Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review: Rain Dogs (2015) by Adrian McKinty

This is the fifth in Adrian McKinty's series of mysteries featuring DI Sean Duffy of Northern Ireland's Royal Ulster Constabulary, and it's time to start thinking of them as historical fiction (they're set in the 1980s) and not just mysteries. I say this because one of the purposes of historical fiction is to reveal the past in ways more subtle and nuanced than can be found in history books. The bare bones history of Northern Ireland's Troubles is well known, but a writer like McKinty teases out the quotidian life of people living at the leading edge of the conflict. What makes this series have a foot in both literary genres is that in each book McKinty incorporates one or more historical figures (Gerry Adams, Margaret Thatcher, John DeLorean, etc.) who had a role, big or small, in NI's conflict. The intersection of real characters and events with the fictional Duffy has a twofold purpose: it marks the series out as an attempt to add shading, colour, and perspective to the historical record, and it's also a way of keeping the memory and significance of the Troubles alive.

There are plenty of mystery series set in the past featuring sleuthing Victorians, medieval monks, and Regency aristos, but in almost all these examples the historical setting is just dusty window dressing. McKinty is trying to draw attention to some fairly recent history that's beginning to slip from what could be called the popular historical record. The Irish (I'm including NI and Ireland in this) are in a peculiar situation where their image abroad, the myth of Irishness, is a twee amalgam of peat smoke, mad poets, green fields, gurning peasants, and well-lubricated wit. It's an image that keeps the tourist dollars flowing and warms the hearts of descendants of the great Irish diaspora. The Troubles interfered with this travel poster narrative in a big way. How could all those twinkly "Oirish" people throw bombs into crowded pubs or kneecap women? It was like finding out your favourite uncle had a stash of kiddie porn. As the Troubles have wound down to a dull murmur, the shamrock-encrusted image of the Irish has filtered back, and populist fare like Patrick Taylor's Irish Country Doctor book series and TV's Ballykissangel have brought the Irish compass needle pointing back to due leprechaun. The Duffy books are, perhaps, unique in reminding the literary public that until fairly recently a small population of white, English-speaking Christians were going at each other with the kind of ferocity we now associate with the Middle East.

This Duffy mystery may be the most polished of the bunch. It has a variation on the locked room puzzle (a locked castle!), and the set-up for it is splendidly handled. Chapters four and five should be read by any aspiring mystery writer as an example of how to establish a crime scene and lay out all the relevant clues. The death being investigated is that of Lily Bigelow, a writer for the Financial Times who seems to have killed herself  by jumping from the top of Carrick Castle. Bigelow was covering a trip to NI by a group of Finnish businessmen but as Duffy digs deeper it turns out that Bigelow was interested in uncovering something very nasty. The novel is filled with McKinty's usual wit and sharp descriptions of life in NI, and there's a bonus side trip to Finland that, visually speaking, seems to have been inspired by Billion Dollar Brain, a brilliant and unappreciated film by Ken Russell (my review). And the finale suggests that if there any more Duffy novels, his life might be headed in an interesting new direction.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Book Review: Deep South (2015) by Paul Theroux

A new Paul Theroux travel book is always a cause for celebration, and while I certainly enjoyed a lot of Deep South, other portions left a bad taste in my mouth. Theroux's odyssey through America's Deep South is illuminating, thorough, and heartfelt, but also wrong-headed and occasionally condescending.

I knew there was trouble ahead when Theroux began the book with a diatribe about the indignities of air travel: the delays, the security, the searches, and so on and so on. This specific kind of whining is the special province of older, white, affluent writers, and I expected Theroux to be better than this. No one likes airport security, but the alternative is too grisly to contemplate. Unfortunately, Theroux then goes the extra mile from whingeing all the way to pure snobbery when he says, "All air travel today involves interrogation, often by someone in a uniform who is your inferior." Ouch. Paul doesn't define what makes someone inferior to him, but I'm guessing it's because they wear an ill-fitting uniform and are paid by the hour. Of such comments revolutions are born. But on with the trip...

Theroux has always excelled at getting under the surface of the lands he's journeyed through, and this outing is no exception. He has a novelist's eye for character and landscape, and, even more importantly for the purposes of a travel writer, an unquenchable curiosity about people and local history. Theroux drills down deep into the South's history and culture, showing how the Civil War and the Jim Crow-era have never truly ended; in fact, if the book has a theme it's that racism is alive and well throughout the South. I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, but the extent of the divide between blacks and whites in the South is still somewhat shocking. Theroux's tour of the South takes in many locations that were the scene of infamous examples of white on black violence, and he does an admirable job of bringing these episodes to life. But then he puts his foot in his mouth when he describes being harangued by a black woman for arriving late for an interview. He casts her in the role of professional white-hater, and, what's worse, surmises from her looks that she might not be black at all. What makes this so offensive and dumb is that later in the book Theroux shows that he's aware of the fact that white Southerners regard even a trace of black "blood" as enough to count someone as black. This is, in fact, the theme of Light in August by William Faulkner, an author who Theroux discusses at length in the book. Theroux might not have seen his antagonist as black, but it's almost certain that Southern society does.

Most travel writers who take a spin through Dixie invariably knock off a few thousand words about antebellum mansions, mint juleps, oak tress dripping with Spanish moss, Southern hospitality--all the boilerplate of Southern travel writing. Theroux doesn't have time for that kind of tripe. He shows that the South is primarily a land of grinding poverty, fear of the outside world, and apocalyptic fatalism (and a hell of a lot of fried food). Theroux has great sympathy for the South's poor, but a shaky understanding of the politics and economics behind this poverty. At times he seems to take a the-poor-are-always-with-us tone, as when meets one particularly indigent family and offers a quote from a Chekhov short story called Peasants. The quote describes a woman's sense of realization that peasants are human and can be pitied for their suffering. It's a tone deaf piece of writing by Theroux since it casts him in the role of a patronizing snob--look at me, I feel sorry or these people and here's an example of my erudition to prove it. He correctly points to free trade deals that having hollowed out the South's manufacturing base, as have cheap imports, but he doesn't take the next step and point out that in this regard the South is no different than, well, most every other part of the U.S.

Since 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, the corporate and political elite of America have been engaged in an overt and relentless campaign to rollback the relationship between capital and labour to something approximating the period before 1900. In short, business wants workers underpaid and unrepresented by unions, and their political allies want to distract or disenfranchise voters who might want to reverse this process. There's nothing secret about this and dozens of writers have described it at length. The South has more than its fair share of poverty, but that's largely because the region was always well ahead of the rest of the country in the twin sciences of disenfranchisement and union busting.

Theroux is good at micro views of poverty, but the macro escapes him. He fails to see that he's living in a country which is now almost existentially committed to creating wealth at any expense. The fact that he himself has homes in Hawaii and Cape Cod (I'm guessing they're not shotgun shacks) is a testament to the wealth-centric economic policies that create poverty. Theroux bemoans the lack of government assistance for the poor, but doesn't make the link to the low taxation he enjoys which pays for luxury homes. It's a simple equation: less social welfare spending so the upper-middle-classes and above can grow richer thanks to lower taxes. Theroux applauds various non-profit groups and NGOs that try to ameliorate life for the Southern poor, but he fails to see that these are simply band-aids. Without profound changes at the political level these efforts are largely futile.

Theroux takes the Bill Clinton Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the federal government to task for funding anti-poverty projects in Africa and elsewhere when many parts of the South are in just as bad a shape. It's a fair point, but it overlooks two factors. First, to acknowledge that kind of poverty exists in the U.S. is a tacit admission that there is a systemic problem in the way wealth is distributed in America, and no one in the upper levels of American society is willing to cop to that. Second, Theroux's complaint overlooks the fact that racism plays a huge part in the debate around social welfare in the U.S. American culture has always seen poverty as a self-inflicted wound caused by laziness and ignorance, and those are the same qualities ascribed by racists to blacks. In short, a significant number of white Americans have traditionally seen poverty as a black problem caused by the innate moral and intellectual shortcomings of African Americans. Instead of seeing blacks as simply the economic underclass, no different than economic underclasses in other countries, whites have seen a "black problem" rather an economic problem.

The doggedness and sense of empathy Theroux shows in his trip down south is admirable, as is his prose, but his inability to explicate the political and economic causes underlying the South's near-Third World status can be very frustrating. He does, however, get bonus marks from me for rightly praising the works of Charles Portis, a writer who should be famous for more than just True Grit.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Donald Trump: the Church of America's Pope

No one's been saying much about Donald Trump lately so I thought I'd try and get a conversation going.

The business of political punditry has never been better or busier thanks to Trump and the drunken clown fight that is the GOP nomination process. One aspect of Trump's rise that's produced mass head scratching has been his success with evangelical Republicans. Ted Cruz, the most bothersome of the GOP's divine host of God-botherers, was supposed to be the darling of those who think Jesus came over on the Mayflower, drove the dinosaurs out of America, and then invented baseball. Evangelicals, so the theory goes, should be shocked and dismayed by Trump's worldliness, his vulgar displays of wealth, his sexual boasting, his multiple marriages and infidelities, and his unrepentant New York, N.Y.-ness.

What people don't appreciate is that this makes Trump the pope of the Church of America. You see, evangelicals aren't really Christians. Yes, they assemble in churches, say prayers, quote bits and pieces from the Bible, but it's more correct to call them members of the Church of America. I'd argue that what's known as the religious right is actually a new, hybrid religion that's composed of equal parts capitalist boosterism, white ancestor worship, rabid nationalism, militarism, with just a patina of Christianity. Followers of the Church of America, unlike Christ, have an active dislike for the weak, the meek and the poor, and they're definitely not peacemakers. The religious right has taken bits and pieces from the Old and New Testament to craft a religious outlook that ennobles capitalism, praises warriors, exalts masculinity, and denigrates scientific thought. The best evidence for this hybridization is the so-called "prosperity gospel," which basically turns God into the Uncle Money Bags character from the game of Monopoly. Play the faith game the right way, says the prosperity gospel, and you'll be rewarded with riches.

Trump is the ideal leader of the C of A. His wealth, particularly his flaunting of it, is a siren call to those who believe that wads of money are proof of God's favour. This in turn ties in with the widespread belief on the religious right that American was specifically and particularly blessed with natural riches by the Almighty. To this way of thinking, Trump is surely one of God's chosen ones since he's been blessed more than most. The other factor that Trump relies on to attract evangelicals (probably without his realizing it) is his history as a horndog. This would seem to be illogical given the religious right's habit of getting its plain white J.C. Penny knickers in a twist whenever sex becomes an issue. Trump's sexual history is a declaration of male privilege, appetites, and vanity, and as such it dovetails nicely with the evangelical view of the sexes: men are providers and defenders of the family, bold and brave in their dealings with the world outside the family, and if they cross a line or two, or stray, they must be forgiven by their womenfolk because the challenges they face are so taxing. Women, on the other hand, should concentrate solely, as the German saying goes, on kinder, kuche, kirche. Trump is vividly and ostentatiously masculine, and that goes down a treat with those evangelicals who believe that men should be at the centre of the family and the nation. And Trump is certainly far more butch than the rest of the GOP field, all of whom come across as various flavours of nerd.

I can't say I'm surprised at Trump's success; I actually kind of predicted (*pats self on back*) that someone like him would come along in this piece I wrote four years ago on the Republican primaries. Until the GOP finally splinters into two new parties, the Delusional Republicans and the Deranged Republicans, we'll be seeing more of the same madness from the GOP every four years. It's a sickening thought, but at least it'll probably keep Twitter from going bankrupt.

Related posts:

Finally, Proof That Jesus Would Vote Republican
What Makes a Conservative Conservative?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Glenn Healy

As a degenerate hockey fan (go Leafs!) I watch a lot of games and listen to way too much sports talk radio. The big story of the 2014-15 season was Rogers TV/Sportsnet taking control of almost all hockey broadcasts in Canada in the first year of their multi-billion dollar agreement with the NHL. Rogers splashed out on glitzy new sets and poached talent from rival TSN and the CBC. The result was a decline in ratings in both the regular season and the playoffs. It wasn't supposed to go this way. Rogers bet big money on hockey, and figured a fresh approach, or at least a serious cosmetic makeover, would harvest more viewers. We're now almost two full seasons into the Rogers era of hockey broadcasting, and here's my take on what's right and wrong with it.


Less Ron MacLean. He's not completely off the airwaves yet, but, fingers crossed, his banishment to the Siberia of Hometown Hockey and his limited exposure on his Punch and Judy show with Don Cherry will, I hope, lead to permanent retirement. As host of Hockey Night in Canada, MacLean came across as a spoiled, narcissistic, smirking adolescent. He treated his own opinions as gospel and became petulant and whiny when faced with even mildly contradictory views. And his self-indulgent interviewing style, loaded with witless puns and opaque references to people and events the average viewer was unaware of, became unbearable to watch. So long, Ron, long may you shiver in minor-league rinks across rural Canada.

George Stroumboulopoulos. George's first season as the main host and face of Hockey Night in Canada was a qualified success. He's a more intuitive and agile interviewer than MacLean, and he does a good job of wrangling all the talking heads Rogers has stuffed into its expensive new set. At 43 years-old he's not the "young blood" Rogers touted him as, but he's a vast improvement over Ron. But someone please tell him that saying "Dude" every 20 seconds just makes real young people think you sound foolish. The only mark against him is that he's a shameless and hysterical promoter of the NHL and Rogers. At least MacLean took the occasional swipe at the league.

Christine Simpson. While CBC controlled HNIC, Christine Simpson was relegated to the role of rinkside reporter. Rogers has given her some feature interviews and she's shown skill and intelligence at this job. So much so that one wonders why they haven't given her a hosting job instead of Darren Millard, but more about him later.

Elliote Friedman. It's nice that Sportsnet brought in Friedman to provide some reasoned analysis as a way of counterbalancing the jokey jockstrappery of the resident ex-NHLers; unfortunately, that's resulted in a tedious game of "Let's Tease Elliote" by the likes of NickKypreos, Glenn Healy and P.J. Stock. The puckheads are uneasy in the presence of a non-rink rat and they react by needling Friedman at every opportunity. It's juvenile beyond belief.

Mike Johnson. Insightful, well-spoken, honest, smart, and always to the point. How in hell did this guy get a job in sports broadcasting?  He's the best colour commentator working in Canada by a country mile, and he'll probably be poached by a US broadcaster one of these days, a move that will undoubtedly be cheered by the his Canadian peers--after all, he makes them look bad.


Don Cherry. I feel faintly traitorous for wanting to see the end of Cherry, but it's time we recognized that all his rants and pronouncements about how hockey should be played amount to an argument for more concussions in the game. He can still be amusing and occasionally insightful, but that's outweighed by his rambling, community bulletin board mentions of hockey people no one's heard of, and his pom-pom waving for the police and the military belongs on a different network--Fox News.

No Girls Allowed. Women's hockey leagues continue to grow. Scan the crowds at NHL games and you'll see lots of female faces. Check out HNIC and the only woman on the main set on a regular basis is Sophia Jurksztowicz, who may be eminently qualified to be part of a hockey broadcast but seems mostly cast in the role of eye candy. Sportsnet is using women more prominently as rinkside reporters, and but why not as analysts? Elliote Friedman has no hockey qualifications on his CV, so why was he allowed to make the leap from rinkside reporter to panelist ahead of women like Christine Simpson or Cassie Campbell-Pascall or a dozen others?

And No Europeans or Visible Minorities. European players have been a key part of the NHL for a very long time, but I don't think there has ever been a Euro ex-NHLer used as a colour commentator or analyst. If you were a smart executive at Sportsnet you might think a European analyst could add something new to the mix. Or you could just wheel out another ex-enforcer from Knuckleburg, Saskatchewan, and let him mumble hockey platitudes. Visible minorities are almost as scarce as Europeans. Kevin Weekes was dropped from HNIC by Sportsnet, and now the only non-white faces are David Amber and Arash Madani, neither of whom are given prominent roles.

"Funny" Hosts. I don't know who the first sportscaster/commentator to bring a humorous touch to sports broadcasting was, but he has a lot to answer for. Every sportscast now seems to come with a side dish of "comedy" served up by people who may amuse their friends and relations, but who have no business trying to be funny in public. I'm talking about you, Darren Millard. Millard looks like a circa 1970s game show host with a sense of humor to match. On radio and TV he fills the air with puerile banter and jokes so labored they come with assembly instructions. But he's far from the only one doing this; in fact, it sometimes seems the majority of people in sports broadcasting in Canada are in it for the "laughs." One of the few sports broadcasters who was genuinely witty was Kathryn Humphreys, late of City TV and now retired. Her reward for actually being funny was to be ignored by all the major sports media outlets. The message was clear: a witty woman is a menace to the self-esteem of sports stars and teams, but fatuous clowns like P.J. Stock (another ex-resident of Knuckleburg, Sask.) of HNIC or Cabbie of TSN can have all the national airtime they want.

Tame Journalists. For quite some sports journalists at the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail have done double duty as paid co-hosts/regular guests on sports radio networks and on TSN and Sportsnet. Two in particular, Damien Cox and Stephen Brunt, eventually transitioned out of print journalism and become full-time employees at Sportsnet. The optics of this are very bad. Sports journalism may be the "playroom" of the newspaper business, but there's something wrong about journalists being on the payroll of the corporations that own the teams they cover. This conflict was made very apparent when Dirk Hayhurst, an ex-MLB pitcher was working as an analyst on Blue Jays games. Some of his criticisms were not well-received by Jays management and he was dropped by Rogers and scooped up by TSN. Rogers, the sole owner of the Jays, has always been sensitive to critiques of their team, and Sportsnet's coverage reflects that fact. Brunt now does puff pieces for the team on Sportsnet's website. On the hockey side of things, the chill on dissenting opinions is less obvious, but it's still there. The talking heads on TV and radio often complain (delicately) about the lack of scoring in the NHL, but no one has noted the precipitous decline in the entertainment value of NHL games. The NHL brand of hockey is frequently tedious to watch (the TV  ratings bear me out), but that ugly truth goes unmentioned by many sports journalists, largely, I suspect, because they worry it would mean the end of their profitable moonlighting gigs on TV and radio. Sportsnet and TSN don't want the public told that hockey is often less exciting than reruns of  Meet the Press, and so far, it seems, few journalists are willing to raise this issue.

Hockey Insiders. This is the job title given people such as Darren Dreger, Bob Mackenzie, Scotty Morrison and Pierre LeBrun, but I can't figure out why their respective employers waste money and airtime on them. So-called insiders boast about breaking stories on trades and the like, but in practice what that invariably means is that they "break" the news a scant few minutes before the team in question posts the news on Twitter. The "insiders" get their scoops by being chummy with GMs and player agents, and this creates a damaging side effect: any time this group is asked to comment on players or teams, their anodyne answers are painful to listen to. They're so desperate to avoid offending or alienating their sources they end up saying nothing of value.


Glenn Healy. He looks like an enraged hedgehog and that's the nicest thing I can think to say about him. Healy's analysis of games revolves around reminding viewers that he once rode the bench for a Stanley Cup-winning team; he spits venom at the very concept of hockey analytics; and his sense of humor consists entirely of bitter sarcasm. Despite these defects, he's somehow become HNIC's most high-profile colour commentator.  It's possible he's a lovely man in civilian life, but on-air he's the most toxic personality in Canadian sports broadcasting. Think of him as the anti-Mike Johnson.