Tag Archives: counter-cultural literature

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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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.

slaughterhouse-five

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.

kool-aid bus

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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“Soul on Ice” . . . Shaken & Stirred

It’s saying something that a book written nearly a half century ago retains the power to provoke, startle, scare, and move us (in almost equal measure). Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968) was a controversial read back in the day. And it remains a polarizing, knotty book these many years later.

My first encounter with Cleaver’s groundbreaking book was in my early college years. I had been reading (without purpose or plan) a number of books about black culture and the black experience in America–books such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), George Jackson’s Soledad Brother (1968), among others.

Soul on Ice was the most daring and disturbing of them all.

soul on ice

I recently asked my older sister, Liz, about Soul on Ice (recalling that she had kept the book on her desk for a long time back in her college years). She sheepishly admitted that she didn’t remember ever actually reading the book–although she did recall conspicuously carrying Soul on Ice around with her on campus.

Back then, having a copy of Soul on Ice was tantamount to a political act. Sure, there was the hipness factor: it had that great cover of a brooding , thoughtful young black man outside the gates of a prison, some white day lilies off to his side.

It was a cool book to own, but more importantly it said something about who you were, how you saw yourself, and what you valued. Consider that just being seen with a copy of Cleaver’s book in certain areas of the country might get you a good ass-kicking or worse.

Racial hatred, violence, and despair hung thick in the air back in those days.

I read Soul on Ice because it seemed important for a white college student like me to try to understand all that frustration and rage and anger. And to get an inside glimpse of a man who was at the very epicenter of the black power movement, an ex-con, admitted ex-rapist, Minister of Information for the Black Panthers, and a #1 badass dude: Eldridge Cleaver.

eldridge cleaver

And then four decades rolled by . . .

In the interim, Cleaver had, shall we say, an oddly checkered career:

  • Involved in a Black Panther shoot-out with the Oakland police in 1968 in which one Panther was killed and two policemen were wounded.
  • Jumped bail and fled to exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France.
  • Returned to the United States in 1975, plead guilty to reduced charges, and was sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service.
  • Became, variously, a born-again Christian, a follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Mormon, a crack cocaine addict, a men’s fashion designer (his men’s trousers with a pronounced codpiece, called the “Cleaver sleave,” earned him truckloads of ridicule and puzzlement but no sales), a tree surgeon, a designer of clay flowerpots.
  • Ran, in perhaps his most baffling transformation, as a conservative candidate for the U.S. Senate in the 1986 California Republican Primary.
  • Died in 1998 at the age of 62.

So, after all the violence and turbulence and thunder of the Sixties and Seventies, poor Eldridge ended up as a kind of sad punch line.

But Soul on Ice remains: angry, proud, funny, and undaunted.

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So, what’s it like to read Soul on Ice today?

Well, it isn’t the slog I expected. Given the political and linguistic excesses of the Sixties, I thought the book would be full of empty, Sixties-era revolutionary rhetoric. Yes, there is some sloganeering, lots of anger, some naiveté about how “the revolution” would unfold, etc. (Cleaver is much better at focusing attention on the problems, not so great at providing realistic or workable solutions.)  But there are many more stretches of clear-headed analysis and overall reasonableness than I anticipated (or remembered).

Cleaver can be an engaging, witty, thoughtful, occasionally very funny writer.

He is hilarious, for instance, when describing how learning to dance the Twist helped uptight whites partially reclaim their alienated bodies:

They were swinging and gyrating and shaking their dead little asses like petrified zombies trying to regain the warmth of life . . .

It’s surprising to recall that Soul on Ice was picked as one of the 10 best books of 1968 by The New York Times. This despite the fact that Cleaver was a convicted criminal, long-time prison inmate, and self-confessed rapist. (I told you it was a controversial book.)

It’s also surprising that Soul on Ice is still (to use a word I hate, but really have to use in this instance) relevant. Amazingly relevant, actually.

There were so many moments as I was re-reading Soul on Ice over the past few days, when I found myself rubbing my eyes in disbelief: are we really still here? Are we still fighting these battles? Has the game changed so little?

Here are just a few examples of what I mean.

Cleaver’s observations about how white Americans prefer their black sports heroes and entertainers to be subservient, apolitical, non-threatening continue to ring true today. (Americans have always hated, still hate mouthy blacks.) His take on Muhammad Ali (vs. Floyd Paterson or Sonny Liston), for instance, is spot on:

There is no doubt that white America will accept a black champion, applaud and reward him, as long as there is no “white hope” in sight.  But what white America demands in her black champions is a brilliant, powerful body and a dull, bestial mind–a tiger in the ring and a pussycat outside the ring.

And Cleaver is astute when it comes to the different value American society places on a white life versus a black life. He recognizes that the civil rights movement only really took hold when white activists were being beaten and killed alongside blacks.

Even well into the 21st century, this troubling double standard still exists:

The racist conscience of America is such that murder does not register as murder, really, unless the victim is white. . . . When white freedom riders were brutalized along with blacks, a sigh of relief went up from the black masses, because the blacks knew that white blood is the coin of freedom in a land where for four hundred years black blood has been shed unremarked and with impunity. America has never truly been outraged by the murder of a black man, woman, or child.

There are many moments in Soul on Ice that feel remarkably current. For example, one of Cleaver’s characters describes an encounter he and his girlfriend have had with a white traffic cop (after running “just a little too late” through a red light):

“‘Say, Boy,’ he said to me, ‘are you color-blind?’ I didn’t want a ticket so I decided to talk him out of it. I went into my act, give him a big smile and explained to him that I was awfully sorry, that I thought I could make it but that my old car was too slow. He talked real bad to me . . . I said a bunch of Yes Sir’s and No Sir’s and he told me to run along and be a good boy. When I drove off, I looked over at my woman and she had turned completely sour. . . . she packed up all her belongings and split.”

There is an eerily similar scene in the Oscar-winning film, Crash (2004) in which a black couple (played by Terence Howard and Thandie Newton) undergo a similar (even more horrendous) encounter with the police. Again, the black man has to resort to subservient play-acting in order to appease the rascist cop and protect himself and his companion. When they get home, his wife is livid with him for not standing up for himself.  The more things change . . .

And Cleaver has his eyes on the international scene as well. He suggests that the racist streak in right-wing America–having been at least partially thwarted by the civil rights movement and legislation at home–finds expression in United States foreign policy, which invariably targets non-white populations for its aggressive impulses. Cleaver, of course, was primarily thinking of the Vietnam War which was raging at the time, but one wonders what he would have made of our recent excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan:

And the right is able to manipulate the people by playing upon the have-gun-will-travel streak in America’s character, coupled with the narcissistic self-image as friend of the underdog. Americans think of themselves collectively as a huge rescue squad on twenty-four-hour call to any spot on the globe where dispute and conflict may erupt.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Soul on Ice is the degree to which Cleaver is brutally honest and unflinching as he tracks his own evolution as a thinker and a human being. He risks losing us in the very first essay of the book:

I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto . . . and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. . . .

Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women . . .

Thankfully for him and for us, Cleaver’s many years in prison (including stints in San Quentin and Folsom) were spent reading, reflecting, and reconsidering his life’s arc:

After I returned to prison, I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray–astray not so much from the white man’s law as from being human, civilized–for I could not approve the act of rape. . . . I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.

That is why I started to write. To save myself.

The Cleaver that emerges in the pages of Soul on Ice is a complicated, polarizing, yet ultimately relatable figure. Perhaps not surprisingly, Malcolm X (another complicated and polarizing figure) holds a special place in Cleaver’s heart. Malcolm’s journey from criminal to adherent of Elijah Muhammad’s racist doctrines to a more humanistic world view mirrors Cleaver’s own journey:

Malcolm X, in the eyes of Elijah’s [Muhammad] followers, had committed the unforgivable heresy when, changing his views and abandoning the racist position, he admitted the possibility of brotherhood between blacks and whites.

. . . there were those of us who were glad to be liberated from the doctrine of hate and racial supremacy. The onus of teaching racial supremacy and hate, which is the white man’s burden, is pretty hard to bear.

Not every aspect of the book has aged gracefully. Cleaver, of course, is no saint and some of his views are impossible to endorse.

His attitudes toward the sexual politics of race, for one, (outlined most fully in the convoluted essay, “The Primeval Mitosis”) can be pretty out there–especially his attitude toward white women. His pronouncements on homosexuality are disgusting and downright indefensible:

Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become the head of General Motors.

But, even with all its flaws, there is a surprisingly bracing dose of truth and sense in Soul on Ice.

Perhaps the final take-away should be: don’t discount this book because you think it is an interesting but dispensable relic from a distant past. Soul on Ice is not a silly time capsule from the Sixties. Even if we don’t like all its messages, there are lessons here still to be learned.

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“The Books That Mattered” . . . Q & A

Several folks have asked some really good questions about my blog:

What books do you plan on covering in your blog?

At the bottom of this post I’ve included 3 lists:

  • Books I’ve already covered
  • The next 10 books I’ll be discussing
  • Books I plan on covering in the future

slaughterhouse-five

Can you provide a schedule of the books that you’ll be covering and when?

I don’t have a rigid schedule — so far I’ve been playing this by ear. I do try to publish a post every week or so.

But I do know my next 10 books, which I’ve detailed below. These are my next 2:

  • Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice
  • Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead

How did you/do you choose the books that mattered?

When I started exploring this project several years back, I spoke with and emailed 50 or so people in my network who are Baby Boomers (family members, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, acquaintances of acquaintances, etc.). I asked them what books had mattered to them when they were in their formative years (high school, college, grad school, young adulthood).

I compiled their responses and spoke directly to many of them about their choices. I mixed in some books that no one else had mentioned, but that had mattered to me, personally. Threw in a few books that no one mentioned but which had been culturally significant (Love Story, for instance) . . . and, voila, came up with the list you see below.

Is your list of Books That Mattered set in stone? Are you  willing to take suggestions?

No, my list is not set in stone. I absolutely would love to hear suggestions from readers regarding other books you’d like to see discussed.

Also, any memories, observations, or stories regarding the books that mattered to you would be much appreciated.

Is this blog only of interest to Baby Boomers? What about younger readers?

Great question!

(OK, I admit it, this question I made up.)  But I wanted to make sure that readers understand that while my blog is about the books that influenced and shaped the Baby Boom generation — I hope its interest and appeal is much broader than that.

Many of the books I’m covering are fantastic books which are well worth reading in their own right. Even though most were written in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, many have universal and timeless appeal — no matter what your age.

And even those books that had a short shelf life and are now curiosities and cultural artifacts are well worth looking at again. For one thing, like the fashions back then, books like Love Story or Jonathan Livingstone Seagull can be pretty funny and embarrassing.

And reading about these books may give you a better handle on your Baby Boomer parents, relatives, friends, and co-workers. In any case, they’ll be impressed and amazed that you’ve even heard of Soul on Ice or The Greening of  America.

OTR

Books Already Covered

  • The James Bond Books — Ian Fleming
  • The Bell Jar — Sylvia Plath
  • On the Road — Jack Kerouac
  • The Catcher in the Rye — J. D. Salinger
  • Love Story — Erich Segal
  • Goodbye, Columbus — Philip Roth
  • One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Ken Kesey

Next 10 Books I’ll Be Covering (in order)

  • Soul on Ice — Eldridge Cleaver
  • The Fountainhead — Ayn Rand
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — Tom Wolfe
  • Slaughterhouse Five — Kurt Vonnegut
  • To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
  • Catch-22 –Joseph Heller
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — Hunter S. Thompson
  • Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert Pirsig
  • A Clockwork Orange — Anthony Burgess

Other Books I Plan on Covering (in no particular order)

  • The World According to Garp — John Irving
  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem — Joan Didion
  • The White Album — Joan Didion
  • Lord of the Flies — William Golding
  • East of Eden — John Steinbeck
  • The Golden Notebook — Doris Lessing
  • Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter — Carson McCullers
  • Siddartha — Herman Hesse
  • Steppenwolf — Herman Hesse
  • Black Boy — Richard Wright
  • The Chosen — Chaim Potok
  • The Greening of America — Charles A. Reich
  • In Cold Blood — Truman Capote
  • The Right Stuff — Tom Wolfe
  • Hell’s Angels — Hunter S. Thompson
  • Dune — Frank Herbert
  • Portnoy’s Complaint — Philip Roth
  • A Separate Peace — John Knowles
  • The Foundation Trilogy — Isaac Asimov
  • The Autobiography of Malcom X — Malcolm X
  • Flowers for Algernon — Daniel Keyes
  • Stranger in a Strange Land — Robert Heinlein
  • Jonathan Livingstone Seagull — Richard Bach
  • Sometimes a Great Notion — Ken Kesey
  • Atlas Shrugged — Ayn Rand
  • Lord of the Rings Trilogy — J. R. R. Tolkien

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Returning to the Nest . . . “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

I have to admit that one of the main reasons I’ve decided to write my Books That Mattered blog is completely selfish: it is a way of forcing myself to revisit books that I might never have gotten around to reading otherwise.

This is especially true for a book such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), a book I thought I knew cold.  Even though I’d only read the novel once, back in 1973, I didn’t feel the need to re-read it again, it was so locked in my brain. Or so I thought.

one flew over the cuckoo's nest

You may think, as I did, that you know the story pretty well. It’s all about Randle Patrick McMurphy, the swaggering, larger-than-life hustler, drifter, and iconoclast who is engaged in an epic battle (set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital) with Nurse Ratched, hard-as-ice upholder of the status quo and poster girl for bureaucratic control freaks everywhere.

You may vividly remember some key scenes: McMurphy playfully soaking all the ward mental patients with the hose from the hydrotherapy machine, McMurphy in the rec yard trying to show Chief Bromden how to dunk a basketball, McMurphy commandeering a yellow school bus to take the loonies out for a wild joyride.

The only problem is that these are all scenes from the movie that do not occur in the book.

I suppose this is what happens when the film version of a book becomes a huge hit and an important cultural phenomenon in its own right. For better or worse, it takes on a life of its own.

Make no mistake, the movie version of Cuckoo’s Nest (directed by Milos Forman and released in 1975) is a wonderful piece of filmmaking and became a cultural touchstone in the mid-1970s. It is, deservedly, one of a handful of films to have won Academy Awards in the five major categories (Best Picture, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Director, Screenplay).

nicholson

However, when I decided to have a reunion with Kesey’s novel, I discovered that my “memories” of the book were, in actuality, mostly derived from the film. (Not surprising, given the indelible performances of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. And, while I’d read the novel just that once, I’d seen the film version of Cuckoo’s Nest perhaps a half-dozen times.)

So when I re-read Cuckoo’s Nest over the past few days, I was surprised and delighted to discover that reading the book summoned up memories and feelings I had almost totally forgotten. And I suddenly remembered why the novel (which had been assigned in a “Contemporary Fiction” course I took in my junior year) had been one of my Top Ten favorite books back in college.

ken kesey

Reading Kesey’s book again is something of a revelation. Because for all the film’s brilliance, the book is equally brilliant–OK, let’s come out and say it–more brilliant in several crucial ways.

For one thing, the movie doesn’t capture–and to be fair does not attempt to capture–the trippy texture of the novel. In fact, the film’s straightforward, almost cinema verite style is the direct opposite of the novel’s hallucinatory, vision-laden narration.

Reading Cuckoo’s Nest again after all these years, I am struck by what a wonderful creation Chief Bromden is: I had forgotten how his narrative perspective and unique voice inform the novel, and make it the triumph that it is.

I remember my first encounter with the novel . . . having to read the first couple of pages of Cuckoo’s Nest several times over to figure out what was going on. Where are we? Who are the black boys? Are they really committing sex acts in the halls? It takes a bit of effort to learn to understand and appreciate Chief’s distinctive voice:

They’re out there.

Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.

They’re mopping when I come out the dorm, all three of them sulky and hating everything, the time of day, the place they’re at here, the people they got to work around. When they hate like this, better if they don’t see me. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio.

The Chief’s visions and hallucinations are on one level the fantasies and fabrications of a mentally ill patient, and yet on another level connect to a deeper truth about the true state of things in the ward and beyond.

The ultimate outsider (half-white, half-Indian), Chief Bromden is uniquely gifted with the insight to peer underneath the surface reality; unlike the other characters, he can see things the way they really are: the fog machine that dulls the inmates’ perceptions, the wires and electrical currents that control the patients and their behavior, the fact that the pills he and the other inmates are constantly ingesting are actually tiny devices meant to control them:

I got away once holding one of those same red capsules under my tongue, played like I’d swallowed it, and crushed it open later in the broom closet. For a nick of time, before it all turned to white dust, I saw it was a miniature electronic element like the ones I helped the Radar Corps work with in the Army, microscopic wires and girds and transistors, this one designed to dissolve on contact with air . . .

And the Chief is the only character who is aware of the existence and insidious power of the Combine–the massive, amorphous machine dedicated at all costs to preserving the social status quo and striving to control its members.

In its quest for verisimilitude, the film totally dispenses with the “Combine” metaphor that in some ways forms the backbone of the novel.

In the film, the central conflict is presented primarily as a battle between two larger-than-life characters–McMurphy versus Nurse Ratched (understandable, given the outsized talents of Nicholson and Fletcher)–while the novel posits a much bigger battle between the forces of spontaneity, individualism, and freedom arrayed against the forces of limitations, rules, regulations and deadening conformity:

The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart; something that came in all twisted and different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold.

Nurse Ratched is the perfect manifestation of the Combine, outwardly helpful and poised and in control, but in reality a monster who can shape-shift to appear normal and benign. Of all the characters, only Chief Bromden is capable of glimpsing her true nature. One night she becomes angry at the ward attendants; the Chief sees her transformation:

She knows what they been saying, and I can see she’s furious clean out of control. She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from limb, she’s so furious. She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform . . . She looks around her with a swivel of her huge head . . . her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load.

nurse ratched

The most critical aspect of the novel that I had forgotten and which the film dampens down considerably is the extent to which Cuckoo’s Nest is really Chief Bromden’s story.

McMurphy is obviously a crucial character and the catalyst for most of the story’s action, but it is the Chief’s tragic disintegration–as a son, as an Indian, as a man–and his gradual re-awakening and psychic growth that form the heart and soul of the novel.

Kesey, in fact, distanced himself from the film production when he learned that the film was not going to tell the story from the Chief’s perspective; he also objected to casting Nicholson as McMurphy.  (And, as it turned out, it appears Kesey’s reservations were right, because while the book is Chief Bromden’s story, the film is pretty much hijacked by McMurphy/Nicholson.)

When I read the novel as a painfully shy, often tongue-tied twenty-year-old, it was Chief Bromden with whom I most closely identified.

McMurphy was the obvious hero figure, of course, but I related more closely with Chief Bromden–trying to blend in, feeling not as powerful or fully alive as I would have liked. I totally got why he had pretended to be deaf and dumb for the past twenty years.

And I loved seeing his growth in the book. His first attempt to communicate with McMurphy, his halting steps to remember and reclaim his life as an Indian, his final act of love and defiance and freedom.

How many of us Baby Boomers identified with the Chief when we read a passage like the following:

And later, hiding in the latrine from the black boys, I’d take a look at my own self in the mirror and wonder how it was possible that anyone could manage such an enormous thing as being what he was. There’d be my face in the mirror, dark and hard, with big, high cheekbones like the cheek underneath them had been hacked out with a hatchet, eyes all black and hard and mean-looking, just like Papa’s eyes or the eyes of all those tough, mean-looking Indians you see on TV, and I’d think, That ain’t me, that ain’t my face . . . It don’t seem like I ever have been me. . . .

mcm and chief

And the ending, of course, is perfect.

The Chief mercifully kills McMurphy (or the shell that was McMurphy) and runs away from the hospital and the Combine and imagines himself revisiting his tribe and their land by the Columbia River:

I might go to Canada eventually, but I think I’ll stop along the Columbia on the way. . . . I’d like to see what they’ve been doing since the government tried to buy their right to be Indians. I’ve even heard that some of the tribe have took to building their old ramshackle wood scaffolding all over that big million-dollar hydroelectric dam, and are spearing salmon in the spillway. I’d give something to see that. Mostly, I’d just like to look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in my mind again.

I been away a long time.

I can still recall the goose bumps that passage gave me. It so electrically connected with Huck Finn’s similar decision to escape the confines of the limiting and corrupting influences of “sivilization” and find freedom:

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

For one of the first times in my life I felt truly connected with literature, felt it in my bones. Huck Finn and Chief Bromden and Holden Caulfield were brothers. They were my brothers. And all of us were finding a way of existing, of living authentic lives, even though the phonies (in Holden’s case) or the Aunt Sally’s (in Huck’s case) or the Combine (in the Chief’s case) were trying to force us to do otherwise.

So by all means go see the film again, but whatever you do, make sure to get a copy of Cuckoo’s Nest and read that again. It may be time to return to the nest.

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