Up All Night with “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”

Have you ever encountered a book that totally grabbed you–gripped you by the throat and wouldn’t let go? That you just had to keep reading non-stop until you finished?

Don’t know about you, but I’ve only had a handful of these too hot-to-touch experiences in my whole reading life. The one that really sticks with me after all these years is my first encounter with Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940).

HeartIsALonelyHunter

I read Heart as an assignment for an English class (Contemporary Fiction, maybe?) in my sophomore year of college. Had never heard of the book or Carson McCullers. Had no idea what it was about. Had no expectations at all. Somehow the book and its author had managed to totally escape my radar.

And then, suddenly, here I was reading this book I had never heard of by an author I’d never heard of  . . .  and found myself reading it . . . and reading it . . . and reading it.

I devoured it in one uninterrupted session: started early on a Saturday morning and read it through the night and finished it the next day. This is a 400+ page novel, so you can imagine how bleary-eyed I was by the end of the reading. Felt like a dishrag. But a happy dishrag. A fulfilled dishrag. A moved dishrag.

I kind of miss those days when a book could so completely pull me into its orbit. Doesn’t happen much anymore. Nowadays, there’s always a little bit more distance. And a little less endurance. But back then, there was nothing more thrilling than feeling so purely in sync with an author and her work. Kind of like falling in love, I suppose.

carson mccullers

So why did The Heart is a Lonely Hunter grab me so hard?

Perhaps because the author was just about my age–late teens/early twenties–when she wrote it? (McCullers published the novel when she was all of twenty-three.)

Perhaps because Heart deals with marginal and marginalized characters, oddballs who don’t quite fit into their environment. Lonely people who are desperately searching for a way to connect with others, to mean something to someone else. (I don’t know about you, but that pretty much sums up where my head was at when I was nineteen.)

As one of the characters puts it:

“I’m a stranger in a strange land.”

And another–the owner of an all-night diner–says: “I like freaks”:

What he said to Alice was true–he did like freaks. He had a special friendly feeling for sick people and cripples. Whenever somebody with a harelip or T.B. came into the place he would set him to beer. Or if the customer were a hunchback or a bad cripple, then it would be whiskey on the house.

Or perhaps because I was simply ready for a book to totally transport me to someplace new, someplace I hadn’t been before. Who knew that a Depression-era story set in a middle-of-nowhere small town in the deep south could speak so directly and intimately to a northern urbanite like me?

Heart is a Lonely Hunter

I was totally hooked by that intriguing first sentence:

 In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.

Almost sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, the world McCullers creates is a strangely hypnotic one, peopled with off-kilter characters, souls who harbor inchoate secrets, unfulfilled desires, unknowable pain. It’s not in any sense a realistic depiction of a Depression-era southern town; instead McCullers creates a strangely poetic and evocative dreamscape of loners and dreamers and misfits.

On the surface, it’s a similar milieu to that of To Kill a Mockingbird–except that McCuller’s novel altogether dispenses with Lee’s sometimes saccharine sentimentality for something altogether tougher and truer.

At the heart of the novel is John Singer, one of the two mutes mentioned in the opening sentence. He is the glue that mysteriously binds the four other central characters (and the story) together. They all are drawn to this mysteriously silent yet somehow magnetic figure.

Around him circle the other main characters:

  • Mick Kelly–an adolescent girl who through the course of the novel turns from a tomboy to having her first (incredibly sad) sexual experience to a dispiriting job at Woolworth’s. Her dreams of a music career are dashed by the financial hardships that force her to drop out of her freshman year of high school and get a full-time job to help support her family.
  • Jake Blount–an alcoholic socialist and labor agitator who alienates everyone he meets with his rants about social injustice and workers’ rights.
  • Biff Brannon–owner and operator of the New York Café, who occasionally cross-dresses and harbors a strange (and unrequited) love for young Mick.
  • Dr. Benedict Copeland–an elderly black physician who has spent his life trying to make life better for the black residents of his town, but is left angry and frustrated at his inability to better the lot of his people, even the members of his own family.

These people take Singer into their confidence and share with him their deepest secrets, even though we as readers are never quite sure how much Singer really understands of what is being communicated to him:

The fellow was downright uncanny. People felt themselves watching him even before they knew that there was anything different about him. His eyes made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.

McCullers-Heart-is-a-Lonely-Hunter

As I was re-reading the novel recently, I kept thinking: how did a young girl from the deep south know all this stuff?

How could she know about someone like Biff, a wonderfully complex and decent man and his strange obsessions (after his wife dies, he takes to trying on her clothes and wearing her perfume).

Or how McCullers could have developed such an empathetic and nuanced view of Dr. Copeland: a complex and fully-realized African-American character. Noble but not saintly. Well-meaning but terribly flawed. How did a small-town girl from the deep south manage to look past the prevailing prejudices and racial hatred of that time and place to so fully understand and give voice to a black man’s impotent rage and frustration?

And, of course, there is her gorgeous portrayal of Mick Kelly. McCullers travels so deeply and intimately into Mick’s psyche we feel as if we are inside Mick’s head as she takes her sad journey from being an energetic thirteen-year-old tomboy to a dejected and seemingly beaten fourteen-year-old high school dropout at the end.

One of the saddest moments in my reading life was when McCullers describes Mick’s lonely dinner at Jake Blount’s diner–a chocolate sundae and a nickel glass of beer:

What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was. All the plans she made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap–the store, then home to sleep, and back at the store again. . . . Whenever there was overtime the manager always told her to stay. Because she could stand longer on her feet and work harder before giving out than any other girl.

As I was reading the book again, I couldn’t help flashing back to the younger version of myself who had initially fallen in love with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

I totally connected with Mick’s habit of taking long solitary walks–because it felt like I had spent half my adolescence and young adulthood on similar nighttime excursions. First, walking the streets of my suburban town alone. And later in high school secretly traveling into NYC by myself and wandering the streets of the city for hours and hours, searching for . . . what, exactly?

These nights were secret, and of the whole summer they were the most important time. In the dark she walked by herself and it was like she was the only person in the town. Almost every street came to be as plain to her in the nighttime as her own home block. Some kids were afraid to walk through strange places in the dark, but she wasn’t.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers

So how does the novel look after all these years? Pretty darn good. No, I didn’t read it in one sitting this time around, but the book still grabbed me. And, honestly, made me feel pretty good about my younger self for latching onto this mysterious, tough, yet ultimately uplifting book.

And while Heart is full of frustration and sadness and heartbreak, McCullers does not leave us in a total funk. Because each of the characters has a moment of transcendence at the end of the novel. No happy endings to be sure, but in the face of adversity and seemingly insurmountable roadblocks, there is a sense of resolve and endurance.

Here is the lovely end to Mick’s story:

But now no music was in her mind. That was a funny thing. It was like she was shut out from the inside room. Sometimes a quick little tune would come and go–but she never went into the inside room with music like she used to do. It was like she was too tense. Or maybe because it was like the store took all her energy and time. Woolworth’s wasn’t the same as school. When she used to come home from school she felt good and was ready to start working on the music. But now she was always too tired. . . .

But maybe it would . . . turn out O.K. Maybe she would get a chance soon. Else what the hell good had it all been–the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was too and it was too. It was some good.

All right!

O.K.!

Some good.

So, all in all, I guess I feel a little proud of that lonely, confused college sophomore version of myself for having the good taste to fall head over heels in love with this wonderful book, to fall in love with Singer and Mick and all the other misfit characters.

If this book has managed to elude your radar so far (as it almost did mine), make sure to give it a read. You may find yourself staying up all night to finish it, as I did once upon a time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Anyone Ever Hear “Beggars Parade” By the Four Seasons?

In my most recent post (“Earthblood . . . My First Literary Love), I mentioned the summer of 1966 as being a special time for my friend Rick and me. We were both fourteen at the time. That was the summer I fell in love with Earthblood.

But we also loved finding obscure songs that we could discover and call our own. In my last post, I mentioned our #1 musical find that summer: the Kinks’ great B-side, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.”

But I suddenly remembered there was another song that we had discovered that summer and also fell in love with: “Beggars Parade” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Now, understand, we were not Four Seasons fans, not by a long shot. I actually disliked their mainstream stuff–like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” etc.

They sounded so five minutes ago and out of step with the great music that was exploding all around us. This was when the Beatles and the Stones and the Animals and the Kinks and the Who and the rest of the British bands had started their full frontal assault on our ears and airwaves.

But somehow, Rick and I had discovered that the B-Side of “Opus 17 (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout Me”) was actually a subversive little number that no one, but no one was hip to. Hardly sounded like the Jersey Boys at all, which was a big plus to my ears. (btw, Haven’t seen the hit Broadway musical about them and don’t plan to.)

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So, “Beggars Parade” became our second anthem that summer. It had a great melody and some kind of undecipherable protest “message” (which neither Rick nor I ever came close to figuring out)–all coming from the world’s corniest group! So we were in. And, best of all, no one else in the whole wide world knew about it. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who recalls having ever heard that song.

Anyone out there ever hear “Beggars Parade” before? And, even if you haven’t, what do you think of it now? Is it as cool as we thought it was back in our salad days?

 

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“Earthblood” . . . My First Literary Love

Do you remember your first love? Of course you do. No one forgets their first love.

Today’s post is about the first novel I ever fell in love with. I mean head-over-heels, smitten, infatuated.

It’s a book I doubt many of you have ever heard of–Earthblood (1966)–a minor science fiction novel written by two not terribly well-known sci-fi writers, Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown.

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I read the book in installments in If magazine during the spring and summer of 1966. (Before it was published in hardcover later that year, Earthblood was first serialized in the April, May, June, and July issues of If.)

I remember running to my local newspaper/magazine shop (yeah, they were still around back then) hungrily waiting for the new edition of If magazine to appear on its racks so I could continue the story.

My best friend at the time, Rick Agresta, and I would eagerly grab a copy each. If cost 50 cents, which seriously cut into the proceeds from my newspaper route, but I  would gladly have sold any of my brothers and sisters for just a sneak peak at the next issue.

A quick word about Earthblood’s two authors:

Keith Laumer had a moderately successful sci-fi writing career, which was seriously disrupted by a stroke he suffered in 1971 at age 46. Rosel George Brown, one of the few female sci-fi writers of the period, authored some well-received stories and a few novels (she was nominated in 1959 for a Hugo Award for best new author). She was only 41 years old when she died tragically of lymphoma in 1967, the year after Earthblood’s publication.

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Keith Laumer & Rosel George Brown

To be honest, there really is no reason why anyone today should have heard of Earthblood, Laumer and Brown’s one and only collaboration. Except that–back in the mid-Sixties, just as I was on the cusp of becoming an adult reader–it was the book that most mattered to me.

I’m taking a bit of a chance here, because up till now I’ve tried to make my Books That Mattered posts ultra-inclusive. The blog is about the books that helped shape the Baby Boom generation. So by definition, these are titles that have a wide currency. Many are still widely read; almost all are books most of us have at least heard of.

But Earthblood is a book that is hardly remembered today. A book that–even back when it was first published–may have really mattered only to me (and perhaps, Rick, my number one compadre back then).

But please don’t stop reading here. I’m hoping that these musings about my first literary love may resonate with some of you, perhaps get you thinking about your first literary love.

I promise there will be some fun stuff, even if you have never heard of Laumer or Brown or could care less about a forgotten sci-fi curiosity called Earthblood.

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Here are 3 reasons why Earthblood became my first literary love:

Reason #1: Earthblood Came Along at Just the Right Moment 

When I first read the novel in the spring and summer of 1966, I was just turning fourteen. I would graduate grammar school that June and was headed off to my freshman year of high school in the fall.

I was also ready to graduate from the books of childhood to something more . . .  what? . . . I had no idea. But like the young hero of the novel, I knew in my soul there was more out there for me.

Let me make it clear right from the beginning: Earthblood is not on anyone’s list of great novels. Not even great sci-fi novels. Not even very good sci-fi novels.

In many ways it’s pretty standard pulp science fiction: featuring a young male protagonist of mysterious origins living in a backwater planet (Luke Skywalker, anyone?), a traveling space circus, space pirates, a dizzying array of alien life forms, swashbuckling adventures, pitched battles, ethereal beauties, etc., etc.

The plot is ludicrous, the characters broadly-drawn and clichéd, the writing pedestrian–but nonetheless I loved, loved, loved it.

Somehow it was just the right book at the right time. And it struck a resonant chord in my adolescent self that still vibrates–even if a bit faintly–all these years later.

Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown’s novel was an open doorway to a new universe of literature.

And once I opened that door, I found myself journeying deeper and deeper through a dizzying temple of books. One door would lead to another. From Earthblood to Childhood’s End to The Foundation Trilogy to Dune to Robert Heinlein to Ray Bradbury’s brilliant stories to Edgar Allan Poe . . . to ever more imaginative and substantial fare. All of which, of course, eventually led to mainstream literature and to many of the books I’ve been writing about, books that mattered.

Earthblood would prove to be my gateway drug.

Reason #2: Earthblood Was Our Little Secret

As with most adolescents, Rick and I were on a secret mission: a constant, never-ending quest for ways to define ourselves, to feel special, to forge experiences and make discoveries that were uniquely our own.

Earthblood was one such identity-defining discovery, but there were others.

I vividly remember that summer of 1966 because, besides Earthblood, we had uncovered this great Kinks song, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.”

Of course, it was a B-side. The A-side was also a great song, “Sunny Afternoon,” which we both loved. But to its detriment, everyone else in the world was listening to “Sunny Afternoon” that summer–so it just didn’t have the allure and power of the song on the flip side.

No one else in the world was listening to “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (or at least it felt that way to Rick and me). It belonged to just us.

Has there ever been a song more attuned to the yearnings and inner life of the adolescent than the Kink’s continuous growl:

I don’t want to ball about like everybody else,

And I don’t want to live my life like everybody else,

And I won’t say that I feel fine like everybody else,

Cause I’m not like everybody else,

I’m not like everybody else.

I remember Rick and I walking down the street, singing that song out at the top of our lungs: “I’m not like everybody else (like everybody else)/I’m not like everybody else (like everybody else).”

We must have sounded horrible–don’t recall if Rick could sing or not, but I can’t even manage to sing “Happy Birthday to You” without sounding like a scalded cat. But I guess–in the innocence of youth–it didn’t matter as much back then.

not like everybody else

So Earthblood was part of something bigger and more profound going on with my friend and me: we were starting to figure out who we were. Discovering things for ourselves. Carving out an identity that was uniquely our own (or so we thought).

And if our new high school wanted us to read old chestnuts like Northwest Passage or Life on the Mississippi or Two Years Before the Mast (which were all books on the St. Peter’s Prep incoming freshman reading list that summer)–well we could carve out an alternative reading universe. Something all our own. Something like Earthblood.

 It was our little secret.

Reason #3: Earthblood Is Not Just About Aliens and Space Adventures, But About Discovering the Best Part of Yourself

I wonder if George Lucas ever read Earthblood? If not, he probably read dozens of stories just like it, because Star Wars is Earthblood with somewhat better writing, a bit more humor, less violence and gore, and on a much larger scale.

Like Star Wars and countless other sci-fi stories, Earthblood is about a young hero of mysterious origins who, through the course of the story, finds out who he really is and what his mission in life really is.

All of which is, of course, catnip to your average fourteen-year-old.

The novel is set in a far distance future, after the vast thousands-year-old Terran Empire has been thwarted by the Niss, hostile aliens from the far side of the galaxy. After an epic war, the Terrans and the Niss have battled to a stalemate, with the Niss blockading the planet Terra (Earth).

By the time our hero, Roan Cornay, is born and the novel begins, the blockade of Terra has been going on for five thousand years. So long in fact, that many believe Terra is only a legend and does not really exist.

The novel follows Roan’s years-long quest to find his long-lost home planet of Terra, break the Niss blockade, and restore human beings to their rightful place in the cosmic order.

After many breathtaking adventures, Roan does indeed reach Terra and the novel ends with Roan and his small band of intrepid followers ready to begin to restore Terra to its former glory.

Not hard to see why a fourteen-year-old boy would gravitate toward the story. It has everything: a dashing and intrepid young hero, great adventures, weird alien life-forms, beautiful love interests for Roan, and a sense of his importance and destiny.

There’s so much about the book that speaks directly to adolescent yearnings and dreams.

Here’s Roan on his quest for Terra:

“Ma will know all about where I came from; maybe who my blood father and mother are. I have to find out. Then I’m going to Terra–“

“Roan–Terra’s just a mythical place! You can’t–“

“Yes, I can,” he said. “Terra’s a real place. I know it is. I can feel inside that it’s real. And it’s not like other worlds. On Terra everything is the way things should be . . . It’s where I belong.”

Roan constantly asks his adoptive alien parents why he feels so out of place, different, and less capable than his alien playmates–who have wings and make fun of Roan because he can’t fly:

He went down to dinner, but he didn’t look at the food on the table; he looked at Ma and Dad. And he asked, “What am I?” He always asked, but he never understood.

“You,” said Dad, “are a human being. And don’t you forget it.” That’s what he always said.

Roan looked at the steaming plate Ma put before him and didn’t want it. “Then that’s why I’m so stoopid. Why I can’t do anything the gracyls can do.”

Raff and Bella exchanged glances. . . .

“You were special,” Bella said. “Very special.”

Throughout the novel Roan proves again and again to be a fourteen-year-old’s ideal role model: decisive, resourceful, and brave. Someone with whom an insecure adolescent boy could eagerly identify.

Here’s a typical moment:

“We’re inside her defenses now,” he said. “They won’t be expecting any visitors in a hundred ton dinghy–“

“What do you mean?” a one-eyed crewman growled.  “You’re asking–“

“I’m asking nothing,” Roan said harshly. “I’m telling you we’re going in to attack the Niss ship.”

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And the experience of re-reading Earthblood after all these years?

Fun . . . and moving. It felt almost as if I were reading the book over the shoulder of my younger self. I can totally see why I fell in love with the book back then. And still love it.

But there were a few surprises.

The biggest surprise upon re-reading Earthblood is how different in tone the book is than I remember it.

For one thing, Roan is a much more complicated character than I recalled. He is, of course, intrepid and brave and resourceful.  But he has some serious flaws. He has a nasty temper. Is dismissive and imperious with those around him. He even impulsively and needlessly kills the only other pure-blood human he has ever met, the pirate captain Henry Dread.

The other surprise is how violent and disturbing some of the action is. Roan’s first love, the exotically beautiful Stellaraire, is shockingly incinerated in a ship-board fire. In another scene, a slave girl is sadistically and gruesomely decapitated in front of Roan’s eyes during a banquet. Game of Thrones meets Star Wars.

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All in all, Earthblood held up for me. It obviously met a need back when I was a gawky, awkward adolescent, trying to find his way in the world. And even today, after all these years, it is still a satisfying read.

So that’s the story of my first literary love. The first of many “books that mattered” that would nurture, guide and sustain me over the years. I would welcome hearing about some of your first literary loves.

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Reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as a Grown-Up

So what happens when you revisit a book that once seemed to you the height of cool, daring, and originality? A book that seemed so hip and fun and wild and out there . . . and you gradually realize that what seemed so fresh and innovative back when you were nineteen now seems a little forced and gimmicky.

That’s what it is like reuniting with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). Still a hoot, still fun to read, but not exactly the breakthrough piece of journalism I thought it was when I first encountered it back in the early Seventies.

fear & loathing book cover

Sometimes it may be better to not reunite with some of these books from our past. Better to let our fond memories stay unsullied by the passage of years and experience and (dare I say it?) maturity.

Because there’s a sophomoric excessiveness to the whole Fear and Loathing performance that begins to wear thin after a while. Reminds me a bit of those MTV “reality” shows like the Jackass franchise–where we see young people performing stupider and stupider stunts . . . wondering how long before some poor kid ends up in the emergency room, where the adults will valiantly try to save the young daredevil’s spleen.

Maybe you have to be young and intrepid and foolhardy to truly appreciate that kind of reckless performance.

Just as a reality check, I asked my friend Tom about Fear and Loathing and he had a similar reaction to mine upon re-reading it several years ago: “Just didn’t hold up for me . . . seemed kind of dumb.”

Which, I have to admit, was a bit of a relief because I thought maybe I was just being an old fart and a fuddy-dud for not responding to Fear and Loathing with the unbridled enthusiasm and appreciation I once did.

I know there are plenty of folks who still adore the book (it was made into a Johnny Depp film in 1998). But I’m not one of them.

hunter s thompson

For my money, Hunter Thompson’s peak may have been reached in his very first book, Hell’s Angels (1966) where the balance between being a “journalist” and being a “participant” in the story achieves a wonderfully complicated and delicate (first time anyone has ever used that adjective in reference to Thompson, I’ll bet) balance. Where the balance between “gonzo” and “journalism” is a bit more evenly split.

Yes, Thompson was part of that story too, but in Hell’s Angels our focus remains fixed on that strange and scary and fascinating motorcycle gang, not on Thompson, per se. When Thompson is stomped and severely beaten by the Angels near the end of the book, it doesn’t feel like a stunt, but as the price a journalist sometimes must pay for immersing himself so fully in a story. (Thompson actually lived and rode with the Angels for a year.) Thompson comes off as an intrepid, cool, and brave writer.

But the success of that book seems to have led Thompson down the road of more participation and less journalism–which reaches its zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Let’s face it: Fear and Loathing is the ultimate young person’s book: wild, unfettered, over the top. All the drug-taking, trashing of hotel rooms, reckless driving . . . very cool to contemplate when we were lounging around the college quad smoking a joint and leafing through the latest issue of–what was back then the hippest magazine in town–Rolling Stone. (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was originally a long two-part article in the November 11 and 25, 1971 issues of Rolling Stone, which is where I first encountered it.)

Nowadays? Not so cool.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is plenty to like about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, plenty to admire, plenty to laugh at. The Ralph Steadman illustrations, by themselves, are worth the price of admission. The book is definitely worth reading.

F&L

But . . . really . . . Fear and Loathing is a one-note kind of performance. And a one-joke kind of book.

Here’s the one note: Hunter S. Thompson (in the guise of  his alter-ego, Raoul Duke) is one bad-ass dude who will get high anytime, anywhere, anyhow.  The very first paragraph sets the tone of everything that will follow:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . . ” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

The nightmarish animals are, of course, the drug-induced hallucinations of our intrepid narrator, Raoul Duke. In fact, much of the book is a litany of the drugs that Duke and his Samoan attorney (Dr. Gonzo) will be ingesting at various points throughout the story:

The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

Here’s the one joke: In the course of a very substantial, two-part article in Rolling Stone, Thompson spends approximately 4% of the story actually writing about the two Las Vegas events he has been hired to report on: The annual Mint 400 desert motorcycle race, and the District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The rest of the time is spent covering . . . himself.

Thompson spends about two paragraphs trying to cover the Mint 400–which is so dusty that the race is impossible to observe. So instead we get a full report of Duke’s and Dr. Gonzo’s drug and alcohol antics.

The other subject gets a bit more play, but even here, the focus is almost entirely on the observer, not the event itself:

It was treacherous, stupid and demented in every way–but there was no avoiding the stench of twisted humor that hovered around the idea of a gonzo journalist in the grip of a potentially terminal drug episode being invited to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. . . .

It was dangerous lunacy, but it was also the kind of thing a real connoisseur of edge-work could make an argument for. Where, for instance, was the last place the Las Vegas police would look for a drug-addled fraud-fugitive who just ripped off a downtown hotel?

When Thompson takes his eye off himself and actually does some real reporting, the results can be rewarding. There are some very funny moments, for instance, when Thompson chronicles how out of touch the square law enforcement attendees of the conference are about the realities of the drug culture they are desperately trying to understand.

Here were more than a thousand top-level cops telling each other “we must come to terms with the drug culture,” but they had no idea where to start. They couldn’t even find the goddam thing. There were rumors in the hallways that maybe the Mafia was behind it. Or perhaps the Beatles.

Quotation-Hunter-S-Thompson-sports-Meetville-Quotes-89828

So yes, please go out and read (or re-read) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s a strange, weirdly addictive little book (just a shade over 200 pages). And while you’re at it, make sure to read Hell’s Angels–a better and, for my money, more enduring piece of journalism.

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Caught Up in “Catch-22″

Reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) on the heels of reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), as I did recently, is like taking a ride in that contraption that was featured in the film, An Officer and a Gentleman. You know the one: a diabolical training exercise that was meant to simulate for Navy Flight School candidates what it’s like to experience a sea-going plane crash. The machine slams you hard into a deep pool of cold, murky water, twists and spins you around so that you are punchy, shaken, disoriented, with no idea which way is up or down. Many aspiring pilots washed out after confronting this bit of controlled mayhem.

Yeah, so reading Catch-22 is kind of like that.

catch22

It’s a topsy turvy universe that Heller has concocted for our elucidation and entertainment. And it’s soooo different from the world of To Kill a Mockingbird (which was published just the previous year).  In fact, Catch-22 is the anti-Mockingbird.

Mockingbird is all about learning how to be a responsible adult: how to see things from others’ points of view, how to care about the less fortunate, how to stand up for what’s right. Even though the novel darkens near the end with the tragedy of Tom Robinson’s false conviction and death, it is nevertheless an optimistic book. One feels that the good guys–like the grandly heroic Atticus Finch and his children–will eventually prevail.

Catch-22 posits quite the opposite: a nightmare world where there are no heroes, where everyone’s motives are suspect, where stupidity and incompetence and ugliness and squalor and death reign supreme. Where the best are ineffectual losers and the worst are firmly in charge.

The story follows one Captain John Yossarian as he struggles to maintain his life and sanity as a B-25 bombardier in a U.S. Army Air Forces unit based on the Italian island of Pianossa. (Heller, himself, was a bombardier who flew 60 combat missions in Europe during World War II.)

For my money, Catch-22 remains the best modern war novel ever written (sorry Ernest Hemingway, sorry James Jones, sorry Michael Herr, sorry Tim O’Brien, sorry all you other guys). Can’t think of a novel that so perfectly captures the real state of modern warfare.

It’s amazing to think that Heller wrote most of the book–not in the turbulent, counter-cultural upheavals of the late Sixties, nor the cynical, post-Watergate Seventies–but in the Fifties (he began the book in 1953 and finally published it in 1961).

While the rest of America was in a period of materialistic somnambulism, Heller was writing this explosive diatribe against . . . conformity, mindless patriotism, bureaucratic bumbling, state-sanctioned hypocrisy and the whole depressing tenor of modern life. While Catch-22 is, of course, a war novel . . . it is really about something even bigger and more threatening: the rise of the amoral, soulless, mind-numbing bureaucratic machine that forms much of modern society.

Here’s Heller on Major Major’s right-wing, alfalfa-farmer father:

He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. . . . His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. . . .

So while Mockingbird was teaching us lessons about becoming moral, upright young people, Catch-22 was schooling us about being skeptical and questioning authority and suspecting people’s motives and seeing life through a corrective lens of irony.

These two oil-and-water books–so different in almost every conceivable way–form the alpha and omega of the Baby Boomer literary experience. And with Mockingbird and Catch-22 as the bookends for the Baby Boom generation, it’s a wonder that all of us Baby Boomers didn’t turn out to be raging schizos (or did we?).

catch_22 bomber

The really interesting thing about Catch-22 is how it manages this wonderful balancing act: on the one hand it is absolutely funny, darkly funny, infuriatingly funny, funny in a way many of us had never experienced before . . . and sets this humor . . . against a backdrop of stupidity, incompetence, heartlessness, terror, and death. Always death.

The book manages to tickle our funny bones while it touches our heartstrings. And that ain’t easy, boys and girls. It’s not too hard to do one or the other, but to combine satire with heartfelt emotion, to create characters who we can laugh at and yet cry for. That’s art of the highest order.

So what is Heller up to here?

Essentially he’s telling us that even a “good war” like World War II is no walk in the park. That even if the cause is just, even if intentions are noble–every war is in essence a kind of a gruesome lab experiment: put human beings in a frightening, horrible, confusing, brutalizing environment and see what happens to them.

And the results of the experiment are invariably the same: the moments we all like to celebrate and remember and make movies about–moments of valor and glory–are inextricably mixed in with many, many more moments of boredom and malice and incompetence and cruelty.

When I was in grad school at Rutgers in the Seventies I was lucky enough to have as a teacher one of our finest writers about modern warfare, Paul Fussell (who won the National Book Award for his ground-breaking, 1975 The Great War and Modern Memory). Fussell was a professor of literature, but also happened to be a WWII combat vet who was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for action in France.

Fussell had plenty to say about our tendency to mindlessly glorify and sugar-coat the grim reality of modern warfare. This is from the preface to his book about WWII, Wartime:

The damage the war visited upon bodies and buildings, planes and tanks and ships, is obvious. Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit. For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recongnition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales.

I suspect this is what Heller is up to as well in Catch-22–just trying to balance the scales.

So for all the reassuring media images of super-competent military leadership, steely-eyed, determined warriors calmly and superbly guiding their men with unflinching resolve and for the noblest of intentions, he gives us the opposite view.

Colonel Cathcart, for instance, the group commander who keeps raising the number of combat missions the men must fly before they can go home–from 35 to 4o to 45 to . . . 80. And why? When there are many replacement crews available and ready to relieve the exhausted and brutalized airmen?

So he can look good to his superiors (his only ace card, he realizes, is not the quality of his command but the sheer number of missions he can make his men fly) and, perhaps most importantly for him, to win a coveted cover story in The Saturday Evening Post.

Or the mind-bogglingly incompetent and aptly named Lieutenant Scheisskopff whose funny/scary obsession with military parades and utter unsuitability as a leader of men inevitably (in this bureaucratic nightmare world Heller has concoted) leads to his promotion to general by the end of the book.

joseph heller

There are so many great moments and so much great writing that I can only give you a few snippets.

Here’s Heller describing the concept of “Catch-22″ in all its mind-numbing absurdity:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

And, of course, the novel’s centerpiece is the terrifying raid over Avignon. Throughout the novel the narrator comes back to the mission again and again, like a bad tooth that he can’t help prodding with his tongue. Until, toward the end of Catch-22, we finally find out what happened to Snowden, a member of Yossarian’s crew on that ill-fated mission.

The scene is one of the most intense and horrifying in all of literature: a shaken Yossarian goes to the back of the heavily-damaged plane to tend to Snowden, who has a gaping, football-sized wound in his thigh. Yossarian conscientiously manages to staunch the bleeding and dress the wound and is feeling somewhat relieved about Snowden’s prospects for survival when . . .

But Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest movement of his chin, down toward his armpit. Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. . . .

“I’m cold,” Snowden whimpered. “I’m cold.”

“There, there,” Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. “There, there.”

catch-22 cover

Funny thing is the very first time I read the book was in a totally loopy manner that might have appealed to Heller’s twisted sense of humor.

I was probably 13 or 14 when I noticed the book on my older brother’s desk (a beat-up 95-cent Dell paperback as I recall). The title intrigued me a bit–I had never heard the term “Catch-22″–and wondered what the heck it might mean.

So I took a look. Then another. Then another. I admit it was the sex that first captured my post-pubescent attention. I raced through the book searching out the titillating “dirty parts”–mostly the scenes in the Roman brothels where Yossarian and Nately and the rest of the airmen go for R&R.

I would sneak peaks at the book when my brother left our shared bedroom or when he was out of the house altogether. I was, it goes without saying, way too young to be reading the novel, and certainly way too young to truly grasp its dark humor or grim lessons.

I find it so humorous to recall that long-ago first “reading” (if that’s what you would call it): hunting for stray mentions of naked young prostitutes or barely mentioned sex acts. In retrospect, Catch-22 may be the least erotic novel ever written, but back then pickings were very slim in the erotica department for an adolescent boy. We had to make do with what little scraps of titillation we could find.

But while I was searching for mentions of young girls and naked flesh, Catch-22 was inadvertently teaching me lessons . . . lessons about warfare, about human nature, about irony, about life. Lessons that have stayed with me ever since.

Yossarian Lives

So if you are not a Baby Boomer and want to figure out why the older generation can seem so squirrely and schizoid at times, I suggest you run out and read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Heller’s Catch-22 back to back. That experience may tell you all you need to know about us, where we came from, what we value, and why The Books that Mattered, matter.

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Beat This! My Ten Favourite Drummers…

Erich Rupprecht:

Check out this very cool post on great drummers from Tom George, a very cool Liverpudlian (I always wanted to say that!)

Originally posted on TOM GEORGE ARTS:

As a kid, I had so much rhythm bursting out of my soul that I would play on anything, with anything. I would tap on school desks with pens, then click my teeth together as I walked home. In the lounge, I would line up cushions on the sofa and hit them with wooden spoons while playing loud music on the stereo.

It was my sister who suggested I save up for a drum kit, and get serious about music. Years later, I’ve moved onto guitar but I still play drums on my recordings.

Here are the ten drummers that made the most impression on me. Whether or not you’re a drummer, I hope you enjoy the clips, which feature some great music.

Stewart Copeland
Stewart Copeland was at the heart of The Police’s reggae-influenced New Wave sound. Their hits like Message in a Bottle and Walking on the Moon…

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Walt Whitman: Patron Saint of … Bloggers?

I’m going to go completely off-topic for this post. It’s coming up on my fifth-month anniversary of blogging . . .  it’s a brisk 8 degrees out there in frozen New Jersey . . . and I feel like connecting. Not reviewing, not analyzing, not dissecting . . . just. . . connecting.

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So instead of writing about one of The Books That Mattered as I’ve been doing for the past five months, I’m going to spend a few moments talking about Walt Whitman. The good gray poet who spent the latter part of his life in Camden, NJ–not too many miles from where I sit looking out my window at the frozen tundra that used to be my back yard.

(For those of you who are not in the United States, we are in the midst of one of the most bone-chilling and relentless winters on record.)

I got to thinking this frozen morning about Walt and one of my favorite poems of his:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

 

A noiseless patient spider,

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

 

And you O my soul where you stand, 

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

1868

Back in the day, before blogging and tweeting and texting and YouTubing, back even before emails and surfing the web, I used to think this poem was about . . . writing poetry.

But now that I’m both older and younger than I was back then, it dawns on me that “A Noiseless Patient Spider” is not just about writing poetry, not even just about writing, it is really about trying to make a connection . . . any kind of connection.

And really, when you think about it, what are all these blogs and tweets and texts, but all of us noiseless, patient spiders isolated on our little promontories, relentlessly sending out these little filaments of ourselves, hoping that they catch somewhere.

Keeping track of the number of hits we’ve managed to generate, checking our in-boxes for comments, hoping against hope that our posts or tweets or YouTube videos or whatever we’re sending out there will have made a connection with someone, somewhere.

And that thought warms my soul a bit.

walt whitman

Because the fact that so many of us are involved in this brave, foolish, all-too-human enterprise suggests that poor, isolated, misunderstood Walt Whitman was right. That we are all noiseless, patient spiders trying to connect with each other any which way we can.

And in a way that he never could have foreseen, after 150 years Walt’s silvery filaments are still reaching out across time and space, still catching hold.

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