Category Archives: baby boomers

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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“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.

WOFIFAPR1966

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.”

earthblood 2

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?).

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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.

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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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“To Kill a Mockingbird”: Great Book But Not a Great Novel?

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is perhaps the quintessential Book That Mattered: one of the moral touchstones of an entire generation.

It is a book that many of us Baby Boomers (and non-Baby Boomers) fondly recall reading in our younger years, many of us when we were still in high school.

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And yet, reading Mockingbird again after forty years or so . . . hate to say it . . . but it is not a great novel. Not even close. I’m not even sure it’s a very good novel. It’s a little too black and white, too unshaded, too stylistically uninventive to rank up there with the best novels of our time.

So we have a bit of a dilemma: here’s a book that many of us love and admire–but, when considered objectively, is not really a very impressive work of art.

How to solve it?

Let’s take a hint from Wallace Stevens and his great poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and consider To Kill a Mockingbird from a number of different perspectives. After all, as Atticus Finch continually reminds us in the novel, we should look at life from other viewpoints:

View #1: WhileTo Kill a Mockingbird” is Not a Great Novel–It Is a Great Book

There are some works of art that never gain much influence or importance in the wider world, that simply never reach or touch many people.

For all its purported greatness, for instance, how many people–even well-educated, well-read people–have actually been affected by Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake? (OK, show of hands, how many of us have actually made it past the first couple of pages?)

On the other hand, there are certain books that are important and influential, that matter to a great many people, that do much good in the world, but nevertheless are not enduring works of art. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin pops to mind.)

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those.

Lee’s novel was a crucial text for those of us coming of age in the Sixties and Seventies. The book taught us about racial tolerance and understanding, about seeing things from another’s perspective, about standing up for what is right–no matter what those around you believe or do.

So what if Mockingbird strikes us today as a little clunky, a little preachy, a little too pat to be considered high art: it may not be a great piece of literature, but it is indisputably a Book That Mattered.

I don’t think I’m being too hard on the book. Here’s just one example of the novel’s occasional ham-fistedness. Scout Finch’s third-grade teacher has been passionately criticizing Hitler and the Nazis for their treatment of the Jews in (pre-war) Germany. Scout asks her brother Jem about it:

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”

“Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”

“She hates Hitler a lot . . .”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? . . .

“. . . Well, coming out of the courthouse that night . . . I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em [blacks] a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ turn around and be ugly about folks right at home–“

See what I mean? Not too subtle.

Despite all this, though, Mockingbird was an essential building block in my generation’s moral development. What would the Baby Boom generation be without To Kill a Mockingbird? What would any of us be without it?

to kill a mockingbird

View #2: “Mockingbird” Was a Crucial Plea for Racial Justice at a Critical Time in Our History

Let’s not forget that the novel was published in 1960: on the cusp of the great civil rights upheavals that would roil the nation in the coming decade.

Suddenly, here was a best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize winning book that highlighted and questioned the racial hatred and hypocrisy of the Jim Crow South. Impossible to quantify the book’s precise influence, but it undoubtedly did some good. Probably a great deal of good.

And it was a courageous thing for a young white southern lady from Monroeville, Alabama (not exactly the epicenter of progressive racial attitudes back then) to write a book like this in a place like that.

Even though the novel is set in the Depression, its message was aimed directly at contemporary readers and the contemporary situation. It was undoubtedly the right book at the right time.

Here are Jem Finch and Miss Maudie (a neighbor of the Finches) discussing the guilty verdict that has been delivered against Tom Robinson, the innocent black man accused of raping a white girl. Jem has been lamenting the fact that no one in town (with the exception of Atticus, his father) was willing to stand up for Tom Robinson:

“Who in this town did one thing to help Tom Robinson, just who?”

“His colored friends for one thing, and people like us. People like Judge Taylor. People like Heck Tate. . . . .

“. . . I was sittin’ there on the porch last night, waiting. I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step–it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step.”

View #3: It’s Best to Think of “Mockingbird” as a Young Adult Novel

I don’t believe the term, “young adult fiction” had become an official designation back in 1960. But maybe some of our dilemma about it’s not being a great work of fiction goes away if we just accept the fact that Mockingbird is really a “young adult novel.”

If we all agree that’s what it is, then many of the novel’s shortcomings–the stylistic straightforwardness, the black and white character depictions, the lack of nuance and shading that we would expect (even demand) in a novel aimed at adults–are ameliorated.

Of course! . . . it’s a novel for young people: teenagers, high school kids, freshman in college. Young adults need literature that is reassuring and morally unambiguous. In YA books characters can be (in fact, perhaps need to be) as clearly drawn and uncomplicated as possible: as purely evil as Bob Ewell, the white trash villain of the piece who tries to kill the two young Finch children, or as unabashedly heroic as Atticus Finch.

The novel never asks us for a minute to have more than one view of Atticus Finch:

“Have you ever thought about it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”

Perhaps we should all just agree with Flannery O’Connor’s early evaluation of Mockingbird as a child’s book (I suspect that if the term “young adult novel” had been in vogue at the time, that’s the designation she would have used). Doing so takes some of the pressure off the book and some of the pressure off of us as readers:

I think for a child’s book it does all right. It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.

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View #4: Atticus Finch is the Greatest Dad in All Literature.

Has there ever been a better literary dad than Atticus Finch? Even-tempered, articulate, understanding, morally irreproachable. The novel not only insists that Atticus is a great man, great father, great lawyer. He’s a great shot, too!

Which Scout Finch learns to her astonishment when (in her young eyes) boring, middle-aged Atticus calmly shoots down a mad dog with dead-eye precision–even though Atticus adamantly refuses to own or carry a gun:

Miss Maudie grinned wickedly. “Well now, Miss Jean Louise,” she said, “still think your father can’t do anything? Still ashamed of him?

“Nome,” I said meekly.

“Forgot to tell you the other day . . . Atticus Finch was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time. . . . . didn’t you know his nickname was Ol’ One-Shot when he was a boy?”

It’s no coincidence that Gregory Peck–who won an Academy Award for playing Atticus in the 1962 film version of Mockingbird (has there ever been a more inspired casting choice?)–was the spitting image of Clark Kent.

Because, no doubt about it, Atticus was Super-Dad. He seamlessly joined the pantheon of great dads from the Fifties and Sixties: Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best, Ozzie Nelson in Ozzie and Harriet, Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver. But with a moral authority and heroic stoicism that even this group couldn’t match.

Unlike my own father, Atticus never raised his voice, lost his cool, or flew off the handle. He was never too tired after coming home from work to provide his children with a reassuring bromide or two.

He was the ideal dad we all yearned for. Oh, how I envied Scout:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–”

“Sir?”

“–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

[Of course, I would eventually realize that a blue collar guy like my German immigrant dad–who worked seven days a week, came home exhausted and drenched in sweat and grease from his mechanic’s job, and somehow managed to send five kids through college–was the real hero. But back then, I would have swapped my earthy, heavily-accented dad for white-collar, smooth-talking Atticus in a heartbeat.]

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View #5: “Mockingbird” Perfectly Captures the Rhythms of Childhood

As I was re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, it struck me that the novel is really a kind of extended hymn to childhood.

The novel captures the feeling of being a child, of long, seemingly endless summer days, and of trying to fill them up with adventures and story-telling and role-playing. The Boo Radley subplot is really the stuff of childhood imagination, of kids with lots of time on their hands and nary an adult in sight.

Here is Lee’s wonderful description of fictional Maycomb, Alabama:

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.

My favorite character in the novel is Dill, the pint-sized but imaginative and fearless friend who visits Maycomb each summer. I didn’t realize it when I first read the novel, but the character was patterned after Lee’s real-life childhood friend and eventual literary mentor, Truman Capote.

Here Scout and Jem meet Dill for the first time. Listen to how perfectly Harper Lee captures the rhythms and odd cadences of childhood interactions:

We went down to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy–Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting–instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:

“Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.

“I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said, “I can read.”

“So what?” I said.

“I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it . . .”

View #6: “To Kill a Mockingbird” is Well Worth a Read (or Re-Read)

I don’t know why Harper Lee essentially stopped writing after To Kill a Mockingbird. (It was the only book she ever published.) She was also famously reticent about being interviewed or publically discussing the novel. Perhaps she had said all she had to say. Perhaps she realized that she would never again be able to write a book so pure and noble in its intentions.

Reading Mockingbird after all these years is like drinking from a crystal-clear Alabama mountain spring: pure, undiluted, unclouded, not the most complex or sophisticated of drinks . . . but oh so good for you.

 

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Five Things to Love about “Slaughterhouse-Five”

This may not come as a shock to many of you but Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is one terrific novel. Witty, thought-provoking, wise, profoundly moving.

Funny thing is, when I first read the book in my college years, I wasn’t at all sold on its brilliance or importance. I liked it OK. But it struck me back then as a bit too slight, too glib, too “easy” to be considered a great book.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to read Slaughterhouse again if not for my Books That Mattered blog.

[I must point out that I was definitely in the minority in my feelings about the novel. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is firmly ensconced on both the Modern Library’s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century list (#18) as well as Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list.

When I quizzed Baby Boomers about the “books that mattered” to them, it was one of the most often-mentioned titles. So I guess I was a bit of an oddball in not loving the book back in the day.]

Slaughterhouse-Five Original

I suppose I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel at exactly the wrong time for me to really appreciate it: my senior year of college (1974) when I was starting to get a little pretentious and precious in my literary leanings. I was really into modernism and Eliot and Pound and Joyce.  I had started to view literature as a kind of elaborate game of Clue–the more obscure and arcane the allusions, the better. In comparison, Vonnegut’s novel just seemed too transparent and accessible.

So let’s just say that Slaughterhouse-Five and I were not a perfect match back then.

Having just read the book again for the first time in 40 years, I’m a little mortified that I was so cavalier about the novel. What a little twerp I must have been. That great Dylan line flashes in my head: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

It strikes me now that maybe I’ve learned a bit in the intervening years and one of the biggest lessons is that great literature doesn’t have to be difficult or knotty or complicated. It just needs to be.

Kurt Vonnegut

So how does Slaughterhouse-Five look all these years later?

Pretty awesome.

On re-reading it, there are five aspects of the novel that I especially love:

ASPECT #1: Vonnegut’s Humanism

I find myself particularly impressed with humanity of the book. I’d somehow formed the impression over the years that Vonnegut was a cynical, deeply pessimistic writer.

[“Slaughterhouse-Five” is the only Vonnegut novel I’ve read so far. Note to self: read more Vonnegut.]

But reading Slaughterhouse now, my impression is quite the opposite. Vonnegut seems incredibly humane and generous and open-hearted.

Early in the novel the narrator recounts the biblical story of Lot. As we all remember, God destroyed the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, sparing only Lot and his wife. But Lot’s wife couldn’t resist taking a look back at the ruined cities (God had forbidden her to do so) and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt. Here’s his take on that story:

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

Cynical? I think not.

Aspect #2: Vonnegut’s Playfulness

I also love Vonnegut’s ability to maintain a sense of humor even in the face of incredible darkness and tragedy. He is very funny, but never at the expense of his characters or his story. It is humor forged in the fires of hell.

Here, he recounts how he had been struggling for many years to write about the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden (an event that Vonnegut experienced first-hand as a young POW):

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say,” ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

Aspect #3: Vonnegut’s Narrative Experimentation

I don’t know about  you, but I am soooo tired of the whole “meta” thing: novelists whose novels are all about writing the novel you are reading; poems about how hard it is to write a poem; movie-makers whose movies are all about, yes, you guessed it . . . the movie they are making, etc. OK, we get the joke: everything we’re reading has been made up by the author. Can we please move on?

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the few meta-narratives that actually work for me (Ian McEwan’s Atonement is another). Because the book is not only about the absurdities and horrors of war, but also about the absurdity of trying to write a novel about war.

Here’s the first paragraph of the novel, where the narrator clues us in on what he’s up to:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

Unlike so many writers who employ meta-narratives in their works, in Slaughterhouse-Five, the technique works brilliantly. This is because in Vonnegut’s hands the blurring of the line between “fiction” and “reality”–between what is “made up” and what “really” happened–is not just a goof or a parlor trick.

There is real purpose here: Vonnegut is saying that the “truth” of Dresden is too big and awful and complicated to be communicated solely by fiction . . . or solely by non-fiction. In fact, trying to convey the truth of something like his wartime experiences overwhelms any traditional literary approach.

So when Vonnegut admits that he is both the author of the novel as well as a character (whom we occasionally glimpse on the sidelines of the action), it strikes the reader, not as trickery or game-playing. It feels like the work of someone who is desperately trying to come to grips with a reality that is so profound that none of the old rules apply.

Thus, the authorial intrusions, the jumping back and forth in time, the way the novel keeps circling back to the central story of Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in Germany: the reader feels there is no other possible way to tell this particular story. Which is as it should be.

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Aspect#4: The Tralfamadorians

No matter what you may have heard, let me just say it here: Slaughterhouse-Five is not a work of science fiction.

That may be part of the reason that I was a little unappreciative of the novel back in the day: not having read any Vonnegut before, I was expecting a little more of a mainstream SF novel.

Unlike true science fiction, I don’t think for a second we are supposed to take the Tralfamadorians (the aliens who abduct Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, and put him in a zoo on their planet) seriously or as realistic depictions of an alien life form. They are clearly a literary device meant to act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on and pointing out the absurdity of being human:

. . . they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. . . . The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three.

Looking at it now, I’d put the novel more in the “imaginative satire” camp than SF (more like Swift’s Gulliver Travels than, say, Dune or Childhood’s End).

Nevertheless, the Tralfamadorians are a marvelous invention. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their conception of time. Here is Billy Pilgrim in a letter trying to describe how Tralfamadorians view things:

“. . . when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are . . . It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

I suppose the real question is: how seriously are we supposed to take the Tralfamadorians and their world-view? On the one hand, their approach is appealingly Zen-like and serene: accepting whatever happens because it has always happened and always will happen.

And yet, being human, can we ever learn to just accept things (such as Dresden)? Can we ever really hope to adopt the Tralfamadorian viewpoint:

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'”

 Aspect #5: Vonnegut’s Depiction of War

Has there ever been a scene that more economically and chillingly depicts the tragedy of war than the moment in Slaughterhouse-Five when Billy and his fellow POWs emerge from their bomb shelter after one of the most savage and destructive acts in all of human history: the firebombing of the beautiful city of Dresden.

There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

135,000 people–mostly civilians, thousands upon thousands of women and children–were incinerated in one of the most pointless acts of warfare in human history. The civilian death toll was nearly that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

No one contests the fact that Dresden had virtually no value as a military target. It was sheer, wanton destruction. Twenty-three-year-old Kurt Vonnegut was there to witness it all. And was destined to one day come back to it in his imagination and relive it all again for our benefit.

so it goes

Slaughterhouse-Five is one writer’s noble attempt to make sense of the senseless.

It is a book that should be read by anyone who is seduced by the “glory” of war, or the idea of a “good war,” or the notion that civilian deaths can be written off as “collateral damage,” or any of the other fictions we tell ourselves to make war seem less barbaric than it always is.

It was a must-read back in 1969 when it was first published and remains even more of a must-read today.

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5 Groovy Things You’ll Learn from “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”

Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) is a perfect time capsule.

Reading it today is like taking an acid trip in Mr. Peabody’s “way back machine”–it’s a frenetic, dizzying, eye-popping journey into the heart and soul of what would become known as the psychedelic era.

Acid Test is the ideal vehicle for glimpsing and vicariously experiencing the foolish/noble/brave/excessive experiment in living and consciousness that Ken Kesey and his band of followers (the so-called Merry Pranksters) ushered in.

The hippie/psychedelic movement–and what it ultimately represented–has been fiercely debated for over four decades now. But there is no debate that the one indispensable chronicle of that era is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

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For many people nowadays, the hippie/psychedelic era is pretty much summed-up by the love beads and tie-dyed shirts and headbands they don for a Halloween costume party.

But Wolfe’s book is a vivid reminder of how much more was going on back then. Yes, there was epic foolishness and epic posturing and loads of questionable, risky, even dangerous behavior . . . but there was also something uplifting and daring and even–can we say it now?–admirable about the whole crazy enterprise.

Re-reading Acid Test in 2014, you realize that many of the hallmarks (and eventual clichés) of the hippie era were actually invented by Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Not just the trappings, but the root essence of the era. This is all captured and distilled in Wolfe’s ground-breaking and still thrilling account.

So here are 5 GROOVY THINGS you can learn from reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

tom wolfe

GROOVY THING #1:

It’s impossible to write about Wolfe’s writing WITHOUT . . . starting to MIMIC HIS STYLE!!!!:::::::YEEEESSSS!!

Wolfe has his detractors, but for those of us who buy into his approach and style, his prose is so much fun that it starts seeping into our pores. His writing bristles with energy and vitality . . . it wriggles on the page like a living thing. It’s so organic and tactile I found it hard to pick out short quotes to capture the essence of his style.

His words swirl and swoop and dive and double-back and soar. Half the time, you find yourself just holding on for dear life.

Here he is trying to define the essence of the Prankster world view, trying to figure out what it all means. You can see his mind working:

. . . there was no theology to it, no philosophy, at least not in the sense of an ism. There was no goal of an improved moral order in the world or an improved social order, nothing about salvation and certainly nothing about immortality or the life hereafter. Hereafter! That was a laugh. If there was ever a group devoted totally to the here and now it was the Pranksters.  I remember puzzling over this. There was something so . . . religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it there was just a group of people who had shared an unusual psychological state, the LSD experience–

But exactly! The experience–that was the word! and it began to fall into place. . . .

He goes on to detail how the LSD experience was similar to the kind of transcendent experience that all the great world religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.) were founded on:

” . . . none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience . . . the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one. . . .”

And that experience is at the heart of the Acid Test–dividing the uninitiated from the initiated, the profane from the holy, the straight from the stoned. As Jimi Hendrix would famously ask: “Have you ever been experienced?”

And has there has ever been a more seamless match between subject matter and style than this book? I don’t think so.

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GROOVY THING #2:

The SEEDS OF THE HIPPIE ERA were actually sewn–not at Woodstock in 1969, nor in the “Summer of Love” in 1967, not even in Haight-Ashbury in 1966–but much earlier . . . in the EARLY SIXTIES . . . . . . . . . . . .  By the time the REST OF THE COUNTRY was hip to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, their thing was ESSENTIALLY OVER!!!!!

It’s amazing to realize that Ken Kesey was one of the very first in the whole world to try the new drug, LSD (years before it would become widespread and then criminalized). Starting in 1959, Kesey volunteered for a government-sponsored experimental program at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, California in which he was given a number of “psychomimetic” drugs (including mescaline, cocaine, psilocybin, DMT, and, of course, LSD). It was LSD that Kesey found to be the most profoundly mind-altering. And the psychedelic era was abornin’ . . .

In the early 1960s, Kesey began his serious experiment in drug-taking and consciousness-altering in Perry Lane, a bohemian enclave situated across from a golf course, near Stanford University. Kesey attracted a group of like-minded experimentalists and away they went:

It was a strange feeling for all these good souls to suddenly realize that right here on woody thatchy little Perry Lane, amid the honeysuckle and dragonflies and boughs and leaves . . . this amazing experiment in consciousness was going on, out on a frontier neither they nor anybody else ever heard of before.

Later Kesey moved his group (what would later be called a “commune,” I suppose) to La Honda, California, a more remote location where this experiment in living would flower.

It’s hard to imagine how the rest of the country would have reacted to what Kesey and his followers (who eventually came to calling themselves the Merry Pranksters) were doing out there. The music provided by The Warlocks (eventually to be renamed The Grateful Dead), the Day-Glo posters, the drug-taking parties with the Hell’s Angels (!!!). Remember, this was years before LSD became a mainstream drug, before the term “hippie” had been coined, before the “Sixties” had really started:

And by and by, of course, the citizens of La Honda and others would start wondering . . . what are the ninnies doing? How to tell it? But there was no way to tell them about the experience. You couldn’t put it into words. . . .  The citizens couldn’t know about the LSD experience, because that door had never opened for them. To be on the threshold of–Christ! how to tell them about the life here? The Youth had always had only three options: go to school, get a job or live at home. And–how boring each was!–compared to the experience of . . . the infinite . . .

ken kesey

GROOVY THING #3:

KEN KESEY was one cool, LARGER-THAN-LIFE dude!!!!

He was voted “most likely to succeed” in high school. Was a star wrestler for the University of Oregon (a BMOC as they used to say back in the day). A grad student in the creative writing program at Stanford. Respected and popular novelist with the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Wolfe paints Kesey as the classic charismatic leader: who leads not by force or bribery or trickery but simply because he is attractive and appealing and exudes  . . .  a larger-than-life aura . . . that makes others want to follow. Even though the Merry Pranksters were supposedly a purely democratic little club, there was little doubt that Kesey was their de facto leader.

Here is the way a late joiner to the Pranksters remembered Kesey:

Kesey was the most magnetic person she had ever met. He radiated something, a kind of power. His thoughts, the things he talked about, were very complex and metaphysical and cryptic but his manner was back-home, almost back-country. Even while he was reeking with paranoia, he seemed to have total confidence. That was very strange. He could make you feel like part of something very . . . He had even given her a new name, Black Maria. . . .

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GROOVY THING #4: 

Many of the HALLMARKS (and what were to become the ENDURING CLICHES) of the HIPPIE ERA were actually . . . . GET THIS!!!  . . . INVENTIONS of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters!!!! YESSS . . .

Ever wonder where the Haight-Ashbury scene actually came from?  The seeds of the San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” in 1967? Day-Glo poster art? Strobe Lights? “Acid rock” and Edge City bands such as the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane? Amoeba light shows? Black lights? Brightly painted VW mini-vans tooling around the country crammed with freaks and freakettes??? Kids dressing up in tie-dyed shirts, headbands, American Indian garb, costumes of all sorts? Communal living? And, of course, the LSD experience as the main portal to a new consciousness?

You can thank (or blame–depending on your point of view) Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters for virtually all of the above . . .

By the time the hippie era had firmly taken hold, of course, Kesey was on the run in Mexico from drug charges and was already beginning to become distanced from the very scene and lifestyle he had helped birth. Even a visionary like Kesey couldn’t have foreseen how widely and rapidly his movement would become adopted:

The Watts test in L.A. [in February, 1966], coming on top of the Trips Festival in San Francisco, had caused the fast-rising psychedelic thing to explode right out of the underground in a way nobody had dreamed of . . . This new San Francisco-L.A. LSD thing, with wacked-out kids and delirious rock ‘n’ roll, made it seem like the dread LSD had caught on like an infection among the youth–which, in fact, it had. Very few realized that it had all emanated from one electric source: Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

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[Timothy Leary visiting with Neal Cassady on the bus in 1964]

GROOVY THING #5:

The Merry Pranksters’ fabled bus trip of 1964 represents the logical culmination of Kerouac’s “ON THE ROAD” adventures. . . . . . Amazingly, NEAL CASSADY–the hyper-active, chain-smoking, pill-popping, lunatic driver–is a MAJOR FIGURE in both counter-cultural road stories!!!!!!

Imagine you are a farmer sleepily driving his tractor down the road somewhere in the mid-west in the summer of 1964. Suddenly you come upon . . .  a 1939 International Harvester bus covered in Day-Glo paint and festooned with the most vibrant, eye-popping images you have ever seen. At the wheel is one Neal Cassady (the figure on whom Kerouac’s Dean Moriarity was based), driving like an amphetamine-fueled madman (which he was).

Meanwhile, assorted weirdly costumed . . . FREAKS (there really is no other word) . . .  are hanging out of the windows of the bus, hooting and gesticulating, while one of the band, movie camera in hand, is shooting the entire scene as the bus barrels past. The front of the bus has a sign that says FURTHUR. As it rumbles on by, the sign on the rear bumper reads, CAUTION: WEIRD LOAD . . .  What to think?

Wolfe captures the weird and wonderful adventures of the Merry Pranksters as they made their epic 1964 cross-country road trip. By-standers didn’t realize that they were seeing the future rumble by, weren’t quite prepared for what else would be coming down the road in the next few years.

Even Timothy Leary and his east-coast LSD disciples didn’t quite know what to make of these madmen/madwomen. They were pretty cool towards Kesey and his ragged band when the Pranksters showed up uninvited to Leary’s sedate and tranquil Millbrook, NY retreat.

But really, who could have known how to react to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters?

. . . nobody really comprehended what was going on, except that it was a party. It was a party, all right. But in July of 1964 not even the hip world in New York was quite ready for the phenomenon of a bunch of people roaring across the continental U.S.A. in a bus covered with swirling Day-Glo mandalas aiming movie cameras and microphones at every freaking thing in this whole freaking country while Neal Cassady wheeled the bus around the high curves like super Hud and the U.S. nation streamed across the windshield like one of those goddamned Cinemascope landscape cameras . . .

So being “on the bus” became a kind of short-hand for the dividing line between the hip and the square, the holy fools and the establishment, the experienced and the non-experienced:

“There are going to be times,” says Kesey, “when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place–then it won’t make a damn.” And nobody had to have it spelled out for them. Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: “You’re either on the bus . . . or off the bus.”

A PERSONAL NOTE . . .

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I was definitely not “on the bus.”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test still has particular resonance for me because back then, I was on the edges of the whole hippie scene. But never dead center.

Why? Mostly because of my age and temperament.

I was a little too young to be a real “hippie.” (I was only 12 when the famous “FURTHUR” bus trip happened; only 15 during the “Summer of Love.”) Even when I went to Woodstock, it was only because my older sister, Liz, was kind enough to let me tag along with her and her college friends (it was the summer before my senior year of high school). So the hippie life appealed but hard-core hippies tended to be a somewhat older crowd.

And temperamentally, I guess I was a little too straight. My roots were working-class, so while others kids might have felt comfortable blowing their parents’ tuition money and running off to San Francisco, I was busy working my way through college.

Finally, I was never really a drug-taker. Sure, like many kids my age I had smoked the occasional reefer. But never anything much harder. When I finally got around to trying LSD, I was already in grad school and experimented with it once. (It was a positive experience that I’ve never felt the necessity of repeating.)

Here’s what I and some of my family looked like back then.

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The photo above was taken in the early 1970s by my sister Claire (too bad she’s not in the picture, she was the most photogenic of us all). We are in front of the carousel in Central Park. From left to right:

  • Ed, my younger brother who would become a darned good musician
  • Liz, my older sister (she took me to Woodstock–bless her heart)
  • Susan, my then girlfriend, now lovely wife (of nearly 40 years!)
  • Me, with a very unfortunate Fu Manchu mustache
  • Phil, my brother-in-law, looking very Carlos Santana-ish (Phil and I attended Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys’ 1969 New Year’s Eve concert at the Fillmore East)

Suffice it to say we’ve all had better hair days.

FINALLY . . .

So for all you former hippies out there, or quasi-hippies like me, or hippies in spirit (like some of my younger acquaintances)–make the effort to read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s a LONG, STRANGE TRIP . . . but well worth it.

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