By Shirley Jackson (Penguin edition, 1997; orig. pub. Farrar and Rinhart, 1953)
There are scads of books about motherhood out there, and obviously most are crap. I’m okay with that; I know I can always re-read Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages. Last week, I sent an email to a friend who was going mad trying to work on a book while tending her two small children. It wasn’t going so well. She described her domestic scene and said, “On days like this, I wish I liked the taste of alcohol.” My immediate response was that she would simply have to find a copy of Life Among the Savages. “When I went into the hospital to deliver our daughter,” I wrote, “I took one – ONE – book with me, and it was Life Among the Savages.”
Shirley Jackson is best known for her creepy fiction. “The Lottery” is one of the most anthologized of short stories; The Haunting of Hill House has been filmed twice. Writers cite her; there’s a literary award named after Jackson. The creepy stuff is fine, I’ve got nothing against it, but for my money Life Among the Savages is Jackson’s masterpiece. Laura Shapiro cites it as a touchstone in the “literature of domestic chaos,” which it is, but to me it’s more than that. Jackson’s fictionalized account of her life with her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, is wise on marriage, on why urbanites don’t belong in Vermont, on cats, on the folly of gun ownership, on children, and on why it is that, when everyone gets sick, blankets will go missing.
Eva Geertz, a bookseller, lives in New Haven.
We’re delighted that we’re not the only literary enterprise on the lookout for under-appreciated books and authors. We’re not even the best or most practiced at the hunt. Here are three places to go to find out about books that have probably flown below, around, or mysteriously through your radar: 1) The Neglected Books Page, http://neglectedbooks.com. If you’re a book lover and haven’t heard of this page, you really ought to be sore with yourself. Not only does it list recently neglected books (how’s that for a concept?), but it delves into neglect of years past, linking to lists like The American Scholar’s “Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years,” published in 1970. An old list like that one can be unexpectedly invigorating: it’s good to know that authors like Kate Chopin, Isaiah Berlin, and A.R. Ammons were once considered overlooked, since it means that time does remedy some injustices. It’s impossible to tell from the website who edits the Neglected Books Page, but it’s somebody judicious and industrious, and obviously not in it for the credit.
2) LeeSandlin.com. Many of our readers will know Lee Sandlin from our website’s effusive praise of him — praise that, we have reported before, helped him land a book deal with Pantheon. But Lee is not only a splendid essayist, he is also a champion of neglected books. Check out his list “Ten Novels That Not Enough People Have Read.” (Of the ten authors, we’d heard of one, and thought that maybe we’d heard of a second.) He annotates on the list here.
3) The Believer, annual award issue. This magazine, published by the same people responsible for McSweeney’s, reviews overlooked books in every issue, and once a year it gives out the Believer Book Award, the rubric for which is summed up here: “Each year the editors of the Believer generate a short list of the novels they thought were the strongest and, in their opinion, the most undervalued of the year.” Once again, we’d be surprised if you’d heard of any of the winners. Last year’s was Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.
James Thurber, “The 13 Clocks” (New York Review Children’s Editions, 2008)Seth Lerer, “Children's Literature: A Reader's History” (University of Chicago Press, 2008)
It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. Most likely, it was a long, boring summer afternoon at my English grandparents’ Oxfordshire country house. I would have been rambling around the motionless house—where the ticking of an antique clock in the kitchen reverberated through several rooms—looking for a means of entertaining myself. Up two twisty flights of narrow stairs, there was a small garret attic with a large bolt on the outside of the door. Slide the bolt across, click it down and swing open the door, and step into a room lined wall to wall with books. Books! Hundreds of them! For a child like me, the type who had to be told to stop reading in the car so that I wouldn’t make myself sick, it was as rich and mysterious as entering Aladdin’s cave (another story I read in a book I found in that room, the One Thousand and One Nights). And it was on one of my afternoons in this attic that I found the most magical book of all, James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks.
The copy of the book I found there was an old paperback, faded and tattered, that had once belonged to my aunt. It was a book full of dark and stormy. Beside the lilting, poetry-like prose of the story, it had fantastical illustrations in a muted palette of blues, purples and grays. It had obviously been much loved and much read, and I tore through it immediately. Best of all, it was actually two books in one—turn the book upside down, flip it over, and in the back half was The Wonderful O, also by Thurber, a delightful if less enthralling counterpart to the first story.
Then imagine my despair when I returned home that summer and discovered that it was impossible to purchase my very own copy of the book. Not only was the combo 13 Clocks/Wonderful O edition only published in the U.K., both it and the American version of The 13 Clocks had been out of print for years. So even as a so-called adult, I felt a thrill when I heard earlier this year that The New York Review of Books would be re-issuing the original American edition of The 13 Clocks, illustrated by Marc Simont. In a new introduction, prose and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman calls The 13 Clocks “probably the best book in the world,” and rereading it for the first time in a decade, I found it difficult to disagree with him. Ronald Searle, who illustrated the English edition, provided over-the-top illustrations perfect for the absurd, fantastical elements of the tale, but Simont’s simple, flat watercolors capture its quiet lyricism. And while I missed the nostalgia-inducing qualities of my old paperback copy, the new hardcover is a keepsake, with a rich red fabric spine and beautiful title-page illustration of a gloomy castle overlooking a peaceful hamlet.
* * *
The 13 Clocks is a subversion of many of the features of the traditional fairy tale. A valiant prince, initially disguised as a ragged minstrel, rescues a beautiful, bewitched princess—but everything else is somewhat out of the ordinary. The prince, Zorn of Zorna, is aided in his quest by the Golux, born of an ineffectual witch and a drunk wizard. The princess, Saralinda, performs half of what Zorn must do to rescue her. The magic is strictly of the ridiculous variety: when the Golux’s powers fails to start the castle’s dead clocks, Saralinda tells him to use logic instead. “If you can touch the clocks and never start them, then you can start the clocks and never touch them,” the Golux says. “That’s logic, as I know and use it.” Saralinda holds her hands a short distance from the clocks and they whir into life.
Much of the appeal of the book, a key feature of what should have been its staying power, lies in its ability to transcend the children’s-adult lit divide. Akin to The Phantom Tollbooth, one of its chief attractions is a linguistic playfulness that permeates nearly every line. Like the character of the Golux, who introduces himself as “the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device,” the book’s cerebral qualities are not there merely to tickle the intellectual faculty. They draw you into a world where words mean at once many things and nothing at all. From Gaiman’s introduction, again: “While all books are filled with words, this one was different: it was filled with magical, wonderful, tasty words.” Words are the true magic and power of the story. Simply mentioning the Todal, the amorphous evil that threatens to “glup” the Duke, causes a lock of a castle guard’s hair to turn white (maybe he should have gone with He Who Shall Not Be Named). And the evil Duke has Saralinda so enchanted that the only thing she can say in his presence is, “I wish him well.” One imagines this is as much to avoid hearing what she would say to him if she could as to keep her from conversing with eligible bachelors.
Thurber lived in Connecticut but wrote The 13 Clocks in Bermuda, and there is a subtle post-modern, post-colonial quality to the work. A definite breakdown between signifier and signified runs throughout the language. Is it really necessary for the Golux to assert that he is the only one in the world? It’s a self-evident assertion: what on earth is a Golux, anyway? Furthermore, he wears an indescribable hat—it can be seen, and felt, but not described (the story goes that Thurber, who had gone blind by the time he wrote the book, knew the illustrations were right when Simont was unable to describe the hat he had drawn). The prince fulfills a prophecy by having a name that both begins with X and doesn’t; in the beginning of the story, he poses as a minstrel named Xingu. And at the end of the story the enraged Duke throws the Golux’s self-assertion back at him, shouting, “You mere device! You platitude! You Golux ex machina!” This may be over the heads of most children, but it’s practically uproarious for a former lit major.
* * *
A delight in the power of language and the tricks of the tongue are also at the heart of Stanford professor Seth Lerer’s Children's Literature: A Reader's History. It’s a thick scholarly tome, but also a charming read that revels in children’s imaginations and the timeless works that stimulate them. Lerer, a medievalist, takes an approach that focuses on the books children have read since ancient times, rather than on what adults have labeled “children’s literature.” He distinguishes “between claims that children’s literature consists of books written for children and that it consists of those read, regardless of original authorial intention, by children.” He details the ways in which many literary productions—Aesop’s fables, King Arthur stories, Robinson Crusoe—move back and forth between adult and child readerships. Here, there is no prescription for what children and adults “should” read, no shame in an abiding love of Little Women or Harry Potter. Lerer emphasizes the quality of good children’s literature that allows it to survive from one historical era to another, and to attract kids and grown-ups alike.
The book’s main attraction is its obvious delight in the subject matter: Lerer perfectly captures the love of literature that usually follows a voracious child reader into adulthood. He evokes the rituals and emotions of reading, describing the pleasures of re-encountering many books through reading to his now-teenaged son. Taking a chronological view of the subject matter, he starts the study in ancient Greece and Rome and continues through to Judy Blume and J.T. Rowling. The work sings through the Classical and Medieval eras, as it explores what and how children read during those periods, focusing especially on the evolution of Aesop’s fables. It has become an axiom that the Victorians “invented” childhood, treating children as special and unique instead of as miniature adults, but Lerer describes the ways that Romans almost revered children and childhood and how that influenced children’s reading. I particularly liked what we could call the revisionist sections, in which the author examines the crossover process for what are now quintessential childhood characters. For example, he writes that in the Middle Ages, “Robin Hood and adventure verse were thought of as corrupting to the child.” But beginning in the Renaissance, people began to see themselves as emerging from the Dark Ages and to construct earlier periods as humankind’s “childhood.” In that process, “medieval literature became children’s literature. It was associated with childishness, error, sloth, idleness and foolery.” Likewise, Robinson Crusoe started out as a novel for adults, an allegory of colonialism, but was quickly edited down into children’s books and rewritten as The Swiss Family Robinson.
Lerer seems most at home when he looks at the interplay between literature for children and adults, noting, for example, the Medieval love for wordplay or how textual marginalia—those weird pictures in a book’s margins—mock chivalry and class hierarchies. But he stumbles when he reaches the nineteenth century and much of what we now consider the classics, from The Wind in the Willows to Alice in Wonderland to Treasure Island. At this point, for some reason, Lerer decides that it is necessary to start classifying the books into “boys’” and “girls’.” He devotes whole chapters to “storytelling for a boy’s world” and “female fiction,” and from the nineteenth century on generally divides works into one of these two camps. For a study that, as he describes at the outset, emphasizes a focus on the reader and what actual children read rather than what adults thought they should read, this strikes me as supremely odd. In the course of these chapters, he takes no time to analyze the categories he has established or ask whether works were as divided by gender as they seem. Other studies, like Hilary Fraser, Judith Johnston, and Stephanie Green’s Gender and the Victorian Periodical, point out that many boys entered the magazine The Girl’s Own Paper’s knitting and sewing competitions, and that The Boy’s Own Paper had female correspondents and readers. As the type of exploratory child reader who would pick up any book whether it was marketed for boys or girls (and this type of marketing still dominates children’s lit), I would have enjoyed a more descriptive analysis of what children actually read, rather than a confirmation of adults’ proscriptive tendencies.
In the book’s introduction, Lerer reminds us of the episode early in The Little Prince when the narrator presents the adults in his life with a picture of a boa constrictor eating an elephant. When he asks them if they find the drawing scary, they reply, “Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” The implication is clear: although Lerer spends another 300 pages in his discussion of children’s literature, it is only the children themselves who can really understand what makes these books so important and magical. Although I still find The 13 Clocks entertaining and pick up on more of the verbal puns than when I was 10, it’s hard to recapture the excitement and awe of that first encounter. Lerer understands this, and this understanding helps make his book so appealing. As he writes of child readers, “what their stories always tell us is that childhood is an age of the imagination, and that every time we enter into fiction, we step back into a childhood of ‘what if’ or ‘once upon a time.’”
Rachael Scarborough King is a freelance writer and a reporter for the New Haven Register.
We are delighted to inform you that Issue 3 of the New Haven Review, featuring essays, fiction, poetry, and photographs from Jim Knipfel, Jess Row, Willard Spiegelman, George Witte, Stephen Ornes, Ian Ganassi, Nick Antosca, Joy Ladin, and Desirea Rodgers is available now. We'll have the entire issue online shortly, but if you'd like to have the actual journal in your hands—which, designed by Nicholas Rock, is truly a thing of beauty—please contact us. We'd love to hear from you. And thanks once again to all our contributors, subscribers, and supporters for making this possible. Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review.
By Cameron Crowe (Fireside, 1981, out of print)
The wonderfully renovated and highly relevant magazine Harper’s has recently collected articles from its pages into a volume called Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper's Magazine. The idea, its editor, Bill Wasik, has said, is that in these times we cannot rely on the usual dance between reporter and source, or reporter and press secretaries or corporate spokesmen, to get at the truths that need getting at; we have to do better, and so reporters have to go under deep cover. Think Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickle and Dimed, or Jeff Sharlet in The Family.
We at the New Haven Review are all for conscious journalism (sort of like conscious rap, but with less bass). The more ideas, the more social good, the better. But it would be a shame to lose sight of an allied tradition that is equally vital, if less world-changing, and is often more fun to read: let’s call it submersion-into-adolescent-angst journalism. This would be the tradition of Alexandra Robbins’s Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, which I haven’t read but has a sexy cover, or the aptly named High School, David Owen’s forgotten classic of going undercover at a suburban high school.
The ne plus ultra of all submersion-into-adolescent-angst journalism is Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High — not the movie (though we do love the movie, which featured the best about-to-break-out cast ever: Sean Penn, Anthony Edwards, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Judge Reinhold, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, all before they were famous) but the book, based on Crowe’s return to his old high school. The final product, which is sort of novelized journalism, or journalistic fiction (nournalism? jiction?), takes all sorts of liberties with the truth, and it would probably be less of a delightful romp if it hewed to the facts. But if you want a snapshot of SoCal teen life in the late ’70s — sex, abortion, cars, cool tunes, kind bud — written with compassion and an ear for the way kids really talked, this is where to turn.
The book Fast Times at Ridgemont High is one of the great under-appreciated cultural documents of Americana, and the damned thing isn’t even in print any more, hasn’t been for years. Given that Cameron Crowe must have some serious suck in the showbiz world, you’d think it would be in print if he wanted it to be, which leaves us to surmise that he’s ashamed of one of his great creations. So the mediocrity Vanilla Sky lives on on Netflix, but a copy of Crowe’s wicked cool book can’t be found. Spicoli, if he weren’t so stoned right now, would surely be bummed out.
Mark Oppenheimer is putting the finishing touches on his memoir of high school debating, to be published by Free Press. He is also an editor of the New Haven Review.
By Peter Uvin (Kumarian Press, 1998)
The various governmental and nongovernmental organizations that practice international development work—USAID, the World Bank, the IMF, sundry UN organs—are often accused of seemingly contradictory things. One critic paints these organizations as deeply cynical, another as imperialist. Still another decries them as hopelessly naïve. But one criticism all sides repeat is that the organizations never seem to ask the hard questions about whether the work they’re doing is, well, working. Are they doing good? Are they doing harm?
This criticism has some validity to it. The debates within the field happen far from the public eye, and when something goes wrong, you don’t often hear anyone say they’re sorry in public. But now and again, you get a peek, a blazing exception. The best example of this I can think of is Peter Uvin’s Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda—a bold, intensely critical, and moving book that still leaves me shaken years after having read it, which is really saying something for a book aimed at specialists in economic development and international affairs.
The popular conception of the Rwandan genocide is that it rose out of nothing: One minute, Rwanda was a relatively peaceful place; the next, it was a bloodbath. That is, of course, untrue, as dozens of books written about it since then can attest (see, in particular, When Victims Become Killers, by Mahmood Mamdani). But there’s a reason that the popular conception persists, and some of it may have to do with the fact that, right up until the machetes came out, Rwanda was considered to be, as Uvin puts it, “a model of development in Africa.”
Uvin is a development specialist himself, who began working in Rwanda in 1991, three years before the genocide began. This fact is extremely important to the criticisms he makes in Aiding Violence, because they’re not condemnations; they’re excoriating self-inquiries of a variety that few people have the guts to muster ever, especially in print. As Uvin writes, while unrest roiled in Rwanda and at its borders and the pieces were falling into place for massacre,
almost none of the foreign experts living and working in Rwanda expected the genocide to occur or did anything to stop it from happening. Up to the last minute, thousands of technical assistants and foreign experts were building roads, extending credit, training farmers, protecting the environment, reorganizing ministries, advising finance officers, and delivering food aid, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year—the lion’s share of all government expenditures. For most of these people, up to the end, Rwanda was a well-developing country—facing serious development problems, but dealing with them much more effectively than were other countries.
This contradiction poses profound challenges for anyone who has ever worked with the development enterprise in Rwanda or in Africa in general; for me, it led to a long reflection process, of which this book is the result. What does development mean if a country that is seemingly succeeding so well at it can descend so rapidly into such tragedy? Why did those of us who worked there have no idea that this was coming?
Uvin—rightly, of course—lays the direct blame for the killing on those who perpetrated it. But he never lets himself or his colleagues off the hook:
The process of development and the international aid given to promote it interacted with the forces of exclusion, inequality, pauperization, racism, and oppression that laid the groundwork for the 1994 genocide. In countries such as Rwanda, where development aid provides such a large share of the financial and moral resources of government and civil society, development aid cannot help but play a crucial role in shaping the processes that lead to violence.
And that’s just the introduction. But the book isn’t simply critical; unlike development work’s more blunt detractors, Uvin isn’t trying to tear the organizations down. He’s trying to change the way they operate. By the time you’ve worked through his book—a nuanced and precise account of the way that the international development community related to Rwandan government and society before 1994—if you didn’t agree before, you’ll be nodding in complete agreement at his statement that
all development aid constitutes a form of political intervention … at all levels, from the central government to the local community. Ethnic and political amnesia does not make development aid and the processes it sets in motion apolitical; it just renders these processes invisible.
Uvin’s prescriptions (which he fleshed out in a second book, Human Rights and Development, in 2004) are then an example of policy writing at its best: In his plea “in favor of defining all development, and all development aid, in more holistic and political terms, at both the intellectual and the operational level” and the analysis around it, he sprints far beyond the way the debate is usually framed in popular discourse to a series of conclusions that are as smart as they are practical. And the good news is that it mattered. Uvin—now a dean and professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts—wrote a book that made waves throughout the world of international development and changed the way that aid organizations did their work.
Aiding Violence is thus a great book for nonspecialists who are interested in, and skeptical of, the efficacy of international development and genocide prevention efforts. Uvin’s criticisms are far more devastating than most of what you hear in the mainstream media, but they also offer a way out. Genocide is still with us, still a problem from hell, but Uvin takes his place beside many others who are not only telling us we should do more to stop it, but showing us how.
Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review.
“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”Directed by Marina Zenovich THINKFilm, 2008
“Polanski: A Biography” By Christopher Sandford Palgrave Macmillan, 2008
Probably no one would dispute the three most important facts of Roman Polanski's life: First, in 1943, the concentration-camp incarceration of his father and murder of his pregnant mother by the Nazis — from whom Polanski, then still a boy and essentially on his own, escaped. Second, in 1969, the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family — to whom many journalists wantonly presumed the director, then most recently of Rosemary's Baby, somehow was connected. Last, in 1977, the “unlawful sex” he pleaded guilty to having with a 13-year-old girl — whose subsequent forgiveness still doesn't change the corollary fact that Polanski has since been a fugitive from American justice, self-exiled to Paris indefinitely.
Nor should it be controversial to suggest that these episodes remain inescapably significant to Polanski's filmmaking, just as his work remains inescapably significant to American movies. So what can any new biographical treatment, be it a detail of the life or a full survey, on film or in prose, possibly hope to add? And what does it say that the two most recent efforts get by quite nicely without even interviewing the man himself?
As if faintly anxious about requiring extra justification, both Marina Zenovich’s recent documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and Christopher Sandford’s new book, Polanski: a Biography, flash their credentials early and often. As it turns out, Sandford’s formerly sealed court transcripts aren't any more revelatory than Zenovich’s familiar ones are cinematic. Yet neither of these new journalistic endeavors seems superfluous, and we're left to decide whether in the final analysis that’s to Polanski’s credit or our shame.
Not so long after the Manson murders made him a pallbearer for American innocence, Polanski found himself officiating the unholy marriage between American jurisprudence and celebrity journalism. Meanwhile he’d managed both to catalyze the visionary, personal filmmaking of 1970s Hollywood and arguably to pilot its irrevocable descent into indulgence. Thus our stance on the man basically comes down to which application of Jack Nicholson we consider more significant to American culture: directing him in Chinatown or borrowing his hot tub to dope and sodomize a minor.
With that in mind, Zenovich wants simply to reiterate that regardless of Polanski’s guilt or guile, his trial was a mockery of justice. That’s thanks especially to absurd encouragement from the testily star-struck judge Laurence Rittenband, for whom the filmmaker proved a formidable goad. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired has much damning evidence to present against the media circus.
And Polanski: A Biography has more. One scene Sandford describes is so visually concise that it could have been a cartoon in The New Yorker: “Amidst the commotion,” he writes, “one enterprising young man stationed himself at the front door, selling T-shirts inscribed with the slogans ‘FREE POLANSKI’ and ‘JAIL POLANSKI’.”
In both Zenovich’s film and Sandford’s book, Polanski comes across simultaneously as libertine and fatalist; as outgoing trouper and proud, brilliant creep; and as a major artist superbly matched to the technically sophisticated showmanship inherent to his chosen medium. Both of these accounts, while not approving, necessarily, or even entirely charitable, seem protective of their subject. Which is a little silly: if there’s one thing Roman Polanksi always has been able to do, it’s stand up for himself. This is a man who took it upon himself to clandestinely investigate his wife’s murder, suspecting his own friends enough to gather forensic evidence from them and send it to experts for analysis. This is a man who then got his memorably graphic production of Macbeth bankrolled by Playboy magazine while the actual murderers went to trial. No, we don’t need new biographies to tell us Polanski is chutzpah personified, but of course that’s why he still and always interests us.
As to a context of his films, Wanted and Desired puts forth a few choice clips, then turns the task of synopsis over to the prim Mormon prosecutor Roger Gunson, whose preparation for the Polanski trial included a retrospective of his work — from which Gunson reasonably adduced a thematic through-line of “corruption meeting innocence over water.” (It’s probably as brilliant an aesthetic summary as anyone prosecuting a hot-tub sex scandal will ever hope to contrive.)
Sandford necessarily allows a broader view: “As well as two satanic-cult pictures, his canon includes psychological thrillers, faithful adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens, a costume melodrama, matinee swashbuckling, Hitchcockian suspense, Thirties noir, excursions in absurdism and soft porn, sometimes concurrently, and a deranged Dracula spoof in which a Jewish vampire hunter, played by Polanski himself, repeatedly peers through a keyhole at a naked woman who happens to be Sharon Tate.” Not to mention an adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s 1946 memoir, The Pianist, for which Polanski became the oldest director ever to win an Oscar, in 2003. Arguably it was precisely that film’s Polanskian detachment that inoculated it against Spielbergian mawkishness.
But by then, Sandford writes, Polanski “enjoyed the kind of public opprobrium not seen since the time, thirty-seven years earlier, when John Lennon had remarked that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus.’ A few rather desultory public burnings took place of books and posters of The Pianist, though these put the perpetrators in the morally equivocal position of vandalizing what was in effect a memorial to the Holocaust.”
Such is the peculiar power of Polanski, a survivor so tenacious that he overstepped the American myths of survivorship, and accordingly became, as Sandford puts it, “Hollywood's ogre–that necessary figure.”
And so, in both Wanted and Desired and in Polanski, any pretext of new hindsight or of adjusting a cultural reputation seems, however innocuously, specious. Maybe it’s enough just to affirm Polanski’s irresistibly analyzable, ultimately inexhaustible mystique. As the director himself likes to say, in his exaggeratedly exotic accent, after what everyone else on set always figures is a final take, “Fandastic, fandastic! We go again.”
Jonathan Kiefer’s reviews are archived at jonathankiefer.wordpress.com. He reviews for many publications, including SF Weekly and The New Republic.
First things first: the issue #3 launch party will be at Labyrinth Books, 290 York Street, New Haven, from 6pm to 8pm. Please come! Second, we are thrilled that after we wrote about essayist Lee Sandlin, an undiscovered literary treasure, an agent on our email list contacted him, they got together, and now he has a two-book deal with Pantheon. Congratulations! (And glad we could help.)
Finally, a couple weeks back, we put out the call for poems about Sarah Palin. We just had a hunch that out there, somewhere, somebody had decided that Sarah Palin merited verse. A lot of great poems came in, but the sure winner, for dedication if not for quality, has to be the blogger at wittyditty.wordpress.com, who in the past few weeks has turned her (why are we so sure it's a “her”? we could be wrong) blog over to the versified crucifixion of Alaska's leading flutist/politician.
With photographs by Norman Mauskopf and an essay by Randall Kenan (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 1996)
On a slim, black cover floats a young boy’s face; on the spine, the title; on the back, authors’ names. Nothing more. This format proclaims primary loyalty to the photographs inside: more than fifty images of late-twentieth-century African-American life in the Mississippi Delta, bled to the margins of each page. No captions are offered, no explanatory text other than novelist Randall Kenan’s closing essay. But the images accrete, readable as a narrative – or not – and so richly textured that the shadows seem glutinous, the water truly wet, the air humming with the actual noise of a Mississippi night. Three figures stand in river water to their waists: a child robed in white, two preachers robed in black. Hand-lettered signs plead “Jesus Come In My Heart Today Come In To Stay.” A cow skeleton sinks into the mud of a cotton field as night comes on. Kenan’s essay is a nimble, moving meditation that nods to the photographs without circumscribing them: “A boy watches fire,” begins Kenan, “what does he see?”
A Time Not Here is one of a very few books of photography that truly captures the Delta as I, and other Southerners, know it: a place where the night is darker and the heat hotter than anywhere else on earth, where something dangerous and arresting is always happening at the end of that dirt road, behind that church or that deserted storefront, just barely visible from the corner of your eye. You can keep driving past. Or you can choose to look. Just as you keep looking into the boy’s face on the cover, which stares back with an expression mingling weariness, curiosity, openness, wariness, and everything in between.
Amy Weldon, an Alabama native, teaches English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
By Max Gross (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008)
Quick prefatory remark: a lot of people love Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a book about his inability to write the book he really wants to write, a critical study of D. H. Lawrence. Now, I love OOSR too, but unlike most of its fans, I don’t pretend it’s a brilliant meta-study about writer’s block, the meaning of biography, or obsessive fandom. Rather, I just think that it’s fun to meander with Geoff Dyer because, well, he’s good company. His trivial, time-wasting thoughts aren’t deep: they are just enjoyable to read.
Chuck Klosterman is fun in the same way; a lot of Klosterman is brilliant and hilarious, but even low-grade Klosto is still fun to hang with. So, too, with the best bloggers, whom we enjoy even when they are less than profound.
Add another one to the list: Max Gross, author of From Schlub to Stud, a new memoir of being pudgy, Jew-froed, Seth Rogen–looking, and hapless. Here’s the blog copy, than which I can do no better:
For years after college, Max Gross was a schlubby ne'er-do-well sporting an unwieldy Jewfro. He fought off double-chins and man-boobs. His style of dress was reminiscent of a stoned urban slacker. Young Max Gross truly was hapless in a big city. He was seemingly without luck or hope. He had bedbugs, a bad break-up, and an audit by the IRS that threatened to break his soul.
But he had heart (as well as two nagging parents). When Gross saw the smash comedy Knocked Up, he realized his day might have arrived. All these years of being a world-class schlub would finally pay off. Thinking quickly, Gross wrote an article about the phenomenon and soon found true love.
Not intrigued? Fine. But for those of us without enough hilarity in our lives, this is a book worth owning. And El Schlub-O has a blog worth visiting. And even his publishing house is hilarious — reading the catalogue of Skyhorse Publishing is funnier than all but the best Shouts & Murmurs and Onion articles. One would say that Gross deserves a better, less ridiculous publisher — except the point of his book is that a loser like him really doesn’t. They deserve each other!
Mark Oppenheimer has this article in the latest New York Times Magazine.
By Joseph Heller (Alfred A. Knopf, 1972)
Imagine a book densely packed with and surrounded by mathematics, and it’s unlikely you’ll have imagined a novel. But consider these early lines:
In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it.
Few in the world of fiction have tackled the concentrated calculations that inherently saturate the life of the American working man as effectively, universally, humanely, and timelessly as Joseph Heller did in his second book, Something Happened. The creative teams of The Office (both U.K. and U.S.) have a claim on the most recent attempts at this, but even they must pay some debt to Heller’s tight formula of corporate American anguish.
Known almost solely for Catch-22, his debut book dealing with somewhat similar desperate mathematics, but in a severely different tone — more experimental at best and more youthfully overwrought at worst — Heller took thirteen years to finish his sophomore book. Someone once argued that the only way to avoid the stress of writing your second book is by skipping it and immediately writing your third. Whether Heller considered Something Happened his second or third book, I consider it his finest and I seem to be in good company: Kurt Vonnegut considered it Heller’s finest, too.
There is a statistic out there that the average and, to some, ideal American family produces between 2.2 and 2.7 children. I imagine this would include one boy and one girl. What about the fraction? With such chapter subheadings as “I get the willies,” “My wife is unhappy,” “My daughter’s unhappy,” “My little boy is having difficulties,” “There’s no getting away from it,” and “My boy has stopped talking to me,” I think Heller might have had this absurd calculation in mind when he gave his sad sack hero, George Slocum, a third child (of sorts) who lives largely unseen on the top floor of the family home, a terrible manifestation of the lump every quietly desperate man has created for himself — through equal parts stubborn will, careless error, and, ultimately, lack of choice — and is forced to carry forever, caught firmly in his throat.
And that’s just the beginning. When something finally does happen in Something Happened, you may find that life’s sense of humor is one of the few fiercer than Joseph Heller’s.
Jakob Holder is an award-winning playwright who splits his time between Staten Island in New York and Ristisaari Island in Finland. It is, admittedly, an uneven split.
By Jeff VanderMeer (Tor Books, 2006)
Shriek: An Afterword is a book of books. In its setting and some elements of its plot, it is a work of fantasy about a surreal city called Ambergris. It is also a personal drama, as its literary narrative style mixes — sometimes sentence for sentence — the conflicting voices of two talented and argumentative siblings, Janice and Duncan Shriek. But Shriek also blends two nonfiction genres that, to my knowledge, have never before met: tell-all memoir and environmental history. The latter, less familiar than the former, is the scholarly study of the environment as an instrument, object, and agent of historical change. Environmental history is my field of study, and VanderMeer has taken it to the level of the fantastic.
Duncan Shriek is a historian whose intrepidness and iconoclasm both inspire and lead to his downfall. In Ambergris, historians hold powerful sway in public culture and discourse, in part because interpretations of history hold vital implications for the present and future. Duncan’s first books whet the public’s appetite for local history. But then he breaks Ambergris’s greatest taboo by delving too deeply into a chapter of the city’s past long buried in denial. Centuries ago, the founders of Ambergris ousted the Gray Caps, its “original inhabitants,” and most scholars gloss the incident as, well, ancient history. However, by scouring old texts and the city’s secret underground, Duncan discovers that a Gray Cap resistance has long been building just out of sight. This disturbing theory is most unwelcome and — combined with an affair with a student — it destroys Duncan’s credibility at the very moment when Ambergris needs to hear his message.
Although Duncan is the historian, VanderMeer tells most of the story in the voice of Janice, sometime art promoter, war correspondent, and defender of her younger brother. Years later, after Duncan has disappeared in pursuit of the truth, she sits down at a typewriter in a shell-shocked tavern to set the record straight about the parallel falls of the Shrieks and their beloved city. Janice is a quintessential unreliable narrator: Jealous and bitter, she spews bile at Mary Sabon, Duncan’s former student and lover who rejected his theories to become Ambergris’s new favorite historian. But we trust her when she describes the damp night when Duncan stumbled through her door with tangible evidence of the Gray Caps’ plans: a multicolored fungus that, in the course of his research, had colonized his entire body.
VanderMeer populates Ambergris’s environment with characters I would love to investigate: the Gray Caps; bizarre mushrooms evolving in an underground lair; the Shrieks themselves, with their friends and enemies; and most of all, the city’s damp, foreboding, and spore-filled air. My colleagues and I write about everything from the construction of New Orleans in a mosquito-laden wetland to conflicts over wildlife between Euro- and Native Americans. But we rarely have the opportunity to weave family scandal and melodrama into our histories, and our archival work seldom reveals a new environmental agent that poses such a direct threat to an unsuspecting city.
I don’t only love this book because it glorifies my profession, however; it is also an exploration of the role of history in our lives and our world, and the ways that denial, both personal and collective, can color the way we look at the past. At the level of memoir, VanderMeer shows us a brother and sister struggling with the truth of their own personal histories. At the level of environmental history, we see a city denying its own past despite the living clues in the landscape. But in VanderMeer’s world, history is denied at great peril, as it really can get under the skin — sometimes literally.
Dawn Biehler teaches in the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is working on an environmental history of urban pests.
By Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape, 2004)
Recently, more Americans than ever are getting to know Anne Enright, whose novel The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. But almost nobody here has read Making Babies, which has yet to find an American publisher. It’s hard to describe the fascination these spiky, lovely essays on motherhood have for me, a woman without a child or any particular wish for one. Like memoirs by mountain climbers or four-star chefs, these are dispatches from a world of exhilarating and frequently terrifying physicality, creativity, and endurance. “A child came out of me,” Enright writes. “I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.” This vulnerable, defiant voice marks each page: deft, exact, and deceptively casual, as in The Gathering, Enright’s style perfectly conveys the permeability of self to the world that motherhood — like writing — can heighten. The brain “tries to make you feed anything helpless, or wonderful, or small,” she explains. “So I have let down milk for Russian submariners and German tourists dying on Concorde. Loneliness and technology get me every time, get my milk every time.” Her ironic feminism, inflected by her Irish Catholic upbringing, animates descriptions of nurses’ reactions to male and female babies’ genitalia, divisions of household labor, and the body’s mattter-of-fact disorder: “Women leak so much,” she writes. “Perhaps this is why we clean — which is to say that a man who cleans is always ‘anal,’ a woman who cleans is just a woman.” These passionate dispatches from an ongoing mystery were as compelling to write as they are to read. “The reason I kept writing about my babies,” she tells us, “even when they were asleep in the room, was that I could not think about anything else… I wanted to say something about the anxiety of reproduction, the oddness of it, and how it feels like dying, pulled inside out.” Making Babies takes a reader inside the new world of motherhood — a stained, dark, complicated, and beautiful place — as few other writers are willing to do.
Amy Weldon teaches English at Luther College.
By Sarah Pemberton Strong (Alyson Books, 2002)
When I was a kid, my family used to go to the Caribbean for vacation in the summer. Once, on a beach in Barbados, I watched a conch fisherman in the rough surf right off shore, just a man with a set of fins, a long metal pole, and a knife, diving over and over again to the bottom about twelve feet below him. When he came to shore he had a shell in his hand that I coveted at once. I don't remember how the exchange began, but I must have asked him for it, because I remember what happened next in great detail.
"You want this?" he said. I told him I did. He looked at my parents nearby and his expression changed, to something not altogether friendly. Without a word, he slid his knife into the shell and made a long incision. The shell began to bleed, much more than I thought it was going to. Then the man took the shell in one hand and the metal pole in the other, and began to beat the shell, hard, until the shell spat pieces of dead conch onto the sand. When the man was done, the shell was speckled with gore; he bent down, washed the shell in the water surging around his feet, and handed it to me.
"There," he said. "There’s your shell."
Later I learned a little bit more about the Caribbean and its history; the ways that crime, revolution, the legacies of colonialism and slavery, and the fact that it is a paradise occasionally visited by savage weather have given the region a distinct eeriness — a sense of beauty and threat — that I only caught glimpses of as a tourist. When I read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea a decade ago, it was a revelation, a book that had seemingly mined that eeriness deeply, and I wondered if I would ever come across its equal again.
Before I say what I am about to say, please know I am fully aware of Wide Sargasso Sea’s canonical status in both Caribbean and feminist literature, and that I dislike hyperbole when describing books. Now listen: Sarah Pemberton Strong's Burning the Sea is the heir and equal — and possibly superior to — Wide Sargasso Sea. It is a book of such grace and terror that I despair of finding another book like it for a long time.
Burning the Sea is about Michelle, an American, and Tollomi, a Cruzan, who have both lost touch with their families and the places they're from. Both also have unusual relationships with their pasts: Michelle has trouble remembering much of hers at all, while Tollomi remembers so much that he's drowning in it. They meet by chance in the Dominican Republic, when Tollomi, a charming polyglot, bails Michelle out when she is detained at the airport; thrown together, they fall quickly into an intense friendship as Michelle searches for a plot of DR land bequeathed to her by her grandfather while Tollomi begins an affair with a young Dominican man. The people they meet along the way draw them into Dominican opposition politics, as they may or may not become connected to a rash of fires being started in the luxury hotels along the shore. Meanwhile, there are hints that Michelle's past involves something she may not want to remember.
Strong brings in a lot of ideas at once, and for much of Burning the Sea all is exquisite tension, as the characters follow their desires and Strong elaborates upon and begins to connect her multiple themes. The first three quarters of the book have a dreamy, luxuriant menace to them; somehow, somewhere, on the next page, something is going to go terribly wrong. Then, in the final quarter, Burning the Sea becomes almost unbelievably good, though telling you how would ruin the book enough that I won't say anything more about what happens. It doesn't become merely a political screed, or soap opera, or melodrama, or horror story, as in lesser hands it very well might have. Instead, it becomes all these things at once, and also something transcendent: a rumination on identity, history, and memory; the violence shot through it all; and how to come to terms with them, nationally, personally, and politically.
The real reason I can't get Burning the Sea out of my head over a year after reading it, however, is the writing. With sentences sharp, elliptical, gorgeous, and sinister, Strong finds the same vein that Rhys tapped into in Wide Sargasso Sea and tears it wide open. Burning the Sea's ideas set the brain on fire, but Strong's writing stops the heart.
Given how fickle the book world can be, that a book this good has gone unrecognized is perhaps understandable; that it is currently out of print, as Burning the Sea seems to be, is baffling. This should be fixed — now — so that this book has a chance to sit alongside the company it deserves.
Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review.
As the above title suggests, the New Haven Review's hiatus continues. In the meantime, we commend to your attention John Stoehr's review of Dispatches in America, the first issue released by Dispatches, a quarterly journal and website concern with a fascinating mission and editorial stance. May we hear much more about Dispatches as it progresses. Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review.
The New Haven Review's August hiatus from reviews begins this week as we line up website reviews for the fall and edit Issue 3 of the print edition, which will appear in November. (Yes, we hope to throw another party. We can't help ourselves.) We would also like to remind New Haven-area readers that our final summer book group meeting at Labyrinth Books is this Wednesday at 6 p.m.; New Haven Review contributor Steven Stoll will discuss David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism. For those unfamiliar with the term, neoliberalism is the catchall phrase for the dominant economic ideology of our time — liberalized capitalism — and the various political and social policies associated with it that have changed the world in profound ways. As the ideology is championed, reviled, elided, and misunderstood in nearly equal measure, a discussion of neoliberalism should be about as lively as discussions get. As always, Labyrinth provides the wine and cheese. See you there!
Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review.
The spindly, aphoristic poetry of Kay Ryan, our new poet laureate
If Emily Dickinson, as Ted Hughes once suggested in his exquisite, under-read introduction to A Choice of Emily Dickinson’s Verse, combined “the riddle and the hymn,” Kay Ryan has selected the margin and the aphorism. Ryan is a gleaner, a poet constantly imagining and fleshing out whimsical circumstances such as those suggested by a quick sampling of her titles: “Living With Stripes,” “Imaginary Eskimos,” “The Fourth Wise Man” (who, in Ryan’s conception, “disliked travel”), “Death By Fruit.” She’s a champion of underdogs and the overlooked. A poem titled “The Excluded Animals” begins, “Only a certain / claque of beasts / is part of the / crèche racket,” later imagining the toothy grins of “unchosen alligators.” The title poem of Elephant Rocks extends this theme in its description of odd surfacings at the “edges and marges” and the pushing of fragments of “shambling elephant armature, / up through the earth.” In fewer than twenty lines, Ryan explores the extraordinary strangeness of elephants, the craggy, rock-like nature of their humps and bulges, the enduring value of what is “too patient and deep to be lost,” and the artistic process itself. Her margins are achingly, eerily, wonderfully alive.
Though her lines are often half the length of those of her predecessor, Ryan’s aphorisms are fully Dickinsonian in their oddness. “Doubt uses albumen / at twice the rate of work,” she tells us, and later “Time is rubbery. / If you hide it / in the shrubbery / it will wait / till winter and / wash back out.” She is often quite tender, for instance when she assures us that “Patience is / wider than one / once envisioned” and calms us with the notion that “There could be nutrients / in failure — / deep amendments / to the shallow soil / of wishes.” Don’t be fooled, though, for, as Ryan herself puts it, “Tenderness and rot / share a border. / And rot is an / aggressive neighbor / whose iridescence / keeps creeping over.” Ryan delights, but she does not console. Her filament-like poems are short, spindly, slant-rhymed contraptions, punctuated by deliciously exact words such as “sedges,” “lacunae,” “apertures,” and “castanets.” Hers is a poetry of “herringbones and arrows,” one that evokes the “guilty shimmer” of cribbed objects. Ryan prefers the third person to the first, and her poems revolve around animals and strange facts rather than interpersonal relationships. Reading her work, I hear the voice of a particularly wry, elegant schoolteacher whispering into my ear. As she writes in “Outsider Art,” “We are not / pleased the way we thought / we would be pleased.”
Emily Moore teaches English at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and the Yale Review.
By Eliot Asinof (orig. pub. 1955; reissue by Southern Illinois University Press, 1998)
The writer Eliot Asinof is best known for Eight Men Out, a history of the 1919 Black Sox baseball gambling scandal. Those who are unfamiliar with the book might recognize its title because of the popular 1988 John Sayles film, based on Asinof’s work. If Eight Men Out is Asinof’s most popular book, his mid-century baseball novel, Man on Spikes, might be his most intriguing. Columnist Jimmy Cannon even described it as the “truest novel I’ve ever read.” Since it’s virtually unknown, however, Man on Spikes might better be labeled the truest novel they’ve never read.
Loosely based on the real-life experiences of Mickey Rutner, the 1955 novel chronicles the travails of career minor leaguer Mike Kutner. A Kentucky native, Kutner is the son of a gruff, immigrant coal-mining father who doesn’t understand his son’s desire to play baseball. Discovered by a scout, Kutner signs a minor league contract with a $2,000 bonus — the money helps assuage his father’s initial objections. His team’s crochety manager refuses to play him because he doesn’t think he has the talent; in response, Kutner asks to be traded. The manager says he will, on the grounds that Kutner lets the team decrease his signing bonus to $250. With no other options, Kutner agrees.
This financial malfeasance is only the beginning of Kutner’s misfortune. A talented player who hits for average and runs and fields well, he enjoys success at the top minor league levels. But he runs into a string of bad luck, spending some of his prime playing years serving in World War II. Kutner also runs into a system that is stacked against him.
As it is in Eight Men Out and so many of his other works, Asinof’s major theme in Man on Spikes is capitalism and how it destroys the human spirit. The wealthy baseball owners, barons of the system, hold the players down. In Eight Men Out, Asinof reinterpreted the Black Sox scandal as a protest by the White Sox players against their tight-fisted owner, Charles Comiskey. In doing so, he revolutionized our understanding of the scandal, in which the favored White Sox threw the series to the Cincinnati Reds. Until Asinof and Sayles, people thought of the players as the scandal’s villains, rogues who willingly damaged the National Pastime for extra cash. Man on Spikes is far more prophetic that Eight Men Out. There are a few good men who back Kutner — the scout who originally signs him, a manager who sees his value. But more frequent are those who either run the system, i.e., team owners, or are pawns of it: Journalists, for example, are in the owners’ clutches. Even the Major League commissioner, although sympathetic to Kutner’s plight, is powerless. The thing is, it’s all true: Until the mid nineteen-seventies and the advent of free agency, baseball players were the property in perpetuity of the team that originally signed them. About fifteen years before free agency became the touchstone issue in sports labor relations, Asinof wrote it all down in Man on Spikes.
Asinof’s own experience with individual powerlessness was no fiction. During the McCarthy era, Asinof was blacklisted from Hollywood. In his angry Bleeding Between the Lines, which chronicles his struggles over the legal rights to Eight Men Out and is also a partial memoir, he writes that “the sole reference to my subversiveness was a petition I had signed in 1951, outside Yankee Stadium, urging the New York Yankees to hire a Negro ballplayer.” I attempted to ask Asinof about the blacklist and other issues during a phone interview earlier this year, but he cut the interview off after a few questions, saying he didn’t feel well.
In Bleeding, published in 1979, he also makes clear his anger toward the system. Just before discussing the career of Marlon Brando (Asinof was married for several years to Brando’s sister, Jocelyn), he launches into a rant against postwar, Watergate-era America: “We had become an affluence of leeches, wheeler-dealers, hustlers, brokers, manipulators — some legal, some not.”
Asinof’s rage against the machine pervades Man on Spikes. The book is a fast-paced novel. It’s chock-full of action and physical description, with Kutner as its quasi-tragic hero whose fruitless pursuit of his dream (it’s no stretch to see the story as symbolic of the destructiveness of the American dream) beats him down. Near the end of Kutner’s career, Asinof places these thoughts in the mind of Kutner’s wife, Laura, as she watches her husband play:
But now the chip on his shoulder was too plain to see. He moved like an animal stalking his prey, fast and hungry and relentless. The quiet confidence was still there but it had a sullen edge to it. He was tired.
Laura, too, is weary. Two-thirds of the way through Man on Spikes, she has become an aging, boozy beauty. In the book’s most moving scene, she gets drunk in a hotel bar with the son of a big-league owner, willing to sleep with him to advance his husband’s career. Only because he passes out in his hotel room do the two not have sex.
In his preface to the 1998 edition of Man on Spikes, Asinof acknowledges that he was inspired by his friend Mickey Rutner (they met as minor league teammates), who had a career trajectory similar to Kutner’s. Like the book’s hero, Rutner spent years toiling, and excelling, at the top minor league levels with little to show for his efforts. In Bleeding Between the Lines, Asinof approvingly quotes Rutner teaching him the following line: “Fuck ’em all, big and small.”
I met with Mickey Rutner early in 2005 for an oral history project on Jewish baseball players being conducted by a group called Jewish Major Leaguers. Then in his mid-eighties (he died in October 2007 at the age of 87), the Bronx-born Rutner seemed to have come to terms with his almost-but-not-quite baseball journey; he was proud of his lifetime batting average of .295 playing mainly in the highest levels of minor league ball. He told me: “I said, ‘Get those men on base and I’ll knock them home.’ I wasn’t a great fielder and I didn’t have a great arm but I was a good hitter.”
Rutner was also pleased with being Asinof’s model. He confirmed the general outline, and some of the specifics, of Man on Spikes. Like his fictional counterpart, Rutner was denied part of his original bonus, World War II harmed his career (although he was proud of having served in the U.S. Army in Sicily while under attack from Germany), and he was lied to by owners and managers who repeatedly promised him he would be called up to the Big Show. Despite the exorbitantly high salaries players earn today, there’s little doubt that the system is fairer than in the old days, when players were unable to sell their services to the highest bidder. As Rutner told me simply, “They owned you and they could do what they want with you.”
There’s one major biographical difference between Rutner and his fictional alter ego. In Man on Spikes, Mike Kutner’s not Jewish — his father is a German immigrant. In the preface to the second edition, published in 1998, Asinof addresses this issue: “Is there anti-Semitism present in baseball? Does a bear dump in the woods? [But t]o make my hero a Jew would distort the impact that all ballplayers were victimized.”
Asinof was unwilling to make his protagonist Jewish, but he was willing to play hardball with his politics: In Man on Spikes, the system is to blame. The system has even defeated the owner’s son, a Harvard grad who was drawn to Laura Kutner in the bar because he “wanted to cut the never-ending dullness that was his life.” Any union agitator would have been proud. There’s a reason why Marvin Miller, the man responsible for developing the baseball players’ union in the 1960s and ’70s, later called Asinof a “prophet — with honor.”
Rutner himself didn’t mind that his character wasn’t Jewish, although he identified as a Jew (his kids had celebrated becoming b’nai mitzvah, and he and his wife, Lee, belonged to a chavurah down in Texas, where they lived in retirement). He told me he felt welcomed by the Southern communities that he often played in, even more so by the Jewish community. He and Lee, explained that the Sokol Brothers, owners of an Alabama department store chain, had asked them to stay and live in Birmingham, where he played one year. Rutner turned down the offer because he wanted to play baseball. He also said he didn’t think anti-Semitism had kept him out of the major leagues, although he had encountered some problems:
There were always remarks. They always say, “The rich Jews up in those stands up in the park” and so forth. I’d say, “Those rich Jews up in those stands are paying your salary.” You know, you got to put them in their place. I got into a couple of fights. I remember in the clubhouse one time one of the guys was pitching and I musta made an error and he made some remark, so I went at ’em.
So why isn’t Man on Spikes more popular? In part, it may be because it’s sports fiction. With a few exceptions, like Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, sports novels aren’t considered high art. The fact that Man on Spikes, unlike The Natural or Eight Men Out, was never made into a movie, although it has been optioned a few times, doesn’t help.
In part, too, it’s Asinof’s own fault. He partially sacrifices his novel on the altar of his leftist politics, describing Kutner, at times, like a hero out of a Soviet socialist-realist novel. After he meets with the commissioner of baseball, the commissioner “watched the athlete now in that walk, in the spring of those powerful legs.” The paragraph ends: “The last thing he saw was the neck bronzed by the hot Southern sun as the ballplayer disappeared in the lobby.”
In Man on Spikes, Kutner eventually makes it to the major leagues as a late-season call-up, but he strikes out in a key game and then quits. Only after he makes that decision to leave the sport do Kutner and Laura experience a sense of liberation and relief. That’s not exactly how it happened in real life. Rutner made it to the big leagues for a few games, in September of 1948. During his twelve games in the Major Leagues, he had a game-winning hit at Yankee Stadium, not far from where he grew up. As he put it, “That was the biggest thrill of my life.” Sometimes, it seems, life is at least a little happier than art.
I never got a chance to find out if Eliot Asinof’s life, too, was happier than his art. He died at the age of 88 on June 10, 2008, less than a year after his good friend Mickey Rutner.
Peter Ephross’s articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, The Forward and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.
Another reminder: The New Haven Review's Summer Book Group at Labyrinth Books continues tomorrow, July 23, with Mark Oppenheimer leading a discussion of Richard Price's Lush Life, in which Price turns his unflinching eye on the new New York. As before, we bring the discussion; Labyrinth provides the wine and cheese. Hope to see you tomorrow.
Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review.