Review – Thiel, “Zero to One”

I tried to get Dall-E to make the Angel of death greeting Peter Thiel, but this was the best it could do

Peter Thiel, “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” (2014) – This is the last book I read of a series of seven unconventional right-wing books, books that in some sense were off the beaten path of conservatism, but reflected or were influential or parallel in some way… or anyway, a projected series. There doesn’t seem to be a good English translation of alleged Chinese state authoritarianism apologist Wang Huning out there, and the Unabomber Manifesto is really more of a pamphlet than a book, no more within my ambit of reviews than any single article.

I say all that to say this: Peter Thiel is probably the slimiest motherfucker out of those seven with which I started, which include a slavery apologist in the person of Thaddeus Russell and an actual murderer in the person of Ted Kaczynski. The depths to which Thiel would sink to accomplish his ends reach far below what a middling scribbler like Russell could manage, and his capacity for destruction is much more real than anything Kaczynski could have dreamt. And yet, I was probably the most on board with Thiel as I was with any of the writers I read in this series… for the first, maybe, quarter of “Zero to One,” his business manifesto, assembled out of notes his catamite and potential Arizona Senator Blake Masters took when Masters sat Thiel’s tech business class at Stanford. 

At this point, contrarianism-posturers – and there is arguably no bigger or more historically important claimant to the throne of contrarian-philosopher than Peter Thiel – have to overcome reflexive skepticism from anyone who has noticed how contrived their postures and goofy their claims often are. But Thiel did manage some actually good and, in some ways, genuinely contrarian, in a good way, points, early in the book. The big one is that competition is not the boon to innovation that people think it is. Market competition does not lead to the best products- it leads to the products that can beat others at market, which is not the same thing. “He overstates his case,” I thought, reading it, “I know a lot of nerds and that’s just how they talk,” I reasoned, going over his pro-monopoly arguments. Monopolies can focus on their task, not on competition, and therefore prevent themselves from either pursuing illusory goals or simply competing away their whole profit margin. “If he could get that profit in and of itself is in large part the problem, we’d really be getting somewhere!” I figured. 

ANNH! Buzzer noise, around a third or a quarter of the way in. It turns out that market competition is a bad way of assigning value not because of the warping effects of profit-taking, but because it involves the preferences of everybody, i.e., the stupid little people who don’t care enough about space travel and life extension technology. What you need are small, dedicated, elite bodies – like the founding core of a tech startup, Thiel tells us – willing to flout rules and conventions, truly “think different” (about things like “the diversity myth,” the title of another Thiel book, or obeying safety regulations), and achieve monopoly power. Only such people can get us out of our current demoralizing state, with ever-improving gadgetry and entertainment options, but basic needs failing to be met… that is, the basic needs of Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel needs space travel, because he’s a nerd, and he needs life extension, because he’s one of those chickenshit, profoundly hard to respect nerds who are terrified of natural death. What’s the matter, Pete? Death will eliminate the source of all your problems, the irritation you can’t be rid of despite your billions of dollars- it will eliminate you. Once it takes that turn, the book is useless, except as a guide to the thought of a man our society, in its wisdom, has imbued with absurd amounts of power and money. As far as I’m concerned, the closer the day he meets that big fear of his, the better. It certainly won’t leave the written word any poorer. *’

Review – Thiel, “Zero to One”

Review – Davidson, “The Mirror and the Phoenix”

Virgil has a Spin Doctors look here

Avram Davidson, “The Mirror and the Phoenix” (1969) – This was fun. Apparently, during what I’m told I’m not supposed to call “The Dark Ages” (though honestly, considering all the shit people say about the twentieth century, which say what you want about it, but cured a lot of diseases and put a man on the moon…), many Europeans believed that Virgil, the poet of the Aeneid, was a wizard of some renown! Old SFF hand Avram Davidson took that idea and made this story around it. Not only does he depict Vergil (he uses that spelling, apparently it’s gone back and forth) as a wizard, he depicts the world as a whole as having the confusion and geographical/historical inconsistency that a half-literate scribe scratching away in tenth-century Thuringia might give to it.

Vergil gets a job from a high-end lady: find her daughter, who went missing on the way to becoming an imperial concubine. To sweeten the pot, the lady steals Vergil’s potency! He doesn’t like that. He’s motivated. He has to create a mirror, and not just any mirror- a “virgin speculum.” This bronze mirror needs to be made in such a way that in the very instant of its ability to reflect light, Vergil can cast a spell and see where the daughter went. Mirrors were tricky enough for the ancients, I’m told, but a virgin speculum! That’s a whole thing. Vergil needs to secure tin and copper because normal bronze won’t do it, he needs his own bronze. Tin is a monopoly of Cornish chieftains, copper only comes from weird degenerated Aphrodite-worshiping Cypriots, the “Sea Huns” have given up their horses and taken to terrorizing the Mediterranean, so it’s pretty hard to get all that stuff. Meanwhile, there’s all kinds of mysterious hints as to where the daughter might be, and Vergil’s Phoenician friend who sails him around acts increasingly weird.

This is an agreeably shaggy, ponderous work, especially for a fairly short novel. It’s not hard to tell what’s going on but there’s also not the kind of handholding one gets used to in secondary world fantasies, especially contemporary ones. The world feels not just like there’s magic, but that it runs according to a magical logic. All too many stories with magic – and I can’t help but notice how the turn in this dynamic seems to have come with the popularization of games with magic systems, like Dungeons and Dragons – make magic seem like technology, a set of tools to use like any other, possibly dangerous but not really irrational, the world still works according to rules a Galileo or a Descartes could describe. It’s fun to see a world that isn’t like that, especially based on history. ****’

Review – Davidson, “The Mirror and the Phoenix”

Review – Acker, “Empire of the Senseless”

Kathy Acker, “Empire of the Senseless” (1988) – No less a figure than Sarah Schulman praised Kathy Acker big-time as the sort of transgressive, innovative figure you don’t get in the arts these days, as both cities like New York and San Francisco and the minds of their inhabitants take on capitalist bourgeois values. Schulman depicts Acker’s death in the late nineties as a great tragedy for American letters, the cutting off of a great young voice… It says something that you can still be “young” in literature at fifty, about the age Acker was at the time (she was vague about when exactly she was born), but Acker could be said to have “written young” – energetic, transgressive. 

Certainly “transgressive,” if by that we mean “depicts things people would rather not have depicted, generally in less-than-easy-to-scan prose.” We come out the gate with pedophilia, incest, apocalypse. Thivai and Abhor, outlaws, cyborgs, sometimes-lovers, wander semi-post-apocalyptic Paris. We’re not sure exactly what they’re doing – that would be sensible, and that’s not the empire we’re in, as the title reminds us – but they’re after something and meet all kinds of characters whilst they’re after it. 

Here’s the deal: it’s hard to shock people who grew up with the internet, or anyway, hard to shock them with –content–. You can sometimes get a content-tone combo, some disjunction, that can do the trick. I don’t claim to be unshockable. But writers like Ackerman at the tail end of the twentieth century who wanted to be shocking and relied on weirdness, edginess, or just randomness to do so… that doesn’t age well. As the back blurb of “Empire of the Senseless” puts it, “Navigating the chaotic city, they encounter mad doctors, prisoners, bikers, sailors, tattooists, terrorists, and prostitutes…” Terrorists, sure, you might not want to encounter. Mad doctors… well, depends how mad. The rest of them? Who sees tattooists as especially edgy or noteworthy these days, anymore than any other craft worker, like a chef or a bricklayer? I imagine you could drop this book in a high school library in many parts of this country, and if you alerted the school committee to its presence, they might put it on the list to ban… but they might not bother, either. 

There’s also the way the first few chapters include basically part of the plot of “Neuromancer.” The characters join with youth gangs of “Panthers” to do a cyber-heist to aid an AI with a name based on “Winter-something.” Pretty blatant! Supposedly, this is the sort of thing Kathy Acker just did, a sort of “intertextual” practice, and there’s interviews with both William Gibson and Acker and Gibson doesn’t seem to mind. Still and all… kind of seems like New York artsy writers ripping off genre writers and getting high-class plaudits for it. Granted, this was a period where some from the critical establishment were trying to take on board the existence, and effervescence, of science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Both cyberpunk as a literary movement, and the sort of theory-inflected cool-kid vibe the cyberpunk-theorists were trying to pull off, dissipated into the general cultural churn soon after, but it was definitely a thing…

All told, not sure what to make of this. Acker definitely is doing something and she definitely had chops. But it’s hard to react to this as much other than a time capsule. I’m a historian- I like a good time capsule. But I don’t think that’s what Acker was trying for, and there’s limits to how much time capsule qua time capsule can hold my attention. I’ll try some more Acker sometime, especially as I don’t think I’m letting go of fin de siecle literature and history as a topic any time too soon. ***

Review – Acker, “Empire of the Senseless”

Review – Mann and Gardiner, “Heat 2”

Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner, “Heat 2” (2022) – I yield to few in my admiration for Michael Mann, my favorite director, and like most Mann fans my age, I first got into him from seeing “Heat.” I don’t look for perfection in artists and works I admire (stupid I have to say that but there it is)- Mann isn’t “perfect” and “Heat” is no longer my favorite Mann movie. I see it as being great, in the sense of having a lot going for it and some huge flaws. “Heat” adds and forgets at least one major plotline (serial killer Waingro) to an already over-stuffed script, the characters are needlessly wordy to the extent that Pacino especially almost becomes farcical, and it’s the nadir of Mann’s uneven ability to depict women. But it’s still compelling- the actors, the action, the pathos Mann never sneers or winks at. In a time when we’re all encouraged to be either shitty little stand-up comics inflicting our not-so-tight-fives about everything to everyone, or else woofing, yawping nincompoops, Mann’s deadly serious, but not self-serious, stories of connection and tragedy constitute signals from a better world. This is as true for his misses (like “The Keep”) as much as it is for checkered successes (“Heat,” “Public Enemies,” “Miami Vice”) and indisputable masterpieces (“Thief,” “Manhunter,” “Last of the Mohicans”) (note- I actually –like– some of the “checkered” works better than the masterpieces- enjoyment is more subjective, to me, than mastery).

So, on the one hand, I get the jokes that rise to the mind when one hears that Michael Mann, with help from bestselling thriller writer Meg Gardiner, wrote and published a book called “Heat 2,” both a prequel and a sequel to his 1996 film. Chris Fleming, a comedian who almost fills the role in comedy that Mann does for me in film, described it as a government program to get adult men to read (considering the last book that you could make that joke for would be “American Sniper,” I think we can agree this is an improvement). Moreover, being a follower of Michael Mann’s work, I know this is part of a “comeback.” His last film, “Blackhat,” was a massive, almost inconceivable flop (I think it’s kind of good), and for years the studios wouldn’t let Mann near another movie. I think now they realize enough dads out there will buy stuff with “the guy who brought you Heat” on it, especially if it’s a sequel, to let him out of the doghouse a little- he got this book out, and now they’re letting him make the Enzo Ferrari biopic he’s been talking about forever. 

So, I do think there’s some calculation here. But I also know Mann’s work well enough to know, from the first page, that this stuff was going to be cask-strength Mann, an immersion into the Manniverse, if you will. He’s known for writing extensive biographies for his characters, most of which don’t come up in the movies, and you know he’s just been dying to get all of that, and the research he does for locations and criminal dynamics, out there somewhere, too. 

Anyway, guess I should say what happens in the book, a little! We first catch up with Chris Shiherlis (the only place I’ve seen that surname outside of the universe of Heat is actually here in Watertown- wonder if it’s Greek or Armenian), Val Kilmer’s character, hours after the botched robbery that formed the pivot of the movie. He’s been shot, his wife is working with the cops (but no so much she doesn’t find a way to warn him out of a cop trap), his best friends have all been killed. Jon Voight’s character smuggles him out of the US and gets him a job in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Real Mann heads know that Mann loves places like that, weird nether zones exposing both capitalism’s darkness and it’s potential for adventures for Mann to dramatize. Ciudad del Este is more or less openly run by smuggler clans, and Chris gets in with one of them. 

Zap back to 1988! Neil McCauley, Robert DeNiro’s character, is still alive, and something like the crew is still intact, and in Chicago. They take a big score there, but also pick up an enemy in the form of the leader of a crew of home invasion robbers. Those of you who know Michael Mann, or really who read/watch a lot of crime stories, know that home invaders are bad news. Neil, Chris and crew are criminals, sometimes violent, but never do crime to sate their violent desires- they’re professionals. Otis, the leader of the home invaders, on the other hand, makes his already violent crimes more violent intentionally. He’s a creepy sadist on top of everything else. Meanwhile, Al Pacino’s detective character, Vincent Hanna, is in the mix- he was canonically a Chicago cop before moving to LA, so he’s trying to find Otis (he’s not on Neil’s tail yet- Neil’s Chicago score didn’t involve violence). 

The score they do in Chicago leads the crew to taking down a cartel stash house in Mexicali, on the border. This was probably my favorite part of the book, the best heist of the bunch (and there’s a few, enough for pretty much any heist-head). But Otis, despite not being a “professional” in the sense of Neil et al, is dogged and lucky, and he finds them. Specifically, he finds Neil’s love interest, a Mexican smuggler lady who helps out with the crimes (over time, Mann has gotten better about having women who aren’t victims or shrews in his stuff, and one imagines Meg Gardiner probably helped here too). Tragedy ensues, one of the things that helps lead Neil to his “have no attachments you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds” credo from the movie. 

Back to the future! By 2000, Chris is in with a Taiwanese-Paraguayan smuggler clan. Despite still having his wife, Ashley Judd, back in the States (they can’t talk much because Chris is extremely wanted), he gets together with the business-minded daughter of the clan, who sees the transnational criminal entrepreneurial possibilities of the future. This takes them back to LA, where a concatenation of weird Chinese-Paraguayan dynastic politics, and our old friend Otis, somehow combine to create big time problems that Chris and Vincent Hanna, still on the force, need to navigate/shoot their way out of.

Those of you who know Michael Mann’s stuff (and even more so those of you know his stuff and then lick the boom up) will recognize the story, it’s themes, and much of its background as a melange of elements Mann used in any and all of his crime movies. It’s not just “Heat,” but especially “Miami Vice” and “Blackhat” with their emphases on interconnected global crime, “Public Enemies,” “Thief” (especially in the Chicago parts), even “Manhunter” given how much pivots on sociopath Otis, whose motivations aren’t all that different from the Tooth Fairy in that move… all present and accounted for. 

It’s not so much fan service for fans of Heat — you get more of Kelso, Tom Noonan’s wheelchair-bound hacker, but kind of more a plot device, and not people you’d rather see like Tom Sizemore’s Cerrito, Wes Studi’s Casals, or Danny Trejo’s character, named after the actor — as fan service for fans of Michael Mann as a whole. It won’t surprise you to know that I follow Michael Mann’s Facebook page, and his fans are now talking about a “Michael Mann extended universe,” which you gotta figure is exactly what the publishers/studios want. I try not to do this in reviews, but it’s a very strong case of “this is the kind of thing you’ll like, if that’s the kind of thing you like.” Michael Mann’s work is so stuck in my brain it’s hard to tell if other people will respond to it. There’s definitely enjoyable crime material, here, and it’s also encouraged me to check out Meg Gardiner- while the vision is definitely Mann’s, I could see her doing a lot to make a real novel out of it. Anyway… I’d call this middle-rank Mann, which means it’s better than high-ranked stuff from lesser mortals. ****

Review – Mann and Gardiner, “Heat 2”

Review – Kuang, “The Poppy War”

R.F. Kuang, “The Poppy War” (2018) (read aloud by Emily Woo Zeller) – Man… this is just discouraging. I don’t really have a lot to say about this that I didn’t have to say about the similarly wildly-hyped “Black Sun,” except, if anything, this is even weaker and more rote. Once again, we’re promised a new take on fantasy, inspired by a global setting, not the usual post-Tolkien Europe-based world-building, and changes in perspective that come with both that and from authorship by a woman of color. Once again, we get paint by numbers cliches borrowed from Harry Potter, shonen anime, and the maybe, what… five? Six? Other strains that go in to contemporary big ticket narrative entertainment media. And once again, the speculative fiction industry has piled honors and money at the author’s feet.

The idea here is that the main character, Rin, a put-upon foster child in a rural province of a secondary world society based on China during its pre-1949 century of humiliation, studies real hard and gets to go to hogwarts I MEAN battle school I MEAN, the academy, whatever it’s called, for special military children. People are mean to her because she’s poor. The instructors are harsh beyond what seems necessary or advisable even for a military academy. But, lo and behold, Rin is the special child, the only one who can do the kind of shamanism that can keep the kind-of-Japanese at bay when they attack again. Presumably, in the sequels, she battles going crazy (shaman magic makes you crazy) and the stand-in westerners. 

Look. I shouldn’t have to keep repeating this, but I will. I would love to see a big fantasy epic based on Chinese history. Same with Mesoamerican history, same with African or Polynesian history- really, anywhere. If these epics were written by women of color or other people historically marginalized within publishing, so much the better (Kuang belongs to other demographics, like Georgetown and Oxbridge graduates, that aren’t so marginalized, and it’d maybe be nice to get some diversity on that axis, too, but the point stands). The reason I would like to see these things is because I think that good writing can accomplish that double-miracle- the exploration of difference, many-fold ways of thinking and living, alongside the recognition of human concordance across differences. Sometimes, a triple miracle- those things, plus entertainment! 

“The Poppy War” fails on all these counts. The closest thing for a justification for its existence, outside of the balance sheets of its publisher, is what I think of as the Clayton Powell principle. Asked about the illegal small-time numbers gambling game that was everywhere in his Harlem district (and was beginning to be violently taken over by Italian and Jewish gangsters, after generations of being run reasonably peaceably by black and Hispanic operators, often women), Congressman Adam Clayton Powell said, “I’m against the numbers in any form, but until the numbers are eradicated from Harlem, I want the black man to have the same chance to run the numbers as the Italian.” So, yeah- if we’re doing this chintzy, bloated, overrated, same-same hero’s journey bullshit over and over again, then yes, women of color like Kuang, Rebecca Roanhorse, and N.K. Jemisin deserve the same chance to see their work wildly overblown as boring white dude hacks like Patrick Rothfuss have. 

But what a missed opportunity! Rothfuss didn’t promise as much, or more to the point, waste as much as the supposed deliverers of the field from “white farm boys going on quests” have. A fantasy novel based on the dynamics of Chinese history is a really fucking good idea! I was looking forward to this! I had some forewarning it was a little trite from people I trust, but other people I trust (a little less if I’m being honest) spoke quite highly of “The Poppy War.” 

But what’s the goddamned point of it’s the same old shit, with somewhat different personal names and aesthetic details in the scenery? Especially when those aesthetic differences are indifferently conveyed and aren’t in an audiovisual medium to begin with? It’s like someone slapped a reskin on a well-known video game and declared it not just a whole new game, but a subversion of all previous games in the genre, a step forward both for game design and, in some way, social justice. And it works, over and over again! People fall for it!

“The Poppy War” in particular was possibly the most predictable single book I ever read. Every character is who they seem to be, if not to the other characters — they can’t see that Rin is special, generally, or that the crazy old herbal medicine teacher actually knows shamanism — but to any reader over the age of eight. Every turn of the story you can see coming well ahead of time, including the setups for the inevitable bloated sequels. 

This would be less of a problem if the premise delivered more, if Kuang successfully immersed us in another world, a world dissimilar to those in which we usually find ourselves as readers. Fantasy plots don’t need to be scintillatingly original. But the world and atmosphere of “The Poppy War” was so familiar it felt like going to the office (honestly, NBC-The-Office worship is a disease, but it feels like less like going to work and probably has more real world-building than most Hugo candidates for best novel in the last five years). You can’t just have everyone eating rice flour dumplings instead of beef stew and call it a subversion of Eurocentric genre tropes. Put upon decaying kingdom, sure. Long-dead magic arises despite skepticism of decadent ruling elite, you bet. And always, always, the magic one proving themselves. No one thinks different, no one talks different, nothing is really arranged, socially, politically, economically, all that different than in the “white boy” Tolkien-deriviative fantasies with which this book shares shelf space. 

A friend of mine likes to say that a lot of the problems in contemporary genre fiction stem from meritocrats – and most contemporary big name writers come, at the very least, from decent universities, and often enroll in highly competitive and expensive workshops to hone their craft and make industry connections – staging endless vindications for versions of themselves, the lonely striver revealed as being as special as authors generally imagine themselves to be. My addendum: a really different world, and certainly the different consciousness you would see in a genuinely different world, like those built by Tolkien, Le Guin, Butler, Herbert, et al, would interfere with the clarity of this vision… to say nothing of taking much more time and effort, if nothing else reading weird old shit when a tired grad student would rather be streaming (speaking as a grad student whose career failures probably had something to do with preferring reading weird old shit, I know whereof I speak). To the extent smart people I know like this book, it seems they like it for a somewhat depressing reason: they’ve enlisted in an online war with SFF enthusiasts who embrace what a friend calls “toxic-posi vibes,” “hopepunk” types who smilingly try to ruin the careers of anyone less posi than themselves. That means that “The Poppy War,” which is unrelentingly grim, humorless, free of the quips, squee moments, and familial sentimentality we’ve picked up from Joss Whedon et al, is on their side in the pointless series of cafeteria brawls that is speculative fiction social media. 

A dispiriting spectacle all around! Somewhere in the stacks, or online, there’s probably someone who’s written actually good, new scifi or fantasy based on historical China. I feel confused by the situation we see in contemporary SFF, even though the basic dynamics are as clear and sleazy as in any of our decaying institutions, and I guess the confusion stems from that. Good writing doesn’t cost that much more than bad. So why don’t they take a good writer out of their slush pile and elevate them? That probably comes down to some kind of sleazy bullshit surrounding workshops and who you know, too. Still! **

Review – Kuang, “The Poppy War”

Review – Russell, “A Renegade History of the United States”

Yeah, I’ve used this before. I’ve read shitty books before!

Thaddeus Russell, “A Renegade History of the United States” (2010) – We’ve burnt through hyperbole like fossil fuels, and it too creates an obnoxious smog: this is the worst, that’s the best ever, etc etc. That said, on careful consideration, I am pretty sure this is the single worst work of history I’ve ever read, certainly the worst work of history by a historian serious people have praised to me. One of the smarter people in my grad program had “Big Bad Thad” (as she informed he was nicknamed) Russell as an undergrad instructor. She disagreed with his politics — back then, near when this book came out, more or less down-the-middle libertarianism, strolling down history’s lane to its rendezvous with Trumpism — but thought he was a good instructor and that his book sounded interesting.

Well, I could kind of see the instructor thing. Russell’s out of the academy now, a podcaster, looks like he’s backed by someone’s money, and given that he’s tight now with “Moldbug” Yarvin, it’s probably Peter Thiel’s money. He’s trying to be some kind of “intellectual dark web” don, sitting his high table with “race realists,” various reactionary mystics, and other purveyors of the “renegade” and forbidden. I haven’t listened, but there’s certainly a tone in this book of his — conversational, imaginative, committed — I could see getting across to both podcast audiences and undergrads.

In that year of years 2010, Russell published this history that purports to tell the history of the United States from the perspectives of “renegades.” This isn’t any Howard Zinn stuff, though, or a retelling of slave rebellions and labor uprisings. Russell, as it happens, did write an earlier book on the labor movement- specifically, about how Jimmy Hoffa was actually a great labor leader, more or less because was a crook. “A Renegade History of the United States” is about, more or less, how laws regulating various pleasurable activities rose and fell over the course of US history, specifically from the point of view of the “renegades” who did not allow “reformers” – here understood as a straight up pejorative – who would regulate them to do so easily.

Would it be possible to write a good history from this perspective? Good histories have been written from worse ideas, or anyway, readable and informative histories, histories that reflect some kind of thought worth having. There’s definitely a lot of historical material in the political battles over assorted recreational activities in American history, and you can probably do a good synoptic history of that, too- I bet someone has. But that’s not quite what Russell did here. In attempting to tell this story as the story of American history, he is trying to advance various deeply stupid and tendentious ideas, where the stupidity and tendentiousness involved reenforce each other in such ways that you probably couldn’t get anything like a good work of history out of Russell’s project. 

The bullshit begins in the presentation. You don’t want to be a dweeb, do you? A bluenose, all offended at the raunchy pleasures of the poor? Do you want to be like John Adams, the fattest and least glamorous of the founding fathers, who Russell depicts for us walking through Philadelphia circa 1787 and wrinkling his nose at all the wonderful sin Russell details- the taverns, the brothels, the streets full of glorious, dirty, interracial life? You don’t want to be like the right or the left, right, with their self-righteous insistence on their moral values? You’re smarter than that- importantly, you’re cooler than that. You’re a renegade. 

Don’t buy it. Never buy it. Because if you have a brain in your head, you know what’s next, the same kind of come on that untold generations of hucksters and missionaries have been using forever. That inevitable “therefore…” To the extent Russell has a claim on anything other than a line of shit that can hook undergrads and “intellectual dark web” habitues (I wonder if he cried when that stupid Times article about the IDW didn’t mention him…), it’s a slightly more adept shell game than many libertarian ideologues… back then, at least, I think he’s gotten less subtle as time has gone on. Accepting his positive vision is comparatively unimportant, and mostly an easy ask- after all, Prohibition was a bad idea, a lot of regulators of public behavior were bigots or petty tyrants, etc. But the idea is to slide in his negative vision with the positive vision: that anyone who has politics beyond “let me smoke weed and/or pollute this river in peace” is a nasty regulator type, an enemy, and moreover, an enemy sans any pathos, almost sans humanity. 

And that regulator type extends to just about anyone pressing for any kind of power, regardless of the power differentials involved. It’s not just John Adams and J. Edgar Hoover. As elsewhere in this book, tendentiousness and sloppiness reinforce each other. So the abolitionists were just out to ruin everyone’s good time on the plantation (the opening riff of The Rolling Stones’ slave-rape anthem “Brown Sugar” kept coming to my mind unbidden in that section- though at least the Stones were talented) and the civil rights movement was the same but with ghettos, largely through the device of defining both movements through decontextualized moral exhortations by some of the preachers involved. He extends that game to just flat out ignoring any movements for suffrage, including the extension of the suffrage to poor people, who presumably could have used the vote to stop the busybodies from telling them not to be drunk all the time? 

I tried to get at this in one of my birthday lectures (I should have read this book for that- I didn’t realize quite what it was at the time), but there is a sort of countercultural take on American history that holds that the American past was not just more free than its present – this is common enough, mostly with conservatives, and has been almost since the country’s founding – but also weirder, funkier, looser. Russell also despises the counterculture, because it was anti-consumerist and consumerism is one of the pleasures he goes to bat for, but he gets at the mood of this school of thought, and really, it was always about mood more than anything. Russell wants to get across the idea that everyone was just getting down, drinking and fucking and spending money, in the taverns, men and women and white and black having a true, unforced equality in the absence of formal rules or even serious discussion about the matter. Anyone who brings up power or organization or anything like that, it’s like a record scratch ending the party. “Aww man, who invited this square?!” 

It’s stupid, but it’s not an altogether uninfluential vision of history. That Russell manages to export this vision, always questionable, to goddamn slave plantations… whatever else it is, this book represents what happens when tendentious assholes with stupid ideas they’re trying to get over on suckers walk through the doors opened by scholars with naive ideas about structure and power. Like a completely open internet forum, it gets taken over by racists and creeps. 

All of this, with the sloppy argumentation and sourcing of an undergraduate term paper and a tone by turns smug, revelatory (he really thinks he did good spadework here, but relied largely on other secondary sources), and faux-outraged by the depredations on freedom by the political types of the world. I can do evil, and I can even do stupid if it’s interesting enough, but every aspect of this that’s morally and politically bankrupt hooks into some aspect of the book that is stupid and sloppy. It’s no good saying I’m not a bluenose, because you automatically are to Russell or anyone who takes him seriously if you object to anything they say, but frankly, after this, I kind of want to be. No more whiskey and squalor for you fucks, because we know what the likes of Russell and his masters will use the nth-generation copy of a copy of a bad understanding of what that looked like to convince people that black people don’t really need to vote. Especially when you consider Russell defends possibly the least compelling set of pleasures imaginable, i.e. those preferred by American blockheads – bashing your own brain in with booze, sex with equally gross and poorly-bathed people, spending money on shit you don’t need and that doesn’t generally work as advertised – the spiteful position is awfully tempting.  

Russell is pals these days with Yarvin and other open racists and homophobes (had both Red Scare gals, individually! He’s definitely the type of older Xer know-nothing who goes gooey eyed over nothings like them) now, but still postures as though he’s the defender of the little guy against. Generally, the trash bigots he has on are the kind who like to pretend they want what’s best for those lesser types (invariably, the opposite of what said types fight and struggled for, historically). I haven’t bothered to listen to his podcast, but I feel I can almost see through some shitty version of The Force that he got “redpilled” by people like me not immediately giving him all of the awards for his book on pleasure (though he got serious historians, like Alan Brinkley and Nancy Cott, to blurb it, along with historical trailblazers like the guy who wrote “The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History”). Who could be against pleasure, and a book defending it? Who wants to be a dweeb? Globalists with agendas, that’s who! Well, honestly, I’d be down to play the villain if this pathetic charade is what needs heroes to save it. ‘

Review – Russell, “A Renegade History of the United States”

Review – Shields, “And So It Goes”

Charles Shields, “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life” (2011) (read aloud by Fred Berman) – Poking around the goodreads review of this book, I saw someone make a good point: you can’t object to the fact that a middlebrow hack wrote this biography, in a classic middlebrow hack way, because Kurt Vonnegut was, by his own admission, a middlebrow hack. Moreover, Vonnegut was a man who wanted to be loved, showered with affection and awards, even more than he eventually came to be after he lived to become one of the most beloved figures in American literature towards the end of his life, for being that middlebrow hack.

I think this goodreads person raises a good point, but I disagree with it. Being a middlebrow hack — the dude wrote a lengthy essay about how John Lennon’s “Imagine” is the “song of the [twentieth] century,” which, when you consider it’s a puling sentimental plea for a pretty dystopian-seeming utopia written by a man with an extensive record of violence, does make some sense but not in the way Shields wants it to — Shields can’t see the miracle in front of him. Kurt Vonnegut, with every temptation of his times and of his own character and circumstances, produced some of the best American literature of the century. The middlebrow hack – by his own self-hating description – who couldn’t break out of Saturday Evening Review for years is one of the greats- and I’m pretty sure his biographer, here, just is not. 

His work is both respected and genuinely loved- Vonnegut’s the only good writer I used to see name-checked regularly in online dating profiles, when I was looking at them more. It deals with the biggest, heaviest themes of literature in an accessible, humorous style. Vonnegut was sufficiently experimental with form and narrative that he gets slotted into the “postmodernist” box, but not being a pedant or intentionally obscure – he always prized clarity in writing – that assignment really doesn’t stick, as far as I’m concerned. His many imperfections as a writer became signatures of personal style. His imperfections as a man, which Shields lovingly details here, did not lead to him being posthumously “cancelled” – he is, arguably, the only one of the big straight white male writers of the American midcentury who has entered the 2020s with his reputation more or less intact. Some of that is probably down to his presentation of self, but, and maybe I’m being romantic here, I really do think the quality of his writing has done a lot to keep it alive. 

Shields doesn’t talk much about that. It’s clear from the outset that this is, indeed, “a life,” as publishers often subtitle tedious biographies. That is, it traces the subject’s parentage, childhood, education, publishing career, marriage(s), affair(s), friendships (especially with other famous people), children, grudges, decline, etc. To the extent such books pay attention to the books the author wrote (“a life”-style biographies are especially common for writers, but not unknown for actors, painters, even politicians), it’s to figure out some very basic themes that tie back with the author’s points about the subject’s psychology. Any reference to literature outside of the subjects’ work usually only happens in the context of the subjects’ publishing relationships- and publishers and editors tend to document themselves well, write a lot of letters, et al, so relations between authors and publishers and editors feature a lot in such biographies. 

That’s more or less the model this biography follows. We learn a lot about Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s upbringing in the bosom of a wealthy and cultured German-American family in Indianapolis, which curdled pretty early on as the family’s fortunes declined. Vonnegut’s mother killed herself, and his domineering older brother insisted that Kurt ignore his inclinations towards writing to become a physical scientist, like him. Shields depicts young Kurt Jr as sensitive and humorous, swinging between easy successes and baffling failures. Plenty of grist for the psychologizing mill, here. 

Probably the most interesting thing about all of this is a glimpse at the pre-1941 German-American milieu, back before the two world wars ground German identity in this country into kitschy dust. The Vonneguts identified their German-ness with education, culture, success, humanism, contributions to the civic spaces in which they lived, and so did a lot of German-Americans. There was almost an idea they were better Americans than the Anglos, with their yahoo-ism and crooked institutions. World War One was a massive blow to this community, with laws passed against the teaching of German, imprisonment of German cultural and political leaders, even a ghastly massacre of German dog breeds. There was less febrile backlash with World War Two, but arguably, something worse happened- many German-Americans, the Vonneguts included, were skeptical about the war. This was understandable, given what had happened in World War One, but turned out to be wrong… and then the enemy in the next war that they were wrong about turned out to be committing some of the worst atrocities in history in the name of the supremacy of Germans. Not, as they say, a good luck. The German-Americans had a deal — a full, undisputed embrace of postwar white normalcy — and they took it. 

Whether or not he embraced isolationism as a college cut up at Cornell — he did, and was no fan of FDR, either — Vonnegut still joined the army after dropping out of Cornell. This, of course, proved to be one of the pivotal events of his life. It solidified his hatred of authority and his pessimism regarding humanity, and witnessing the firebombing of Dresden provided the basis for, arguably, his greatest and most successful novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Like a lot of dudes who came back to the States after seeing some shit overseas, he wanted two fundamentally incompatible things: he wanted calm and prosperity, complete with its conventional accouterments of wife, kids, house; and he wanted to not deal with bullshit, he wanted to do something with the perspective he gained, to tell and live the truth. 

This doesn’t excuse, or necessarily even make sympathetic, the kind of things Vonnegut and others like him (his friend Norman Mailer went even more off the rails) did in response to this dynamic, primarily treating families they started in the first postwar flush of normalcy-seeking shoddily. Vonnegut came to treat his drive to be a great writer not just as though it was his sole motivator, but that it should be his family’s, as well- and his first wife, Jane, went along with it, uprooting her life to move around with him, cooking and cleaning and raising his kids as he left a good job as a General Electric PR flack (secured by his brother, the genius scientist) and decamped them to Cape Cod, pecking out stories, plays, eventually novels. This is where Shields’ seemingly endless resource of publisher gossip comes in. Does it shock you, dear reader, to find out that Kurt Vonnegut was something of a primmo donno, that he wasn’t the most reliable producer of drafts, that he was foolish with money? Well, if it does, you’ll have a shit ton of fun with this book. Same goes for the idea that Vonnegut, especially left on his own when he takes a teaching job at the Iowa Writers Workshop, was something of a philanderer, and not that nice to either his wife or his mistresses, seeing them basically as adjuncts to his becoming. When they became inconvenient, like Jane did once she became a god-bothering Christian and there weren’t that many kids in the house anymore and he had money besides, he tended to leave them aside. 

As it happens, I do think stuff like that belongs in a Vonnegut biography. I think it can be useful to relate a writer’s personal life to his output, in a variety of ways. It doesn’t deserve the proportion of “And So It Goes” that it gets, at the expense of analysis that Shields clearly isn’t interested in, and probably hasn’t got the chops for- doesn’t claim to. Beyond that, it’s just not that interesting. Moreover, I don’t think Shields has the degree of insight he thinks he has, even as he admits only meeting Vonnegut twice before he died and never really interviewing the guy. You don’t need that much in the ways of interviews to get that Vonnegut was a lifelong melancholic depression sufferer, who also experienced hard blows like a mother and sister committing suicide and, you know, surving a terrible war atrocity. Being a depression sufferer doesn’t make the behaviors that depression can encourage any better- it doesn’t make the people the depressed person harms any less harmed. Vonnegut didn’t always tell the truth about himself, but he seldom hid that he was a depressed, often petty (he was always mad he didn’t win enough literary awards), somewhat lecherous, not generally pleasant man. 

Shields does some “artist compelled by demons” stuff here but doesn’t get at what actually made Vonnegut special. Nowadays, when someone describes something as “touching” it sounds like ad copy for the Hallmark channel, and when some calls something “relatable” it’s a joke about how bizarre the world has become (something Vonnegut would have gotten, even if he was arguably lucky to die before the internet became what it became). But even when his characters were getting “unstuck in time,” evolving into seal-people, flying to Traflamadore, freezing the world with Ice-9, etc., they were embedded in human dilemmas and realities that we need, but often fail, to touch, that we can relate to but seldom have related to us by official culture. Vonnegut both got the mire of existence in which we live, and could envision other realities, other ways of being- which got his novels slotted into scifi pulp publishing for most of his early career. Speaking of dilemmas, he honored the scifi writers – his saintlike Kilgore Trout was based on Theodore Sturgeon – but did not want to be one, for basically petty reasons- money, esteem. 

Shields is almost troublingly – dare I say “touchingly”? – blind to almost all of this. He gets that people came to like Vonnegut. He gets that Vonnegut’s writing discussed various themes and issues before many other major writers took them on. He places Vonnegut in the context of the social changes we associate with the sixties and the decades thereafter, which is relevant enough, even if most of what Vonnegut had in common with his hippie readers was a certain fecklessness. He points to parallels between characters in Vonnegut’s novels and people Vonnegut knew, situations in novels and situations in Vonnegut’s lifes, of varying levels of picayunity. And that’s about it, as far as actually understanding Vonnegut’s books go. 

Less than being annoyed by this, I’m baffled. In what world is Vonnegut’s middle-aged philandering and drinking more interesting than trying to understand the thought-world that created his work? It is not “hot goss” that writers show up at Iowa unprepared to teach in any meaningful sense and to buy time and make contacts for other projects. It’s not that interesting that Vonnegut’s kids had kind of lousy times, in part because of their feckless, sometimes harsh dad. So why write this? Is it just a souvenir for fans? I guess it’s my own fault for not looking harder for a more analytical biography- as Vonnegut would recognize, people often make their own issues, even if they are, at the same time, “overdetermined” (to use the kind of word Vonnegut never would). Oh, well. **

Review – Shields, “And So It Goes”

Review – Awad, “All’s Well”

Mona Awad, “All’s Well” (2021) (read aloud by Sophie Amoss) – Chronic pain! I think it’s a pretty common subject for books, but mostly self-help and those popular medical books that waft sadness and desperation when you see piles of them in undiscriminating used bookstores. Fewer novels about it, but I’m sure there are examples other than “All’s Well.” I don’t have chronic pain (I get headaches a few times a week, sometimes, but that’s it), but this one seemed to get the impression across pretty well, the way it can render the world both unreal and hyper-real, dreadful cycles of hope and disillusionment, helped along in this instance by the tones of the reader.

Miranda has chronic pain due, in her telling, to falling off stage while performing one of the bard’s less-loved plays, “All’s Well That Ends Well.” She was a reasonably successful theater actress before that! I didn’t know that was really a thing, I figured they were all angling for movies/tv (or, like my dissertation advisor, waiting until he found a book on US diplomatic history to be inspired to decide in early middle age to become a highly successful diplomatic historian?), but I guess not. Anyway, we run into Miranda years after this, after her life has more or less collapsed. Her leg, back, and hips in constant pain, she can’t act, and she takes a job teaching drama at a small New England liberal arts college, where drama is an afterthought of an underfunded English department. Her husband left her after, from his perspective, his lively, interested wife transformed into a bed-ridden hag obsessed with her own pain. It’s an unfair characterization — mine, his, hers — but there’s few things in this world less fair than the physics of nerve endings. She doesn’t like her coworkers, she doesn’t like her students, and they’re all just sort of stuck with each other, much like Miranda is stuck with pain, according to the carousel of doctors, therapists, and chiropractors that make Miranda feel worse, emotionally and sometimes physically.

Near the beginning of the book, Miranda makes a stand: she is going to have her students put on “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Revisiting the site of the trauma? She doesn’t say, exactly- it just has ritual importance for her. The kids don’t want it. They want witches, swords, and blood- they want MacBeth. I don’t know chronic pain. I do know academic underemployment- I know what it’s like to have something between a status job (without the compensation of the kind of pay that comes with status) and a service job (without the compensation of knowing camaraderie between workers that often comes with service jobs). Outsiders usually don’t get the differences between fellows, adjuncts, rankings of professors- they’re all just “professor” to them. But trust me, the students can feel out when you’re low-ranking, underpaid, overworked, and especially if they’re rich kids used to, umm, a certain degree of service, they will push on the ones in whom they can detect the servility of the department. So between that dynamic, and the tossed-together half-friendships, too desultory to even call frenemy relationships, among low-rankers in academic departments that Awad shows Miranda having… that stuff struck real. 

The point is, it looks like a hot, rich girl student who does drama and gets lead roles despite sucking at acting (according to Miranda, not an entirely reliable narrator) is gonna lead a student rebellion, backed by her program-funding parents, to force Miranda to let them do MacBeth. What’s a woman to do? Hit up the bar! In one of those overpriced vaguely-Celtic pubs you see in bougie towns, three strange men approach her, feed her wholesome drinks, and start doing weird shit in these vaguely psychedelic performance set pieces, and making vague offers. 

This was a pretty good book, mostly in terms of Awad’s strong summoning of difficult feelings of decay. But I gotta say- you’re gonna do a Faust thing? The Faust has gotta sign. Miranda doesn’t sign, really. She just sort of slides into letting the three men remake her life. They fund her “All’s Well” production. More than that, they give her something like a superpower- with a touch, she can transfer her pain to others. She zaps the queen bee drama student lady so bad that the only role she’s fit for, when she comes back, mad with pain and vengeance, is the role of the ailing French king in “All’s Well.” She zaps the most patronizing of her therapists. She eventually zaps one of the other department folk! Alas, one she liked better. And she gets better and better! She becomes a dynamo, an inspirational director who gets to do as much sex as she wants with the hot college handyman/prop-master.

She eventually gets —too— better. She runs those drama students ragged! She freaks people out with her insane enthusiasm! The coworker she zaps doesn’t come back to work! It appears that the three strange men had some hidden fees, and her ability to tell reality from dream is part of that fee. The performance of “All’s Well” the kids put on becomes a kind of “theater of cruelty” and, honestly, the book sort of falls apart towards the end. Awad is better with the real, and its unreal aspects, than she is with the surreal. Maybe that’s just my prejudices- I don’t think many people do surrealism that well. In any event, this was a decent read, and I think some of the readers of this might enjoy it even more than I did. ****

Review – Awad, “All’s Well”

Review – Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature”

Cintra Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature” (2004) – This was a big, delightful surprise. This book came on my radar when I was looking into Montgomery McFate, the founder of the Human Terrain Project, a Pentagon effort to put social scientists into the field to support counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a bloody farce, as most things in those wars were. The media blitz around McFate as the program spun up added insult to injury, with a lot of emphasis on her credentials as a Bay Area punk in the eighties, raised on a houseboat by beatniks, theory geek, affecting punk style into her middle-aged aughts… one of the puff pieces brought up that a character based on her features in this novel by her friend Cintra Wilson, who upon googling turned out to be a sort of op-ed writer/style critic/general writing person. So when I decided I would write about Gen X literature for this year’s birthday lecture, I thought, perfect- a bridge between Gen X literary cynicism and support for our imperial wars, probably a piece of shit in literary terms, too. Maybe there’d be a cameo from John Dolan, aka the War Nerd, who in a very strange convergence dated McFate back when!

Well, “Colors Insulting to Nature” is none of that. The closest comparison I can make is to “A Confederacy of Dunces,” and that’s high praise. It’s a little too cute and self-aware (and, let’s be real, less relatable to me- you’ll see why) for it to quite scale the pedestal Dunces sits on for me, but it was a surprisingly great read. The story of the Normal family (you can see why I might have been rolling my eyes going in), particularly Liza Normal, and its efforts to make good with the one god that they can adhere to: fame, being on tv. Living on an arc between Las Vegas and Marin County north of San Francisco, the Normals are uniquely ill-equipped for their mission, lacking pretty much everything you would want for pre-ironic, mass-media late twentieth century fame other than one thing: “the tenacity of the cockroach,” as that one book called it. 

The book opens with Peppy Normal driving Liza, maybe age eleven or thirteen, to a hopeless audition for a commercial. Maybe I’ve been doing too much generational reading — which is ironic because a lot of the point in my lecture is about how generational analysis sucks — but I feel like in a book by a millennial author, the audition would be about how hard Liza tried to meet an impossible standard, and then either she fails (due to some certified injustice, maybe) or succeeds to find that success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Wilson does not do that. Liza’s audition is a train wreck, partially due to lack of talent, but mostly because the Normals are possessed with a very specific idea of fame, beauty, and glamor, an extraordinarily tacky pastiche of better-forgotten post-fifties over-sexed fashions and phrasings, so that little Liza makes some profoundly uncomfortable performances without even knowing it.

I dwell on this audition scene to show that this novel is about the subject of so many great works of humor: miscommunication. In this case, the Normals don’t want to communicate anything so prosaic as ideas, or even desires. They have visions in their heads, differing but converging in some key areas, of glory, light, love, the limelight dream (agoraphobic older brother Ned even makes Liza an actual limelight at one point, not an easy technical feat). Perhaps the most important structural prop in Liza’s dreamscape comes from an almost forgotten subgenre of movies about street youth whose natural talent and authenticity propel them to fame by just doing what they do- perhaps the only well-known artifact of this wave of media is the musical actually called “Fame.” Needless to say, their peculiar aesthetics would be hard to get across in any event. But based as they are in a “dinner theater” in Marin County, they have a singular incapacity to instantiate their visions. The harder either mother or daughter try, the more humiliatingly they fail, and the more they only attract dregs drawn by similarly deeply sincere but inane visions to their productions.

There’s a lot more incident in this book than I could cover here. The future Montgomery McFate comes up during Liza’s terrible time in high school, as Lorna, the reliable friend who introduces her to punk rock. Punk does form something like an alternative to the world of chintz and glitz, and, for a subculture that was still pretty oppositional back then, something like a stable platform of values (and a way to rebel against Peppy). But Liza can’t quite rid herself of the fame dream- that she could get revenge in some spectacular way (arguably punk’s most fundamental dream), or when that fails, an LSD-and-TV inspired dream of ultimate purity and cleanliness, where her shining whiteness (not directly racialized, but not not racialized, if that makes sense) can’t help but draw in worshipping masses.

The San Francisco portions of the book keeps up the pace of amusing incident and is also of some historical use in the bargain, I’d argue. We sometimes act like “the sixties” (metonym: hippies) kind of shifted into “the eighties” (metonym: yuppies) and “the seventies” (metonym: disco? Pet rocks?) was sort of the stomp on the clutch and yank of the e-brake that facilitated a sudden and complete transformation. But of course, it wasn’t quite that way. It wasn’t just aging acid casualties trying to hold on to some dream of counterculture, deep into the eighties, certainly not in the Bay Area. Probably my favorite section is where Liza and Lorna fall in (for the classic reason- cheap rent) with a group of the sort of DnD players your psychologist warned you about, the kind who take a lot of acid and genuinely think they’re elves. This was before nerddom — many of the subcultures I grew up with as relatively discrete categories, and which are now dissolving into the internet — gelled, and confused ex-football players looking for meaning could actually think learning Sindarin and growing their hair was a good way to get laid. The elf house gets into a three-way conflict with some techno-music alien enthusiasts and some gothy wannabe vampires. This is funny enough on its own, made funnier by the historical dynamic- we know, Wilson would have known almost twenty years ago, that these lifestyles aren’t avant-garde, they’re jokes, and soon they’ll be seen as reasonably wholesome hobbies. But only the goths on this tableau have even the slightest capacity for irony. The ex-jock elf leader keeps telling Liza she hasn’t had the vision that would allow her to be true otherkin. She has her own vision during a three-way drug-addled subculture melee in Golden Gate park, and goes back to pursuing fame.

Irony plays an interesting role, here. Wilson, who makes occasional asides to the reader, relates Liza’s failures but never entirely dismisses her vision. Her ludicrous TV dreams are no better or worse than what animates most of us, Wilson insists. Still and all, what saves Liza — and, eventually, Peppy — is irony and queers. Queer people, mostly trans women and gay men, hovered all around the story and the creative efforts of both Liza and Poppy. They provide a certain degree of sympathy — and once the Normals’ productions become ridiculous enough (to a certain extent due to mother-daughter rivalry), a certain amount of buzz, an unwanted and ambivalent form of fame for two women who desire mainstream appreciation, but something. It’s a desperate last resort that Liza starts writing queer erotic fan fiction. In this pre-internet time, you could make money doing that! This is what saves her and her mom in the end, that and a well-timed move away from overly-pretentious California and onto the self-aware, take it or leave it Las Vegas of the mid-1990s.

I’ve known people who thought Gen X basically invented irony, and that irony, essentially, invalidates history. Wilson doesn’t go that far. But it provides a sort of, err, fairy godfather, if you will, a role similar to that of kismet in the Arabian nights, that will allow one with enough persistence and luck to survive and even thrive. It’s not quite happily ever after for Liza (it might be for Lorna, who drives off east with her fiancée- and unless John Dolan was ever a tattoo artist, I’m not sure there’s a cameo there). It’s close enough. These endings are always weak points for these misprision novels, but like Confederacy of Dunces, the ending here, while not the best part of the book, does what it needs to do. All in all, a very pleasant surprise of a book, and I think a good and fun source for insight into the end of the twentieth century in the US. ****’

Review – Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature”

Review – Macdonald, “The Drowning Pool”

Ross Macdonald, “The Drowning Pool” (1950) – This is not a novel about the band responsible for that “let the bodies hit the floor” song, but a quick wiki browse indicates that they took the name for their band from the movie adaptation of this book starring Paul Newman! Very recent postwar disgust is the prevailing theme of this one. Southern California might be booming economically, but society has yet to gel into any real shape, crooks and grifters can be found on every level, and sunshine and cheap glitz can’t cover the rot. Private eye Lew Archer is hired by a sexy dame to investigate some poison pen letters she’s been getting. The dame lives in what should be an idyllic valley, but of course, even idylls are a cheap come-on in the land of dreams.

Crime novels can be hard without giving too much away! The dame won’t tell Lew much. Honestly, I might not have taken the case were I him, but he’s curious and horny. There’s conflict between the old idyllic farming town and the new oil money in the valley, some unfortunate (and kind of Freud-by-numbers, including the homophobia you get in even left-leaning crime fiction of this period) family psychodynamics, and drifters with sinister agendas and mouths full of lies. A big bad of sorts emerges about halfway through, and some murders. At one point Lew has to escape people torturing him with hydrotherapy (has anyone had a good experience with that? The only references to it I’ve seen are here and in “Thief,” and it wasn’t happy in the latter either) by doing one of my all-time favorite types of escape, filling a room with high windows up with water and floating to the windows (it doesn’t work that well but still). Would the physics of that work at all? Anyway, this is a tightly written and enjoyable little book. ****’

Review – Macdonald, “The Drowning Pool”