Friday, March 28, 2008

Upton Sinclair’s Oil!

Whenever I travel out of town, I like to check out the local independent bookstores. A month or so ago in San Francisco, I happened upon Browser Books, on a trendy stretch of Fillmore Street. This tiny, crammed, and superbly stocked shop was filled with backlist gems that would make any independent bookseller weep with joy.

I was with my friend Janet, who found her treasure in a copy of Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Wanting to contribute to the independent cause, I scanned the front table and saw a stack of Oil!, with its sinister-black movie cover linking it to There Will Be Blood. Having guiltily put off reading The Jungle for years, I suddenly felt that the time had come for Upton Sinclair. That night, while Janet slept in the twin bed across from me, in our $50-a-night, seventh-floor room in The Astoria overlooking the Chinatown Gate, I devoured the first fifty pages.

Usually, the terms “social commentary” and “page turner” don’t go hand in hand, but as Sinclair unfolds the story of Southern California oil discovery, oilmen, wildcatting, Wobblies, communists, and the Teapot Dome Scandal during the first quarter of the 1900s, he throws in a great story, which also includes movie stars, jazz, the subconscious mind, and even a nod to Aimee Semple McPherson, in the guise of a young preacher man. This is a first-rate potboiler, and at the same time a lesson in how in the heck we got into Iraq. Oil, greed, greed, and oil, with a little more oil and greed and lots of corruption thrown in for good measure.

Anchoring the book, Bunny grows from a teenager to a young man, struggling between his loyalty to his oilman dad, who has an intriguing, but ultimately dangerous, code of ethics, and the unfairly treated oil workers. He loves his father, and his father loves him, as is clear when he doesn’t chastise Bunny for getting involved with the enemy. It is this mutual love that creates much of the book’s tension, not between the two men, but between one man, Bunny, and his conscious. Every angle is worked, including the always fascinating trait of neutrality, which is—no big plot spoiler—never neutral in the end.

One of the great things about Oil!, as I mentioned about An American Tragedy, is how timely it feels (despite all the terrific period details). There is something very current about it, in the characters and the issues. Or perhaps that’s the bummer about it. Haven’t we learned any lessons yet? Apparently not, given the question posed in the last pages: Could a civilization endure on the basis of such purchase of government? Certainly the current US regime is answering that.

With a setting in Southern California, Oil! also returns relevance to the oil wells that pierce the land in this part of the country. Not those towers we’re used to seeing in movies about Texas, but the bobbing contraptions that look, ironically, like the skeletons of dinosaurs. They are atmospheric background, like palm trees, for anyone who lives here, taking the back road to LAX or driving around the South Bay. Having passed them for so many years, you are used to them, and even feel a fondness for them. If you are attached to that sentimentality, then I don’t suggest reading Oil! But if you’re aching for change, it’s a terrific substantiation of why this country so badly needs it.

If you’re up in San Francisco, make sure to support this shop:

Brower Books
2195 Fillmore St.
San Francisco, CA 94115

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Where have you been all my life, Richard Yates?

Do you ever stumble across a writer and wonder, “Where have you been all my life?”

Having finished reading the short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, I pose this question to the ghost of Richard Yates. Funny thing is, I’d already stumbled across him a few years ago, when a friend suggested that I read Revolutionary Road. I did, and it was good, but I didn’t give Yates further thought until I read a post last December in The New York Times’ book review blog, “Paper Cuts.” In it the writer suggested giving short story collections for Christmas gifts, offered a few of his favorites, and asked for recommendations. There followed 119 comments from readers.

I perused these comments and saw this from a man named Lawrence Tate: “And jeez, how the hell can there be nearly 60 posts on this subject without anyone mentioning Richard Yates?! If one is choosing collections apart from his Complete Stories, I’d go with the first, Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness. If any short story book of the last century holds up, that one sure does.”

When I was younger, I had a love/hate relationship with short stories. I wanted so badly to like them, but I always found them dissatisfying because they were so … short. I like getting to know characters over time; I like plot development. Short stories are unable to offer that. But lately, I had been thinking about them, wanting to figure them out, these small, self-contained creatures. And when I read that title, containing loneliness, not to mention eleven kinds of it, I felt inspired to give short stories a shot again. I made my request at the local library, and within a few days I had an early-1960s, cloth-bound copy of the book in hand.

I read the first story, “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern,” one early morning over a cup of tea. I was struck by its miserable beauty. I wanted to skip work and finish reading the whole book that day. But I knew I’d be sorry when I was done, for precisely the reason that I would be done, so I rationed myself, a story a morning before I started work. I’ve always been an early riser, but suddenly, I was awake before six, and well into a story as the sun came up each day. Before I’d even finished the collection, I knew I had to own it, and ordered a copy of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.

In the introduction to this collection, Richard Russo writes: "Yates understood that while we risk disappointment when we set for ourselves an ambitious goal and fail to achieve it, the challenge, in a sense, insulates us from the worst humiliation. Dream big and we’re expected to fail. About the worse that can happen … is that we’ll be applauded for our pluck. Dream small, Yates seems to suggest, and we’re expected to succeed. As a result, failure ensures not just disappointment, but humiliation, anguish, and, most dangerous of all, the impulse to dream smaller next time, thereby risking even greater failure."

Oh, those small, small dreams. In the story “A Glutton for Punishment,” the main character, Walter Henderson, dreams not of success. Instead:

There was certainly no denying that the role of a good loser had always held an inordinate appeal for him. All through adolescence he had specialized in it, gamely losing fights with stronger boys, playing football badly in the secret hope of being injured and carried dramatically off the field … College had offered a wider scope to his talent—there were exams to be flunked and elections to be lost—and later the Air Force had made it possible for him to wash out, honorably, as a flight cadet …

Yes, a story about a man who dreams of failing, and because it’s a Yates’ story, chances are, he’s going to fail at that. They’re all going to fail, but knowing this doesn’t mean you know how each story will end. At first, once you’ve read a couple, you think you do, but each time a story draws to a close, Yates, with his exquisitely discreet talent, surprises you. By the time you read the last stories, you are bracing yourself.

I have never before read someone who so ably transferred his characters’ discomfort onto me, so I felt that I was the patient in the tuberculosis sanitarium trying not to let it show that he wanted to read Sports Illustrated rather than talk to his visiting wife, or the journalist overhearing his pathetic co-worker being berated by their boss. I can’t give any more details than that, because firstly, I could never do them justice, and secondly, I don’t want to give anything away. Even though these are not the kinds of stories with things in them to be given away, they are meant to be read without preface. They are meant to be experienced as the experience in the story is taking place.

While I thought I’d made the discovery of the century in Richard Yates, a Google search reveals that he has a loyal following, from Average Joes like me, to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, who declared, “The best short-story collection ever written by an American.” And then, of course, there is Raymond Carver, whose writing apparently owes quite a debt to Yates.

Yates’ moving stories are of a white-collar culture in a post-WWII time period dominated by Cheever and early Updike. Wives put on lipstick and pour from cocktail pitchers before dinner (adult dinner, which is served after the children have eaten and gone to bed), and TB patients smoke in the sanitarium. While I admire Cheever, and accept that Updike is a skilled and even insightful writer (though he’s never really grabbed me), they are, I realize, fakes. By that I mean simply that they are not Richard Yates.

Yates’ writing does not console. By addressing loneliness, by naming it and exposing it, he does not make us feel less lonely, as most other writers do. Rather, he makes us understand that the fundamental nature of loneliness means it is something that can never be bridged and must always, ultimately, be suffered alone.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Philip Roth's Zuckerman Novels

Among my many 2008 New Year's resolutions was to finish reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Praise of Slowness. To that goal I added reading all nine of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman novels. I can’t say what prompted me to do this. Probably all the fuss over the recent publication of Exit Ghost(the ninth novel); and I wanted to see what a novelist could do with a character and storyline over the course of many years. Also, I enjoyed the first Zuckerman novel: The Ghost Writer. It is a writer's novel, with its highlights being those moments that turn the spyglass on the process of writing. I read the following passage half a dozen times, simply because at its fundamental level, it touches on something true in most writers.

In it, the famous, reclusive novelist Lonoff says to Zuckerman:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste ... I sit back down at my little Olivetti and start looking at sentences and turning them around. And I ask myself, Why is there no other way but this for me to fill my hours?

In The Ghost Writer, aspiring novelist-to-be Nathan Zuckerman has the chance to visit his idol, the critically acclaimed novelist E. I. Lonoff, at Lonoff’s home in rural New England. Over the course of twenty-four hours, there is plenty of talk about what it means (and entails) to be a writer, a few intense interactions between Lonoff and his wife Hope, and a more than intense reverie on young Nathan’s part.

In an elaborate daydream (in the middle of the night), Nathan imagines that Amy—a college student who is helping Lonoff organize his writings for donation to a university library—is Anne Frank; Anne did not die in the camps, but is alive and hiding in America. Is this romantic notion a sentimentalist’s wish for Anne not to have suffered such a tragic fate? Of course not. This is a Philip Roth novel. If Anne is alive, it would be so that Nathan could marry her, bring her out of hiding, and therefore redeem himself with his Jewish family, whom he has offended with a story based on a great aunt and her fatherless grandsons, a story that Nathan’s father believes tarnishes not only the family name, but Jews as a race.

The writerly side note to this fantasy comes when Nathan learns what Amy really is—a lovestruck young woman who wants Lonoff to run away with her to Italy. For complex reasons you need to discover for yourself, Lonoff won’t. Upon learning this, Nathan thinks:

Soundlessly as I could, I slipped down from the desk and made my way on my toes to the daybed, where, from the sheer physical effort that had gone into my acrobatic eavesdropping, I collapsed. My astonishment at what I’d overheard, my shame at the unpardonable breach of his trust, my relief at having escaped undiscovered---all that turned out to be nothing, really, beside the frustration I soon began to feel over the thinness of my imagination and what that promised for the future ... Oh, if only I could invent as presumptuously as real life! If one day I could just approach the originality and excitement of what actually goes on!

Nathan truly embodies the saying: “Enough about you, let’s talk about me.”

By the second novel, Zuckerman Unbound, the main character has evolved into an excruciatingly famous novelist in his thirties, dealing with a fling with a starlet who leaves him for Castro, a dying father whom he has not reconciled with, and the notoriety (and creepy fans and detractors) that have come with the recent publication of Carnovsky, which I am told is based on Portnoy's Complaint. I really wanted to like this novel. I really wanted to be drawn deeper into the character introduced in The Ghost Writer. Instead, I was bored. And I was constantly distracted. While reading about Campbell’s Funeral Home, across the street from Zuckerman’s apartment, my mind began to drift … Isn’t that the same place that Heath Ledger’s body was taken … what a tragedy … so young, and with a daughter … Novels are supposed to help you forget about reality, not fling you haphazardly out into it.

I didn’t know where to focus. I got confused by Pepler, a sort of stalker. I found myself reading solely for the occasional gems, such as this observation Zuckerman makes about his starlet: He was thinking of Caesara starting at nineteen as the enchanting Anne Frank, and of the photographs of film stars like the enchanting Caesara which Anne Frank pinned up beside that attic bed. That Anne Frank should come to him in this guise. Here we go, I thought, now I’m going to see how that young man who fantasized Anne Frank back to life has become a middle-aged man sleeping with starlets. But no.

At another point, Zuckerman is reading a book that belongs to Caesara, and he comes across a passage she has underlined. He asks her what else she has underlined, and she replies, What everybody underlines … everything that says ‘me.’

While this is true, I love it when novels speak to me, when they touch on the core of my experiences, when they give voice to my thoughts, I also love novels that tell interesting stories about interesting characters. This one didn’t. So, am I going to read the third, The Anatomy Lesson? I’m still intrigued, but I can’t make any promises. And if I don’t? I doubt I’ll be the first person to break her New Year’s resolutions this year.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

An American Tragedy

I have a thing for big novels. Not physically. Physically, I like slim little Muriel Spark-sized novels. Physically, big novels are too heavy to read in bed late at night. But emotionally … well, that’s another matter entirely. For me, emotionally, big novels are commitments, big novels pay off, and that’s why I keep going back to them. That’s why I read Gone with the Wind over and over and over when I was in junior high. That’s why I stuck with the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo (more than 1,400 pages), even when I realized that every other member of my classics book club was reading the abridged version---not their faults, as the version they bought didn’t mention anything about abridgement. And that’s why I’m nearly through The Golden Notebook.

Big novels often have one thing going against them, though. Setup. They can take so long to get into. At the beginning of last year, I started Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I can’t remember why I decided that I had to read this book, but I did have to, so I started it, and then put it down, and then read some more, and then put it down … by September I was only 300 pages into it. I had put it down and picked it up countless times, and read many other books in between, but the crazy thing was that whenever I started to read it again, I remembered every single detail of what I had already read.

The reason it took me so long to get into it is that Dreiser loves his sentences so much that he repeats them, often, sometimes in new ways, sometimes in the same way. When you’re just getting to know characters and nothing much has happened in the story, this can be a bit burdensome. But then something happens—perhaps intentional, but probably not—and the rhythm he has created with his repetition serves as a kind of hypnotism, along with a brilliant use of incomplete sentences, such as this one, which I think about often: “Bitter cold and bright stars.” The rhythm rocks you (though doesn’t lull you) into the story, to a place where you couldn’t back out even if you wanted to … and I didn’t want to.

Halfway into the book, I couldn’t put it down. Based on the true story of a murder in the early 1900s, An American Tragedy is just what its title suggests: a very American story about a man who wants more than he has, what he will try to do to have it. It is about that sad side of the American Dream, that willingness to do anything to in order to have. It was a perfect reflection of its time, when there was suddenly so much to want and have in America, and it’s a perfect reflection of these modern times---or maybe it’s just that America hasn’t really changed much over the past 100 years. As I read it I thought often about the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, with their explorations of morality and fatality. And I often found myself humming Kris Kristofferson’ssong, “In the News,” which begins:

Read about the sorry way he done somebody's daughter
Chained her to a heavy thing and threw her in the water
And she sank into the darkness with their baby son inside her
A little piece of truth and beauty died

While this opening stanza is about Laci Peterson, the song is overall about the abuse of power on all levels; it is about horrific acts committed purely for selfish reasons, from one man’s murder of his wife to one country’s invasion of another, consequences be damned. Of course, this song is also relevant because Lacy Peterson was drowned by her husband and in An American Tragedy (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, and in any case, I found the book more compelling because I knew what was going to happen), a young man does the same to his pregnant ex-girlfriend, simply because he wants out, and wants something else. And what is more American than getting what we want? And what is more tragically American than doing so at the expense of another?

An interesting thing happened while I was reading this book. Just as I got to the part about the trial, I was called in for jury duty, so there was a weird continuum between my days and nights, as I sat on jury listening to a trial and then went home and read about a trial. Granted, my trial was for a DUI, not murder, and no one in the book was distracted by the prosecutor’s panty lines or the ‘80s rock song of a cell phone that someone occasionally forgot to turn off or the dilemma of whether or not to date the jury foreman, but still, there was a courtroom and lawyers and judge and all the legalities that are still the same … it lent a surreal aspect to my reading, which had reached the page turner stage by then. Because if you make it through the beginning of An American Tragedy, by the time you reach the trial, you will not be able to put it down.

The one thing I found interesting about my own eventual obsession with the book was how scandalous I found it: illegitimate pregnancy, attempts at abortion, murder. The latter of course is always shocking, but the first two are hardly the stuff to raise eyebrows in the 21st century. Naturally, there was a part of me that was imagining what it would have been like to read this book when it came out in the 1920s---with its mention of Freudians and psychic sex scars and the heroin that the victim’s mother was given to calm her after her daughter’s death. But what really affected me was that even though this kind of thing happens too often (just read the CNN home page), it is still shocking to think about one person harming another, deliberately, for purely self-serving reasons. For purely self-serving reasons. To plot it out. To cover it up. To look into another person’s eyes and still be able to conceive of the act, which to me is just short, morally speaking, of carrying it out.

The night after my last day of jury duty was also the night I finished reading. After closing the novel, I grabbed my Netflix and watched 12 Angry Men. Now I’m watching A Place in the Sun, which was based on the book. Leave it to Hollywood to make Montgomery Clift sympathetic and the victim (played by Shelley Winters) nearly seem deserving of her fate … an American tragedy, indeed.

Monday, January 7, 2008

All About Eve (Babitz)

Culturally, LA has always been a humid jungle alive with seething LA projects that I guess people from other places can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like LA, anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in LA, to choose it and be happy here.
- Eve’s Hollywood, by Eve Babitz

I’m a binge reader. Though this habit had been dormant for so long that I’d been unintentionally on the wagon until my friend Janet mentioned the library. For the past year, I’ve been in a read-everything-about-LA mood, and she recommended Eve Babitz. I hopped on Amazon, only to discover that all her terrific early stuff is out of print. I started scouting my favorite used book sites when Janet asked me why I didn’t just go to the library. Why, indeed? I loved the library when I was a kid, but I confess, I hadn’t been to one in years, inexcusable for a bookaholic, and even more so since my Fairfax branch reopened recently in a gorgeous new Spanish mission-style building just a few blocks from my house. I drove over and got myself a card (my old one had expired), and ordered up Eve’s Hollywood; Slow Days, Fast Company; and Sex & Rage. I had them all within a week. I had them read before the following week was out.

I ADORE binge reading. In my early twenties, during my first years working at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, I overdosed regularly: Anita Brookner, Margaret Drabble, Laurie Colwin, MFK Fisher, etc. etc. etc. But I hadn’t done this in ages, and my bender with Eve brought back all that old intoxication---the red wine I drank while I read her helped. Eve Babitz is brilliant, and the fact that she’s gone out of print somehow solidifies for me her brilliance all the more in these days of soap suds women’s memoirs; just because something bad happened to you, doesn't mean you have an interesting story to tell; you need to be an interesting writer, as well. Sure, she can be all over the board with style, but when it comes to insight, she is the premier LA writer. I have nothing but the greatest respect for Joan Didion, and I think Nathaniel West and John Fante are tops, but Eve gets LA more than anyone else I’ve ever read.

I don’t care that she slept with Jim Morrison. I don’t care about her nude photo playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. I care that this girl can write like nobody’s business. She’s courageous. She’s not coy. She’s a chick, but you’d never put her in a pink dust jacket (I hate it that chicks and pink are now forever associated with one another), not even a pink straightjacket. She’s grammatically correct, even when writing about things that have nothing correct about them. And, yes I know I already mentioned this, she genuinely gets LA, mainly, I think, because she doesn’t see LA as someplace/something “to get,” like most other writers who tackle the subject.

Recently, I read a book, which shall remain nameless, in which the author moved to L.A. and wrote a book about her experience. She has nothing good to say about LA, falling back on the whole derisive gambit that most writers like to employ when trying to capture this city that just isn’t capturable---this is why they do it, perhaps. To deflect from their inability to capture. In one section, she drives out to the Salton Sea, and I felt that the only reason she did this was to be able to flex her ability to "get" the desolation of the place. Yep, desolate it is, especially if that’s all you want to see.

Alternately, in Eve’s Sex & Rage, the main character Jacaranda observes: “She remembered that there was a petrified ocean, an ocean that was caught inland while the rest of the ocean departed. You could see down to the bottom, so far, absolutely clear turquoise, all the sea life that belonged in the ocean---starfish, sea anemone---things that didn’t belong in an inland body of water, a lake, which usually had trout or salmon. But the Salton Sea was absolutely clear and absolutely pure and absolutely patient … The Salton Sea didn’t move unless you touched it; it was unbidden by the moons, it had no tides, it lay there in perfect beauty, perfect stillness, out in the middle of the desert.” It takes bravery and brains to write like this.

There is such a satisfying intensity beyond the clichés of LA. Everyone talks about the earthquake weather, for example. It’s de rigueur if you live here to know what earthquake weather is, and it’s a badge of honor when sometimes you’re even right about it … even though the odds are with you on taking that bet. But Eve, ah Eve, she sees it clearly for what it is: “She could feel the rancid tension in the air beneath the lopsided yellow moon’s malevolent regard. She could feel some kind of hazy snap, some uproar, about to happen. In Los Angeles it's called 'earthquake weather,' but Jacaranda knew earthquakes were just a metaphor for any out-of-control slant suddenly tilting beneath your feet."

Eve gets it because she’s not afraid to like this indescribable pocket. And she’s not afraid because it doesn’t occur to her that there’s anything to be afraid of in liking it. And she likes liking it, unlike most people I know here who reluctantly like it, or like it but don’t want to and so pretend not to, or just simply hate it. She’s decadent. She’s real. She's unfazed. She’s fresh more than thirty years after publication. Get yourself to the library and start with Slow Days, Fast Company. Then hop online and check out her Smithsonian Oral History Interview. Then mope until you find a new author to take you on another bender.