I Left My Grandfather's House by Denton Welch

Over the weekend, I finished I Left My Grandfather's House by Denton Welch. I spent two weeks with this slender book's eighty-seven pages, reading from a handsome edition published by Enitharmon Press, which is about the same amount of time it took Welch to ramble from his grandfather's house in Henfield of western Sussex County, a village about thirty miles south of London, to the county of Devonshire, 200 meandering miles away.  (And, yes, in the 1940s, when Welch wrote this sensitive, exquisite remembrance of his 1933 summer trek afoot and afield over the southern countryside of England, in which he roughly paralleled a course a short distance from the coastline of the English Channel, he indeed referred to the distances he travelled as "miles").

Welch's walk would nearly be the mileage if not the pastoral equivalent of tramping from Boston to The Bronx.  En route, he crossed the River Adur on a ferry, into the village of Steyning.  He visited Jane Austen's house.  He explored numerous castle and cathedral ruins.  He loitered in a cemetery. He left hostels in haste, after sundown, due to one owner's baffling rudeness or because of the greed of another who insisted without explicitly saying so that their cooking — their "extraordinary" supper — was not an optional cost of service. He bathed in a hostel that featured for its "bath" a brisk stream that literally ran through its interior, and required, if one did not wish to be washed away by its cleansing current (and thus duly exposed to astonished onlookers downstream), that you held on tight to the rope affixed to the rafters.  Denton Welch barely held on, but hold on, he did — the story of his short life.  At another hostel, Welch learned from its owner something of the practical value of cruelty and emotional detachment.  A mother cat is watching her kittens toy with a mouse.
It "was not yet dead and a thrill of horror ran through me as I saw it squirm under the paw of one of the little fluffy kittens.  They did not bite it or even let their claws out to it; they just stared at it with their large blue eyes and patted it every now and then playfully as they would a ball of wool. . .
'Won't you kill it, or take it away?' I asked the woman urgently.
'Good Lord, no,' she smiled, 'they're learning to be good mousers.  How do you think she can teach them if we interfere?'"
Stonehenge, however, was humdrum to him.  He was neither impressed by mysteries or by priests.  A couple he met at a hostel toward the end of his journey thought he looked to be about the age of sixteen and yet carried himself as if he were a decade older.  Which perhaps explains much of his expressed loneliness, gloominess, and melancholy, in the pages of his remarkable memoir, being the young but wise old soul he was.  Though perhaps it explains something else:  Perhaps had I lost the use of my legs at the age of twenty, as Denton Welch had (because senseless circumstances saw fit to have him hit, almost killed, permanently disabled, partially paralyzed for life, by a motor car) and in this context of suffering and grief was remembering how it was when I was a spry young lad of eighteen and could still walk thirty-five miles across the moors and hillocks of southern England in a single day, perhaps I'd know, as Denton Welch no doubt grimly did (and so decided not to mention it in I Left My Grandfather's House), that the sadness so intrinsic to his poignant recollection surely required no further explanation.


Rick Harsch's autograph (Arjun & the Good Snake...)

Being that Rick Harsch's Arjun & the Good Snake: Being an Ophidiological Account of Six Weeks in India without Alcohol . . .*

. . . bears the lengthiest, most cryptic, most interesting inscription I have, I'm puzzled that I had not posted it sooner, and so correct my oversight now.

And since the image of the inscription above isn't entirely clear, I've quoted it below.  Occasional words or letters I couldn't make out I've underscored instead.

"Dear Brent / DM / eF / HEF / under-

I am younger than my crippled 
writing hand is.

Thanks for buying the book,
of course, but also for your enthusiasm
in general, which led me to and
stuck me to LT.***

Please enjoy this quirky,
Slovene __ i_ V___, the strangely
located yet perfectly placed
dedication The tr___ 'ofi_____'
Etc.  And, judge me multifuriously

Uživaj, Rick"

* "Ophidiological" ... Scientific study of snakes.

** "DM" ... Dick Misanthropic.
       "eF" ... Enrique Freeque.
   "HEF" ... Henri_Etta_Freeque.

*** "LT" ... LibraryThing

Arjun & the Good Snake... (2011) is a scarce title — available only in hardcover from Slovenian publisher Amalietti & Amalietti, and now possibly out of print — from the author of The Driftless Trilogy.  The Driftless Zone (or Driftless Area) is a paleozoic plateau cut threw by several river valleys in southwestern Wisconsin, and serves as the primary setting for Rick Harsch's trio of under recognized novels. Published by Steerforth Press, the novels included The Driftless Zone; or, a Novel Concerning the Selective Outmigration from Small Cities (1997); Billy Verite (1998); and The Sleep of Aborigines (2002).  These novels are worthy of revival.  I can envision NYRB reissuing them in a first ever omnibus, can't you?  

Excerpts from Rick Harsch's more recent novels, including The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman and The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, can be read at his website.


The Adept by Michael McClure

I was initially drawn to The Adept by its psychedelic dust jacket.  Even after a friend pointed out that each "e" of the title on the cover looked like a Pac-Man — albeit striped Pac-Mans — I didn't care. I didn't care even though I was strictly a Galaga kid back when Pac-Man was all the rage.  I had to have it; that cover called to me; I was transfixed by its meditative, out of body experience, in the cover art and design.  Thankfully, Lorne Bair Rare Books, self-described "specialists in the history, art and literature of American social movements" (Woodstock's generation, for instance) was there for me when I was jonesing hard for it and needed this amazing fix fast.

Copy of my first edition, 1971
The Adept was Michael McClure's second novel, published by Delacorte Press forty-five years ago, and so far, it has been his last. After safariing deep underneath its alluring surface cover, I polished the novel off last night.

Sure wish McClure had written another novel (or would write one more soon).  Pure pleasure finding myself unself-consciously submerged by the reading, swirling deep into the vortex of Michael McClure's immense imagination — a subversive, unpredictable, and visionary realm at once spiritual and corporeal.  Michael McClure has long been an Artist attuned to whatever it is out there that stalks and breathes beyond our senses, and in The Adept he takes us there.

The Adept is "anti-narrated," you could say, by an expert antihero; by a metafictional-minded — "Listen, my Dear Reader, my Fine Punk Asshole, my Lovely Hypocrite, and you shall hear what it is to be a full-grown adult male animal with hair down to the ass and a fine set of muscles." — cocaine addled mystic, this drug dealing New Yorker, Nicholas, with his kooky predilection for impromptu longueurs galore on things like leonine symbolism one second or Botticelli's illustrations for The Inferno the next.  The novel compels its "Dear Reader ... Lovely Hypocrites" along with Nicholas' digressive commentary (is it maybe Michael McClure's social commentary disguised?) because, yes, it blends like this linguistic smoothie out of erudite esoterica and streetwise jive.  The Adept is serious funny brains.  McClure's colloquial commingling of down and dirty earthiness and high art prefigured David Foster Wallace's own super-smarts-meets-low-arts sensibility of style.

"More Niccolo Macchiavelli than St. Nick," Nicholas' worldview counters the counterculture of his time.  In 1971, when we meet him — we "Fine Punk Assholes" — whatever happy hippie idealism he may have once had has long escaped this enigmatic cynic for good—
"I despise the radical and social Left which would poison me and put me in a prison of Society—leaving me no pleasures but those of happy work, and marriage, and perhaps finally automation so that there would be nothing for me to do but watch state-owned television and pursue crafts and cultural events until the utopia breaks up in sheer boredom of existence."
I said I was enamored by the The Adept's dust jacket at the outset.  I'll say now I was mind blown by the book, and leave it at that, except for this beautiful bit of prose—
"A rose is not only beautiful when new but it is also beautiful when wilted. The Japanese know this. There is more thought in a wilted rose than in a new rose. The new rose, lucent flower meat, gleams and gives off light like a psychedelic drug being whirled in a centrifuge in a dark room. No, not like that. The new rose is new flesh.  It stares back at you.  It is shocked to be removed from the garden, but newborn to be unitary, disparate, and free."


Steve Erickson's autograph & inscription to Frances Kroll Ring (The Sea Came In At Midnight)

While traveling up the coast this past week, we had a chance to veer half-an-hour inland over to the bucolic but always art amenable town of Ojai, home to the "greatest outdoor bookstore" in the U.S.A., Bart's Books. Granted, that they are the "greatest" is their own self description, but I believe them!  I believe also they may in fact be the greatest bookstore, indoor or outdoor, in the United States, period.  The last time I visited, two summers ago, I turned left at the front cashier stand (beneath which are shelved about two hundred $1 books), and explored their vast contemporary literature section as the sun beat down upon me.  This time, I turned right at the cashier stand, into what looked to be the room of an old house.  And this house had a roof.  Can't let the acidifying effects of sunlight beat down on so many leather bound tomes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  A narrow hall — the First Editions section — began opposite the roofed room, and continued round a corner.

While perusing the First Editions section of Bart's Books, I happened upon several signed and inscribed books by Steve Erickson. Every book of Erickson's (there were five there) were inscribed to "Frances". Curious.  Soon, the owner of Bart's Books serendipitously materialized, holding a large mug of coffee, and asked me if I was looking for anything in particular, if I needed any help.  At the moment he asked I was holding a signed and inscribed first printing of The Sea Came In At Midnight. I opened the book to its half-title page and inquired, "Is the 'Frances' here," and pointed at the inscription, "the same 'Frances' that's also inscribed in all the other Erickson books you've got on the shelf?"

"Yep," he said.  "Frances Ring."

"Frances Kroll Ring?" I'd heard of her somewhere. "Wasn't she, like the editor, or the, for ...  um ..."

"Scott Fitzgerald, that's right. She was his secretary and typist the last year-and-a-half or so of his life, when he was writing The Last Tycoon."

"Really? Wow! How'd you get all of them?" I motioned toward the balance of Erickson's books — three novels* and one nonfiction book** — on the shelf.

"Her estate sale.  There was a lot more valuable stuff there too," he said, "but her family decided to keep it."

"Including books?"

"Yep," he replied.

I reiterated: "Wow!"

Later in our conversation, the owner and I (sure wish I had gotten the name of this most congenial, knowledgable fellow) discussed how absurdly undervalued Steve Erickson's work was, both among collectors of contemporary first editions, and a literary establishment that has largely, for the last three decades (sure, there have been many and varied exceptions, primarily sounding forth their lauds from west of the Colorado River, but still) shown indifference when not dishing him outright disrespect that would've ruined writers of lesser vision than he.  However, on the silver lining flip side of Steve Erickson's relative — and again: absurd, undeserved — lower value among collectors in the market, at least lower when you compare what his stuff sells for next to what his contemporaries' stuff sells for, allowed me, a regular 'ol working class freak, to buy one of his signed first editions that he inscribed to Frances Kroll Ring, The Sea Came In At Midnight.  So what if it didn't break my bank, to me the book and its inscription are priceless, because it's living literary history right there forever on the half-title page.

1st edition/1st printing, 1999 "...time is moving..."
Who was Frances Kroll Ring (May 17, 1916 - June 18, 2015) after her twenty months of working for Scott Fitzgerald ended at the end of 1940 with his death?  Many wonderful things.  But for my purposes here, after her husband died, she took a job in 1972 as editor of Westways, the magazine for the Auto Club of Southern California that, at the time, published actual literature of all things, a far cultural cry from the Reader's Digest disposable dreck it has metastasized into today.  About five years*** after Frances Kroll Ring became Westways' editor, Steve Erickson was hired by the magazine.  He would co-author a monthly column that covered the local Los Angeles punk rock concert scene.  Frances Kroll Ring became a champion for Erickson and other emerging writers on the West Coast of the day, and when the sad day came in the early 1980s that Frances Kroll Ring was unceremoniously fired as editor of Westways by the corporate bozo bigwigs, legend has it that Steve Erickson, loyal to his boss, quit his steady gig at the magazine on the spot in protest.  Frances Kroll Ring and Steve Erickson remained friends thereafter, as the inscriptions he wrote to her in the first editions of his books I had the good fortune to read at Bart's Books attest to, and as you can clearly see by Erickson's endearing inscription to her above in my copy of The Sea Came In At Midnight.

    *  The three novels I left on the shelf for someluckyone else to find were Days Between Stations (1985), Tours of the Black Clock (1989), and Arc d'X (1993).
  **   The book of nonfiction was American Nomad (1997).
***  My research never revealed the exact dates.

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The Island of the Dead by Lya Luft

Only the shadows
the secrets
of closed houses,
only the forbidden wind
and the moon that shines
on the roof
~ Pablo Neruda

Camilo, who has just committed suicide within the last twenty-four hours prior to The Island of the Dead's abrupt but artful opening — and it was a strange suicide involving an unbroken mare at that — lies exposed in the living room of his grandmother's home for his wake when we meet him:
"He had the face of an adolescent, delicate, almost the face of a woman.  But dusted lightly with gold, its youth lost and replaced by that solemn mask of wax, ice, and new knowledge . . . In the casket between his parents, in the light, Camilo's face showed surprise, astonishment, as it had since the moment of death. He hid behind this mask in order to die better, undisturbed, and to learn the gesture, the face, the voice, the role he was to play in his new existence. 
The wake was his opening night."
In life, Camilo was the fraternal twin of Carolina, son and daughter of their respective, separated parents, Renata and Martin, and the grandchildren of the family's matriarch known only as "Mother". Camilo and Carolina shared a secret obsession that consumed them (and it directly led to Camilo's death): They longed to be identical twins, sister and brother, boy and girl.  "They practiced being identical with the same tenacity with which she" [their mother] "had prepared herself for her piano in days gone by.  And they acquired, one from the other, the same posture, the same manner of turning their heads, of holding a book, of walking."

The twins' father, Martin, wanted nothing of what he deemed his children's despicable identical desires.  He resorted to even physically separating them, with force, so that one would live on his farm and the other in Mother's house.  He particularly loathed how effeminate his son Camilo was becoming, looking more, sounding more, what little he spoke, and even dressing more and more like his silly sister — the disgrace! Martin tried "curing" Camilo, "manning him up," if you will, with hard and filthy farm labor. After all, he reasoned, "A boy who is always with his sister will turn into a queer." Little could we know when Martin reasoned so about his son, of his own secret hypocrisy in the delicate matter, considering how close — certainly much too close for Mother's comfort (Love had been forbidden, because for Mother, for relatives and friends, the two were siblings")  — he once, well, more than once, actually; many more times than merely "once" if Mother and Martin's remembrance is right, had been with his full-figured stepsister as a teen. "A girl with black hair and sensual mouth, a beautiful mouth.  A beautiful woman full of the juices of life. . ."

With so much distasteful family history to conceal, it's easy to see why Mother ran her nuclear household the way she did, closed to all except family.  The title of Lya Luft's novella is translated literally as "The Closed Room" (O Cuarto Fechado).  So many enclosures within enclosures. Closed house. Closed room. Closed lives. The effect is suffocating, claustrophobic. If ever a book could make its readers struggle to breathe just by its sheer reading (and this is not a criticism or complaint, far from it!) The Island of the Dead is it.  Not only is the un-oxygenated air as stale as it is emotionally stultifying to those who live there, there's that inexplicable, overripe, fetid odor wafting out of the closed room whenever Mother exits or enters.  What is the source of this  secret reek, this shadow rot. Why does Mother insist that the door to the closed room remain always locked?  What are the noises (or are they voices), "Ela, ela," sometimes whispered up there?  Why has Mother devoted herself to the room religiously, every day, devout as a nun, for thirty years? Ela, I should add, is understood best in the context of the original Portuguese, which the translators took pains to acknowledge in their preface, describing how the double implications of ela's meaning would have been obvious to Luft's Brazilian readers, but lost in translation.  Ela in Portuguese became "Ella" in English.  To say anymore might spoil the future reader's own discovery. . . .

I do not know if Lya Luft was cognizant of, if not as outright inspired by, Pablo Neruda's excerpted poem above when she crafted her own "closed house" The Island of the Dead in 1984, as we obviously know she was by Arnold Böcklin's painting of the same name; the sepulchral painting that Renata has hung on the living room wall, not far from Camilo in his coffin, in her mesmerizing novella.  A novella haunted more by the living than the dead.  Interesting, too, how a real painting from real life (Arnold Böcklin was, after all, a real person) is transfigured inside fiction into impermanence through another work of art.  This evocative painting of Böcklin's (Isle of the Dead, 1880), is also pictured on the striking black-and-white cover of the University of Georgia Press' 1986 edition of the novella that I read, translated by Carmen Chaves McClendon and Betty Jean Craige.  So inspired was Sergei Rachmaninov by this black-and-white version of Böcklin's painting that, in 1909, he paid it the highest homage and wrote his own symphonic poem to it, The Isle of the Dead.

Pablo Neruda's famous aphorism quoted at the outset reads like a perfect abstract of Lya Luft's novella.  The eerie similarity of themes and imagery, in fact, and of the understated moods and atmospherics between the two, are uncanny.  Böcklin's painting, moreover, hung innocently enough on the wall of the so-called living room of Mother's house, elicited in Renata her own abiding obsession, prompted by Camilo's death, and oddly energized by the ensuing listlessness of her loss, devastation, and grief.  Renata is a shattered person.  She broods.  She ruminates.  Why did she abandon her early passion for the piano, her fledgling career as a gifted concert pianist, to marry a man she never loved? "I betrayed myself when I abandoned music to be unhappy in love." What can Renata envision, I wonder, regarding her son (assuming she envisions anything anymore), when she daily meditates upon Böcklin's desolate phantasmal painting?  Is that herself there in the boat she sees, standing at the prow, delivering her son unto death as she likewise once did, into life, a lifetime ago?

Even shadows intently scrutinized by mourning mothers reveal no answers.  Nor the moon.
"If he could speak the dead boy would say: 'At the bottom of the well I found united Life and Death, masculine and feminine, the I and the Other, devouring each other like the serpent that swallows his own tail.  From darkness and insanity Death leaped out, opening her arms wide — prostitute, damsel, promise, damnation.  Drunk with mystery, she called me, and I had to know: Whose bosom awaits me?  What silence?  What new language?'"

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, 1880

Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air. 
~ Pablo Neruda



Avalon.  The very name evokes ancient mysteries, for its legends that some dare call "history" have long harbored mystical and mythological meanings.  Arthur.  Excalibur.  Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King.  Avalon, in italics, is the name of one of my favorite rock records ever, and I cannot emphasize enough (though this time proper grammar dictates no italics) that Avalon is also one of my favorite destinations ever.  I wouldn't doubt that Bryan Ferry or Phil Manzanera fancies it as well.

Avalon, the town, is a small seaside enclave twenty-six miles from the mainland of California on Santa Catalina Island. Protected by a bay on the leeward side of the island, the town, which has elements of the best of San Francisco (steep narrow streets bedecked with Victorians), of Main Street USA (old school, independent, Mom-and-Pops, some selling malteds), and of the French Riviera I can only presume (lavish yet elegant Mediterranean-style estates hanging off terraced soapstone cliffs with blazing balcony views of sunlight glinting off the tinted windows of yachts moored in the humble half-moon of a harbor below; of sailboats and skiffs upon the white-capped cobalt blue of the Pacific shimmering its golden glaze in an elongated triangle to the horizon), is a sheltered cove I'm tempted to call Paradise because it rarely gets too hot or cold or crowded.  Maybe Midas — and not only King Arthur, but possibly Roxy Music, too — lived here once upon a time.  The homeless sure don't — they probably can't afford the ferry ride over. Approximately 3,800 suntanned souls live in Avalon year round.  With few automobiles about, there is not even one traffic light. People mostly get around the 2.9 square miles of the city on golf carts. The collective sound of golf carts in the village (say one were noticing their hypnotic, fifteen-miles-per-hour-maximum, collective sound from the second story window of a small white room in the historic Hermosa Hotel; a sound that, surprisingly, I did not find at all abrasive) sounds like a single intent lawnmower going by, going by, going by always, always, going by, as if it were committed to cutting the grass upon some invisible and infinite island lawn.

When in Avalon ...  And so we took a tour of the town in one such buzzing golf cart.  Drove steep one-lane roads that wound above town, where beautiful "blue dick" flowers flourished beside the punishing paddles of prickly pear cacti (ouch!); and where, finally, up in these sunburnt hills high above Avalon, the subtle, intermingled, intermittent scents of open air eateries, fish, admixture of sunscreen and sweat, tidal surge and salty air, are pungently purged by the funky aromas of chaparral.  Stopped the golf cart abruptly and took a whiff of this weird windblown bloom.  Kids called me crazy for sniffing the air like some white rabbit. Drove on, but stopped again soon, this time at the entrance to a gated road on Mt. Ada that led higher up a steep ridge to the Wrigley's famous manor overlooking everything they once owned . . . .

I closed my eyes there for a second at the overlook under the Wrigley mansion and saw, in black-and-white, in stills that mysteriously floated by, this astonishing image of a baseball diamond and outfield on an island in my mind.  Wrigley built it, and the Cubs came.  The team arrived every winter before The War for spring training . . . .

l., Chicago Cubs Signed Baseball 1931; r., Cubs Third Baseman Stan Hack's Baseball Glove (Catalina Island Museum)


Quick trip report on a day hike in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

Our original plan on Saturday June 25th — my buddy's, my two kids' plan and mine — had been to hike up the five-plus miles of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River to The Bridge to Nowhere in the San Gabriel Mountains, but nearby wildfires had made access to the trailhead doubtful, and even had access been available, the smoky haze and residual poor air quality, combined with the excessive, oppressive heat that weekend, made a lower elevation hike at the time less and less appealing, anyway, so we weren't too disappointed in opting for plan B.

Plan B was a mountain range to our east, an "island of pine forests in the sky" as our iconic and beloved regional hiking guide author and mountain historian, John W. Robinson, has called it, that was not yet affected by wildfires this summer — the San Jacintos.  The San Jacinto Mountains rise abruptly, dramatically, out of the hellishly arid deserts of the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs.  We were on the road Saturday morning at 6:30 and arrived at the lower terminal of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway by 7:35. Being summer (and a Saturday), the terminal was already packed. Upon entering the terminal, signs announced "All Campgrounds Full". And even though we bought our tickets twenty minutes before the first tram was scheduled to depart up the mountain at 8:00, we had to wait for the second tram at 8:15.  Not a big deal.  We weren't in a rush.  Gave us time to apply our sunscreen thoroughly and to observe an interesting, culturally diverse, and motley mix of outdoors adventurers, some very young, and some not. About half of those waiting to board the first tram up appeared to be backpackers with bedrolls, walking sticks, and lug-soled hiking boots.  The other half, of which our modest group comprised, carried smaller day packs and wore tennis shoes.

Our longtime family friend — my buddy, Mardi (credit him with the photography in this post) — noticed the fallen tree (pictured at right) with what looks like "etching" of some sort.  This shot was taken just off the trail that wanders through sparsely forested, boulder rimmed sandy flats, that would make great dry campsites, toward Hidden Lake Divide.  I'm not positive as to what could've caused the interesting patterns in the tree beneath its bark (I'm certainly no naturalist or pine tree expert, after all) but might this be the result of the bark beetle infestations that have plagued our national forests for the last several decades of historic drought throughout the western United States?

That's Cornell Peak (9,750', pictured at left) jutting up beyond a surprisingly green and relatively lush Round Valley — green and lush even despite our ongoing drought. Directly below Cornell Peak, a bit to the left and at the bottom edge of the photograph, in the shadows of tall pines, is the back of my ten-year-old son's head.

We didn't make it much farther beyond Round Valley this day.  The trail beyond Round Valley, on its way to Wellman's Divide — the last major trail junction prior to attempting an "assault" from the east on the summit of Mt. San Jacinto (10,833') — becomes about three times as steep as the previous 2.7 miles of gently ascending grade that got us the 800 feet of elevation gain to Round Valley in the first place, via the lesser traveled trail from Hidden Lake Divide.  None of us, except my nineteen-year-old daughter, who could probably day hike Kilimanjaro or Denali in her sleep as much stamina and energetic youthful fervor as she has, felt like working that hard uphill, so we found a scenic rest stop near a switchback ensconced by giant granite boulders, one of which had a pine tree growing out from one of its cracks, and called it a day.  Two of us, the old, out of shape huffers-and-puffers, Mardi and me, rested our sweaty heads on our daypacks and took an early afternoon nap. While we napped, my daughter read several chapters of The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor, and my son sought to capture him a long-tailed lizard or two.

So what if we didn't make it to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto (our goal when we set out?), we'd all been there before. Most photographs don't do justice to the view from the summit, though I think this shot I found online comes pretty darn close.

The environmentalist extraordinaire, John Muir, has been quoted widely as saying "The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!"  Now, granted, the obviously overexcited, arguably hyperbolic, Mr. Muir, didn't have the opportunity to travel exactly everywhere across the earth, but he did travel everywhere throughout the Sierra Nevadas and Yosemite, so I think when you consider the majesty of the glorious views afforded by those spectacular places, the stunning and rare grandeur of the view atop the summit of Mt. San Jacinto is put into an appropriately comparable and well deserved perspective.  

John Muir's famous quote about Mt. San Jacinto originated in
K.P. Frederick's Legends and History of the San Jacinto Mountains,
published ninety years ago in 1926.


John O'Brien's autograph (Leaving Las Vegas)

I was leaving L.A. yesterday, but the 110 and 10 were being absurdly difficult—they had different ideas:  You're not going anywhere, Pal.

Tired of traveling slower than a sloth, I got off on Maple and headed north toward downtown. Find a place to eat. Have a beer. Watch some baseball. Wait. Coronado's was the perfect place: authentic tacos, chile rellenos, and an open view directly across the street to ... no way ... The Last Bookstore!

What better way to beat L.A. traffic than checking out the whimsically designed book sculptures; perusing the eccentric shelves and former bank vaults housing obscure horrors of grim books; or simply strolling into the arched grottos—through the labyrinths made literally out of books—of The Last Bookstore.

Inside the Rare Books Room, Leaving Las Vegas caught my eye behind the glass.

Sydney Zekley, as engaging, enthusiastic and helpful a curator of rare books I've ever met, was delightful to talk to. She schooled me on the fine art of identifying first editions. As I left The Last Bookstore, I found it amusing how frustrated I'd been trying to leave L.A. two hours ago, and yet how happy I was now leaving downtown with Leaving Las Vegas instead. My drive home was a breeze.

Signed first editions of John O'Brien's first novel are scarce. I was lucky to find it.

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Orange County Noir autographs (edited by Gary Phillips)

Orange County Noir is one of the eighty-two short story anthologies of noir fiction that have so far been published by Akashic Books—an independent press devoted to championing mostly urban, culturally diverse, outsider writers who've been ignored or marginalized by the masters of the universe in publishing, and who therefore have understandably zero interest in being published by them anyway; by this conveyor belt of bad and soulless book crowds—industrious peddlers of ubiquitous bestsellers.  Edited by Gary Phillips, Orange County Noir explores in depth the ugly (often opioid addicted) backside of the county's infamous Orange Curtain, beautifully.  

"The day had started out with me shitting blood" is indeed an ugly but beautifully rendered first sentence, courtesy of Rob Roberge's harrowing story "Diverters".  "Diverters" follows a desperate resident of Tustin, CA, undergoing opioid withdrawal while looking to score.  He'll steal whatever he can get: Vicodin, Valium, Oxycontin, anything.  "I heard morphine and said yes and committed my last five hundred bucks from a poker win a few nights before. " His distaste for what he considered useless "fentanyl lollipops" couldn't help but remind me of Prince's tragic demise.

Akashic Books publishes books that are unforgettable.  Tour the entire world, for example, in their Noir Series of anthologies: from Beirut to Belfast; Cape Cod to Copenhagen; Haiti to Helsinki; Kingston to Manila; Mumbai to Moscow; New Orleans to Portland, Oregon; Singapore to Stockholm; Tehran to Tel Aviv. . . . Each anthology has been curated by an editor intimately acquainted with the authors and their noir stories in her or his local literary scene.

In time for the 2016 Olympics, Rio Noir will be published this Tuesday, June 7th. That's timely planning and smart marketing, I'd say.  And no, I do not work for Akashic Books. I am not affiliated with them in any way.

Contributing authors to Orange County Noir who were kind enough to sign my copy included: (in no particular order) —

Barbara Demarco-Barrett,
Patricia McFall,
Mary Castillo,
Nathan Walpow,
Gordon McAlpine,
Dan Duling.

more autographs


Guest Post: Play It As It Lays reviewed by Joseph Brinson

You know, I began a try at this review writing about Iago in Othello and the nature of evil.

And about ennui and apathy.

And that the answer is: nothing.

And how I felt deep empathy for Maria.

And then I deleted it all.

This is my review: This novel depressed the fuck out of me.

That, and giving it four stars, should sum it up.

Design by Olympia Le-Tan

Joseph Brinson (a.k.a., "Quixada"), a poet and a longtime online pal, made me fucking howl when I first read his deadpanned piece on Play It As It Lays years and years ago.  Yes, it is brief — yet is playfully, skillfully thorough. His homage still slays me today.


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 26-30

006 ... In which I continue reading Ulysses one page per day, and quote both my favorite sentence and favorite word from each day's reading. Each post chronicles five days.

Day 26; pg 26

Stephen’s embarrassed hand moved over the shells heaped in the cold stone mortar: whelks and money cowries and leopard shells: and this, whorled as an emir’s turban, and this, the scallop of saint James.

f.w. = thong


Day 27; pg 27

Do you know that the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty years before O’Connell did or before the prelates of your communion denounced him as a demagogue?

Iago makes an appearance on pg 27.  Iago also appeared on the first page of Joan Didion's sizzling second novel Play It As It Lays. I wonder where else that ego-tripping imp Iago has appeared in contemporary literature?  Put but money in thy purse, Dear!  Money is power!!

f.w. = filibegs


Day 28; pg 28

But prompt ventilation of this allimportant question ... Where Cranly led me to get rich quick, hunting his winners among the mudsplashed brakes, amid the bawls of bookies on their pitches and reek of the canteen, over the motley slush.

The above sentence almost got beat out by Lal the ral the ra and Lal the ral the raddy but it just wasn't meant to be.

f.w. = thimbleriggers

Day 29; pg 29

The pluterperfect imperturbability of the department of agriculture.

Probably the pricelessest alliteration and word play I've read allday.  This following second place sentence — Jousts, slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men’s bloodied guts — reminded me of many a fine time dining al fresco, sans utensils, at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire festival. And, btw, "Renaissance," for you Stateside-improperly-pronouncing-imbeciles, is pronounced "Renee-ssance," not "Wren-uh-ssance," Mowrons.

f.w. = pluterperfect

I feel pluterperfectly drunk on Joyce right abouts now!


Day 30; pg 30

—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

After reading that sentence, how can I not ask myself am I reading Ulysses or am I reading Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet?  Take out the "Stephen said" and I wouldn't have been able to tell you which book that quote came from had you given me a choice between the two.  In fact I'd of probably picked Pessoa's.  Foreboding aphorisms abound. Pg 30 also reminded me of something that I'd completely forgotten about regarding Ulysses: that being either its anti-semitism or, rather, its portrayals of anti-semitism.  Mr. Deasy, for instance, is a blatant bigot:

Mark my words ... England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction....

...They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.

f.w. = maladroit


Reading Ulysses index


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 21-25

005 ... In which I read James Joyce's Ulysses one page per day, one day at a time, and chronicle my reading by quoting my favorite sentence and favorite word ("f.w.") from each page. Each post chronicles five days of reading.

Day 21; pg 21

For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

Another "all"-one-word-sentence occurs on this pg.  A general's spear is prominent.  As is Pyrrhus, pier.  Lots of letter "p" wordplay.

f.w. = gorescarred.


Day 22; pg 22

Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds..

f.w. = Genevieve

I was recently discussing the topics of Time and Ghosts with friends, just the day before, in fact, that I read this page. Check out how pg 22 opens below —

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death. They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.
—Tell us a story, sir.
—O, do, sir. A ghoststory.

Is it possible Joyce remembered our future conversations before they happened, and so recorded some of our present biography in his past fiction?  Are you metempsychotic enough to believe it?

Day 23; pg 23

His thick hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading.

f.w. = riddling.  Pg 23 is a page riddled with riddles.  Stephen telling a riddle that's not a riddle but a prank for schoolboys; riddles of the Church—pranks for parishioners?  The Holy Catholic Church is wholly a riddle at times.  Fun pg.

Here's an arbitrary, random aside for Joyce fans; especially for aficionados of Finnegans Wake:  Arno Schmidt ~ on Finnegans Wake.

I also mention Arno Schmidt because his long untranslated novel Zettels Traum (1970) is scheduled for a September release this year from Dalkey Archive, translated as "Bottom's Dream".  Like Finnegans Wake, a novel that Zettel's Traum has been compared to, it's been accused of being unreadable, too long, and untranslatable.  And get this—it's twice as long as Finnegans Wake at 1,496 pages!  It will become one of the lengthiest novels ever published in English.  You can already preorder a Dalkey Archive hardcover edition (in one volume) for $53.57!

Who was Arno Schmidt and what is Zettels Traum?

Watch Zettels Traum yourself!


Day 24; pg 24

Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.

More parody of sacred Scripture.  Another appearance, also (a variation I believe), of He proves by algebra that Shakespeare’s ghost is Hamlet’s grandfather.  Hamlet plays a role here in Ulysses and also in Infinite Jest; what other famous works (or not so famous works) of modernisticshit does Hamlet appear?

f.w. = askance


Day 25; pg 25

Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.

As far as sentences about secrets go, that one is spectacular.

f.w. = laggard


Reading Ulysses index


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 16-20

004 ... in which I continue reading Ulysses one page per day one day at a time, and chronicle my reading by quoting my favorite sentence and word from each page. Each post chronicles five days of reading.

Day 16; pg 16

The seas’ ruler, he gazed southward over the bay, empty save for the smokeplume of the mailboat vague on the bright skyline and a sail tacking by the Muglins.

Hard to decide on a favorite word; it's either smokeplume or Muglins (and this, I think, is the first occurrence for me in which the sentence I chose also holds my favorite word).


Day 17; pg 17

—The ballad of joking Jesus, Stephen answered.

Jarring sentence!  I allmost chose the sentence All.  Not just any writer can write a one-word sentence that fits the context of the narrative in both a stylistic/aesthetic sense and thematically.  The word "all" is used many times on this page.  Do you believe at all, Haines is asking Dedalus, even if you don't believe it all?

f.w. = waistcoatpocket.  I believe I allmost chose all.


Day 18; pg 18

Symbol of the apostles in the mass for pope Marcellus, the voices blended, singing alone loud in affirmation: and behind their chant the vigilant angel of the church militant disarmed and menaced her heresiarchs.

A friend informed me that the above sentence I picked for Day 18 is referring to this — beautiful music there.  The sentence preceding this one ends with "a chemistry of stars"—an intriguing idea/image.  I like the odd syntax at the end of the sentence above as well.

f.w. = heresiarch


Day 19; pg 19

He scrambled up by the stones, water glistening on his pate and on its garland of grey hair, water rilling over his chest and paunch and spilling jets out of his black sagging loincloth.

First time I read this in '09 I don't recall that there had been a search for a drowning victim in the bay near the Martello Tower.  The "He" in this sentence has been observed just prior on this page walking "frogwise" in the water along the rocks, perhaps feeling with his hands for a body?

f.w. = rotto


Day 20; pg 20

I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame.

The first chapter break occurs here on pg 20.  A new character, Cochran, is introduced.  And shortly thereafter we hear "the thud of Blake's wings of excess."

f.w = sweettoned


Reading Ulysses index


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 11-15

003 ... in which I continue reading Ulysses one page per day one day at a time, and chronicle my reading by quoting my favorite sentence and word from each page. Each post chronicles five days of reading.

DAY 11, pg 11

A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning.

Page 11 is the funniest and perhaps most gnostic page, too, I've read so far here, early on.  If anyone could direct me to an analysis of gnosticism in Ulysses I'd be much obliged.  The words "milk" and "secret" appear numerous times on page 11.  The word "hising" appears for the first of two times it will appear in Ulysses according to the Ulysses Concordance, but I've yet to find what the word means.  Is it an early instance of Joyce inventing a new word?

f.w. = dewsilky, but on pg 11 I must also include an honorable mention f.w.: prepuces.  I really really like this word "prepuces".

Godless Florin, 1849
DAY 12; pg 12

Well, it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling.

That dazzling bit of dialogue from the milkwoman replying to Haines about the bill for the milk just leapt off the page—and it was a page with lots of leapers.

f.w = Gaelic ... this was the first pag in which a single word didn't leap at me like the sentences, so I had to search and search and sort of "settle" on "Gaelic," a beautiful word nonetheless.

DAY 13; pg 13

Haines from the corner where he was knotting easily a scarf about the loose collar of his tennis shirt spoke: —I intend to make a collection of your sayings if you will let me.

—No, Haines, I shall make a collection of your sayings.

f.w. = agenbite


DAY 14; pg 14

He stood up, gravely ungirdled and disrobed himself of his own, saying resignedly:
—Mulligan is stripped of his garments.

Hmmm. Might Mulligan be being rather blasphemous?

f.w. = handkerchief — a word you no longer hear much these days.  It beat out "snotrag" by a nose.


DAY 15; pg 15

He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.

Fun page.  Besides Shakespeare, Thomas Aquinas and Oscar Wilde are also mentioned.  The sentence above, in fact, is Buck Mulligan poking fun at the paradoxical witticisms of Wilde.  I almost picked Wait till I have a few pints in me first as my favorite sentence, because, in that simple line — in the words "in me" — I can hear that Irish voice speaking loud and clear.

f.w. = stolewise


Reading Ulysses Index


Guest Post: Farewell to Manzanar reviewed by Mac McCaskill

"Mountain now loosens rivulets of tears.
Washed stones, forgotten clearing."
 —Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

When my father was a boy, he learned that he’d been adopted by the man whom he’d thought was his father. Digging through a dusty trunk in his attic, he found legal documents that gave him the name he wore and the father he knew, but also uncovering an origin that had been hidden from him.

His mother was, by all accounts, a volatile woman — her siblings called her “the hornet” because her sting was quick and painful. She was a hard woman, and reticent to either acknowledge or divulge anything about his biological father. Over the years, he eventually learned from other relatives that she met Mr. Black — it was his name, but also a metaphor for much more — in a late 1920’s dance hall. He left her pregnant, taking whatever money he could get his hands hand on when he went.

Late in his life, after his mother died, my dad started quizzing other relatives for information about Mr. Black, and learned that he had a half-brother and half-sister. He reached out to them, curious about the man who would have been his father. Curious, too, about his other, unlived life, the one that you imagine still plays out, with another you — who isn’t really you, but a slightly better you, in a slightly better corner of the universe — with another family, another father who didn’t abandon you. It’s universal, sons and daughters searching for the person their parents used to be, if only a little more charged in those who’ve been disconnected from their bloodline.

Dad was a junior high school English teacher. He often brought a copy of the books he was teaching his students — Romeo and Juliet or Shane. Before teaching, he had served in reconstruction Japan after the bombs were dropped. What little he ever said about his war service, he always brightened up when he spoke about Japan and the Japanese people. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he brought home a copy of Farewell to Manzanar when he introduced it to his class. Of course, I ignored it, like the other books Dad brought home, exiting the room quickly when he tried to talk to me about why it was important to him.

Wandering through a bookstore in California, I happened on a bright orange and yellow-covered book, calling out to me from the shelves. When I pulled it down, my breath caught as I read the title — Farewell to Manzanar. I brought it home and shelved it with the other non-fiction titles in my library, but it pulled at me when I walked by, urging me to reconnect with my father.

Compact and paperback, it was a perfect choice for a recent business trip. In the pressurized air, as I began to read it, I heard my father in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s story, saw his own longing and search for a father he didn’t know.

Farewell to Manzanar is generally categorized as a story about the internment of Japanese American’s following the attack on Pearl Harbor — a cautionary tale about how fear can overcome basic honor and respect. But it’s so much more, if you listen.

George Ko Wakatsuki (Jeanne Wakatsuki's father)
Jeanne Wakatsuki was interned with her family at Manzanar, in a desert valley between two mountain ranges in eastern California. She was seven years old and she spent the next four years of her life in the camp. But her father was taken first to Fort Lincoln, falsely accused of aiding Japanese submarines off the California coast while fishing. When he joined his family at Manzanar, he was broken, changed. He arrived with a limp and a habit for the bottle. Wakatsuki longed to discover what had happened to her father, but it wasn’t until she begin writing Farewell to Manzanar that she started to understand that her father’s life ended at Manzanar, where her life began. She may have embarked on writing this book to tell her family’s story, and the country’s, but what she was really doing was giving voice to the search for her father, a man she didn’t know. It’s no wonder that my own father found himself in the pages of Wakatsuki’s book, saw her search as his own. And reading Farewell to Manzanar helped me to understand him.

Bottom Line: Life in a Japanese internment camp — but also a search for a father.

5 bones!!!!!


Mac McCaskill (a.k.a., blackdogbooks) is a prolific reader and writer.  I've had the pleasure of reading his reviews for almost ten years now, and his short stories for the last two or three.  I suspect upstanding editors of online journals and print magazines of excellence will eventually do more than simply read Mac McCaskill's stories too.  He knows how to tell a good one, doesn't he? Moved by what Mac had to say regarding Manzanar in his poignant piece above, I asked him for the privilege of posting it here.


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 6-10

002 ... in which I continue reading Ulysses one page per day one day at a time, and chronicle my reading by quoting my favorite sentence and word from each page. Each post chronicles five days of reading.

Day 6; pg 6

A light wind passed his brow, fanning softly his fair uncombed hair and stirring silver points of anxiety in his eyes.

And today requires a second favorite sentence:

I remember only ideas and sensations.

Funny thing that second sentence—ideas and sensations, for me, elicit memories, but I rarely remember ideas and sensations, in and of themselves, per se.

f.w. = Laloutte's

Rolls off the tongue nicely.  I remember a friend who once mentioned being drunk at a party where the partygoers were reading Finnegans Wake aloud, and just laughing uproariously over the language.  Ulysses is likewise a novel to be read aloud.

The word "beastly" is plastered all over page six.  I'm sure Joyce had a reason....

North Coast of the Dingle Peninsula, by Helene Brennan

Day 7; pg 7 

Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

So quotable, and but one example of Joyce's unmatched mastery of language.  Perhaps only Shakespeare surpassed him?

f.w. = phantasmal

Day 8; Pg 8 

Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul.

Even though I know, in context, Stephen Dedalus is ruminating upon his late mother, that line, in my own life's context, elicited a visceral reaction when I read it.  I suspect anyone who's stared into those "glazing eyes ... out of death" of one beloved, suddenly gone, likewise feels their soul shaken and bent.  That sentence there is high and holy Art—but one example of the numinous universal power of Joyce, in particular, and of Literature, in general.

f.w. = ghostcandle


Day 9; Pg 9 

He went over to it, held it in his hands awhile, feeling
its coolness, smelling the clammy slaver of the lather in which the brush was stuck.

Pure poetry!  This page requires mention of a runner-up sentence—

I am another now and yet the same.

Reminds me of the poet (forget whom) who wrote of the river — "you sound like you're moving / but you never leave".

f.w. = barbacans


Day 10; Pg 10 

Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf, said in an old woman’s wheedling voice:
—When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said.

f.w. = Dundrum


Reading Ulysses index


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day (w/the intent of finishing it sometime in early 2018): Pages 1-5

I believe I can do it this time; that is, read Ulysses from first page to last.  Once upon a time, in March of 2009, I organized a group read in LibraryThing called "The Quest for the Last Page of Ulysses," but about halfway through my Gabler edition copy of the novel (or roughly two-thirds of the way up to the "top"—the end—of the book, acknowledging the Mount Everest imagery and Himalayan metaphors I regularly employed in our reading progress during the epic Quest), I was either surprised by a Yeti, causing me to stumble and slip down an ice-chute to my doom, or was overcome by an avalanche, and so "died" while attempting to stand upon the summit of "Mount" Ulysses.

First edition, 1922
This time, there will be no impossible mountains to conquer; instead, Ulysses will be tackled as if it were a terrible addiction to overcome ... "one" hazy, lazy "day at a time"; or, one dizzying page per day. During each day of my recovery from Ulysses I will quote one sentence from my reading—not necessarily the best sentence, but whichever sentence for whatever reason(s) struck my fancy or maybe my funny bone. I will also share my favorite word (FW) of the day from my reading. What might Ulysses, both the best and the beastliest novel ever written, read like thus abridged?  Unless illness, family emergency, or death take me yonder, we are going to find out.

Why am I doing this? Doing something so hard and self-punishing? Well, why not?  So what if I have "to fake it till I make it," because I trust that Ulysses "will work if I work it, but it won't if I don't"! Also, beyond just the rewards that shall surely come to me once I've beaten this terrible disease, Ulysses, I'd like to finally get the ribald monkey off my back and be able to say that I finished the damn thing, every goddamned word of it, this novel that, love it or hate it (as I have both through the years), nonetheless deserves a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh chance (and more), understanding that relapse in fighting Ulysses is the expected norm.

In lieu of a hard copy of the novel, for the time being I'll be utilizing a pdf of Ulysses online.  And rather than post here every day, I'll post my progress in five day installments per blog post. So, here goes (thisiscrazy thisiscrazy thisiscrazy) . . . .

Day 1, Pg 1 

Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

The lovely alliteration of "displeased" / "sleepy" caught my ears.

f.w. = Chrysostomos


Day 2; Pg 2 

—Lend us a loan of your noserag to wipe my razor.

f.w. = dactyls


Joseph Beuys, examining Joyce's scrotumtightening sea (photo by Caroline Tisdall)
Day 3; Pg 3 

The scrotumtightening sea.

I bet the sea off Dublin, Ireland is scrotumtightening any time of year.

f.w. = snotgreen


Day 4; Pg 4 

—He can’t wear them, Buck Mulligan told his face inthe mirror.

You can just hear Mulligan's sneer, that line is so spot-on-good (or "spotongood,") as Joyce may have spelled it.  That image of Mulligan speaking to the mirror is striking, too.

f.w. = dogsbody


Day 5; pg 5

With slit ribbons of his shirt whipping the air he hops and hobbles round the table, with trousers down at heels, chased by Ades of Magdalen with the tailor’s shears.

f.w.  = omphalos


Reading Ulysses index


Briefly Scrutinizing the First Sentence of It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan

How's this for an opening line:

"LATELY I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me."

That's the first sentence zinger from It Happened in Boston? (1968), the debut novel replete with astonishing zinger sentences from one of the most unjustly neglected* writers of the past fifty years, Russell H. Greenan.

Image of my first printing, 1968
Greenan's first published sentence in a book zings for many reasons; allow me to zero in, briefly, on a few.  First, the sentence serves as a microcosm, in thirteen lucky words, for the brilliant, intentionally unbalanced, balance of the 273 page novel.  If I explained in too much specific details what I meant by "microcosm" it just wouldn't match the captivating kookiness of Greenan's novel on the one hand, and its genre-bending erudition on the other, where the contemporary art world, world history, mystery, mythology, mysticism, and "fantasy" in the old-school, James Branch Cabell or Jorge Luis Borges sense of the word—the fantastic— intermingle in our narrator-artist's transformative "reveries" that propel him, within the span of minutes, to other planets, alternate realities, the Middle Ages, and back to antique galleries and public gardens (when he's not in some psychiatric ward) in the backstreets of a photographically rendered Boston as fully realized as Leopold Blooms' day in Dublin.

Secondly, notice that Greenan used the word "feel" instead of "think" or "believe" in the first sentence. Why "feel"?  Why not "perceive" or "observe" or "notice"? Probably because He, our oddball but genius narrator, is an artist.  That he is an artist is not a delusion.  Like many artists, he feels things deeply—more deeply than most.  He also sees things more deeply than most.  Things that ordinary souls would call delusions, hallucinations.  Not only are the pigeons spying on him (and later haranguing him), but he can travel through time, throughout the eons of recorded history and a myriad of cultures.

"One day I dined with Aristides or with Vespasian, the next I ate with the Yorubas or gnawed a reindeer bone in the Dordogne. In swift succession I looked upon the glory of Cyrus the Great, the savagery of Chaka, the courage of Cortez, the splendor of Sheng-tsu, the folly of Nero, the fury of Timour and the cunning of the Medici. I heard Mozart play and Dr. Johnson talk. . . ."

Clearly, our narrator is as erudite as he is nuts.  But, lest I stray further from the first sentence of It Happened in Boston?, let me say lastly that in its amazing microcosm of an even more amazing book, I'm reminded of what Lydia Davis accomplishes less effectively in her short short story-abstracts in which implications billow out from a brevity of words, and interpretations are trusted solely to the reader's knowledge and imagination.  Imagine an entire novel of first sentences like that, how artistically twisted (a compliment) that could become—sort of like the off-kilter visual of the apartment building on the front cover of the first edition's dust jacket—and that is, without question, the exciting experience of reading It Happened in Boston?

* Russell H. Greenan's most recent novel, his fourteenth, Nether Netherland, was published in England in 2014, when he was eighty-eight.  He's ninety now.  Visit him at his excellent website that chronicles the entirety of his unique career.


Where Faith and Fatalism Collide: The Accident by David Plante

Isn't it uncanny how the authors we sometimes just happen to be reading in tandem together collide out of the blue outside of what we're reading and we discover, without any prior knowledge, that the writer's lives, beyond their fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, intersected intimately?  Leaves me wondering aloud if sometimes what we've chosen to read, being the lifelong passionate readers we are, was somehow nudged in one way or another by the books themselves upon our shelves and nightstands? Before anybody scoffs or labels me nuts (and for the skeptics, I'll grant you, in a spirit of magnanimity offered in the hopes you'll continue reading, that I'm nutty) keep in mind that William H. Gass, a titan of Literature and Philosophy among post-1960 Artist-Thinkers of the Earth, conceptualized the animate possibilities of books in an essay "The Book as a Container of Consciousness" that he began as an address to a "conference on the book," hosted by the J. Paul Getty Center, and later polished up for publication in his 1996 essay collection Finding A Form. Theoretically, therefore, books could in fact be in possession of their own "minds" so to speak; and having minds, couldn't they vie for our attentions, and perhaps mysteriously attract our attention to specific spines on our bookshelves?

The most recent instance of books attracting books that I've encountered was while reading and becoming enrapt by Stephen Spender's book length analysis of T.S. Eliot's poetry in T.S. Eliot. At the same time, I'd been reading an exceptional, introspective, novel, The Accident by an author — David Plante —brand new to me.  When a writer new to me excites me as much as Plante has, I begin reading up on everything I can find about them.  In so doing I found The Guardian's fine review of Plante's recent memoir Becoming a Londoner: A Diary.  In it, the reviewer revealed  the personal, perhaps intimate, connection that had existed for many years between Stephen Spender and David Plante. Plante, in fact, had "stolen" one of Spender's lovers, the Greek poet, Nikos Stangos. Again, when I'd begun Spender's T.S. Eliot and Plante's The Accident I had no clue of their deep connection, and yet there it was, and I had just happened to be reading books by both writers at the same time. Coincidence, or something more?  For an instance of possibly "something more" I'll refer the reader to an old post, "Meeting Terri Inside a Book (or, When a Book Lures You, Listen!)" in which I was drawn to an obscure work of literary criticism on Henry James and upon opening the first page, revealed it to be formerly owned by a mentor from my past.

After reading the first sentence of The Accident, I had the impulse to rush here and quote it, but I kept reading.  Then I had the impulse to quote the first paragraph, the first page, the entire first chapter, but I had to keep reading.  Over halfway through this slim novel, I still wanted to quote every word of it, but how absurd and impractical would that be?  Instead, I'll honor my first impulses and quote the first sentence, the first paragraph. . . .
"WALKING ALONG the Seine, close to the swiftly moving but heavy water that slithered against the quai, walking round the couples sitting at the edge with their arms about each other, one young man with his hand inside the unbuttoned blouse of the young woman and holding her breast, I longed for what I felt couldn't be fulfilled even by making love, only by throwing myself into the river, not to die, but to be taken somewhere else on its current, which, out at the center, streamed in smooth, shining, infolding waves."
The Accident is a distillation of language; it's a short novel that's been aged long.  That the sentences go down smooth in "shining, infolding waves" isn't to say they lack a complex of flavors because their finish lingers.  The Accident examines in deep psychological detail the consequences of faith and its opposites atheism and nihilism over the course of a semester in the 1950s at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, in the lives — and in the ruins — of four students from the States: Tom Domlon, Karen, Vincent, and an unnamed narrator.  It is the unnamed narrator's austere, philosophical rumination from his unspecified future vantage, looking back at what he lost and also learned from the wreckage, that moves the psychological action along.

In critiquing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Stephen Spender describes the "failure" of Prufrock, "for which he despises himself, is failure to relate either with another person or with the Absolute.  He is isolated, he cannot communicate".  And the same could be said of David Plante's unnamed narrator — a conflicted self-loather mad at himself for once believing and now for his unbelief, and unnamed, perhaps, to emphasize not only his lack of identity but his rejection of any identity, Catholic or otherwise, he could have claimed — who likewise, surrounded by his classmates almost desperate to know him, who in fact go out of there way to engage him, cannot — no, he will not — open his tortured heart to them, until it is too late.  Spender wrote of Prufrock that he was "superior to the inhabitants of his world because he is conscious of being inferior," which again, describes (and the similarities between the two characters are uncanny to the point I can't help but wonder if Plante purposely fashioned his narrator after Eliot's Prufrock) the convoluted, paradoxical psychology, of David Plante's No-Name narrator in his torn, tugging desires that, in turns, make him in one moment want to belong with his college comrades, and the next remain apart, alienated.

What follows is the Reaper's abrupt arrival in a blinding light on an otherwise starry tranquil night in the French countryside near Paris, where finally, we understand, as the dramatic yet understated tension that David Plante, in his enchanting poetic prose, has built and built and built toward its climactic crash, why he titled his beautiful brilliant novel as he did.  Where faith and fatalism collide, there's going to be a terrible accident.