Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Endless River (2014)

Pink Floyd's final studio offering is a resurrection of ideas abandoned in 1994, when The Division Bell was cut down to a single album from earlier plans for a double: lyrical songs on one disc, instrumentals on the other. Traditional songs won out, the ambient scraps went to the archive, a casualty of band apathy, yet soon to spawn Internet rumors such as the April Fool's joke of 1997: a surprise release entitled Liquid. Which, dated jibe against Roger Waters aside, still wouldn't be a bad title for what eventually trickled down as The Endless River. (Equally, this could have been called Son of "Marooned," an instrumental from Division Bell, which a fair share of this record resembles, production-wise when not also musically.)

Divided into four musical suites (designated as untitled "sides," moot on any format other than vinyl), River is a mercurial, career-spanning showcase of Floydian techniques, gimmicks, signatures, and moods. Richard Wright's previously recorded keyboards are augmented by new guitars from David Gilmour and drums from Nick Mason with an eye towards arranging all the like pieces together. The soundscapes are languid and droning, here and there working up to a dark, sultry pulse, occasionally even a burst of actual, driving rock, all rich with Floydian callbacks (though with fewer-than-usual sound effects, more stretches of ambient weirdness). It doesn't take a careful listener to hear a luxurious mashup of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and "Welcome to the Machine" in the album-opening "It's What We Do." Both "Allons-y" and "Surfacing" sound like they were developed from musical sketches cut from The Wall. In fact, much of the album seems to have been scrambled in a time machine: witness a 1968-era Wright on the Royal Albert Hall's pipe organ, a whirling, majestic ghost playing an overture for the Afterlife. Meanwhile, the percussive "Sum/Skins" is Nick Mason getting his joyous drummer freak on for the first time since Ummagumma. And "Eyes to Pearls" finds Gilmour teasing up a suitably murky surf music riff (the man has locked within him the Greatest Surf Rock Album Yet Made, and the 1970 Casino Montreux performance of "Atom Heart Mother" provides the better evidence). Point is, you're looking for a hit or two of Floyd, you've come to the right place.

While far from the first time the hands controlling Pink Floyd have cobbled dusty material into fresher shape, call it inherent vice, this time around not everything works. "Anisina" is a corny, misguided foray into late-1970s Yacht Rock. "The Lost Art of Conversation/On Noodle Street" will appeal most to those who have been waiting for the Floyd to retro-score a Film Noir. There are dead spots, places that don't quite seem to have thawed after two decades on ice (in the name of being Ambient Music, one must suppose). Gilmour's stinging Ebow guitar effects can be more annoying than evocative, an alien bee piercing the sonic siesta. And let's remain silent about the lyrics to "Louder than Words."

One thing bound to be endless about this album: arguments among certain sections of the Floydian fan base regarding whether or not it constitutes a suitable Final Statement from a brand name known for Making Statements. (Not to mention legitimate, that's a whole other can of worms you have to wait for.) Gilmour has made clear, the album is a tribute to Wright, a reminder of his foundational role in the band's sound. Beyond that, expectations for a profound (or even coherent) message will lead only to disappointment; by design, the music is too adrift for that. But as an hour-long bonus track, some lagniappe, a simple coda to a long and ridiculously varied rock career, it absolutely has moments that serve well enough. The curtain went down (and some time back, if you didn't notice), the lights are up, here's a mixtape to play you out the door.

When lyricist/bassist Waters left the band in 1984 to pursue a solo career, a fair number of people, myself included, assumed that was the moment the curtain fell on Pink Floyd. It was too bad, but the angry, articulate The Final Cut made an admirable headstone. Which, three years later, made A Momentary Lapse of Reason the abomination that crawled out from under that headstone. Prank Floyd to some, Pink Fraud to others, David Gilmour and all his hired hands had no business hijacking the prior artistic achievements of Roger Waters, fooling everyone into thinking they were the same band that released Dark Side of the Moon, dammit. Especially not when Waters had apparently asked them nicely please not to do so, right before broadcasting Radio KAOS to an uncaring world.

Thanks to natural sentimentality for a more youthful time, I'll always have a soft spot for KAOS, a sore spot for Lapse, though both are profoundly flawed (experiments in "modernizing" the classic sound now provide hard evidence that all parties forfeited the title deed to Pink Floyd during that long, chilly season of Reagan/Thatcher). As the 1990s dawned and lawsuits settled, both camps returned to proper sonic form, Waters with Amused to Death, Gilmour's Floyd with Division Bell. Waters' album is a sprawling complaint about War as Television Programming, released shortly after the first Gulf War; by turns vicious and tight, then baggy and incoherent, but always mesmerizing and challenging, it is essentially his solo follow-up to The Wall. A loose meditation on miscommunication, The Division Bell is a more relaxed and genuine release than its predecessor, serving to remind listeners (far better than Lapse ever could) Gilmour/Wright/Mason were more than mere sidemen to Waters and his concepts; he was undoubtedly the Direction, but they were equally undoubtedly the Vehicle.

When finally computer-capable of such trickery, I forged a mix CD from both efforts. With Roger Waters ranting and David Gilmour wailing and the filler jettisoned: Behold! a lost Pink Floyd album! (albeit one without a pop-up theme, more like one of Floyd's early soundtracks, perhaps). Death By Division stayed in prolonged heavy rotation -- long enough to refreshingly exhaust my long-time listener's interest in the Waters/Gilmour feud. Direction and Vehicle might no longer be in tandem, but, never mind, I'm just a guy with a pair of headphones, no dog anywhere near the actual fight, able to read the album credits and appreciate what I'm listening to accordingly. As I am one of those fools (numbering in the millions) who will tell you how Pink Floyd has been a steady soundtrack to his hilarious life, it was a revelation: my love of the musical structures assembled by these former architecture students didn't have to be attached to their stupid personal problems. (Besides: didn't I already have enough stupid personal problems of my own?)

I turned with renewed interest to the younger incarnation of the band, which I'd never given more than academic attention, sticking more to the refined, anxiety-charged Waters-led Floyd (read: from Meddle to The Final Cut). The band's over-romanticized Big Bang, the short, sweet, psychedelic Syd Phase, quickly gives way to the wandering Prog Phase: transformative late-60s experiments which the band had wholly disowned (at least until the release of the Early Years box material). Darker and heavier cosmic dust-ups prevailing, personified in official releases chiefly by Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother, fulfilled by the nebulous warmth of "Echoes," this era is arguably best experienced via scattered media of vintage live performances of Floyd as a living band: engrossing sets of existing but expanded material arranged as new conceptual narratives, The Man and The Journey, not to mention the smooth, surf/acid rock band-only versions of the "Atom Heart Mother" suite (which trump the recorded Ron Geesin version, overstuffed as it is with harsh, brassy horns and silly, gulping choirs). The Live at Pompeii film captures the band in a moment of literal transition, performing material from Meddle and prior while also recording Dark Side of the Moon. The well-known Classic Floyd Phase begins with the shamefully under-appreciated Obscured by Clouds (which could serve as an album-length B-Side to Dark Side) and ends with the infamous Montreal spitting incident during the 'In the Flesh' tour supporting Animals. The 1978 release of David Gilmour begins the prevailing Solo Phase, wherein certain individuals are more obviously in control of whatever Floydian Project is in question than are certain other individuals, and in which (most) solo albums and touring projects can be considered canonical.

With everything in that kind of relief over such a diverse body of work, worrying about who likes to work with whom, who has the more obnoxious ego, and therefore whether or not some albums/tours are more legit than others, just takes time and energy away from actually loving the music -- and I had discovered I loved all those early moods and wild band explorations just as much as I loved the later, more deliberate, more focused song cycles. Because, ultimately, far as I'm concerned, they are all part of the same weird body of work from the same weird musicians. Imagine those Alien Anthropologists exploring a post-human Earth at the end of "Amused to Death" -- without a troubling context of band drama, just the catalog of work itself to experience, could they somehow conclude Waters parted amiably for his preferred solo career, perhaps even blessing Gilmour & Company on their intention to continue, best they could, as Pink Floyd? That, subsequently, everyone made a couple-three missteps but eventually found even keel, peace with their choices, satisfaction with their careers? How different would that music sound to those ears, as opposed to ears that have also heard all the ego-driven bickering? According to the resounding successes, in both artistic and commercial terms, of the recent legacy-claiming tours of both Gilmour and Waters, "Pink Floyd" persists, just in its component parts rather than completely assembled. (In 2007, I watched Roger Waters and his crack surrogate band burn through an amazing performance of The Dark Side of the Moon. A year later, I sat stunned by the Gilmour/Wright-led "Echoes" performance on Live in Gdansk, the final haunting six minutes of which is quintessentially, beautifully, inevitably Floydian. Once all the chatter is shut out, best as I can tell, wherever those guys go, whatever they call it, Pink Floyd follows.)

Beats, bars, rhythms, movements, moods -- music is a form of mass communication more flexible than language in that it transcends all culture, appealing to sheer, universal emotion more readily than to rational, organized thought. We feel connected to it; it is part of us, sacred, the joyous noise of the cosmos we are luckily attuned to hear. As younger people, we identify ourselves to others by our musical tastes, finding the beat of our true tribe. Or, by chance two separate glances meet, and I am you and what I see is me, as Roger Waters once put it.

Even before the release of The Endless River, it was prejudged in some corners for not including a Waters-penned lyric. Responding to such confusion with "Get a grip," Waters, sounding more characteristic of his old Wall self than his new Wall self, pointedly reminded everyone that Gilmour and Mason constituted the band, and were free to do whatever they wanted. Coming from a man just off a three-year long, record setting, award winning, career culminating tour of an updated Wall show, it was an unnecessary statement, and therefore sounded bluntly conclusive -- even more so than his recent admission of having been wrong in obstructing Gilmour/Mason/Wright in the first place.

If Gilmour's primary heresy in continuing Floyd can be said to be based on the attempt to maintain the conceptual, lyric-driven Floyd perfected by Waters rather than focusing on his and Wright's and Mason's instrumental strengths, their trademarked sound as a trio of musicians (Gilmour had admittedly been playing bass on Floyd albums for years), then with the majority of The Endless River he has at last genuinely steered the Floyd brand according to his own abilities. As was the case with The Final Cut, too bad it'll be the last. (Dot, dot, dot.)

Well, thank you, for now, Mr. Floyd. Whoever you are.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe (2002)

Christmas 1998, Sonny Brewer invited a retired actor friend of his, Sam Busby, to do a holiday reading at Over the Transom. We borrowed the photography studio space next door, cobbled together what chairs we had, and set out some cookies. Sam rolled out selections from Truman Capote, Shakespeare, the Bible, a solemn, gorgeous recitation of Silent Night. The gathered few were reluctant to leave. "We should do more of this," Sonny declared as we swept up afterwards. "This should be what the bookstore is for."

By the next holiday season, Kyle Jennings had come aboard and Over the Transom had developed a publishing arm with a book to promote: Frank Turner Hollon's The Pains of April, a slender meditation on aging, Jonathan Livingston Seagull set in a nursing home. During the SEBA bookseller's trade show that autumn, Sonny, Kyle, and Frank were introduced to William Gay by Tom Franklin, each there launching respective book tours in support of The Long Home and Poachers. Learning Tommy would be down in our neck of the woods around Thanksgiving, and with William in tow, an organic plan developed -- Let's paint the barn and put on a show! -- a one-night-only event featuring all three authors reading onstage, followed by an Over the Transom-hosted signing the following Sunday afternoon, corresponding to Fairhope's annual downtown "open house," merchants ceremoniously opening their doors in the hopes of attracting early holiday shoppers (spoiler alert: it generally works).

We were told we were crazy. Three unknown, debut authors, reading literature on a Saturday night, not just any Saturday night but during the Iron Bowl? Nobody would show, not even for free.

We secured use of Centennial Hall, which seats 200+ if you include the balcony. I dreamed up a circus poster design and an eponymous moniker for the event, Southern Writers Reading; Sonny supplied text and soon they were taped up in windows all over town. Kyle rented a van to shuttle everyone around (un-wrangled writers, scattered watering holes, so forth) and Sonny ordered giant "Over the Transom" magnets to slap on the doors. Crazy, whatever, we saw things lining up a certain, undeniably entertaining, way. Frank's book had sold well in the local market, serious accolades were boosting Tommy's freshly-minted Poachers, and The Long Home was to be reviewed in the New York Times the very Sunday morning William would be signing books at our storefront on De la Mare Avenue. We spent our energy praying for good weather.

Somewhere north of 100 souls ventured out to the reading that night, braving clear skies and scattered college football broadcasts. With Sonny as a born Master of Ceremonies on a set decorated with props borrowed from the bookstore, the evening began somberly as Frank remembered Robert Bell (author of The Butterfly Tree, a novel set in 1950s Fairhope) who had provided a soulful introduction for Pains of April; that very morning, Bell's daughter had called the bookshop to inform us of his passing. But spirits raised quickly: Sonny introduced each author by reading a particularly striking paragraph or three from their work, then asking, "Now, what were you thinking when you wrote that?" (Tommy tried to convince the audience his stories were written during commercial breaks in Friends marathons.) As William's thick rural Tennessee accent, song of pure earthen Southern literature, reverberated over the gathered, I thought to myself, "In ten years, it'll seem like a miracle, we got this guy to read here."

Up to that point, I'd drifted pretty casually through the 90s, bookselling at Page & Palette, endlessly scratching at a novel-in-stories, listening to a lot of surf music, not much else. I'd started working for Sonny more or less by happy accident, aggressively hanging around his bookstore until he offered me work, sort of thing. For the past year we'd been doing used-and-rare book searches, learning valuations and rummaging like biblio-anthropologists through library and estate sales to boost our own inventory; I self-taught myself book repair, tightening hinges, rebuilding channels, loving old books back to life (including a terrific first edition/first state copy of To Kill a Mockingbird lucked into by Sonny at a garage sale). Now here was a kind of energy swell happening, a wave to catch at last. The question arising wasn't Should we do this again next year?, but rather Can we have more fun doing this next year?

Yes, plenty more, it would turn out. Because we had, indeed, found what the bookstore was for.

As the next handful of years blurred past, Sonny toured the Southeast by way of weekend literary conferences, rooting out a network of emerging authors while his own writerly star brightened. Southern Writers Reading, which I dubbed a "literary slugfest" on our website, divided amoeba-like into two sessions, eventually spreading over two days -- including for a couple years a Friday afternoon luncheon with the authors, and "Alumni Grill" reading sessions to accommodate veterans who had enjoyed themselves so much in prior years it hindered their ability to stay away in succeeding years (this included, as it turned out, William Gay). The shows leapfrogged from location to location (our favored arena being Theatre 98), but remained counter-programmed against the Iron Bowl, and always ended with a celebratory Sunday afternoon booksigning at Over the Transom, where it wasn't uncommon for Sonny to bust out his guitar and start serenading everyone within range. We hosted bestsellers and award winners, Oprah picks and heralded debuts, a few special writers with nothing more than a good manuscript and some hope. We drew audiences from around the Southeast, selling out shows in advance. We attracted benefactors who opened their homes for generously grand post-show parties, or volunteered to host the visiting authors, or both. (For the record, we rarely declined such offers.) Things turned into a pretty fine ride, no matter the direction.

At some point in there, with scribblers coming out of the proverbial woodwork, Sonny declared our bayside town "the home of more writers than readers" (long, long before self-publishing became a thing); soon the non-profit Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts was drawn up, a board assembled, early plans made for Southern Writers Reading to be its tentpole fundraiser, and a resurrected Red Bluff Review (a one-off journal Sonny had edited some years prior) to be an annual tie-in, a chapbook of flash fiction commissioned from the authors we'd feature on stage. But a funny thing happened on the way to Theatre 98...

In a story unto itself, Frank's novel had meanwhile bounced onto the desk of Pat Walsh at MacAdam/Cage, who called inquiring about a follow-up; after contracting The God File, Walsh and publisher David Poindexter flew over to attend that year's [2001] Southern Writers Reading events, to hear Frank read from his new book, months in advance of its publication. They got more than that; they got a full-on grassroots literary revival, three days and more than a dozen authors, reading sessions that blended from one party to the next, Grayson Capps providing musical punctuation throughout. Poindexter would later describe the experience as "falling into a nest" of wordsmithing talent. "I don't get it," Walsh confided to me after just the first night, "We do this in San Francisco, we get seven people. You do it here in this little Alabama town, and a hundred plus show up." I didn't have an answer for him then, and I wouldn't have one now, other than we'd picked the right battle, some kind of magic, a celestial alignment, whatever, it worked.

Sonny, long-time sailor and therefore no stranger to celestial navigation, knew exactly where to steer. The year prior, following a reading by Suzanne Hudson that had the audience howling with laughter, he declared, "I wish I could publish that," then scanned the offstage shadows for Joe Taylor of Livingston Press, in attendance that night. "Joe, is she not a writer you'd be proud to publish?" Opposable Thumbs had been available from Livingston since late summer. So when from the podium at the conclusion of the ceremonies, Sonny began describing a hardbound anthology featuring not only all the authors featured that weekend, but all previous SWR participants, I could feel the question gathering in the aether. "David Poindexter, does that not sound like an incredible book?" What choice did the man have?

Inclusion on MacAdam/Cage's Fall 2002 list gave Sonny a manuscript-assembling deadline of mere weeks. No problem: not only did everyone contacted gladly offer up a submission within a month of being asked, but Sonny found himself eyeball-deep in rich material besides, even as the contributors list swelled to include writers who hadn't (or hadn't yet) been featured on a SWR stage. The most difficult task involved therefore fell to coming up with a zippy title; nothing useful suggested itself, and everyone hated everyone else's ideas, which ranged from the square-pegged Red Bluff Reader to simply and vaguely Fairhope. Finally, Frank Turner Hollon twigged on the Blue Moon Cafe, a fictitious Fairhope location mentioned in Robert Bell's Butterfly Tree.

An unbroken circle. Often enough in the year or so before all the literary shoutin' began, I'd drift up to the bookstore of an evening, where the bounty of some or other "book haul" waited to be cataloged, tomes piled elbow-high in the narrow back area we dubbed the Engine Room. Just to do an after-hours repair on some volume, or key a few books into our online inventory, Zen work in the quiet lamplight, a bubble of a moment without foot traffic or phone interruptions that could equally be spent freely leafing through generations-old travelogues, forgotten fiction, pages where the foxing was overtaking the baroque woodcuts, scandal-ridden biographies of vaudeville-era celebrities. You never knew when a treasure would flutter out of a binding: an old love letter, perhaps never sent; grandly printed opera tickets; undated photographs of mystery relatives; newspaper broadsheets too brittle to be unfolded, their news turning to acid. Alchemic inspiration, the after-dinner hours were best for such work and discoveries. (Also because, as every writer will tell you, there is no balm quite like procrastination.) And often enough, it wouldn't be long before I'd hear Sonny's own keys rattling at the lock. "Someone needs the Cafe," he'd say in greeting, tossing his longshoreman's cap atop the glass front counter. And that was the mantra. Whenever asked, strapped for time and energy as he was, devoting his mojo to numerous projects ("Busy as a one-eyed cat watching three rat-holes" was a favored description), why Sonny kept the bookstore open, that was the perpetual answer. Someone might need some well-lighted place, even if (especially if?) it were only to be found within the pages of a book. That, too, is what a bookstore is for.

Short story long, as Kyle used to say, that's the backstory behind this book with the checkered blue jacket designed like a menu for a diner ready to serve up thirty different Southern authors. Jacket is protected by Mylar, small purple ink smudges on interior fore-edge but otherwise minimal bumping, Near Fine. Book block is straight and sound, clean edges, tight channel. Clean boards, silver title stamping on spine (some gold variants are known). Ephemera laid in from publisher launch events in Jackson and Oxford MS, as well as later promo information for a Penguin/NAL reprint, and a publisher's postcard. Interior stories are SIGNED by nearly everyone involved, including publisher Poindexter (who quipped at the time, "I usually only sign checks.") Typical shelfwear to board/heel edges. In all, a Near Fine/Fine association copy. [NFS]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mason & Dixon ARC (1997)

At some point in the early 1980s, I took an oddball science fiction course -- one of only two such classes in fantastic fiction offered by my university during the time I was there. I say oddball because it wasn't a genre overview by any stretch of the imagination: no context of tradition for our course selections was established, Wells or Verne merited little mention, and I'm sure Hugo Gernsback never came up. Our primary text was a contemporary and relatively generic best-of anthology published by Playboy, and lecture discussions were on how topical concerns related to whatever we'd just been assigned (meaning, more than anything, it was yet another course in metaphor). Not counting my recollection of the professor's ridiculously scraggly beard, only two things have stayed with me: being spellbound by George R.R. Martin's excellent novella Sandkings, and, in a rare moment when the Golden Age peeked into the windows of our classroom, listening to a scratchy LP audio interview with Isaac Asimov wherein he brought up John Campbell's notion that sci-fi isn't an isolated genre, but rather the exact opposite: every genre is actually a subset of science fiction, covering as it does all of time and space and possibility. I've been known to drag that posit out when in the presence of someone staunchly claiming to hate science fiction on principle, usually just to make them hush for a minute.

This morning, plotting my summer vacation reading, Mason & Dixon, which ranks among my favorite novels, came to mind. If any one book could serve as exemplar for Campbell's definition, it could well be this one: a historical romance employing modern meta-storytelling techniques to re-imagine a young America, the virgin landscape divided by a couple of star-crossed, star-gazing, unassuming surveyors onto whose humble names crashed a terrifying amount of significant history. Pynchon lays out his agenda on page 349, declaring that history's Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit, a jack-of-all-trades job description sounding suspiciously like Novelist. Here is the Past given focus through modern lenses, retrofitted for Star Trek references, seeded with psychic talking dogs, a watch powered by perpetual-motion, sentient bread dough, and a robot duck. Maybe I was never taught any better, but if this historical Frankenstein's monster isn't science fiction, I don't know what is.

This is an advance reader's copy, an artifact from my bookseller days courtesy of a generous sales rep, one of 500 with promotional information on the back (another 500 were in generic wraps). I'd only made it through the Transit of Venus section when the first hardback editions came in, so this one is essentially unread, a treasure. For a long time, I had one of the specially-printed cardboard crates Henry Holt shipped the early printings in (like many things, it didn't survive my time in Montgomery), but I do still have some ridiculous promo cards, suitable for framing, advertising the cinderblock-sized tome as a breezy beach read, canvas lounge chairs parked beneath particolored umbrellas and all. Because, why not. It's only science fiction, after all.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Some Assembly Required

This is a 1932 Chrysler Roadster. Or rather, a model of one.

The kit was purchased by my father some time in 1997, just before his long illness entered its home stretch. He picked up this one and one other, a 1964 1/2 Mustang, at the second-hand shop where my mother volunteered a couple days a week.

I'd never seen my father build a model. It had been a passionate hobby during his younger years, but by the time I came around he was chiefly preoccupied with programming computer systems for International Paper Company -- intricate detailing of a more intense nature, undoubtedly leaving him little headspace for hobbies. He'd put just one final kit together, right before or around the time I was born: an aircraft carrier. I recall it perched on a shelf near the kitchen and to me, at that age, it seemed credible the long plastic hull might be only slightly smaller than actual size. I used to poke the tiny planes, all glued down in a perfect line along the forward deck, to see if I could make them wobble. I never could.

Growing up in sun-bleached 1970s suburbia, I assembled my fair share of glow-in-the-dark monsters, giant insects, dinosaurs, superheroes, and space ships -- though never with much finesse. Of course I was just a kid, more interested in playing with the finished models than in building them. The build was a hurdle to be cleared before the real fun could begin. Which meant a cursing of sloppy paint jobs, clumsily fused joints, misaligned seams. Nothing like the precision decal work on the biplanes and X-Wing fighters hanging in suspended battle from the ceilings of my friends. And certainly nothing like Daddy's aircraft carrier, by then long disappeared in the shuffle of our semi-regular company-mandated moves across the Southeast.

By contrast, from 1998 onward the Roadster and Mustang model kits moved with me as though duty-bound, apartment to apartment, city to city, for fifteen years. I was waiting for, I don't know, the day I'd wake up with Master Model Builder Skills, by way of osmosis or alien intervention, whichever. To honor Daddy, I would do the job right: the contents of those boxes would suffer no wonky wheels, no thumbprints in the paint. None of the planes would wobble. So they waited in storage closets or on high shelves, blending into the shadows, seen often but noticed rarely, like most good intentions ultimately nothing more than the space they took up. Then one day last summer following the kind of run-of-the-mill health scare that comes as no exceptional surprise after a certain number of decades yet still inspires no quantum amount of mortal contemplation, I was puttering in the office -- shredding old bills, rearranging books, talking nonsense to myself, the usual -- when a shaft of magic afternoon sunlight struck those faded boxes out of their shadows, lifted the dust right off them.

My relationship with Daddy was something of a 50/50 split. As a child, I was too intimidated by the man to know how to love him: he seemed too distant, too stern, too heavily possessed of a clenched brow after a day's work at his keypunch machines. My inabilities at higher math seemed to greatly disappoint him, as did (so I supposed) my tendencies towards books and television rather than the woods and sports (passions of my older brother, as if he and I were expected be the same child). Eventually I assumed an unspoken truce had developed between us -- he would abide my whimsies so long as I stayed out of his way, so I did.

I was, as it turned out, wrong about all this, but remained clueless until my my teen years, a Saturday afternoon that found us staring together at a college basketball game, a moment he chose to tell me how much he had loved watching Pistol Pete play ball at LSU. Lo and behold, I learned my father was a connoisseur of the game, partook of his office bracket pool every spring when the tournament rolled around, had even played in high school. It was as simple as having a few conversations, next thing I knew, we were buddies. Had more in common than I had ever guessed. Stayed that way, until the end. (And damn if we never did discuss model building....)

Putting that Roadster together, so many years later, I found an obvious ghost at my shoulder. Wasn't he just out of sight, judging my work, giving me that cryptic line about how there are many ways to get a job done ... but only one right way? And then chuckling, like some wicked Zen master. And from there, of course, less superficial judging, because a child never runs out of questions for a departed parent. The last time Daddy saw me, I was a back-room bookstore clerk. How would he view my subsequent adventures, my trophies, my wrong turns, my happy landings?

My mother tells me Daddy bought these models for the same reason Mallory gave about climbing Everest. Makes sense; he never seemed particularly enamored of cars, looking mostly for value, not badassery, whenever the family needed a new sedan. (Excepting his mid-life crisis car, a Ford Maverick Grabber, which despite the orange color turned out to be a special kind of lemon.) What the model kits would add up to, whether a Roadster or a Mustang, didn't matter to him: he was interested in the process, in the doing. He just never got the time.

So, on his behalf, I took my time. And in so doing, in the meditative joy of whittling away imperfections in the plastic molding, of filling in cracks between pieces, of meticulously layering paint to various textures, I believe I glimpsed some reflection of a private joy my father might have taken in his work, programming computers in a time when information was shuffled among punched index cards. Patience. Attention to detail. More patience. Checking your work. And only then the satisfaction of watching a long string of processes come to a result, whether executed or printed out. Really, it's just a guess -- I was too inexperienced to have ever formulated any meaningful questions about work and what it can, should, and shouldn't mean to us, what it might have meant at least to Daddy -- but I knew him pretty well, and I can recall what sort of puzzles and challenges he liked to solve and how. This model building thing, this makes a certain sense.

Maybe the Roadster could have turned out better ... but for a second-hand kit -- missing parts, pieces warped, looked like some kid incorrectly fused some of the wheel parts and then gave up, same as I'd have done, maybe -- it turned out pretty well. I was too timid about my hand painting abilities, so other than tiny details everything is spray painted. But in the year since, I've completed several other kits (including a reissued creature-feature tableau I screwed up royally, back in the summer of '76), each time to no surprise growing a bit more fleet with the brush, more accurate with the glue, more tolerant of tacky paint (because model building is one part model building, eight parts watching paint dry). A lesson passed down, dusty boxes be damned: Turns out all you need to dissolve botched paint jobs and crooked joints and wonky wheels is just a little bit of ordinary time.

Aside from that poor old Forgotten Prisoner, I've built only cars. Maybe when I'm finished with that Mustang, I'll build an aircraft carrier. Or rather, a model of one.

Postscript, August 8 2014:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Famous Science Fiction Stories: Adventures in Time & Space (1946)

I wandered into my college career with a rough draft of a novel already under my belt: The Stonehenge Connection, a space opera in five "acts," scrawled in cheap black ink across 368 college-ruled pages when I should have been listening in high school Geometry class so that I'd now know how to hypotenuse a triangle, or whatever. The story of an Earthling recruited by a rebellious alien to save his own planet, it was absolutely nothing but a loose bag of cheaply imitated influences -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Blade Runner, Doctor Who, Time Bandits -- dropped into a plot worthy of Ed Wood. Then again, I enrolled in Creative Writing with the mere aim of learning how to write better sci-fi and horror potboilers. And I had some hope, early on -- the room where the classes met was nicknamed the "Star Trek Room" due to its being dominated by a gigantic oval conference table. But I don't recall Star Trek ever being discussed, not in a way I found interesting, anyway.

Time travel is a seductive folly partly because we like to imagine there are moments in our lives where, if we could return and intervene, whisper wisdom into the ears of our younger selves, we could avoid losing years to an unnecessary struggle down some errant path. (Also because if you could time travel, you could saddle up a T-Rex, but I digress.) Truth is, I don't recall a singularity wherein my low-key aspirations of being a sci-fi author with a cult following imploded. Maybe during a conversation with my instructor, being told I'd rather have the respect of my peers and publish in the Paris Review than peddle in Ye Olde Sewer of Genre. Maybe when I switched my major to Philosophy instead, because dabbling in Metaphysics seemed like it might bring me closer to understanding Tom Stoppard's brand of Existentialism. Or when I further shifted to Psychology, finally seeking some hard science about the mysteries of human wetware. Looking back, I think what I mostly did was manifest that old Steve Martin zinger about learning just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life. (I did always think that was a pretty funny joke, after all.)

When I more-or-less randomly grabbed this book for the purposes of mindlessly entertaining myself during a recent holiday car trip, I didn't expect to be derailed before reaching the first tale. The introduction is an ode to the editorial work of John W. Campbell, as many of the stories contained herein have his stamp of approval. By the time he became editor of Astounding in 1937, science fiction was moving into a graceless state, partly thanks to the kind of space operas penned by Campbell himself -- the thinking man's adventures posited by the likes of Wells and Verne had been trumped by pulp aspirations: silly science powered by purple prose. Campbell's new vision for the future of science fiction -- real scientific possibilities served by tight writing -- gave rise to the Golden Age and the careers of authors now seen as pillars of the genre: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, Alfred Bester, A.E. van Vogt, Fredric Brown. Trends have come and gone, minor names have exited the mainstream the way they always do, but all these fellows are still in print and Campbell's most famous short story (one of several written as an exercise in "Okay, boys, here's the kind of fiction I'm looking for") has to date been been filmed thrice. Not bad for sewer-dwellers, as critics of their generation (and at least one more following) tried to paint it.

Emerson spoke of his Giant following him around -- a highbrow version of Wherever you go, there you are. It's not displayed anywhere, but I still have The Stonehenge Connection. And from time to time, I will take a moment to wonder why. The ugly plotting, the plagiarized characters, the cartoon dialogue, the misadventures in narrative only a naive and heavily pimpled teenage could love ... should anyone ever find it, my death certificate will read: spontaneous combustion brought on by acute embarrassment. But Campbell would be the first to tell me: There's no rough draft that can't be improved by hard work. Bet on ending somewhere very different than where you started, but hard work will lead to improvement every time. It's a form of simple math. I'm not looking to saddle up any dinosaurs; I know all too well that directionless travel -- whether through time, space, or both -- can be treacherous folly. But then again, sometimes an errant path will lead you to your Bliss.

History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells Can't you remember anything I told you? and lets fly with a club.
     -- John W. Campbell, Jr. 

On a Related Note: Jason Sanford's Cosmic Mistakes

Monday, June 16, 2014

Rum Punch (1992)

IFC recently spent a few weeks running Jackie Brown (1997) with the same frequency AMC airs The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Even so, I never managed to catch the thing from the beginning, and always ended up distracted from the ending. On the other hand, that copy of Rum Punch (1992) lurking on the shelf the past couple years was a lot easier to catch from the beginning.

Stewardess Jackie Burke (Pam Grier, who for some reason Leonard keeps describing as a blonde) has been just down-on-her-luck enough to fall into the snares of gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), acting as mule for his illegal cash during Caribbean hops. Until, that is, she's made by a couple ATF operatives (Michaels Keaton and Bowen, respectively) looking to bust Ordell, and who complicate matters by finding cocaine tucked among the cash bundles in her flight bag. Robbie uses the services of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to bail her out. By exactly the sort of coincidence that often happens in crime novels, Cherry happens to be the employer of another associate of Ordell, Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro). Forster bails Grier, only to experience sexual tension during the car ride to her apartment, and even more once within the apartment, where she puts some classic soul on the turntable, just so there's no confusion. Tarantino is uncharacteristically coy here, whereas Leonard has no trouble getting down to business, shattered liquor glasses and everything. Anyway, turns out Grier has an idea to double-cross Jackson, give him over to the feds, make away scott-free with the money. Forster isn't so sure, or at least scrunches his face in order to play it that way. DeNiro whiles away the hours with stoned surfer chick Melanie (Bridget Fonda), who has Ordell in her double-cross-hairs as well. It all comes down to a tense shell-game finale -- who's got the money in which bag? -- that allows Leonard to explore the darker edge of a simple modern-day motivation: I'm getting long in the tooth, chances are slimming, how do I get what I really want in life? The book also features a massacre at a compound belonging to a neo-Nazi gun nut that I can't believe Tarantino omitted; maybe he already had Inglourious Basterds (2009) in mind and didn't want the two films to cover the same ground, or something. On the other hand, it's like Leonard wrote his dialogue with Samuel L. Jackson in mind. And since there's another novel (The Switch, 1978) featuring the characters of Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, I know this won't be my last go-round with ol' Elmore.

But, figures: Since I finished this book, IFC hasn't shown Jackie Brown once.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Carrie (1974) / Joyland (2013)

I read Carrie during the return car trip from summer vacation last year. Or, I thought I did. Pretending to spring-clean, I was shelving stray books earlier this week and realized this one was still marked some ten, twelve pages from the actual end. The epilogue untouched.

That same trip, I also took King's latest up to that moment, Joyland, figuring it would be interesting to see the contrast between the two. Joyland, an endearing coming-of-age story draped with a supernaturally-dusted mystery at a seasonal amusement park (seriously, just imagine Stephen King scripting a Scooby-Doo episode for adults, and you've got it), is one of his best novels -- understated but engrossing, emotionally charged, just a whiff of fantasy/horror to provide friction. Whatever faults a more serious reviewer might feel the need to dig for, I'll tell you that book was a perfect companion for those early morning hours before the Florida sun chased away the high mist and set the beach sand alight.

I'd never read Carrie, never seen the Brian DePalma adaptation. But turning the pages, soaking up the easy pulp-noir tone King employed for that story, I realized aside from enjoying the way King unspooled the yarn, I wasn't processing anything new. I knew the story, inside and out, every beat of the plot, every turn, every character, from the opening tampon-throwing bedlam in the locker room to the climactic bucket o'blood at the prom. It was great fun, but if you're a fan of the horror genre, you're familiar with Carrie, enough said. Not hard to see why I put the book down without realizing I hadn't finished.

True, I haven't seen DePalma's Carrie (1976) in full, but years ago I did catch the closing moments on an episode of Monstervision. So by standing interrupted this week in our sunlit parlor and reading the last ten pages while the cat circled my ankles, my one surprise came from learning that the book and the film employ slightly different endings. King's own is a riff on the typical "The END ... or is it???" sci-fi stinger; DePalma's capper is more along the lines of "It was all a dream ... OR WAS IT???" and effective enough to jolt audiences of the 1970s out of their seats and become legend in the bargain.

What about audiences of 2013? Last year's remake seems to have fallen on a deaf culture, at first glance. More likely the attempt to deliver "a more faithful adaptation" of King's novel is to blame. One becomes unnerved by way of sudden and/or unfamiliar shock; familiarity and horror can't mix, so why? We live in a moment when parents can nearly set their watches to school shootings and roadside billboards alert us, with no-irony-intended bullet points, to ACTIVE SHOOTER PROTOCOL. Seriously? Skip the faith: a more truthful adaptation would have found the modern metaphor, mined all that anxiety, not buried it in a nostalgia exercise. Chalk it up to opportunity wasted, and we'll all hope for an edgy, pertinent reinvention of, say, Psycho... oh, right.

Well, Carrie, I guess if nothing else, we'll always have Joyland...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Who Goes There? (1938)

I'm not sure when or where I picked up this little gem -- maybe I stumbled over it at a random paperback swap-shop, lost somewhere back among the years; maybe it was the object of a targeted search on ABE.com, bought from some dealer located west of Timbuktu; maybe it was at the bottom of a box collected during one of our Over the Transom book hauls, and from there it jumped to my bookshelf. Who knows. But because I've had it in the neighborhood of forever, the truth is I probably stole it from my old friend Justin's house.

Campbell's titular story has been filmed three times to date, twice titled as The Thing. He was a writer and a professor and an editor who, at the helm of a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction (still publishing as Analog Science Fiction and Fact), single-handedly shaped the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He was also Justin's grandfather.

Like many who grew up in the Church of the Latter Day Geeks, my sci-fi intake at that point chiefly consisted of Star Wars, reruns of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, and whatever zany giant insects were stomping around during Mad Science Week on Afternoon Thriller Theater. So this was my first exposure to harder science fiction, emphasis on the scientific (not to mention social -- Who Goes There? is at heart a series of characters logically puzzling through a zero-sum game involving each other, a kind of locked-room whodunnit taking place prior to the murder) rather than the fantastic. Campbell was long gone by the time Justin and I met each other as seventh-grade classmates, but plenty of his books were still around -- or at least so many that I (allegedly) nabbed one for myself without anyone noticing (so far as I know).

That group of writings which is usually referred to as "mainstream literature" is, actually, a special subgroup of the field of science fiction -- for science fiction deals with all places in the Universe, and all times in Eternity, so the literature of here-and-now is, truly, a subset of science fiction.
     -- John W. Campbell, in the introduction to Analog 1 (Doubleday, 1963)