Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: My Home Is Far Away (1944) by Dawn Powell

Dawn Powell is one of those authors who has received more fame, critical recognition, and sales in death than she ever did in life. Gore Vidal championed her work, and in the last fifteen or so years her novels have come back into print. Powell was born in 1896 in Ohio, and the subject matter of her novels is divided between studies of small town life in Ohio and witty glimpses into the lives of New York's bourgeois bohemians. I read one of her New York novels a few years ago and I can't say that it made much of an impression on me. It was well written, smart, but felt slightly insubstantial.

My Home Is Far Away is Powell's lightly fictionalized autobiography of her childhood in Ohio, and it's one of the best novels of its type I've ever come across. What suprised me the most about it was that it only sold four thousand copies on its initial release, which seems paltry for a novel that should be nipping at the heels of To Kill a Mockingbird for the title of best American coming-of-age novel, Female Division. But then I considered the year it came out and things began to make sense. America was at its patriotic apogee in 1944 and I doubt the reading public would have had much enthusiasm for a novel that put the boots to the Andy Hardy version of small town life that was currently popular.

The character who does the coming of age is Marcia Willard, the precocious five-year-old daughter of a traveling salesman, Harry, and his wife Daisy. Marcia has two sisters, Florrie, the youngest, and Lena, the eldest. The time is the early 1900s and the place is London Junction, Ohio. Harry is the archetypal traveling salesman who dresses sharp, loves to tell a joke, and has a high opinion of himself. The truth is that Harry neglects his loving family and spends money he doesn't have mostly on himself. Daisy and the children scrape by on his occasional largesse, store credit, selling their home baking, and the aid of relatives. Daisy dies suddenly and Harry remarries after farming out the children to relatives. Idah, his second wife, is a honours graduate of Cruel Stepmother College. Between her cruelty and Harry's indifference to the suffering of his children, the family eventually falls apart. The two eldest girls are now teenagers, and Lena moves out to live with an aunt. The novel ends with Marcia running away from home to Cleveland where she hopes to find a new life with some people who are no more than acquaintances.

My basic description of the novel makes it sound like a generic, melodramatic sob story. It isn't. Marcia and her sisters do suffer from abuse and neglect, but an equal amount of time is spent describing Marcia's joy in discovering all the colour and variety in the world around her. She and her sisters are, by and large, raised without a lot of supervision, and that opens up all kinds of worlds and adventures for the trio. They spend, for example, a delightful summer living on a relative's farm, and an extended stay living in a railroad hotel provides a learning experience of a very different kind. Powell crafts her characters with subtlety and feeling, and even the egregious Idah (Powell left her actual stepmother's name unchanged for the novel) seems less of a caricature thanks to the social environment we see her living in.

About that social environment; Powell's depiction of lower-middle-class life in the Midwest is revelatory and detailed. This is a society filled with casual and transient relationships between men and women. Many people marry, but there's often little love involved, but a great many financial considerations. Children are casually ignored, abused or cast-off depending on the financial health of the parents. And everyone is scrambling, with sharp elbows at the ready, to get ahead/advantage of the next guy, As a portrait of seedy, grasping, cynical, street-level capitalism this novel has few equals. This wasn't the sort of book that was going to be embraced in 1944, but now, seventy years later, Harry and Marcia Willard need to take their place beside Atticus and Scout.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

I've enthusiastically detested director Wes Anderson's films beginning with Rushmore, so it comes as a shock to say that I didn't hate The Grand Budapest Hotel. In Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom I found his penchant for toxic levels of whimsy, quirkiness and meta references to be intolerable. What might aggravate me the most about Anderson is that he writes characters who are actually less than one-dimensional. Take any unambitious genre picture and it will be stuffed with single purpose characters such as, say, the lone wolf cop, or the bitchy cheerleader. Anderson's characters are sometimes consist of nothing more than a tone of voice, a particular look, a costume, or even just a raised eyebrow. Anderson's overflowing basket of filmmaking idiosyncrasies have made him the David Lean of hipster cinema, but for the rest of us he's that annoying, precocious child (much like the central character in Rushmore) who thinks the best way to show genius is to be a contrarian. Some filmmakers, past and present, have managed to toy with or subvert the norms of narrative cinema, but Anderson does so in the most shallow, non-threatening way possible.

Having got all that off my chest let me say that The Grand Budapest Hotel managed to hold my interest, largely thanks to Ralph Fiennes performance as M. Gustave, the concierge of a great hotel located somewhere in Anderson's imagination between Grand Hotel (1932) and The Night Porter (1974) and set in the 1930s. Fiennes brings charm and energy to a role that's no more than a pot luck of character traits. The other thing that kept me interested was the look of the film. I'm usually opposed to films that invest too much energy on gaudy set and costume design, but the look of this one fits its subject matter perfectly. Even if the plot and characters are generally tedious, the scenery, both indoors and out, is always imaginatively realized.

As for the rest of film, all I can say is that it's the usual grab bag of movie star cameos, arch acting, and dialogue that sounds as though it was written in italics or with ironic quotation marks around it. Oh, and the character of Zero, a bellboy who has the biggest role next to Fienne's, is the owner of the raised eyebrow I mentioned earlier. He runs around a lot, but his character is largely built around his ability to raise an eyebrow at key moments. At the end of the day I didn't like The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I didn't loathe it, which means that for me Wes Anderson's career is trending upwards.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sex With Travis McGee and John D. MacDonald

Sometime in the 1970s my first foray into crime fiction came via John D. MacDonald's series about Travis McGee, a Florida-based "salvage consultant" who helps people recover money or property they've lost due to theft, embezzlement, blackmail or a slick con. McGee keeps half of what he recovers as a fee. In truth, McGee is an adventurer/private detective who just as often comes to the aid of friends as he does clients. The twenty-one McGee novels were written from 1964-85, were very successful at the time, and certainly remain popular with critics and contemporary crime writers. I read them in publication order way back when, and I recall enjoying them very much. Up to a point. I remember that as the series wore on the book's became less about crime and more about sex; there's nothing wrong with sexy crime novels, but my impression at the time was that MacDonald was letting his freak flag fly under the guise of crime fiction.

The McGee novels were recently reissued, complete with glowing introductions by writers such as Lee Child and Carl Hiaasen, and since the library has all of them I decided to give McGee another try and see how he'd aged. First off, here's what's still good about MacDonald: he writes about Florida and the destruction of its environment with a prescience and passion that still burns brightly. MacDonald saw with awful clarity that Florida was being raped and pillaged by property developers and politicians, and if nothing else MacDonald could claim to be the first "eco-novelist." In relation to this, MacDonald is also a fine writer when it comes to describing the outdoor life. His descriptions of the natural world, life on the ocean, fishing, the joys of sailing, they all have a freshness and muscular poetry that makes them timeless. Lastly, the plots of the McGee books have a pleasing variety. Murder always figures into the stories, but there's also some complex con or swindle going as well, and the settings for the novels frequently shift away from Florida.

But here's where things get weird and wonky with the McGee novels. It turns out I wasn't misremembering the obsession with sex in the books. It's fair to say that MacDonald was using the McGee books to air his many sexual anxieties and fantasies. But where to start? One theme that runs through all the books is the idea of sexual humiliation and/or enslavement. Various characters, often quite minor ones, are given back stories in which it's revealed that their sexual partner either made them feel so sexually inadequate they had nervous breakdowns, or their partner was so good in the sack they became their sexual slaves. Darker Than Amber has barely got under way before we're hearing about a woman who fetches up on McGee's doorstep after being sexually humiliated by her husband. After some hands-on sex therapy from Travis, the woman is made whole again and is gone from the story. Almost every book has several asides along these lines, and all kinds of throwaway characters only make appearances in the stories (so it would seem) so that MacDonald can dwell on their sexual prowess, particularly their ability to gain a psychological hold over another man or woman simply through their sexual skill or appetite.

Another theme is voyeurism. In two of the novels McGee lurks outside bedroom windows listening to the people inside having sex, and on several more occasions he looks through pictures taken surreptitiously of people making love, which has to count as voyeurism by proxy. In fact, I don't think there's a single novel that doesn't have some scene of mild or major voyeurism.

MacDonald often sees sexual relationships as a kind of infection, something that the mind might resist but the body cannot. When he gets down to describing the nitty-gritty of people fucking, MacDonald takes the view that we're helpless slaves to our body's sexual triggers and desires. In Dress Her In Indigo McGee falls into a brief (and irrelevant) affair with an English aristocrat. McGee is initially a helpless victim of her sexual acrobatics, seemingly forced to have pleasure against his will. Our hero eventually manages to turn the tables and make the aristo purr with pleasure, which, oddly enough, seems counter to her wishes. The whole sub-plot is profoundly bizarre. The same novel also features an "incurable" lesbian and a gay man. Both characters are described as having the ability to turn straight people gay. McGee sees the gay man, Bruce Bundy, taking a  straight man under his wing and confidently surmises that within a few months the hetero will be speaking with a lisp.

MacDonald's view that we have little control over our sexual selves takes a darker, more disturbing turn in Bright Orange for the Shroud, in which a woman is repeatedly raped one night by a brutish redneck. The rape scene is horrible enough, but what's worse is that MacDonald then tells us that because the woman's husband hadn't been satisfying her in bed, her body, if not her mind, couldn't help but enjoy the rape. Here's how MacDonald describes it:

"But he was so damned sly and knowing, so crafty and patient that each time, even the last tine, he had awakened the traitor body so that while the soul watched, the body gasped and strained to hungry climax, to dirty joy, grasping powerfully."

Yes, dear old John D. also had a taste for rape. It's not a subject that's as front and centre as his other sexual obsessions, but it's often lurking in the background. In Cape Fear, MacDonald's most famous non-McGee book, rape and the threat of it is the focus of the novel. Max Cady, the villain of the piece, is put in prison for rape by the novel's hero, Sam Bowden, who, in yet another of MacDonald's voyeuristic moments, actually witnesses the rape. The rest of the novel features Cady raping his ex-wife, and threats of rape against Bowden's wife and daughter. Given that the novel was written in 1957 (originally called The Executioners), one can only imagine how much more sexually violent and explicit it might have been if written ten years later when MacDonald was peaking in popularity.

And getting back to the Bruce Bundys of the world, there's a subtle but definite vein of homoeroticism running through the McGee novels. MacDonald sees to have a thing for bears, and I don't mean the kind who steal picnic baskets. In gay culture, large, hairy, masculine gay men are known as "bears," and, as it happens, McGee's best friend and sidekick, Meyer, fits that description to a T. Meyer's chunkiness and hirsuteness is obsessively mentioned by MacDonald, who frequently describes him as looking like a bear or ape. Meyer's not the only hairy hunk McGee meets up with. Here's how McGee/MacDonald describes Boone Waxwell, the redneck rapist:

"He was barefoot, bare to the waist.  Glossy black curly hair, dense black mat of hair on his chest. Blue eyes."

And a bit later:

"He peered up at us through lashes I had not noticed before, dense and black and girlishly long."

Hmm. Travis certainly has an appreciation for a well-furred foe. And Waxwell isn't the only fit, hairy man McGee will meet on his various adventures. Interestingly, Waxwell meets his maker when he leaps off a boat into shallow water and impales himself up the ass on a submerged tree root. Paging Dr. Freud. And then there are McGee's girlfriends. Each novel has Travis falling into bed with one or two women, but one characteristic almost all of them share is a certain mannishness. McGee's women are usually described as fit, athletic, solid, or muscular. No svelte, willowy femmes for Trav. In one of the later novels, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, McGee and MacDonald's taste for butch women becomes more explicit:

"There was big tall lady behind the counter in the office. She had very short black hair and strong features...She stood about six feet high, and though the face was strong enough to look just a little bit masculine, there was nothing masculine about the legs or the way she filled the T-shirt."

The masculinity of Travis' women often goes beyond the physical; they sometimes even sound like men. In Pale Gray for Guilt McGee's love interest is Puss Killian (introduced to us as "a big, stately, random redhead"), and what's striking about her is that she means more to Travis than most of his companions and through her use of slang and her hearty sense of humor, you're left with the indelible impression that you're listening to a man.

MacDonald began his career writing all kinds of pulp fiction in the 1940s and '50s, and a certain amount of sex was the sizzle needed to ship product in those days. The '60s saw pulp fiction get even more sexually explicit, so from that point of view the McGee books are simply surfing the wave of sexiness that helped define that decade. What sets MacDonald apart from his peers is the sheer amount of sexuality in his McGee novels. In novels like Bright Orange for the Shroud and Dress Her In Indigo it feels like the crime plots end up taking a back seat to discussions and depictions of sex. And yet MacDonald stops short of becoming a porn writer because it's clear he's both fascinated and terrified of sex. A porn writer enjoys what he's writing about. With MacDonald you get the impression he can't stop talking about something that scares the crap out of him. What's intriguing is what caused this terror. At times he comes across as a man with horrendous performance-anxiety issues, and at others he reads like a deeply-closeted gay man whose constant focus on heterosexuality is a way of distracting himself from his own truth. I'll go out on a limb and opt for the latter explanation. If there's one overriding theme to MacDonald's writing in the Magee novels, it's that people can't fight and/or are betrayed by their true sexual natures. He seems to find that a terrifying prospect, and it's easy to conclude that the Magee novels were his way of articulating his painfully repressed sexuality.

All in all, I can't say that the McGee books have stood the test of time. He has a poor ear for dialogue, his attempts at humour are ham-handed, and he gets downright silly and cranky on the subject of hippies and rock 'n roll. But if you're looking to do a master's thesis on, say, sexual paranoia in 1960s crime fiction, MacDonald's a limitless resource.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: The Honored Society (2008) by Petra Reski

The impetus for this look at Italy's various Mafia organizations was the 2007 execution-style murder in Duisburg, Germany, of six Italians from Calabria. The six were part of the 'Ndrangheta, one of southern Italy's three great Mafia crime groups, the other two being the Camorra, based in Naples, and the Cosa Nostra, based in Sicily. The German public and police were shocked to find that the Mafia were engaging in turf wars outside of Italy, and German journalist Petra Reski's book is a sort of field guide to the environment the Mafia comes from and is supported by.

Reski structures her book something like a travelogue, as she and her friend Shoba, an award-winning photographer who's made a career photographing the world of the Mafia, traipse around southern Italy checking in on sites and individuals who are key to the recent history of the region's mafias. This isn't the most conventional or academic way to go about chronicling organized crime, and at times the book reads like a loosely-stitched together group of magazine articles, but it's a fascinating read and Reski has some intriguing insights into the Mafia's entrenched position in Italian politics and society.

One of the startling observations Reski makes is that the Catholic Church is a key spiritual component of the Mafia. Over here in North America we occasionally hear about brave anti-Mafia priests, or equally occasionally the Pope issues a statement decrying a Mafia atrocity, but the rank and file of priests in southern Italy are more than happy to provide mobsters with confession, baptisms, marriages, and all the other ceremonies held dear by Catholics. It's a symbiotic relationship. Mobsters value the way the Church has embraced them because it shows that they're not outcasts or apostates; they're still part of Italian society despite being murderers. The Church supports the Mob because it views it as being in opposition to the Italian state, which, in the Church's eyes, is sinfully secular. In short, the Catholic Church finds more to like in a cabal of killers than it does in a democratic state.

In the last thirty or so years one of the key tools in the fight against the Mafia has been the testimony of turncoat mafioso, from foot soldiers all the way up to capos. What's fascinating about these "traitors" is the way in which their families turn against them. Their wives, children and parents hold mock funerals for them, and generally make a great show of their hatred for anyone who betrays the Mafia. In this respect the Mafia comes across as a cult or religion. The loathing for Mafia turncoats is very real, and it has striking similarities to way in which religious fundamentalists of various stripes react to apostates.

After the Mafia's high-profile murders of public prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992, the Italian government had a chance to really uproot the Mafia thanks to a groundswell of public outrage against the Mafia's contempt for the Italian state. For a few years the Mafia was on the run, but the rise of Silvio Berlusconi ended all that. He formed a partnership with the Mafia that gave him votes in the south, and the Mafia got a rollback of various anti-Mafia laws. The present situation is dire. The Mafia is now so embedded in Italian politics and finance that any attempt to remove it might, like cutting out a tumor, end up killing the patient. Simply put, Italy seems to have lost control of the southern half of the country, and any serious attempt to destroy the Mafia would cause so much economic/political disruption and dislocation that no ruling party is likely to risk undertaking such a campaign. This is an issue that concerns the EU as well, because significant chunks of the European economy are now controlled by the Mafia, and their growing financial muscle could seem them become a de facto member of the EU.

This isn't a book filled with colorful tales of Mafia shootouts and assassinations (alright, there are a few), but it is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks the Mafia is nothing more than a localized Italian problem. It's also a reminder that any capitalist organization, no matter how criminal, becomes immune to prosecution once it becomes large enough and powerful enough to get its hands on the levers of power. .