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.

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.

great santini scene

Huck Finn and His Detractors

Published on this date – in 1885 – Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Poor Huck. His mom dies, his monstrous father beats him, school sucks and church is worse, the Widow Douglas expects a whole lot of sivilizin’ for three hots and a cot, and his only real friend (Tom Sawyer) never gets in trouble and gets all the great girls. Well, the town’s one great girl, anyway: Becky Thatcher. And then, when Huck finally has some adventures of his own, which he tells about in his own barely-literate 14-year-old voice, the whole damn world – starting with Mark Twain’s wife, who hated Huck’s guts – jumps down his throat and tells him he’s done a bunch of stuff wrong.

Most books just commit one sin in the eye of a single, fairly predictable beholder (e.g., Ulysses is “obscene” if you’re uncomfortable with English as spoken and with sex being spoken of at all; 1984 is politically incorrect if your politics happen to be Soviet; Oliver Twist fails to provide a positive Jewish role model with the character of Fagin). But Mark Twain’s masterpiece managed to commit a multitude of sins and keeps on committing new ones. It has been reviled in more quarters – and banned for more varied reasons – than just about any book in the history of world literature. Which, in my opinion, is one measure of its value. It takes a truly great book to piss that many different people off.

Book-Ban

Mark Twain’s wife found Huckleberry Finn vulgar and urged Twain to make radical changes, some of which he made.  Reviewers at the time objected to the novel’s language – Huck’s first-person vernacular language – as ill-suited to respectable literature. Church folk in the world at large (just as in Finn’s home town) considered the trash-talking, pipe-smoking, shoe-hating, not-always-freshly-bathed Huck a bad example for other boys. They still do. Teachers hated Huck’s poor grammar and questionable word choice. And virulent racists and fans of the recently defeated Confederacy (the Civil War had only ended twenty years prior) hated the book for obvious reasons. And agreed with Huck Finn himself that he would go to Hell for helping Jim escape slavery.

Before I proceed further, let me say a few words about book banners. I’m agin’ ’em. I spit in their eye. I’d invite ’em – if I thought they was worth the trouble of turnin’ around and bendin’ over – to kiss my ass.  Any questions?

In recent years, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been most often attacked – and banned – because of charges of racism and because Huck and some of the other characters (but mostly Huck) use the “N word” a total of 210 times. A bowdlerized edition of the book has been published that replaces the N word with “slave” and changes the two instances of “Injun” to Indian.  Presumably so that it can be read by young children.

Part of Twain’s genius was to present the book as a boy’s adventure (a companion to his first Tom Sawyer book). And to have a boy narrate it. If a 14-year-old without a family to speak of, no use for religion, and little education can figure out that slavery is wrong – and find the courage to do something about it – what the hell happened to the rest of us?

Huckleberry Finn is racist in spots – so is Uncle Tom’s Cabin – at least by contemporary standards. (Despite both books’ good intentions.) And it is not a book for children. In my opinion, Mark Twain’s finest work (and one of the greatest, most important  works of American literature) should not be read until high school. By students a little older than Huck. At which time it should be read as written and in its entirety. If you’re old enough to learn about the horrors of slavery, you’re old enough and sophisticated enough to read the language of its day. Words don’t hurt nearly as much as bull whips, being separated from your family, being sold at auction, and never breathing a free breath as long as you live.

All the Jack Londons

jack-london-two-shelves

Jack London (January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916)

Take everything London wrote – he produced more than 40 books in his time on earth, slightly more than one for every year he was alive – tear out several pages from each book, paper a wall with them, close your eyes and toss a dart. Open your eyes and read the page where the dart lands, you’ll find support for at least one of the following statements:

  • Jack London was a socialist
  • Jack London was a fascist
  • Jack London was a racist
  • Jack London was one righteous, enlightened white dude on race
  • Jack London was the working man’s friend
  • Jack London was an elitist
  • Jack London was a reckless drunk
  • Jack London was America’s first “recovering alcoholic”
  • Jack London was an anarchist
  • Jack London was a totalitarian
  • Jack London was an imperialist
  • Jack London thought America should mind its own business
  • Jack London abused animals
  • Jack London was PETA before there was a PETA
  • Jack London was a worthless hack
  • Jack London was a great American writer – one of our greatest.

Support for all the above statements is possible because Jack London has been all those things – and more – and sometimes several at once. A recent (excellent) biography by Jack Haley is called Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (2010) and the title could not be more apt. London lived enough lives, consecutively or concurrently, for a dozen men and he lived each of them with fierce commitment and at white-hot intensity. The word “driven” – in its contemporary locution – could have been coined for him. And he, of course, found time to write those 40-plus books, which is about the same number of books that present-day writing machine, Joyce Carol Oates, has written and she’s twice as old now as London was when he died. Unless Oates is keeping her sea excursions and prospecting adventures secret from the public, she has also lived only one, fairly quiet, academic life.

What all London’s living and writing left little time for, in my opinion, was much thought. And  practically none of the deep, patient, reflective kind of thinking that can lead a writer to provide us with broad-based insights and well-formed conclusions. Ideas flowed through Jack London in the same way experiences did – directly from life to the page.

A lot of London’s literary output is commercial tripe and a lot of his ideas for shit. And, depending on the work and the day of the week when he wrote it, London was guilty as charged of being a socialist, a fascist, an anarchist, a totalitarian, a racist, an imperialist, an enthusiastic celebrator of mood-altering substances, a depictor of animal cruelty, and a bad poet (except in the best of his prose).

So what do we do with Jack London? Kick him and all of his books to the curb?

The local librarian in my suburban Indianapolis neighborhood growing up was a pinch-faced, purse-mouthed, McCarthyite old bat who saw her mission in life not as the dissemination of culture  but its winnowing into a single approved channel. Sexless, painless, joyless, and “politically correct” … which for Pinch Face meant “not Communist.” I was in fifth grade, I think, when I wanted to check out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. “That book’s too old for you,” Pinch Face said, taking it from me and putting it out of reach behind the counter. Maybe she was thinking of the Lenny scenes, but she also refused to let me read The Pearl or The Red Pony or anything else by “Mr. Steinbeck,” as she referred to him, on the grounds that “his ideas were wrong.”

I had slightly better luck with Mr. London. “You can read the dog books,” Pinch Face told me. I gobbled them up and asked for more, including London’s many other books that weren’t about dogs, but Pinch Face refused.  When pressed on her reasons, she pursed up her mouth and said, “Mr. London is a Communist. The most popular writer in Russia.”

I believe the theory back then – among the Pinch Faces of the world – was that encountering “wrong” ideas and attitudes at a tender age might permanently damage one’s thinking cap and make it impossible to have the “right” ideas later on. So how should we handle Jack London’s books now, full as they are not only with old wrong ideas but new wrong ideas and attitudes that many of us (including me) find offensive?

Book-Ban

I say we read them. I’ve read dozens of them, including several in childhood, and they don’t seem to have damaged my thinking cap. Or inculcated me with bad ideas and attitudes. Books aren’t crimes. They aren’t viruses. And, even if they were, the antibodies can be found in other books … and, in London’s case, in other London books.

I would recommend starting on London – at a young age – with a selection of his superb  short stories and the wonderful “dog books,” The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) that even Pinch Face liked. For bigger boys and girls – like you and me – I’d try his most personal novel, Martin Eden (1909)although it has its longeurs: London ran into trouble when he tried to stretch out. John Barleycorn (1913) is the first – and still one of the best – meditations on alcoholism. The Iron Heel (1907) is a fascinating science-fiction dystopia that precedes, by a lot of years, Orwell’s 1984. But my current favorites among London’s books are The Road (1907) and The People of the Abyss (1905), his two plunges into immersive journalism. In the former, Jack takes to the rails, riding trains with the hobos and fighting the “bulls.” In the latter foray, he impoverishes himself among the city of London’s desperately poor in order to write as truthfully as he can about their plight.

His best book is the one he didn’t live long enough to write … the group autobiography of all the Jack Londons. The recent Haley biography will have to suffice.

On the 1st Anniversary of a Great Writer’s Death

I saw Robert Stone walking past the Beverly Wilshire Hotel one sunny afternoon, on the same day – and a few minutes after – I had spotted Michael Caine reading a book in the hotel’s bookstore. I love Michael Caine, but seeing Robert Stone was both more surprising and the bigger thrill.robert stoneThis was in the 1980s, not sure when, but Stone was already sporting the longish receding hair and full beard that characterized his dust jacket photos of the last decades. He wore a faded blue denim shirt with one shirttail out and gave the impression of being large and lumbering, although this last may have been my imagination. Or time’s rewrite. I know Stone was smiling, recalling something pleasurable, perhaps, or just enjoying the day. Or maybe he was smiling because he’d received an option check on one of his novels for a movie that never got made (more often than not, the best possible scenario for a writer whose complexities don’t translate well to the screen).

I don’t believe it entered Robert Stone’s mind that he’d be recognized – his face bore none of the caution of movie stars in public places; the tall Mr. Caine, for instance, was hunched over his reading at the end of a row – and, because I didn’t want to interrupt Stone’s enjoyment in that moment or risk his displeasure, I didn’t try to stop him and thank him. To tell him how much his books had meant to me.

There were only three (possibly four) books by that time. A Hall of Mirrors (1966), which depicted an early Sixties New Orleans of racial and religious extremes that never quite cohered as a novel but introduced that voice – precise yet poetic with slightly druggy inflections, depressed but fighting against it, continually aspiring to hope. The next book Dog Soldiers (1974) is still his finest novel and, despite having only maybe 40 pages set in Vietnam, the best book by an American on the impact of that war. Stone’s novel about a thinly disguised Nicaragua in revolution, A Flag for Sunrise (1981), is a second straight masterpiece. And it’s possible by then that Stone had published Children of Light (1986), which also doesn’t entirely come together but which contains some of the best writing anyone has done about both schizophrenia (which Stone’s mother suffered from) and the schizophrenic nature of Hollywood at the end of the 1970s.

Stone went on to write seven more books, including the much-acclaimed Israel-based novel Damascus Gate (1998) and his terrific 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties … Stone was a friend of Ken Kesey and the other Merry Pranksters and put in his time “on the bus.” Among the serious writers of his generation, Stone may have written the most and had the widest range. His novels depict not only what it felt like to be an American during his lifetime but also the effect that we Americans have had on the world at large. A handful of his contemporaries have written as well, but none with his ambition. We lost a great one a year ago today, but the books survive. Here’s the first paragraph of Dog Soldiers:

THERE WAS ONLY ONE BENCH IN THE SHADE AND CONVERSE went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his forehead to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.