Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Pal Splendid Man (a sample)

Long ago, between the finishing of The Beaver Papers and the creation of The Trouble with Girls, Will Jacobs and I wrote most of a book about the friendship between a superhero and a would-be novelist named Will Jones. It was a sort of parody of the comic books of the 1960s that we loved, but it was also a satirical look, with some autobiographical elements, at the life and attitudes of a literary soul with old-fashioned ideals in the high-gloss, big-money 1980s. 
        We didnt finish the book then, or during the thirty years that followed, but not long ago we rediscovered what wed written, fell in love with it again, and decided it was time. Atomic Drop Press, who published the 30th Anniversary edition of our Beaver Papers and its sequel, have just brought out My Pal Splendid Man. Here's the beginning of the first story. If it intrigues you, you can find the whole thing wherever good print-on-demand books ebooks are sold!

Splendid Man's Literary Discoveries

I opened the window, moved aside, and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb. Splendid Man zoomed into the room before I could count to one.
  “What’s the trouble, Will?” he said.
  “I lost my damn keys,” I said.
  “Where did you last see them?”

       “I had them when I drove home after dinner,” I said. “But I can’t for the life of me remember what I did with them after that.”
       “That’s easily taken care of, Will. What time did you get home?”
      “About 6:30.”
“Well, then, I’ll just fly back through the time barrier and see what you did with them.”
“But Splendid Man, if you tamper with the past, couldn’t that screw up the future somehow?”

       “No, Will,” he said. “I’ve tried before to change the course of history, but it just doesn’t work. Like the time I zipped back through the time barrier and tried to stop the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and thus prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War. We know how that turned out. And besides, I’ll merely be observing the past, not tampering with it.”
  “Okay then,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
Splendid Man vanished in a blur and reappeared instants later. “Look in the garbage, Will,” he said.
  I did so, and sure enough, under the Burger King bag, there were my keys.
“You’d let so much trash accumulate in your car,” said Splendid Man, “that when you carried it all up, your keys got mixed in with it.”
      “Thanks, pal,” I said. “Listen, I hope you don’t mind me using my SOS Comb for something this insignificant.”
  “Certainly not. Feel free to summon me with your SOS Comb for any reason, not only because you’ve fallen off a tall building, have undergone a bizarre physical transformation, or are menaced by a motorcycle gang. And the same goes for the toll-free number at my Citadel of Contemplation on the moon.”
      “Appreciate it, Splendid Man,” I said. At the mention of his Citadel I felt a twinge of embarrassment about my own dumpy abode, but I figured if it didn’t bother him I wouldn’t let it bother me. “Hey, now that you’re here, can you stay a while? Or do you have to run?”
     “Fly, Will. I don’t think I do, but let me take a quick check.” He turned his body in a complete circle, holding his head at an odd angle. “Everything looks fine. There is a comet hurtling toward Earth, but I see that my Canadian pal, Northern Light, is already zipping off to dispatch it with his power medallion.”
      “That’s great,” I said, heading for the kitchen to mix a couple of drinks. “Why don’t you take a load off and we’ll talk.”
      “I’d love to, Will,” he said. “But on one condition.”
  “What’s that, Splendid Man?”
  “That you knock off this ‘Splendid Man’ business. Aren’t we good enough friends yet that you can stop addressing me by my title?”
      “Sure thing…Cal,” I said with a grin, using the short form of his native Strontiumese name. 
  When I returned to the living room Cal was sitting on my parents’ old couch and scanning the bookshelves that dominated my modest living room. He took a sip of his Manhattan and asked, “So, Will, are there any more books you can recommend for me to read?”
  “More books!” I said, my mouth agape. Just last week I’d recommended the entire Britannica Great Books series to him. “You don’t mean you’ve already read every volume you were interested in!”
“I’ve already read every volume, Will. Period. Haven’t I mentioned that, in addition to physical Splendid Speed, the argon-tinged atmosphere and lesser gravity of Earth grant astounding mental speed to all Strontiumese?”
      He had, in fact, mentioned that, and in precisely those words. But I still couldn’t get used to it. “And I guess Splendid Vision really helps navigate that tiny print,” I grinned.
      “That it does,” he said, in complete earnest. “And I must say, I enjoyed every page of every book.”
      I was afraid he would say that. Teaching the big lug some discernment was not turning out to be easy. “Okay,” I said carefully. “But surely you must have enjoyed some more than others?”
      He took another sip of his Manhattan, a slow one this time, and I sensed him stalling. For the first time I saw nervousness in those glacier-blue eyes. “Well, of course, I’m no expert…”
  “Just tell me what you think, Cal. No one expects you to be a connoisseur of literature yet.”
      He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “I appreciate that, Will. I’m a bit gun-shy after all the razzing I’ve taken from Catman, that calico-cowled nemesis of crime, about my taste in books. That’s why I value the way you’ve taken me under your wing. Metaphorically speaking.”
      I caught a twinkle in his eye. Before he met me, he would never have been talking about metaphors. “Don’t mention it, Cal. I’m so used to loaning books to friends and having them return them months later only half read. It’s a pleasure to have a pal who actually reads what I recommend.”
      “Oh, and I’m starting to get a lot out of them!” he said eagerly. “I thought I knew all about truth and justice until I read those Plato volumes.”
       I had a feeling youd like the Greeks, I said. “They appreciated the heroic.
        “And what playwrights! I had no idea great literature could be so entertaining. I laughed so hard reading Aristophanes’s Frogs that I would have busted a gut, if my internal organs, like my bodily exterior, were not invulnerable. Do you have anything else by him?”
       “I wish I did. But that volume includes all his surviving works.”
       “Surviving?” he asked. “You mean some of them have been lost to the winds of time?”

        “You could put it that way. All the great Greek dramatists—the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the comedians Aristophanes and Menander—have been shown to have written far more works than still survive. Ditto for Plato, Aristotle, and the other classical philosophers. One of the great calamities of ancient history was the unexplained destruction by fire of the great library of Alexandria during Caesar’s campaign in 48 B.C., which resulted in the eternal loss of innumerable classics of literature and philosophy.”
      “Great Amundsen, Will!” he exclaimed, rising from his seat. “I had no idea! What a tragedy! All those lost works must have been magnificent. One thing I’ve noticed is that those ancient authors never seemed to write a bad book.”
      “You said it,” I snorted. “Of course, they were fortunate enough to live in an era when economics and art were in harmony, and an author was encouraged to be true to his vision. They didn’t have to contend with a short-sighted commercial publishing ‘industry’ devoted to snuffing the literary soul.”
      “Why, Will,” he gasped, “I’ve never heard you sound so bitter! Have you suffered another setback in your own literary career?”
      “You could put it that way.” I explained to him how I’d hit a creative wall in the middle of Chapter 38 of my new novel and how what I’d thought would be the consummation of my years of writing looked doomed to end up as just another item in my trunk.
      “Now, Will, you shouldn’t give up so quickly,” he said. “Don’t you think your whole perspective on your work will change once you’ve succeeded in getting published?”
      “Published!” I snorted. “What good is getting published if it means betraying my own vision to cater to the blind editors of New York? Even the writers who start out great are seduced into prostituting themselves in this modern world. Look at Norman Mailer! Tennessee Williams! Harold Robbins!”
      “But Will. I thought you told me that Harold Robbins has always been bad.”
      “That’s beside the point,” I muttered.
      He sat back down, took a swig of his drink, and looked at me with grave concern. “It sounds to me, pal,” he said, “as though what you need is some inspiration. Nothing lifts me out of the doldrums of self-doubt like remembering the sacrifices of the great heroes of the past. That’s why I keep life-size statues of Hercules, Samson, and Mother Teresa in my Citadel of Contemplation.”
      “It’s different with you. You can defeat Cerebriac as he plunders an alien planet in exactly the way a hero of the past did and people will say, ‘What a hero! Splendid Man is the new Robin Hood!’ If I use someone else’s plot they’ll say, ‘What a plagiarist! Will Jones is the new Jerzy Kosinski!’”
      “But Will, didn’t you tell me yourself that every writer draws from the classics? That, for example, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is a Sophoclean tragedy in the costume of the Jim Crow South?”
      “Words to that effect, anyway,” I grumbled. “But the last thing the world needs is another reworking of Oedipus.”
      “Fair enough,” he said, with a shrewd glint in his eye. “But what if you were to draw your inspiration from a classic that no one else living has read? Say, one of the lost works of the Athenian dramatists?”
      “Swell. Except where the hell am I going to read plays that have been lost for centuries?”
      “Centuries ago, that’s where!” He grinned and slapped my knee. “Didn’t you say they had them all in stock in the library of ancient Alexandria?”
      It took me a few seconds, but then I got it. “Of course! Your Splendid Speed can break the time barrier! You can actually go to ancient Alexandria!”
      “Oh, I’ve already gone, several times. But I have to confess I haven’t once stopped by the library. I guess I assumed that since I didn’t reside there, I could never be issued a library card.”
      “Then, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to go read those ancient dramas!” I yelled. “And as soon as you come back to the present you’ll have to stop by and tell me what they’re all about.”
      “I have a better idea, Will. We can just zip off to 48 B.C. together and you can have a look around for yourself!”
      “Me? Go with you?” I gulped. “But wouldn’t I be…I don’t know…”
      “Buffeted to death by the temporal winds that rage along the time stream?” he asked.
      “Exactly!” I said.
      “Oh no, Will. I wouldn’t let that happen to you. I’ll just wrap you in my indestructible cape, as I do with my pal Bobby Anderssen, that albino cub reporter, take you under my arm, and fly you there safe and sound.”
      I jumped to my feet. “Then let’s go!”

Continued in My Pal Splendid Man!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Election Predictions

Just so I can look back a year from now and link to this post in pride...or quietly delete it...heres my latest visit to the crystal ball:
       The Carson and Trump campaigns will sag as the real voting starts, and both of those candidates will drop out fairly earlyTrump because his vanity is being bruised, Carson because he really doesnt want to do this at all. Marco Rubio will be the clear Republican choice before the convention. With Rubio holding the party together surprisingly well, and carrying Florida to boot, November will be nerve-wrackingly closei.e., Ohio will choose our next president. Assuming a generally promising economy, I see Clinton taking it by a slim margin. The Democrats will also capture just enough Senate races (Im not going to predict which ones) to come out with 50 seats, making Vice President Castro the tie-breaker. 
       The great unknown, of course, is the economy. Because most American swing voters base their last-minute decisions on how the economy (especially the unemployment rate) looks in the near futureeven though its been pretty obvious for a long time that no president can really do much about thatan economic stall in summer or early fall will probably mean a Republican White House, and most likely a Republican Senate, too. Which means it really isnt up to Ohio after all. Its up to China.

P. S.: If I really have to guess which Castro, my first pick is Joaquín. My last is Raúl.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

My Pal Splendid Man

It was 1982 and we had just sold our first book. After years of separately writing serious novels that no one wanted anything to do with, we had decided to try writing something together just for fun, and we surprised ourselves by conceiving, writing, and actually selling a humor book, The Beaver Papers. It would be over a year before the book actually hit the bookstores, and during that time, fired with enthusiasm to work together, we dreamed up one humor idea after another. Some of those ideas later saw print in the National Lampoon, one of them eventually became the comic book The Trouble with Girls, but the one we loved best and did the most work on is the one that has just now, finally, arrived in print.
  We both lived in San Francisco, but not in the artistically edgy North Beach or Mission District that you read about in literary histories. We lived in the Richmond District, the foggy north-west corner of the city, a neighborhood of small apartment buildings with an almost suburban quality compared to the city that lay a bus ride away. We did most of the work at Will’s place, a second-floor apartment at the corner of 42nd Avenue and Balboa Street, and so it came to serve as the actual setting for much of the book. The second-hand furniture, the less-than-stellar housekeeping, and the general air of shabbiness all left their imprint on the stories.
      We didn’t have much money then, and in our memories we seem to have subsisted almost entirely on rice and chili—the rice we cooked at home, the chili we bought at a take-out Mexican joint down the street. When we felt like splurging we’d drive down to Mr. Hot Dog’s Cowboy BBQ, a Korean-owned diner on Geary Boulevard where a man could get full for less than four dollars. Our external lives weren’t much, but our internal lives were rich—if a bit peculiar. Besides surfeiting ourselves on William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary heavyweights, we also indulged in a shared obsession with the comic books of the 1960s. In our novels we tried to emulate the former, but we could never shake the temptation to do something creative with the latter.
      And so were born the stories that would become My Pal Splendid Man. It started with a quickly scribbled scene in which a superhero drops in on his young writer friend Will Jones—not as a prelude to exotic adventures but to talk about life, books, and highballs. That scene grew into a story, and suddenly we were seized. For a few months our favorite thing to do was to get together, eat our chili, and spin out a new Splendid Man story. We did wind up sending our heroes off on exotic adventures, but they were adventures of the sort that grew out of the peculiar chemistry of their friendship.
  Finally The Beaver Papers came out and made a modest splash. It earned us an invitation to write for the National Lampoon and the acceptance of our second book, a serious indulgence in our obsession called The Comic Book Heroes. By then we had begun to conceive My Pal Splendid Man as a book, but as life swept us along, we never found the time to finish it. After a while it became one of those projects in our drawers, remembered with great fondness but never returned to.
  Thirty years later we opened that drawer. We read the stories again, first with nostalgia but then with the joy of rediscovery. Not only were they still alive to us but they reignited the fire that had filled us decades before. We found ourselves writing five new Splendid Man stories to round out the narrative and weaving new threads through all the episodes to hold them together as a book.
  We were momentarily tempted to update the book’s milieu, but then we thought better of it. Not only was Will’s life built around the realities of being a would-be writer in the pre-internet age, not only were there some story elements that could really only work in the social context of the early ‘80s, but the essence of Splendid Man himself was clearly inspired by things we were observing in comics at the time. The wholesome superheroes of the “Silver Age” were then being supplanted by a newer, darker sort of superhero; the tension of that moment was much of what went into defining our hero’s character. So, despite the great temptation to fill Splendid Man and Will’s world with iPads, hybrid cars, and kale, we’ve set the stories in the time they were originally conceived.
       Fly with us, then, back through the time barrier to 1982. Ronald Reagan is in the White House. A dark grittiness is creeping into popular culture. The poor can still afford rent in parts of San Francisco. A writer needs Wite-Out to correct a mistake. Will Jones strikes up a beautiful friendship with a fellow known as Splendid Man. And up and away we go.

(The preceding is excerpted from the introduction to My Pal Splendid Man, on sale now from Atomic Drop Press!)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Recommended Reading

Ive been fascinated by American cultural and social history for decades, but for most of my life my interest was focused on the decades after the First World War. I wrote books about comics and television that essentially started in the 1920s and ran on to the 1980s, sometimes beyond but never before. For most of my life Ive had a decent grasp of the historical matrix thats held jazz, Hollywood, comic books, sitcoms, hard-boiled fiction, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and S. J. Perelman.
       Then, about seven years ago, I set out to write a book called The Undressing of America that centered largely on the strange figure of Bernarr Macfadden, who created the “true story” genre that revolutionized mass publishing in the 20s. That required me to stretch my knowledge back to the days when he first made his transition from professional wrestler and body builder to publisher, the 1890s. As I worked on that, I came to realize that I also had to understand his great antagonist, the censor Anthony Comstock, which meant I had to become comfortable with the American culture of repression that bloomed in the wake of the Civil War. And then...well, one book led to another, and during the past couple of years, working on Nation of Faith & Flesh, Ive found myself deeply immersed in the 1820s and 30s.
       Its been a wonderful journey, and among the most enjoyable aspects of it have been the guides Ive enlisted. Within the great mountain of material Ive been reading, a few books have drawn me back again and again, and their authors have shaped my own narrative enormously. If you want to spend some rewarding hours exploring the strange cultural and social landscape of the so-called Jacksonian Era, Id say you cant go wrong with these:

The Murder of Helen Jewett. Patricia Cline Cohen uses the murder of a New York City prostitute in 1836 as the axis for a vivid portrait of a transformational moment in American sex roles, crime, justice, economics, and the press. This isnt an Erik Larson sort of journalistic narrative; Cohen takes us carefully through her process as a historian, piecing together portraits of people and institutions from elusive and fragmentary sources. But she makes her own detective work nearly as compelling as the crime and its aftermath.

City of Eros, by Timothy Gilfoyle, opens a wider lens on the same topic, reconstructing the whole social and cultural context of prostitution in New York through the 19th Century and into the 20th. This is a more classically academic book, moving steadily through its subject matter, full of hard data and charts. But Gilfoyle never loses sight of the human realities and day-to-day choices that supported and characterized the business of sex and made it such a revealing mirror of the above-ground elements of American history.

Helen Lefkowitz HorowitzRereading Sex may be my single favorite cultural or historical treatment of sex. Its what American studies should be but too rarely are: she doesnt lack a political point of view, but it never clouds her compassion for and understanding of the assorted parties fighting to define sex and morality in our still-forming republic.   Her focus is on the interplay of forces and ideas from the 1820s to 1840s that laid that foundation for so much of American culture ever since, specifically what she identifies as three distinct bodies of sexual understanding: the radical, the reform, and the one thats usually ignored, the “vernacular. But in writing about ideas, she never ceases to write about people. 
       Those three writers, Cohen, Gilfoyle, and Horowitz, also teamed up to edit The Flash Press, an anthology, with great background essays, of art and writing from a genre of newspapers for “sporting men in the 1840s that stand as a sort of fountainhead of all mens magazines and kicked off a significant component our still-unresolved censorship wars. 

The Kingdom of MatthiasPaul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz. Another murder case, this one from 1834, is the axis for a slim, lean, fast-moving story that nonetheless manages to convey a tremendous amount of information about aspects of religious passion, cultural conflict, and race relations in American history that are rarely discussed. It also has a great cast of characters and a kick-ass final line. 
       Sean Wilentz, on his own, wrote Chants Democratic, a compendious and revelatory book about American class relations and labor conflicts. It tracks the growth of working mens political movements in New York City in the first half of the 19th Century, but its focus is always (as it is with all the historical works I like best) on people in action, with all their contradictory messiness, and it treats political theory only in that human context. 
        Paul E. Johnson (not to be confused with the British Paul Johnson, as in Modern Times) has also written some superb books about the period on his own, my favorite of which has to be A Shopkeepers Millennium. There was a day when I never would have believed that a book about Presbyterian revivals in Rochester, New York 185 years ago would mean anything to me, but that just shows how young and foolish I was. Its got as much about the essence of American cultural history in it as any book Ive read.

The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum, isnt especially germane to what my book is about, but it taught me a lot about Americans and how we tick just by tracking the development of our modern Christmas, mostly in New York City in the first third of the 1800s. Ive never read a better exposition of our peculiar ways of using consumerism, holidays, and family sentimentality to shape our culture and our social classes (and usually without even knowing were doing it).
        In my own book, Ive made much more use of an earlier book by Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America. It centers on Sylvester Graham, a mostly forgotten but very significant (and wonderfully, bizarrely American) figure from our past, and it does an economical job of pulling together a wide range of individual and social threads: Jacksonian politics, market economics, physiological theory, diet fads, and the great masturbation panic of 1834.

These books are all still in print, and theyre by living authors who probably wouldn’t mind picking up some royalties. Get started on that Christmas list now! (Then read Stephen Nissenbaum on the origin of Christmas lists in the mercantile culture of Boston and New York during the “market revolution of the 1830s and '40s.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Under the Gun (Again)

So Im doing again what I swore I wouldnt do this time, the same thing I did on The Undressing of America, Men of Tomorrow, and Killing Monsters. Today is exactly four months before my publishers final, truly-drop-dead deadline for the first full draft of Nation of Faith and Flesh, and Im way behind where I want to be, so as of now I have to go deep into a hole where I can do nothing and think of nothing but getting the thing written.
       When this happened on Killing Monsters it was because Id delayed myself with my own brain, had a hard time pulling some of my arguments together well enough to suit me. When it happened on Men of Tomorrow, it was because Id made some late discoveries in my research that caused me to rework parts of the book heavily in the eleventh hour. When it happened on The Undressing of America, it was because I was still struggling to rein in what was becoming a too-sprawling story (which ultimately, as previous posts have discussed, led to me shelving that book for a while and writing this one instead).
       This time I thought Id avoided all those problems. I had the shape and scope of the book clearly in my head, and although I still have some research holes to fill in Ive been thorough enough to feel safe that there are no book-changing discoveries out there waiting to be made. I was ready for a diligent but steady, sanely paced march to the end of the book. Then my wife and I decided to sell our house and move. That knocked about three full months out of my work schedule. And here I am again.
       Heres where a psychologist would say that Im obviously creating these situations myself, that I must hold some core belief that I cant actually finish a book unless I create a panic situation at the end. But you know what? I dont have time for psychology. I’m on deadline.
       So deep I go again. For four months, Ill lay off social media, see no students or clients, go to no book readings or comics conventions, answer all my wifes questions with “uh-huh,” and refuse to think about anything that couldnt have been found in New York City in 1836.
       Oh, but with exceptions, of course. Life will never stop demanding exceptions. I have a new book being published next month, My Pal Splendid Man, another humor collaboration with Will Jacobs, so Ill pop my head up briefly to acknowledge its release. But even there Ive told the publisher that I wont be able to help with promotion until February. And Ill still be helping move the next book forward, Lost Hero, although Ive had to ask my cowriter Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson to carry nearly the whole load herself for the next few months (and to please not hate me too much).
       Wish me luck if youre so inclined. I hope to climb back out of this hole with a good book clenched on my weary fist. Or, at the very least, a whole book.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

109 rejections and just one lousy career

One of my writing students-cum-clients, Miranda Maney, having recently finished her first Young Adult novel (an ingenious, hilarious Young Adult novel) and begun the dreaded quest for an agent, asked me to tell her my “how I got my agent story. Instead of answering her question in a thoughtful and useful manner (which would have robbed me of at least ten valuable minutes, never to be recovered) I linked her to this:


This is me at the inaugural presentation of the now notorious Regreturature, a celebration of embarrassing juvenilia read by writers who have since gone on to make something of themselves (something less embarrassing, one hopes) put on by the San Francisco Writers Grotto and LitCrawl. What I’m reading is the query letter that I and my collaborator Will Jacobs sent out to agents in 1981, when we were young and brash and arrogantly stupid. Coming off years of having all our books rejected, we had decided to go for broke and pitch nine books at once (three of which we hadn't even written yet) to every agent we could find. And every one of those nine pitches was grotesquely overdone.

      Miranda found it ridiculous and funny, just as she was supposed to, but she also said something that put a new spin on it for me. Because part of what I relate in the video is that we sent a letter to 110 agents and got only one positive response. Which, taken as a numerical fact, sounds like it should have been dismal and ego-deflating...except that that one agent agreed to represent one of the books we were pitching, The Beaver Papers. Then she sold it to a publisher, then it came out and sold pretty well. Which led to the sale of a second book to the same publisher, The Comic Book Heroes, which is what got me into writing both comics (and from them, screenplays) and nonfiction about popular culture, which between them comprise the big, two-hearted river of my whole career. 
     So Miranda said, “This should be an inspirational ‘keep trying’ video that everyone shares on Twitter for discouraged people.”
       Im dubious about the Twitter thing, because you actually have to watch eight whole minutes of my humiliating self-evisceration before you get to the inspirational part. But I get what she’s saying. 
       Honestly, I’m not sure what concrete advice I should pull out of this experience. If you’re not getting anywhere doing what you think youre supposed to do something ridiculous? Do something you’ll make people cringe and laugh at decades later? Or maybe something. Then do another something. And another something. And another something. Until one of those somethings actually turns into something.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Nation of Faith & Flesh

A few months ago I wrote about about how Id come up with “God, the Flesh & America as the working title for my book in progress. The more it rolled around in my head, though, the more it annoyed me. There are just too many of those noun-noun-conjunction-noun titles. The book Im writing is pretty unusual, has a distinct voice and rhythm, and I didnt want to lock it implicitly into a too-familiar nonfiction beat. It also just didn't seem to catch the essence of the story I was telling.
      I thought about single-noun phrases, but then I realized that that would never work, because the book is essentially about conflicting cultural forces, about theses and antitheses. It needs a dyad, a pair of nouns squaring off against each other. But it also needs a synthesis, an umbrella noun to hold the conflict. A third noun, but not a simple serial.
       So now Im calling it Nation of Faith & Flesh. Which is almost noun-noun-conjunction-noun, except its actually noun-preposition-noun-conjunction-noun. And the addition of that preposition changes the whole thing, not only the rhythm but the topography, as the last two nouns lie under the first, as modifiers, rather than just rolling along in sequence. Its a story primarily about a nation, the way a national identity rose from the interplay and opposition of two distinct moral and ideological spheres. Which is more what Im writing about. (And for claritys sake, Im adding the subtitle, The Moral War That Shaped America.)
      I could still change my mind, of course. Or someone at FSG could change my mind for me. But right now its saying what I want to say to myself about the story Im telling. And at this point, thats what a working title should be: not a marketing hook, which can wait until the book is done, but a way of reminding myself what Im saying.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Whole USA in One Chorus

Independence Eve and watching an old movie called Blues in the Night. Not a masterpiece. Rough and hasty, plot depends on a ridiculous turn, Richard Whorf isnt strong enough to carry the lead, Betty Field plays a femme fatale like a bad parody of Judy Holliday. But there are great things in it. Songs by Arlen and Mercer (that odd, compelling title tune in an equally odd, compelling setting), some solid jazz, including Fletcher Henderson and His Orch on screen. Snappy visuals, thanks to Anatole Litvak and Ernest Haller, with some nifty surreal montages by Richard Fleischer. A fun supporting cast: Jack Carson, Howard Da Silva, Wally Ford, Lloyd Nolan as a thug, Billy “Dead End Halop, Priscilla Lane (as a character named Character), a few scenes stolen by a goofy young Elia Kazan. A punchy script from Robert Rossen, full of boxcar-riding populism.

But what Im liking most right now is a scene about ten minutes in, where our jazz-musician heroes are in a jail cell talking about forming a band. And Whorf, as the boogie-woogie piano player, makes this fast, sweaty, grinning, impassioned speech:
       Its got to be our kind of music, our kind of band! The songs weve heard that have been knocking around this country, real blues, the kind that come out of real peopletheir hopes and their dreams, what theyve got and what they want. The whole USA in one chorus! And that band aint just guys blowing and pounding and scrapingits five guys, no more, who feel, play, live, and even think the same way. That aint a band, thats a unit! Its one guy multiplied five times, its a unit that breathes in the same beat. Its got a kick all its own and a style thats their own and nobody elses. Its like a hand in a glove, five fingers, and each one fitsslick and quick.
      Sure, its overwrought and improbable and almost silly, but theres something exciting in there too, something I miss in our self-aware times. No musician would have said anything like it even in 1941, but people were at least willing to pretend that he might. I like the idea that popular art could try to capture the spirit of the nation, could have a shot at uniting and defining a people, and that an ambitious young musician wouldnt be embarrassed to say so. Its a vision of art that suggests theres something bigger than individual glory or private expression, a vision of the republic as a living body, and it seems to me this raw-nerved and threadbare old country could use some of that.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Between J and K

In October, 1974, when I went to get my picture taken for the Gilroy High School yearbook, I barely knew Jennie Kajiko. We had some friends in common, might have exchanged some words when we sat near each other in Senior English, but that was about it. In the spring, though, when she came to my house to help with an editing session for the literary magazine (back when editing mostly involved scissors and rubber cement), things started to change. By the time the yearbooks came out, just about exactly forty years ago, we still hadn't done anything that could be called “dating, but we were getting very creative at finding ways to spend time together. Which made it seem awfully significant when this is what appeared in our yearbook:

Significant to me, at least. Jennie, ever more realistic, saw it as nothing but an alphabetical accident. (She was far more concerned with the fact that theyd called her “Jenny.) But I was determined to find meaning in it. 
       Some months later, in the sad but warm spell after wed survived a few hard conversations and a near-breakup, I told Jennie that I had a very strong feeling about our future. I said that I had a feeling we might not always be together, we might even break up for long periods, but somehow I believed we would ultimately be together. Jennie found it a sweet sentiment but not a very realistic one, and I suspect she may have felt a bit confined by it. A joke seemed called for as an antidote to my overflowing romanticism, so I said something about how it must be true, because why else would we have been side-by-side in our yearbook? Underneath the joke, though, I think I sort of believed it.
       Clearly it was just the sort of thing an eighteen year old says, and clearly such things arent to be taken seriously. But forty years after that yearbook came out, here we are.

It hasnt been an easy road. Thereve been hard times, and long times when our lives barely intersected. Weve decided that the relationship was over more than once, most recently five years ago. But here we are still, or here we are again. And we’ve finally figured some big things out, learned how to make life together as good as we both want it to be. Im not silly enough to try predicting the future anymore, but I dont see this ending any time soon.
       I’ve mostly stopped thinking about that yearbook page. It was just a matter of alphabet, after all. We were in a small high school, and there happened to be no one named Judson or Kable to muscle between us. But if I were going to write a romantic story about a long, difficult, and ultimately wonderful relationship, and if I werent too worried about coming off as corny, it would be a great detail to use.