We Loved the Earth but Could Not Stay

James “Jim” Harrison (December 11, 1937 – March 26, 2016) – Writer

“We loved the earth but could not stay” – a folk saying, the epigraph to Dalva.

I met Jim Harrison in 1994, when he was on a book tour for Julip, his short novel about a woman who sets out to get her brother released from jail. Oddly, Harrison (who had a reputation as a bit of a misogynist and a man’s man in the mold of Hemingway et al) was at his finest when writing not just about women but from a woman’s point of view. In my opinion, his greatest novel is Dalva (1988) – narrated by a middle-aged woman who longs for the son she gave up for adoption – and the best of his later works is its sequel, The Road Home (1998).  I remember being excited by his most famous and commercially successful novel, Legends of the Fall (1979), then losing patience and giving up halfway through. I don’t remember why, although I plan to reread it – finish it this time – as my celebration of its creator’s life. I feel certain the impatience I felt was my own fault and not Harrison’s and I think one reason I never returned to Legends of the Fall is the hammy hyperbolic movie made from it starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins both sporting really long hair. I quit on it halfway through as well but have no plans to revisit.

Back to 1994, where I am standing in a ridiculously long line at Dutton’s Brentwood – a holy place now gone, as are all the Dutton’s bookstores in Los Angeles, nearly all the bookstores period – holding my newly purchased copy of Julip for Harrison to sign. I didn’t care about autographs, I just wanted to see Harrison up close, thank him for Dalva, ask him a question.

Most of the people in line with me only care about autographs. They have shopping bags full of first-edition Jim Harrisons for Jim Harrison to sign, which would increase the value of Brand Harrison’s literary offerings in a collectible market gone mad because of the internet. The next year will see the start of e-Bay, but rare book dealers and their like are already publishing their inventories on line and all types of collecting have started to globalize and create cottage industries. Those industries, in turn, have spawned a new class of  bare-bones “entrepreneurs” who are(for the most part) making a marginal profit at a low investment. And a generous sampling of which are now crowded into the front room of Dutton’s Brentwood.  Vocal, grasping, in a hurry to get nowhere fast are this new breed,  collectors of books with no interest in reading books and exhibiting little evidence of ever having done so. They resemble the crowds of fans at movie premieres and Broadway stage doors, but devoid of purpose: fans with no  sense of fandom. Un-fans. In the future, bookstores will limit the number of books signed and insist that at least one of them be purchased at their store, but this effusion of ignorant ugliness is still quite new and as yet unchecked, barely understood.

Seated behind a table at the head of the ponderous, sweaty snake – signing away and looking none too happy about it – is the author, our hero, Jim Harrison. His clothes are rumpled, his hair unkempt, his one blind eye staring off into space, and – even from a distance – he looks to me as if he’s been drinking. Possibly a lot. I alternate between taking peeks at him and trying to read Julip, which is good. But reading requires me to block out the obnoxious chatter all around me, emanating from the gaggle of shopping-baggers who all seem to know each other (not as friends, more in the manner of friendly competitors) as they trade notes on what they’d gotten for the new autographed Stephen King or brag about the Philip Roth first they picked up for a buck at a library sale. I hate them all and the only person in the crowd who mildly piques my interest is an Ichabod Crane fellow with stringy blond hair and a backpack who is standing two places ahead of me. The collectors in advance of and directly behind Ichabod Crane are giving him a wide berth and, before too long, I catch a whiff of why: he hasn’t bathed in awhile and this fact, combined with the backpack and his soiled army-surplus attire, leads me to surmise that he is homeless.  Probably a homeless vet.

A short time later, Ichabod Crane arrives at the signing table, where he fishes inside the backpack, comes out with a beat-up paperback copy of Legends of the Fall, and hands it to Jim Harrison. Crane is mumbling and I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I see Harrison’s face break into a smile and hear what he says back: “Finally, a reader!” There are a few more exchanges and then Harrison is inviting Crane behind the table, where he finds him another chair. Then he produces a bottle of whiskey and pours drinks for them both and they proceed to talk through two whiskeys for what must be twenty minutes. Quietly, intently, heads close together; if the man’s odor bothers Harrison he shows no sign. Meanwhile, the pretend book lovers all around me grow restive, begin complaining bitterly amongst themselves. Someone toward the back yells, “Hurry up.” Harrison ignores him and continues to talk to his reader, then – something agreed upon, some conclusion reached – their conversation is over. Harrison signs the man’s paperback and I see him press something between its pages, a phone number perhaps but more likely money, then they embrace and Crane is gone, out the back way. I never see his face.

I’m writing a play … and I need to stay in it, inside its world … which is why I haven’t written here for a time. But I saw that Jim Harrison had died and I wanted to remember him. I have another story … of the conversation we had when it came my turn in line … featuring the Jack Nicholson Endowment Fund. But that can wait for another day. Jim Harrison will be missed and I hope his best reader is somewhere safe and warm.

Death to Memes!

Okay, so maybe your friend is having a bad day and you decide that posting a little inspirational message (in pretty type or accompanied by a nice photograph or funny drawing) on facebook might be just the thing to cheer them up.

That is a nice thing to do. Sending good thoughts over the interwebs.  And, you never know, it might cheer your friend up. So I guess I don’t want death to all funny pictures and quippy quotes. But can we, please, stop trying to elect our President by meme?

First of all, posting memes for your candidate doesn’t accomplish anything … really … except to remind all your friends, yet again, who you’re voting for. I don’t know of a single voter who (upon being polled regarding why they support a particular candidate) replied, “I saw this meme on twitter and just knew – right then – John Kasich was my guy!”

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And it’s not like you’re starting a meme discussion. You post a Hillary meme, then your cousin posts a Bernie meme in response, then you answer her with another Hillary meme and she Bernie-memes back, and so on and so on  until one of you finally concedes and says, “Okay, your memes win. I’m changing my vote!”

If you take my advice and stop meming, think of all the time you’ll be freeing up in your schedule. Time to spend with loved ones. Or getting exercise. Or thinking up something of your own to say. And who can tell where all that stuff might lead? ‘Cause, you know …

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Sad to Hear Pat Conroy Has Died

Donald Patrick “Pat” Conroy (October 26, 1945 – March 4, 2016)

conroyHe wrote some very good books, four of which were turned into very good to great movies. Perhaps the best of these movies (Conrack, 1974) is the one you’re least likely to have seen. It was based on The Water Is Wide (1972), a memoir of his year teaching school on an impoverished South Carolina coastal island, and it starred Jon Voight as the young Conroy character. His fiction works The Great Santini (1976), The Lords of Discipline (1980), and The Prince of the Tides (1986) were also made into films and all four of his film adaptations featured wonderful performances. Conroy’s characters were recognizably real people who good actors could act.

My parents retired to South Carolina near Charleston shortly after I moved to L.A., so I’ve spent a lot of time in Conroy country – including his lovely adopted home of Beaufort, where the movie The Big Chill was filmed – and I know first-hand how well he depicted the colorful people and achingly beautiful places of that divided part of our nation.

big chill shotHe was also among the best poets of divided manhood (for want of a better term) for his whole generation. The generation of American men for whom the military and sports and other traditional male pursuits and roles were no longer sufficient to live a full and satisfying life. And certainly not enough to heal the wounds inflicted by those males (starting with their fathers) for whom traditional male codes of behavior were everything.

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Which Guy Always Needs His Phone?

And which guy could safely leave it at home?

If you guessed that the ER doctor on call needs his cell phone with him at all times, you win! Having his phone could save lives. And your prize for picking the ER doctor is your choice of a) a library card; b) a trip to a museum; or c) a romantic evening with your significant other.

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If you picked this guy, you lose. And you’re probably one of the 6 billion or so non-ER doctors who pretty much never need their phone. Everything that’s happening on it can wait until you get home. Your punishment for picking loser guy is a) a library card; b) a trip to a museum; or c) a romantic evening with your significant other.

Biff! Bam!? POW!!! Tom Wolfe***!

Thomas KennerlyTomWolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931)

I think it was 2004 (when he was in  Los Angeles promoting the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) that I saw Tom Wolfe in Skylight Books. He was seated alone at a small table in the back of the store (where the staff sets up microphones and chairs for writers who are having readings) and he was signing copy after copy of his book for the store. Tom Wolfe was wearing his trademark white suit, which looked immaculate, and his hair was dyed more or less blond. He looked healthy, but his hands shook as he wrote.

Tom Wolfe was one of a relatively small group of mostly magazine writers (mostly based in New York) who were credited in the 1960s and 1970s with creating something  called the “New Journalism,” which in its broadest sense was defined as the practice of applying fictional techniques to nonfiction reportage. Wolfe was foremost among New Journalists (i.e., the first to achieve fame and make serious money at it) and some of his better fellow practitioners included Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, David Halberstam, Dan Wakefield, Gail Sheehy, and Hunter S Thompson. Established novelists such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer also jumped on the New Journalism train.

Never mind that nearly all of the genre’s so-called innovations (including said use of fiction-style storytelling and immersion in the subject matter) had been around since at least Charles Dickens and Sketches by Boz (1836), which also included another New Journalism staple: trippy illustrations by an avant-garde (for his day) illustrator. Every generation has to pretend they are tearing down the opera houses and beginning anew. And every generation of publishers knows a good advertising gimmick when they see it.

What Wolfe and Talese and Didion and Thompson were doing did at least FEEL new and provided the impetus for some extraordinary books and possibly the most exciting period in magazine history. I can’t tell you the excitement I felt – from the late Sixties until whatever date we decide to pinpoint as the End of Print – when I’d open a new edition of Esquire, New York, Ramparts, Harper’s, The New York Time’s Magazine, Rolling Stone. You never knew what you’d find but you knew a lot of it would be good, interesting, and thee would be something you didn’t know, something you’d never thought of in that way, something that changed your mind, and occasionally something that ripped your head off. Oh, and you could count the misspellings and typos on the fingers of one hand.

Tom Wolfe (depending on your view of his work, including the later novels such as the Dickens-style serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities) is either a jumped-up reporter and fortunate beneficiary of a certain zeitgeist or a great American writer. I’d say he’s both and I’d make that assessment solely on his New Journalism period. Those early books – from the collections of magazine pieces such as Radical Chic through the two book-length excursions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979), were among the best books of their day and have already stood the test of time.

Wolfe is also a good example of a writer that I mostly disagree with and still mostly admire. (Celine would be an extreme example.) Born in Virginia, he was a bit of a dandy and a Southern gentleman … if that’s not being redundant … and his pronouncements on social and artistic matters tend toward the conservative. Even, at times, the social conservative. I like a lot of 20th century architecture and design, but Wolfe doesn’t and I still enjoyed From Bauhaus to Your House. I love modern art and still (almost) love The Painted Word. And posterity is tremendously blessed that there was one person with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who was “on the bus” to write and only to write.

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Tom Wolfe seemed happy as he signed his books. I got the feeling – based on nothing other than a feeling – that he enjoys writing and likes being Tom Wolfe. A Southern gentleman in a white suit with impeccable manners who has written books that ripped my head off. I decided not to ask for his autograph. That would have felt redundant.

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A Combover in the Crowd

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Fear and Loathing on the Trump Trail, Part I

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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow… Chick, Chick, Chick!… Somewhere Around Barstow… A Rose Is a Rose… A Guest Star Better Late Than Never… Barstow Redux… A Face in the Crowd?… It Can’t Happen Here!… And Now a Word from Our Sponsor….

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You have to look at it, you can’t help yourself; but you mustn’t look too long or too hard.  Bad things can happen if you do. Right now – in the moment of which I write – I’m focused on the fluffy front part of Trump’s hair (he’s facing the camera on a show called CBS This Morning) observing how a spun-sugar wave of it drifts down over his upper forehead and how it resembles nothing so much as baby chick feathers. It’s not just the consistency that invites this comparison, it’s also the color: a soft, seemingly back-lit hue of yellow-white that appears nowhere in Nature except on two-day-old chickens and the head of Donald J. Trump. It should also be noted that his front hair appears glued together to form a sort of uni-bang. If you lift up one part of the bang, the rest will follow.

I realize I’ve been staring when I begin to see stars and hear odd mechanical clicking sounds that drown out what the group of actors around Trump is saying. The cast of the TV show – two attractive women with good hair and an older man – are seated with The Donald around a glass table that has a stencil of the CBS trademark eye painted on it. I know I should know all the people around Trump – they’re important – but the only one I recognize (and it takes me awhile) is the man, whose name is Charlie Rose and who used to have his own show where he interviewed people for very low ratings very late at night.

Charlie Rose might still have his own show. I’ve fallen behind – in recent years – on my TV viewing, a failing which I hope to rectify this season. So far I’ve only missed the Election Show segments in Iowa and New Hampshire (where Trump finished third and first in the ratings) and it’s clear that Charlie and the other regulars on CBS This Morning are very excited to have him on as a guest star.  One of the female regulars (sorry, I didn’t catch her name, but she’s black, very pretty, and was costumed for this episode in an expensive belted dress) remarked, “Finally, live and in color.” The other woman (white, pretty as well, with long hair and a blue dress) indicated she was delighted and, although Charlie didn’t say anything just then, he nodded happily when the first woman quoted him as having remarked upon Trump’s arrival: “What took you so long?” Trump was gracious in response, congratulating everyone on their show and saying that he watched it. I think he lied, though: Trump is all about “winners” and the morning show on CBS is a loser. It only has an average 3.85 million viewers and trails the morning shows on ABC and NBC. But it was nice of Trump to say he tuned in and you could see how it gave the whole cast a lift.

 

snapshot cbsI’m trying really hard to focus on what everyone’s saying  – it’s important, for God’s sake, and I’m a professional! – but I’ve gotten caught up again in examining The Donald’s hair: there’s a different camera angle now and you see it in profile, the left side profile, and you can actually pinpoint the place where the part begins. Oooph! Suddenly, I can’t hear the voices on the TV over the noises in my head and I’m once more seeing stars, but – before it gets really bad – CBS switches to a different camera (without Trump in the foreground) and I’m able to shift my own focus to Charlie Rose. Rose used to favor red ties but he goes in now for light purple – almost a lavender – and his face now is the tired, slightly hangdog visage of the aging philanderer. Rose’s receding gray hair is slicked back and held tightly in place, as if his mother had wet it with spit and smoothed it down right before the show. But as I study his hair – and mentally contrast it with Trump’s – Charlie is stating that people are saying “Donald Trump has changed American politics” in New Hampshire, where he captured a 35 share using his own money and without having to thank a single sponsor. The camera guys switch back to a closeup on Trump and I quickly press pause.

FaceInCrowdOne reason I pause the podcast is because that thing is happening again … the optic flashes and the clicks, which are becoming more frequent and starting to overlap into a droning buzz … but also because something Charlie has just said to Trump reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, A Face in the Crowd (1957). It stars Andy Griffith as an American TV personality named Lonesome Rhodes, who acquires political influence as his popularity with the viewing public grows.

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In the film – set during 1950s America – everything gets jumbled up: celebrity, power, business, sex, advertising, violence, politics, an ignorant poor populace, a rich ruling elite, all of it sprayed with a thin but scary varnish of latent fascism. As I’m writing this, I’m getting embarrassed: A Face in the Crowd has nothing to do with Donald Trump’s run for the Presidency and I can’t imagine why I thought it did in the first place. But memory is weird that way and the sequence that popped into my mind is the one after Lonesome Rhodes gets his first TV show, sponsored by a local mattress company who wants him to read their ad copy straight. Rhodes refuses – he makes fun of the Mattress Guy on air – and gets fired. His refusal to kowtow to his sponsor makes Lonesome Rhodes even more popular with the people, however. His fans break windows at the mattress company, burn mattresses in the street, and vow to follow Rhodes to bigger and better things.

Like I said, it’s an old movie that can’t happen now and certainly not here. And I was stupid for thinking there was any sort of connection.  A Face in the Crowd is fiction, the Trump Show reality-based. The movie’s hero started out broke and in jail; our hero got $200,000 straight out of college and as much as $200 million more when his father died. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is preserved on celluloid and in black-and-white. Donald “The Donald” Trump is live and in color.

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Coming Soon: Things get scary – in Fear and Loathing on the Trump Trail, Part II – and Randall Smoot has to go for a walk.