A Confederacy of Dunces

First of all, the author’s name intrigues me, partially because John Kennedy was my favorite uncle and partially because ‘Toole’ seems incomplete without the ‘O’.

A second curiosity about this book is that it is older, written in the 60’s, but not published until the 80’s.  The Author, J.K. Toole, in despair over his inability to get it published, committed suicide.  His mother later badgered and hectored a college professor/author, Walker Percy, to get it published, and he eventually did.  All I have read lauds it as a work of comic genius.  To my mind it is good, in spots very good, but not great and not genius.

Three overall components in the book, the 60’s, the south, and New Orleans combine into a fertile field for some seriously quirky characters.  Prince of the quirky is the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, a bloated, arrogant, self- important, lazy, mendacious man of thirty living with his mother and resisting conformity for all he is worth.  To start the story, his mother has a few too many, and has a car accident which will cost her about a thousand dollars in property damages.  She prevails on Ignatius, much against his will, to get a job and help pay for it.  His job searches and two employments (file clerk at a pants factory and hot dog vendor) provide all the fixins’ that Toole requires for a gumbo of meanderings and misadventures by New Orleans flora and fauna.  There is a cop that can’t seem to make an arrest, an exotic dancer billing herself as “Scarlett  O’Whora”, a black man forced to work for less than minimum wage to escape arrest for vagrancy, a senile office worker who is not permitted to retire, a gay man named Dorian Green, the long suffering mother, the mother’s friends and suitor, the complaining next door neighbor, the liberal activist Jewish perennial college student who eventually saves Ignatius from a mental hospital, the owner of the pants factory and his nagging wife, the owner of the hot dog cart, a boy involved in a ring that sells pornography, et al.  Much of this, as I think of it now, is reminiscent of some of the zanier stories to come out of the 60’s, in particular “Candy” and “What’s New Pussycat”, both of which seemed to just bounce odd characters off each other.

And that is why, in one review that I read, that the novel was not published in the author’s lifetime.  Clever, creative and comic that it was, it did not seem to have any direction.  It was like an arcade game where the little ball bounces off bumpers and rails and flippers to score points, but it had no overall theme.  It was a wonderful series of well-drawn characters placed in ludicrous situations, but a sequence of madcap events does not make a book.  Even the Marx brother’s stories had a veneer of a plot.

I liked the book a lot.  It kept me reading, actually listening, until the very end after which I missed it like an old friend.  But it could have used some editing.  I wish Mr. Toole had not succumbed to despair.  Had he stayed with it a while, it could have been an even better book, and become the black humor classic it has been touted as.


Cold Hit

Just finished reading a crime/ police procedural novel by Stephen  J. Cannell called Cold Hit.  Mr. Cannell is something of a latter-day entertainment polymath, having scored big success in producing television shows as well as a series of novels and a couple of acting gigs.

As for TV shows, he was “creator” or “co-creator” (I use quotes because I think the act of creation should have a deeper meaning and greater value than a TV show, but that’s just me) of such winners as The Rockford Files, The A Team, 21 Jump Street, and a few others that even a casual viewer would recognize.  He has also had a dozen or so fiction books published.  Pot boilers, they used to be called I think, and his are pretty well done.  These kind of books are very popular now.  The list of authors is way, way too long for a blog, but I’ll mention two recent series  that I am familiar with.  The Kinsey Millhone books, written by Sue Grafton and the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker.  But, the tradition goes way back.  Way, way back.  Okay, I’ll show off a little.  The 80’s had The 87th Precinct books, the 70’s had Travis McGee, the 60’s had Lew Archer, the 50’s had Mike Hammer, the 40’s had Sam Spade, the 30’s had Nero Wolfe, the 20’s had Agatha Christie… it goes on and on all the way to Sherlock Holmes, and the progenitor of them all, C. Auguste Dupin.  

Who is C. Auguste Dupin, you may well ask?  He is the first fictional detective.  Ever.  And written by someone not generally known for his detective work, Edgar Allen Poe. Edgar A. apparently sobered up long enough to come out of his dungeon and write a pretty good detective story, The Purloined Letter.  Poe’s detective, by the way, has, hands down, the greatest title ever in the long history of detective fiction.  C. Auguste Dupin is the Prefect of Parisian Police.  Alliteration!  Three P’s!  I love it.

The fates of fictional police detectives have taken a turn for the worse since Monsieur Dupin massaged his little grey cells in the City of Lights.  Detectives, especially members of the police force, now have fallen arches, alimony payments and inhabit offices in bad parts of town with metal desks and a lingering odor of stale coffee.

That’s where Stephen J. Cannell’s detective lives and works.  He is Shane Scully and he is a Detective third grade out in California.  He has a wife who is a police captain and has, apparently, cheek bones that are worth describing several times.  He has a son whom he only met at the age of fifteen but is now going to USC on a football scholarship.  He has an alcoholic police partner who tries to kill him and who may be the serial killer that is the central plot device of the book.  Tossed into this heady olio are the FBI, Homeland Security, the CIA, homeless Vietnam era veterans, and Russian mobsters who are planting listening device all over Los Angeles.  

With all these narrative billiard balls careening off each other, and I suppose Shane Scully is the cue ball that gets them careening, mayhem and misdeeds occur apace.  Fibs were told, and whoppers too.  Feelings were hurt and hearts were broken.  Close relationships were threatened, but love triumphed.  Threats were made and shots were fired.  Bad guys were killed by the score except for one or two who were only maimed so they could tell the whole story to a federal prosecutor.  In the end, as it is supposed to be in the world of fiction, all loose ends were carefully bagged, tagged and wrapped up.  It was a good read.

This is not a book that increases your vocabulary or your IQ.  It won’t have you tossing and turning at 3AM pondering metaphysical questions.  Mr. Cannell doesn’t chime in on the existence of free will or add to our investigation of a grand unified theory.  It’s just a good read.

I think Edgar Allen would approve.  

Timequake – Kurt Vonnegut

Just finished reading “Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut. A really odd book.  Part biography, part paean to his family, part sci-fi novel, part, I think, farewell.  He wrote much about his family and friends, and how old they were, and how many of them were dead.  The book is sprinkled with suicides.  Vonnegut has always been bittersweet, but this was much more bitter than it was sweet.

Tough to follow, of course, because one of the fundamentals of the book was the fiction that a hiccup in the universe sent us all back 10 years to 1991, and we had to live those years all over again.  When the 10 years was up, and free will returned, people went into PTA or Post Timequake Apathy.  No one remembered that they had to actually do things consciously like steer a car, because it had all been done automatically for 10 years.  So, when we all awoke to free will, chaos.  Car crashes, people falling down, airplane crashes… chaos.  He jumps around through decades and mixes real people with fictional characters.  Several sections have him talking to his most famous creation, the science fiction hack Kilgore Trout.  

A few funny moments in the book, but it was all much disjointed and at times,  cacophonous.  But, having loved  Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle and Sirens of Titan, and certain that Kilgore Trout is a misunderstood literary genius, how can anyone complain about Vonnegut?

Not Quite Enough

I’m just about to finish a book called “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin” which is a depressing prospect to contemplate.  I often feel bad at the end of a good book, sometimes even at the end of a bad book, largely because my taste in books is somewhat narrow.  I have been a careful reader most of my adult life (too immature to start earlier) and having enjoyed so much good, find it difficult to embrace the bad.  Well, there was that period of Star Trek novels, but I survived it with only minimal damage to my cerebral cortex, much less my pride.   Much of what is published today is dreck, I’m sorry to have to point out.  Or perhaps it is written with younger and more naive audience in mind.  Or perhaps for a subset of the reading population with a shorter attention span.  Maybe it caters to the type of people who wear red caps at Donald Trump rallies, although I have never seen any of that lot carry a book.  Perhaps reading is either frowned upon at those events, or the physical books themselves are thought to be weaponizable, if weaponizable is the word I want, and is actually a word.

But my point, which seems to have wandered off, is that I shall miss the humorous and clever style of Mr. Trillin.  He has been a staff writer with the New Yorker for several decades and has, apparently, taken pains to continually hone his craft.  He is a descendant of the literary humor tradition of James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perlman, on up to contemporaries like Woody Allen, Dave Barry, George Carlin, Fran Lebowitz, and I’m sure to be leaving out other witty worthies.  

At any rate, which I just learned has been abbreviated to ‘AAR8’ for social media users, the book is comprised of short pieces and doggerel written from the late 70’s until 2011 or so and covers the germane and the goofy.  And, always with a twinkle.  I chuckled frequently.  I laughed out loud on several occasions.  I even, once or twice, guffawed, which is not like me at all.  Like a summer vacation, or a good glass of wine, I am sad that Quite Enough is almost gone.  It feels like not quite enough.

One of the mixed blessings of aging is a failing memory.  In my case, if I forget all I have read in this book, I can enjoy it again if a few years.  Alexander Pope, who wasn’t all that funny, said “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  Well,  I hope so.

David McCullough

I recently finished reading the latest work by David McCullough, “The Wright Brothers” and was, once again, awed by his narrative and research skills. I have read all of his books. He has tackled some technically challenging topics, i.e., the Johnstown Flood, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, as well as some daunting biographies, i.e. John Adams, Harry Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt. Despite the complexity of the subject matter, each book seems like an easy read. He doesn’t overwhelm with arcane and forgettable factoids, but chooses them carefully, and places them in such a way that the reader can see both the forest and the trees.

Certainly he has been lauded for his efforts, a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize among others. I am generally wary of writers who are too popular. For example, I think Stephen King should be buried up to his nostrils in moldy copies of his own books and left to suffer.  But Mr. McCullough deserves all the accolades and tributes that have come his way.

I know he is not young any more, and has been honing his craft for several decades, But, each time I finish one of his books, like “The Wright Brothers”, I find myself thinking, ‘Just one more David. Please, find it in you for just one more.’

Surprisingly, actually amazingly, there is video of one of the early flights of Wilbur and Orville, and here it comes now;

Catch 22

Right now, I am about half way through Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. If you don’t know the book, you’re probably at least familiar with the phrase. A ‘catch 22’ is a logical inconsistency that baffles and frustrates. For example, ‘you can’t get a job without having some experience, and you can’t get experience without first having a job’.

Yep, been there, just not in a long while, thank you very much.

The ‘catch 22’ in Catch 22 is about a World War II bomber pilot who is terrified of being killed and wants to stop flying missions. He is told by superior officers that all he has to do is claim that he is crazy, and he’ll be let out of active duty. Sounds simple. The catch, catch 22, is that if you want to get out of the army because you’re afraid of being killed, that proves your sane. Saying you are crazy to get out of being killed proves that you’re not crazy, and so you have to keep flying.

The main character in the book, John Yossarian, says to an army doctor, “That’s some catch, that catch 22.”

The doctor replies, deadpan, “It’s the best there is.”

I think it is one of the best and, in some spots funniest, books written in the 20th century. I have mentioned it to several people of late, and, surprisingly, only about half knew what it was. As Caesar once said to Shakespeare over a latte in the Coliseum, ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’. We’re just lucky that Brian Williams was there to translate it into English for us. “Thus passes the glory of the world.”

Here is a clip from the almost-as-good movie.



How To Read A Book In The Age Of Information

There was a time when reading a book was a simple four step process; put on your glasses, turn on a light, open the book to where you left off, and begin. But reading in the twenty-first century, like taxes and television, has gotten complicated.

The first thing you have to do is get a computer. That way, whenever you see a French word, or a Latin phrase that the author hasn’t bothered to translate, you can look it up.

For example, I came across the word ‘lagniappe’ the other day. I was sure that a lagniappe was a breed of South American monkey that has been taught to play canasta, but no.   A lagniappe is “a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of purchase”. Who knew?

We can all figure out that ‘veni, vidi, vici’ is Caesar’s way of saying “I came, I saw, I conquered”. But, try this one on for size; “Caesar si viveret, ad remum dareris.” It means,
‘If Caesar were alive, you would be chained to an oar.’   Certainly a handy phrase to memorize, in any language.

The second thing is to make sure that you have your Wikipedia handy so that if a person is mentioned that you’re not familiar with you can look him or her up, see what he or she looks like, how old he or she is, and who he or she married/ divorced/ lived with or fought with. A reference to Harold Ross (turns out he was the original editor of The New Yorker Magazine, led me to a reference about Robert Benchley which led me to a quote by Dorothy Parker. Dorothy, a dog lover, once named her dog Woodrow Wilson, “because he was so full of shit”. Clearly, Dorothy was not a supporter of Woodrow.

Third, when reading a book, always make sure to check IMdB to see if there was a movie made out of it, and who starred. And also if there was a remake. The Great Gatsby has been made six times, and was a success each time. (Don’t give me Leonard DiCaprio. Robert Redford was the quintessential Jay Gatsby). Apropos of nothing, the author of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once observed, “The victor belongs to the spoils.”   To this day, no one really knows what F. Scott meant.

I sometimes flout convention by putting the computer away and reverting to the tried and true four-step process. And it works well for me. As Groucho Marx once said: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”