Wednesday, May 23, 2018


I wrote this two days ago with the intention of keeping it in a drawer until the event of Philip Roth’s death. I wish I could’ve sat on it longer.

   It is May 21, 2018, and Philip Roth is still alive. I’ve just a watched a two-hour documentary on him. Produced by the BBC in 2014, it is to date Roth’s last interview. Four years hence that status is unlikely to change. He is now 85 years old. Having watched the man’s final public reconciliation with his work, I find myself, like many of the protagonists of his later novels, contemplating the impending mortality of a man who once engaged all facets of life, its most self-destructive zealotry, the revelries of the id, and the moribund wallows in between, through the caustic, insightful, crushing, and jubilant forge that was his typewriter. I’m unable to ignore the rapidly approaching inevitable, and I find myself inexplicably moved to commit to words my feelings about America’s bravest writer. 
   Maybe it’s not so inexplicable. I’m probably moved to write about my appreciation for Philip Roth for the same reason I was compelled to write about a Roman emperor with self-esteem issues. The thoughts and feelings that plague are incidental. The force that galvanizes me, that keeps my fingers repeatedly punching the keys in front of me, is as irresistibly elemental as gravity. It’s an incomprehensible drive as intoxicating, liberating, and empowering as it is frustrating, confounding, and mercurial. A good day’s writing will take you higher than the Amazon’s most potent psychotropic fungus with Sly Stone grooving through your head. A bad day will send you into an apoplexy of self-excoriation that would make a Catholic flagellant wince. You sit alone in a room, creating human beings and the worlds they inhabit, indulging the most deeply shrouded recesses of your imagination. It’s a task you can only accomplish through agonizing introspection, facing the fibers of your being that terrify and disgust you and refusing to shrink or flee. You are god staring into the abyss, and when the abyss stares into you, you record what it sees. Philip Roth has known this irresistible force with an intimacy to which I can only aspire.
   The name Philip Roth first crossed my path when I was in my late twenties. At the time I worked for a production company in Bala Cynwyd, in a small office building on City Avenue. Creativity was paramount to the owner, and he’d taken pains that the office space reflect that, so much so that in the lounge area he had erected two bookcases, each blanketing an entire wall, and filled it with a large portion from his own collection. He encouraged me to avail myself of the office library, and I did not hesitate. It was from that collection that I first read Kurt Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The owner even gave me to keep his copy of Flannery O’Connor’s complete stories.
    There, on the shelves, I found Portnoy’s Complaint. Beyond the summary on the jacket I knew nothing about it. I will never forget sitting on the steps outside that office building, with my cigarettes and iced tea, and ploughing through this ribald mating call to the self, this uproarious sucker-punch of a tug of war between guilt and pleasure. I loved that I had found a writer who was as creative and florid a wordsmith as he was genuinely funny. Portnoy’s Complaint is the funniest book I have ever read. “Funnier than Catch-22, Tony?” Much funnier. Even the one-liners rank with any comedian’s best: “I put the id in Yid, she put the oy in goy.” I wonder what Roth would think of the image of me, sitting outside this office building, laughing out loud while mere feet away three aspiring masters of the universe clad in expensive suits and no senses of humor stared at me past upturned noses, the notion of literature being funny as alien to them as selflessness and empathy.
   There was no turning back for me. I was going to read every word Philip Roth had ever published and do my damnedest to get my hands on the ones he hadn’t, and the more I read, the thicker the spell he had cast around me grew. His prose was a once-in-a-lifetime excavation. It was intelligent but never jumped about and waved its arms, drawing attention to itself. It was calculated and carefully realized but supple and inviting. This was literature that had been raised from the cold, unfeeling mausoleum where serious writers write oh-so seriously and elicit no human emotion so much as boredom. This literature was alive, Frankenstein’s monster post-lightning, Miles Davis plugging in and turning up the volume:

   The Devil of the Little Place—the gossip, the jealousy, the acrimony, the boredom, the lies. No, the provincial poisons do not help. People are bored here, they are envious, their life is as it is and as it will be, and so, without seriously questioning the story, they repeat it—on the phone, in the street, in the cafeteria, in the classroom. They repeat it at home to their husbands and wives. It isn’t just that because of the accident there isn’t time to prove it’s a ridiculous lie—if it weren’t for the accident she wouldn’t have been able to tell the lie in the first place. But his death is her good fortune. His death is her salvation. Death intervenes to simplify everything. Every doubt, every misgiving, every uncertainty is swept aside by the greatest belittler of the them all, which is death.
--The Human Stain, 1998

    And the more I read of Philip Roth, the more I came to recognize him to be America’s bravest writer. Yes, he was politically brave. He pilloried Nixon at the height of his untouchability with Our Gang. With The Human Stain he savaged America’s judgmental hypocrisy over Bill Clinton (and maybe took a swipe at all the self-serving, finger-wagging charges of misogyny directed at him over the years). And Roth received the best reviews of his life for his politically charged novels of the Nineties and early Aughts. But it’s easy to congratulate someone for taking a stand against outside aggression and obvious injustice, and if that was all Roth had done, he would be as shallow as the writers and critics who sang he praises for being as shallow and cowardly as they. But Roth did, and has always done more, been braver, than that. After holding up a mirror to the world at large, he turns the mirror on himself, walking Henrik Ibsen’s poetical talk: “To live is to battle with trolls / in the vaults of heart and mind. / To write: that is to sit / in judgment over one’s self.”
    Nathan Zuckerman is the most obvious mirror Roth holds before himself. In The Counterlife Zuckerman does what we have all done: imagines what might have been. He imagines a reality in which his brother, the Zuckerman who did not reject the life of the good Jewish son, tried to do so in a fit of middle-aged pique? Where does that lead him? Where does that leave Nathan? What are his options, which choices does he make, and how does the alternate history, the counterlife, compare to the reality? He does not like what he sees. Nathan Zuckerman (or is it Philip Roth?) has failed to understand and empathize, to accept and condone, to not pressgang those he loves into the roles he needs them to play in his story. He only manages to put himself into their shoes by fictionally killing himself. Only then is he able to feel their hurt and anger at him. The novel is as much a Molotov cocktail of self-examination as it is pelvic thrust of narrative whimsy.
   Then there’s Mickey Sabbath, the gloriously, obscenely lecherous anti-hero of Sabbath’s Theater, a man religiously committed to antagonizing the world via hedonism and intransigent in his refusal to examine his urges. Picture the following scene: you, with no money, no income, and a reputation you have willfully flushed down the toilet, have just been kicked out of your house by your wife, who has finally had enough of your bullshit. You bump into a dear, old friend, and though you have failed to reach out to him for decades, he nevertheless invites you into his home. Within forty-eight hours you masturbating into his college-aged daughter’s underwear and trying to talk his wife into sleeping with you:

   Of the second night that Sabbath spent in Debby’s room, suffice it to say—before moving on to the crisis of the morning—that his thoughts were of both mother and daughter, singly and together. He was under the spell of the tempter who task it is to pump the hormone preposterone into the male bloodstream.
   In the morning, after a leisurely bath in Debby’s tub, he took a wonderful crap in her toilet… He bequeathed unto the bathroom a big, trenchant barnyard bouquet that filled him with enthusiasm. The robust road again! I have a mistress! He felt as overcome and nonsensical as Emma Bovary out riding with Rodolphe. In the masterpieces they’re always killing themselves when they commit an adultery. He wanted to kill himself when he couldn’t.
--Sabbath’s Theater, 1995

   I would be surprised if Philip Roth actually leads, or even at one time led, a life comparably libertine to Mickey Sabbath’s. But what a fitting allegory for the writer’s life, that most selfish of vocations, a calling that demands the ceaseless dramatization of your hopes and desires and doubts and neuroses coupled with the expectation that total strangers not only enjoy being made privy to them but pay you for the privilege. I have no doubt that Philip Roth harbors enough guilt to fuel the fear that, like Mickey Sabbath, he will die alone, unloved, and in constant pain.
   It’s dangerous for the audience to conflate the art with the artist. One is immortal and perfect, filling some ethereal void too deep within us to identify. The other is mortal, all too human, and just as profoundly fallible as the rest of us. Remember: Chinatown was directed by Roman Polanski. Loving the art will never disappoint you, but artists are people, and people always disappoint. But over a career that has spanned six decades Philip Roth has disappointed less than one would expect to hold up under scrutiny. And yet he does, because of his unwavering commitment to the perpetuation of frighteningly honest literature that speaks from one to all. We will always have Philip Roth’s work, but we will not have the man for much longer. Let’s try and appreciate this extremely valuable and brave man while we still have him. 

“The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist.”

--Philip Roth

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


I used to look forward to weddings. I grew up with the false idol of the lonesome bridesmaid at her friend’s big day, wondering where she had gone wrong, where her big day was, emptying one libation after another. What better way to enjoy a wedding, I thought, than with someone just as crestfallen as you. Worst-case scenario: we drown our sorrows in a pool of intermingled sweat. Best-case: we grow old regaling our children with Mom & Dad’s meet-cute.
But as the nuptials came and went—my sister’s, my cousins’, my friends’—I found that I was the only one propping using the open bar to prop up a smile. After entering the reception on the arm of a groomsman, each bridesmaid broke rank and made straight for her boyfriend. And the few who were single chose to remain single. Even a night of respite from the tatters of her ambitions couldn’t prod a single woman at a wedding onto the dance floor with me. As the matrimonial parade progressed, weddings became less an opportunity and more an agony of attrition. But the Parasite always came with me.
I was dreading my younger cousin’s wedding in Baltimore. I would have gladly forgone the comely cavalcade of alumni from the Marquis of Queensbury School of Rejection. Unfortunately I’ve been cursed not only with the Parasite, but also an unshakable sense of familial obligation and a healthy dose of Catholic guilt.
The day before the wedding was the rehearsal and obligatory dinner. I greeted my cousin and the bride-to-be before the altar, and the bride introduced me to her bridal party right next to the tabernacle. The majority of the distaff reliquary was already taken, but sure enough the maid of honor was single and singularly talented to wake the Parasite. She was tall and lithe and, somehow, miraculously curvaceous. Her face was bright and bubbly with large, dark eyes that seemed fluent in the private language of your soul. The girl’s smile was a nourishing spring rain, free of patronizing falsehood. Her voice was lyrical and opened like a budding rose. I was ensorcelled, and the slow reedy crunch of vampirism filled my ears.
We chatted more at dinner. She worked in child services, a big-hearted giver who felt every blow from an abusive parent, who bruised and swelled from a harsh word. I plied her with questions, peppering her with interest, nudging her to talk ever more intimately about herself. Anything to prevent her from—
“So, what do you do?”
—from that. I’d arrived at this crossroads many times. It was where the water of opportunity fled into the serrated cracks of a dry barren waste, where the Parasite couldn’t survive. 
“Well,” I hemmed, “I’m in sales, but I’m really a musician.” I tried to reset the trajectory of conversation, redirect her to my actual interests rather than responsibilities. But passion is secondary to income, or whatever it’s supposed to emblematize, and the maid of honor would not be deterred. I had no choice but to elaborate, to spell out what was at the time my unprepossessing and uninspiring employment.
I could see the strain she was exerting in keeping the smile on her face. I could hear the tinkle of enthusiasm she belched from her well of civility. I could feel her exertion to maintain the social contract even as she began to fidget, as her feet started to lead her away from me. I made it easy for both of us, and excused myself. She could barely meet my eyes the following day through the entire wedding.
The one advantage a depressive has at a wedding is that everyone else is too busy enjoying themselves to notice your torpor. While they danced and drank, posed for pictures, testified into the video camera, laughed and celebrated, I kept company with a bottomless glass of whiskey. Not that it did much good—I was too downtrodden to drink for fun, and the few whiskeys I imbibed had little effect on me. The reception wound down, and once the house lights were up, the younger celebrants repaired to the fourteenth floor for the after party.
I went to my room on the thirteenth, the lurch of revelry thundering through the ceiling, and changed into jeans and a t-shirt. I left my phone, my wallet, even the room’s key card on the little desk in the corner. At two in the morning I walked through the hotel lobby, out the front door, and headed northwest.
As the Inner Harbor receded behind me, I made for Grove Park. I watched the city decay around me. Tenements wept from neglect and abuse. The streets bled garbage and cast-off vials. A stray dog, shrunken and near-feral, crossed me with a growl. I was strutting through a thunderdome of betrayed dreams and tactile nightmares. Good, I thought. I turned a corner and saw a group of younger black men walking on the sidewalk, heading my way. They were talking amongst themselves and likely hadn’t even seen me yet. I kept walking toward them, my chin up, my eyes glinting with defiant privilege. My every step dared them to remember five hundred years of injustice. I wanted those black men to see me as I approached and see the face of every white man who’d called them, “nigger.” I wanted them to see an arrogant pale incongruity invading their sanctuary. I wanted them to teach me a lesson. I wanted to provoke them into attacking me.
I didn’t have a death wish. I wanted an excuse to kill someone.
As we passed one another, one of them nodded my way. “How you doing?”
I nodded back, walked on, and returned to the hotel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


You won’t find the Parasite’s mark anywhere on me. It’s been holed up deep beneath my skin for as long as I can remember. It’s nothing anyone can cure. There’s no purgative I can ingest, no treatment I can undergo that will kill it. It’s as much a part of me as any other organ. It’s my capillaries, the cartilage between my vertebrae. It’s every neuron in my brain translating stimuli into one serrated thought after another. I can only stave off its effect through constant intellectual activity. I have to keep my mind racing on its wheel.
My alarm wakes me in the morning, and I only allow myself the time it takes to wipe the sleep from my eyes to indulge in kneejerk self-pity. Once I slap the alarm silent, I only leave room in my head for the task at hand. I focus on the minutiae of routine like it’s a mantra. I dress myself to a strict cadence, never wavering in rhythm, never donning an article out of turn. As the coffee brews, I use a spoon to fold my granola into my yogurt. The coffee is ready by the time I’ve finished eating. I fix a quick travel-mug and head out the door.
I used to have my morning coffee at home. I woke up early enough to sit for fifteen minutes in a comfortable chair and enjoy the roast. But the Parasite always turned my head to the kitchen table. Just large enough for two, it was nestled in the breakfast nook where the morning sun streamed through the window, carrying into my apartment visions of two lovers and the thousands of words left unspoken by shared looks that said them all. The sunlight would catch the steam from two companion cups. A duet of bathrobes and slippers would echo over the sun reflected off the tabletop. The woman’s fingertips would massage the coffee cup in her hand. She would lean across the table to kiss me, and I would lean forward and meet her halfway. It gave me headaches.
My eyes are flitting in and around the car as I drive to work. Hands at ten and two. Blinker on. Ease off the gas. Keep the distance from the car in front of you. That jogger doesn’t see me. That asshole on the tandem bike thinks he owns the road. If I turn down Church, I’ll hit that construction gridlock. I’ll take Old Cuthbert; I’ll have to contend with school buses, but I’ll keep moving. Keep the Parasite quiet.
I used to save a thousand dollars a year taking the train into work, avoiding the expense of gas, tolls, and the parking garage. I would wait at my station and not speak to my fellow commuters. I would board the train, take a seat alone, and use a book or device to help me ignore the ranks of chattering banality. I was always the first one out of my seat, lined up at the door, as the train pulled into my stop, except one morning, for no discernible reason and unbidden by any logic, I stayed seated until the train stopped.
I had never seen her before, didn’t know whether she’d boarded before or after I had. She stood right next to me on legs that could never have been forged by miles run or hours logged in the gym, but only by the elitist grace of a jackbooted deity. Her hair, long and smoothed free of renegade strands, cascaded past her shoulders. A luminous auburn, it shimmered with the threat of scorching anyone who tried to approach. She stood with arms crossed and shoulders hunched against an impending assault. Her clothes fit her like molded bronze armor, impenetrable, proud, patronized by divine favor. Her patrician nose stood at the center of a face of thorned impatience and imperturbable confidence. The next day I drove to work.
Once I’m in the office, I’m safe.  I take my time, exacting and thorough, with every duty, regardless of its importance. I script out every phone call in my head before I’ve touched the receiver. I stack my paperwork and cut my way through it with Asbergian exactitude. I take my seat at the conference table and fill the pages of my notepad with runic scribbles that only I can understand. But they contain every speck of information uttered in that meeting. Not just what the contract will entail for each department and its head, as well as me, but what each team member is thinking. The twitch at the vice-president’s mouth when he informs us of our timetable conveys his lack of confidence, and I write it down. I note our director of operations’ expected impatience by her clipped, brusque tone.
I work through my lunch break and finish my day. Back at my apartment I make my dinner. Always from scratch. The culinary arts require time, patience, and full attention. The serenity of activity continues for an hour or more. As I eat I scour the internet for more recipes, new and different challenging distractions. Inspired or not, I plan what my dinner will be the following night. I finish eating and wash the dishes by hand. I can’t remember the last time I used the dishwasher. I go to the supermarket. Large brick-and-mortar stores with heavy traffic are good for me. As I wind my way up and down the aisles, I navigate the choppy sea of thoughtless shoppers. I use their ignorance to my advantage and gauge each one as an obstacle to be methodically overcome. Once I’m back home and have put away the groceries, I take out Rickenbacker and my amp. Playing is my favorite part of the day. I’m completely absorbed. Nothing exists but the instrument and my hands. I start off with my simple warm-ups: running scales, fingering exercises, striking the current note with my right index finger as I conjure an image of my left middle finger coming down on the next note’s string just above the fret. I run through some songs: “Kulu/Speak Like a Child” by Jaco, “Sound Chaser” by Yes, whatever I’m in the mood to play provided it’s long and complex. Then I continue teaching myself whatever outsized ambition I’m chipping away at. The current compulsion is Bach’s “Air on G String.” But the day always comes to an end.
I’ve tried everything: sleeping pills—over-the-counter and prescription—booze, weed, Benadryl. I’ve tried going to sleep with music playing, with the TV on, with looped white noise and the harmonies of ecosystems. But I’ve yet to find anything that will just knock me out. I always have to contend with the chasm that spans the dousing of the lights and the arrival of slumber. I have to lie there with nothing but my mind and the Parasite.
It’s the Parasite that drives my idle thoughts like undead dogs in a zombie Iditarod. I know it’s coming before I hear it, and I have to lie there like a scared child hiding in vain from a monster that he knows will find him. First, there’s only the vague ambience amidst the dark. Then I hear it. The bright chitter of steel pincers tearing into flesh. Saliva roiling like a witch’s cauldron. A rapacious tongue sliming over mandibles. As the sound draws near, the Parasite gives flute to apocalyptic promises, not of fire and destruction and blood and ash, but of a soft, feminine hand pressed against mine. Of laughter tickled free by mutual attraction. Of eyes with a gravity that pulls me in and carries me beyond the boundaries of reason. The Parasite’s voice, so familiar and comforting, fills my surrounding darkness with impossible visions. Of a city without squalor, umbrellaed by night’s sky throbbing with stars, a full moon its beating heart, a cobblestone street hosting a man and woman, their fingers intertwined without a care save one another. Of endless fields drunk on the thick green of their tall, silken grasses, man and woman embracing each other in a perfumed rainbow of surrounding hyacinth. Of a home ensconced in an untouchable pocket universe, insulated in mahogany and teak, warmed by a fire. A home for two people as they become one. As my eyes start to fill, the Parasite invokes a name, one of many I’ve known. I shut my eyes. Cold fluid streams down my face, onto the pillow. Beneath my eyelids the name assumes the form. It straddles me, runs its hands through the hair on my chest. I feel its lips, soft and moist, brush my cheek as they approach my ear. The form whispers to me, tells me everything I need to hear, everything the Parasite knows I want. The form ululates to its phantom sentiments. The Parasite tells me to move my hand. I do, and my focus is fully on the most welcome of lies. It clings to me, loves me, and I allow myself to indulge the lie. I indulge through the grief, through the pain beneath the linen. The Parasite finishes feeding and leaves. And I lay in the darkness and cry until sleep takes me.

Friday, January 6, 2017


     Before we get started, just so you know... there is more fiction coming. Yes, I know it's been a while, but THE TRIAL OF MARCUS AURELIUS is coming out in a few months--follow me on Twitter for that announcement--so I'm back into fiction-writing mode. 
     Now, here's the ten best books I read in 2016.

It bears very little resemblance to Blade Runner, and that’s a good thing, because—blasphemy alert—I’ve always found the movie to be beautiful but boring. Philip K. Dick’s novel, however, is grimy and wondrous. The book is not just a rumination on what constitutes life, but on the intrinsic value of one life over another. It’s not enough that we think and feel, but what we think about and who we feel for. In a dystopia where people drug themselves into emotion, any emotion, and where androids are identified via a test for empathy they should not have, the simulacra of life have developed not just consciousness but a fraternity of otherness. Each android cares as much about the others as it/he/she does about it/him/herself. Roy Batty is not a snarling Rutger Hauer. He is a charismatic and committed leader exhausted by a series of difficult choices. After a book populated by humans less alive than their machines, the happy ending is a hard-learned but well-earned lesson that teaches Deckard to recognize and value life in its strangest form and most unorthodox splendor.

9) THE SPORTSWRITER (Richard Ford, 1986)
“An eloquent and stately character study, brimming with the tensions of everyday drama,” is an example of the kind of blurb that could grace the cover of the novel, but it probably wouldn’t galvanize you to take the book home. But Richard Ford’s story of a man slowly pulling himself out of a grave of despair following the death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage is why literary fiction remains the most lauded of genres. Ford’s prose, lacking showmanship and disinterested in impression, is the eye of the emotional hurricane that is wreaking havoc on his protagonist, Frank Bascombe. In the shadows of his craftsmanship, the trenches between lines, and the nooks and crannies between words, is a cosmos of subtext, the primordial soup that gives richness and immediacy to a simple, human story. Richard Ford’s characters are indelibly real, and his story is foundationally profound. This book is marvelous.

8) THE STORY OF THE JEWS (Simon Schama, 2013)
The title is a little misleading and slightly dishonest (most dogmatically absolutist titles are—don’t trust a book named “How So-and-So Saved Civilization” or “Such-and-Such Made the Modern World”). But Schama does chronicle an aspect of Jewish history that is often neglected by Jews and gentiles alike. Beginning with an exhaustive and mesmerizing examination of the oldest extant ruins of identifiably Jewish origin, Schama presents a compelling and comprehensive case that the central conflict of Judaism and Jewishness has always been the internal struggle between a belief that says, “We are Chosen, and to remain Chosen we must remain separate from the non-Jewish world,” and the contrary belief of, “We can engage with society-at-large, allow a cross-pollination of cultures, and still be Jewish.” From the fog of near-lost Antiquity to the waning days of the Middle Ages, Schama tells the story in a passionate voice filled with ebullient wisdom that will leave history buffs ensorcelled and smitten.

7) THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER (Octavia Butler, 1993)
I’ve finally acquainted myself with the work of Octavia Butler, and she has proven her bonafides as a singular artist of uncommon power. As a creator of science fiction, she has crafted a believable apocalypse-in-progress that, two decades later, appears chillingly prophetic in its accuracy and all-encompassing probity. As an African-American woman, she has plumbed the vicissitudes she’s endured to conjure a reality that is tragically too familiar. As a writer her ability to turn a phrase, erect a narrative arc, and bring to life characters we come to know as well as we would anyone beyond the pages is a feat to behold. THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER is a novel unlike any other I’ve read, but I’m hoping to find its equal in the rest of Octavia Butler’s bibliography.

6) RED SORGHUM (Mo Yan, 1986)
Thank god I discovered Mo Yan this past year. Read my original Not-a-Review here.

5) BLOOD ON THE FORGE (William Attaway, 1941)
A child of the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, William Attaway’s titanic BLOOD ON THE FORGE is an intellectual primal scream. The Moss brothers escape the Jim Crow South for the more lucrative and tolerant future promised by the North, only to find the unfamiliarity of the steel mills, the depersonalized mechanization, is more dehumanizing than the familiar marginalization of the southern farms. Attaway contrasts the blistering red and orange heat of the cauldrons with the warm, wet, fertile earth the brothers are accustomed to and take pleasure in. The fires burn down the brothers—angry, god-fearing Big Mat; sensible, responsible Chinatown; and foolish, fun-loving Melody—in a tragic conflagration that leaves each of them in the last place he wanted to be. Like NATIVE SON, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, and INVISIBLE MAN, William Attaway’s novel is about much more than the black experience, and BLOOD ON THE FORGE stands shoulder to shoulder with those other giants.

4) CALL IT SLEEP (Henry Roth, 1934)
It’s the only proper novel Henry Roth ever published, and upon reading the book it’s easy to see why it took him over forty years to write another word. Like Ralph Ellison, Roth has presented a single life with multi-faceted verisimilitude and bullseye specificity that captures an entire universe of human experience. The poor, the immigrant, the young, the neurotic, the Jewish, the abused all have their story brought to life in CALL IT SLEEP. What else can Roth say? I’m hesitant to recommend the novel to anyone but the heartiest of literary adventurers. Consider yourself warned: CALL IT SLEEP is relentlessly bleak. The prose is a fugue of tears, and the plot is a totem pole of compounded miseries, so much so that the experience of reading is largely an endurance trial. But if you’re willing to endure for the sake of majestic writing, or if you’re just a masochist of letters, this novel will leave a scar on your heart you will cherish forever.

3) THE TENANTS (Bernard Malamud, 1971)
There’s something different about Bernard Malamud. His stories are always in one way or another about Jewish identity and its concomitant pains. As a Jewish friend of mine once observed, “That’s the culture,” but unlike Henry Roth’s writing, Malamud’s does not drown me in dourness and crushing loss. There is always an ember roasting in the dark center of his work. THE TENANTS is a story about two writers; one Jewish, one black; squatting in a condemned apartment, desperate for the isolation they need to finish their purgative books. But in each other they see a world they wish included them. They feel the sting of their respective hypocrisies, and the resentment stoked between the two desperate, broken men leaves the apartment building beyond dilapidated. As bleak as the plot may be, there is still that ember burning in the black ink of every letter, and while the characters may not feel its heat, we the readers do.

2) THE POWER BROKER (Robert A. Caro, 1974)
America’s scholarly community has really dropped the ball. Every child in this country should grow up learning about Robert Moses. He was a real-life Charles Foster Kane, a man of unshakable self-confidence and unparalleled intellect who sacrificed his own soul to propitiate the god of power. Robert Caro, now the go-to authority on Lyndon Johnson, tells the epic story of how Robert Moses transformed himself from an idealistic youth dedicated to solving New York’s many social ills into the state’s unelected dictator whose aims began with getting his way and ended with crushing anyone who opposed him. Caro’s doorstop of a biography is electrifying from the first page to the last because Caro never takes the stance of either apologist or persecutor. He details how Moses’ tireless energy and blade-sharp mind built the infrastructure of modern New York as they corrupted the mechanisms of government to make Moses’ dreams a reality. Robert Moses was a character with a capital-C.

1) AUGUSTUS (John Williams, 1973)
John Williams is simply one the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century. Read my original Not-a-Review here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Not a Review of AUGUSTUS by John Williams

John Williams—no, the other one—was a little-known instructor of creative writing at the University of Denver who published only a pawful of books in his life. When he died in 1994 he was barely a footnote in the annals of American letters, but thanks to New York Review Books, the publishing industry’s Criterion Collection, Williams’ stature has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. His three major novels, all reissued by NYRB, have garnered him a posthumous reputation as a storyteller of uncanny insight, a writer of stoical craftsmanship, underneath which simmers a rare literary potency. Butcher’s Crossing is a Western that draws a knife across Ralph Waldo Emerson’s throat and leaves the American frontier and the national psyche doused by a pitch-black arterial spray. Stoner is a campus novel that by some mysterious alchemical sleight-of-hand manages to be both transcendentally idealistic and heartbreakingly realistic. Then there’s Williams’ final novel, Augustus, an historical fiction that is more believable than most histories, a tale of absolute power and its ultimate impotency. And it’s in Augustus that John Williams evinces the full power of fiction.
If you know me at all, you know how nerdily I obsess over Roman history, so you may suspect that my opinion of this book will be biased in its favor. But actually my standards for historical fiction are probably too high because I’m a history buff. I despise it when fiction ignores or rewrites history to accommodate a plot that could be just as easily applied to a contemporary or imaginary setting. As many people wiser than I have said, fiction is a lie told to reveal a greater truth. Why not take the historical truth and meld it to lies of characterization, to supposed motivations that the historical record never touches upon? Why write historical fiction if not to cast a little light onto history’s shadows? If not to outline those slender threads that will always tether the way-back-when to the here-and-now? That’s exactly what Williams does in Augustus, putting the distant and elusive under a lens that makes it immediate and knowable.
Given his subject, it’s only fitting that Augustus is John Williams’ most ambitious work. Augustus is a remote and larger-than-life figure, and the motivations of Rome’s first emperor have long puzzled historians. It’s hard to fathom how the definitive enlightened despot could so completely embody those words that to a contemporary mind reside squarely in mutual exclusivity. He’s a lot like Charles Foster Kane, an inscrutable character of intimidating stature and authority, simultaneously driven by an unquenchable thirst for power and a high-minded opposition to injustice, and as Orson Welles revealed his mercurial protagonist through the perspectives of others, so does Williams reveal his. The multiple points of view, with their unique personalities and prejudices, underline the oft-contradictory facets of a great and terrible man whose gravity holds those voices in his orbit.
Williams employs an epistolary framework to erect his panoramic and microcosmic view of Rome’s first emperor, and it enriches the reading experience in multiple ways. Firstly, it enhances the verisimilitude of the entire work. Some of our best primary sources on Roman history are the extant letters of those who lived it: Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and such. The epistolary structure creates the illusion that we’re reading a genuine first-hand account of Augustus’ life. The approach also enables a breezy economy of storytelling. Strabo of Amasia’s letter fears how Brutus will react to Augustus’ proscriptions, then Brutus’ letter to Augustus is the reaction, then Agrippa’s account of Philippi closes the matter and sets up the inevitable breakdown between Augustus and Antony. But each letter is flavored with a unique energy. Each individual is animated with the pure music of the written word. Agrippa’s starched military man, Maecenus’ cynical dandy, Salvidienus’ betrayed idealist, Piso’s sinister toady, Flaccus’ pretentious gossip. The entire novel is a sumptuous potpourri of character study.
Unlike Charles Foster Kane, Augustus is granted his own voice. After 260 pages of impressions from others who, no matter how close they are to him, can never truly know the most powerful man in the world, the Revered One speaks to us directly. Through a letter to his old friend, the only friend still alive, Nicolaus of Damascus, we meet a man who has only days left to live. He is dying of a life of regret. What begins as a simple thank-you note for some dates quickly becomes an epigraph in Augustus’ own hand. He confides the story of an idealistic youth who was handed the keys to the kingdom, who recognized the weight of the burden, and committed himself to the inexorable sacrifices he would have to make.

“When I was young, I would have said that loneliness and secrecy were forced upon me. I would have been in error… I chose to enclose myself in the half-formed dream of a destiny no one could share, and thus abandoned the possibility of that kind of human friendship which is so ordinary that it is never spoken of, and thus is seldom cherished.”

Now, in his twilight, with the wisdom that comes too late to us, he could not have foreseen the emotional toll taken by his loneliness and secrecy. With no companionship but from the ghosts of loved ones he had carved into pawns, he knows that the order he imposed upon a chaotic world has become his Frankenstein’s monster, and the monster has enslaved its creator. The most powerful man in the world is powerless against his responsibility.
Williams gives believable and fully fleshed voice to unknowable authority, but even more memorably he gives voice to the ultimate victim of that authority. Augustus imposed an involuntary responsibility on his daughter, Julia. She was married off repeatedly to the men who would succeed Augustus and ensure the survival of his orderly vision for Rome. When she rebelled against the princeps’ strict morality laws by cuckolding Tiberius and bedding half the men in Rome, he banished her and never set eyes on her again. Like her father, the historical Julia has become trapped in a popular image, one of wanton harlotry and irresponsibility. 
But through a novelist’s prose Julia becomes a full human being and the book’s most vivid and sympathetic character. Her story is entirely about her quest for agency, for the desire to lead her own life, to find value in herself, for herself, beyond her father’s political machinations.

“It was after the death of that good man, Marcus Agrippa, that Julia, daughter of Octavius Caesar, the August, discovered the power that had been hidden within her, and discovered the pleasure that she could take. And the pleasure she could take became her power, and it seemed to her that it was a power beyond that of her name and of her father. She became herself.”

The relationship between father and daughter is not the calculated arrangement undone by rebellion as history has cast it. It is a tragic love story between two people who want to make each other happy but can only sacrifice so much for one another.
In John Williams’ novel, Julia, alone among Roman women, gets to speak for and define herself. Augustus, a man who literally changed the course of human history, is free of his responsibility and can speak his mind. Augustus is not only a powerful story about power. It is a testament to the power of fiction. Fiction can correct the corrupted perspective of history, giving voice to the previously voiceless, revealing the humanity that impels history’s monsters, the heart and soul that is the foundation of the ignominy. And we are all stronger for it. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Not a Review of RED SORGHUM by Mo Yan

     RED SORGHUM is one of those novels that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It has introduced me to the Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan and has lit my spark to read every word he’s written. And that’s a spark I need to chase into whatever dark corner it leads me, because the siren’s call of this unique and uniquely talented writer is too strong a lure to ignore. I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve read many different types of books. The stylistic differences are legion, but distances between them seem to shrink a little with each new book you ingest. But RED SORGHUM occupies an isolated plot of real estate in an increasingly crowded literary community.
     The first thing that struck me about the book was Mo’s language. From the jump it soars like a falcon on the air currents over the sorghum. His choice of words is inspired, and his prose assumes a poetic tint that infects you from the first page. And before I go any further I have to give credit here to Howard Goldblatt. I’ve never before read a book written in a language other than English that made me so deeply appreciate the translator’s responsibility and the challenges he or she has to overcome in conveying a story, its intellectual heft, and its emotional resonance. However evocative and lyrical Mo Yan’s Chinese text is, I and most of you would miss out on it without Goldblatt’s exemplary English translation (okay, I have no idea what he had to sacrifice in translation, but I’d be stunned if it was much).
     More than one critic has compared Mo Yan to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it is easy to compare RED SORGHUM to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. Both are sprawling epics about multiple generations of one family and their plethora of hardships, set against the backdrop of war and civil instability, each possessing a blinding power that takes seed in your blood. But those are superficial parallels, and the comparison obscures Mo’s intent and affect.
     Rather than magical realism, Mo Yan’s style is more of a transcendentalistic realism. He does not treat the fantastical as a naturalistic fait accompli. In fact there is nothing fantastical in the story. The episodes and passages that come closest to fantasy are cast in that light from Mo’s idiosyncratic emphasis. Plants are described as having animalistic qualities, and animals are granted the emotional and intellectual agency of human beings. Like Emerson and Thoreau Mo ascribes absolute goodness to the natural world and sees no distinction between it and its human inhabitants. Synonymy with environment is most apparent in the Narrator. RED SORGHUM is a story about the Narrator’s parents and grandparents, but the Narrator assumes a third-person omniscient point-of-view that would be physically impossible. He knows all about Grandma’s pain, Father’s anger, the soft warm mud on the floor of the Black Water River. He laments for a world he never knew, could never have known, but that’s beside the point. He feels it all like a good Transcendentalist. 
     The titular sorghum is not only the totem through which the Narrator experiences the long-past events. It is the most nuanced character in the book. It can cut someone like sharpened steel or envelope them a soft mattress. It will bend lazily in the wind or stand firm against rampaging aggression. It has to. Sorghum is the basis of Northeast Gaomi Township’s economy and the foundation on which its entire society is erected. Like ancient Egypt on the banks of the Nile, Northeast Gaomi Tonwship wakes and sleeps with the sorghum. It must remain patient and resolute when the sorghum is green and growing, but it can reap its harvest and enjoy its just rewards when the sorghum ripens to a life-sustaining “blood-red.”
     But any Transcendentalist will tell you that the individual and the natural world will become poisoned by the corrupting influence of external societal forces, and that’s exactly what happens to Northeast Gaomi Township. The Japanese invade mainland China, and as they push into Gaomi, they use the sorghum for cover, forcing our protagonists to do the same. Soon much of the sorghum is crushed beneath the hooves of the Japanese cavalry, and what isn’t is chopped up by mutual gunfire, set aflame by dueling grenades. Everything follows the course of the sorghum. Our protagonists turn frightened, more implacable, so hungry for revenge that they become what they despise. And the toxin of corruption spreads everywhere. In one of the book’s standout sequences an “army” of wild dogs, lead by Grandma and Granddad’s three runaways, lay siege to the town, exhibiting human-like tactical know-how and falling prey to internecine power struggles. Even the language we are reading is changed. The color red is no longer the color of the blood that feeds us. It’s the color of the blood that has been spilt.
     Transcendentalism has as many flaws as any other philosophy, and those become unavoidable with that reading of the book. But Mo Yan’s skill and command of craft is so apparent, I can’t believe that he is not intentionally revealing the discrepancy to us. RED SORGHUM’s scope is sprawling, but its focus rests squarely on the human heart. And it’s our hearts that can move us to realize godlike accomplishments or commit demonic crimes. From his first appearance to his last Commander Yu is a mass of scar tissue. His inability to reconcile himself to his old wounds leads him to inflict new ones on himself and others. By the time the Japanese invade, the family is already set on a circuit that can only lead to the book’s conclusion.
     RED SORGHUM’s ending is one of those perfect endings that can only work in a book. Only literature allows for the headspace necessary for emotion and intellect to clash and encircle each other until an indescribable satisfaction suffuses the reader. There is no reason the last chapter should work as well as it does, but it does. As the Narrator visits the present Northeast Gaomi Township and seethes at the hybrid sorghum that now grows there, we know how irrational he is. How ridiculously everyone has behaved for the past three generations. And yet like the Narrator we can’t help but feel that something has been lost.
     Maybe it’s simply that there is no more RED SORGHUM to read.

Monday, January 4, 2016

My 10 Favorite Books of 2015

     I read forty-nine books in the recently departed 2015. Here’s thirty-nine of them (in no particular order):

     THE MEANING OF NIGHT by Michael Cox
     OPERATION SHYLOCK by Philip Roth
     AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
     THE SANDMAN OVERTURES by Neil Gaiman & co.
     STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein
     THE HABIT OF LOVING by Doris Lessing
     VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray
     THE END OF ETERNITY by Isaac Asimov
     SECOND FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov
     MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-SEMITE by Gregor von Rezzori
     THE SHAWL by Cynthia Ozick
     DOWNWARD TO THE EARTH by Robert Silverberg
     THE GOON LIBRARY, VOL. 1 by Eric Powell
     THE GOON LIBRARY, VOL. 2 by Eric Powell
     PERFIDIA by James Ellroy
     MOON PALACE by Paul Auster
     THE NEW DEAL by Jonathan Case
     HARLOT’S GHOST by Norman Mailer
     GHOST STORY by Jim Butcher
     TEMPEST-TOST by Robertson Davies
     LADY KILLER by Joelle Jones & Jamie Rich
     CLAUDIUS THE GOD by Robert Graves
     LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis
     AMERICAN LION by Jon Meacham
     MY NAME IS RED by Orhan Pamuk
     NEONOMICON by Alan Moore & co.
     THE JAPANESE LOVER by Isabel Allende
     ABSOLUTE MONARCHS by John Julius Norwich
     THE GONE-AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway

     That’s an accomplished list, but as wonderful as some of those books are they couldn’t make my top ten for the year. Those ten books will stay with me forever, each one deserving of far more attention and analysis than I’ve given them in this post. But I need to write about them, however briefly, and attempt to convey some fraction of my respect and love for them. Hopefully I inspire some of you to check them out.

10) THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE (Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, 1974)
     It’s too recently published to count as Golden Age science fiction, but THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE does what Golden Age sci-fi does at it’s best: masturbate your imagination while turning your head to the world that exists around you and making you cough. Read my original not-a-review here.

9) TRACKS (Louise Erdrich, 1988)
     There’s a tragedy that seems tethered to even the most accomplished novel by a writer who writes about their minority: too many white people assume that the book is not for them. They tragically limit the writer’s audience, and they tragically deprive themselves of a marvelous reading experience. In TRACKS, Louise Erdrich does what any good writer should do. She uses specificity to speak to the entire world about all of us. The Anishinaabe at the heart of this multi-family, multi-generational saga could be anyone in America torn between the traditions of the past and a modernity of anonymity, their resentment of a hegemony that has destroyed their identity and the urge to accept it as their only way out of financial and spiritual destitution. Louise Erdrich writes with poetic empathy and gallows humor about a specific group of people with particular circumstances. But she recognizes the universality of their fears and desires. She brings out the dispossessed in every reader, broadening the fraternity of humankind. She doesn’t tell us to empathize with The Other. She shows us that we are The Other, that there is no other. There’s only Us.

8) NONSENSE NOVELS (Stephen Leacock, 1911)
     Today’s culturally astute prize irony more than they even know. Beating the drums to postmodern originality, they are ignorant of how none of the culture they hold aloft is particularly original. Stephen Leacock was doing everything they value a century ago. In NONSENSE NOVELS the Canadian satirist skewers Sherlock Holmes, Gothic romance, the various pulp genres of Lovecraftian horror, Howardian fantasy, the nascent hardboiled fiction, and more. He emulates them with the stylistic perfection and thematic acuity of a keen-eared impressionist. He pulls the dangling threads that betray those stories’ disconnection from reality, and he fills the gaps with an inspired silliness that today’s absurdists wish they could conjure. Nothing is wholly original. Everything is built on a foundation. Modern satirists and comic writers would benefit from reading Stephen Leacock and learning how far they are from originality.

7) INVISIBLE MAN (Ralph Ellison, 1952)
     You can say a lot about Ralph Ellison’s indelible novel about the black American experience. You can talk about its unflinching honesty in regards to black-white relations, class distinctions within black communities, self-image as informed by these relations, and so much more. The book is a deep vein of literary gold seemingly without end. But what I keep returning to is Eliison’s command of language, his note-perfect selection of words, the rhythmic punch of his sentences, how there seems to be no fat in a story of such deeply felt anguish that it dares the writer to run away with himself. In a story that is all about what we see and don’t see, INVISIBLE MAN’s writing is clear and sharp as honed crystal and simultaneously dreamlike and hallucinatory. It conjures an unreal world that is painfully, poisonously real. Ralph Ellison succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do. He takes the ephemeral symbolism of speech and crafts from it an edifice of tangible thought and emotion that only a blind man could miss.

6) WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? (Budd Schulberg, 1941)
     Budd Schulberg knew Hollywood. A career screenwriter who wrote, among other movies, ON THE WATERFRONT, he made the industry the focus of his first novel. WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? tears at the town’s scabs with as much force and fury as Nathanael West mustered in DAY OF THE LOCUST. Sammy Glick, the novel’s enfant terrible social climber, is as despicable a character as you’re likely to find in fiction. But Schulberg assumes the voice of Al Manheim, the journalist who Sammy passes, then seduces into following him to Hollywood. The dignity of truth can’t compete with the riches of fantasy. But the novel is not just about Hollywood. It’s about American avarice, about why the United States fell into its Great Depression. It’s about the men who destroy everyone in their path to make themselves Midas. But unlike the mythological king who turned his loved ones into gold at his touch, the modern Midas is only interested in touching himself.

5) THE HIGH WINDOW (Raymond Chandler, 1942)
     THE HIGH WINDOW is dynamite. No, I’m not angling for a blurb on the cover. It’s entirely appropriate to call a story “dynamite” when it carries the force of an explosion. Raymond Chandler’s third Philip Marlowe novel always feels combustible. His prose is as strong as his protagonist and as volatile as the motley assortment of scumbags and ne’er-do-wells that surrounds our hero. Every new paragraph, every exchange of dialogue is weighted with the wages of fear and the spark of sin. You’re on a rollercoaster, never at ease but too excited to feel the tension. Chandler’s style was two-fisted fluidity, a ballet of pugilism witnessed through a blood-red third eye. You can feel the unstable elements jostling between the lines. You know that the whole thing could blow up any second, and you know you’ll get burned. But who cares? This is what great reading is all about.

4) EXIT GHOST (Philip Roth, 2007)
     I love Philip Roth, but historically I’ve had a hard time tolerating Nathan Zuckerman. Roth’s surrogate has always struck me as being enamored with his own voice to the detriment of the story. Even in AMERICAN PASTORAL and THE HUMAN STAIN Zuckerman fills multiple pages with some of the richest, most provocative sentences you’ve ever read, none of which say anything that the first sentence doesn’t. But Zuckerman’s curtain call, EXIT GHOST, proved to be an exhilarating anomaly about an old man desperately fleeing his imminent mortality. Roth doesn’t allow his aging surrogate the satisfaction of lyrical bloviation. His sentences are as melodically rousing as ever, but they’re fewer and leaner, each laid like a single brick to form an awesome cathedral. As a result Zuckerman conveys a power and urgency he’s never previously managed. Death is on Zuckerman’s (and Roth’s) heels, and every struggle, whether preserving the legacy of the hero of his youth or clutching at an unattainable erotic fantasy, is charged with crucial immediacy. Philip Roth is the bravest writer America has ever produced. How brave of him to address the twilight without smoke and mirrors, without any obfuscation, and force himself to stand against a stark landscape as no one but himself?

3) THE MOTHER TONGUE (Bill Bryson, 1990)
     Bryson can and does write about anything and everything, but he’s rarely brought out the thrill of discovery with as much palpable electricity as he does in his examination of the English language. He not only traces the history of the tongue from its Indo-European root to the present day (well, to the book’s publication in 1990). He analyzes its popularity and finds that its versatility, its evolution as a bastardized and bastardizing sponge, has made it uniquely qualified to assume the role of Common Tongue. The book is a high: intellectually dizzying and often laughter-inducing. Whether explaining the disparate pronunciations of everyday words by next-door neighbors or tracing the origins of obscenities, Bryson’s breezy but exhaustive scholarship regularly reduces you to giggles. The man has made a career of practicing an everyman’s intellectualism, precise and rigorous but infectiously fun. Bryson’s work breaks his subject free of the shackles of humorless pedantry and returns it to us as the language of the people, a language without rules, of boundless possibilities and endless opportunities.

2) BLEEDING EDGE (Thomas Pynchon, 2013)
     Some people have relegated Pynchon to solitary confinement over the hill. You. Are. So. Off. The elder statesman has summoned forth a spell that reveals the lacunae at the heart of today’s national character as no younger writer could. A younger writer would lack the wisdom, the sight, and the sense of humor to show us what Pynchon sees. Read my not-a-review here

1) AS I LAY DYING (William Faulkner, 1930)

     AS I LAY DYING may be The Great American Novel. Read my not-a-review here.