Rock — Graham Greene
of all, in the previous issue of “Bubba’s
Book Club,” I definitely set the bar too high with that Hemingway
review. In the first few installments, I only set out to offer brief
recommendations of particular books I had read recently and enjoyed.
However, I should know by now that everything I start out doing for
fun eventually turns out getting all serious.
Though I am by no means an overachiever, I do tend
to get overly ambitious.
That same “trap” has
led me into ever-growing ambitions in drumming, bicycling, motorcycling,
reading, writing, and even posting updates on my Web site. Lately I
keep wanting every one of those little “open letters” to
be better than the one before, and instead of dashing off a casual
report, I end up laboring over those stories as much as I would “serious
I got rolling on that Hemingway review, it developed into a full-blown
essay on the man and his body of work. It took a long time and a lot
of thought and work to try to get it right. That is why I have been
reluctant to start working on another issue of “Bubba’s
But . . . I’m
going to try to “get back to basics” here.
would be almost as easy for me to slip into an expository essay about
Graham Greene and his oeuvre as
it was with Ernest Hemingway, but I’ll fast-forward past all
that. I have read and appreciated many other Graham Greene books,
novels and nonfiction, and I had long been curious about Brighton Rock.
Somerset Maugham, Greene represents a certain kind of British writer,
a blend of both traditionalism and modernism in the British novel.
Unlike predecessors like Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens, whose books
were cloistered in Victorian Britain, and somewhere west of Joseph
Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, Maugham and Greene wrote as Englishmen,
but as Englishmen who had been around a bit. Both served in various
branches of the Foreign Service in the interwar period, in the decaying
outposts of the British Empire, and they made those exotic locations,
from Southeast Asia to West Africa, part of their fiction.
After I had traveled
in West Africa and Mexico myself, I appreciated Greene’s non-fiction
accounts like Journey Without Maps and The
Lawless Roads, and the novels
those same experiences inspired and informed — The
Heart of the Matter, set in
West Africa, and The Power and the Glory, set
Then there were
the “cinematic” novels, sometimes written with just that
intent. Similar to the way that photography changed painting forever,
the rise of film had a transformative effect on literature. In painting,
Edouard Manet was a catalyst in the evolution of the new way artists
would translate the world through their own sensibilities, and Greene
was one of the first writers to adapt to the new “cinematic” paradigm.
He even described how he tried to present his story not as a series
of linked photographs, or theatrical set-pieces, but as if seen through
a moving camera.
wrote several screen adaptations of his novels, including Our Man in Havana, a
clever British comedy starring Alec Guinness and Noel Coward (the cast
alone suggests its sophisticated British wit), and another, darker
example, The Third Man, starring
Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and a fine selection of British period
actors, including Trevor Howard, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Bernard Lee
(later James Bond’s “M”).
film, directed by Carol Reed, is considered one of the definitive
examples of “film noir” (though that style was named
by the French after a series of crime novels published with black
covers, and would more properly refer to authors such as, say, Raymond
Chandler and Dashiell Hammett). Released in 1949, the shadowy black-and-white
texture and mood of The Third Man helped
to pioneer a style of art that could portray the new Cold War reality
in all its tensions, illusions, and mysteries — everything
is hidden, enemies are everywhere, and nothing is as it seems. That
new political complexity, and especially the growing influence of
espionage and Orwellian disinformation, was aptly described by American
CIA counterintelligence officer James Jesus Angleton as “a
wilderness of mirrors.” (And yes, that’s where I picked
up the line I used in our song, “Double Agent.”)
Brighton Rock is
. . . a whole other thing. It is hard to believe the novel was published
in 1938, for it is a kind of “punk opera” that
might just as easily have been set among the Teddy Boys of the ’50s,
the mods and rockers of the early ’60s, the punks of the late ’70s,
or the soccer hooligans and “chavs” (a British subculture
of cheap crime and expensive fashion) of the present day.
story is set among the tawdry seaside attractions of 1930s Brighton,
portrayed without sentimentality or mercy. Almost all of the characters
are entirely unsympathetic, especially the “antihero,” Pinkie,
a sociopathic teenager and small-time criminal without conscience or
any redemptive qualities.
leads a gang of equally unlikable villains whose squalid world consists
of seedy rooming-houses, cynical scams and swindles, smalltime gambling
at the local track, cutthroat-razor fights with rival gangs, and vials
of sulfuric acid to throw in the faces of their enemies (an act which,
I have just discovered by doing a little background research into what kind of
acid they would have used, is called “vitriolage”). Pinkie
takes up with a young waitress, Rose, who is desperate to be loved,
but has little sense or imagination. Pinkie’s motives are neither
romantic nor sexual — he needs Rose to keep silent about a certain
detail in one of his murderous schemes, and will secure that silence
at any price.
unlikely nemesis is an aging, blowzy, busty barfly, Ida, who likes
to have a glass of port or two, and sing music-hall ballads for her
fellow tipplers in the local pubs. Ida finds herself determined to
be Rose’s “protector,” and to expose Pinkie’s
crime, and thus becomes a kind of slatternly version of Agatha Christie’s
lady detective, Miss Marple.
fine Penguin Classics edition of Brighton Rock includes
an introduction by the South African writer, J.M. Coetzee (as I have
noted before, never read
those “introductions” until after you’ve read the
book — they give too much away). Coetzee makes an interesting
point regarding the thread of Catholicism that imbues much of Greene’s
writing, and how, in Brighton Rock, Pinkie
and Rose have emerged from their scarred childhoods clinging to tatters
of Catholicism, and thus have some repressed sense of Good and Evil.
Ida, who is sensual and easygoing, a kind of natural pagan, is driven
by her sense of Right and Wrong. That is a deep distinction.
the opening line of the novel is irresistible: “Hale knew, before
he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
Winter of Our Discontent — John Steinbeck
again, as with Ernest Hemingway, I have read everything ever published
under John Steinbeck’s name: his classic
short story collections, his epic novels, The Grapes of Wrath and East
of Eden, his travel stories,
and his published letters to friends and editors, A Life
His early “socially
conscious” stories about migrant farm workers and labor disputes,
and his enduring novel of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath, used
art to portray the times, the issues, and the Western American sense
of place with lyrical prose and generous compassion.
later acknowledged masterpiece, East of Eden, cast
a wider net, and built a sprawling family epic set against a broad
sweep of American history. It is rich with memorable characters, deep
reflection, and a deliberate biblical scale that was both mythological
of Our Discontent was one
of Steinbeck’s last works (published in 1961—he won the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and died in 1968), and it is
remarkably different from any of his other novels. A deceptively
simple story, it was thoroughly “of its time,” and turned
a sharp, judgmental eye upon the American culture and morality of
the late 1950s. The tale is set in a small Long Island town, its
people portrayed with humor and affection, and Steinbeck directly
addresses the pressures, temptations, and moral grayness of those
times — and our own.
From Main Street to Death
of a Salesman to a multitude
of present-day books, movies, and TV shows, those themes of modern
American life remain timeless and deeply relevant. It could be said
that, like Ida in Brighton Rock, the
main character in The Winter of Our Discontent, Ethan
Hawley, is not grappling with Good and Evil, but with Right and Wrong.
So are we all.
first read The Winter of Discontent many
years ago, and loved it then, but a mention of an episode in the
book by a friend inspired me to reread it. Like the old saying that
you can’t step into the same river twice, you can never read
the same book twice. The power and significance of this novel endure,
perhaps even stronger than ever, and I believe it ought to be considered
not only among Steinbeck’s major works, but an important American
novel of the twentieth century.
Lloyd Wright — Ada Louise Huxtable
This volume is part of a beautifully designed
and published series called Penguin Lives, which pairs carefully selected
writers to biographies of a wide spectrum of historical figures: Larry
McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Carol Shields on Jane Austen, Garry Wills
on St. Augustine, and Louis Auchincloss on Woodrow Wilson.
Ada Louise Huxtable
is a Pulitzer-Prize winning architecture critic for The Wall Street
Journal, as she was for many
years at The New York Times, and
she has published several books on the subject. Thus she brings considerable
understanding and objectivity, as well as art and skill, to evaluating
not only the brilliant work of this great American artist, but also
the complexities, tragedies, and sheer panache of
his life. Frank Lloyd Wright’s character, his work, and his behavior
in private life were sculpted on the mythic, or perhaps operatic, scale.
One of Wright’s
quotations is illustrative of his character: “Early in life I
had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I
chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”
Another quote describes
his love of the good life, “I will gladly do without the necessities
of life so I can afford the luxuries.”
his impish sense of humor: “Tip the world over on its side and
everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”
one quotation comments profoundly on his work, while also defusing
a much-abused saying of questionable cleverness, “less is more.” With
regard to music, I have grappled with that concept, so often used as
an excuse for ineptitude and laziness. In Traveling Music, I
think I qualified the thought as, “Less is only more when it’s better.”
But I think I prefer
the pithiness (and truthiness) of Wright’s version: “Less
is only more where more is no good.”
Folly — Mike Heppner
Discovering this book was a complete accident.
While shopping in a chain bookstore in Santa Monica to redeem a gift
card, I had chosen an armful of interesting books, and was looking
for one more to fill the total. In a back shelf, I noticed the title, Pike’s
Folly, because I had recently
been writing about Pikes Peak, Colorado, in Roadshow, and
its “discoverer,” General Zebulon Pike (love that name).
I thought perhaps Pike’s Folly was
a biography, or maybe an historical novel, about the nineteenth-century
soldier and explorer.
Well . . . no.
A glance at the
flap copy cleared that up, but also inspired me to take a chance and
buy the book.
Pike — a self-proclaimed Emersonian and self-aggrandizing gazillionaire
infamous for developing costly projects utterly devoid of purpose — is
purchasing a parcel of federal wilderness in New Hampshire with the
intention of paving it over. While his assistant uses Pike as a cash
machine, an excuse for writer’s block, and a distraction from
his wife’s budding exhibitionist career, the Interior Department
bureaucrat brokering the land hopes to pocket Pike’s money but
skirt the scandal promised him by various activists. Meanwhile, Rhode
Island’s other gazillionaire enlists Pike to help shore up his
faltering philanthropies, an overture that enrages his daughter but
delights her boyfriend, to whom Pike is a heroic pioneer of transgressive
cinema and, incredibly, a friend of his hero, Brian Wilson.”
That sounded intriguing.
I made an impulsive decision to add it to the stack of books I was
carrying, and in the end, I richly enjoyed the novel. Even more, I
have savored its lingering “affect” since. Pike’s
Folly is written in the spirit
of present-day novelists like T.C. Boyle and George Saunders, employing
a wicked sense of humor to describe a surreal modern landscape of eccentric
characters, moral and political entropy, and an undefined, menacing
sense of ultimate decay.
Folly is clever, funny, endearing,
and well written, with special praise for how skillfully Heppner
takes the reader inside the mind of a character who is gradually
losing her grip, discarding her sanity with her clothes as she walks
naked into the streets of her Rhode Island town. It takes a Faulknerian
tour-de-force of writing skill to pull that off, and he does it.
recommended — and
especially appreciated as a more-or-less “impulse purchase.”
in the bookstore.