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.

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Founders Tavern

In a smoky corner of an afterlife tavern reserved for The Founders, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Livingston sit and dissect the state of current U.S. affairs over a tankard of hard cider.  Around them, and imbedded in every aspect of their sanctuary, the world continues its revolutions.  With a slight shift in perception, easily accomplished for those dead for so long, they can easily see, hear and understand the daily triumphs and trudgings of those still on the mortal plane. They are enthralled by this election, and as appalled and terrified as the rest of the ‘informed electorate’.  They have deep discussions about separation of powers, freedom of the press, voter fraud, immigrants, the right to bear arms, demagoguery, and, most commonly, hair color. There are the usual references to pumpkins and summer squash, and the occasional comment that ‘orange isn’t the new anything’.

As in all other elections, halls are rented, crowds gather, flags are draped, speeches are made that are well-crafted, deeply emotional, and full of lies.  There is a woman running for president this time, a novelty, and thought to be a historic moment.  That potential moment  is eclipsed by the antics and bombast of a charlatan posing as a statesman.  Like the people on the plane of existence swirling around them, the founders cringe and recoil and argue.

“We are the five,” Livingston reminisces, “that were tasked with explaining to the nation, and the world, why we were breaking away from England. We are the committee chosen to write the declaration.”  Jefferson, who did most of the writing, just stares down at his drink.  He has been in the tavern longer than the others, and is beginning to sway a little.

“We gave the future generations a plan,” Sherman mutters, “a tower of rationality in an irrational age and little by little they have whittled it into a quaint treasury of clichés and empty promises.  This election completes the journey from powerhouse to madhouse.”

“Self evident,” Jefferson said into his mug, ‘that all men are created equal,  I wrote that.”

“Yes,” Livingston said to him, “and just a month before that, George wrote that “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights,”

“Nonsense,” Jefferson muttered.  “Dilberries.  He never did.”

“I can find you a copy, sir.  It’s well known among us that his Virginia Declaration of Rights is chock-a-block with phrases that you have become famous, even revered, for.”

Jefferson looks up with a twisted grin.  “Leibniz and Newton.  Keep in mind Leibniz and Newton.”

They all look at each other in confusion until Franklin pushes his glasses up on his nose and says, “Our ginger compatriot is making reference to calculus.  Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton each claim to have discovered, or invented, calculus at roughly the same time. There was a big fight between them, what they now call a’ kerfuffle’.  I will grant you that these moderns are shallow and grasping, but I like that word ‘kerfuffle’.  Rolls right off the tongue, means exactly what it sounds like.”

Adams, scowling as usual, adds, “So, Sir Isaac became famous worldwide, and rich too, and herr Leibniz remains a footnote.  Not unlike our Thomas here and the undiscovered squire Mason.”

“Undiscovered,” slurred Jefferson, “and undeserving.  The man is a hack, or was a hack.  Probably will be a hack in the future too.”  

At that moment, if we can speak of something as tangible as ‘moments’ in an afterlife tavern shifting between planes of existence, George Mason strolls into the tavern.

“An injured friend…,” says John Adams.

“Yes, yes,” says Jefferson,  ‘…is the bitterest of foes’, I know.  I said that too.”

“Are you sure that was you?” Franklin asks.  “Sounds a bit more like Aaron Burr.  That man was an authority on enemies.”  Sherman and Livingston laugh.

Mason walks past the table, stops for a second to glare wordlessly at Jefferson, and joins Patrick Henry at a table near the window.  Jefferson, red-faced now, yells across the room, ‘Leibniz and Newton, George, my good man.  Leibniz and Newton.”  

“Ignore him,” Patrick Henry says, with his finger in the air calling for a drink.  

Franklin looks around at the gloomy faces at his table, particularly that of Jefferson.  “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he says.  “There should be no despair here.  Our creation has faced greater crises than this, and thrived.  Do I need to remind you of the Civil War?  Of two world wars?  Of the impeachment of two presidents and the resignation of another?  Of the Great Depression and more recently of the Great Recession?”

“Or,” Jefferson slurs, “does he need to remind you of Sarah Palin?”

The table laughs. Most of the tavern laughs.  It was November 8th on our mortal plane, and they all turned to focus their perception on the incoming results.  “Results are in from Florida and .. “

Creation by Gore Vidal

I recently  finished reading the Gore Vidal novel, Creation.  Enjoyed it very much.  It tells the story of a fifth century BCE Persian nobleman, Cyrus Spitama, and his adventures and travels.  Cyrus is the grandson of the prophet Zoroaster, who was central to the religion of, what else, Zoroastrianism.  This ancient religion worshipped one deity, whom Cyrus Spitama refers to as ‘The Wise Lord’, and as a monotheism, was somewhat unusual in that time period.  Zoroaster was in personal contact with The Wise Lord, not unlike Abraham and Moses and Noah and Mohammed and, most recently Joseph Smith.  Cyrus heard only the one sentence from The Wise Lord, but that seemed to be enough.

The novel opens with Cyrus Spitama (like he was named after a camel), half Greek, old and blind, reluctantly serving as Persia’s ambassador to Athens.  This is after the Persian wars, after Marathon and Plataea and Thermopylae and the two burnings of Athens, but certainly there is still loathing and distrust  between the two cultures.  Spitama makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the Greeks.

He, Cyrus, talks about his youth as an outsider in the Persian court of Darius, and his boyhood friendship with the crown prince, Xerxes.  The recent movie, The 300, portrays Xerxes as eccentric almost to the point of seeming extraterrestrial.  Vidal’s Xerxes is just a garden variety arrogant ruler of an enormous empire who is addicted to power and yet trapped by it.  He is  eventually assassinated by those closest to him.  Sounds familiar. (Julius Caesar ended up that way, and Nero and Caligula and Charles I and King Louis XVI and Robespierre, and those are just the westerners.  Rulers of India, China, Japan and Russia also succumbed to the same fate.  Hard to think of an example here in America, other than Crazy Horse.  We here in North America prefer that our leaders be murdered by strangers.)

But Cyrus, uncomfortable as he was in the Persian hierarchy, was fortunate enough to become a confidant of The Great King Cyrus and sent on trade missions to distant and exotic lands, India and then China.

In India, a heavily populated and profoundly religious, if to Western eyes hypocritical, area called ‘the Gangetic Plain’, Cyrus treats with several of the local kings.  They are all either anxiously awaiting their final reincarnation, or actively plotting mayhem in order  to become universal ruler.  Cyrus is amazed at the variety of religious sects, always comparing what he sees to his deep Zoroastrian beliefs.  Fervent and sincere conversations with India’s ranking savant, the Buddha, left him only baffled.  In time, he marries the daughter of one of these monarchs, the most deceitful and bloodthirsty of them all, but soon makes an acceptable trade deal and returns to Persia.  Not a young man anymore, he manages to avoid serious entanglement with court machinations, and also with the capricious Greeks and is eventually sent to China.  

After years of travel, he arrives in China, is immediately captured and enslaved by a series of squabbling contenders for the title of Son of Heaven.  As in India, any discussion of either religion or politics is circular, specious and ultimately baffling.  But, he does manage to discourse with Li Po, and even make friends with Confucius.  

Eventually, and not easily, he escapes from China and makes his way back to Persia to find that his boyhood friend Xerxes is Great King, but is largely dissolute and disinterested in governing his empire.  He is murdered by his palace guard, and soon his son, Artaxerxes, sends Cyrus Spitama to Greece on a mission, mostly secret, to establish a treaty with Athens that will keep both the Persian empire and the seminal Greek city-state from another conflict. This is Cyrus’ final mission.  The camel has spit for the last time.  

I have read enough history to follow Cyrus’ ancient escapades without  being totally confused.  I even know what BCE stands for.  This book is a masterful blend of arcane facts and vivid details that swirl and sparkle and build until they resemble something very much like a novel.  But, the swirling and the sparkle don’t seem to adhere to anything concrete, like a central theme.  It’s like the salt on a pretzel, but I never found the pretzel.

The title, Creation,  is a clue, or perhaps a red herring, or, most likely, a mirage; something that looked real but just never did pan out  In recreating sages of the age, Zoroaster, Aristotle, Pericles, Li Po, Confucius, Buddha, Vidal frequently has Cyrus ruminate on the central mystery of all religious investigation; i.e., our origins.  What was the beginning, and what was before the beginning?  All these luminaries have answers, or sometimes non-answers, but none satisfy.  Twenty-five centuries later, there are still no satisfying answers.  

Perhaps the best we can hope for, as Cyrus Spitama did, is to live in interesting times.

The Last Lecture On A Tuesday With Morrie

I Recently finished the second of two books with similar themes; death vs. quality of life.  Tough topics to write about.  The Last Lecture is a 2008 book by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg.  It describes, not so much his struggle with pancreatic cancer, but rather his obstinate refusal to let the fatal diagnosis squelch his joy of living.  The book came out of an actual lecture at Carnegie Mellon titled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.  That concept, achievement, is really the theme and  beating heart of the book, and not the sadness and defeat of a terminal diagnosis.

The second book is older, but perhaps better known.  Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom is about a teacher who contracts Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but still has more life lessons to impart to a jaded, world-weary former student.  It, Tuesdays, is a good deal more graphic about the ravages and insults foisted upon the human body by fatal disease.  Some of the descriptions are cringe-worthy.  I had read Tuesdays with Morrie years ago, when it first came out, and may have an additional level of understanding, even compassion, by virtue of having worked with ALS patients for years.  None of that reduces the cringe factor.

It is impossible for anyone with a limbic system to not sympathize with these men.  Tears, empathy, compassion, and a brief but total illumination of the human condition saturate both narratives.  Both are difficult books to get through.  Each requires periodic deep breaths and extended episodes of staring into empty space.

But, I want to do a literary U-turn here and talk about quality of the writing of the books itself, and not the themes or dispiriting details.  The styles are a study in contrast.  The older one, Tuesdays, is a conventional book, written by a professional writer.  It uses literary techniques developed to keep the reader interested in the story.  It actually weaves two narratives; that of the teacher with ALS, and that of his student.  The tale is not presented in a straight sequence, but bounces around from their college courses together through a long hiatus in their relationship to a chance meeting to the final months of “Tuesdays with Morrie”.  It is skillfully done and delivers three-dimensional main characters, and a couple of interesting support players as well.  Not surprisingly, it was made into a movie.

Lecture, by comparison, was not conceived as a book, but as, well, a lecture.  It was first presented  on a stage, with all the multimedia tools then available; A computer presentation with pictures, sound, video clips,  and the whole lecture videotaped for consumption by us, the eager acolytes of the information generation.  It was a very effective  presentation and delivered a comprehensive view of the author’s life, and a penetrating illustration of optimism and joie de vivre.

I, with my bias toward the written word, chose to read the book version, which is an autobiography  written by an engineer.  As such, it is a compilation of facts and anecdotes laid out in a clear sequence.  It is the biographical equivalent of the Ikea instructions to assemble a chair.  These are the tool you need, this is what you do first, and then what you do second and third. Be sure to use the right screws, and make sure that you don’t have any of the verticals confused with the horizontals.  It gets the job done, and I think that is the highest praise I can give to Ikea instructions.  There is, of course, an overlay of emotion and pathos in Mr. Pausch’s book, he isn’t building a chair, but his step-by- step approach leaves much of his story dry and, um, wooden.

I have since watched the video of the lecture (easily available on YouTube) and come away with a much different conception of Mr. Pausch and what he accomplished in Lecture.  The lecture itself, and the video are is much more coherent and effective than the book version.  It is multidimensional, and perhaps that is what multimedia brings to any project.

Which, I suppose, demands a comparison between the old and the new.  The traditional and the modern.  The ho-hum and the ‘ooh, shiny’.   The Powerpoint presentation or words on a page.  But there isn’t, really, much room for  a comparison.  To me, they just serve different purposes.  

Would you rather travel in a Boeing 737 or just walk?  It depends on where you’re going; to the grocery store for milk and bread, or to Brazil for the Olympics.

Would you rather wear a ten-dollar watch purchased from Ted’s Close Enough TimePieces or strap on a three-pound beauty that is waterproof to a thousand fathoms, accurate to 1/10,000 of a second, and automatically synced to the atomic clock at Greenwich England?  It depends on whether you just want to know when to go to lunch, or if you are the official timekeeper of the International Submarine Race Watching Regatta.

Do you prefer coffee, or an iced coconut half caf mocha macchiato with steamed milk and a peppermint stick?  Well, that depends on…. Actually this one doesn’t depend on anything.  I’ll just take a coffee, please.  Light, no sugar.

Reading for me is a quiet, uncomplicated, undemanding form of recreation.  Like an old friend, it is not a relationship that I have to work at.  No quiz at the end, no time limits, easy to stop in the middle, if my attention wanders, I can always go back.  

If I want to focus, concentrate, be inspired and educated, the new technology is the way to go.  If I want to take the time to integrate information, and enjoy the slow trickle as  it meanders into my brain pan, a book words every time.

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?

Out of Touch

Still paying attention to the national election, and still find it disturbing.  It is boggling to me that so many people, according to the polls, can still support Donny.  He is abrasive, transparently hypocritical, narrow-minded, egotistical, and woefully, gleefully uninformed.  He surrounds himself with people that are very much like him, including his family.  His children look more like cardboard cutouts than flesh and blood.  His top echelon supporters, i.e. Christie, Gingrich, Hannity, Sessions, all have their own serious baggage that they are trying to outrun by attaching themselves to this rambling, mercenary gas bag.  

And yet, and yet, he seems to be doing well, even leading by some measures.  His root audience seem not to care what he says, as long as he doesn’t say what everyone else says.  I hate to get all hyperbolic and historical, but I think this situation lends itself to hyperbole and history.  

Donny is trading on the idea that he is different.  Caesar did that. And Hitler and Mussolini and Huey Long and Father Coughlin.

The dictionary, the go-to reference when something needs to be clear, defines demagogue as:  a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.  

To me, that pretty much sums up Donny.  Long on prejudices and short on rational argument.

But I am coming to understand that he is not really the problem, just a shimmering, slightly orange reflection of it.  The real problem is the people who are supporting him.  Scenes of his rallies leave me nonplussed and slack-jawed (if nonplussed and slack-jawed are the terms I want.  Do you think nonplussed and slack jawed are the terms I want?).  Screaming epithets, abusing minorities, offensive sloganeering.  And that’s before they get warmed up.  The term ‘mob’ seems to fit comfortably here, and I don’t think I need to refer to a dictionary definition.  

To be selfish about it, what concerns me most is that I am so completely out of touch.  I never saw this coming.  I know we are a melting pot society, but I thought there were some boundaries, some common ground.  How can it be that people have become so wooden headed, so obtuse, so attached to one point of view that rationality is not even possible?

I could never support someone because of the banner he or she stood under: Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Progressive, Liberal, Libertarian… none of them. 

Dear Sir or Madam standing on your soapbox or reading from your teleprompter, tell me what you think and I’ll either agree or disagree.  But I will think about it first.  

I wonder, is there room anymore for an independent?