|MARCH 1999 Part 3|
|Okay, Im back from Mexico. I read six books instead of posting the Bleat. Heres my report:
Doctor Lady Gets Huge, Goes Nuts and Kills Her Kids by Ann Rule. Not as good as Ms. Rules previous happy little glimpses into the lives of sociopaths. It had Ms. Rules accustomed attention to detail, which is to say it was as thorough as an autopsy, but the villain wasnt a sociopath. She was just plain nuts. There was a nice Lucretia Borgia touch, though. This was the book for the plane ride.
Enigma, by Robert Harris. Exceptional. A suspense novel set in the crypto unit during WWII, with a guest appearance by Alan Turing. Few books make mathematics sexy and exciting, and this wasnt one of them, thank God. It was set in a dreary world of cold huts and cheap flats, of wartime deprivations, British sexual repression, old boy what-what-haw-haw-blimey-mate lies and blather. Harris is very good at describing the lives of sad failed people living in permanently overcast worlds. This book didnt get the attention of Fatherland, but it was just as good, and probably better.
Siberian Night, by Robin White. Eh. A mystery set in the oil fields of Siberia. The author had spent time in Siberia and had been a roughneck as well, so he knew his territory. (His bio, one of those back-jacket write-ups that make you want to strangle the author, also noted that he was now a practicing architect, and flew planes for a hobby. And what have YOU done with your life so far?) It kept me reading, but I didnt eat it up with gratitude and fascination. One good character: one. And he was a secondary figure. After a while I tired of all the Siberian aphorisms - I really doubt that the majority of conversations there begin and end with In Siberia, life is . . . (fill in appropriately weary yet proud yet beaten yet ruefully amused Russian sentiment.) The ending - one of those set pieces where you get the entire cast of characters in one place with guns - just took forever.
Dust, by Charles Pelligrino. Here was a pick-me-up: ecological catastrophe wipes out the entire human race. Due to some deep-set instruction encoded long ago in the DNA of insects, all the bugs die off. the author posits a fascinating reason - since the earth swings through a big asteroid belt every 35 million years, and since those stones generally unleash big whoop-ass on Momma Gaia, the bugs have learned to go dormant before the rocks hit and wipe out the rest of the ecosystem. The political and economic effects a bug die-off would have are fleshed out with varying degrees of success. The science part of the book was top-notch - Pelligrino is a scientist, and as his bio noted, he was the first person to suggest cloning dinosaurs from the blood of amberized insects. HIM! NOT THAT CRICHTON HACK! But the author has a treeeeemendous ego, and it spilled over into the book in odd ways. He also had a habit of putting his friends in the book and using their real names - when a bat researchers got eaten by rampaging vampire bats, for example, the characters name was the same as the bat expert the author thanked in the afterward. Everytime a new character was introduced, I checked the afterward to see if it was a real person. Usually was.
The chief villain of the book was - shudder - a talk radio host, and the authors descriptions of the radio mans ranting was utterly wrong, just wrong. Cartoony. He has a tin ear for that sort of thing.
Still, I read it all the way through through. I like science novels.
Mars, by Ben Bova. This was the big one, the brick-thick novel that was supposed to last three days. Lasted two. Its a Michneresque account of the first trip to Mars. (Note: that is not necessarily a compliment.) The earth-side political battles seemed trumped up, and most of the characters were cliches (the suave Englishman, the stolid Russian, etc) and the writing was serviceable. Still, I liked it.
But I finished it on Wednesday, leaving me without any more books. So I went to the library, which was located right by the safety-deposit boxes. An interesting graveyard of sun-bleached books, current as the latest Clancy, old as some forgotten action and spy series from the 60s and 70s. I found two:
Trunk Music, by Michael Connally. Good, good mystery. Hes Block without all the mooning alky rhapsodies. That held my attention for the afternoon and evening and through this morning, after which I started
The Golden Orange, by Joseph Wambaugh. Crap. The sort of book authors write when theyre convinced that ever word that spills from their pen is pure genius. So I put it back and got
The Undertakers Widow, by Philip Margolin. I thought it would hold me over on the plane, and since Ill never forget a mesmerizing drive to and from Fargo while listening to one of his audiobooks, I thought this would be the same dense piece of tremulous dread. It is not. I may finish it; I may not.
And that is what Ive been doing for the last week.
And more: tanning, eating, drinking, tanning, snorkeling, and buying hamburgers for street dogs. I've been doing it in Mexico, which is why there haven't been any Bleat updates. Check the ABOUT section for an account of the trip, if you like.
Went to visit an aged relation at the Springfield Retirement Castle, or whatever the exact name is. Nice place, well-appointed; almost like a regular apartment building downstairs. Once you get upstairs, though, it's Sing-Sing for the Aged. A sign in the group room caught my eye:
Great-Aunt Lee is 87, and that always surprises me - up until a few years ago she was spry and alert, ten years younger in spirit and attitude. We took her downstairs to the private dining room - she's won dinner for two guests on her birthday - and a waiter handed us a menu. Fifty percent of the supper options consisted of liver and onions. We had the chicken and talked of this and that, then took a little tour. Saw the birds: there's a small aviary on on floor. All the birds were in their nests for the evening; each little doorway showed five glowering faces. Lee's previous nursing home had an aviary as well, and I had the same thought then: it's nice, and gives the residents something to look at, but it's a microcosm of their own place. All these beautiful brittle creatures walled off and sealed away.
Back to the room. Back past some cantankerous seniors, herded like children by the staff. In Lee's room were some recent examples of a crafts class - coloring book pictures hung on the wall, emblems of dexterity that must provide some pride. One picture was a woman in a smart hat and coat from the 30s - will people of my generation spend their last days coloring bell-bottomed jeans and flopped crocheted hats? Serves them right if they do.
A whole life, edited down to that linoleum cell. Spending each day in a fog of memories and confusion, awakened every morning by the careless laughter of the attendants. She wants to go home, but there isn't any home to go to anymore.
Last night - or rather, this morning - I came across a movie I haven't seen since I first clapped eyes on it in '75: Dog Day Afternoon. At the time I was mightily impressed by the film, but when you're 17 and you get to see a movie where they say the F word, you're impressed by your own adult cosmopolitan sophistication. Or at least that was the case in the mid-70s in NoDak.
After seeing the movie again, these thoughts:
1. No one plays Al Pacino like Al Pacino. He's Valentino crossed with Marty Feldman - pop-eyed, charismatic, oily (did they have no Clinique clarifying astringents in the 70s?) and "ethnic" in a way Hollywood would soon abandon in favor of other stereotypes.
2. New York in the 70s was utter hell, just a big hot craphole. You can smell bankruptcy and sociopathy like a hot wave off the asphalt every time Pacino steps out of the bank and surfs the roar of his adoring public. Everything looks like it's about to fall apart, and the people look like coke-fried morons who are cursed to live in a pre-Jerry Springer age, and thus must live their messy lives without the sanctification of the TV camera.
The movie celebrates the mob, uses mob passions to make us love a man who's holding people at gunpoint. When Pacino does his famous Attica! ATTICA! rant outside the bank, and the crowd cheers, it's a great scene, with all these scarlet undertones of revolution. But comparing the brutal repression of a prison riot to a scene where cops are NOT SHOOTING at a man who's holding innocent people at gunpoint is fatuous. The movie uses the crowd's excitement to bond the viewer with the hero, and it's a morally disingenuous trick. In retrospect, it's appalling. You listen to the bray of the crowd and the imprecations of the hero, and you think: goodbye, rule of law; hello, guillotine
As an impressionable youth I'm sure I rooted for Al Pacino's character, even though his actions were reprehensible. The director makes him sympathetic, and makes the audience complicit in his crime; the entire movie induces Stockholm Syndrome, and we identify with the captor - partly because he's such a Nice Guy. Mixed-up, sure, but what interesting person isn't? It's a hallmark of the period - screwed-up neurotic people are better than well-balanced people; they experience life more deeply.
3. The real enemy is The Man. At several points in the film the cops have the gall to attempt a rescue of the hostages. Tsk. Tsk. Even when The Man puts on a human face - in this case, Charles Durning as a perpetually consternated intermediary - this face will soon be replaced by an implacable foe who represents the True Face of The Man. When the FBI takes over, we lose Durning's earnest sweaty humanity and get a grim Darryl-Gates clone. This is the enemy - the enemy of the lovably confused bank robber in all of us.
4. Lance Hendrickson has a small role. He smiles and his complexion is clear.
5. For all its faults, the movie seemed to be about real people and a real place. It makes contemporary movies look like cartoons. Which they generally are. It's as if gravity and truth were leached out of the moviemaker's craft a frame at a time, replaced with Dolby bombast. What happened?
War, again. I've spent half the day listening to experts, pundits, radio callers both informed and otherwise, hosts that ranged the gamut from knowledgeable to, well, popular. I am glad of many things right now, chief among them that I am not a soldier who's spent the last 8 years watching the military turn into an underfunded group-therapy session (hilarious, if disheartening, article in the Wall Street Journal today, describing co-ed boot camp; the men are permitted to help the women over the obstacles that require upper body strength, but they can only touch them on the legs - regs prohibit giving them a shove on the glutes or the thighs.) I am also glad I am a typical ahistorical American. History! Who needs it? It's a pack of tricks played on the dead, written by the victors, and it's bunk, to quote Ford, Voltaire, and some other solon whose name escapes me. Not that I'm uninterested in history: on the contrary. But it doesn't breathe down my neck or press on my chest like earth in a deep grave. I have no desire to kill someone because their relative gave my relative a hangnail in 1037.
Easy for me to say, of course; I'm not scrabbling for a square yard of fertile liebensraum amidst a field of stones and salt. But even if I was, I'd like to think I would subscribe to RodneyKingism, and just get along. That requires that everyone else be equally inclined to live and let live, though, and that's never the case.
The flip side of cheery American ahistorical perspective, unfortunately, is believing you can solve intractable problems. We can pacify and secure Kosovo, just as we could have defeated and occupied North Vietnam. The cost, however, is great, and it immediately produces other problems that are worse. This is not going to be fun. It should, however, make the presidential election very, very interesting.
And I'd be just as broke, too.
Spring? Sure, why not. It hit 70 today. Jasper Mountain - the big bank of snow that slid off the porch and heaped up five feet high - is nearly gone, edited by the sun into a dense dirty glacier seven inches thick. Three days ago it was heaped up two feet, a filthy amoeba that smothered my tanning chair and was trying to swallow the gas grill. Now its gone. The grass smells like it has ideas; the trees are starting to look like postlapsarian Adam + Eve: for lo, they saw that they were naked, and they were ashamed.
But its windy. Turned a corner today and was immobilized. Really: couldnt move. A gust stopped me dead, and would have pitched me into the street if I hadnt braced myself and leaned into it. But my work ID badge took off - its on a coiled retractable cord - and it flew out like a kite tail. The wind has lessened, but its still there, banging the neighbors backyard fence door (that thing has been clapping and banging for FOUR years now, but Id miss the sound if it was ever secured) and tossing up the panels on the porch roof. The panels I had replaced last year. On the porch I had redone last year. The job that took forever and resulted in a porch that, to this day, creaks like the bones of an old man strapped to a vibrating motel bed. The porch that I paid SIX GRAND to fix and resulted in a roof that DIDNT LAST SEVEN MONTHS before it busted and the NAME OF THE CONTRACTORS IS TOOLBOX ETC.
Ah. That felt good. Im sure once I call them and tell them that their work is flapping in the wind, they will hasten over to repair it. The owner is a conscientious fellow.
There were two black labs - one adult, one adorable puppy who was an absolute love sponge. She found a mussel in the creek, and dragged it to shore, clambering over rocks that must have seemed as big as Gibraltar. It was a good thing to have in your mouth - smelly, slimy, forbidden. The owner made her drop it. Her packmate lab picked it up; the owner made him drop it, and flicked it onto a rock. Bacchus, the gigantic mastiff, bounded over and picked it up. DROP! Bacchus dropped, and the item was flicked into the whirling waters. The dogs must have despaired: such a treasure, treated like garbage. They consoled themselves with a round of butt-sniffing and headed back into the mud.