What A Drag!

 

I’m all tapped out on drag queens.

This summer, my husband and I have been speed-dating ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’. It’s been one of the ways – perhaps it’s been the best way – to help us get through this endless summer of heat and construction.

We started with the current season – no.10, and worked our way backwards through season 9, 8, an 7. Then we decided to apply a little origins theory to this experiment, and went back to season 1 and headed forward (with the exception of season 5, which for some reason – likely legal – iTunes excluded from availability).

On the surface, ‘Drag Race’ is like all the other reality competition shows: you start with a dozen or so competitors, give them each a weekly challenge, and get rid of one at the end of each broadcast.

But Ru Paul is not your ordinary hostess, and ‘Drag Race’ is not your ordinary show. First of all, everyone is or at least passes as gay, and no one is coy about it. Even ‘Fashion Police’ wasn’t this gay, Joan Rivers not withstanding. 

Plus, the contestants are drag queens. Because of this, and like the other best show of 2018, Ryan Murphy’s ‘Pose,’ you get a whole ‘nother layer of sexual, social, and political affect laid in on top of the more obvious dirty jokes, wild wigs, and sang-froid bitchiness.

Watching ‘Drag Race’ – especially watching ten years of ‘Drag Race’ in eight weeks – is a heady combination of over-the-top hilarity and deeply moving self-empowerment, often whiplashing from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes.

My husband and I love to join in the shouting out of all of Ru’s favorite catchphrases (‘Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win!’ or ‘Silence! I’ve made some decisions’ or my personal favorite, ‘Good luck, and don’t fuck it up!’). We ogle the semi-naked pit crew. We wait with breathless anticipation for each season’s celebrity impersonations in the ‘Snatch Game.’

We root for our favorite queens. (Among my tops: BeBe Sahara Bonet, Sharon Needles, Latrice Royale, and ‘I do declare, Blair St. Clair). We watched Michelle Visage replace Merle Ginsburg and Ross Mathews replace Santino Rice as judges. We watched Ru self-promote the hell out of her make-up, records, books, and side-projects.

But we also weep (with joy) when Ru reminds us of the value of sisterhood when applied to all human beings, when in between the moments of wig-pulling and reading (which has nothing to do with books, look it up) one queen offers a hand or a shoulder or a hip pad to another, or when the legacies of the gay drag icons of the past inform and inspire.

Seeing the entirety of the show in this manner (so far: it’s been renewed for an 11th season), I noticed a slight tick upwards in production values. The rather under-lit studio and relatively paltry prizes of the first few seasons have given way to longer runways, live audiences, and towering amounts of make-up, jewels, and cash. 

I noticed an equal increase in political sodality (or should I say sorority?) Perhaps this has something to do with the ascendance of Donald Trump in the middle of the 8th season. The at first shy and modestly defiant queens soon stepped up their game and crashed the standard of what properly behaved gay people look and sound like.

But let’s not take this serious stuff too seriously. These are still drag queens, after all. How fun is it to shout ‘Amen’ after Ru asks ‘if you can’t love yourself, how they hell are you going to love someone else?’ Or to do the drag ball wave (again, look it up) and scream ‘Vangi! Vangi’ or ‘Cameroooon!’ at the TV? In the end, ‘don’t fuck it up’ is not only a good catch-phrase, it’s also a pretty good template for how to live your life.

But now, unless there is a sudden and unexpected burst of ‘Drag Race All Stars’ this fall, John and I will have to wait until next spring to catch Ru saying ‘hi, hi, hi’ to her new drag family. I can’t imagine waiting a week to see who has to lip-synch for their lives, but I will if I have to.

To quote the final line of every broadcast: ‘Now, let the music play!’

 

 

Drowning in the Liffey : the search for my Irish soul

 

I write these lines while sitting in the middle of the Rosie Hackett Bridge spanning the River Liffey in Dublin. I am looking directly at the O’Connell Street Bridge, over which I have crossed at least one hundred times in my fiction as well as perhaps two dozens times in reality.

It is here that Joe Dooley, the hero of my first novel, ‘The Music Teacher,’ passed each day on his way to the General Post Office one block north, where he posted the lessons notice that attracted the attention of his best buddy and first love, Henry Vogeler.

And it is here that Billy Boland, the hero of ‘Telemachus’ – my other novel set in Dublin – walked on his way to his job sorting paper at Eason’s Stationers, located on what was then called Sackville Street. 

I crossed this bridge a hundred times while writing “The Music Teacher’ and ‘Telemachus’, and I crossed it a hundred times before when reading Oliver St John Gogarty’s memoirs of turn-of-the-century Dublin or James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ – the touchstone of all things cartographically Dublin. I crossed this bridge when tracing the routes of the soldiers of the 1916 Easter Rising. The bridge lies in the center of the heart of my imagination, and now it is literally in the center of my line of vision as well.

I say I’m drowning in the waters of the River Liffey, although of course I am not literally but rather literarily drowning in it. The water is endlessly coursing, so that I am never looking at the same river, and the flow of the water mimics (perhaps ‘mocks’ is a better word) me, reminding me that I am changing from moment to moment just as much but a whole lot less noticeably. 

My writing has always spun from the reflection of this internal current. Under the flow of this eternal river lies the bed that I can easily attest nourished my entire creative life. I have no reason or justification for this fascination with all things Irish – Irish language (which I cannot speak), Irish song, literature, art, or history. I am a Jewish boy from New York. Perhaps I was Irish in a past life. My husband, who is half-Irish himself, thinks so. 

Maybe it’s the taste of good whiskey, rare and so rarely sorted. Maybe it’s the irresistible combination of those blue eyes and that black hair which so many Irish lads beam out to the world -- a combination of ‘come hither’ and ‘feck off’ that creates a singular form of repressed passion.  Maybe it’s that first sentence of ‘Ulysses’: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

But I know, as I knew when I came here in my dreams, and when I came here fifteen years ago, and when I came here last week, that I will return, someday to stay, someday to live, to stitch the dream to a real piece of fine linen, and drape it around me as a muse.

And oh so pleasantly drown.

Stoned again

You may recall I revisited my relationship with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones (and oh, how much Charlie would hate that phrase) in March, when I first procured my tickets to their upcoming (tomorrow!) show in Prague, but I’d like to take this opportunity to focus on one experience in particular, as a way of demonstrating a key aspect of this long-term love affair.

It was the summer of 1976. I had just graduated from Rutgers, and my parents gave me the gift I asked for – a trip to England to see the Rolling Stones. I was twenty years old, and it was my first trip abroad and my first trip anywhere without my family.

My first night in London was terrifying. I had booked a room in a hostel in Earl’s Court, and the strange sounds of the street, the loneliness of not having anyone to talk to, and the sudden perception of the great distance that existed between me and anyone I loved brought tears to my eyes.

It took a few days to adjust, but – eventually – I did. I went to the Marquis Club in Soho to see Phil Collins and met a cute fifteen year-old boy named Barry. I ate Indian food and Wimpy burgers and Cadbury chocolate bars. I learned to navigate the British rail system and found my way to many of the places of my dreams – the Lake District where Keats wrote, the Scottish Highlands (where I flirted with a German boy named Alexander), and even Liverpool, where I stood outside the Cavern and imagined hearing The Beatles for the first time.

But all of this was a preview, a warm-up of sorts, for the main act – the appearance of the Rolling Stones at the Knebworth Festival: just me and 200,000 other people on a field thirty miles north of London. 

I caught the train to Knebworth from King’s Cross Station the night before the concert. I knew that all the tickets were general admission and the quality of your ‘seat’ depended on how early you queued up. So I sat on the grass there for almost 24 hours, keeping as warm as possible in my Bay City Rollers windbreaker (green vinyl with white cloth stars) with nothing to eat but whatever the kind strangers beside me had to offer.

To be honest, I don’t recall much of anything between the morning I joined the line and the moment the Stones hit the stage. I must have had the right idea about arriving when I did, because I do remember that I ended up spitting distance (almost literally) from Mick, still the closest I’ve ever been to the man (outside of a chance encounter in the Bottom Line men’s room, but that’s another story).

I must have napped through some of the other acts, because I can look up who was there easily enough – Todd Rundgren, 10CC, Hot Tuna, Lynyrd Skynyrd – but I don’t have any audible memories of them. I do know it was pretty close midnight when the Stones came on stage. 

You know you’re the Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band In The World when you can OPEN your concert with ‘Satisfaction’. According to Stones legends (and seconded in print by Bill Wyman), this show would end up being their longest one ever – 28 songs spread out across close to three hours. 

And then it was over. I made my way back to the train station and joined the huddled masses stuffing themselves in train carriages to take us back to King’s Cross. And the next morning, I flew home.

Now, 42 years later, I am seeing The Rolling Stones in Europe again. Mick is 74 (and turning 75 later this month). I’m 62. It’s can’t be merely the excitement of the music that accounts for why I still do it (or, for that matter, why the band does it). The band hasn’t had a hit record in decades. No, at this point it must have something to do with mortality and our constant sword crossing against it. When friends ask my why I want to see the Stones in concert, I say ‘well, if Mick and Keith can keep doing it, so can I’.

That’s the point. On paper (or on line, which is the way most of us communicate these days) it is patently ridiculous to be interested in seeing an act that was relevant five decades ago. It’s as if, in my childhood, my parents had been salivating about attending a Rudy Vallee concert. And yet...

I’ll be among the tens of thousands on the airstrip tomorrow night. It won’t be the biggest crowd I’ve ever joined for a Stones concert – that will always be Knebworth. And I’ll never be twenty years old again. But I’m still here. (And I’m still friends with Barry, the boy I met at the Marquis that week).

It’s a cliché now, maybe even more than a cliché – call it a truism. But I like it, like it, yes I do.

In Memory of Lost Bread

 

Writing about food is like writing about sex: it’s no substitute for the real thing, but meanwhile it’s a creative way to pass the time.

I first thought about writing about food when I was twelve years old. My Dad wrote advertising copy for a publishing company in New York, and he often kept samples. One day, he brought home a book of pancake recipes, and for the next month I buried my family under an avalanche of pancakes – pancakes with bananas, pancakes with strawberries, diced with bacon, rolled into crêpes, stuffed with sausages…

I persisted against all odds and against the continual complaints about mushy pancakes and burnt pans and unwashed bowls until I had tried every recipe in that (thankfully) slim volume. I doodled my own recipes and imagined a mimeographed newsletter that I could sell for a penny a copy to my unsuspecting neighbors. A year passed inconsequently, and then adolescence crept upon me. Cooking breakfast started to seem less important than my drum kit or my record collection.

This gastronomic urge returned in my early twenties, when I started to work in a second-hand bookshop in Upper Manhattan that happened to be a block away from a food boutique. The combination of easy access to old cookbooks by Elizabeth David and Craig Claiborne and a shop that sold fresh pasta, coffee beans, French cheeses, and Italian charcuterie was irresistible. I provisioned my dime-sized New York kitchen with stainless steel gadgets and cheap cast iron pans, and started to read and cook, and I’ve been doing it, on and off, ever since.

I have tried to write about food for publication twice. The first time, while I was still in New York and was thinking about ways of making some extra money, I wrote a few pieces on spec about fish and barbecuing and sent them off – to no avail, of course -- to Gourmetmagazine. I tried a second time while living in the Boston area and after successfully publishing books on film, hoping to interest my agent in a combination cookbook and memoir. Again: silence.

Many decades have intervened since. My serpentine journey in retirement (Ecuador, Malta, Verona) landed me in Prague. A few months after moving here a French restaurant opened up across the street from our apartment. And not just any French restaurant, but one run by the grandson of one of the great chefs of the twentieth century. Grégory Oliver’s grandfather Raymond owned La Grand Véfour in the heart of Paris, where he cooked for Churchill and De Gaulle and movie stars and starred in one of the earliest cooking shows on television.

Grégory and his mother Stéphane (who once ran her own restaurant in Paris) were, jus sanguinis, brilliant chefs, and their restaurant Papi Oliver (named for Raymond) is the kind of sensory experience that just might replace sex, if one needed an alternative. My husband John and I visit regularly, and an idea born of reverse engineering occurred to me: how could I feel as I did when I was in my twenties, reading Elizabeth David and rolling out pasta on my old Atlas machine? What if I was to try to recreate in words, as best I know how, how it feels to be in the midst of such inspired culinary creativity and history?

Grégory learned to cook from his mother; his mother learned to cook from her father. Raymond Oliver was born in Langon, Gascogny and moved to Paris. Greg was born in Paris and moved to Prague. Three generations, three cities: I have a story. 

Now, over my daily café Americanoand a croissant, I ponder a book about food where I will try to entwine the threads that have brought me from suburban pancakes to boeuf bourguignon with the ones that brought la famille Oliver from southwest France to central Europe and see what kind of literary garment can be wrought from them.

Like the days of our lives, recipes never turn out the same way twice. But the act of putting words on a page and weaving them into a story that can say something about my friends and myself seems worth the effort. 

The title of this piece is a parody of Marcel Proust. He called his novel À la recherche de temps perdu – In memory of lost time. The French name for French toast is pain perdu – lost bread. Food, memory, time: I hope they’re the perfect ingredients for a good book.

An Elegant Legacy, or The Importance of Being Irish

 

 

First, this essay would have made more sense on St Patrick’s Day, except that I didn’t think of writing it until St Patrick’s Day. And next, I make no claim to being an Irishman; I’m only married to one. Let me explain.

 

The soft dust of Irishness has trailed me since I was a boy My first best friend was Martin Farley (or ‘Fartin’ Marley, as my father called him). Martin lived in a house a block away from my own; he had four brothers and a sister and a yard big enough for a real (as opposed to a whiffle) baseball game. I am Jewish, and it was in his parents’ den that I first saw the shiny crucifixes, glossy portraits of the young and handsome Jesus, and decorative saints of Roman – or more specifically, Irish Catholicism.

 

I read books of Irish fairy tales filled with beautiful color illustrations (by Arthur Rackham, I later learned), and, when I was old enough, the works of the other great Irish writers – Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and, eventually, James Joyce. It was with Joyce, and college, that my casual and cultural Irish interests (people with Irish names, foods with an Irish heritage) morphed into the deeper and more soulful connection I feel today, and have felt, with variable levels of commitment, for the past four decades.

 

As a graduate student at Columbia, I took a semester-long course with Frank MacShane where the goal of the class was to understand (and produce a coherent paper about) one page of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. My first novel, ‘The Music Teacher,’ was set primarily in Dublin, and although I enjoyed writing it immensely, I must confess in retrospect I enjoyed the research – walking up and down the North Side lanes and in and out of the South Side squares – even more. I revisited these streets again in my most recent book, ‘Telemachus,’ where my Joycean affinity finally bloomed into something more completely obsessive: a retelling of the story of  ‘Ulysses’ as told by Molly Bloom’s mythical son, twenty two years on.

So now I recall the joy on my husband’s face on the day he received his Irish citizenship papers in the mail. Or how I burst into tears the first time I saw Ireland from the air, As our plane circled over the island, I saw it really was emerald green, and it felt so much, so irrationally, like coming home.

 

The Irish and the Jews are linked in my imagination: two races in perpetual diaspora. The music of both peoples is laced with lament, the food filling, and the families overflowing with feelings (not only loving but everything else, as well).

 

There’s a song in the musical ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ called ‘Look To The Rainbow’ whose lyrics so perfectly express my deep connection to Irishness. They’re worth quoting in full:

On the day I was born,

Said my father, said he.

I've an elegant legacy

Waitin' for ye,

'Tis a rhyme for your lips

And a song for your heart,

To sing it whenever

The world falls apart.

 

So I bundled my heart

And I roamed the world free;

To the East with the lark

To the West with the sea.

And I searched all the earth

And I scanned all the skies,

And I found it at last,

In my own true love’s eyes.

 

'Twas a sumptuous gift

To bequeath to a child.

Oh the lure of that song

Kept her feet funnin' wild.

For you never grow old

And you never stand still,

With whippoorwills singin'

Beyond the next hill.

 

Look, look

Look to the rainbow.

Follow it over the hill

And the stream.

Look, look

Look to the rainbow.

Follow the fellow

Who follows a dream.

 

Happy belated St Patrick’s Day!

 

 

Like A Rolling Stone

Like A Rolling Stone

 

As Michael Corleone said in ‘The Godfather, Part III,” ‘…just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.’ Yes, The Rolling Stones are coming to Prague this summer, and I, of course, will be there. It seems no matter how old I am whenever the Stones tour those of us attuned to the sound of the old tribal chant drop everything for the ancient and increasingly archaic call of music and community Or maybe it’s only rock ‘n’ roll -- and I like it, like it, yes I do.

 

The boys and I go back nigh on forty-six years, nine concerts in all. I remember a few poignant details from each one (even in my youth, I was never so stoned or drunk as to forget where I was or what I was hearing). My first time: Madison Square Garden, 1972, when I was so scared that someone would try to steal my ticket that I safety-pinned it to my underwear. And New York again in 1975, when my date dyed her hair blue to match a lyric from ‘If You Can’t Rock Me’, the single off of ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’.

 

I was in London (specifically, Knebworth, a village fifty miles north of London) in 1976, when the Stones headlined a festival that featured one of the last hurrahs of Lynyrd Skynyrd. My twenty-four hours in line outside the festival grounds placed me within spitting distance (sometimes literally) of Mick Jagger, and the bands’ set was nearly three hours long.

 

I was barely twenty years old. For the next decade, adulthood temporarily intervened. I didn’t see the band perform live again until the Steel Wheels tour of 1989, this time in Boston. There were 50,000 people in the audience and the stadium echo was supposed to produce a noise something akin to a jet plane landing, but somehow the Stones’ sound engineers produced headphone-quality music in that most inauspicious space.

 

I’ll skip lightly though the Voodoo Lounge, Bridges To Babylon, Bigger Bang, and 50 & Counting tours – not because they weren’t as memorable, but because in the years between my late thirties and my mid- fifties they were as routinely dependable and richly worth celebrating as a family reunion. Every five years or so, my co-workers at Harvard could expect the day when I would come into the office breathless, sweaty, and extremely nervous.  They knew: Stones tickets must be going on sale that day.

 

There was the time the concert ended at midnight, and by the time we drove out of the parking lot, it was three in the morning. We sang along with Bob Dylan songs all through the two-hour drive home. And then there was the time I failed to procure a pair of tickets (the nerve!), I was reduced to entering the Stones’ ‘Lucky Dip’ lottery – and won. The seats were in the top balcony of the Boston Garden, but ten minutes before the show started someone from the band’s crew came up to all of us and handed us floor passes.

 

So on July 4th (which is not a special day in the Czech Republic, except perhaps for being remembered as the day the Rolling Stones played Letnany Airport) I will be sitting up in the rafters (I’m too old to stand) for a Stones concert for the ninth time. Could this be, as the band suggested fifty-three years ago, ‘the last time’? I don’t know. But I do know that if Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood are still alive, and I am, I’ll be there.

Like A Rolling Stone

Like A Rolling Stone

 

As Michael Corleone said in ‘The Godfather, Part III,” ‘…just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.’ Yes, The Rolling Stones are coming to Prague this summer, and I, of course, will be there. It seems no matter how old I am whenever the Stones tour those of us attuned to the sound of the old tribal chant drop everything for the ancient and increasingly archaic call of music and community Or maybe it’s only rock ‘n’ roll -- and I like it, like it, yes I do.

 

The boys and I go back nigh on forty-six years, nine concerts in all. I remember a few poignant details from each one (even in my youth, I was never so stoned or drunk as to forget where I was or what I was hearing). My first time: Madison Square Garden, 1972, when I was so scared that someone would try to steal my ticket that I safety-pinned it to my underwear. And New York again in 1975, when my date dyed her hair blue to match a lyric from ‘If You Can’t Rock Me’, the single off of ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’.

 

I was in London (specifically, Knebworth, a village fifty miles north of London) in 1976, when the Stones headlined a festival that featured one of the last hurrahs of Lynyrd Skynyrd. My twenty-four hours in line outside the festival grounds placed me within spitting distance (sometimes literally) of Mick Jagger, and the bands’ set was nearly three hours long.

 

I was barely twenty years old. For the next decade, adulthood temporarily intervened. I didn’t see the band perform live again until the Steel Wheels tour of 1989, this time in Boston. There were 50,000 people in the audience and the stadium echo was supposed to produce a noise something akin to a jet plane landing, but somehow the Stones’ sound engineers produced headphone-quality music in that most inauspicious space.

 

I’ll skip lightly though the Voodoo Lounge, Bridges To Babylon, Bigger Bang, and 50 & Counting tours – not because they weren’t as memorable, but because in the years between my late thirties and my mid- fifties they were as routinely dependable and richly worth celebrating as a family reunion. Every five years or so, my co-workers at Harvard could expect the day when I would come into the office breathless, sweaty, and extremely nervous.  They knew: Stones tickets must be going on sale that day.

 

There was the time the concert ended at midnight, and by the time we drove out of the parking lot, it was three in the morning. We sang along with Bob Dylan songs all through the two-hour drive home. And then there was the time I failed to procure a pair of tickets (the nerve!), I was reduced to entering the Stones’ ‘Lucky Dip’ lottery – and won. The seats were in the top balcony of the Boston Garden, but ten minutes before the show started someone from the band’s crew came up to all of us and handed us floor passes.

 

So on July 4th (which is not a special day in the Czech Republic, except perhaps for being remembered as the day the Rolling Stones played Letnany Airport) I will be sitting up in the rafters (I’m too old to stand) for a Stones concert for the ninth time. Could this be, as the band suggested fifty-three years ago, ‘the last time’? I don’t know. But I do know that if Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood are still alive, and I am, I’ll be there.

The Importance of Being Brooklyn

 

 

Brooklyn is important because I was born there. Well, I actually wasn’t born there; I was born in Mt Eden Hospital in the Bronx, and I lived with my parents in my grandparents’ apartment on the Grand Concourse until our basement flat in Brooklyn was ready.

 

And I didn’t really grow up in Brooklyn, either: we moved from Sheepshead Bay to a full-blown ranch house in suburban New Jersey when I was seven. But whenever anyone asks me where I’m from,  ‘Brooklyn’ is my instinctual answer. That’s because Brooklyn isn’t just a place on a map, but a spiritual – more specifically, a literary landscape. It has inspired me, as it has inspired many other authors, almost as long as it has been a borough of New York City (that’s a little over one hundred and twenty years, and counting).

 

An entire genre of war and post-war fiction sprouted from that overbuilt Brooklyn soil. There’s Betty Smith’s ‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ (1943), about a lonely Irish girl, her doting aunt, and her charming but alcoholic father, and Irving Shulman’s ‘The Amboy Dukes’ (1947) about Jewish gangs of East New York. Most famously, there’s Hugh Selby Jr’s ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’ (1965), where longshoremen and transvestites try to eke out a living amidst the waterfront dime shops and nickel bars.

 

This phenomenon is not limited to the generation of writers working after the Second World War. Colm Tóibin’s eponymous ‘Brooklyn’ (2009) updates the age-old tale of a post-war Irish immigrant and a local lad (who happens to be Italian) and makes it fresh for the 21st century.

 

And, of course, as I’ve said, Brooklyn has inspired me. It’s practically a character in my novel ‘Vinegar Hill,’ where a young Jewish poet and a champion swimmer (for Brooklyn College, natch) fall in love and help to uncover a German spy nest located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The borough is featured less prominently in my novel ‘Hotel Continental’. Most of the action takes place in Vietnam, but the main character is from Brooklyn, and his memories of his family and his friends there color his look on life in an Asian jungle.

 

I suppose the old adage is thereby true: you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy. I still get inspired reading Hart Crane and conjuring up my memories of standing directly under the Brooklyn Bridge, a breathtaking experience despite the fact that it is no longer (as it once was) the tallest structure in the city. I have never forgotten the roar of the surf or the carnival sounds of Coney Island. And I still carry the same chip on my shoulder that any Brooklyn boy (or girl) carries: who needs Manhattan? Brooklyn is better: the best.

 

Here in Europe (and, I suspect, in many parts of America), Brooklyn is a tee shirt, a ball cap, and a marketing ploy. The word itself has jumped off from being a specific place to embodying an attitude. This brings me a small measure of pride. I may be decades – many decades – away from living in Brooklyn, but in my heart and soul, I am still a Brooklyn boy.

The Lonely, Crowded World Of A Writer

 

 

            Writing is the loneliest of professions. The work can only be done alone. The social history of writing is long and full, from the coffee houses of London and the bohemian cafes of Paris to the bars and clubs of Greenwich Village in New York. No amount of pleasant company, however, helps you address the blank page, or even one filled with words. There is a difference between collegiality and cooperation.

            And yet…when I am writing, I may be lonely but I am not alone. My friendships began with the books I read as a boy, books full of simple words and pictures and timeless stories. As I grew older and learned to write, I advanced from innocent admiration to blunt co-option. Eventually, alchemically, I became the sum of the books I have assimilated and refracted until a new style emerged I can only hope to call my own.

            I find the dichotomy between the internal conversations I have with my imagination – like the one I am having right now – and the world around me fascinating. When I was younger, I needed to write in total silence. I’d find a corner desk in an upper floor of the library, or sit on an empty bench in a large park on a cool afternoon. This silent communion would necessarily be interrupted by factors beyond my control, such as noisy library patrons and sudden rainstorms.

Since then, I have learned to write in the world as well as of it, allowing the sounds of children or the bustle of traffic to coexist with the lapping of my laptop. I have taken up my work in the food court of a shopping mall, or near a playground in a park, and (when air-conditioning is required) even in the lobby of a local hotel. At such moments, my muse is, indeed, both lonely and crowded.

            A warning: any writer who has made it through writing school, as I did, should have learned by now not to think too hard about the metaphysical aspects of the craft (or trade, it can switch back and forth, or be both).  As I worked on this post, I can hear my teacher’s voice saying ‘forget the distractions, just put one word after another’.  But it’s hard to hold to this dictum when you are simultaneously a) wondering what you will have for lunch, b) trying to decide if your hero is ‘wandering’ or ‘strolling’, c) changing your mind about your audience, or your submission target, or your plot outline, and d) preparing for an appointment with your dentist.

            And yet (again): when I am creating pure writing – that is, writing that flows effortlessly like a mountain stream, that ‘sounds right,’ and says something that up until that moment I hadn’t thought of – I levitate straight out of this lonely, crowded world. I am completely inside an alternative universe, one of my own creation. This is the place where I am happiest, at least with myself, the place that I believe is the ultimate destination of any writer: an orb apart, shiny, complete, and attained.

            Keats got it right. This is how you feel when good writing strikes:

 

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 

            The best writing – my best writing – aims for a similar transportation, to reach that peak and look down at what you see, and create something new out of it. When that happens, I no longer mind being lonely, or notice the crowd.

 

Reminder: I will be reading from my novel ‘Vinegar Hill’ at the Globe Bookshop, Pštrossova 6 in Prague on Tuesday, October 17th, 2017, and then I will be reading from ‘Hotel Continental’ at A Maze In Tchaiovna, Muchova 6 in Prague on Monday, October 23rd, 2017. Both events will begin at 19:00. Please come join me!

Launch Parties in Prague!

I am pleased to announce that I will be holding two launch parties for my new novels in Prague this October. I will be reading from 'Vinegar Hill' at the Globe Bookshop (Pštrossova 6) on Tuesday, Oct.17, starting at 19:00, and then I will be reading from 'Hotel Continental' at A Maze in Tchaiovna (Muchova 6) on Monday, Oct.23, starting at 19:00. I will have copies of both books available for sale at a special price (300 kČ, regularly 325). Please come and celebrate with me!

My Five Favourite Books

In a few weeks, I will be publishing two new novels, ‘Vinegar Hill’ and ‘Hotel Continental. When I talk about my work, I’m often asked about the sources of my inspiration. What books are my favorite books to re-read? Which authors inspired me the most? So, here goes:

 

1. Ulysses, by James Joyce. This was an easy choice: not only is Joyce’s masterwork the inspiration for my current project, but it is the only book I know which has made a visceral impact in my life across several decades. I first read Ulysses in college, as part of a course requirement. I crossed its well-worn path again in my thirties, when I first started to publish, and then again in my fifties, when I was researching ‘The Music Teacher’. Ten years later, I am working with it again, through annotations, Dublin city maps, and web research. No book has ever taught me so much about writing, made me want to read it out loud, or laugh so hard.

 

2. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin. I discovered Giovanni’s Room in a course at college on Gay American Fiction. This was the first time in my life I read a book in which I literally wished to live. I wanted to be David, to live in Paris, and most of all, to fall in love with a beautiful and doomed Italian. Even after growing up and understanding that all gay fiction doesn’t have to end tragically, I still believe Baldwin’s book is one of the most perfectly constructed and emotionally effective love stories ever written. Decades before it’s time, Giovanni’s Room talked about the power, the difficulty, and the responsibilities of love.

 

3. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is an acquired taste, and luckily for me, I acquired it early on. I believe I was barely fifteen years old when I first became acquainted with this outlandish tale that blended graphic sex, scenes of drug addiction, and occasional irrational bursts of science fiction.  Like in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Burroughs rejoices in creating a language. These are characters I clearly would not wish to emulate, but I have rarely had more fun while reading.

 

Since I am a fiction writer, you would think that this list would be comprised completely of fiction, but my favoritism and the importance of some books in my life are not limited by genre. I would like to conclude this very brief list with two more examples, neither of which are novels.

 

4. The Sound Of The City, by Charlie Gillett. Before I drifted into the world of fiction, I intended to be a biographer or music historian. This book was originally published in 1970, but is far from being outdated. The subject is highly educational, revelatory, and endlessly entertaining. Gillett traces the origin of what we now call rock and roll back through its country, blues, and folk music origins. His style is extraordinary, and the story is mesmerizing.

 

5. Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting. I know: what is a children’s book doing on a list of serious literature? Well, you have to start somewhere. I cherish my memory of my father reading this book to me when I was only seven or eight years old. His reading to me the spark that ignited my lifelong love of reading and stories. Loftingtaught me an early lesson in simplicity; a lesson I often forget but never ignore. You should never be too old to want to play with a Pushme-Pullyou.

 

Okay, this list is too short, so I’ll append it with a few (only a few) honorable mentions, to keep the discussion going: At Swim, Two Boys, by Jamie O’Neill (another Joyce acolyte), Call Me By Your Name, by André Aciman (soon to be a major motion picture), and The Great Gatsby, by F.Scott Fitzgerald (who proved that genius can be brief).

 

 

 

Gordon Matta-Clark, Paul Simon, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway

Every now and then, a young man’s (and even a middle-aged man’s) mind turns to thoughts of…. what was that, again? Oh, yes – how fractured and random thoughts become when July rolls around.

            I was pondering this, as well as a couple of unrelated ideas (hence, the title of this piece), while walking home from my semi-weekly marketing trip.  Every couple of days, I head out with my trusty and reliable wheelie and collect our fresh fruits, meats, and vegetables from several disparate local greengrocers. Part of the allure is not only the obtaining of the goods but also the time it allows me to meditate. This is what I was doing that morning.

            First: Gordon Matta-Clark. Mr. Matta-Clark was the son of the famous surrealist painter Matta. He rose to fame due to his predilection for acquiring and then literally slicing up old buildings, and he died of cancer at the age of thirty-five in 1978 (two years after his twin brother, Sebastian, committed suicide). I thought of him because he seemed to be acutely clairvoyant about the condition of the world forty years on.  What looked like an insane, if grandiose, artistic gesture then now feels to me like a perfect metaphor for the great divides of today -- the divide between instant communication and total misunderstanding, between expensive technologies and the impoverishing costs of basic subsistence, between liberation and repression of all kinds (sexual, literary, political).

            From this random observation, my mind (often attuned to my own private radio station) switched to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Hazy Shade Of Winter’.  This song, recorded in 1966 but not released until 1968, on the duo’s iconic album ‘Bookends,’ has always struck me as striking a perfect balance between angry optimism and damned resignation.

            The refrain is simple enough:

 

                        I look around

                        Leaves are brown

                        And the sky is a hazy shade of winter.

 

            But against this plainness, Paul and Artie (if I may) sing against a relatively hard rock beat (for them) and a persistent drumming that suggests restlessness and a deep sadness. In the middle, when Art alone sings ‘Won’t you stop and remember me?” the song turns into something more than a meditation. It is a cry for help. Simon wrote this song over fifty years ago, but it is still relevant.

            Finally, the Cross-Bronx Expressway. You might ask: how in hell did we end up here? Well, this, too, devolves from my market-to-home-wanderings. Every trip produces another incomprehensible and idiotic tee shirt. I can’t help it; I like to read other people’s clothing. And here in the Czech Republic, there seems to be an unusual propensity for shirts (always in English) that no one who can actually read English would wear.

            Over the course of, say, two weeks, I’ve seen shirts printed with foul obscenities (directed to who?), shirts that have babblings like ‘L.A. My Homey’ (this on a middle-aged white man), or ‘Save The Planet, Rabbits’ (I don’t quite follow, but then I suppose even interviewing a rabbit, if this were at all possible, wouldn’t enlighten me any further).

            The prize for me (so far) must go, however, to the young man I spotted wearing a shirt that had a black and white photograph of what appeared to be an ordinary four-lane road, topped by the words ‘Cross-Bronx Expressway’ in a newspaper-headline sized font. Okay. I suppose if you had no idea where this expressway was (having never heard of the Bronx) it might seem chic. But still, I would never think of wearing a shirt celebrating the worst (and shortest) interstate highway in America.

            Anyway, my ending to these random thoughts comes with a bit of advice: listen to what you mind is telling you as you walk around your hometown, and take it as a bit of surrealist entertainment. This is the way the world works, after all. It presents itself as little pieces of reality, mixed in with memories from your past, interpretations of song lyrics, unconscious mood swings evinced by subtle chord changes, and visages of old buildings in ruins or new buildings under construction.

I say it’s all part of the big picture. Or, as the one-hit wonder Icona-Pop put it, in a song overheard on yet another morning walk:

 

I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone

I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn…

I crashed my car into the bridge…

I don’t care.

I love it.



On Italian Food

 Ernest Hemingway once said ‘Paris is a moveable feast.’ I know of a more literal one: Italian food. How this Jewish boy, raised on Buitoni (canned pasta, for those who have to ask), ended up with a life-long love of ravioli, marinara, osso bucco e tutta la cucina italiana is a wonderful tale of cultural displacement, of how heritage and taste can diverge.

I took my first step away from Hamburger Helper (a staple of suburban American kitchens) as a result of – predictably, for this writer – a book. That book was Elizabeth David’s Italian food. It was originally published in 1954, when the people of England were suffering from food shortages caused by post-war austerity and (not co-incidentally) hearing stories from returning soldiers about a new and delicious continental delicacy called ‘pizza’.

In Italian food, I read Mrs. David’s description of the fish markets of Genoa, her instructions on how to layer lasagna al forno, and how to properly trim an artichoke (far too complicated for this fifteen year-old). There were recipes, of course – for simple things that I could try in my parent’s kitchen, like spaghetti or fritto misto (fried fish, with olive oil splattering everywhere). But I was most fascinated not by recipes but by the prose – the author’s amazing descriptions of Italian hill towns with their vineyards, the open-air markets, the midnight trattorias, and stone furnace kitchens.

When I was old enough to wander outside the boundaries of my family, I discovered Little Italy, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. There my friends and I discovered a place where you had to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining room, or where your table was on the sidewalk – places where everyone around you was talking (actually, shouting) in Italian. I don’t know why, but I immediately felt at home.

Around this time, I thought about actually making a living in what they called the ‘food service industry’. I took a job at a delicatessen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and learned how to slice prosciutto, brew espresso, and build a proper panini. I figured I liked eating the stuff, so why not try to sell it? But as with all things vocational, I soon understood loving something is not the same thing as profiting from it.

A dozen or so years later, after I had already settled down with my partner (and soon to be husband), my parents gave me a small gift of cash. This happened right around the time when John and I were planning to celebrate our second anniversary (we’re up to our thirty-fourth one now, just to give you an idea of the time-frame here), so the first thing we thought of when it came time to spend this money was… Italy, specifically Venice.

Venice is like a dream version of Italy: all of the beauty and charm (and food) with none of the traffic and noise. All my fondest memories of this visit all have something to do with food: fegato alla griglia (liver) at Harry’s Bar, a seafood fritto misto on the banks of a canal, a tiny trattoria run by two old ladies who served nothing but spaghetti. I’ve been to Venice a few times since (with, I have to admit, diminishing returns), but I’ve never forgotten that first bite of risotto ai gamberi.

At home, I immediately became a partigiano. I bought a hand-cranked Atlas pasta machine and started making my own lasagna noodles and ricotta-stuffed ravioli. Together, John and I scoured all of New England looking for ‘the best’ Italian restaurant (hint: the winner changed from year to year). And when we retired, we decided to live in Italy. (Full disclosure: actually, we first went to Ecuador, and then Malta – but there’s no room for that story here).

Living in Italy turned out not to be as easy as we had hoped. But the food was never part of the problem. It’s no part of the problem in Prague either; there is more variety, better prices, and greater quality here than anywhere else I have ever lived. But if I had the ability to teleport us to a different city in Italy once a month, I would. 

Then I could again have the most perfect pasta Bolognese I ever ate (in Bologna, of course), or a veal cutlet from Verona, served by a handsome waiter while we sat at an outdoor table gloriously cornered by a fifteenth-century church and a medieval stone portal. 
John and I could go back to Rome and eat spaghetti a splashing distance from the Trevi Fountain, or find the bar around the corner from the Pantheon where we and our dear friend Rebecka polished off four bottles of the vino di casa, a memory perfectly described by Joni Mitchell: “I could drink a case of you, and still be on my feet”. 

We could return to Lake Garda and drink fresh Valpolicella. We could walk down the block from wherever we were staying and buy bundles of fresh tagliatelle to cook for dinner, delicious with nothing but butter, parsley, and parmesan.

 John and I don’t live in Italy anymore; at least not physically. But whenever it’s time to head out to the markets here in Prague  (there are many of them, and all wonderful), the first thing we say to each other is: what pasta? Shall I make a gluten-free lasagna? (And yes, this is really possible). Or how about pasta fasole (a soup of sausages and white beans)? Or good ol’ spaghetti and meatballs? (Still a nearly weekly occurrence – I can never get enough of a spicy marinara and a glass of  ‘spaghetti red’).

They say that food is love, and I’ll add that eating Italian food with my Italian (well, half-Italian) husband is a form of lovemaking. I’ll remember mussels stewed in wine in Little Italy on a hot summer night, washed down with ice-cold verdicchio di castelli di Jesi. Spearing squid-ink rigatoni in the Campo Santo Stefano in Venice. Nibbling gelato on the banks of the Adige river in Verona…

Even after we moved out of Italy, we never left it behind. We can still stroll down to the fair on the banks of the Vltava in Prague and find a booth making fresh ravioli. At home, I can make a blissful meal out of a few lemon-soaked olives, slices of streaky ham, sweet olive oil, chopped basil, and grated gran padano. Across the decades, good Italian food has been a constant and intimate companion, the third in our ménage a trois.

A la famiglia! Salute!

West Side Story

There aren’t too many encomiums to roads. Route 66 and Highway 61 have their songs, and Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg wrote poems and prose about them, but these tunes and writings are not about any particular place but a state of mind.  Most of the time, when someone writes about a highway, it’s either a complaint relating to traffic or an ironic attempt to turn the deadening boredom of interstates and freeways into some form of entertainment. (For an example, listen to Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’).

But I have a highway in mind, one deserving to be remembered. It’s the Julius Miller Highway, better known as the West Side Highway. This was the first elevated highway in the world, built between 1929 and 1936 (for the most part) and torn down between 1973 and 1989. That’s barely forty years of use, but during the time that the West Side Highway stood, it served as a symbol of everything that was at first grand and exciting and then untenable and dangerous about Manhattan in the 20th century.

My first-hand experiences with the West Side Highway came via my family’s frequent trips from our home in suburban New Jersey to my grandparent’s apartment in Brooklyn. From the back seat of our car, I became an expert on the topography of highway illumination (bear with me; I’ll get back to the West Side soon). There were the rustic posts of the Palisades Interstate Parkway (rest stops only; the actual highway had no lights at all) and the utilitarian flying saucer-like metal poles on the George Washington Bridge. My eight year-old brain identified things as N-lights (facing one side of the road), M-lights (both sides) and every iconoclastic design in-between).

But my attention was continually drawn to the lighting on the West Side Highway. In retrospect, I read that the un-credited designer was trying to emulate the silhouette of a stepped-back skyscraper (the same lights were used on the Triborough, now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge). They must have looked quite trendy in the 1930’s, but what impressed this kid was their weird, monster-like shape.

My other predominant memory of the highway – one that logically would appeal to a child – was its resemblance to an amusement park ride. The road was paved with (so I found out later) Belgian blocks, which are durable but prone to uneven wear and guttering water, two elements which might be considered charming in an actual Belgian alleyway but were not terribly practical when run over by thousands of cars a day. The West Side Highway was built before any design standards existed, so the road was laid out with several sharp S-curves and with the exit ramps on the left. This meant drivers would have to continually slow down to negotiate a turn and then change lanes and accelerate in order to make it to the exit. When twenty cars are trying the same maneuver at the same time, it can resemble a demolition derby – and far too often, it literally turned into one.

The highway had additional attractions, unrelated to but intrinsically connected with my more or less monthly trips down and backs. When heading south, we’d pass the piers of the great transatlantic liners, and if I was lucky one of the big boats would be docked there, looking for all the world like a brightly lit hallucination, completely out of proportion to the (to a child) tiny cars and narrow, shadowed road. And going north, I’d see the tracks of the New York Central railroad, often busy with passenger and freight trains running along side the road, as if we were in a kind of race. There were billboards, too -- fifty feet tall and suspended on metal rods above and on the side of the road. 

 All childhood fantasies have to be torn down eventually. Dire reports of deterioration and epic traffic tie-ups were not enough to kill Julius Miller’s dragon. It took the literal disintegration of the road, in the form of a collapse of an entire city-block long section of the highway in 1973, to stop the cars from coming, and then another fifteen years to dismantle it and replace it with a functioning road. Along the way, the ship piers turned into a gay cruising ground, then into a needle city for junkies, and then – in the ultimate and ultimately ironic (final?) incarnation, into the ‘Chelsea Piers’, a yuppie playground filled with foodie boutiques, high-end gymnasiums, and flower-filled views of the Hudson River and the gargantuan housing developments lining the Jersey shore.

Yes, driving on this road really was as scary as it looks: hitting your spots and making your turns was like being a billiard ball heading for a corner pocket. You make your shot and you take your chances. Frankly, in retrospect I’m amazed more cars weren’t crushed and people killed. 

 I’ve met a few more favorite highways in my time (although now that I live in Europe and don’t drive, I don’t see any new candidates). There’s the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is one long (23 miles!) bridge and tunnel combo and counts in my mind as a ‘highway’ (it’s nearly five times longer than the old West Side Highway). There’s the old Interborough Parkway in Queens (now named after Jackie Robinson), which bans trucks and meanders through state-owned parkland, meaning it’s one of the only highways in the city that is surrounded by trees. 

Driving on these roads was not an expository experience. But barreling down the West Side Highway at a breathtaking 30 miles per hour, your hands gripping the wheel as you try to negotiate the hairpin curve at Little West 12th Street while maneuvering the car over to the left to catch the Canal Street exit: that’s worth a rewrite. And while we’re on the subject, what’s with the bridge at Canal Street? There’s no Canal. (The correct answer is: the highway support beams couldn’t be drilled down because the Holland Tunnel was beneath them; it’s merely a coincidence that there’s a bridge over a street named ‘Canal’).

Sixty years on, a great number of my memories of growing up in New York have been burnished by nostalgia or faded by insight, but my ghostly fascination with this strange, simultaneously futuristic and archaic highway haunts me still.

On difficult writing

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ by William Faulkner.  That by itself is a sentence frankly boastful of accomplishment; the book has a reputation of being ‘difficult,’ which I suppose is a euphemism for ‘don’t try to read this book unless you have a doctorate in English Lit’. But I raced through it like I was reading a mystery (which, in a way, it is), and I ended up feeling dazzled, enriched, and educated – the latter of which, at my age, is always to be considered a bonus.

I wanted to read ‘The Sound and the Fury’ because I am beginning my research on a new novel, a long-form ghost story set in Victorian Dublin. My story concerns the tribulations of a family that includes three very different and differently flawed brothers – just like Faulkner -- and I was curious to see how the author handled it. I was also interested in reading something with unreliable narrators, one of my possible angles of attack.

But I was rewarded beyond my mere pragmatism. When I run into writing like this, I tend to first hold my breath, and then applaud:

 “… I remembered I hadn’t brushed my teeth, so I had to open the bag again. I found my toothbrush and got some of Shreve’s paste and went out and brushed my teeth. I squeezed the brush as dry as I could and put it back in the bag and shut it, and went around to the door again. Before I snapped the light out I looked around to see if there was anything else, then I saw that I had forgotten my hat. I’d have to go by the post office and I’d be sure to meet some of them, and they’d think I was a Harvard Square student making like he was a senior. I had forgotten to brush it too, but Shreve had a brush, so I didn’t have to open the bag any more.”

That’s the last paragraph of Quentin Compson’s section; he’s about to drown himself in the Charles River, a fact you never hear him discuss but only apprise by inference, and by details dropped into the narrative by the other characters nearly two decades later. And this comes after a bout with Faulkner’s so-called ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, where you go a page or two at a time without any capital letters or punctuation.

Why do I enjoy such literary shenanigans? (That is the precisely correct word, by the way, since it is Irish in origin and is about playing tricks). I guess I do it for the same reason that I re-read James Joyce from time to time. I once took a class in graduate school where our sole assignment for the semester was to interpret one page of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, so you might appreciate how much that kind of torture entrances me. I love, too, the junkie sputter of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr., and Kerouac’s wild Beats. Perhaps it is an inheritance from my Sixties youth bled into me by ancient, counter-cultural demands. A lot of time has passed since then, but I still love the challenge.

I guess another version of my answer is: it’s another version of ‘imitation is the sincerely form of flattery’. I read Faulkner or Joyce or Burroughs with the immediate goal of learning how to be a better writer. It is as if the words on the page were a form of code or perhaps a secret language that the author is trying to teach to me, and me alone.

 Mind you, not all writing has to be ‘difficult’ to inspire me in this way. I adored Andre Aciman’s ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ in which a fifteen year-old French boy artfully narrates his infatuation with an American graduate student. And F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner’s near-exact contemporary, tells the story of Nick Carraway’s search for the meaning of Gatsby’s green light in perfectly parsed language that is completely devoid of the Faulkner’s deliberate obfuscations or Joyce’s annotated literary dust-bin.

 ‘Page-turners’ like Fitzgerald, or Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler all have their place, of course. I envy them their ease of characterization, the architectural solidity of their plots, and the comprehensibility of their vocabulary. I have resorted from time to time to their ‘tricks’ – such as the slow-drip revelation of detail or a strong reliance on ‘atmosphere’ to enhance or delineate character. But I harbor a secret yearning (okay, I guess it’s not so secret anymore) to write…beyond. That’s a very specific word with a very amorphous goal: someplace imaginary but real, universally known but understood only by one, with characters who are tragic by being doomed to die but comic by being alive.

 I have to admit I also feel a bit cheated. Faulkner and Joyce (and Fitzgerald, and, in a smaller way, Burroughs) ruined things for modern-day writers by doing something that we can only admire or imitate, but never surpass – even when we are motivated to try. Motivation is a powerful engine; that’s one of the reasons I look forward to researching and plotting my next novel barely weeks after I finish the last one. Sisyphus never had it so hard.

 And so, although I’d love to be, like Nick Carraway, ‘borne ceaselessly into the past,’ it is only the future I have to look forward to. It’s the only place I can go to write, in my own voice and through my own intent, something as paradoxical, as beautiful, and as perfect as the last paragraph of ‘The Sound and the Fury’:

 Ben’s voice roared and roared. Queenie moved again, her feet began to clop-clop steadily again, and at once Ben hushed. Luster looked quickly back over his shoulder, and then he drove on. The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place.

'Each in its ordered place’…Flaubert’s le mot juste: the Holy Grail of great writing. Difficult? Of course, but, possible? In Joyce’s words: … yes I said yes I will Yes.

Two Skinny Peas In A Pod

In honour of Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday last December, I wrote a long (25,000 word) essay about my life-long admiration of his work. Here is one chapter, about Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger:

I saw The Rolling Stones for the first time in 1972, the summer after I graduated from high school. I was not quite seventeen years old. I actually got a pair of tickets to the concert, for ten dollars apiece – I still have the ticket stubs as proof – and was amazed to find out that none of my friends, even the ones in my rock band, were interested in joining me. This struck me as a negation akin to refusing an audience with the Pope, or an invitation to the Second Coming. I got over it, and, with my ticket pinned to my underwear in case some desperate Stones fan attacked me on the way, I made my way to Madison Square Garden.

         It took me so long to pass through security that Stevie Wonder, the opening act, was half way through his set before I found my seat. I was on the floor, just a decent sweat fling away from Mick Jagger himself. For over a year, I had been listening to the band’s greatest hits album, ‘High Tide And Green Grass’ as well as their most recent studio recording, ‘Let It Bleed’, and their brand-new live record, ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out’, so I knew their music pretty well. In the week preceding this concert, I had been listening to it practically around the clock. So when Mick and the boys appeared on stage, I was not disappointed.

         Nor I have I been since. All the Rolling Stones are old men now – as am I, in a way – but they haven’t stopped touring, and I haven’t stopped seeing them. I have attended seven other Rolling Stones concerts in my lifetime – not that impressive when compared with the serious and well-funded folks who have trailed the band around the world for decades, but still outnumbering any other act I’ve ever encountered in person. I’ve seen the Stones with and without Mick Taylor, the lead guitarist who replaced Brian Jones, with and without Bill Wyman, the original bass player. I’ve seen them in Fenway Park, and in a field in the middle of England (at the Knebworth Festival, on a bill with Creedence Clearwater Revival and Lynyard Skynyard). And, God and the band willing, I will see them again.

         What these concert experiences have proven to me is that Mick Jagger is the greatest stage performer of the second half of the twentieth century. His ability to lead and control a crowd, to draw and focus the attention of an easy-to-distract ten to twenty thousand people, and to sustain this leadership at an exhausting pace for at least two hours (and sometimes three), even in his sixties and now seventies, is a testimony to his stamina, professionalism, and generosity.

         All this would be no more than sheer numerical prowess, as good as but worth no more than a great racehorse, if it wasn’t for Jagger’s artistic accomplishments, which despite his centrality really must be equally assigned to his songwriting colleague, Keith Richards, and the musicianship of the rest of the band. No other popular songwriters since 1950 or thereabouts – not even John Lennon and Paul McCartney – have as deep or as accomplished a catalogue (although it could be argued that Bob Dylan, while subjects to dips and dead spots, has been more consistent over a longer period of time).

         With the fullness of time, and with apologies to the writers of standards such as those I’ve been discussing elsewhere, it is clear that the Jagger-Richards songbook is going to be worth mining for many decades into the future. How good these songs will sound when sung by someone other than Mick Jagger is debatable, but I don’t think it will be for lack of trying. Every band worth their salt (or dope) is going to want to take a crack at ‘Brown Sugar’ or ‘Satisfaction’, and more power to them.

 

         At this point, you may have asked yourself what all this has to do with Frank Sinatra. Yes, the musical sensibilities of the Rolling Stones and Sinatra have nothing – literally nothing – in common. Frank would never have dreamed of covering a Stones tune, and the Stones would normally not go near any American pop standard (although Keith has been known to growl his way through Ned Washington and Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness Of You’ during his solo sets).

Even their decadence lay on opposite sides of a generational divide, with Sinatra’s tobacco, Chivas Regal, and showgirls on one edge and Mick and Keith’s pot, still whiskey, and groupies at the other. But show business is show business, and if you go looking for some historical context as well as the obvious fact that one writer (me) in particular worships both artists, the similarities begin to float to the surface.

         For one thing, both Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones began their long, long careers in the same place: as the seemingly shallow idols of screaming teenaged girls. Sinatra in fact is a large way Mick Jagger’s template. Here’s a moderately meek (if not quite effeminate) guy, skinny as a stick, singing basically silly songs that are nominally about loving girls but subliminally about sex. He allows (or at least, doesn’t protest against) his record company when they market him as a sex object, and his initial fame is almost entirely based on how loudly his crowds can scream and how much money he can rake in with records, personal appearances, and promotional tie-ins. Almost precisely twenty years later, the Rolling Stones repeated the pattern that Sinatra more or less invented in the early 1940’s.

         The story of Frank Sinatra at the Paramount theater in New York – with its endless lines of fainting bobby-soxers filling up Times Square and the tales of the band complaining that they couldn’t hear themselves play and what did it matter what they played anyway – exactly parallels the story of the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show. You can see Mick rolling his eyes at the sanitized lyrics of ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ while the sound of thousands of screaming adolescent girls nearly drowns him out. Even their physical arrival at the theater looks the same. Frank pulled up to the Paramount in a taxicab, and there’s footage of the Stones tumbling out of a limo twenty two years later, and only a block or two away.

         And not only did Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones begin their careers almost exactly the same way – they ended them the same way, too (although as of this writing, of course, the Stones haven’t quite reached an ending). When Sinatra’s record sales started to fall off (partially because of the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and artists such as the Stones), he ramped up his touring schedule and started to deliberately imitate the big rock bands of the day. Frank moved in to the mid-sized areas like Madison Square Garden (home for his live recording ‘The Main Event’) as the Stones switched to stadiums. The scale increased, but the goal was the same – feed the bigger fan base, make more money, and give as many people as possible a supposedly ‘one last chance’ to see a living legend in concert. Now Frank and Mick and company fly in, on a jet or a helicopter, and the fans may still be screaming but the sound will be distant and muffled.

         I find it an amusing parlor game to guess at what might be included on the fantasy recording ‘Frank Sinatra sings Jagger & Richards’. Certainly any decent set list would include ‘Angie’, for Angie Dickinson, whom Frank dated briefly in the early ‘sixties. AndI would add ‘As Tears Go By’, which Sinatra might have sang to Mia Farrow near the end of their marriage. I think Ava Gardner might have inspired an entire medley of covers, from ‘Play With Fire’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ through ‘Under My Thumb’ (which would benefit from a swinging Nelson Riddle horn chart). And to save the best for last, a folksy and poignant version of ‘Wild Horses’ for the last love of Sinatra’s life, his wife Barbara.

 

         I’ll write more about Frank Sinatra in concert later – I did get to see him, if only once, as opposed to the more than half-dozen Stones concerts I attended. But there is one other area of similarity between Mick Jagger and Frank Sinatra that bears delving into here, and that’s their appeal to gay men. Now you might think, well, with Mick, that’s obvious, he went out of his way to ‘play gay’ in order to shock people. Plus, he literally planted gay references throughout his work across the years – Turner in ‘Performance’, the lyrics about sailors in Paris in the version of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ on ‘Love You Live’, the years of eye-shadow and David Bowie right around ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n ‘Roll’. In the musical ‘Hair’ the character Woof even sings a little song about self-abuse while ogling a photograph of Mick.

         It is less obvious – in fact, more coded, or perhaps received through reverse psychology – how Frank Sinatra connected to gay men (and gay women, for that matter). For one thing, he could be funny about it: there’s a great clip of him appearing with Dean Martin on Martin’s television show, where the two of them discover that a computer dating service has put them together because they are so completely compatible. And he could be ‘liberal’ about it, too, in the ‘sixties sense of the word: he played a gay-tolerant cop in the film ‘The Detective’ and although the movie has its share of homophobic characters and the inevitable dated silliness about how gay men lived it was considered forward for its time. Sinatra might have switched his political affiliations from the left to the right as the nation moved from Kennedy to Reagan, but being children of Hollywood neither Frank Sinatra nor Ronald Reagan were unfamiliar with the lives of gay men and women. This is not completely idle speculation; even the former Mrs. Sinatra quipped about it. When Ava Gardner heard that her ex had married Mia Farrow, she told reporters, ‘I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a little boy.’

         Even their music was ambisexual. The Stones’ music naturally dovetailed with the ‘sexual revolution’ of the sixties (which continued, in the form of gay liberation, into the seventies and beyond) and the band’s records were always welcome and danced to at gay bars and discotheques. But gay men and women were not entirely invisible in the ‘fifties, and Frank Sinatra’s songs, with their nearly craven loneliness and heartache, must have been on the jukeboxes and radios of bars that catered to gay people for the same reason.

         For Frank Sinatra, like Mick Jagger, were always, artistically, outsiders – no matter how much mainstream success followed or how much that success offered conventional acceptability. In the end, both men’s personas – for Frank, that of the boozing, brawling capo who ‘made it there’ and ‘did it my way’ and for Mick, that of the prancing, devilish sex god ‘spilling my blood on the stage’ – belied the sensitive, slightly lost, and literally boyish personalities that they created for themselves at the beginning, and which must be interpreted as, if not completely gay-friendly, at least invitingly gay.

         It’s easy to forget, looking at photographs of Frank in the ‘nineties, slightly rotund and a little balding, or of Mick today, a mass of wrinkles and bones, that in their early twenties they were considered the most beautiful (as opposed to handsome) young men of their time. The early Sinatra’s looks – like the early Jagger’s – were often described as effeminate, and it doesn’t take a great leap to imagine that such barely coded language was picked up by gay men of the time, in a world when these kinds of codes were necessary. I’m not saying that Frank Sinatra was gay, of course, but that his image as portrayed not only to made him appealingly approachable to young women who would buy his records, but also the stuff of young gay men’s dreams. Recordings such as ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ only underlined this appeal.

         All the songs on ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ were chosen precisely because of their function as, in Sinatra’s own parlance, ‘saloon songs’ which were not only popular hits in their day but certain to be among the most selected buttons on the juke box in the corner of that same saloon. Their message of unrequited, broken, or unattainable love resonated in the gay world of the ‘fifties.

It was a very short walk from Frank’s spot under that blue street lamp to the gay bar just around the corner. I wasn’t there then, but I made that short journey, both literally and symbolically, many times since.

The Internet as library

“Why don’t you look it up?”

This was the $64,000 question of my youth (and if you get my reference, you can guess the approximate years of my youth). Whenever I asked my Mom or my Dad ‘who was Admiral Dewey?’ or ‘why are caterpillars green?’ they would refrain from making an educated guess (even though they were educated and their answer was likely correct and not a guess). Instead, they’d ask me a question in response:

“Why don’t you look it up?”

My childhood home had a dictionary (Webster’s Collegiate) and an encyclopedia (Columbia’s wonderful one-volume edition, circa 1960), but to actually ‘look something up’ meant a trip to the library. Often, my visit would begin with a focused search for the answer to my question, but end up with browsing.

Browsing in my public library was how I discovered Hugh Lofting’s ‘Dr. Doolittle’ and H.H. Munro’s ‘The Open Door’. It was how I found a book of Korean ghost stories, and where I discovered, when I was slightly older, the Brontes and Eric Knight (‘Lassie Come-Home’). Once I was familiar with the layout of the place, I knew where to look for the new books, the older fiction, and the biographies that made up my middle school and high school reading list. I was voracious and persistent. It might exasperate my parents, who patiently waiting for me to make my selection so they could go home and start dinner, but I’d want to read the spine (and sometimes the blurb) for every book before I would leave.

This habit – no, mania – for browsing stuck with me as I grew up and went to college. Only the libraries got bigger: three floors at Rutgers, six at Columbia, and ten at Harvard (and that was only one of dozens of dedicated buildings). I remember discovering William Burroughs at Rutgers, only because he ended up in the vicinity of my assigned author, James Baldwin. At Columbia, I spent hours up in the balcony of the reference reading room poring over Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ only because it happened to be shelved behind my favorite writing desk.

At Harvard, I had the extra boon of being an employee of the library, rather than a student. This entitled me to wander up and down the floor to ceiling aisles of books with the purported purpose of conducting research. I was expected to be a bibliographical expert in whatever particular subject I was helping to teach; one year it was American Film Comedy, another year it was German Expressionist Painting. You get the picture – my childhood habit was now my professional obligation.

 

As you probably have already guessed, all of this browsing occurred before there was such a thing as online resources. My first day of work at Harvard just happened to coincide with the first day of operation of the new electronic book catalogue. I can safely say that neither of us have been the same since.

Over the course of the thirty plus years since that day, book catalogues eventually became completely automated and put online, followed in no short order by the books themselves. Things called search engines now do browsing for me. It’s a peculiarly imprecise technique, but it is how I discover things, with the exact same part of my brain that I used forty or fifty years ago. Then, I would see a book in the new fiction section, read the blurb, find an introduction by another author, look up his name, and come home with a book on a completely different subject than I set out to find.

Now, for instance, when I start researching 19th century Dublin, I throw some words into a Google search-- let’s say Capel Street, the year 1882, and the word ‘church’ and I have a pages-long menu of possibilities. Wander into the ‘maps’ page and I can see where every congregation on Capel Street met; switch over to ‘books’ and I get summaries (and sometimes the full text) of everything written about this triumvirate of topics in the past century.

Admittedly, it is very hard to do this without some sort of presupposition. It helps to have deep prior knowledge of the kinds of things you are looking for, and it is equally important to develop a kind of rapid-fire resolution system to skim over stuff that is likely to turn out to be either an advertisement, or locked behind a firewall, or – and this is the most likely result – irrelevant. But with enough training (it helps to be an academic librarian) and patience, I will get my answers.

The maxim that the Internet is unreliable is true, to the extent that there is no librarian sitting at a desk, ready to point out to you that the source you are consulting is years out of date, or that there’s a much more authoritative version of the subject that happens to be filed under ‘business’ instead of ‘mathematics’. These days, you have to appoint yourself your own librarian.

And I would still go and browse in a library, if I could. Right now, I’m living in the Czech Republic, and most of the books in Czech libraries are, for some reason or another, in Czech. We do have two very good English language bookstores in the city… but bookstore browsing is a completely different topic.

If I could, would I go back to a world of paper catalogues and Dewey decimals? Probably not – like every other modern invention since the telephone, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I used to write all my books in longhand before ‘typing them up’ – now there’s an antiquated phrase. I still fill paper notebooks with my research, but that’s mostly because it forces me to organize my thoughts (no cut and paste, no delete except for a rubber eraser).

But it is pleasant to think that it isn’t too long a flight between that ten year-old boy on a bench in the Closter, New Jersey public library, wading through a short stack of books of fairy tales, and the sixty plus years-old man who is now typing (see, I still use that word) on a screen, with tabs open to ten different web pages, each funneling information from every corner of the earth, and from every year of recorded time.

‘Why don’t you look it up?’ is now ‘Google it’, but I’m still always searching for something.

Thinkin' About Bob Dylan Blues

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bob Dylan lately. Actually, I think about Bob Dylan often; he’s been in my ‘pantheon’ of music stars (which includes The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Who) for over fifty years now. But after he won a Nobel Prize for Literature (Literature!) and I watched the video of Patti Smith performing ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ at his medal ceremony (which he, Dylan-like, skipped) I have revisited these memories and inspirations, and in turn I have been inspired to write about him.

The usual format for these sorts of things is a Top Ten list. Okay, I started by listing all my favorite Bob Dylan songs, and stopped when I hit sixty- seven. Then I started crossing out titles that were indicative of my love of his music but not personally meaningful, and chopped this list down, mercifully, to twelve. And there I stopped. If this list is going to be personal, it must also be tailored to me, and I can’t get to ten with Bob.

And so, in release date order, here are a dozen reasons why Bob Dylan is worth thinking about, starting with (of course)…

“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. For the first few years, Bob Dylan’s songs were constructed like ballads – guitar, no other instruments, verse upon verse ending in the title – like the folk music he learned from Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, and the Weavers (among others). “Hard Rain” takes this format, and the lilting, almost lullaby-like melody he assigned it, and cross-pollinates it with lyrics that go beyond the traditional subjects of balladry – women, poverty, wandering – to make the song nearly biblical in it’s injunction against humanity.

(Aside: I’m going to resist quoting lyrics here. The piece will be long enough without them, and nothing I say can improve them).

“The Times They Are A’ Changin’”. Another traditional ballad, obviously; this time Dylan is substituting a direct harangue for an indirect warning. Dated? I don’t think so.

“It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”. This is my favorite of Bob Dylan’s ‘intermediate period,’ the songs he wrote and recorded after he moved out of his guitar ballad phase but before he picked up the electric guitar. The non-melody is a buzzing, rhythmic sort of proto-rap (forgive me) that bursts into lyricism at the end of every verse. I recall it being used to memorable effect in “Easy Rider.”

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” I’ve included this song for two reasons: it’s one of Dylan’s most beautiful melodies, and it is featured in one of my favorite Joyce Carol Oates stories, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’. Read it and see.

“Like A Rolling Stone”. Okay, I suppose I am wholly unoriginal for including this, but what can you say? Any song that can have an entire book written about it (by Greil Marcus) must be considered weighty. Plus, if you’re going to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, you’d better have written some Nobel-worthy words. These are among them. But I promised, no quoting. Look them up.

“Ballad Of A Thin Man”. This is from my favorite Bob Dylan album, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. I fell in love with this album before I even heard it, with that enigmatic cover photo of an impossibly cute Dylan and a very phallic camera hanging over him. For a young (soon to be) gay kid, this song hinted at all the wonder to come. Okay, so it might actually be about a rotten journalist and not a homosexual encounter. Tough, this is my list.

“Lay Lady Lay.” I was fourteen when this song was released, and it sounded so unlike Bob Dylan that at first I thought it was a joke. Then I mocked it for being one of his few actual Top 40 hits. Finally, I appreciated it for being one of the most loving (and sexy) songs Dylan ever wrote.

“Tangled Up In Blue.” I’ve always liked Dylan the Mythologist, and this is his most self-referential of songs. Plus, the melody is memorable and the arrangement – a sort of mid-tempo country stomp – makes me smile every time I hear it.

“Idiot Wind”. This is another personal favorite, sort of analogous lyrically to “Positively 4th Street” but with a more generous (or shall we say, greater) target. I know it’s supposed to be about Sarah Dylan, but coming in the middle of Watergate and the disillusion sweeping the planet, I always thought Bob had more universal idiots in the back of his mind.

“The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”. I must pass over a large part of the ‘Jesus’ period, and not because I fail to relate to the subject matter. Actually, much of his work in this period is quite interesting. There’s just not enough space. Still, this song, from “Shot Of Love” rocks like no other Dylan song. You can dance to it. Plus it features one of Bob’s best vocal snarls.

“Every Grain Of Sand” I came late to this tune, also from “Shot Of Love.” I didn’t pay much attention to it in 1981, when it was released, but it started popping up on other people’s best lists, and they’re right. Listen to how unusually natural and emotional Bob sounds.

“Workingman’s Blues #2” This is the most recent inclusion on the list; it’s from ‘Modern Times,’ released in 2006. The melody is lovely; the lyrics wistful and passionate, and the character singing the song another one of Dylan’s alter egos, meaning us.

I could go on. I could cheat and list my other contenders. And I welcome your own nominations. So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road…

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

   History is myopic. We are told that we live in the best of times, that the future belongs to us, that we learn from our mistakes. These thoughts occur to me because I just finished watching Ken Burn’s fourteen-hour long film ‘The Roosevelts”. It is not coincidental that I watched the final episode, in which Franklin dies and Eleanor picks up the mantle of humanistic governance, on the eve of the 2016 American Presidential election, for when the two events are considered side by side, so to speak, it says volumes – nay, it constitutes an entire library – about how far political discourse and its effects have fallen.
    Not that FDR was a saint; Burns makes sure we understand that he was unfaithful to his wife and a master manipulator of the uses and abuses of power at a worldwide level. And nostalgia can be as myopic as history. So I won’t try to make the argument that everyone’s parents make: that things were better when we were growing up. True or not, we can only live now, in the present. But there is something else to be said about the contrast between the world of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and our response to it and the world of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And that has to do with morality.
    I write these thoughts on Election Day, not knowing who is going to win. I’ll go out on a limb and say that I suspect the next president will be Mrs. Clinton, but who wins this election is not my point. I hardly expect Mr. Trump to be another FDR, but I don’t think that Mrs. Clinton is another Eleanor, either. As I watched Mrs. Roosevelt determined to make her idealism change peoples lives, I found myself wishing today’s leaders, both men and women – and in this way, the world HAS changed – were not only accomplished and insistent but a tad more inspiring. Even Barack Obama started out as a rocket, and ended up something more like a firecracker.
     Something  – and there’s not enough space here to spell it out, but let’s at least mention television, the internet, the condition of education, the decline of reading, and the short-circuiting of all forms of real communication – has caused a massive change in the needle of our moral compass.  Because of these things, we’ve lost a bit of control over ourselves, but even more frighteningly, we’ve lost control OF ourselves – to opinion makers, to corporations, and to planned obsolescence. As Barbara Ehrenreich told us, we are ‘amusing ourselves to death.’  I like my creature comforts as well as the next guy, but I don’t think I’ve lost my ability not to care about the next guy – and hopefully, I won’t.
I can understand human frailty, but I wish I didn’t expect it, especially from our so-called leaders. Perhaps we were better off not knowing of Roosevelt’s affairs; perhaps it was necessary that we never saw him struggling to walk. The drive for duplicity was as strong then as it is now, but I can’t help but think the character of the individuals forging that network of beliefs and desires was superior. 
    In my fiction, I always try to create heroes and heroines who are morally challenged, so that I can work out, in the form of a story, what I believe is the difference between right and wrong behavior – war or peace in my ‘war trilogy,’ creativity or destruction in ‘Aluminium’ and ‘Michael Ashmore,’ truth or lies in ‘Walk Away Renee’. My books are my ‘safe spaces’ where I can create and then live in a world bounded by rules my characters believe in. Always, there remains a glimmer of hope that I will learn from my own words or show others a way to learn from them.
    We get the leaders we deserve, and no matter who wins today, he or she will have earned every ounce of our shared admiration and hatred, most likely in equal measures. This alone is cold proof of how dysfunctional politics has become, and how much we have ourselves to blame for it. I wish I could offer a solution – God know, many others (Peggy Noonan, Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal) have tried – instead of poking my head up every now and then to complain and then go back to the safety and security of what I know. But that, too, is a characteristic of the times we live in, which is, as I have said, the only time we have.
    It’s been nearly fifty years since Paul Simon wrote ‘Mrs. Robinson’, with the verse that makes up my title:

    Going to the candidate’s debate…
    Laugh about it, shout about it, 
    When you’ve got to choose,
    Anyway you look at it, you lose.
    Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
    A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…

    Fifty years from today, what will we have to say?