Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book review: The Night Inspector

Frederick Busch's The Night Inspector is one of the last several novels the prolific and respected writer would write.  Professor Busch passed in 2006.  This novel was my introduction to his work.  
The Night Inspector is the story of William Bartholomew, a Civil War veteran working as a financial investor in New York City. Bartholomew was horribly maimed in the war, his face disfigured to the extent that he wears a pasteboard mask in public.  His nightly roaming about the city brings him into contact with many interesting and enigmatic characters, including a certain "M." the largely forgotten author of a book about a whale.  Bartholomew becomes involved in a plot to effect the escape of some black children held in bondage in post-war Florida.  As he goes about his task, engaging various underworld figures, he recalls his experiences in the war and from his childhood that reveal his extraordinary nature.  

Frederick Busch was certainly talented, and his name invokes respect among literary circles, but I found this book, The Night Inspector, difficult to access.  Busch doesn't condescend to his readers, and that's good.  On the other hand, the narrative is arduous, difficult.  I humbly suggest that Professor Busch sometimes overburdens his sentences.  
Try this, for example:  
I thought of Sam as picket, asking me for the parole, and telling me about the pillar of salt.  I thought of men falling over and turning gray as they fell, their blood pulsing away.  And I thought, of a sudden, about my uncle Sidney Cowper, who did not die as a pillar of salt, but who drowned in a privy in the cold, cruel countryside of upper New Your State, turning even as he died into the substance that was at his core.  He had grown heavy, as I could tell in those days when I returned, on a rare visit, from school; in the night, from my room in the little house, I heard my mother grunting as he had her.  She sounded as though the strain upon her frame was great.  And it was clear that her emotions were taxed.  Her eyes were underscored with dark, lined flesh.  Her mouth was bitter of expression, and she wept easily over small matters she would once not have noticed.  When I asked after her health, she leaned upon me as if she would hide inside my chest.
Hoo, boy!  That's a mouthful, is it not?   Further, I found the dialog to be obscure.  The characters speak to each other in knowing tones about a world from which I, as the reader, felt excluded.

In the end, I suppose it's one of those "style" things.  "No accounting for tastes," and all that.  I may pick up another Busch novel one day.  I've heard that his novel Girls may be his magnum opus.   But for now, at least, I'm going back to David Mitchell.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Affordable Care Act upheld

Yesterday, against all expectations, Chief Justice John Roberts knocked the political world off its axis by providing the decisive vote for the Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Health Care Act passed by Congress in 2010.

Supreme Court decisions are often earth-shaking in their implications, but this one is exceptionally so. Yesterday was an historic day.  The ramifications --social, financial, political --are enormous.  But, for this post, I focus on the political.

Here's the thing:  this decision by the Supreme Court is a win for everybody.  Consider:

President Obama and Democrats win for obvious reasons.  The legislation that ground its way through the Congressional sausage-stuffer for one agonizing year, when Democrats held big majorities in both houses, is upheld and will move forward.  Even Democrats who lost their seats in the right-wing backlash election of 2010 can be happy for that.  It means that their sacrifice counted.  Those votes, wrung out of reluctant swing district congresspersons by the furious whipping of the White House, Steny Hoyer, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid paid off.  At long last, and over the furious opposition of nativists and reactionaries, this country has taken a major step toward universal health coverage.

Health insurance companies win big, too.  This legislation effectively kills the two health care solutions that would have proved lethal to them:  Medicare for all and the so-called "public option."  The health insurance middlemen can continue to take their cut out of the health care pie for acting as stingy intermediaries between providers and patients.  In 2007, the U.S. spent $2.26 trillion on health care, or $7,439 per person.  That's a big, big pie.

The Supreme Court wins because it diminishes the heretofore growing perception that it was another partisan political entity rather than a non-partisan adjudicator and interpreter of the Constitution.  I've heard speculation that this consideration may actually have swayed Chief Justice Roberts' ruling.  And why not?  In this age, cynicism seems to be the safest posture.

Mitt Romney and the Republicans win because it allows them to feed off the anger and hatred this decision will generate among the redneck rabble.  Word has it that within minutes of the Supreme Court's announcement the yahoos were ordering up white cotton tee-shirts with "Impeach Roberts" stenciled across the chest.  Republicans feed on anger and hatred and this decision gives them a heapin' helpin'.  Go, Mitt, go!

So, politically at least, this decision is a win for just about everybody.  As for the legislation being the ideal, most common-sense solution to our health care problem --well, not so much.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book review: The Sisters Brothers

"If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick DeWitt's bloody, darkly funny western," is how the Los Angeles Times described Patrick DeWitt's novel, The Sisters Brothers

Well, invoke the name of one of my favorite authors, and you've got my attention.  A peek inside the cover reveals an impressive number of laudatory remarks from other sources as well:  Esquire magazine, the Boston Globe, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and numerous best-selling authors (none of whom had I read).  The book jacket proudly announces that the novel was "shortlisted" for the Man Booker Prize.

All chaff in the wind, I'm afraid.  In spite of all the praise --in spite, even, of the brilliant two-page opening chapter wherein DeWitt sets the stage for the tale that is to come --The Sisters Brothers just doesn't deliver.

DeWitt's novel is the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, two guns-for-hire in Oregon City in 1851.  The brothers are renowned throughout the territory as expert killers in the employ of a shadowy figure known simply as "The Commodore."  They're given the task to hunt down and kill a gold prospector named Kermit Warm who was last known to be in faraway San Fransisco.  The novel, then, recounts the brothers' strange odyssey through territorial Oregon and northern California in search of their target.   

The novel is full of potential.  The encounters the brothers have on their journey are diverse and bizarre.  There is an encounter with a wood-witch, a grizzly bear (and, yes, there were grizzly bears in Oregon in the 1850s), and an hilarious encounter with a frontier dentist.

So why does the book fail?

Well, first and foremost, there is no overarching theme that conjoins the various colorful encounters the brothers have on their journey.  There is nothing to tie it all together; to lend meaning to the events that transpire.  In particular, the encounter with the witch is presented as significant and readers naturally expect that the consequences of that encounter will manifest themselves later in the narrative.  But when the novel is concluded, we've all but forgotten the crazy woman in the woods with her foreboding and charms and spells.  When viewed in retrospect, none of the encounters are significant; they're utterly random and meaningless, like the ghasts and ghouls in a carnival fun house.

Another problem was the dialog.  All the characters speak in a formal, solemn diction that, at first, is charming, but which quickly becomes burdensome and unlikely. 

But the most disappointing aspect of the book is that it shies away from any real drama.  DeWitt leads his readers up to the point of expectation, only to then let them down in a most unspectacular manner.  The prime example is the mass murder that occurs early in the book.  Readers are informed of the killings after the fact, in a casual manner.  The event is given neither import nor significance.  DeWitt passes up a prime opportunity for emotional investment.

It's too bad.  This book had so much potential. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nessie versus Darwin

Nessie:  lending the lie to Darwin's On the Origin of Species

Check this story, brought to my attention by the estimable Kurt Kemmerer:

How American fundamentalist schools are using Nessie to disprove evolution.

Mortifying, eh?  According to fundamentalists, the Loch Ness Monster exists.  And, you know, if dinosaurs and people can be proven to co-exist that means that the theory of evolution is mere elitist hoohaw, probably inspired by Satan.  (By the way, why must it be Nessie?  Why wouldn't other prehistoric creatures --say, crocodiles or komodo dragons --fit the bill?)

When people long to believe in something so strongly that they place store in jaw-dropping absurdities, it is very difficult to hold out any hope of advancement for mankind.  Nonetheless, as my friend Dan Binmore repeatedly points out, humans have made progress.  Literacy rates, life spans, and yes, even morality have made crucial advances over the centuries.  All of it in spite of the cruel ignorance of primitives and nativists (of all races). 

Well, after all, complaining about the ignorance of Bible Belt rubes is a lot like complaining about the weather.  It doesn't do a damn bit of good, but sometimes you've just got to give vent. 

Oh, yeah.  And while we're in a complaining vein... after two consecutive disappointing summers, Portland is about to conclude the second coolest June in the last 20 years.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nothing very good or very bad lasts for very long

This morning I got a phone call from an old friend with whom I had not spoken in nearly 30 years.  She was a friend from the days when I worked in the lumber mill outside Klamath Falls. A brief and carefree time.  A time when consequence had yet to catch up with bad behavior.  

Oh, but the day was dawning.

We were young people set to set out into the world.  I tried to recall and then recalled a day when she and I and my dog Pippin had gone fishing along the Klamath River outside Keno.  Pippin had run off through the sage and the stubborn grasses that grow among the broken-tooth lava.  She'd run after him and paused out in the rough, and looked back, laughing and squinting, and I was troubled.  She was the woman of my roommate and my friend, even though at that time, everything was ambiguous.  And that was a moment when I made a decision about friendship and nobility.  And so I have that memory, which is the memory I have of my friend.

Her news was not good.  The very friend and roommate I knew, who later became her husband and the father of her children, and later yet became her ex-husband, is mortally ill.  A malignant tumor has developed on the left fore-lobe of his brain.  There is but a short time left to him.  She gave me his phone number and the name of the hospital.  "I wanted you to have the opportunity to speak with him," she said.  "If you wanted to."  Life comes at you in this way.

So I went out for a walk.  The park was full of people.  I eaves-dropped on the young people singing in the tree, and on the brace of boys, cousins, led by a jolly uncle who sang Sinatra on the trail, and on the strong young people jogging up the mountain who met the strong young people jogging down the mountain and paused to breathlessly laugh and converse.  They spoke in gasps, with their hands on their hips.

And everything they said, all of them --every single word --was about life and about joy and happiness.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

First full day of summer, 2012

The solstice occurred yesterday afternoon.

Today being the first full day of summer, is the longest day of the year.  In Portland, the sun is bright and the air is warm, portending a hot season to come.  (Although weather prognosticators say that, starting this evening, there will be showers and cooler temperatures in the immediate future.)

What is it about summer that causes the mind to relax?  Is it some vestige from the days when most humans were engaged in food production?  Is the natural tendency to unwind in the summer a residual instinct that comes from the days when we worked the land?  During summer, the crops were sown.  The hard work of tilling and planting was over.  The labor of the harvest must await the ripening.  Summer was relative ease.

Or is the sense of well-being that summer endows even older than that? Does it predate the discovery of agriculture?  Perhaps summer's comfort stems from those days when Stone Age humans saw the low ebb of mankind's eternal enemies, cold and darkness.


Summer is the yearly culmination of the sun's glory.  And these last few days of warm temperatures have made all the difference for the tomatoes, melons, and peppers I planted in pots on my back deck.

If this turns out to be another summer like the summer of 2009, Maty and I are in plenty of fruit!

Summer 2012!  Bring it on!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book review: Suttree

Cormac McCarthy's fourth novel, Suttree, is different from the other of McCarthy's novels that I have read.  It is a semi-autobiographical account of the author's early days in Knoxville, Tennessee as a river fisherman.  As such it is a portrait of a way of life, rather than an exposition or an allegory.  One description of the novel that I found particularly apt referred to it as "a doomed Huckleberry Finn."

It is dark, of course.  How could a McCarthy novel be otherwise?  In places it is disturbing.  But it does not plumb the horrific depths of The Road, for example, or Blood Meridian.  And, in fact, at times Suttree is downright comical.

The story revolves around the life of Cornelius Suttree, a prodigal son who has renounced a life of privilege in favor of a mean existence as a fisherman on the Tennessee River.  As Suttree struggles to find his identity he carouses with drunkards, whores, and layabouts, embracing a life of turpitude.  McCarthy paints some truly awful scenes of drunkenness and debauchery.  Let me tell you, I've had some nasty hangovers in my day, but nothing like the one that Suttree experiences after a night on the town with his drinking buddies.

One of the most memorable characters in the novel is Gene Harrowgate, "the midnight melonmounter." (And, yes, it is exactly what you might think.)  This imaginative character ought to dispell any accusations that McCarthy lacks a sense of humor. Harrowgate is an irrepressible idiot-savant determined to succeed in the world despite the misfortune of his existence.  His misadventures are knee-slapping funny, but also tragic. 

Honestly, although I enjoyed Suttree quite a bit, it is not my favorite McCarthy novel.  I felt the novel lacked a distinct moral lesson.  Nonetheless, there are passages of sublime eloquence; there is poignancy; there is humor.  We should expect no less from a master like McCarthy.
What do you believe?
I believe that the last and the first suffer equally. Pari passu.
It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul.
Of what would you repent?
One thing. I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it and that I would stand a stone in the very void where all would read my name. Of that vanity I recant all.
--Suttree, Cormac McCarthy

Monday, June 18, 2012

Heart of Oregon

Heart of Oregon
The hurly-burly comes from every side.  You anesthetize your perceptions with calculations, tactics, contingencies for looming disasters.  You forget.

Near Butte Falls, OR
A journey into Oregon's mountainous heart clears it all away; dispels it with pregnant silence, with brief, poignant songs of red-wing blackbird, finch, and meadowlark.

Mount McLoughlin
On my way home, I passed through Crater Lake National Park, where I'd spent a young man's summer working at the lodge.  Young men are not immune to beauty.  But older men are helpless before it.  My heart was pierced. 
Carnivorous piscine feeding frenzy
When my time is over, cast my remains in the crater.  I am Oregon.  Oregon is me. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Hiatus 2012

The ink is spent.

All morning brief showers, hissing furious chastening of a petulant lover.  But bold afternoon sunshine would not be denied. 

In an Ishmael mood on the way up the mountain, I mused on the scribblings, tired and bitter. Nothing shines anymore.  No magic. 

"Do you want to see Venus?" said he.  She offered shaded lenses like those they give at the 3D cinema.

"Do you want to see Venus?"
I looked.  A perfect round sphere, miniscule, unconditionally black against the disquieting brilliance.  Just there near the circumference at 30o.  "Oh my God, I see it," I said.

"There you go," he said.  "There's your once-in-a-lifetime.  It won't happen again until 2117."

Preposterously, she sought to console.  "Who knows?  You might live another 105 years."

We grinned.

"There aren't many people who have seen that," he said.

"We're the lucky ones," I said.  I thought about the oak tree.

Back in a couple weeks
I still believe that to write you must write every day.  But the ink is spent.  I'm taking a little vacation from the blog, to replenish the inkwell.

Honored, as always by your interest.  Back later this month, God willing.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Are we at war, then?

Associated Press reporting (you can read an article in the New York Daily News here) sketches a hair-raising portrait of events now transpiring in Pakistan.  

Today, the Pakistani government condemned the on-going drone attacks made by US forces within Pakistani territory.  In the last three days, the US has conducted three such attacks, killing 27 persons including an unspecified number of "suspected militants."  Altogether, the US has conducted 7 such attacks in the last 2 weeks.

Are we at war with Pakistan?

Here's a little snippet from the NYDN article:
The Pakistani government and parliament have repeatedly asked the U.S. to stop the strikes.
The ongoing attacks are also complicating efforts for the U.S. and Pakistan to come to an agreement over reopening the supply routes to NATO and American forces in Afghanistan. American airstrikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November, prompting Islamabad to block U.S. and NATO supply lines running through its territory.
The US first began the drone attacks in 2004, and has accelerated them since President Obama came to office.  There have been 297 drone attacks in the last 8 years.  Late last year, the CIA halted the attacks after a mistaken strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.  But now they're back at it.  Civilians have died, including children, although there are no reliable numbers.  It's in the hundreds by most accounts. 

Are we at war, then?  Because it's starting to look that way.  We just may be tripping into a war with a nuclear-armed nation of 175 million people right in the middle of a boiling hot kettle.

We better think this over, people. 

Pakistan isn't Cambodia.  Pakistan isn't Laos.

This is deep water, here.

Friday, June 01, 2012

River (Pt. II)

Note: This is the second part of a short story I started writing as an assignment for a class taught by Ryan Blacketter.

Read Part I here.

This is a draft and likely to undergo many revisions over time. But here it is...

"So now you gonna tell me a story?" said Noah.  He rolled his eyes.

The Drifter demurred.  "Probably couldn't tell you anything you don't already know."

Noah set his jaw.  "I got a story too.  Yours better than mine?" he said.

The Drifter squinted.  "Son, I seen you all my life.  Already know your story."

"You seen me, but we never spoke," said Noah.

"Didn't have to," said the Drifter.  A silence grew between them.  Then the old man said, slyly "He was a mean old cuss, wasn't he?"


"The fella that took up with your ma."

Noah frowned. 

The Drifter continued.  "He'd whup on ya, wouldn't he?"

"He'd try," Noah said.  "Too damn drunk to do much of anything."

"All the same, you learned pretty quick that you weren't welcome.  No way in hell you could stay.  Ain't that right?"

"Just a damned drunk.  Just a goddam drunk," Noah said.

"But your ma knew it too, didn't she?  She kissed your forehead that morning.  She sent you on your way with a kiss and a prayer, didn't she?"

"She give me her car, " said Noah.  His mouth twitched.

"Old beater car that went far enough to get you good and gone before it died."

Noah stood silent with his hands in his pockets, eyes cast on the concrete at his feet.

The Drifter's gift was that he knew when to push and when to ease up.  "But I was talkin' about Catfish, wasn't I?" he said.

Noah sat down on the bench, studying the cement at his feet.

"Catfish Cutter pretty much spent his whole life lurkin' around garbage dumps and alleys and under bridges.   'I always lived at the bottom,' was what he said.  'Been rolled along by the current.'  And it was true, so far as I could tell.  He was bone thin, washed up, and driftin'.  Never had anyone but himself since the day he lit out on his own.  But just like every other young man in this world, he come to a point where he felt he had to reach out, take the rein, hold a piece of this world to his own hand.

"As for me, I was younger than you when I lost my footing.  Not that I ever had much ground to stand on anyway.  Things weren't so good at home.  Not much more than a place to sleep and scrounge what food I could.  Never knew my mother.  Pa was drunk most days.

"Folks at the public school pretty much figured out that I wasn't there to hear what they had to say.  Only ever went there as a meet-up place.  Not to speak ill of it, mind you.  Books and learning are fine things, but it took more than I could pay out.  And as for Catfish --well, he already knew more than what they were preaching.

"Long and short of it was that things came to a head for both of us at the same time."

"What shit are you sellin' now, you old coot?"  Flo, barefoot and sullied, stood with arms folded across her middle.  Behind her, the kid held a grease-mottled paper bag in one hand.  He stuffed a roasted potato into his mouth with the other.

"Where'd you get that tater?" Noah asked.

Flo tossed her chin toward her shoulder.  "She give it to us."  The iron-haired Mexican woman glowered in the distance.

To be continued...