendant knowingly, willfully and feloniously made false statements to Government loyalty examiners.” Although he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, his conviction was upheld and he served three years in prison. While in Federal prison, he wrote We Can Be Friends, a call to reserve the policies of the Truman Administration–influenced by George Kennan and others–to contain the Soviet Union’s expansions and maintain a relatively hostile diplomatic stance.

After being released from jail, Marzani worked as a professor of economics, a film producer, and co-owner of an independent publishing house, Marzani and Munsell. According to KGB archives, as detailed in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Marzani was also a Soviet agent, operating under the code name of NORD. His firm owed at least some of its financial backing to the KGB, in return for publishing such sympathetic titles as Cuba vs. the C.I.A., which Marzani co-authored with Robert Light.

Marzani published The Survivor–before he began taking money from the KGB, it appears, but not long enough after the McCarthy era to have much chance of getting any recognition in the mainstream press. About the only magazine in the U.S. to take note of its publication was New World Review, the journal of the Friends of the Soviet Union. Although David Caute calls The Survivor “the best and one of the most important novels” of the Cold War in his recent book, Politics and the Novel during the Cold War, there appear to be few considerations of the book not colored by sympathy or distaste for Marzani’s own history.

Which leads one to wonder what Marzani intended to accomplish in writing it. Marzani may have been a victim of Red-baiting, but he doesn’t appear to have been an entirely innocent one, and The Survivor isn’t really an attempt to exonerate or justify himself. Although Marc Ferranti is portrayed as an exceptionally bright and shrewd operative, his actions are often more self-serving than heroic. If the book has any heroic figure, it’s Marc’s sister, Tessie, who shows herself ready to fight for both Party and family.

It could be that the novel was an experimental foray into autobiography. In the late 1980s, Marzani began writing a memoir titled The Education of a Reluctant Radical. It eventually spanned five volumes: Book 1: Roman Childhood; Book 2: Growing Up American; Book 3: Spain, Munich and Dying Empires; Book 4: From Pentagon to Penitentiary; Book 5: Reconstruction. The first volume, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, was published by the Topical Press in 1993, shortly before Marzani’s death in 1994. The last volume was not published until 2001, but is still available from Amazon.

The Survivor: A Novel, by Carl Marzani
New York City: Cameron Associates, 1958

Dictatorial Literature

Muammar Gaddafi reading his Green BookWherever Muammar Gaddafi may be at the moment and whatever may be left of his powers as a dictator, it’s safe to predict that the number of readers of his famous “Green Book”–or, to call it by its full title, The Green Book: The Solution to the Problem of Democracy, The Solution to the Economic Problem, The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory–is headed for a swift decline. Such is the fate of long, dull, dogmatic diatribes written in the oxygen-thin atmosphere of absolute power (and without the benefit of an impartial editor) when one can no longer command them to be handed out in triplicate to all of one’s subjects and made the object of hours of close study and memorization.

Libyans will no longer profit from the insights of the Third Universal Theory–although they can now freely ask what happened to the first two. They will have to search for a solution to the problem of democracy without Gaddafi’s handy crib book. And they may find themselves struggling with the basics of human reproduction without the Great Leader’s wise advice:

Women are females and men are males. According to gynaecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not menstruate or suffer during the monthly period. A woman, being a female, is naturally subject to monthly bleeding. When a woman does not menstruate, she is pregnant. If she is pregnant, she becomes, due to pregnancy, less active for about a year, which means that all her natural activities are seriously reduced until she delivers her baby…. The man, on the other hand, neither conceives nor breast-feeds. End of gynaecological statement!

Gaddafi’s The Green Book now takes its place on a shelf much over-filled with the works and memoirs of former dictators. No longer mandatory reading, these volumes languish, neglected by all but die-hard loyalists, masochists, and those inclined to morbid curiousity.

Admittedly, there is something about these books that makes watching paint dry seem thrilling. Vladimir Lenin set the tone a hundred years ago with such cliff-hangers as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, and Stalin followed suit with Economic Problems of Socialism in the U. S. S. R. and other page-turners. Mao had the bright idea to package his best tid-bits in what became a global best-seller, Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, otherwise known as the Little Red Book. Although perhaps it sold a little too well, for a couple years later he released a tract titled, Oppose Book Worship.

At least Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao wrote their own material. Seeing the number of volumes that comprise the collected works of Kim Il Sung or Enver Hoxha, it’s hard not to speculate about secret forced-ghostwriting camps.

One odd tribute to the freedom of the Internet is the fact that one can get free access to most, if not all, of the works of late 20th century’s dictators. Gaddafi’s Green Book is available at, for example, and Lenin and Stalin’s works at the Marxists Internet Archive. Although Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as Türkmenbashi, Leader of all the Turkmens, died in 2006, you can still savor the wisdom of his magnum opus, Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen at www/, at the official Turkmenistan government site, and at several Rukhnama (or Ruhnama) fan-sites (although is now defunct).

Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen is my favorite dictatorial opus. In addition to more Turkmen geneaology that you could possibly imagine, there are little parables that I am still pondering the meaning of, such as:

Once upon a time, a wife and a husband without any children were preparing to go to Mecca on pilgrimage. However, they could not decide what to do with the two hundred sikkes, which was their life-savings. Finally they divided the sikkes into two equal bundles. They left one of these bundles in the care of one of their neighbors. And they left the other bundle in the care of their Turkmen neighbor.

The Turkmen neighbor said to them: “Open the box in that corner and put the bundle in it.”

On returning from pilgrimage, the husband and wife went to take their money.

The first neighbor said them: “Oh neighbor, I used your money and increased your 100 sikkes to 150 sikkes. I have taken some of them for myself.”

Then they went to their Turkmen neighbor and asked for their sikkes. Their Turkmen neighbor said to them: “Open the box in the corner and take your money.”

Nothing happens by chance in life. A Turkmen saves the goods left in his care better than his own goods.

Niyazov appears to have taken this particular lesson very seriously. Estimates of his personal holdings in private Swiss and German bank accounts range as high as $3 billion. As one report during his time in power put it, “A figure such as Niyazov, who is not subject in practice to any basic checks and balances, can dispose of state funds through the banking systems of Germany and other European countries without anybody knowing what exactly it is that he does with the money.” A Turkmenbashi, it seems, saves his countrymen’s goods much, much better than his own goods.

North Korea is now headed into its third generation of Supreme Leaders, and we can only hope that Kim Jong-un will produce something to rival his father Kim Jong Il’s On the Art of the Cinema, where we learn that “The director is the commander of the creative group” and that “A director, however talented, cannot imagine a new and audacious cinematic presentation if he does not know the Party’s policies well.” Here we see the fatal weakness that undermines the capitalist boss-gang productions of Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Scorsese: utter ignorance of PArty policies in the absence of helpful “field guidance” from the Supreme Leader. Thanks to the spirit of Juche, we can all spend hours clicking through the E-library of the works of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Suk (wife to the first, mother to the second).

Not all dictators have had their works preserved online, however. There appears to be just one copy of the English translation of Haitian ruler Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Essential Works Volume 1: Elements of a Doctrine available for sale, and that at a price of $200. Ugandan strongman Idi Amin appears to have been a man of few written works, although a few copies of his pamphlet, The Middle East Crisis: His Excellency the President Al-Hajji General Idi Amin Dada’s contribution to the solution of the Middle East crisis during the third year of the Second Republic of Uganda can be found–the book surviving better than his solution to the crisis. It’s not been transcribed for the web, but there are still plenty of copies of Answer to History, the rambling memoirs of the ex-Shah of Iran, who was dying of cancer as he worked on the book–the very last thing he dictated, so to speak.
Cover of Enver Hoxha's 'With Stalin: Memoirs'
The pinnacle of dictatorial literature, though, has to be Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha’s With Stalin: Memoirs, written a few years before he died (and available online, thanks to Marxists International). In it, Hoxha recalls five trips he made to Moscow to meet with Stalin, between 1947 and 1951. As far as I know it’s the only book in which you get two dictators for the price of one.

In their first conversations, Stalin seemed most interested in how effectively Albania was serving as a buffer against encroachments from Greece, which was coming out of its civil war and headed towards western democracy. But most of the time they discussed such timeless topics as whether the trains ran on coal or oil and how much cotton per hectare the collective farms were producing. Stalin seems to have been especially fond of agriculture. As they parted company for the last time, he and Hoxha had this memorable exchange on the subject of seeds:

“What about eucalyptus? Have you sown the seeds I gave you?”

“We have sent them to the Myzeqe zone where there are more swamps,” I said, “and have given our specialists all your instructions.”

“Good,” said Comrade Stalin. “They must take care that they sprout and grow. It is a tree that grows very fast and has a great effect on moisture. The seed of maize I gave you can be increased rapidly and you can spread it all over Albania,” Comrade Stalin said and asked: “Have you special institutions for seed selection?”

“Yes,” I said “we have set up a sector for seeds attached to the Ministry of Agriculture and shall strengthen and extend it in the future.”

“You will do well!” Comrade Stalin said. “The people of that sector must have a thorough knowledge of what kinds of plants and seeds are most suitable for the various zones of the country and must see to getting them.”

Stalin clearly saw that people who had been farming their lands through many generations desparately needed party cadre officers to tell them what to plant. One had only to look at the remarkable results the Soviets had achieved through collectivization to know that.

Hoxha did see Stalin in person one time after that, in 1952 at the 19th Party Congress, where “for the last time I heard his voice, so warm and inspiring.” He closes by assuring his readers that “the Party of Labour of Albania would hold high the title of ‘shock brigade’ and that it would guard the teachings and instructions of Stalin as the apple of its eye.” One can see the teardrop forming as Hoxha finished this line.

So, as one more dictator debates that eternal choice: suicide or exile?, we can take comfort in the knowledge that no matter what may follow in his wake, there will, at least, be the consolation that a captive audience no longer has to read his nonsense and be expected to take it seriously.

The Jester’s Reign, by Boyne Grainger

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Jester's Reign' by Boyne GraingerI was immediately intrigued when I came across the dust jacket of The Jester’s Reign in the Digital Gallery of the New York Public Library several years ago. The Jester’s Reign, according to the dust jacket blurb, is “A series of mysterious cosmic phenomena broke upon a startled world, defying the laws of nature and baffling the scientists” that takes place in the course of one month somewhere in the 1930s. After months of being put off by the fact that the handful of copies for sale all commanded prices of $40 and up, I finally broke down and bought one in March.

I wish I could say it was worth the wait and expense.

It starts with promise. An odd, loud, but unmistakable noise like laughter sounds for just a moment throughout the entire world. Most people are startled. Those of good humor feel the better for it. Those with shriveled up hearts feel uneasy and fearful. And a small collection of people in Manhattan sharing a small open space not much larger than an airshaft begin to find their lives coming together in unexpected ways.

At the center of this group is Mister Ergo. A quiet older man, Mister Ergo seems to have some connection with the “phenomenon,” as the newspapers quickly dub it. Or phenomena, to be more accurate, as the laughter is soon followed by a series of fantastical and gently whimsical occurences. In one of the earliest, everyone in the world stops for a moment to greet each other:

Diplomats said “How do you do?” to messenger boys, bank presidents said it to the charwomen. Functionaries said it to elevator boys. Spinsters said it to bachelors, stenographers to street sweepers, sweepers to ladies in limousines. An opera singer said it to a coal heaver, magnates said it to beggars, policemen to cab drivers, a queen said it to a lunatic, a duchess to a ragpicker. Theives said it to ministers, chorus girls to managers, general to privates, ships’ captains to stokers … and so on all through the walks of life where life was walking at that moment occurred this involuntary interchange of mutual recognition and solicitude.

Certainly the like had never been known on this planet before.

It was true that there were strange complications as a result of the phenomenon. Some were chagrined afterwards, and even mortified. For instance, two lady club members, deadly enemies, who chanced to stand side by side at a bargain counter went home and had nervous prostration because they had spoken to each other. A farmer and his wife in Vermont, who had shared farm, and farmhouse, and even bed, for forty years but had not spoken to each other since 1907, immediately applied for a divorce, unable to survive the shame of the breaking of their resolution.

Soon, the phenomena bring together a cast of characters a bit like a collision between “Major Barbara” and “Golden Boy.” There is a wealthy playgirl; an even wealthier armaments magnate; a boxer with the soul of a poet; his poor but gorgeous neighbor with an operatic voice; her snivelling gonif of a brother; a sweet spinster; and roughly a dozen others. Not one of them acquires the slightest depth of characterization in the course of the book’s 300-plus pages.

If a novel’s characters are flat and undeveloped, then its narrative could make up for that. And at first, it seems there might be some direction, some shape, some meaning to the various phenomena. Some are a bit dewy-eyed, like the rain of flowers that drop from the skies and sprout from the mouths of every cannon and rifle. Others are downright worth wishing for in real life:

… every frenzied activity was suspended, every adult straining muscle and thought relaxed, surrendered, enjoyed the mysterious hiatus in which the very idea of Hurry melted out of the human brain. In that marvelous fragment of time mankind had an experience never known before. It saw, down a vista like a deep green tunnel of woodland boughs, the future stretching thousands and millions of years away, with time for everything to be done without haste or concern.

By the time the book is nearly 95% done, however, nothing much more has happened than a month’s worth of phenomena and a lot of scurrying around by the various characters. Mister Ergo tries to explain what it all means in the climactic scene : “The New Hope will come. A New Hope always has come, created out of the need that is the core of Desolation. What will it be? Who can say … and how does it matter?” There is more of this, but it’s all essentially New Age-y babble.

Personally, I have always found that when a novel ends with a speech in which one character that tries to explain what it all means, what it really means is that the novelist ran out of ideas and is trying to substitute argument for imagination. It’s like cutting directly from Shakespeare to a Presidential debate. Whatever it is, it ain’t art. Is what Mister Ergo has to say really going to make a difference to any of other characters–or the reader?

If this technique ever worked–and if it didn’t for Tolstoy in War and Peace, why would it for a lesser writer?–then criticism would be indistinguishable from art. But it isn’t, and The Jester’s Reign doesn’t succeed where War and Peace failed. You’d be better of stopping 10-15 pages short and making up your own ending.

From what little I could piece together about her, Grainger was born Bonita Ginger, either in Colorado or England, in the late 1800s. She moved to New York around the time of World War One and was one of the colony of writers and artists like John Reed and e. e. cummings who settled in Patchin Place at the end of the war. She wrote a novel called, The Hussy, which was published by Boni and Liveright in 1924. It appears to have been a satire on the double standards of romantic/sexual behavior that existed between men and women at the time. Aside from The Jester’s Reign, she only published a short bundle of poems (Five poems) and a sweet memoir of Greenwich Village life in the 1920s (We Lived in Patchin Place). She apparently ran an informal speakeasy called “Bonnie’s Office” to make ends meet during the Prohibition, and befriended artists and writers old (brothers Theodore and Llewellyn Powys) and young (Esther McCoy) during her time in Patchin Place. She died sometime around 1962.

The Jester’s Reign, by Boyne Grainger
New York: Carrick and Evans, 1938

Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt

By the time he wrote Take Today: The Executive as Dropout with the help of Barrington Nevitt, an engineer and consultant, Marshall McLuhan had learned that an effective way to keep his name in the media was to give his books provocative titles, such as The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village. Aside from the–at the time–“with-it-ness” of its title, however, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout probably attracted more readers–not that there appear to have been all that many–more with McLuhan’s name than anything else.

One might think that McLuhan was trying to follow in the footsteps of Robert Townsend’s 1970 best-seller, Up the Organization, which took a counter-culture look at big, bureaucratic organizations–without questioning their basic purpose or the value of the life and goals of the typical businessman. But McLuhan, it turns out, didn’t think much of Townsend’s book: Townsend manifests the [Harold] Geneen pattern of hotted-up ‘camp.’ If there is one thing that is perfectly obvious about Geneen U., it is that it is a ‘replay’ of some very worn-out organization ploys and patterns.” Anyone who knows a bit about McLuhan’s ideas will recognize that “hotted-up” is not a complimentary term.

And it’s unlikely that the average Wall Street Journal reader of the early 1970s would have found much in the book that could be put to any use on the job or in getting up the career ladder. It’s true that one can find occasional statements in Take Today that seem to leap off the page in their prescience:

It is in this new dimension of “software” design that the difference between the old mechanical industry and the new electric circuitry becomes manifest. It is a difference not only of speed and diversity but also of knowledge and of the programming for special, personal needs.

Written at a time when programming inevitably involved lugging around long, rectangular boxes full of hundreds of punch cards (all of which had to be in exactly the right order), the idea of doing it for special, personal needs was more than a bit ahead of its time.

But for every glint of genius, there are a dozen examples of the sort of writing that may one day earn McLuhan the reputation of a 20th century Nostradamus–meaning, the sort of writing that just about anyone can interpret to mean just about anything he wants it to. Which is also, of course, the sort of writing one’s not sure really had any meaning in the first place. Take this example:

As concertmaster, satellite man would have to audition such selections as the Manhattan Project with exquisite prescience of “audience” effects. The “audience” of satellite man includes the “actors” and is not merely human but consists of all the resonances awakened everywhere.

Both sentences are grammatically correct–but meaningful? They’re like a conversation or radio broadcast you’re not quite close enough to hear fully: you hear the fragments, you understand what each fragment means by itself, but you can’t quite piece together what’s going on.

And then you get the beauts:

What the “practical man” doesn’t know is that facts are something made, as the word tells us (facto). Moreover, a fact cannot be connected without “seizing up.” The interval or gap is necessary to any practical action. The gap is where the action is. “Ask the man who owns one.” The artist and engineer exist to create the right gaps and to avoid unfunny connections.

It’s writing like this that reminds me that, at about the same time that McLuhan was working on this book, gurus like Maharaj Ji were managing to get people to offer up their life savings and clean toilets with similar gobbledygook–albeit spiritual rather than intellectual.

I spent an entertaining and amusing hour thumbing through Take Today. McLuhan was never anything if not an eclectic reader, and like his other books, this one is full of striking quotes from sources ranging from James Joyce and T. S. Eliot to Peter Drucker to an IEEE Transactions article to an obscure work on the structure and function of the Chinese civil service during the Ming dynasty. And he had a knack of coming up with headline statements that owe more than a little to Wyndham Lewis’ blasts:



They Had the Looks When Cooking the Books


Loved Labels Lost

But I found much of what I read to be as windy as a winter in Chicago without being a fraction as invigorating. It’s hard to believe people wrecked their lives to follow a smiling 15-year-old Indian guru, and it’s hard to believe there was a time when a book like this was considered profound.

Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972

The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach, by Albert Halper

I had big hopes for Albert Halper’s 1966 novel, The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach. Even if the story turned out to be a dud, I figured the atmosphere would make it worth the ride.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach"And it does, at least at first. Leo Roth, president of the Dilly Dally Dress Company, a girlswear firm in Manhattan’s Garment District, heads to Miami on the trail of his cousin, Bernie Flugman, a ladies’ man and habitual gambler who’s stolen over fifteen thousand from the company. To kill time between his nights of cruising Miami’s hotels in search of Bernie, Leo lounges on the sun deck of the Bel Haven Hotel, where he meets up with “the three horsemen of Miami Beach”–Moe Stein, Hy Bronson, and Jerry Ryan, retired fifty-somethings who spend their time sunning, joking, and flirting with the fifty-something women regulars.

But before that, the three horsemen have to say goodbye to Eli Fensterberg, the late fourth. As Halper sketches the scene, it’s pure early 1960s Miami Beach:

Moe saw the two cabana boys from the Bel Haven move up to the casket and peer down at the lifeless face. He recognized a clerk from a Surfside delicatessen standing in line; the dead man had been a heavy buyer of anchovies, olives, and other tid-bits for his table. Behind the delicatessen clerk, who looked a little strange without his long white apron, stood Mr. Lipsky the tailor who had recently made two suits for the deceased. In the gloom Moe spotted Eli’s barber, then his eyes picked out the tall, corpulent owner of the Surfside Liquor Store. When you’re dead, Moe mused, you find out who your true friends are, only it’s too late.

Suddenly Moe stiffened. In the back of the chapel, sitting a few rows apart, were two tall, stunning blondes. They were the call girls Eli used to phone every couple of weeks, or whenever he felt like seeing one of them…. A feeling of envy came over him. What was the secret of Eli’s success with people? He had been an irascible little man, yet when he died the cabana boys, his delicatessen clerk, his liquor supplier, his motel manageress, his tailor, and even his call girls came to his funeral.

While there are plenty more scenes–in nightclubs, motels, swank neighborboods and low rent dives–that provide Halper a chance to paint word pictures, his renditions aren’t much better than the prose equivalent of motel/hotel art.

Nor does he develop any of his characters in any significant way. Leo Roth is quickly seduced by the comfortable life among the early retirees, he eventually decides that fifty-two is too early to call it quits, and he returns to New York. Bernie the gambler spends most of the book hiding in cheap hotels and hitting nightly poker games, desperately trying to win back what he owes Leo and others, he’s finally caught by a couple of thugs working for a Mafioso holding most of his markers. They beat him into unconsciousness, and when he finally comes to again in a hospital … well, nothing, really. He says he’s off gambling for good. Has he undergone some kind of transformative experience? Based on what Halper gives us, the only thing that seems to have been transformed are his nose and jaw.

Finally, after setting up the premise and bringing Leo and Bernie to Miami, the narrative wanders into a variety of cul-de-sacs, including a tedious subplot involving Rosita and Manuel, a pair of Cuban dance instructors. Aside from being in the same town at the same time, Leo and Bernie might as well have nothing to do with each other. Halper even fails to derive any climactic benefit from a passing hurricane.

The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach seems more like a first and very rough draft than a finished work. Something promising might have come from further work–tightening up the narrative, jettisoning the endless hand-wringing rounds of Leo and Rosita, and bringing the stories of Leo and Bernie to collision instead of stringing them on in infinite parallel. The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach was Halper’s last published novel, and it betrays more than a few signs of a writer losing steam and creative inspiration.

The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach, by Albert Halper
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966

Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer

I’ve hesitated to write about Tiffany Thayer’s books up to now because they are all, as far as I can tell, just plain awful. They’re sleazy, pandering, full of wooden characters and plot devices, and suffer from Thayer’s logorrhea, which appears never to have been moderated by any editor. Next to Thayer, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, or even the average Harlequin Romance author looks like Leo Tolstoy. Despairing of the state of the novel in the late 1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that no one read anything but the Book of the Month Club’s latest pick–although “curious children nosed at the slime of Mr. Tiffany Thayer in the drug-store libraries.”

One of David Berger's illustrations from Tiffany Thayer's "Thirteen Women"Which is also, of course, what also makes them almost irresistable. If you’re going to read a bad book, you don’t want one that’s half-heartedly bad, one whose author betrays any misgivings or sense of aesthetic standards. You want a full, unrepentant wallow–and that’s exactly what you get. In the case of Thirteen Women, you get adultery–both hetero- and homosexual–suicide, murder, rape, revenge, envy, gossip, corruption, show business, clairvoyance, yoga, blackmail, and chain letters. And I probably left something out of that list.

The story is, at best, preposterous. A group of women, all former members of a literary club at a prestigious girls’ school, receive mysterious letters from a Swami Yogadachi. The letters foretell some terrible event that will occur to each within the next few weeks. And sure enough, it does–at least to the first few. One commits suicide. Another starves to death. A third murders her cheating husband in front of his entire office.

Thayer brings in a medical expert, Dr. Blundein, to assure us that what’s going on is not clairvoyance but the susceptibility of the female mind:

“She was killed by suggestion.”

“Good God!”

“The power of the mind is almost boundless. Sometimes it is the power of the weakness or twistedness or the prejudice of a mind. I have seen hysteria break bones; actually snap a fibula, while the patient was prone on a bed — apparently unconscious.”

“A woman?”

“Of course. Men are seldom hysterical.”

See–I did leave something out: male chauvinism.

A lifelong advocate of skepticism (see Doug Skinner’s excellent article on Thayer and his connection with Charles Fort), Thayer can’t be bothered with mysteries. He tells us in the first chapter who the culprit is, in a paragraph that gives you a good sense of his shaggy-dog approach to storytelling:

The person guilty of whatever crime you find here was an half-caste, born in Java, an extraordinary woman; a woman with wide, full, undulating hips — strong shoulders and bust to match; a woman not unlike Mrs. O’Neill in general outline — if Mrs. O’Neill had not worn a girdle. That girdle had become necessary only after Bobby’s birth. Before that, her flesh had been solid and firm and resilient, which the guilty one’s never was. But we can say they were both Junoesque — if Juno can be imagined just a little softer than marble has translated her. If we can imagine a Juno so soft that one’s finger might leave a dent in a thigh, say, for twenty or thirty seconds? No one wants to think of a Juno like that, but neither did George O’Neill want to think of a wife like that, yet, there Laura was. One never knows, at twenty-two, what six or seven years will bring. And George half blamed himself. After all, she couldn’t have had Bobby without his help, so the breaking down of her constituent tissues was at least fifty per cent his fault. It takes a broad-minded man to look at it that way. George was all of that. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he always said — and until his meerschaum was thoroughly colored, he kept it covered snugly in chamois.

It’s paragraphs like this that make me pretty confident that Thayer’s motto, when it came to writing, was “Go with the flow.” I can’t imagine what kind of planning would have led from a half-caste woman with undulating hips to a meerschaum pipe in the space of a dozen sentences.

Thayer delighted in playing up the salaciousness of his books–he went on to publish Adult’s Companion–“Tales of the eternal passions … by the greatest writers of amorous literature.” But in truth, he was terrible when it came to writing about sex. Here, for example, is how he deals with a night of passion:

Tom’s arms were frightful and his nude chest rather like a pigeon’s, but because Nellie experienced, or seemed to experience, an holy rapture at their contact with her own more than adequate complements, the wind bated its breath and the stars blinked blissfully as climax after climax was reached time after time.

What I mean to say is that all through the night, while Anne ransacked the Youngstown hotels with a second-hand revolver in her purse, Tom was giving his entire time and all his swiftly ebbing energy to that man-killing occupation which Nature has made exhilarating to conceal its basic insidiousness.

This is the sort of thing that led Dorothy Parker, in a New Yorker review of another Thayer novel, An American Girl, to write, “He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.”

We also see in the above passage one of Thayer’s many typographical quirks, which led Parker to exclaim, “… ‘an hollow square,’ ‘an Hapsburg,’ and ‘an hill.’ ‘An hill,’ for God’s sake! It could happen to anybody who had no ear and had never got beyond the fourth grade.” She sums up his prose style as, “an entirely inexplicable idiom, and one that irritates me more acutely than anything I have encountered in letters since Mr. A. A. Milne minted the phrase ‘a hummy hum.'”

Thirteen Women was made into a film within a few months of its publication in 1932. Starring Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, “Thirteen Women” is a good example of a talkie from the brief period before the Hayes code took effect, and was considered so lurid that RKO trimmed out two of the dozen deaths in the picture soon after its first release. You can read several appreciations of the film, at The Irene Dunne Project and Une Cinephile. And, if you have the stamina, you can watch the whole thing online at YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

You can also find the text of Thirteen Women online at the Internet Archive: Be sure to browse through one of the formats that preserve David Berger’s illustrations from the book, some of which were pretty strong stuff for their time.

By now it should be obvious that I’ve concluded that Tiffany Thayer’s novels are the literary equivalent of potato chips: no damn good for you but too hard to pass up from time to time. I’ve got The Prince of Taranto, his last book–amounting to some 1,267 pages, published in three slipcased volumes and intended to be the first of 21 titles in a series about origins and life of Mona Lisa (viz. logorrhea)–sitting in my basement, along with a few others from his drugstore library period, and one of more of them will, like scum, eventually surface here.

Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Triangle Books, 1932

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin

The Wikipedia entry for Speed Lamkin quotes composer Ned Rorem’s characterization of him as “the poor man’s Truman Capote”–which is probably not how Lamkin would choose to be remembered. The comparison was unavoidable, however, at least for the first thirty-some years of his life.

Portrait of Speed Lamkin by Jean de Gaigneron (circa 1948)Born in Monroe, Louisiana, son of a wealthy businessman, Lamkin like Capote went North young–to Harvard in 1948 at the age of 16. He quickly found his way into the circles of Eastern avant-garde and gay society. As early as 1949, Tennessee Williams mentioned “Speed Lamkin, whom you may know or know of, sometimes referred to as the new Truman Capote” in a letter to a friend. He published his first novel, Tiger in the Garden, while still an undergraduate. Drawing heavily on Lamkin’s perceptions of Monroe society, the novel was, in the words of Time’s reviewer, “made up of old ingredients: miscegenation, aristocratic drunks and flowerlike ladies, languid Southern talk and fiery Southern tempers.” While there was no doubt that Lamkin’s book was informed by personal knowledge of at least a few skeletons in Louisiana closets, most reviews found the book a bit artificial: the New York Times’ reviewer said it gave the “sense of a low-powered, highly polished Hollywood product.”

This was a prescient comment. In the same letter, Williams wrote that Lamkin “wants to get a Hollywood job,” and less than a year later, Christopher Isherwood, living in Los Angeles, mentioned Lamkin for the first time in his diaries. Lamkin was the first to try to adapt Isherwood’s Berlin stories for the screen, and while he didn’t succeed in this effort, he did work as a screen writer, mostly in television for most of the 1950s.

In 1954, he published his second novel, The Easter Egg Hunt (later retitled Fast and Loose in paperback). Although labeled a Hollywood novel, the book is, to be more precise, a novel of Beverly Hills. The distinction is subtle but important. A Hollywood novel is, in some way or another, about the business of movie-making and the people involved in it.

Beverly Hills, on the other hand, while populated by many in the entertainment business, is first and foremost a town of the rich–or, as Lamkin describes it, small “wealthy city, two thirds suburb, one third resort.” The Easter Egg Hunt is more about lives lived around expensive homes, poolsides, and nightclubs than about directors, actors, and producers.

During the photographing, new people arrived. Cobina Wright’s secretary; and the Abe Abramses, who had money in Van-color; and an Egyptian princess, who had drifted to Beverly Hills in the entourage of the Queen Mother Nazli; and a blank-faced Dutchman, who owned a pepper business; and a man in pink shorts, who sold Fords; and the man who had once played Dagwood Bumstead

While many of the extravagances described in the book relates to the efforts of Clarence Culvers, a Louisiana tycoon, to make a star of his young second wife Carol, show business is never more than a presence on the periphery of the story.

The story itself is pretty thin. Lamkins’ narrator, Charley Thayer, a young writer for Time magazine from Miro (read Monroe), Louisiana, encounters Angelica O’Brien, a a childhood playmate and bright young thing, now married to Laddie Wells, a pompous would-be intellectual and assistant to a producer of “A-movie” westerns. At first the narrative seems to be leading into a triangle between Charley, Angelica, and Laddie, but then Charley, whose bumper sticker must have read, “I Brake for Bright, Shiny Objects,” becomes the confidant of Carol Culvers and the course takes a sharp turn. From there on, we follow the rocky course of Carol, who idles at unstable and regularly revs up to self-destructive, her affair with Laddie, and the ambitions and jealousies of Clarence. Although Charley hints at one point about halfway in the story that this all will climax in some violent, headlines-grabbing event, what we get at the end is more whimper than bang. Overall, I thought The Easter Egg Hunt an utter failure as a novel.

At the same time, however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Lamkin might not have been an effective novelist, but he is a terrific observer. If he kept a diary during his time in Los Angeles, somebody needs to convince him to publish it. The Easter Egg Hunt is a treasure trove of descriptions of the people, places, and trappings of Beverly Hills in the early 1950s. If you read L.A. Confidential and other James Ellroy novels for the scenery, you’ll love The Easter Egg Hunt. Take, for instance, just a portion of the account of one of the Culvers’ frequent parties:

They sat drinking in sixes and eights around the tables under the marquee; and they would dance for half an hour to the bouncy music of an orchestra playing the songs of South Pacific. Then the orchestra would alternate with a rumba-mambo-tango band. People spread their fur wraps and lay down on the grass, and people had their fortunes told by a swank Beverly Hills numerologist. Two snobbish English actors arrived with Vera Velma the strip-tease queen, who wore pink dyed fur and was introduced as Mrs. T. Markoe Deering of Southampton and New York.

At two-thirty sharp the man who had played Washington in Valley Forge vomited over the buffet, and a sturgeon and three red herrings had to be taken away. Down the hill in the Japanese tea house two ensigns were having a crap game with Len Evansman, the columnist. Len Evansman wanted to know if I could change a thousand-dollar bill. At a quarter of three a dozen Hawaiian girls did the hula-hula and a dignified producer, who had an obsession for pinching young women’s behinds, got his face slapped by the ukelele player. A thin man who did rope tricks followed the hula girls. It was during the rope tricks that somebody started throwing the plates out over the hill. “Look,” cried a starlet, “flying saucers! ” Forty-five people rose from their chairs to look. Three men started throwing plates, then a woman started.

The book is rich of succinct character sketches full of efficient defamation: “George Martin was not handsome, he was not well-mannered, he was not entertaining in the least; in fact, every remark he made, every opinion uttered, was something stupid and inane; yet when George Martin entered a room, the eyes of every woman in it went to him.” Or the studio founder who “lived on in a Norman castle on Doheny with trained nurses to tend his artificial bowels.”

Although Lamkin’s alter ego Charley has a one-night stand with Angelica, his role and perspective seems more gay than straight. He becomes the confidant of both Angelica and Carol without stirring up much in the way of a jealous reaction from either husband. He spends much of his time in the company of an English novelist named Sebastian Saunders, who is clearly a fictionalized Christopher Isherwood (to whom the novel is dedicated): “His court consisted of two sailors in uniform, a trim little middle-aged Englishman, to whom he addressed most of his remarks, and a boy who could not have been over fifteen years old.” I don’t know if Lamkin was trying to camouflage his homosexuality or just using the language of his time, but there are regular references to gays that are likely to offend today: “Gladys Hendrix typified the sort of well-off older woman who goes around with swish young men; and the Titson twins with their talk of ‘stunning’ this and ‘smart’ that were horribly, horribly swish.” Charley and Angelica go to a “pansy bar”; the Culvers’ personal secretary, “a tall, stout, broad-shouldered woman with the complexion of a steaming red crab” is known as “Butch” Murphy.

The Easter Egg Hunt did well enough to be reissued as a lurid-covered paperback, but got reviews that consistently riffed on the theme of “imitation F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Lamkin abandoned the novel after this, but he did get one play, “Comes a Day,” produced on Broadway starring George C. Scott, in 1958. He returned to Monroe in the early 1960s and appears to have devoted his energies towards collecting. The New Orleans Museum of Art featured a number of items from his collection of furniture, paintings, vases, and other items in the exhibition, “A Taste for Excellence,” several years ago.

Although hardback and paperback editions of The Easter Egg Hunt are available, you can find copies of the book in various electronic formats for free: The Easter Egg at the Internet Archive.

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin
New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 1954

As I Remember Him: The Biography of R. S., by Hans Zinsser

Cover of first U. S. edition of "As I Remember Him"“Why in thunder should anyone want to write a biography of R. S.?” a friend asks the author of As I Remember Him: “[W]hen he died, the world had no unusual reasons to mourn him.” “R. S.,” as Zinsser never acknowledges in this book, is Zinsser himself. The initials stood for “Romantic Soul,” which is how he sometimes referred to himself.

As I Remember Him is one of the more unusual experiments in autobiography. The book is written in two voices: one of the unnamed author, the other of R. S. himself. The author sets R. S.’ material in context or comments–not always positively–upon it.

In the introduction, the author mentions The Education of Henry Adams as one of his inspirations, and there are a number of parallels between the two books. Both take a rather detached approach to the personal aspects of their stories: Adams writing of himself in the third person, Zinsser refusing to identify himself and framing his own words with those of the fictional “author.” Both are as much intellectual histories as accounts of life events–more so, one could argue. Both men omit mention of what others might consider some of the more dramatic and interesting moments in their lives. And both set the subject as a figure from a particular age and cultural dealing with a time of change and transition to a far different world. In Zinsser’s case,

I approached my task with modesty, therefore, hoping that I might acceptably convey in this study the portrait of a representative of that generation, now rapidly disappearing–like the T-model Ford–whose lives bridged the transition from horses to gasoline to electric bulbs, from Emerson and Longfellow to T. S. Eliot and Joyce, from stock companies to the movies and the radio, etc.–in short, from Victoria to Mrs. Windsor.

Zinsser was hardly more representative of his generation than Adams was of his. Born into a wealthy German-American family, he was privately tutored until college age and taken off on tours of the Continent by an elderly uncle. His life moved back and forth from a Manhattan brownstone mansion to a country house. All his life he loved to ride and participate in the Groton Hunts.

When the Spanish-American War broke out, he and several of his well-to-do friends ran off and enlisted in the Army. He served for two years but never saw combat. Of the time, Zinsser recalls little beyond a humorous story involving Teddy Roosevelt and a startled horse.

Zinsser tried studying painting after that, and then literature, and only somewhat accidentally became interested in–no, fascinated and then possessed by–science and medicine. He graduated with an M. D. from Columbia in 1903 and went to work as a practicing physician. He had to make do with the cast-offs of other Manhattan doctors, starting out with the poorest patients, turning out in the middle of the night for deliveries his better-off colleague could avoid. He soon discovered, though, that the laboratory rather than private practice was his forte, and in 1907, he joined the faculty at Columbia.

Zinsser quickly became one of the leading American researchers in the relatively new field of bacteriology, and his work let him to be selected by the Red Cross to travel to Serbia in 1915 to help deal with an epidemic of typhus there. Of his experiences in Serbia we are told anecdotes about a crazy night in a dilapidated country inn, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, and a charming Austro-Serbian character abruptly arrested and shot as a spy.

More telling, though is what he doesn’t tell the reader. This is about as much as we learn on his work in the field hospitals:

The work was trying on the nerves, since often, while I was doing an autopsy on a case still warm (it was desirable to perform these operations before secondary post-mortem invasion of bacteria had occurred), I could hear the families of other recent dead keening over the bodies on the farther side of a thin partition….

Less than two years later, he was recruited to serve as head of laboratories for the U. S. Army Expeditionary Force in France. His work on camp and hospital sanitation and disease prevention earned him the Distinguished Service Medal. And again one can debate whether his reticence is admirable or aggravating or both:

Of his military service, nineteen months were spend in France. Into these nineteen months were crowded the most stirring events of his life and his most intense emotions–elation, terror, compassion, admiration, disgust, and pride. But he utterly refused to discuss any of his experiences.

Hans Zinsser, 1930To offset such narrative ellipses, Zinsser offers little histories of typhus, syphilis, and other diseases he researched and deal with. These are not unwelcome–Zinsser’s classic text on epidemics, Rats, Lice and History–has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1935. But they’re second best as substitutes for first-hand observations–and comments such as “Into these nineteen months were crowded the most stirring events of his life” are third-rate writing.

Field research was clearly Zinsser’s great passion as a scientist. He traveled to Europe, China, Japan, and Africa to study diseases and bacteria in the midst of their most virulent outbreaks. In Mexico City he alternated between work in filthy alleys and sick wards and nights trying to control the poet Hart Crane’s benders. His work was ground-breaking but supportive: he was able to isolate a germ of typhus from which an effective vaccine was eventually derived, but others developed this into an affordable and usable treatment.

In 1938, he was diagnosed with leukemia, which was then incurable. He began writing this book in response. Although the disease must certainly have been painful and his death long in coming, Zinsser saw this in a positive light:

As his disease caught up with him, R. S. felt increasingly grateful for the fact that death was coming to him with due warning, and gradually…. [H]e was thankful that he had time to compose his spirit, and to spend a last year in affectionate and actually merry association with those dear to him.

Zinsser brings the reader back to the book’s premise at the very end:

… I knew that at the time of his death he was as thoroughly bewildered as any thoughtful individual of our time is bound to be.

All of which goes to prove that, as I pointed out in the first chapter, R. S. was really a quite ordinary person about whom it was hardly worth while to write a book.

Zinsser finished the book and was able to see it published before his death. The Book of the Month Club picked it as a featured title and it became a surprise best-seller–which is why it’s easy to find a copy for just a buck or two today. But it was never reprinted or reissued after this first release and quickly became forgotten. Although I was initially enthusiastic about the book, as the pages worn on, Zinsser’s choice to focus more on context and history and less on his own experiences and emotions grew increasingly frustrating. I think Clifton Fadiman’s review in the Saturday Review summed it up well: “…[N]o classic, but full of good things.”

Throughout his adult life, Zinsser was something of an amateur poet. A few of his poems were published in Saturday Review, The Atlantic and others, but his last sonnet has become something of a standard text for those suffering from terminal illnesses:

Now is death merciful. He calls me hence
Gently, with friendly soothing of my fears
Of ugly age and feeble impotence
And cruel disintegration of slow years.
Nor does he leap upon me unaware
Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,
But gives me kindly warning to prepare:
Before I go, to kiss your tears away.

How sweet the summer! And the autumn shone
Late warmth within our hearts as in the sky,
Ripening rich harvests that our love has sown.
How good that ere the winter comes, I die!
Then, ageless, in your heart I’ll come to rest
Serene and proud, as when you loved me best.

Find a Copy

As I Remember Him: The Biography of R. S., by Hans Zinsser
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1940

People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed

Cover of Dell paperback edition of 'People Will Always Be Kind'
Does it matter?–losing your legs? …
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

   –Siegfried Sassoon

Wilfrid Sheed’s 1973 novel, People Will Always Be Kind, takes its title from Sassoon’s poem about a paraplegic young war veteran, but Sheed’s protagonist, Brian Casey, is a victim not of combat but of polio. Well over half of the novel (the section titled, “Backgrounder”) recounts how Casey is suddenly struck by polio in high school and how he comes to turn his handicap into an effective tool for manipulating others–because, as Sassoon observes, “people will always be kind.”

In some ways, People Will Always Be Kind is a remarkably perceptive study of politics and human behavior. As his parents desperately attempt every cure, legitimate and outright criminal (leeches, at one point), Casey grows deeply cynical. “I don’t think I owe God any favors, after what he did to me,” he thinks to himself, and one of his Columbia classmates calls him “a man of little faith and much energy, the most dangerous of your human species.”

Casey cuts his teeth on campus politics and finds a natural talent for public speaking and private wheeling and dealing. But he also quickly realizes that campus politics was “like playing poker without money.” When next we see him, in the section titled, “The Perkins Papers,” he is a U. S. Senator, seen through the eyes of Sam Perkins, an idealistic Ivy League grad, part of a small movement trying to court a candidate to run for President on a peace platform. Sheed never mentions Vietnam in the book, referring to the war only as “The Issue.”

Casey takes up the challenge–or at least, he seems to. Although Perkins is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, even he understands that he’s dealing with a level of intelligence and sophistication far beyond his:

He also told me, though he didn’t have to by then, that he liked to hire high-minded people because they would do dirtier work for nothing than low-minded people would for hire. True. If the candidate so much as intimated to me that a principle was involved, it was like unleashing a rattlesnake. A low-minded person would at least have watched his own skin and thought about tomorrow.

During the campaign, a party hack comments, somewhat sarcastically, “That’s some staff you got.” “That’s not a staff–that’s my violin,” Casey responds.

Much like Eugene McCarthy, Casey achieves an unexpected breakthrough victory in New Hampshire and rolls into the convention as the leading candidate. Perkins does note that the transformation had less to do with the candidate that some undefinable combination of media coverage and popular sentiment: “Casey hadn’t changed a hair, but he suddenly had charisma and seemed like a great man.” He drives himself relentlessly, always conscious that any sign of exhaustion would be linked back to his polio: “Other politicians could show fatigue, Casey never. He would have to kill himself to prove his strength.”

Perkins quits the campaign in a childish and pretty unbelievable miff involving sexual jealousy over another staffer, but Casey wins the nomination and comes close to winning the election (a conditional cease-fire before the debate kills much of his momentum). Some observers, however, believe Casey made a deliberate choice to lose. His wife thinks it a matter of his struggle with his faith (Casey is an Irish Catholic): “It’s like an occasion of sin, if you know what I mean. He knows he shouldn’t be in politics.”

Yet brilliant as many of Sheed’s observations about politics are, People Will Always Be Kind fails as a coherent work of art. The two parts of the novel are unbalanced: “Backgrounder” burrows deep into Casey’s evolving psyche, while “The Perkins Papers” shows him through a glass, dork-ly. The campaign has the potential to be a much richer source of material–Time magazine’s reviewer thought that, “Sheed’s only real mistake was to quit writing about 200 pages short of his natural stopping place.” Certainly the book loses much of its strength by substituting Sheed’s profoundly intelligent omniscient voice in “Backgrounder” for Sam Perkins’ fuzzy-headed first-person voice in the second half. And while Brian Casey may be a terrific vehicle for navigating the winding ways of American politics, as a character he becomes something of a Cheshire Cat. In the last dozen pages of the book, he almost entirely fades away, leaving us with only his ironic smile.

People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973

And Sleep Until Noon, by Gene Lees

Gene Lees, 1958Gene Lees, one of the finest jazz writers ever, passed away a few days ago. Without a doubt, his best work was the series of jazz portraits and memoirs he published in his long-running journal, Jazzletter, which were collected in such books as Cats of Any Color and Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s. He was also a fine lyricist, best known perhaps for his English version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado,” which Lees transformed into the lovely “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.”

But Lee also made two ventures into fiction. Late in his life, he published the nostalgic Song Lake Summer, set in upstate New York in the late 19th century, which received generally positive reviews. His first book, And Sleep Until Noon, his first novel, did not.

Lees started writing And Sleep Until Noon in the late 1950s, but only got the book published in 1966.

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'And Sleep Until Noon'
The book focuses on Jack Royal, a kid from Chicago who evolves from student of classical piano to jazz musician to jazz singer to pop star to star of baguette Westerns and adventure movies. Lees portrays Jack as a talented jerk, the kind of temperamental celebrity who tries to get hotel managers fired when the wrong drink shows up on his room service cart. Jack’s life and ways are turned around in the course of a week or so in Stockholm when he meets a beautiful journalist, Disa Lindahl. Unlike Jack, Disa is true-hearted and pure in spirit. Her effect on Jack is like that of a tuning fork, putting his mind and life back to the right pitch, and even though they go their separate ways in the end, it’s clear that Jack will now take his work, art, and other people seriously.

If that plot sounds thin, Lees’ characterizations do little to compensate. He attempts to draw some kind of parallel between Jack’s meandering career, marked mostly by a series of self-indulgent decisions, and that of Bud Weston, Jack’s boyhood friend, who drops jazz for medicine after meeting–and falling in love with–a Costa Rican prostitute scarred in an auto accident. As young men, both Bud and Jack are liberal users of booze, pot, and women, and there are numerous accounts of their debauches, none of them particularly convincing. Jack postulates at one point that “an entertainer’s popularity with women, who formed the majority of his audience and determined the tastes of the rest of it, varied directly with his utility as a focus for sexual fantasies, and any one of them who thought otherwise was a damn fool.”Library Journal called the book “sophomoric with puerile gaps predominating in the earlier parts.” I’m guessing the Journal’s critic was thinking of the scene where Bud masturbates a horse with a violin bow.

As a lyricist, Lees’ writing could be subtle and poetic. As a budding novelist, his work was on a par with those tired old lines about how the love of a good woman’ll set a man straight.

The only bright spots in the book are a few passages where Lees gets down to his true passion, music. There’s a wonderful little essay toward the end about the art of the pop singer, particularly on record:

Recording was an intimate medium. The listener’s ear was brought to a distance of only inches from the singer’s mouth. It was not only unnecessary to shout; it was rude. Making it even more intimate was the fact that the record was usually heard by one person, sometimes two, rarely as many as three at a time. If there were more persons present, he was fond of saying, nobody was listening–they were too busy talking.

And so, in recent years, there had been a steady evolution of his conception. He had dropped the volume of his voice. Not that he had abandoned the use of dynamics; he had simply made them more subtle. As a result his records had an arresting quality of intimacy, of private urgency, and a woman who listened to them tended to be drawn into the illusion that he was singing directly to her; while men, oddly enough, were inclined to feel that he was speaking on their behalf, saying those thing, making those confessions that they would make themselves were they only eloquent enough ….

Lees himself later told an interviewer that he hated the book. Perhaps the kindest thing one can says about it is that it provides convincing evidence that Lees made the right decision when he abandoned fiction and concentrated instead on writing about what he knew and loved best: jazz, pop, and the remarkable musicians who play it.

And Sleep Until Noon, by Gene Lees
New York: Trident Press, 1966

The Great Fake Book, by Vance Bourjaily

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Great Fake Book'It pains me to start 2010 with two pans in a row, but few books have disappointed me as much as Vance Bourjaily’s little-known 1986 novel, The Great Fake Book. As an amateur jazz player, I was attracted by the title, a reference to fake books, the cheat sheets many working musicians use to memorize popular tunes. [Barry Kernfeld wrote a short history of them, The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians, a few years ago.]

Bourjaily’s name often pops up on lists of neglected and underappreciated novelists. Despite a career spanning six decades and a nomination for the National Book Award (for his 1970 novel, Brill Among the Ruins), none of his books are currently in print. [Amazon reports that Doubleday will be publishing Brill in hardback at $7.95 this month. Probably a data entry error–but if not, grab it! When’s the last time you could get a new hardback copy of a good book for $7.95?] One reason for this lasting reputation, particularly among other writers, was his 23-year stint at the influential Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he mentored numerous young writers of the 1960s and 1970s.

Though Bourjaily wrote The Great Fake Book while in his sixties, the book certainly demonstrates that his appetite for narrative experimentation hadn’t diminished over the years. To tell the dual stories of young Charles Mizzourin and his father, Mike Mizzourin, a newspaperman and jazz musician who died in an auto wreck before Charles was born, Bourjaily uses letters, phone calls, archival documents, oral histories, and even a novel-within-a-novel. He switches decades, narrators, perspective, and tone as fast as Charlie Parker could play changes on “Cherokee.”

Unfortunately, Bourjaily’s experiment is doomed from the onset by unreliable ingredients. The correspondence between Charles Mizzourin and John Johnson (one of the few believable names in the book) that opens the story tries to create the impression of a fencing match between a child of the 60s and a man of the Establishment but just comes off as an inept tussle between two patently made-up stereotypes. We are led to think there is some kind of mystery behind Mike Mizzourin’s death and perhaps also his flip-flopping between journalism and jazz, perhaps having something to do with the Red Scare and McCarthyism–or perhaps not. Frankly, after finishing 100-some pages, I gave up caring and shelved the book. Not, regrettably, before coming across what I truly believe to be the most stomach-turning passage of prose I’ve ever read:

“Is that my finger-lickin’ chicken?”
“Hello Darlene.”
“Whompsie, did you get an answer from your friend Mr. Johnson?”
“I just found it in the mailbox.”
“I got one, too. To my li’l physical description of you.”
“That right? What’s he say?”
“He sent me his Style Book, and a bill for three dollars.”
“Going to pay?”
“What’s your letter say?”
“I’m about to pour me a drink and sit down with it.”
“Be sure it’s not a letter bomb. You’ll get vodka on your podka.”
“Night, Darlene.”
“Night, light.”

And that’s not the only saccharine attack from Bourjaily’s Kewpie doll creation. I kept hoping Charles would take a lesson from Groucho Marx and warn Darlene, “If icky baby keep talking that way, big stwong man gonna kick all her teef down her fwoat!”

No such luck.

What Became of Anna Bolton?, by Louis Bromfield

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'I picked up a copy of Louis Bromfield’s 1944 short novel, What Became of Anna Bolton? at one of my favorite bookstores, Magus Books, during a Christmas visit to the U. S.. Magus, located just a block from the University of Washington campus in Seattle, opened while I was going to school there 30-some years ago, and it’s one of an ever-diminishing number of bookstores where it’s still possible to find interesting old paperbacks from the 1960s and earlier.

I decided to take Anna Bolton along as my flight reading when we returned to Europe a few days later. From the title, I expected the story would be something about her disappearance or miraculous transformation. Taking the voice of David Sorrell, an American foreign correspondent, Bromfield introduces us to Anna Bolton at a London soiree in 1937. The widow of an American inventor and industrialist, she has come to London to work her way up the social ladder.

Sorrell, it turns out, knows Anna from their days growing up together in Lewisburg, Ohio. Anna–then Anna Scanlon–came from the wrong side of town, the daughter of a house cleaner and a town drunk. She falls in love with Tom Harrigan, from one of the better families in town. When Anna becomes pregnant, Tom elopes with her against his family’s wishes and they set up house in Pittsburgh. A year or so later, Tom dies in a car wreck and their baby follows soon after. It takes Bromfield about twelve pages to blitzkrieg through these first twenty years.

Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'Sorrell next crosses paths with Anna some years later in the lobby of a pricey New York hotel, on the arm of Ezra Bolton, a fictional hybrid of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. A year or so after hiring her as a secretary, Bolton marries her as a trophy wife (although the term hadn’t been invented yet). The marriage is an arid sham, but luckily for Anna, Bolton dies before it gets too tedious for her. Millions in hand, she takes off for Europe.

Hitler’s invasion of France puts a crimp in her plans for social ascent. Caught up in the tide of refugees from Paris, she catches the Joan d’Arc flu and adopts a village of the homeless and helpless as her cause:

The truth was that Anna had found something to do. She had great health and great energy and great ability as an executive, and now setting up a canteen gave her an outlet for all these qualities. She liked the trips to Lyons, to Orleans, to Paris, even as far as Marseilles and Geneva to buy soap and medicines, chocolate and cigarettes.

Clearly, Bromfield had not a clue about life in occupied France. At this point, the book was halfway over and nothing of interest had really happened. Yes, a number of events were related, but Bromfield hadn’t managed to make Anna Scanlon/Harrigan/Bolton much more than a cut-out doll. “I’ve seen you grow a soul,” Anna’s paid companion, Miss Goodwin, tells her after a few months of the humanitarian relief. Miss Goodwin’s eyes were sharper than mine. But for another six hours of flying, I would have given up.

In hindsight, I wish I had. Anna continues her black-market magic, manipulating an S.S. officer who’s convinced he’s in love with her. “I want to marry you,” he tells her, “because I am tired and sick and corrupt and you are strong and healthy and young.” No, I am not making that line up. She meets Jean Lambert, a handsome Russo-French officer who’s the spitting image of Tom Harrigan. After a bit of pallid “Taming of the Shrew” nonsense, they marry, then escape to Algiers to avoid imprisonment after the U. S. enters the war. Sorrell meets Anna again and finds her transformed. We have to take his word for it.

When I got back home, I did a little research and learned that Edmund Wilson gave What Became of Anna Bolton? a right bashing when it was first published.

Louis Bromfield used to be spoken of as one of the younger writers of promise. By the time he had brought out Twenty-four Hours, it was more or less generally said of him that he was definitely second-rate. Since then, by unremitting industry and a kind of stubborn integrity that seems to make it impossible for him to turn out his rubbish without thoroughly believing in it, he has gradually made his way into the fourth rank, where his place is now secure.

Cover of later paperback edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'Although he began by calling the book “one of his [Bromfield’s] most remarkable achievements,” after devoting about four times as much text to a recap of the novel’s plot with only an occasional dig, Wilson then dismissed it as, “a small masterpiece of pointlessness and banality.”

To which I can only add, “Amen, brother!”

Despite the book’s utter lack of interest and distinction, What Became of Anna Bolton? managed to be reissued at least five times in paperback. Which just proves again how right Bo Diddley was when he sang, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover.”

What Became of Anna Bolton?, by Louis Bromfield
New York City: Harper and Brothers, 1944

The Snowman, by Charles Haldeman

For the first fifty-or-so pages of The Snowman, I thought I’d really found a long lost–heck, a never-discovered–gem. I picked up the Penguin paperback edition at a bookstore in Seattle, attracted by several promising clues. The Penguin edition came out four years after the initial hardback release; despite the fact that the novel was written by an American and is set in America, it appeared to have been published only in the U. K.. The blurb on the back read cryptic enough to suggest something worth investigating:

The Snowman is often infuriating, always compelling, a blinding collage of cross-threads, dead-ends, endless tunnels, red herrings and bang-on target salvos of smouldering reality.

Cover of Penguin U.K. paperback edition of 'The Snowman'
And at first, the work itself seemed a wonderfully bizarre treat. The first chapter ones with an entry from The Motorist’s Guide to Upstate New York, 1939: “Joseph’s Landing (232 alt. 729 pop.) 1.6 miles from State 3, is a peaceful lakeside village of wided, shaded streets and roomy old dwellings first settled in 1802.”

Over the next few chapters, Charles Haldeman introduces us to Joseph’s Landing and some of its inhabitants, past and present. It is, to say the least, an unusual place. There is something odd about everyone in the place. Here, for example, is a bit of town history:

Donatien’s death left Melba and Claude Hagen swamped in the peaked and parapeted four-story sandstone monstrosity at the acute intersection of Joan of Arc and Pierre de l’Hôpital Streets. Even when the ground floor had been overflowing with patients and Melba was holding a D.A.R. convention upstairs, the house had still seemed empty, it was so huge. Its original designer and builder, General Gilbert Raye, had obviously suffered from daedalomania. But that wasn’t all he’d suffered from: in 1819, not five years after the last stone was set in his labyrinth, he and a down-eastern prelate were arrested for conducting experiments of an unspeakable nature and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead and then burnt. Donatien’s great-grandfather Count Joseph de Villiers, a pseudonymous self-made noble who had absconded with the Spanish crown jewels afer the Battle of Waterloo and come to America with grandiose plans for establishing a new French Empire in the North, recognized in the condemned general a kindred spirit and paid him several visits in his cell. On the eve of his execution the wretched man gratefully bequeathed his eyesore to his friend.

This combination of the baroquely bizarre (“daedelomania”; “experiments of an unspeakable nature”) and the down-to-earth (“eyesore”) reminded me in a powerful way of one of the first books I featured on this site, John Howard Spyker’s Little Lives. I could imagine Joseph’s Landing sitting in the heart of Spyker’s Washington County. I even began to wonder if Charles Haldeman was yet another Richard Elman’s pseudonyms.

Unfortunately, the promise is unfulfilled. We move from these lovely odd vignettes into a series of chapters focusing on one and then another resident, most of them leading nowhere and weaving threads never again picked up in the narrative. Penguin’s blurb above is not intriguing praise. It’s a literal description. Haldeman seems to have been unable to decide just what he was writing. In the end, he settles upon a story of misfits and outcasts finding a kind of peace among themselves–the material of a Flannery O’Connor story, but not the end product.

His first novel, The Sun’s Attendant, published just a year or so before The Snowman, apparently suffered from similar problems. One reviewer praised its “Joycean” language but found it an artistic failure. Haldeman told the story of a child survivor of Auschwitz through a variety of textual artefacts but in the eyes of most critics at the time, didn’t manage to bring these pieces together into an effective whole–and he certainly didn’t manage to get past this stage with The Snowman.

The Snowman, by Charles Haldeman
London: Jonathan Cape, 1964

The Man Who Lived Backward, by Malcolm Ross

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Man Who Lived Backward'This is the most confusing book I’ve ever read. 400-plus pages and my head still hurts when I try to make sense of it.

The Man Who Lived Backward tells the story of Mark Selby, to whom author Malcolm Ross endows a unique form of time-travelling:

“At dawn each day,” he began again, “I awake and enjoy my breakfast. I go about the business and pleasures of the day. I lunch. I dine. I talk with a friend, as I am doing now, and go to my bed secure in the knowledge that the sun will rise to a new day. As you, I have no idea what the day will bring forth. The only difference between us is this: when you awake tomorrow it will be April 18; with me it will be April 16.”

In other words, Mark Selby goes through each day normally, starting in the morning and going through the day to night. But then he goes to bed and wakes up on the morning of the day before.

This is not a work of science fiction. Ross only uses this arrangement as the pretext to take use through a series of historical situations–the siege of Paris in 1871, Pennsylvania steel strikes in the 1890s, the Spanish-American War. He wastes no energy trying to work out the logic of the situation.

I just couldn’t get past it, though. If he has “no idea what the day will bring forth”, then how is he able to have friends? Wouldn’t all his acquaintances be meeting him for the first time in their lives, even if he’d known them for decades ahead? And how is he able to avoid waking up on top of someone else the next day? He spends most of his nights in hotel rooms. How the heck does he pay for them? OK, so he could remember the day before to book a room so that he could wake up there the day after. But how does he change rooms? Wouldn’t that mean that overnight he travels through space AND time–but only when he changes locations? And he sails back and forth across the Atlantic a few times: how does that work? He travels through space AND time and coordinates his trajectory with the path of the ship?

All this is, of course, pointless speculation. As I said, time travel is just a pretext for Ross, and some readers will find enough else in the book to look past this shaky construct. There are several dozen long entries that record, verbatim, conversations Selby has or overseas as he wanders back through time. Three British clubmen discuss liberty in the 1890s, when that concept didn’t even fully apply to all white men, let alone another sex or race. He spends a good deal of time with Walt Whitman and John Burroughs, to the point that he seems to become something of a Whitman groupie. He tells us about the fine and horrible things that were served up to eat during the siege of Paris.

In the hands of a fine raconteur, these diversions would provide excuse enough to go along on any journey, whether backward, forward, or sideways through time. The problem is that Selby himself lacks a distinct enough character to offer much in the way of color, bias, perception, or any other distinguishing flavor to his observations. As a protagonist, he seems more instrument than human creation.

And, to drive one last nail in this book’s coffin, Ross manages to slap not one, but two framing stories to his work without either adding much in the way of narrative tension or interest. First, Ross presents Selby’s diary as an artifact found in the estate of a wealthy New Englander by his grandson. Long suspected of having made his fortune through some sort of under-handedness in the wake of the Civil War, the grandfather is revealed to be the lucky Union soldier to whom Selby passes along some valuable investment tips on the eve of his fatal attempt to thwart Lincoln’s assassination.

Second, there is Selby’s unique love affair with Helen, who somehow passes twenty-some years in a relationship with Selby–one that starts in her young womanhood and ends at his infancy. Theirs, we are repeatedly assured, is a great love story, but for some odd reason, Ross elects to leave almost all of it out of the book. Only chunks of Selby’s diary are included, and none of them directly covering the years of their time together.

Malcolm Ross, 1950'Fiction was not, I should note, Malcolm Ross’ forte. He spent most of his working life as a journalist and labor relations expert, serving as chairman of the Fair Employment Practice Committee through most of World War Two. His first book, Machine Age in the Hills, was one of the first works to address the hardships and near-bondage of Kentucky coal miners. And his 1939 autobiography, The Death Of A Yale Man, is still considered one of the more revealing memoirs of the New Deal era.

If any of Mark Selby’s tale strikes a familiar note, it’s probably because you’re thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” or its recent film version. Even though it’s one of Fitzgerald’s lesser works, it still towers over The Man Who Lived Backward: it’s got a simpler and sounder fictional premise, a more elegant prose style, and a couple hundred thousand fewer words.

After all, if you have to read a lesser work, make it a short one.

Find a copy

The Man Who Lived Backward, by Malcolm Ross
New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1950

The Secret, by James Drought

Cover of Avon paperback edition of 'The Secret' by James DroughtI was intrigued when I can across The Secret in the stacks of a used book store in Seattle. “At long last, something real on the American literary scene; very powerful,” Paul Pickrel of the Yale Review was quoted on the bright yellow cover. “The only trouble with The Secret is that it makes me feel inferior,” it also quoted from a review by Paul Jennings in the Observer.

Now, I’ve spent many hours scanning through shelves of used paperbacks, so it’s not too often now that I come across something truly new and unknown to me. Naturally, my eyes pricked up at this sight and I bought the book. When I sat down to read it for the first time, however, I quickly grew tired of it and set it aside. That bold banana yellow jacket kept catching my eye, though, and finally this week I sat down and dedicated myself to a discovery of Mr. Drought’s genius.

It was dedication alone that stayed my hand the dozen or more times in the last few days that I felt like hurling this book across the room. This is not a novel. Mr. Drought himself referred it The Secret as an “oratorio.” “Screed” is probably a more accurate term.

If Mr. Drought possessed any genius in this book, it’s of the ilk of that of Dr. Gene Scott or Joe Pyne or the guys I used to run into on the 1AM bus home from downtown after working swings. Here, for example, is Drought’s take on youth’s first realization that success is not all it’s cracked up to be:

For the young, it is like seeing a lovely lady, refined by a fine family, slip out one night in all her silk finery and walk into a woods erect and noble, where suddenly she crouches, rips a bird to pieces and eats it raw, shits in a hole and then kills another refined lady whom she meets at an appointed spot.

It’s that second killing I don’t get. OK, illusion of civilization revealed in its primal barbarity. I get that. But then killing a fellow refinee with whom she’s made a rendezvous? Survey a thousand kids a year out of high school and none of them will come up with that image.

The Secret loosely follows the lines of James Drought’s own life: raised on the outskirts of Chicago, a bit of a loner and rebel. An unsuccessful time in college, then a stint in the Army around the time of the Korean War as a paratrooper. Somewhere in between he meets and marries a beautiful, wonderful woman, and they raise a boy and a girl. He becomes a writer and eventually produces this book, which is intended to reveal to all American youth the secret that the world is out to kill you:

You have to conclude that your country has run amuck, that the people responsible are insane, that you can not trust your leaders, your President, your general, your parents, your friends, your neighbors, you co-workers, your police, your town, your state, your country, anymore because it is liable to turn upon you for no reason at all, except that for its own security it needs a scapegoat, any scapegoat including you, and there is no appeal possible.

The problem, you see, is that virtually everyone Drought’s nameless narrator meets is a shell, a stereotype, a craven one-dimensional drone:

Money was the king in those days; it was the goal for which people used up their lives, it was the prize by which they judged their accomplishments, the energy that made their institutions grown, it was the rationale, the reality, the ring of truth, the religion, it was the one single thing that everyone wanted, respected, cherished, needed, it was the spark, the spirit, the soul of an entire age in America and there was nothing else, no dream that could match it….

It goes on from there, but I’ll spare you the trouble.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found this relentless hammering away at the Great American Myths particularly tiresome was that Drought chose to make his narrator the most insufferably superior being to inhabit a book without the slightest redeeming scrap of humor. Early on, we learn that he and only he is the master marksman and hunter among his fellows:

I found most difficult the very idea I had to accept that my friends could not do these things well, and although I made many excuses for them, soon I had to cease blaming fate and put the blame on their clumsiness, and afterward I could do nothing but smile with boredom as they discussed their theories on how to fish, snare and trap, urging me to try some so they could see if any worked. I shot squirrels out of trees, and I had to admit I was a better shot, either because of a gifted eye, a steadier hand, a determination, or what, but more did fall to the ground, brother, when I shot than fell when my friends fired away hitting limbs, leaves and ticking distant houses, swearing that something was wrong with their goddamn sights, their sleeve caught, something was in their eyes, the gun was bent, etc. so I couldn’t ignore their clumsiness and my skill for long.

Which just goes to prove once more that the one downside to being better than everyone else is that it’s so tiresome having to put up with everyone else’s inferiority. The narrator goes on to tell us that there, along the deserted creeks outside Chicago, he caught or killed “catfish, possum, coon, trout,” “dove, pigeon, a buck, and once on a weekend a deer with arrows, and another time a bear with three arrows.” I can remember guys in junior high school telling whoppers like that. It was always those little details they’d chosen so carefully to impart that final pinch of verisimilitude that tipped you off that it was all a bunch of B.S.. “On a weekend.” “With arrows.” Yeah, right.

Ironically, The Secret proved to be a little American success story in itself, despite its message. Drought first published the book himself and sold it, along with several of his earlier novels, out of the back of his trunk. Eventually, Avon Books offered him a contract and released The Secret, as well as his earlier novels Mover, ii: A Duo, and The Gypsy Moths in paperback. The Gypsy Moths brought him greater fame, if still not much, due to the 1969 film version starring middle-aged Burt Lancaster as the hero and very young Gene Hackman as a sidekick.

Whatever else success did to Drought, it seems to have stilled his pen for a good ten years or more. Only in the late 1970s did he emerge into print again, with something called Superstar for president: An American satire–and on his own nickel once again. According to one biographical account, Drought was nominated by some European critics for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. Now, according to the Nobel website, nominators can be any of:

  1. Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose;
  2. Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges;
  3. Previous Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature;
  4. Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.

My bet is on those wacky Académie française guys.

Should you care to sample Drought’s work despite the cruel drubbing I just gave it, you can find several of his works online and free to download, thank to the efforts of his children, who established a few years ago. You will find the texts of The Gypsy Moths (1955), Memories of a Humble Man (1957), Mover: a Modern Tragedy (1959), and, not least, The Secret (1962).

The Secret, by James Drought
Westport, Connecticut: Skylight Press, 1962
New York: Avon Books, 1963

Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King

The 'controversial' cover of 'Mine Enemy Grows Older'Every writer who’s ever been featured on Oprah’s Book Club follows in the footsteps of Alexander King. When he published his memoir, Mine Enemy Grows Older in 1958, he was, in the words of a Time magazine reviewer, “an ex-illustrator, ex-cartoonist, ex-adman, ex-editor, ex-playwright, ex-dope addict.” His book probably would have taken a quick trip to the remainder tables–had it not been for a lucky and path-setting break: on the second of January, 1959, King appeared on “The Tonight Show”, hosted by Jack Paar, to plug his book. As Russell Baker put it years later, “After charming millions on the Jack Paar show, Alexander King came up out of the basement and took off like a 900-page bodice ripper.”

Mine Enemy Grows Older is King’s rambling and very much tongue-in-cheek account of his first fifty-some years. Born in Vienna (as Alexander Koenig), King emigrated with his family to New York City in his teens. With a little bit of art training and a great deal of moxie, he worked his way through dozens of jobs, from decorating department store windows and painting murals a Greek restaurant to illustrating radical newspapers.

Cover of Alexander King's 'Is There Life After Birth?'It was as an illustrator that King’s career finally took off. Throughout the 1920s, he was caught up in the convention-flounting wave of Mencken, The Smart Set, and the Jazz Age and became a much-in-demand illustrator for new, unbowdlerized editions by such scandalous authors as Flaubert, Rabelais, and Ovid. He then worked as an art editor, first for Vanity Fair and then for Henry Luce’s transformed Life magazine. Unfortunately for King, he developed a serious kidney problem that led to a doctor’s prescribing morphine as a pain killer.

At the time, morphine was controlled but legally available in pill form from most pharmacies. And like any addictive drug, it also encouraged a thriving black market, with shady MDs writing scrips on demand for junkies like King who could scrape up enough cash. Eventually, King’s addiction led to his being arrested and convicted on federal drug charges and sent to a narcotics rehabilitation hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. He was able to clean up, get back into painting, and reestablish some of his connections with the publishing world in New York, which led to a contract from Simon and Schuster for Mine Enemy Grows Older.

It probably would have ended there had not King’s wry and outrageous banter on Paar’s show. He was just the sort of taboo-breaker Paar’s audience was looking for: funny, opinionated, unconventional, urbane. Frank and April Wheeler of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road would have loved him. Take this account of King’s reaction to being stuck in a room in Lexington with nothing to read by an issue of the Saturday Evening Post:

It was a waking nightmare of the most sinister dimension and variety. My whole past life was insidiously evoked, ruefully demonstrated, and mercilessly indicted. It suddenly came to me that the reason my three marriages had smashed up was, simply, that they had been frivolously ratified on the wrong kind of mattresses; I realized with unshakable conviction that my social and financial calamaties had been caused by my improperly sanitized apertures; and, as I went on reading, it became brutally clear that all through my life I had washed only with soap substitutes, had worn unmasculine underwear, and had never decently neutralized my offensive bodily effluvia.

For seventy-two hours I wallowed in accusations and self-reproaches, and when the nurse finally let me out of my isolation cubicle I was a psychic tatterdemalion.

I remember saying to the doctor who interviewed me that rather than have another such weekend, I would prefer to spend three days on an army cot, lashed to a belching, gonorrheal Eskimo prostitute, who had just finished eating walrus blintzes.

Funny stuff, for sure. Practically every page of Mine Enemy Grows Older is filled with this sort of caustic, ribald bird-flipping humor. For fifteen to twenty minutes on a talk show it must have seemed like revolutionary stuff. By the end of the book’s 374 pages, however, it has grown monotonous and tiresome.

That didn’t stop Simon and Schuster from releasing four more books by King between 1960 and his death in 1965: May This House be Safe from Tigers (1960); I Should Have Kissed Her More (1961); Is There A Life After Birth? (1963); and Rich Man, Poor Man, Freud, and Fruit (1965). All sold well, though each time in diminishing numbers. There was something about King that really appealed to readers and viewers at the time. My grandparents, life-long Republicans and firm upholders of middle-class values, had two of his books on their shelves, and kept them with the small number they moved to their retirement apartment. Nor did it keep Paar and then Johnny Carson from bringing him back for dozens of appearances.

The 'safe' cover of 'Mine Enemy Grows Older'My theory is that King’s was a safe form of revolt. He mocked convention, but he didn’t exactly offer an alternative–nor did he suggest that people grab torches and set fire to police stations. He was like a Brother Theodore who could write. He introduced America to the term, “raconteur” and opened a door for other talk show guests–including Truman Capote. After a long day at the office and an evening of westerns and sitcoms, a bit of King’s “acid appraisals of modern art (‘a putrescent coma’), advertising (‘an overripe fungus’) and people in general (‘adenoidal baboons’)” (to quote Time’s obit of King) was a refreshing bit of outrage before turning in for the night.

Simon and Schuster were happy to exploit this sense of dabbling in forbidden fruit. After “The Tonight Show” appearance, the publisher released subsequent printings with two covers–a “shocking” one (above) featuring one King’s Dali-esque paintings and, to prevent any awkward glances, a conventional one (right) with a safe grey cover.

King still has a few fans, as you can see from the reviews posted on Amazon. For me, his books, like his art, is colorful, vivid, but ultimately superficial.

Other Opinions

Gerald Frank, New York Herald Tribune, 7 December 1958

This is a scandalous, wonderful, and strangely moving book. The publishers, for want of a better word, describe it as an autobiography. Actually it is less autobiography than memoirs, less memoirs than a series of immpressionistic self-portraits and wildly hilarious anecdotes done so vividly that the book all but leaps in your hands.

Bernard Levin, The Spectator, 4 December 1959

Alas, funny though the anecdotes, or some of them, are, this is the emptiest book to appear for many a year, and even if it were not written almost entirely in the same breathless, sweaty prose, it would still be a waste.

Raymond Holden, New York Times, 4 January 1959

The reader who has a strong stomach and is not irritated by the author’s verbal juggling and sometimes painful name-calling will be made either happy or morbidly excited…. [T]here are sandwiched in between its horrors some anecdotes and personal narratives of rare subtlety and humor. Whether one regards this as autobiography or fiction (the two are not really so far apart), it is at once a story of degradation and depravity and a sensitive and often kindly commentary on human life.

Locate a Copy

Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1958

Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight

G. Wilson Knight, 1936, Photography by Howard CosterG. Wilson Knight subtitled this 1936 book “An Autobiographical Design,” and had he stuck to the autobiography and left the design out, I might have been less resentful about the several hours I devoted to assaulting its slopes. Perhaps I lack the mountaineering skills to attempt such a tower of intellect. But Atlantic Crossing struck me as one of the most grandiose failures I’ve tried to read in a long time.

Knight made his name as a critic and director of Shakespeare and other English dramatists. His lifelong immersion in Renaissance poetry and prose left him with a weakness for an intricacy at times beyond his own dexterity:

It was then I watched in twilight where up-piled clouds in rugged Alpine ranges towered and caught the morning and glowed with it, black rocks and giant crags fire-fringed, stained with a gilden glory. Shafts of burning mist, spear-points of the assaulting dawn, slanted angular upward splendours. Watch those breaking palisades, that rock-pinnacle flaming to its ruin, those tufts of red smoke, that heaving, billowing, crumbling, conglomerated mass–was ever such chaos so musically blended?–while the artillery of advancing day fumes the air with its cordite, rolling attar of roses in wave on wave.

Phew! Imagine 300-plus pages of this hyperventilating.

In Atlantic Crossing, Knight hangs on the slender frame of six days’ voyage on a 1930s ocean liner from Montreal to Southhampton enough ornaments and appendages to sink even the most sea-worthy narrative.

There are some promising bits. A fleeting, glancing romance with a lively American ingenue. Some fine purely autobiographical passages in which Knight recalls his experiences as a dispatch rider with British forces in Iraq and Persia during World War One. And enough tastes of luxury liner travel to leave us envious of the past:

Now what to do after breakfast? A pipe in the lounge; a walk on the promenade deck; watch the people; perhaps get to know some of them; shuffleboard and deck-tennis. This is to be unadulterated leisured aristocracy, free from beggars, telephones, letters, money, and all complex interrelations of modern civilization, yet with its best luxury at hand; in a world beyond richness and poverty, for one week.

Unfortunately for the reader, however, Knight can’t wait to hurl in great shovel-fulls of aduleration and complex interrelations:

It is often hard to day whether man’s passionate unrest is a matter of volcanic flame or turbulent ocean. The opposition of Thales and Heraclitus is profound. Fire must be liquid in us, coursing like quicksilver in our veins: that is, man’s fiery ascent drags ocean up mountains through fields of air. I suppose fire is ultimately the Alpha and Omega, earth-centre and empyrean.

OK, folks–a show of hands. Man’s passionate unrest: volcanic flame or turbulent ocean? I know my mind is often torn between these two choices. On the other hand, I have no second thoughts about what category Atlantic Crossing belong in.

Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight
London: J. W. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1936