Monday, November 28, 2005

Book No. 38: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Book No. 39: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Book No. 40: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

I had a hankering to read some Hammett. Years ago, I went through several weeks of reading nothing but the man, including the novels I'll discuss today, but memory had erased many of the all-too-enjoyable particulars of his writing. Anyway, The Maltese Falcon is a ton of fun, even when it doesn't add up, and, given the way Sam Spade talks, almost impossible to visualize without Humphrey Bogart in the lead. One of the things time had left a bit murky for me was the story Spade tells of the man named Flitcraft, the subject of the overwhelmingly great Mekons song.

The spiritual basis for countless movies, including the truly wonderful Yojimbo (and, by extension, A Fistful of Dollars) and Miller's Crossing, Red Harvest is the Continental Op at his cynical best, destroying a criminal syndicate's hold on a mining town for the sheer amoral thrill of it. If I remember correctly, Red Harvest was Hammett's first novel, and it is interesting how differently Red Harvest is written than The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man. All three share first-person narrators who don't share their thought process or realizations with the reader, but Red Harvest's Continental Op is a more blunt thinker than Sam Spade or Nick Charles (by a large margin there), as if Hammett were channelling the the less refined business of being an unwanted gun-for-hire. If Spade is the dispassionate and jaded heart of detective fiction (not to mention the archetype for Chandler's Philip Marlowe), the Continental Op is the tough-guy mold.

From Hammett's first novel to his last! The Thin Man (obviously influenced by or co-written with Lillian Hellman) is witty as hell, but in a different way than the movie, which is one of my favorites. Nora Charles isn't as much a participant in the case as she is in the movie, and the dramatic conclusion is quite different, albeit more satisfying as literature. Everything about this book is practically perfect, from the goofy pop-Freudian psychology to the oh-so-sophisticated drunken sexual shenanigans. Hammett was at the top of his game with this one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I'm unable to stop blogging today, so I want to mention my support for Brad Vice and outrage over UGA's pulping of his book.

Brad's an old friend to both my wife and me and has always been an extremely conscientious guy. By all appearances, his crime is taking language from a nonfiction book that he acknowledged verbally, although - fatally - not in print, and putting it into the perspective of his fictional characters. It's a screw-up, definitely. UGA's response has been to rescind Vice's Flannery O'Connor Award and (here's the part where damnation enters the picture) recalling and pulping the man's book as if it were a Firestone tire about to blow out!

See for yourself:
Tuscaloosa Knights by Brad Vice.
Flaming Cross by Carl Carmer.

Here's some discussion:

The Literary Lynching of Brad Vice
Fell In Alabama: Brad Vice's Tuscaloosa Night (and check out the nutcase named Robert Clark Young who comments as disingeniously as Karl Rove speaks)

I know Brad doesn't read this, but this thing happening to him is a goddamned shame, made worse by the hell of good intentions. That library reader who's so-obviously biddying herself about the press by repeatedly calling Brad a thief: shame on you, lady. Your desire to right the wrong of not mentioning Carmer's influence is admirable. Your moralizing about it is way over the line. And the head of the UA Press who more or less demanded that UGA pulp the book rather than include an acknowledgement: shame on you, too, you publicity hog. Way to support a hometown writer.

Brad probably deserves a "shame on you," too, but I'm sure he's beat himself up over this worse than anybody else could. Mississippi State is even reviewing his job, which goes to prove that there's nothing people love more than to fan flames at the trainwreck.

Slate has various people talking about their favorite books from college. One of my two "hell yeah" moments was for college dropout Judd Apatow's list.

Book No. 37: The Wild Palms by William Faulkner

As some readers of this blog may remember (Ha! "Readers of this blog." I amuse myself.), I was thinking about this book after the flooding of New Orleans. It's essentially two interwound novellas, one ("The Wild Palms") about a tempestuous love affair and the other ("Old Man") about an unwillingly escaped convict on the loose during the Flood of 1927. I read "Old Man" by itself just a few years back, but I hadn't read "The Wild Palms" since I was in my early 20s. Well, that was probably for the best.

"The Wild Palms" contains some beautiful - no, perfect - Faulknerian sentences and imagery, but those of us outside of our idealistic romantic period will want to smack the lovers at the heart of the tale upside the head. The transformation of the male side of these star-crossed idiots from a taciturn naif into a jaded logonorrheac poet is as unconvincing as their collective willingness to destroy each other attempting to keep their illusion of love alive. Bah, humbug.

On the other hand, "Old Man" is major Faulkner, as great as Absolam! Absolam! and Light in August. In the story, a naive, idealistic young convict (who is similar to the young man at the heart of "The Wild Palms" in some ways) is swept away by the water while rescuing a pregnant young woman during the 1927 Mississippi River flood. The plot unfolds with picaresqueish deliberation, as the convict encounters misadventures, is shot at again and again (in some encounters reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn), assists in the birth of the child while escaping snakes and a mudslide, defends the skiff, hunts alligators barehanded, is caught and released by a sympathetic Louisiana doctor, and ultimately winds up with an extended sentence. It's the funniest Faulkner story I've ever read, and still full of poignance and a sense of outrage over the treatment of inmates and the lot of the poor. I wish Oprah had recommended this story to the general public to be their first exposure to Faulkner rather than her more complicated choices.

Although the chapters are intermixed in the book, neither has much in common, other than the cluelessness of the leading men. "The Wild Palms" plays that cluelessness for tragedy and "Old Man" for comedy (with a more subtle tragic theme). Both reveal the end of the story fairly early on. Both contain passages so lovely and profound that the reader has to stop and catch his or her breath. But that's true of most of Faulkner's work.

Finally, an excellent article on Ronnie Earle, Travis County's beleagured DA, in the national press. In Salon, but well worth clicking through the ads. Let it be known that, as far as I'm concerned, Earle's doing the Lord's work in taking down Tom DeLay and his thuggish approach to political dissent. Give him hell, Ronnie!

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