Monday, December 15, 2014

Who Wrote the Beaver Papers 2?

When I posted a quiz last week based on The Beaver Papers 2, the new humor book Will Jacobs have just had published, it was a unanimous hit! I liked it, Will Jacobs liked it, our publisher at Atomic Drop Press liked it, and not one person wrote in to disagree! With that kind of universal acclaim, how could we not do it again?
      Just in case you’ve forgotten, the new book, available from Amazon or straight from the publisher, is the very-long-awaited sequel to our “cult classic,” The Beaver Papers (recently released in a 30th Anniversary Edition).
      Below are excerpts from five of the 25 parodies in the new book, each positing what an episode of the classic sitcom Leave It to Beaver would have been like if written by a world-renowned author. Your job is to find a match for each from the list at the end!

1. It’s not that she feels unhappy, June thinks as she goes through the motions of vacuuming the floors and giving the boys hunks of milk as they barge in after school. It’s that she feels nothing. She wonders what real people feel. Then she wonders if real people even exist. Everyone around her looks like such a two-dimensional stereotype. The world seems to be entirely in shades of gray, and she begins to think that even the laughter she hears whenever one of her boys says something cute is only a tape recording played on cue.



2. Beaver has a hard time paying attention in school that day as he can’t stop thinking about Miss Landers being a Ganymedean slime mold. But at last he’s able to shake off the preoccupation. So what if she’s a particularly hideous alien life form, he tells himself. Since she’s able to project the image of a pretty young school teacher and rarely sends him to Mrs. Rayburn’s office, it doesn’t really make any difference.

3. Ward has seen Larry Mondello countless times before and felt nothing for him but a vague distaste, but until now he has never seen him wearing only swimming trunks. Awash in the vast, pale sweep of Larry’s flesh, the abandoned voluptuousness of his sheer corpulence, Ward is surprised to find himself strangely transfixed. He tells himself that he must surely be appreciating Larry at an aesthetic level. He wonders if Larry is the Platonic ideal of something and wishes he had studied more classical philosophy along with the Greek mythology.

4. Well, sir, I immediately went into my act, fiddling with my cap, making sure my shirt was buttoned to the throat, flashing my buck-toothed grin. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, I always say. I’d worked dang hard on my perfect-child routine, and I knew there’d be trouble if the old bum had seen through it. As it turned out, though, he just wanted to tell me some of his musty old stories. Gus could lay on the corn as thick as I could. The only difference was, he meant it.

5. Beaver rushes away and is accosted by Eddie Haskell. Eddie cackles and makes a long speech about how, with Ward Cleaver gone, he’ll be free to give Beaver the business whenever he feels like it. But in the process he reveals how his concept of giving the business is built on moral cowardice and a fear of the rationality which is the foundation of man’s existence.



A.  Thomas Mann, Death in Mayfield
B.  Jim Thompson, The Beaver inside Me
C.  Sylvia Plath, The Beaver Jar
D.  Ayn Rand, Cleaver Shrugged
E.  Flannery O’Connor, A Good Beaver Is Hard to Find
F.  Philip K. Dick, Do Beavers Dream of Electric Creeps? 



 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Who Wrote the Beaver Papers?

The Beaver Papers 2, the sequel to a book Will Jacobs and I wrote over 30 years ago, has just been released by Atomic Drop Press. I’ll be blogging more later about what it’s been like to revisit a fictional realm in our late 50s that we created in our mid-20s, but right now I just want to give a taste of the book.
      The basic idea is, what if famous authors wrote episodes of Leave It to Beaver, that most iconic of all those iconic ‘50s family sitcoms? We’ve forged a whole fictional construct about how this came to be (the cultural leaders of the world rising up to save the show from cancellation in 1963, basically) and what that led to in the lives of the Beaver cast. But the heart of the thing is literary parody.
      Let’s do this with a quiz, because I like quizzes. Here follow the openings of five of the 25 short treatments in the book, which you can match to the list of authors and titles at the bottom. I hope it will give you a few minutes of enjoyment while I ponder the larger life lessons of self-sequelization.
      Oh, and in case you didn’t jump on any of the links above: you can buy the ebook for $2.99 or the paperback for $12.99 straight from the publisher here…or buy either from Amazon here, sending a bit less money to the authors and a bit more to Jeff Bezos (I’m sure if you asked him, he’d say he needs it more). Or, if you’re one of those people who can’t stand to read the sequel until you’ve read the original, you can buy the 30th Anniversary edition of the original Beaver Papers at either Atomic Drop Press or Amazon.
      Okay, then:



1. So the door to this impossibly 100 percent perfect Middle Class house opens and out glides this cool chick in chiffon and pearls, a picnic basket rocking daintily over her arm. She looks over her shoulder and here comes a cat that you can tell right off is as mad as a hatter, wearing this hip golf-sweater-and-slacks ensemble and the…shoes—how they shine! He does the same twist-and-gape and out bounds this teenager in checked shirt and these crazy white chinos that proclaim MOD FREAK as if written in Day-Glo letters, toting a towel and looking extraordinarily like Bucky Barnes, if you remember him from the comics. He looks over his shoulder too, and out flies the coolest, gawkiest, biggest-headed kid you ever saw, diving into that Bauhaus-sleek Plymouth Fury, and then, as it backs right at you, beaming through the back window like a buck-toothed Cheshire Cat on the dread LSD!
 

2. In Mrs. Rayburn’s office sits an anxious Miss Landers Landers. “Beaver Cleaver,” she exclaims. “Beaver of my life, cleaver of my loins. Bee-verrr: lips popping open, buck teeth biting down.” “Pardon me?” asks Mrs. Rayburn. Miss Landers Landers reveals that it all began when she realized that Beaver had a crush on her, just like so many other little boys. But Beaver was unlike any other little boy, he was a magical creature, a rodette. “A what?” asks Mrs. Rayburn. “Like a rodent, but with a sexy French ending,” the teacher says. “I’m brilliant at wordplay.” “Could you just tell the story, please?” asks Mrs. Rayburn.
 

3. When a traveler takes the wrong turn at Camelback Cutoff just beyond Friend’s Lake he comes upon a shunned and curious country. Outsiders seldom visit Mayfield of the monotonous clime and circumscribed lives, and since the horror of 1957 even the road signs pointing toward it have been taken down. It is in Mayfield in a house not remarkable for its olfactory immaculateness that Larry Mondello is born to Mrs. Mondello, of the decayed Mondellos.
 

4. In his blue garden, boys and girls come and go like moths in letterman sweaters and poodle skirts. Crates of RC Cola and Nehi Grape march as freshly as troops of the AEF in a steady procession to his front door, to reemerge in the purpling garage as melancholy, translucent sentinels awaiting their surrender for nickel deposits. Wally ushers Mary Ellen Rogers into this universe of ineffable gaudiness, this vast, vulgar, and meretricious orgy of crepe paper, potato chips, and twist records. Nothing is missing but the great Haskell himself, and in his absence the stories about him grow in romance.
 

5. In the cowboy boots that Aunt Martha sent him for Christmas, Wally Cleaver is nearly five foot ten and life is different. For a year he’s been wrestling with what he thought would be the biggest decision of his life, whether to go to State or Valley, but looking at himself in the mirror he knows that State and Valley combined don’t have room in them for a Wally Cleaver. Lumpy Rutherford has told him that men in the city are just faggots mostly, and so the rich city women have to pay for what they want. Wally is unclear on what a faggot is, but he’s fairly sure he isn’t one, especially in his tall boots, Stetson hat, western shirt, and fringed letterman sweater, and so the city women will pay plenty if he gives them what they want.
 

Now, who wrote what?

A.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Haskell
B.  H. P. Lovecraft, The Mayfield Horror
C.  James Leo Herlihy, Midnight Beaver
D.  Philip K. Dick, Do Beavers Dream of Electric Creeps?
E.  Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Beaver
F.  Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Kleaver Picnic

 
(Note that I gave you six possibilities for five excerpts. Nobody’s going to coast on the process of elimination in this quiz!)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Gotham Memories

Theres been a lot of talk about DC Comics leaving New York City for California next yearand it really is a huge shift, since the comic book business was born in New York and has been so completely shaped by its city from the startso a while ago my old colleague Bob Greenberger was soliciting memories of DCs Midtown offices from old-timers for his blog. He was kind enough to ask me, and I really wanted to participate. Unfortunately I was overwhelmed by work (i.e. managing my time badly) so I missed his deadline, but it all got me looking back on my first major experience with the DC offices. Which was, in some ways, my first real experience with New York.
      It was the spring of 1984, I was 26 years old, and I was researching The Comic Book Heroes, a book Will Jacobs and I were writing for Crown Publishers. Book-length comics histories were rare enough then that just about everybody in the business was willing to drop everything for an hour or two to talk to me, and Id arranged several interviews at DC, then in the shiny aluminum building at 666 Fifth Avenue, corner of 52nd Street. 
      Id been to New York a couple of times as a tourist, at seventeen even visited the Marvel offices as a fan, but Id never been to the city on business, never really spent time there, never gotten under its carapace. This time I went out to lunch and dinner with Crown staffers as one of their writers,and the next day I walked into 666 Fifth with an appointment. The sheer urbanness and grownupness of the whole thing was thrilling and intimidating, never mind the fact that I was going to meet Julius Schwartz Himself.
      Im not one of these people who grew up on Julies comics (Id been a Stan Lee loyalist as a kid and saw no point in learning the names of anyone at the competition), but in my rediscovery of comics as an adult Id fallen in love with the precise craftsmanship and ingenious whimsy of his Flash, Adam Strange, and Green Lantern, and as a nascent comics historian I knew that he was a very big deal in the development of the form. 
      I was also a quietly alienated son of the California suburbs of the 1970s, and I couldn't help feeling as though New York City was the real America, and the people who had lived through the 30s, 40s, and 50s were the real adults, and very little could be realer or more American or just generally, cosmically above me than an old Jewish guy in Manhattan whod helped create the comic book business. Which made it a very big deal when he not only let me sit in his office and ask him all kinds of questions about his life and career but then actually invited me to lunch. 
      So there I am eating a pastrami sandwich in the delicatessen on the ground floor of the 666 Fifth building. Not a very good delicatessen (even I can tell that), and everybody who works there is either Chinese or Puerto Rican (none of the old Warner Brothers character actors who would have been spouting weisenheimer dialogue in the delicatessen of my imagination). But still. Its a delicatessen. In New York. With Julius Schwartz. 
He asks what Ive been doing in town, and I tell him Ive gone to some restaurants and I heard some jazz at the Village Vanguard, and he starts talking about the jazz he used to listen to, mentions how he and his friend John Broome (my heart skips a beat) used to go to nightclubs to hear a guy named Maxie Kaminsky. And I say, Oh yeah, Max Kaminsky. The trumpeter. And he says, You dont know who Maxie Kaminsky was. And I say, Yeah, I do. Well, I dont know him well. But Ive heard some of his stuff with the Dorsey band.
      Then suddenly, impossibly, Julie Schwartz is impressed with me. Or, if not impressed, then at least curious and affectionately amused in that way thats almost the same as impressed. I say impossibly because this was not a calculated moment. I did have some general awareness that he was a Dixieland jazz fan, but that sounded so cornball, it hadnt occurred to me that he could have been one of those hepcats following hot-swing-cum-early-jazz-revivalists like Max Kaminsky. Or Bobby Hackett or Jack Teagarden or the other musicians I mentioned to keep that affectionately amused smile on his face.
      That happened to be one of my geeky things at the time, swing music and its offshoots. Just the night before my girlfriend and I had gone to the Rainbow Room to hear Sy Oliver (who used to arrange for the Dorsey band around the same time Max Kaminsky was cutting his few sides with them). That had been a lot of fun, but we were still outsiders, young tourists who paid for one of those souvenir photos they insist on taking of out-of-town rubes. But today I was sitting in a delicatessen with a cool old Jewish guy (the cool old Jewish guy of all cool old Jewish guys) talking about Max (I wouldnt presume to call him Maxie) Kaminsky and his hot horn in the late-night sessions at Jimmy Ryans clubwhich, I happened to know, had been right there on 52nd Street, less than a block away from where we were sitting.
      We went back up to his office, and I got back to the business of asking him questions about comics, but it felt different than before. I felt like I belonged there somehow, in a way I hadnt before. And just a few minutes later, a young guy popped in, gushing enthusiastically about some project he was working on, clearly enjoying Schwartzs attention. Julie asked me, Do you know Frank Miller? Which I certainly did, by name. Frank was the hot writer and artist of the moment, finishing up Ronin, rumored to be starting on some thrilling new rendition of Batman. But he was also, at least it seemed to me, another guy my age, also from somewhere less interesting or less real than New York, still excited to feel like he belonged in the DC offices talking to Julius Schwartz. 
       Julie introduced me as an author of a book about modern comics, Frank gave me his phone number and told me to call him if I had any questions. And it was right then, in the presence of Julie Schwartz, Frank Miller, and Maxie Kaminsky, that I knew I'd be coming back to those offices soon enough; and that, one way or another, I wouldn't be coming back as a tourist.

 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wait for the Sequel, Strongman

Usually, I’m a writer who has a pretty clear idea of what he intends to do and goes pretty directly at it. Men of Tomorrow, for example, started as an idea to tell the story of the battles over the ownership and control of Superman between his creators and his publishers, both as a human story and as a way of looking at how our ways of creating mass entertainment were hammered out messily in the middle of the last century. About the only big shift it went through in the research and writing was that it tilted more toward the birth of the comic book business out of the immigrant Jewish culture, so I blew through a lot of the later parts of the story (e.g. Jerry Siegel’s creative struggles with Mort Weisinger in the early ‘60s) more quickly.
       But I guess just once in my life I had to let myself unmoor the craft, point toward the open water, and see where the wind took me. Because the book I’m pulling together now is nothing like the book I set out to write.
       
       The idea came, originally, out of my Men of Tomorrow research. I had become intrigued by the very strange figure of Bernarr Macfadden, bodybuilder turned fitness guru turned publisher of confessional magazines, who represented a lot of what fascinated me about the weird popular culture of the 1920s and '30s but who didn’t really fit into a book about comics. So when I sat down to come up with my next book, I thought of one I called Mad Fortune, about the confessional magazines and other junk magazines as viewed through Macfadden's bizarre life and personality. And that’s the idea I sold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
          I’d barely gotten into the research on that when I began to realize that it wasn’t enough to hold my interest, that it would inevitably become mainly a biography of Macfadden, and I really didn’t want to write just a biography, especially of a guy who was strange and intriguing but not very deep or complex. So I took it more into Macfadden’s relationship with censorship and the whole battle over what people could and couldn’t reveal in print in the early 20th century—especially as that played out in the overlooked but very influential True Stories, True Crime, True Confessions genre, which Macfadden created. Which I also liked because it brought me back onto the turf of Killing Monsters, where I wrote some, but not nearly as much as I wanted to, about the history of our “culture wars" over mass entertainment.
       In researching that, I discovered Anthony Comstock, the great American moral censor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was Macfaddens first serious antagonist. I found that particularly interesting, because Comstock and Macfaddens battles were mostly over the latters right to run physical fitness exhibitions and publish cautionary stories about venereal disease, which seem so beneficial to us now but were so threatening to so many people then. Somewhere in there, my working title changed to American Madness.

       So I started to write about Comstock as Macfaddens antagonist, although I still saw the story as being mainly viewed through the latter. Which, after a while, was starting to bog me down, although I couldn't figure out why. I hit my first frustrating dead spot. 
       Then came the stroke of luck that Im still grateful for: someone else wrote a biography of Bernarr Macfadden. Specifically, Mark Adams did, with his very entertaining and highly recommended Mr. America. Mark was very generous and gave me a whole stack of notes and research contacts hed compiled, but even more than that he made me rethink my book. Bernarr Macfadden isnt like Abraham Lincoln, the kind of guy wholl support an infinite number of biographies. I knew that I needed to reduce the Macfadden part of my story significantly and crank up the Comstock and other elements, so no one could mistake this for “another book about that crazy bodybuilder from a long time ago.”
       Which was hugely liberating, because thats when I realized how stifled I was feeling by having to focus everything on the crazy bodybuilder. And I hadnt been able to see that, because I was holding onto this idea that the book shouldnt change too much from my original conception. Like I said at the beginning, I wasnt the kind of writer who did that kind of thing.
       Luckily, my patient and forgiving editor, Eric Chinski, supported me in the new direction, and the book was reborn as The Undressing of America. Now it was about the whole cultural battle over exposure, concealment, sex, health, privacy, the body, and all that stuff—a battle were still feeling the repercussions of—as it developed through the decades of Comstock and Macfadden's careers from 1865 to 1930. The focus would still be on those two, and their legal conflicts would still be the central action, but it would include a huge number of other people around them: Mencken, Dreiser, Ziegfeld, Rutherford B. Hayes, all kinds of people.
       Which is the book I proceeded to research and write, and when I revise it I think its going to be a really good book. But its not the book Im rewriting now. Because while I was writing that book, a whole other book happened.
       The thing was, the more I wrote about Anthony Comstock, the more I realized that he just didnt make sense to a modern consciousness unless you understood where he came from. His moral thinking was so preposterously black and white, his assaults on the most innocuous (and most moral) material were so violent, that he could only come off as some sort of delusional crank—which made it impossible to understand how he had so much public support and so much political power. 
       To make that comprehensible, I had to tell the story of the antebellum reformers from whom he sprang and who provided the momentum for his crusade, those complex and extraordinary people who launched the temperance movement, the YMCA, and abolitionism—and first made “indecent” publications a target of holy wrath—because they believed they were founding the Biblical millennium on earth. Which required a new front section of the book, a sort of long prologue, that I at first thought could start in 1851 (founding of the YMCA), then realized would have to start in 1840 (arrival of a man named Morris K. Jesup in New York), and finally would have to stretch back to 1827, when moral combat broke out over a ballet dancers lifting skirt.
       At a certain point, after Id researched most of that and written a big chunk of it, I realized that this was all just too much for one book to handle. I found the story of “Americas first culture war” more interesting (at least for the moment) than any of the rest of it, and I knew that I could never give it its due if I had to squeeze it into the first quarter of a book covering an entire century.
      The punchline of all of this is...a book that started essentially as a biography of Bernarr Macfadden wont have Bernarr Macfadden in it at all. This ones going to have to cut off before he was born. I still have (and like) the rough draft of the book in which hes a major player, the original Undressing of America, and Ill be happy to see that one published as a follow-up to this one. With this book to stand on and refer to, Ill feel much more confident about telling Comstocks story. (And, if nothing else, Ill understand Comstocks background much more myself. One of the functions of writing a book is so the writer can understand his own material...but thats another post.) 
       Basically, Ive written a book and its sequel. Except I wrote the sequel first, so the book that gets published first is the one I wrote second. Ive spent years researching and writing two big books at once, neither of which will look much at all like the book I originally contracted to write. Hardly what I set out to do—but now I cant really imagine doing it differently.
       The hard part now is the title. The Undressing of America was conceived for the second half of the story, and its a perfect title for that. But after years of hyping my next book, The Undressing of America, itll feel strange to come out with some other book and have to explain that Undressing is still out there. But that I think Ill discuss with my editor. 
       Of course, theres also the other next book, Lost Hero, my collaboration with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, which I'm certain will be pretty much what it's been planned as, because I dont think Nicky will stand for anything else. Ive kind of forgotten what that feels like, honestly. Itll be a nice change. 


Monday, September 1, 2014

Ruins of Cairo

Ive wanted to see Cairo, Illinois (pronounced Kay-ro) for a long time, and I finally drove myself there this summer. Its a town that represents a lot in American history: a strategic point at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, a great river port of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a mob town from Prohibition and a decades later; then it went into free fall when the bridges and highways by-passed it, and then came race riots, white flight, economic collapse, flooding. It was built for 15,000 people and a booming economy, and now it has 2500 people and not much of an economy except what the county courthouse and visitors to the Civil War archives at the local library bring.
       The demographics tell a too-common story of heartland decline: nearly half the kids living under the poverty line, about as many single mothers running households as married parents, only seven men for every ten women (men get scarce when the money gets low). But in other ways Cairo is far from common. Its flat, marshy, hot, kudzu-grown, more Southern than Midwestern. The whole town was evacuated three years ago when the rivers rose. The weather, the floods, the plants, and time have brought a lot of it down. What remains of the old city are like islands in a rising lake.
       And yet, people do live there. A lot of them in a large, spare, rectangular housing project that looks as lonely as a silo on the prairie; others in cheap rentals at the edge of town, government-assisted units scattered among them; some in the old Millionaires Row,” now a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of hundred-year-old houses in various states of renovation and decay; a few in the shrinking downtown, where houses are one by one abandoned and left to fall. 
       Some of those people are fighting hard to keep the town alive. I saw a lot of people out mowing lawns, even on half-abandoned blocks. There were relics of one effort after another to turn empty walls into mural galleries or call attention to some historic block. And right in the middle of the jungled depths of the old downtown, I stumbled on a mansion that someone had obviously just recently given a complete and stunning renovation, down to a gas lamp in front and fountains bubbling in the garden. (I asked around and was told it was a gay couple from out of town.)
       Im not quite sure, really, what it all means to me and why I think about it so much...but I took some pictures. Scroll about halfway down, to the close-up of the pedestal of the lonely statue called the Hewer, installed in what was then the middle of a bustling downtown. Presented to the city of Cairo in token of his unswerving faith in her destiny.” It was the still, bronze faith of that mighty but immobile man that I kept thinking about on the road back to Chicago.