Thursday, May 29, 2008

Useful Idiots & Lots of Rope

John Dos Passos has been on my mind lately. I also finished "Terrorist," by John Updike, I've been contemplating their intellectual takes-- filtered through populist perceptions-- on the willingness of we Americans to be duped by those across the sea or in our own neighborhoods preaching apocalyptic (outer) jihad or (class) war as the means to a blissfully utopian end by umma or diktat. While the phrase "useful idiots" cannot be attributed to Lenin, it sticks as a fitting label for the schlemiel (passes spellcheck!) as opposed to the schlmazel (fails spellcheck). Today's entry considers if Lenin's saying-- first popularized by the types of Reds who harangued Dos Passos even in his heyday of rallying for Sacco & Vanzetti, now by those fearing we're being taken by those who wish to do us in for our own greed, tolerance, and good-natured gullibility-- might be closer to a novel like "Manhattan Transfer" or Manhattan's newspaper.

Apropos, here's Lenin's adage, twisted a bit in my memory with the Clash's second album, the overproduced "Give Them Enough Rope." I bought it when it came out. Hard to believe it was album of 1979 in Rolling Stone. My first printing lacks orientalized typography, which I admit hones the wit of its cover art. Gene Greif's postcard "End of the Trail"-- Mao on horseback watching vultures peck out the remains of a sprawled cowboy's back. Vladimir Ilyich mused: "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." I'd add: the oil that my fellow Muricans buy to fill up those damned Avalanches and Tundras.

My own distrust of systems and credos seems to be increasing as I age, if not mature. Niall judged me with a twelve-year-old's wisdom yesterday, when we discussed my innate skepticism about any of the candidates vying for our presidency. He doubted, correctly, that any politician would align with my own attitude towards platitudes, slogans, and manifestos. While I enjoy researching such, especially in their florid Irish manifestations, I tend to keep them at arm's length from my scowling brow.

Furthering my unease at instant answers, I opened the New York Times to find yesterday's front page article by Elaine Sciolino & Souad Mekhennet. A Moroccan-born, Belgium-raised Malika El Aroud lives off of her adopted nation's unemployment benefits while she "calls herself a female holy warrior for Al Qaeda." I'm not thrilled about adding to her publicity, but she's a black canary in an eschatological coal mine. She may not be visible under her dark-clad cloak, but on the Net, her condemnation of our freedoms appears to me more than hyperbole. You might disdain the NY Times for giving her this platform to promote her agenda. Some bloggers already blamed the messenger, the Old Grey Lady. I don't. We see the enemy, if only by the whites of her eyes.

We deploy our fragile ideals against her death cult. The battle lines drawn, it feels like Frodo vs. Sauron. Hiding behind the West's guarantees of open speech, she boasts that she knows the system, and can avoid prosecution simply because she does not "disseminate instructions on bomb-making and has no intentions of taking up arms herself. Rather, she bullies Muslim men to go and fight and rallies women to join the cause." This sounds like many bloggers' spare room desk-bound egotism, until you ponder the reach such messages attain, in an age beyond samidzat or soapbox tract. Fiction and fact blend.

I picked up a copy of Robert Ferrigno's thriller, "Prayers for the Assassin," about a near-future Islamic conquest, by mass conversions and military intervention, of a divided America after a dirty bomb took out Mecca and nukes have devastated major cities here. They've balkanized the USA. Balkanized proves an appropriate adjective. The Christians have fled into the Bible Belt where a frontier war against the infidels and vice versa continues; a Nevada Free State survives, as sheikhs need the gambling and the getaway. (I guess Dubai met fallout.) There's also a Mormon enclave, an island amidst an Muslimized Midwest and Pacific that's relegated Catholics to second class. Mexico's claimed the Southwest in all but name and the Canadian border's defended against escape as assidiously as Mexico's frontera never was. After the devastation wreaked, many Yanks choose to don the burka and profess fealty to Allah, both for social advancement and spiritual succour.

This is not my usual fare, and I admit impatience. As with science fiction or mysteries, I find I must adjust my reader-response critical sensitivity. These types of stories get told differently, and it's a shift even from Updike. Ferrigno's caper reminds me of other alternative histories, such as Robert Harris' "Fatherland," Phillip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle," Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Years of Rice and Salt," or Owen Sheers' "Resistance," in its depiction of weary men doing their distasteful duty in a world where, once the routine takes over and the battles settle, it's still the same old same old. Dick, for all of his obvious shortcomings in plot and consistency, did achieve this well if sporadically in his fiction. After a few chapters of Ferrigno last night, I did get the hang of the rather plodding expository set-up that, in all fantasies, needs to be given the reader as chunks of information along with the customary who what where when why of more familiar settings. It's a trick few authors can pull off smoothly. So, they who dare to try must gain more of our admiration, compared to the hackneyed coming-of-age or finding one's self or inspirational voyage prefab narratives that make fewer initial demands.

Same as the music I prefer. I'd rather hear The Move take on their late-60s sound with more verve if less polish than The Beatles, dulled by over-familarity. The Fall, rattling and ranting woozily, charm me (if I'm in the mood) more than the more calculated Clash. Lúnasa's easy groove into the Celtic mystic lacks the rawer grain of Téada.

When you get out of your element, you keep your attention fresher. That's why I remember the two weeks last summer in Donegal far more vividly than the past two weeks here at home and work. You respond to the new stimuli and notice their tendrils extending into nooks of your wandering thoughts or crannies of the daily paper. The shift in Dos Passos from left to right over his lifetime, the exploration by Updike into an idealistic New Jersey teenager's mind as he volunteers for a suicide bombing mission, and an article on Malika-- as she's known to Interpol apparently-- shows that what when I went to sleep last night after reading Ferrigno appeared to be exaggeration may be, after finishing the NY Times this morning, be extrapolation.

Which, as predictors for plausible futures know when crafting durable future scenarios, whether in Interpol, Al-Qaeda, or Ferrigno's imagination, matter much more. Malika, about a year older than me, represents a chilling side of feminism. Eighteen women in Iraq so far this year have blown themselves (at least) up for their cause; eight did this all of last year, and it seems quite recently that news of the first to do so in the intifada made headlines. The voluminous folds of the shroud make it easier for women to elude the Israeli police at the Palestinian borders.

Undercover, in a book or a burka, the danger awaits of the undetected dynamo. Here, too, with Malika, we have this same medium that you and I share being used to advance hatred in the name of specious liberation. What kind of a caliphate, what sort of a sudden breakdown akin to the collapse of the USSR, might convulse a hedonistic people back into obedience? Far-fetched, of course, which enhances the appeal of his theme. Yet, such escapism carries, whether Gulliver or Marco Polo or Sinbad or Ishmael tells the tale, its own provocation to shake you up, to see the unfamiliar beneath the ordinary, as we yearn to find in our flight into fiction.

Escapes cross back onto real maps. Malika's earlier husband carried out a bombing of an anti-Taliban leader, on the orders of Osama bin Ladin, two days before 9/11. He died, and she went on the Web as a "martyr's" wife and as an icon for Al Qaeda. "I write in a legal way. I know what I'm doing. I'm Belgian. I know the system." She learned about the Qur'an in French after an early marriage broke up; she bore a daughter later out of wedlock. I wonder who cared for her when her mother went off to try to fight in Chechnya, and later in Afghanistan, where the devout men rejected her. "Women didn't have problems under the Taliban. They had security." Still, when she got tangled up in that nation after her husband's mission, it was the Belgians who arranged for her safe passage home. She claimed humanitarian work as her defense. She was charged with smuggling weapons when tried later for the killing of the man her now-dead husband was ordered to murder.

Acquitted, she's off to Switzerland. There she marries another man, who had "political refugee status" there. Outraged when the Swiss forces raid her house there to investigate "several pro-Qaeda Web sites" and net forums, Malika charged the government with abuse. Her six-month sentence suspended, her husband released after a few weeks, he's now off "on a trip" according to her. The authorities lost track of him; he's suspected of Pakistani terrorist connections and plots to carry out attacks in Brussels last December. She's also under watch for the latter skulduggery.

Maybe there's hope for us. While for now, when not roaming on her own trips among the umma, she's on the Net, arguably safer. The police understandably wait. She insists with the aplomb of a jailhouse lawyer of her own law-abiding balancing act, yet she notes that if she's locked up: "That would be great. They would make me a living martyr." I guess her husband would be able to fend for himself, and her daughter.

Ferrigno's Seattle, the capital of his Islamic Republic, finds its women, if they wear the garments identifying them not as "moderns" but as traditional Muslims, required to also show a plastic card around their neck with permission to be out unaccompanied by husband or father. The women can be beaten, just as in some Middle Eastern countries today, by the Black Robes who enforce total veiling and complete submission to the rules that their rulers flaunt privately. Back to the Taliban.

Codes of conduct for students at a U-Dub campus that my father-in-law, class of 1940, would be hard-pressed to recognize come complete with small print attesting to Koranic verses for every proscription. With shariah in place and the caliphate established over a good portion of the post-nuclear fruited plains, many people submit to Islam out of safety, others for advancement, and others out of insecurity. I'm curious if Ferrigno's characters will reflect on their various reasons, or lack of such, for their decision to pledge fealty to Allah.

As with Scripture and its billions of adherents of all degrees of devotion, any faith relies on submission for its power. And, speculative fiction delights in subverting any total capitulation to any creed. In such tension between individual will and collective duty, the tension ignites. I wonder if any totalitarian system can create convincing fiction. That's why fascists turn out duller novels than liberals. It may tangentially explain Dos Passos' much discussed decline from his anarchic energy into a more conservative, and conventional, portrayal of Jeffersonian self-government. I wish he was around to expound on the threat that his Jazz Age generation never saw coming, global Islamo-fascism, to replace the binary Cold War system he hated so.

Today, we may misquote Lenin. But we tend still to run into many who recite the Bible. Naturally, as with Holy Writ, the Qur'an can reveal whatever you wish. The more forgiving suras come earlier in the Mecca years; the harsher Medina passages turn more vengeful towards the Jews who conspired against Muhammed. The often-vaunted "People of the Book" inclusion quoted by defenders clashes with the tribal exclusion so familiar to anyone who's read The Good Book.

All these loyalty oaths make me wonder at our own weakness. Of course, the secular West, as with the Christian, has had no shortage of fulminating assassins, on orders from the Old Man. Ferrigno's titles and roles fill these stock characterizations from a millennial run at our theatre, from the medieval Blackamoor to the Jacobean Turk to Updike's Shaik Rashid or yesterday's paper's Malika. As an intelligence expert expounds: she "is a role model, an icon who is bold enough to identify herself." Despite the total covering, black from head to toe, which she wears in the European Parliament's host city. Her "strategic role as a source of inspiration" displays her cleverness and her danger. However, Al Qaeda still won't let the tomboy into the Boyz-only clubhouse.

Malika threatens from the periphery, electronically-- and, perhaps she ships electronics to her husband, wherever he may be. She cackles her dismal doom from the safety of her Belgian flat. But, as I assume with half the characters in Ferrigno's uneasy Seattle, she's ecstatic at coupling her wiles with her willies. It's a relief to be told how to order your life, and perhaps many Westerners long for the slap on the wrist if not its severing.

Even if Malika's shoe's not in her pounding hand at the UN, she like old foes wishes to call doom upon us for our own hubris. "Vietnam is nothing compared to what awaits you on our lands. Ask your mothers, your wives to order your coffins." Like Khruschev, isn't it curious how many use the media of the West to promote oppression of values exported, however imperfectly, by the West? Malika assures her fellow believers, in the timeworn phrases of the deluded, that salvation awaits in the hands of a perpetually angry deity, ready to rule on a throne of blood. "Victory is appearing on the horizon, my brothers and sisters. Let's intensify our prayers."

Do I consign her table-talk to the shelf of fiction, with Updike and Ferrigno? Are these speeches fanciful harbingers, like some Edward Bellamy prediction of a century hence, of our own progress into a future that the speaker's contemporaries scoff at as invention? Or, when some Fedayeen censor uncovers this blog and her quotes tangled together in a data-mining to venerate early-21st century Muslim warriors unimagined decades from now, will Malika be proven the seer? I see myself ridiculed as the fool, another Gaunilo who in his heart denied the ontological proofs of God.

Malika in her insistence may find canonization as had Anselm under an earlier European power that sought to be catholic, one, and universal. Secularism, in its own late preachers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, might represent a heresy no less dangerous than Albegensians or Arians. If Islam drives back the Fifth Crusade, I doubt many of the burghers of Brussels will find its jealous desert god worth worshipping. The people of the Book, in past caliphates under the umma, tend to be alive, yes, but taxed, harried, and subjugated. Better than a pogrom or an auto-de-fe, but not much of a contest there. Will martyrs such as Malika not only proclaim God's reign but force us all to confess to its imposition? If we refused to bow, would she see me as her brother or you as her sister? Reading today's facts in the paper, I speculate about fictions and futures.

Al Qaeda Warrior Uses Internet to Rally Women

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

John Updike's "Terrorist":Book Review

"America is paved with fat and tar."-- I took this phrase (for my Amazon review title) from Jack Levy's interior monologue. The featured synopses on Amazon delve into the plot, and the strengths and weaknesses have been already analyzed by others posting here. I rarely read Updike, about a novel a decade it seems, but I was inspired to seek this out by a mention of it in the paper recently-- it compared Updike's gutsy, if flawed, portrayal of ambivalence and detachment of one living in America to the consumerist, flaccid, and degraded culture that many throughout the world both envy us for creating and hate us for flaunting.

Ahmad and Jack alternate for most of the book, and I found their mental landscapes worthy of exploration. Updike's taken great care in attempting to convey the alienated worldview both his leading figures share. Teaching in the inner city myself, I recognized many of Jack's musings as closer to my own than I'd have liked to contemplate. He thinks of himself as a guidance counselor, but one who waves good-bye to his graduates as they slip off the edge into the "world's morass."

For his Muslim teenager, awkward and holy, sexual and repressed, Updike may naturally be on less familiar ground, but the author does manage to make his inner "jihad" convicing, especially in scenes that on the outside appear to be small talk to both men, but inside show the tensions of secular vs. believer, jaded elder vs. idealistic youth, often with insight, compassion, and verve. Ahmad's compared by the slightly omniscient narrator late in the novel as like a restless insect, in a typically eloquent passage: "His soul feels like one of those out-of-season flies that, trapped in winter in a warm room, buzz and insistently bump against the glass of a window saturated with the sunlight of an outdoors wherein they would quickly die." (238)

One of the lasting effects I take away from this ambitious novel is not only the decay of the city, which reminds me of Philip Roth's New Jersey, but in Updike's attempt to render the estranged perspective of Shaikh Rashid and his teaching of the Qur'an. The passages selected for instruction hover as if from another dimension, and are well chosen, especially the Al-Nur sura of the light and the mirage, and that of the tale "of the men of the elephant before the assault of the birds." (275)

Updike may fail to convince me in the chatter of Joryleen or Charlie of his ear for ordinary dialogue, but with Jack, the Shaikh, and Ahmad, the author shows that he can enter characters who we might think of as opposites of ourselves, and as his talent proves despite the rather formulaic storyline, Updike dares to take on a subject that for its own inherent drama and conflict will keep you reading late into the night.

Nuair Scríobhann mé as Gaeilge...

Iarraidh mé a fáil focail ann intinn agam ar dtús. Caitheann mé ag dul ar mo fhoclóir, ar ndóigh. Go minic, nílim ábalta déanamh abairt go hiomlán. Ach, tá mé ag obair ar fad, uair uile gach seachtain.

Mar sin féin, tá agam a bheith i ngátar cabhair. Déanann mé na altannaí seo dá bhrí sin. B'fhéidir, gheobhaidh foghlameoir fásta eile seo. Má feicfá tusa féin go blog go bhfuil ag nascadh leis anseo, "Tre Gwernin," feicfidh tú shampla cosúilacht as Bhreatnais anois agus aríst.

As Béarla, is mé is fusa a labhairt. As Gaeilge, ní furasta a tosú liom. Cad chuige? Tá ciall a bhaint as dúshlán agam. Insíonn mé agat ag caint Gaeilge, agus osclaíonn mé doras difrúila ar taobh istigh díom. Níl rudaí go leor ansin. Fanann mé ann ar ball. Líonann mé féin leis beagán focal go bunasach. D'fhág mé a filleadh ar ais an domhan agam go coitianta. Tá sé lán de Béarla. Cloiseann teangaí eile fosta. Níl siad Gaeilge.

Aistrím mé ar an leagan Béarla. Coinnigh mé an cruth céann chainteannái. Téann cúrsa go mall. Tá dearmad agam go leor. Obair liosta í. Níl scil agam a breith ar an teanga go tapaidh. Níl cluas ghéar agam freisin!

Rachaidh mé a fanacht leis an modh ceart. Is dócha go éiríoidh mé léamh níos mo. Níor labhróinn is mo, ach léifidh mé go maith má iarrain mé. Ar an gcaói seo, fanfaidh mé anseo ar mo bhlog go ceann tamaill. Tá dhá foclóir tuibh agam, an leabharín na briathra, agus carta ag feachain. Tá dúil agam fós.

When I write in Irish...

I try to get words in my brain at the start. I must go to my dictionary, of course. Often, I am not able to make a sentence completely. But, I am working away, a few hours every week.

Nevertheless, there's a need for help for me. Perhaps, another adult learner will find these. I make these essays for that reason. If you yourself go to a blog that's linked with here, "Tre Gwernin," you'll find a similar example in Welsh now and then.

In English, it's easy for me to speak. In Irish, it's not easy to start for me. What's the reason? There is meaning in the challenge for me. I tell you, talking in Irish, and I open a different door within me. There aren't many things there. I wait there for a little while. I fill myself with a few words basically. I leave to return back to my ordinary world. It is full of English. I hear other languages too. None of them are Irish.

I translate into the English version. I keep the same shape of the expressions. The process goes slowly. I have many mistakes. It's tedious work. I don't have a skill to catch onto the language quickly. I don't have a quick ear, either!

I will go on to stay with the correct procedure. It's probable that I will read better. I will not speak the best, but I will read well if I try. In this manner, I will continue on my blog for a while. I have two thick dictionaries, a booklet of verbs, and a glance chart. I still have my desire.


Monday, May 26, 2008

John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer": Book Review
I figured since I reviewed "Three Soldiers" today and the two biographies yesterday, that I'd rescue my March 2006 review from Amazon so it could keep company with its Dos Passos fellows in a row. And, one more webpage to offset the inevitable searches for that annoying vocal quartet popular (not with me) a quarter-century ago with the same title.

Yes, a five-star book compared to most of them, but compared to "USA," this novel's a warm-up, between three and four stars, rounded up for innovation if not poise. In the start of each chapter you get marvelous, miniature modernist riffs, reminding me of saxophones, Carl Sandburg, Whitman, and Joyce (he loves those runoncompounds too); these anticipate the "Camera Eye" vignettes that would enrich "USA"'s own prose concoctions. Jimmy Derf (some surname) and Ellen Oglethorpe emerge at the end as the two main characters; others come and go much like life itself--the central figure is not one human but a cast of millions. As an urban reporter here, Dos Passos excels at capturing the snatches of dialogue, smells of the bums, grit of the air (it's rare that nature itself is shown as less than threatening, when it's evident at all), and shouts and noise that, then as now, relentlessly hums and pounds along Manhattan's streets. It's naturalism combined with realism.

Since "USA" for all its flaws is one of my favorite novels, I wanted to compare "MT." The pace is very quick: I read this in three sittings, one per main section. What still seems innovative eight decades later is Dos Passos' ability to skip forward within a dialogue to show how the minutes pass even as the characters are speaking--you hear enough to understand that moment, but the next line may be a half hour later into the situation or scene or action. This "jump-cut" characteristic becomes a bit maddening at times, as it does in cinema, but technically it's fun to watch! This adds to the filmic parallels that flow through "MT," which keeps the clips coming much as a well-edited docudrama might pull off.

After 9/11, some readers of the opening pages of "Moby Dick" noticed headlines of "war in Afghanistan" and the like that seemed to presage the current turmoil, 150 years before. Towards the end of "MT," my eye lingered as I re-read this paragraph: from a failed con-man talking to a slick lawyer: "I happen to know from a secret and reliable source that there is a subversive plot among undesirable elements in this country...Good God think of the Wall Street bomb outrage...I must say that the attitude of the press has been gratifying in one fact we're approaching a national unity undreamed of before the war." (part 3. ch. 1)

Dos Passos rarely lets his characters stand still and think things through. They try, but there's always someone bursting through the door, or buttonholing them on the street, or the danger, in one dramatic case, of daydreaming leading to disaster. He captures the frenetic speed demanded by NYC, and 20c city life, in this chronicle of a couple of handfuls of characters drawn to the bright lights, and the indifference of the city towards their ambitions and schemes. It's not uplifting or casual reading, but for an immersion into the sensations that ran through and past those who grew up from about 1900-1925, this novel, while uneven, captures what it must have been like for the latest generation who thought they were the first to invent novelty, encounter licentiousness, or concoct flim-flam and skulk around in deceit and skulduggery. Homosexuality, racism, injustice, bootlegging, protest, complacency, war-fever, and rags-to-riches and back down: all these color and vivify the portrayals of the few who stand for millions more in Manhattan.

The slang may have changed since then, and the buildings have grown higher, but the people, even though they are more types than rounded (with the exception of about half-a-dozen who endure through most of the novel)--they are the kinds of figures you can still encounter today on any crowded street.

(Cover image: I love this Vintage Library reprint's illustration.)

John Dos Passos' "Three Soldiers": Book Review
Memorial Day was spent reading this 1921 novel, in a battered copy from the back shelves of the Los Angeles Public Library's stacks, where the volume had been, the librarian told me, damaged by the sprinklers set off to quench the great fire that destroyed much of the old building over twenty years ago. This fragile book seemed a casualty of its own, like its characters, who rush off to the French front only to hurry up and wait. Two of them enter the "Oregon forest," the Argonne campaign, but the assault itself takes up only a few harrowing, nightmarish, disconnected scenes halfway through the narrative.

Dos Passos emphasizes the detachment of his characters from their peaceful or uprooted surroundings. Much of the book roams about the mental landscape of its three protagonists, rather than what happens in terms of action. It conveys more the tedium of bureaucracy and the formation of the conformist, against which the sensitive individual chafes. The five chapters have titles that make sure a reader nearly ninety years ago does not forget what, for us, may be unmistakable concepts. "Making the Mould" follows soldiers as they are processed; "The Metal Cools" shows them in France waiting for mobilization; "Machines" takes them closer to the war; "Rust" follows them after peace is declared; "The World Outside" shows them away from the camp; "Under the Wheels" returns them to military control.

Dos Passos, as biographies by Townsend Ludington and Virginia Spencer Carr (both reviewed by me here and on Amazon US yesterday) document, took his own ambivalence against war as one who volunteered as an ambulance driver to witness it into this novel. It's a young writer's effort, ambitious yet a bit awkward, but if you have read his later sprawling chronicles, the relative compression of scope here may demonstrate how Dos Passos sought to integrate modernist perspectives into a standard "boy goes off to fight" storyline. He sought, perhaps as one of the first successful WWI novels in print-- or still in print-- in America, to show a social mechanism grinding away that "Catch-22" or "Full Metal Jacket" or "Dispatches" would do for future conflicts that pitted people against power. In a time when many still remained optimistic about government, idealism, and the impact of culture upon the masses, Dos Passos sought to warn his audience about the degrading effects of patriotic cant, Christian platitudes, and military hypocrisy.

In "Three Soldiers," Dos Passos' first "mature" work, the coming-of-age stories familiar to early 20c readers mingle with a broader assault on conformity. The author listens to speech and it rings sharply. He watches for fog and shade and sun with his trained eye that looked as a painter would what his soldiers witness and struggle to understand. These themes of ordinary people overwhelmed by the world that appears to loom far above the reach of any of us who wander through it deepened to enrich Dos Passos' most successful novels, "Manhattan Transfer" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon) and the USA trilogy, with their author's insistent message of resisting any political creed or organizational system that sought to stamp robots out of, or into, wriggling fragile flesh.

We've all seen films or photographs of the lunar landscapes of WWI, but here, in Dos Passos' evocation, we share the shock of the first glimpse of this to a soldier. He may have seen few if any snapshots or film reels of the battleground. Here's his sudden arrival at the demarcation of the actual frontline.

As they started down the slope, the trees suddenly broke away and they saw the valley between them full of the glare of guns and the white light of star shells. It was like looking into a stove full of glowing embers. The hillside that sloped away from them was full of crashing detonations and yellow tongues of flame. In a battery near the road, that seemed to crush their skulls each time a gun fired, they could see the dark forms of the artillerymen silhouetted in fantastic attitudes against the intermittent red glare. Stunned and blinded, they kept on marching down the road. It seemed to Chrisfield that they were going to step any minute into the flaring muzzle of a gun.

The rest of the book, after a few vividly sketched battle vignettes, settles down into post-Armistice routine, as John Andrews, the stand-in for Harvard grad Dos Passos, cultivates his aesthetic eye while grousing at the indignities of mass crowd control and his own chapped sensibility. I found him a familiar type, perhaps fresher in Dos Passos' times than ours. Dos Passos pours most of his effort into this soldier's story, after the battle, but it fails to sustain its vigor, although his youthful restlessness and ambition borrowed from their author appear on the page as genuine and honest. The fault's more with the slow pace, unrelieved by excitement. This may portray a side of military life often left out of books, but it's dull.

As "a sort of socialist," Andrews hates "the psychology of slavery," although he must mutter this more than mouth it, for fear of a court-martial. Later in the novel, he and his fellows must face the courage of his convictions. Rumors of uprisings in Paris contend against punishment labor battalions and fates of deserters. From the vantage point of a fresh Soviet revolution, some of his fellow soldiers whisper their hopes for a Communist future; Dos Passos' registers their yearnings but his characteristic caution at any utopia peddled can also be sensed, despite his own radical yearnings at this time.

It's all described well, yet often repetitively. Conversations in one bar after another. Smells of food and rain and sludge. Dappled leaves alternate with mud and grease. Andrews' endemic ennui does drag long sections down after he recovers from a shrapnel wound and heads off to study in Paris. This passage captures the tedium.

The straw under him rustled faintly with every sleepy movement Andrews made in his blankets. In a minute the bugle was going to blow and he was going to jump out of his blankets, throw on his clothes and fall into line for roll call in the black mud of the village street. It couldn't be that only a month had gone by since he had got back from hospital. No, he had spent a lifetime in this village being dragged out of his warm blankets every morning by the bugle, shivering as he stood in line for roll call, shuffling in a line that moved slowly past the cookshack, shuffling along in another line to throw what was left of his food into garbage cans, to wash his mess kit in the greasy water a hundred other men had
washed their mess kits in; lining up to drill, to march on along muddy roads, splattered by the endless trains of motor trucks; lining up twice more for mess, and at last being forced by another bugle into his blankets again to sleep heavily while a smell hung in his nostrils of sweating woolen clothing and breathed-out air
and dusty blankets. In a minute the bugle was going to blow, to snatch him out of even these miserable thoughts, and throw him into an automaton under other men's orders. Childish spiteful desires surged into his mind. If the bugler would only die. He could picture him, a little man with a broad face and putty- colored cheeks, a small rusty mustache and bow-legs lying like a calf on a marble slab in a butcher's shop on top of his blankets. What nonsense! There were other buglers. He wondered how many buglers there were in the army. He could picture them all, in dirty little villages, in stone barracks, in towns, in great camps that served the country for miles with rows of black warehouses and narrow barrack buildings standing with their feet a little apart; giving their little brass bugles a preliminary tap before
putting out their cheeks and blowing in them and stealing a million and a half (or was it two million or three million) lives, and throwing the warm sentient bodies into coarse automatons who must be kept busy, lest they grow restive, till killing time began again.

The first up facing the bugle, Fuselli, from San Francisco, begins "Three Soldiers" to complete the trio, two coastal men and the Midwesterner representing a cross-section of America. Fuselli's swerve away from marching off to the front to putting in for an instant transfer to a post well behind the lines confused me. Perhaps Dos Passos meant to convey the inexplicable split-second decision made by a man under pressure, but without any prior preparation for this, Fuselli's ambition to rise in the ranks kept puzzling me, as he'd not shown any aversion to seeking out combat previously. He does show up briefly a couple hundred pages later, after falling out of favor during a battle, but this is left rather vague, via a quick conversation with Andrews, by now on "school detachment" at the Sorbonne.

Unlike Fuselli, but like Andrews, the other soldier enters the novel as a Casual (like Dos Passos himself), suited not for the regular Army. He and Andrews wait to be shipped off; Fuselli has been, but vanishes from much of the novel's middle sections. Chrisfield, a Hoosier farm boy, is jittery and brittle, but due more to his hair-trigger temperament rather than any reveries, as his pal "Andy" is prone to fall into, about a fin-de-siecle Queen of Sheba voluptuary's embrace. These earn prose recalling Stephen Dedalus' contemplations, minus the religion or the guilt. Andrews' vision of the France he finds is filtered through Flaubert. He falls for Jeanne, and stays in Paris to master piano.

"Chris" gets into scraps and he represents one of the common men with whom New York City-raised Andrews learns to deal with, however uneasily. They both wander, together and separately, into cafes, brothels, fields, and cities. Eventually, Chrisfield fades and Andrews continues largely on his own through the rest of the novel. The scenes stay simply composed, but remain attentively rendered in clear prose. It's the author's style, more than the often mundane plot, which keeps you intermittently involved. There's a welcome arrival or threat of military intervention that carries you with a bit more pep through the final chapter.

Dos Passos always faced critics who faulted him with treating his characters more as pieces to be manipulated than rounded figures. I welcome novelists who double as historians, taletellers who tend towards sociology, but those expecting more visceral tension and manufactured bouts may be disappointed by a conflict novel that tends to stay away from the thunder. Dos Passos sides with those who struggle against donning the uniform, who scrabble against the clanking ranks and file clerks. You can see in this early novel that his habitual manner of setting down his stories as social commentary more than psychological exploration remains, nonetheless, his characteristic approach as a writer, take it or leave it.

(Review posted with diminishment of second excerpt today on Amazon.)

E-text Project Gutenberg download

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Two biographies of John Dos Passos compared.

Townsend Ludington's 1980 and Virginia Spencer Carr's 1984 volumes weigh in about the same, over five hundred pages of closely printed text. I have the hardcovers, although both biographies have appeared in paperback reprints, Ludington's a decade ago and Carr a few years back. Despite his earlier works being edited by Ludington in three handsome installments in the Library of America series in the past few years, even these languish, absent even from the giant city libraries near me. Outside of nods to the USA trilogy or maybe "Manhattan Transfer" or in a pinch, "Three Soldiers," not many readers bother with him.

Conventional wisdom, shared even by his admirers, tends to denigrate his later novels and histories and biographies, after his gradual embrace of "middle-class liberalism" after his disillusionment with the manipulation of the Left by Stalinists in the 1920s and 1930s. None of his works remain in print which were written after his fall from favor with the Left. The Library of America selections span the twenties and thirties, and it's for his rendering of the ideas, events, and trends of the first three decades of the last century that Dos Passos will be remembered. Like many writers who outlasted their early impact and kept at it, he resented being labelled the "USA" author forty years later, but without this contribution to American literature, there'd be no pair of hefty biographies on my shelf or any other that matter over a century after his birth.

Few today may read Dos Passos, at least in America, but as with Jack London, Upton Sinclair, or James T. Farrell, this one time literary lion of the Left inspired many in Europe and the Third World with his chronicles that mingled a Camera Eye of the passing scene, a mordant Newsreel span of current events from the Wilson-Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years, and meticulously observed, if often distant and mechanical, scurryings of individuals as they resisted the machinations of "competitive Capital," "Monopoly Capital," and the triumph of the Organization Man, with "the big money."

Ludington gains the edge over Carr for his diligent incorporation of Dos Passos' correspondence, which he corrected from its previous printing as the collected letters. Carr earns her merit by adding the letters to DP, from his agent Bernice Baumgartner, his first wife Katy, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, and others who hated and loved DP. Ludington tends to concentrate more on DP's own career; Carr expands to notice, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald complaining to Max Perkins about sales of "Tender is the Night" vs. "1919," or Edmund Wilson's sangfroid in his letters vs. his astonishing poverty at one point.

Neither biographer gives much notice to the actual works. Ludington's masterful comparison of the real event that DP reported on vs. its transformation as the "Body of an American" section in USA that covered the selection of one of four bodies for the WWI representative of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remains an anomaly. He tends to cite a few reviews of each work after a brief paragraph or two summarizing each DP book as it was issued. Carr adds more context and often quotes a far greater range of positive and negative reviews for each work, but she rarely offers her own judgment of the work at hand.

Ludington stresses, as his subtitle emphasizes, the "odyssey" intellectually and politically that DP made over the century. You understand his opposition to technocrats, centralized power, and elite planners who conspire to ruin liberty and crush self-government, according to DP's constant resentment. You also understand, against the frequent criticism of his fiction, why DP relies on cliché and cant. He strives to make you listen to the truckdriver, the lobbyist, the ad-man, the gladhander, or the idealist who walked among us once, especially in an era before TV managed to empower the spin doctors and when radio or film could spend their own charms trying to sway the masses. His characters, from "Manhattan Transfer" on, remain less lovable and more caricatured than those created by his peers, but DP meant to use them as true satirists do, as Thackeray did in "Vanity Fair," to highlight the shortcomings and exaggerate the ambitions that ordinary folks harbored.

Ludington sums up DP's "lover's quarrel with the world." (507) You appreciate how he could go from marching for miners in Harlan County or against the conviction of Sacco & Vanzetti to sharing a stage with John Wayne, if not Strom Thurmond! He stubbornly, as Ludington documents, sought the ideal of Jefferson's gentleman farmer-- especially after inheriting his father's plantations on the Potomac-- while somehow having to live hand-to-mouth for years, borrowing from his friends constantly, writing incessantly, and travelling studiously as a free-lance journalist in war and peacetime, home and abroad, always talking to whomever he met, thinking and listening just as carefully. Ludington, more than Carr, shows how far this habitual stance of self-reliance could take him, into dangerous support at one time of Joe McCarthy, such were his distrusts of American weakness against his former Communist cabal. Dos Passos kept warning his audience, however much it dwindled, of the dangers of power when concentrated into the hands of a few, no matter their rhetoric of inclusion.

Carr depicts DP as a coach on the sidelines, a fellow-traveller at times but not a party man by nature. The artist Adolph Dehn said of him, even at DP's most radical stage in 1928: "One sees better if one sits on the fence." (qtd. 235) The Left idolized him and then excommunicated him, but DP, as both biographers realize, lacked the credulity to follow any leader. This outsider aura began in his days as an illegitimate son of a wealthy capitalist and his long-time mistress, to his gawky status at Choate, and his aesthetic posing at Harvard-- this stint's richly detailed by Carr). He hated war, but wished to see it. This led to his ambulance-driving volunteer duty in the French trenches of 1917, which sparked his wish to both save the world for the little man and resist any program or power that would in doing this crush the freedom he learned increasingly to admire as the American contribution. This led, as Ludington explains with more evidence than Carr, to his distrust of both sides as they mouthed democracy in the Cold War, to his advocacy of Goldwater, and his impatience with hippies and the New Left on the campuses where he lectured before his death in 1970.

Determined to champion the common man even as he became the country squire his father longed to be, in his temperament he stayed his own man, infuriating more than he inspired as the decades went on. In the thick of ideological allegiance, as the Communist Party in the U.S. courted DP, he remained a refusenik. He sided with "the scavengers and campfollowers." (qtd. Carr 299) He agreed in 1932, as did most of his peers, that the American system was doomed to inevitable failure and collapse. But, while the capitalist failure loomed in the Depression as obvious, he could not discern any collapse. A plutocracy appeared to him more likely to spring from American soil than a Red dictatorship of the proletariat. Seventy-five years later, post-Cold War, it seems that Dos Passos' prediction has long come to pass!

Both academics draw on his widow's and daughter's permission to use the archives, and while Carr adds a few reminiscences from his family, Ludington uses his earlier editing of his letters to enrich his study. I assume both scholars worked in the same time, the 1970s, on their works, and although my back-to-back perusal of both uncovers the same content carefully sifted, each has its advantages. Carr gives more of the flavor of his times. She's superb on conveying Harvard during WWI, DP's courage as he rescued the wounded under fire, and the background of the Spanish conflict. You understand more his relationship with both his wives and his children, and the tensions that his commitment to living off others' generosity as he determined to make it as a writer created in his friendships and his family. Ludington probes into his mental evolution as he challenged leftist orthodoxy, and how he grew into a more consistent, organic, and daring critic of both D.C. and the Kremlin, the fat cats on both sides of the Iron Curtain, than the stereotype of an addled right-wing convert that many disappointed critics continued to peddle in the media for the three dozen productive years after he returned from Spain and challenged liberal platitudes with what he struggled to see as the sinister truth.

Both scholars inevitably repeat much of the same detail in this man's seven-and-a-half decades of a life spent as what Time magazine a bit clunkily but typically phrased it, in an echo of Dos Passos' own style, a "champion of the individual, an implacable foe of organized Bigness." But, after learning much from a two-time plunge into Dos Passos' life and his career, largely from primary sources well annotated by both professors, one can then return to not only Dos Passos' essays and fiction in print, but an intrepid reader may seek out the other works that languish in the rarely visited holdings of a few libraries today. Dos Passos, as you will agree after these two biographies have been finished, deserves for a full understanding of his defense of the individual against the political machine and the bureaucratic system, a careful study of his many writings, for which Carr and Ludington at least give if not in-depth criticism of their own, then at least a reminder of what awaits the few who delve off the path of conventional thinking from left or right, as he searched for himself.

(Above posted to both books as variously listed in editions on Amazon US.)

P.S. George Packer in the Oct. 31, 2006, New Yorker reviewed Stephen Koch’s “The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles.” The Spanish Prisoner. I was curious about this work and I figured it might shed new light into this shadowy episode of the murder by the Reds of DP's old friend. His disappearance had drawn DP into returning to Spain; Robles' cruel fate hastened "Dos"' break with the fellow travelers, like "Hem," of the Communists during his stay in Spain during the Civil War. It also led to the dissolution of the two writers' long friendship, worsened by the macho and callous way that Hemingway set up DP to be told the news of his friend's death. However, from Packer's summary, the opening of the Soviet archives and new revelations about the vast extent-- beyond what even Orwell or Dos might have suspected-- of the collusion between Stalinists and Republicans as they battled each other and the Fascists under Franco and abetted by Hitler and Mussolini does not appear to have led to shocking new insights. Kock, from this summary, appears to tell the tale again that TL and VSC have already covered in fewer pages. Yet, as Koch wrote an earlier study of how the Comintern manipulated 1930s Western intellectuals, certainly its vantage point after the Cold War and the revisionist efforts done to upend the old clarity that many leftists found in 1930s Spain should be one worth scanning.

Painting: Luis Quintanilla, friend of DP, depicted him in a series of portraits begun in 1943 of writers as they saw themselves. DP, "a Sunday painter," was also a talented artist, who at one time wished to pursue a career as one. Paul Quintanilla's "Waiting by the Shore" is a biography of his father, and he has a fine website with more information. (Both Carr and Ludington cover the basics of his relationship with DP.) John Dos Passos by Luis Quintanilla

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:" Review

"1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:" Book Review

Peter Boxall edits this massive, handsomely designed, anthology. With its appeal to the quick eye more than the patient mind, perhaps it's better suited for browsing and delighting the quick skimmer than the owlish critic. Boxall explains in his eloquent introduction the reason for the volume. He links this Rizzoli compendium to Scheherezade, who kept her death nightly at bay by telling a story for a thousand-and-one nights. There's an unlimited, endless hint in such a great symbolic number; there's also "the mortal urgency" of her impending doom and her need for invention. In this tension between "the expansive and the contracted," and "the roomy and the constricted," over a hundred scholars suggest their small tales, urging you to seek out in their own "micro-event," a work (usually fiction, mostly novels-- or at least an imaginative memoir or prose-poem) that in three-hundred words encapsulates the experience of reading the whole work. Multiply this a thousand-fold, add graphics that often comment in their captions on the book jacket design's relevance to the work, toss in publicity photos of the author or illustrations of their characters, and you have a large tome that belies its free-wheeling, casual, and inviting nature.

The problem with such books of lists is that they often tilt towards the recent, the works enjoyed a year or two ago, and most of these being ones printed in the past generation. The table of contents takes from eighteen pages to cover all of pre-1700. The 18th century earns forty-two pages; the nineteenth a hundred and fifty. The twentieth expands from pp. 230-883, and the 2000s already occupy pp. 884-949. The sheer numbers, of course, of books now available may account for this embarrassment of contemporary riches, but I suspect that the reality of what remains in print from past centuries, and what lies unknown beyond in archives or museums known only to a few scholars-- and the levels of literacy and quality of what survives into our era--do show a history lesson of its own about vanity, ephemera, and how lucky we moderns are to have so much to choose from in our libraries and bookstores.

In "Volumes to Go Before You Die," William Grimes (May 23, 2008, New York Times) noted that: "Quintessence, the British publishers, later decided that 'books' worked better than “novels” in the title." Primo Levi's "The Drowned and the Saved," David Jones' "In Parenthesis," George Saunders' "Pastoralia," Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Olaudah Equiano's "The Interesting Narrative," or Rousseau's "Reveries of a Solitary Walker" may not fit into our tidy notion of a fictional work as a novel, but they are the exceptions to the rule. There's an awful lot of space given to illustrations, this being published by an press devoted to art. I might have preferred more than 300 words for descriptions for many of the inclusions, but the appeal of the graphic layout might have suffered. Charles Kingsley's "The Water-Babies" gets a great depiction by J.W. Smith; I miss Thackeray's own cartoons for his "Vanity Fair," on the other hand. As the centuries slide towards cinema, adaptations of narratives for film and the stage provide vivid posters. Jean de Bosschere's 1923 rendering for Apuleius' "The Golden Ass" astonishes with its frank sexuality, while a French 1958 sign for "The Horror of Dracula" film distills its own tension between sex, love, and death crudely but effectively.

I mention such pairings as they enrich the contents of the text. These may get overlooked, but the images arrest your flicking finger, and slow you down to attend to the printed captions, which in turn lure you into the summations of the stories. (There's also a clever frontispiece, "Vanitas" by Hans Holbein the Younger, that sums up the theme of the collection wittily.) Marlon Brando's daubed face as Kurtz juxtaposes with Conrad's mien and the "Heart of Darkness" entry; a few pages later, "Der Blaue Engel" with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jennings entices you to look at the source, "Professor Unrat" by Heinrich Mann, and thus you may discover, as I did, a novel by Thomas Mann's brother I never knew of. Anthony Perkins from Orson Welles' film of Kafka's "The Trial" gains his own expressionistic contrast in a well-chosen still. Gary Cooper scrutinizes his copy of "A Farewell to Arms" during a break in its filming; Wyndham Lewis' angular self-portrait garishly sums up "The Apes of God" so well you may never want to read it.

The contents tend, until recent decades, to be largely British or Continental. This again reflects what's available in translation and kept in print, so charges of ethnocentric bias, I counter, are misplaced. This is the reality of the industry, and what one will find on the shelf and probably not in the local chain bookstore. Anyone who opens this will find delight and disappointment in what's made the final cut and what's left out. I leave that individual encounter up to you. As an aide-memoire, this will goad you into making good on at least a few dozen titles you always meant to get to but never did, or hundreds that you have vaguely heard of, and perhaps as many you had no clue, no idea, or no reason to know about before.

(Posted to Amazon US May 25, 2008.) Image: Hans Holbein the Younger, 1543: Vanitas

Friday, May 23, 2008

Aimsir Buile

Bhí aimsir buile is deanaí anseo. Ar an Taobh na Abhann, bhuail dhá camanfa ann. Ar Pairc na Baldwin, lhéim splancái thintrí ann. Ar Gleann na Trabuco, nigh puiteach síos ann. Os cionn Radharc na gClochacht, líon mír sneachta ann. Ar Gleann na Airgid, thit clochaí shneachtaí ann.

Tháinig cur baisteach inniu timpeall mo theach. Ach, ní chuir fearthainn nuair chuaigh mé ag fáil mo mac nios óg, Niall. Mar sin, thiomaint mé aghaidh a thabhairt ar sléibhte . Thuigim go raibh ag tosaithe barrchith.

D'fhág mé mo carr. Rith mé trasna na sráide leathan go dtí Leabharlann Chumar Tirim. D'iarraidh mé cóip "1001 Leabhair go caithfidh tú ag léamh sula fáil tú bás." Léigh mé faoi seo ina 'Na Amanna Nhua-Eabhrac' go moch ar maidin. Fuair mé í. Shúil mé amuigh aríst. Chonaic mé uisce níos mo anois.

Chuala mé raistí. Ní bhfuair mé 'fleá ina gCnoc Iolair. D'imigh mé díom carr agamsa. Ní críochnaíonn scoil Nhiall fós. Ni raibh áiteannaí a fanacht in aice leis ansim. D'oscail an doras charr. Thosaigh mé go raibh ag súil ansuid.

D'fhoglaim go raibh síon ann. D'éirigh stoirim bháisti ann. Insíonn mé agat an fírinne. Ghreadaigh báisti agam. Bhí lascadh báisti. Rinne sí bheith i do lib! Ní foghlaimíonn mé ní mbionn in Éirinn; níor thug cóta nó hata agamsa.

Crazy Weather

There's been crazy weather here lately. In Riverside, two tornadoes hit there. In Baldwin Park, lightning strikes leapt there. In Trabuco Canyon, mud washed down there. Above Mira Loma (View of Stoniness), a bit of snow filled there. In Silverado Canyon, hailstones fell there.

Rain came today around my house. But, there was no rain falling when I went to get my younger son, Niall. However, I drove towards the mountains. I understood that a light shower started.

I left my car. I ran across the wide street to the Arroyo Seco (Dry Gulch) Library. I wanted a copy of "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die." I read about this in "The New York Times" earlier in the morning. I got it. I walked out again. I saw more water now.

I heard "squally showers." In Eagle Rock, I did not find a 'light squall.' I went away from my own car. Niall's school had not finished yet. There were no places to wait near there. I opened the car door. I started walking over there.

I learned there was a 'gusty lashing'. There rose up a storm of rain. I tell you the truth. The rain pelted me. It was a driving rain. It made me dripping wet. I did not learn that I am not in Ireland; I did not bring a coat or a hat with me.

Painting/ Péintéireacht: Mountains & Rain, J.M.W. Turner, Tate Gallery

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Uses of Literacy: Lincoln Heights Library

Leo needed to find a cinematic adaptation of "Romeo & Juliet," which all ninth-graders appear to have assigned. He already has, but his transferring of credits means he has to backtrack a bit. Since he'd seen Jet Li's "Romeo Must Die" with us a few months ago on video, he chose this for his comparison and contrast with the play. I have to admit, for all the silly contrivances (the Oakland waterfront's near nightly demise through bullets, explosives, and death by immersion in a bucket of crustaceans seems to go unnoticed by the forces of law or those of the local ten o'clock news reporters, and at the end, without giving anything away, the avenger of one clan and daughter of its rivals stroll out of a mass murder crime scene past the long rows of the cop cars that finally show up, without notice again), I found Aaliyah's presence entertaining, as well as various semi-hapless Chinese, black, and white fun lovin' criminals. It's preposterous popcorn fodder, but hey, at least it's based on the stab-'em-up, poison-them-quick, marry-them-off entertainment that wowed the groundlings and delighted the nobles. Who will be the Bard from our century that keeps the attention from 2508's disorderly masses, plugged into who knows what swarm?

My current class in Contemporary Literature has been investigating similar pairings, and will do so for "Othello" in two weeks, so I approve of such multimedia assignments that fit our generation. Yet, inside the Lincoln Heights Library, the Carnegie grand sweep of its Venetian villa interior appeared, despite the sunny afternoon, empty. Sure, about fifteen people were there. Only one, however, rested near any bound volumes. A bum snoozed under the nearly pristine rows of adult paperbacks of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, and Barbara Taylor Bradford. All of six new books sat nearby, among them Obama's memoirs, part two. I imagine I will have to put up with a lot more of his visage, not to mention those annoying Shepherd Fairley "Obey"-type "Hope" posters that for me smack of Big Brother more than a paternalistic multicultural empty suit.

Two teen boys behind me checked out two South Park episodes on DVD. The elderly couple ahead were getting a card so they could get their ESL video while the clerk, in Spanish, previewed the features of the library. As I waited inside the handsome 1925 building, which rises on the site of the first branch from 1900 in north-east L.A., I thought about the collection where Leo fruitlessly browsed for his Jet Li. It did have, he admitted, some of Nas's lesser CDs, and a fine rap selection. That wing was given over to videos, recordings, a few computers, and reference works. The shelves appeared bigger than their scant holdings. The other wing held children's books. Despite the many tables, no kids roamed there. Two chattered together, each at a computer. The rest of the spring-lit chambers, soaring high above the well-kept lines of books, appeared cheerfully dignified, but as forlorn as your average art museum (at least in L.A.) on a Tuesday afternoon.

The other patrons huddled around other screens. Nobody walked in the downsized back stacks for grown-ups. They occupied a small alcove without any grand Renaissance sweep. I thought of impending budget cuts in our increasingly impoverished city. The space on the metal racks equalled its volumes in many places in the Dewey system. European history and Chicano/ Mexican-American titles appeared about the same in number. The fiction, where I looked for likely finds for Layne, offered little. Few classics: one "Jane Eyre," two Hemingways, three copies of different translations from Cervantes, and "Steppenwolf."

I wondered if, as at my employer's library, if any book not checked out for the past two years faced discarding, for very few books here appeared very old, and very few were from the canon of the past century. The usual mysteries, science fiction, and chick lit dominated. "How the South Beach Picas Got Their Men" was one offering from a woman with a triple Portuguese name; near it two well-worn copies of "Youth in Sexual Ecstasy" by Carlos Cuauhtémoc Sánchez managed to rest together, a "Sensational Best Seller" as the scripted legend on the bottom of the cover promised, translated from the Mexican edition. And, as in every local library, lots of "Bless Me, Última" and "Rain of Gold," two standards para cada biblioteca en nuestro barrio.

Recently, I'd read a June 2008 Harper's cover story, surprisingly too rambling, arch, and diffused, about the Episcopal battles over same-sex marriage, this about two days before by coincidence the ruling permitting such unions by our State's Supreme Court. In it, Richard Rodríguez was quoted as preferring to be identified as "queer," and it noted his partner had been with him twenty-five years. I had heard him speak at my college, therefore, right around the time he'd met his lover. "Hunger of Memory" had recently appeared, and his reputation soared. At the auditorium, determinedly, he deflected the audience away from his own life's account. Instead, he spoke of Puritan conversion narratives and how they influenced his own autobiography, which told much but held more back. At the time, I'd found much of my own experience mirrored in his.

Maybe fewer Irish nuns given the decline of the Church between my childhood and his, and my battles over complexion did not compare with his; he worked in the sun that I had to avoid. In the first burst of affirmative action, he entered far more prestigious institutions than I did, but as he eloquently narrated, his notion of always being "the scholarship boy" would not leave him. That gap's always been with me too, a chip on my shoulder, the kid who sees class when others only see race. I looked up his source for this concept of the outsider who welcomes his learning but feels always an intruder. I found the Pelican paperback of Richard Hoggart's "The Uses of Literacy." Hoggart mapped the road that he, Rodríguez, and I variously travelled. Today, I think of another Rodríguez going in to Lincoln Heights library.

What would Ricky find? If he, like the elder R., wished to delve into Shakespeare after a curriculum tilted farther away from the dead white males than that taught by the Irish nuns in Sacramento pre-Vatican II to Richard, would he find "Romeo" on the shelf, if not in the video section? If-- as with Richard decades before the judges in his hometown would move to sanction and uphold what the Catholic of his parent's (and many in our) generation would have condemned as sinful or even blasphemous-- a boy or girl from Daly Street curious about their own identity looked for answers in the library's assembled media, what might he or she find to inspire or soothe or rage? Who might dare to assert his or her own identity before a family going to Mass or increasingly likely, a storefront Pentecostal congregation? I think of my student last term who grew up in South Gate, catty, flamboyant, and enduring abuse daily until in Beyoncé Knowles' singing he found comfort and direction to pursue a career in fashion that kept him from succumbing to his despair or possibly teen suicide.

What if Ricky or Enriqueta, maybe sensitive about his or her own "sexual ecstasy," wanted not only Sánchez' robust populism but to track down some teacher's stray mention of Donne's erudite conceits? (A student of mine did just that last month!) Could our charge find beauty in Dante's "vita nuova" as well as one of three copies on the shelf of Villasenor's own chronicle? Would he find them at the local branch? If it's Donne or Dante, no-- although "Paradiso" for once, and not "Inferno" lingers as the only installment of the Commedia a mile and a half from my house.

Today's L.A. Times has a front-page feature on how Morehouse, the bastion of male black gentlemen, is only now acknowledging that gays dare to come out on its campus. Most students, lots of alumni, and many faculty bristle at such admissions. Rodríguez pioneered similar revelations, gingerly and gently, in his own memoirs. Yet, it took him many years to do so and no small courage. Today, I ponder: if he'd gone to his local library, or his neighborhood public school, what would he have been given to read beyond Rodolfo Anaya or Victor Villasenor? We hear a lot from "educators" about role models, and the importance of having your face, your reflection, mirrored back for "sí se puede," for Obama-era self-esteem. (This cliché's already in a You Tube Spanish song for his campaign, adding the titular verb "cambiar.") We also assume, inadvertently but in my opinion increasingly, that unless a student finds such relevance, such intimacy, that no connection can be easily linked. Same problem as the identity politics that balkanizes the presidential race's voters, at least as we're gerrymandered and targeted by marketers. In classrooms, too, we risk a form of "authorial fallacy."

The abandonment for most students of a traditional education steeped in catechism for some like Richard, and Shakespeare for many, has given way, depending on your level of tuition or admission, to a dutifully inclusive reading list. I glanced at Leo's textbook. Shakespeare's there, thankfully, but again, no pretense here: they prefer Jet Li and Nas, not to mention South Park. Sometimes, my wife does too. And, I did laugh at the "Raisins" episode they made me (!) watch the other day when Kyle learns how he can be a Goth. "If you wanna be one of the non-conformists, all you have to do is dress just like us and listen to the same music we do." I was the punk with the longest hair, who never looked like the type, which confounded everyone.

Now, on the local library's shelves, today's hordes of corporate non-conformists-- who, like the Latino goth student in my lit class, may show their rebellion by preferring print to games-- can find far more authors with Iberian surnames than the Cervantes that might have represented much of an earlier decade's Hispanic catalogue once upon a time a hundred years ago in north-east L.A. Literacy pushes each generation upward, so we're told. But, among the second-generation Latinos, graduation rates decline as the immigrant drive fades and South Park marathons thunder. My students find it harder to pay for college. They're burdened by the massive debt that politicians and bankers collude in saddling our youth with in the name of fiscal responsibility. Meanwhile, interest rates on Stafford loans and their Educard payments inflate to pay for war in Iraq.

This progress, therefore, may work but sporadically for a few of us malcontents in every demographic. Maybe the monopolists of the industrial boom were right; we humbler folks should work hard. Ivy League's out of our league. We can frequent libraries in our spare time. But these cultural innovations do not appear to have sparked a massive literacy campaign any more than they did under Carnegie for most families from humble and/or immigrant origins back then when these streets might have hosted Ukrainians, Italians, Jews, and even an Irishman or two. The bus may not be the best example of literate levels today, but if not there, where for our future, given the promises of the pols, the teachers, and the bosses who claim to care? It's uncommon to find the majority of my fellow riders with their nose buried deep in a book, unless you count as a substitute a tattered copy of The Watchtower, the color coupons from the paper, or Hoy!

I wonder if it's more an individual quirk rather than parental or familial example, these Richards who make it out of the barrio into Stanford and the British Library. I dated a girl in college who'd graduated from Locke H.S., down the freeway from East L.A., if you're lucky a half-hour away. Back then, her school's atmosphere meant that she had to learn more on her own, outside of the prison-like system. Today, Locke continues to decline into racial tension and administrative incompetence. Massive immigration changes its "demographic." Watts needs no introduction. It's received lots of federal and state funds, legions of reforms, committed Teach for America and now Green Dot recruits. But, the district fights losing its fiefdom. It drove out the principal the community had begged to keep. It fears privatization and charter restructuring. The union controls the school board. The mayor's plans have floundered without organized labor's support. Now, with sex scandals in the news, Locke again earns its unwanted reputation. Even the institution where I teach graduates from other such schools rarely gains applicants from Locke, only about ten miles away. Given my difficulties with inculcating composition to fresh arrivals from secondary classrooms, this may be a blessing in disguise. Locke now has 2% of its student body reading at grade level.

So, what's an increasingly impoverished city to do? Perhaps the LAPL should stock up on ESL, South Park, and rap. My workplace's librarian told me she's discouraged from any liberal arts acquisitions. Leave the erudition to a few dwindling eggheads. We Angelenos still merit interlibrary loan, which is why I visited that local branch today! But, does it matter how much we invest in municipal libraries if the future is that funny yet edgy depiction that graced the 4/9/07 New Yorker, with its bright stacks of DVDs and computer stalls filling up a similarly adorned interior, as the books were dumped for a dollar each, carted off even before an elderly lady could shuffle towards them, or a bum (of course) could paw through the discards? [See these blogs for a description of the illustration, which I accidentally recycled! No scan exists on the Net, ironically or not. 1) Library Journal: Artwork of Bruce McCall. 2) Booktruck: "Reading Room" Contents. ]

Since Plato, academicians bemoan the plebe's lack of class. My complaints, if they are such, are nothing new. But even an overworked, if underemployed, professor needs diversion. I enjoy varied, often less exalted lit. My own magpie tendencies keep me alert if scattered when it comes to integrating the last book I read or yesterday's papers into my classes, my blogging, my musing, and my mentality.

Today: ILL loan for Robert Ferrigno's paired thrillers, "Prayers for the Assassin" followed by "Sins" of the same. These unfold within a near-future Muslim regime that has conquered much of the U.S. (I relish dystopias poisoned with dogmatic fanaticism, an elusive combo.) Francesca Fremantle's commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Local finds: Martin Amis' "House of Mirrors," in which he offers another Nabokovian novel-- but actually based in the USSR. George Saunders' satirical take on our national ear for self-help nostrums, peddled by corporations, babbled by us, "In Persuasion Nation." (Our copy's in our garage post-remodeling, yes, but I can't find it.) For my dear wife: Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children," post-millennial Manhattan in what used to be called a novel of manners. Michael Chabon's post-failed-Israel Alaskan landsmen (speaking of Aliyah spelled correctly) whodunit, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union." You never know what turns up, but I've about exhausted any return visit's treasure trove. The bottom of the hoard's been scraped. Unless I'm in the mood for sinking deeper into disthymia by Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," whose ending a reviewer gave away, so I'm not sure it's worth my tsuris.

I too am an addled product of such alphabetical rambling in fiction's stacks, for decades, and while I might have benefited more from a Great Books regimen at St. John's, I in the spirit of robber baron Carnegie educated myself, haplessly but industriously. My frugality lately means many more trips to libraries and I do wonder why I've bought so many books I could have checked out-- and taken back. This hoarding, of the pages and their contents, may explain my vast knowledge of useless information, if not my inability to tell jokes. Future Rodrígueses may do so in witty and arabesque manner as Jet Li collides with Shakespeare in ways we teachers never anticipated. Even if my own sons to my own resignation appear to pop in hip-hip more than they do open up Plato. I admit my own predilections vary. As my previous blog entry notes, finally, I tended to cue up punk even as I battled with philosophy in college, which may account for my present manner of employment and hiring status!

Lincoln Heights Branch History
Tony Bailie on NI Punk

A couple of weeks ago, a journalist from Co. Down posted a comment on my entry here about The Fall. He noted, to my delight, that he'd found me googling for at least the fourth time: about the shamanistic philosopher the late John Moriarty, the very much alive Donegal fiddler Oisín McAuley, the restlessly searching novelist the late Francis Stuart, and finally, somehow muddled between warhorse Irish prog-folk-rockers Horslips and The Fall, the band led by Mark E. Smith all these decades. Tony had to end the endless happenstance and come out of his lurk mode. I'm glad he did.

We've been sending a few letters back and forth since. It's another serendipitous example of how the Net can link me to people with an amazing amount in common, who I'd have next to no chance of ever meeting in person. Especially given my distance from Ireland and many of my esoteric passions. The few of us who share so much find each other through blogs and search engines: surely a blessing of this technology.

Like Fergal O'Doherty, from Derry city (see his blog "Fairy Tales" at my links), Tony grew up in the punk era in the North. Thirty years on, he interviewed not only John (Seán) O'Neill of the Undertones, the most famous band from the period (and one of my favorites; even their swansong, the flawed but ambitious LP "The Sin of Pride" has grown on me more the past few years), but Terri Hooley, who founded the label that issued the band's first songs, Good Vibrations. He also reminds us that the history of the scene does not begin and end with the 'Tones and Stiff Little Fingers. I append his three articles. The last discusses the memorably named new group, Shame Academy, including members of two pioneering Northern outfits, the Outcasts' Greg Cowan and Rudi's Brian Young.

There's a book out from Reekus Records (who signed The Radio, which features a member of one of my all-time favorite neo-psychedelic outfits-- who sound what the Virgin Prunes might have evolved into if left a decade or two on-- Rollerskate Skinny) in Ireland, although I could not find it last time in Belfast, "Makes You Want to Spit." In lieu of that, a pithier survey for youse. With Tony's permission, I am putting up below his three pieces for the Irish News, as otherwise you'd need subscriber access. He's published a book of poetry, "Coill," and a novel about the music scene, "The Lost Chord." I'll investigate these in upcoming reviews. Tony also told me about John T. Davis' video history of the NI punk scene that can be viewed in its entirety on You Tube in 6 separately catalogued parts.

Blame me, three decades behind from the days of cassettes if not dying 8-tracks, indeed. Punk as nostalgia-- for an age that, contrary to Pete Shelley's 1978 lyric, has come and long gone. And to think that once we laughed at the hippies. Now, the neo-hippies look like 1972, impressively hirsute with vintage or imitation faux-bohemian couture at the age of twenty. Just wait, young folks: commodification's driving the freak-folks no less than the spiked hordes. At least they're not playing hip-hop like every one else in my household.

Shellshock Rock, part 1 (of 6)Derry hey!

Information at : Irish Punk & New Wave Discography

Articles by Tony Bailie from the Irish News:

Thirty years ago this month, Belfast punk label Good Vibrations put out its first single.

Tony Bailie speaks to the label’s founder, members of early punk bands and Undertones guitarist John O’Neill who wrote the iconic track Teenage Kicks.

THE words punk and explosion often sit side by side but the actual date when punk first exploded depends on who you are talking to.

In England it is generally accepted that the Sex Pistols were to the forefront of the movement but their early success and notoriety in 1976 was more of an angry fizzle driven by the use of naughty words on television.

It wasn’t really until the summer of ‘77 when they released the provocative single God Save the Queen, in which the British monarchy was described as a “fascist
regime” and whose cover had a picture of Queen Elizabeth with a safety pin through her nose, that they really exploded onto the scene.

There were punks in Northern Ireland from the start of the movement and dozens of bands were formed in 1976 and the following year, but for many it was 1978 when
punk really exploded in the north when the record label Good Vibrations was set up.

According to the label’s founder Terri Hooley, it came into existence almost by accident.

Hooley was running the Good Vibrations record shop in Great Victoria Street in Belfast city centre where many punks had begun to gather to listen to records
and occasionally even buy the latest releases from Britain.

“I went to see Rudi and the Outcasts in the Pound. I loved Rudi but hated the Outcasts – which was ironic because a year later I was managing the Outcasts and
releasing their records,” he said.

“I asked Rudi if they fancied putting out a record. We were initially going to make a flexi-disc which we could give away with fanzines but then it turned out that it would only cost 6p per record to release a proper single.”

The release by Rudi was followed up by a host of other bands including Victim, The Outcasts and Protex.

“I wanted to try to put Northern Ireland back on the musical map. At that time the only thing that Northern Ireland was known for was the Troubles,” he said.

“The whole label was run on a shoestring but within months we were getting demos from all over the world.”

One of those tapes came winging its way from Derry from a band called The Undertones and it would ultimately give Good Vibrations its best known release.

“I got the demo through a friend and listened to it for about two weeks. I kept playing it to other people and bands but no-one else seemed to get it,” Hooley

“I had to make a decision between signing up the Undertones and another band, because I didn’t have enough money to put out records by them both.

“Then someone told me that the Undertones were about to break up so I decided to bring them on to the label– I’ve always felt sorry for the other band.”

The Teenage Kicks EP was recorded in Wizard Studios in Belfast, behind the Duke of York bar.

It was recorded in a day. There were four tracks – Teenage Kicks, True Confessions, Smarter Than You and Emergency Cases.

Hooley said despite the subsequent international success of the title song it did not immediately set the record industry alight.

“I took it over to England and persuaded one of the hippest independent record labels of the time to distribute 500 copies, even though someone on the label told me it was the worst record he had ever heard,” he said.

“I also took it to other major labels but they just threw me out. Then John Peel got a hold of the record and the rest is history.

“A senior executive for Sire Records heard Peel play it and immediately wanted to sign up the Undertones and release Teenage Kicks in the States.

“The next day other record labels were on to me asking if I had any more bands that they could sign up.”

Hooley is still running a record shop, Phoenix Records, in Haymarket Arcade off Royal Avenue and there are plans to make a film based on his life story, with an impressive production team.

“Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody and David Holmes (record producer and DJ) are executive producers and the script is being written by (novelist) Glen[n] Patterson and (poet) Colin Carberry,” he said.

“I was a bit worried at first because people might actually finally find out if I’m a taig or a prod but they have told me that they won’t mention that.”

A concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Good Vibrations record label will be held in the Mandela Hall on Friday April 25.

Headliners will be The Undertones and supporting will be ‘punk supergroup’ Shame Academy, which includes former members of The Outcasts and Rudi.

Tickets cost £20 and are available from and

By Tony Bailie
TEENAGE KICKS has endured for 30 years as one of the best known songs to come out of Ireland but it took less than an hour to write.

Undertones guitarist John O’Neill was 18 at the time and while he acknowledges its place in popular culture, he doesn’t actually think it is the best song he has written.

The Undertones were formed in Derry in 1976 by O’Neill, his brother Damien, drummer Billy Doherty, bass player Mickey Bradley and singer Feargal Sharkey.

“I was strumming on my guitar and was trying to write a song in the style of the Ramones who were our big influence at the time,” John O’Neill said.

“The whole chord structure is in the style of a 1950s rock song by Eddie Cochrane or the Shangri Las. Once we had the chords in place it all came together fairly quickly.

“When we first played the song it probably took about 10 minutes to find the right key to suit Feargal’s voice.

“The Undertones had actually been on the verge of breaking up when they were signed to the Good Vibrations label by Terri Hooley.

“We sent demos to different independent record labels and they were either rejected or else we got no reply. Then a friend of ours who knew Terri Hooley offered to take him a copy of the demo.

“We owe everything to Terri Hooley.”

Teenage Kicks was the fourth single to be released by Good Vibrations and The Undertones and Hooley set about trying to get it some radio play, with little

It was drummer Billy Doherty who set in motion a series of events that would change the lives of The Undertones and ensure that the song would forever also be associated with one of Britain’s best-known and most influential radio DJs.

“Billy sent John Peel a copy of Teenage Kicks and rang him up to say we had released a single and asked him to play it,” O’Neill said.

“I don’t know what he thought of these weird Irish people who kept ringing him but he played it on his show and, famously, immediately played it again.”

Peel always maintained that Teenage Kicks was his favourite songs and when his death was announced on BBC Radio One in 2004, it was the first song played immediately afterwards.

O’Neill and other members of the Undertones attended Peel’s funeral.

“It was very sad and strange because there were so many famous people there. Robert Plant (singer with Led Zeppelin) was sitting behind us and Jack White (from the White Stripes) was in front,” he said.

“There was some great music played during the service but then when they were carrying the coffin from the church they played Teenage Kicks.

“It really gave me goosebumps.”

Following the success of the song, The Undertones went on to record four albums and a handful of successful singles.

In 1983 the band split. Singer Feargal Sharkey went on to have a successful solo career and the O’Neill brothers formed That Petrol Emotion.

However, in 1999 The Undertones reformed featuring four of the original members and with fellow Derryman Paul McLoone taking over as vocalist. The band has continued to tour and released two new albums.

O’Neill said he had written dozens of songs since Teenage Kicks but doesn’t resent being remembered for something he did when he was 18.

“I think the songs that I wrote for That Petrol Emotion were better than the ones I wrote for the Undertones,” he said.

“I don’t think Teenage Kicks is one of the greatest songs ever written but it does have a great atmosphere and somehow everything clicked together. I think that
is what appealed to John Peel.”

Punk outcasts finally hit the big time

By Tony Bailie
FAR too often the vibrant Northern Ireland punk scene of the late 1970s is summed up by name-checking just two bands, the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers.

However, there were hundreds of other groups playing at the time some lasting barely a few days but others who gigged regularly and put out records.

Two bands who were also tipped for major success were Rudi and The Outcasts. Both released singles on the Good Vibrations label.

Shame Academy, who will be playing at the record label’s 30th anniversary concert at the end of this month, features members from both bands and their set combines their best known songs.

Brian Young was guitarist with Rudi and Greg Cowan was bass-player and vocalist with The Outcasts. Another punk veteran Petesy Burns, who played with Stalag 17, is on drums.

Young was 18 when he and a group of friends formed Rudi, the first band to release a single, Big Time, with Good Vibrations in April 1978.

“The music being made by bands here was much more original than bands in England,” he said.

“There were no bands coming here to play so we couldn’t go and see them and when it came to writing a song we just made up our own rules.”

While Young agrees that the music was an important aspect of punk, he said the attitude and self confidence it generated for thousands of young people during the worst decade of the Troubles has often been overlooked.

“I don’t want to be too naive about hands across the barricades sort of stuff but there were people coming together and sharing something in common. Maybe if it
hadn’t been for punk they would’ve got involved in some organisation or other,” he said.

Young now plays with rockabilly band the Sabrejets, with Shame Academy being dusted down for the occasional gig.

Greg Cowan from The Outcasts hadn’t played for more than 20 years until he agreed to join Young and Burns in Shame Academy.

He was bemused that his musical comeback should be with associated with a band he once derided.

“If you had told me that 30 years ago that I would be playing in the same band as a member of Rudi, playing their songs and that I would still be playing Outcast songs, I would have laughed at you,” he said.

Cowan formed the The Outcasts with his brothers Martin and Colin and guitarist Getty after they heard the Sex Pistols in 1976.

“It was more a case of ‘Right, we’re going to be in a band’. We couldn’t actually play any instruments,” he said.

“People still ask me how we got that strange slightly out of tune effect on our guitars for our first album. They think it is a sort of punk thing when really we couldn’t properly tune our guitars.”

Cowan agrees with Young that punk helped a lot of people define who they were.

“Nobody could have imagined that decades later we would be sitting trying to analyse the music and its effects on society,” he said.