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“Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy?”

“Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right. Sure. Sure, I do.” I thought about it for a minute. “But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess.”

“You will,” old Spencer sad. “You will, boy. You will when it’s too late.”

I didn’t like hearing him say that. It made me sound dead or something. It was very depressing. “I guess I will,” I said.

Hello folks. I am still in Ireland, not long before my return flight to Oz. You may recall I attempted yet another unwise challenge during my flight here during which I read three books on the plane. Not the most conducive of reading experiences it must be said.

Which is why I have taken so long to write this review. Were my impressions on returning to this book, which I enjoyed so much as a teenager, affected by the long-distance flight? Or is it the case that I now view the book with new eyes, as a consequence of how I have changed since I first read it?

Holden Caufield’s adventures begin with yet another expulsion from a well-known boarding school in Pennsylvania. Rather then suffer further embarrassment he travels to New York, deciding to enjoy a short break before returning home to his family. He gets drunk, tries to look up old girlfriends and behaves in a manner befitting a wealthy twenty-something New York socialite as opposed to a fifteen year old who refuses to grow up.

Yes he cherry-picks the behaviours of adult hood that he enjoys, but most of all he clings to a sense of innocence that he feels the world is robbing him of and indeed everyone else. Part of this stems from the death of his brother Allie, whom Holden regards as superior to him in almost every way. Partly he is also concerned for what will happen to his younger sister, Phoebe, who worships him. Most others, including his talented older brother D.B. who departed for Hollywood to work as a writer, he regards as phonys.

I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.

Holden is frequently criticised by fellow students and teachers for his seeming immaturity. He deliberately speaks in an exaggerated teenage manner and oftentimes Salinger presents him as thinking in this way too. But his spoken words and thoughts belie the thoughtfulness of Holden, desperately trying to understand a world he does not believe himself fit to live in. Yes the world is full of phonys, but they seem to know what to do with their lives. Why did he survive into adolescence and Allie not?

I used to think she was quite intelligent, in my stupidity. The reason I did was because she knew quite a lot about the theater and plays and literature and all that stuff. If somebody knows quite a lot about those things, it takes you quite a while to find out whether they’re really stupid or not.

Crap, he’s on to me!

I opened this review with a certain tired reluctance and unfortunately for all the great craft and sincerity on show here – Salinger is too clever to allow his archetypal rebel to succeed – I have fallen out of love with Holden. I think this is mainly because the trickle down effect of this novel’s incredible success has quite diluted its impact. There are hundreds of Holdens out there. In fact watch an episode of Gossip Girl some time. Go on, I dare you. Notice how clever they all seem to think they are? Maybe a hipster reference every ten minutes or so? Yeah. That’s what they did to Holden, turned him into a neo-dandy.

Whereas I saw him as Peter Pan who failed to find NeverLand. Stuck in the grimness of New York, unable to rescue all the lost boys and girls. A few years ago I read Franny and Zooey which I enjoyed immensely. I notice that has not attracted the slavish worship of The Cather in the Rye. For the best I feel.

An undoubted classic, but weakened by the repetition of the decades since.

Melbourne life was fine, if a little prosaic. It’s a big city but a small town, and having grown up here I couldn’t go to a bar or get a cup of coffee without running into someone I knew. It was a giant playground of everyone I’d ever met in my life, for better or worse. To find anonymity it was necessary to put a few oceans between us.

One summer I set out for Paris with my best mate, on a mission to put my lazy grasp of French to the test. It was also an opportunity to indulge my teenage fascination with all things French.

I had one goal though. To visit Shakespeare and Company, a legendary bookshop where the staff walked in off the street to accept an offer of bed and board in return for work. I was going to try and get myself a job there, or inveigle my way in with the penseurs who would meet in an upstairs room and debate philosophy and literature. I did go to Shakespeare and Company. I even found the room, with a group of people from around the world excitedly arguing in French about, well something or other (have I mentioned my French isn’t great?). I stood there for a moment, backed out and left.

I realized that my dreams of being an arty Parisian intellectual type were just that – dreams. I preferred the easy banter of my mates, the calming isolation in reading Dostoyevsky, or Camus, and knowing I did not have to justify my choice. Beneath all that there was a growing resentment for pretentiousness and the realization that life goes on outside the pages of a book.

Patrick O’Neil’s book is about how he drew inspiration for his adventures across the globe from the literary fiction of Franz Kafka, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Desperately concerned at the prospect of living a conventional life, he flees the suburbs of Melbourne on three seperate occasions during his twenties, leaving family, studies, work and relationships to wait for his return.

As the first third of the book is dedicated to Kafka, O’Neil heads off to Europe, landing in London after an exhausting trans-continental flight on a cheap airline. There he is put up by a friend in a ritzy apartment. Deciding that this degree of comfort is yet another ‘gilded cage’, he books a ticket on a ferry for Amsterdam. Arriving finally in the wee hours of the morning O’Neil realizes he is alone in a strange city, surrounded by drug addicts and prostitutes and should anything happen to him no one will even know to look for him there. He is catapulted into a night of paranoia and fear, much like something conjured up by the frenzied imagination of Kafka himself.

His subsequent adventures follow the same pattern. Disenchantment at home sends him free-wheeling across the globe chasing literary dragons. A new foreign land, the confusion that results from the language barrier and the skewed perception that follows ingesting psychedelics. He meets some fascinating characters off on their own mad adventures. O’Neil himself is marched back and forth across foreign borders, threatened by gun-toting criminals, arrested by corrupt South American cops on drugs charges and almost dies in a car-wreck. He faces the threat of death on several occasions, but seemingly the experience of living with a compulsive New York neurotic is the most spirit-crushing.

However, the experience of reading this memoir makes for a far more frustrating journey. O’Neil cheerfully describes himself as mad on one or two occasions, but a complete lack of common sense – coupled with a near-total degree of self-absorption – makes for a dreary narrative. It is like reading Walden and discovering the author was hanging out on a mate’s private estate.

The other issue is that the characters encountered by O’Neil seem a lot more interesting, such as a Belgian psytrance documentarian, or a Manhatannite  drag queen. Instead we have to contend with the narrator’s own half-baked ponderings. A de rigeur appearance of Carlos Castaneda during a peyote session was the personal low-point for me. He was a fraud who used the women attracted by his shamanic nonsense about Toltecs and disguised pure bunkum as wisdom.

The book’s muses – Kafka, Thompson and Kerouac – are imitated in an overly literal manner. Reading the book felt like sitting next to a teenager on a long-distance bus ride who’s read the CliffsNotes summaries.

Tired, dated and frustrating. First-world tourist pornography.

What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.

I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.

Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.

I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluid  georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.

Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.

As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.

He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.

Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.

Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.

This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.

I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.

He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”

I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.

Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.

This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence.  The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.

One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.

Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?

Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.

I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.

Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.

Before an envelope is opened, you don’t know what’s in it, and you aren’t committed to a course of action. So far as the contents of the envelope go, you’re an innocent. The contents may be true, false, incomplete, irrelevant, or stone-cold proof of wrongful intent. But whatever they are, they aren’t yet inside your head. They aren’t bothering you. They don’t affect your sleep, your self-perception, or your faith in the universe. But once the envelope is opened, the contents zap into your brain, where you have to deal with them.

Yesterday afternoon I was enjoying a nice glass of wine at a Christmas party and having a conversation with a very informative fellow on a topic I never would have suspected would be of interest to me. Namely insurance.

Hurm. Road not taken and all that.

Still there was something intriguing in how much day-to-day activities  need to be protected against potential risk. Furthermore, insurance covers everything from corporate espionage to fraud, from white-collar criminals to terrorists. Fascinating stuff. Then I picked up this book by Mr Colin Harrison and oo look, synchronicity kicks in once again.

George Young is our hero, an insurance lawyer happily settled into a middle-class existence paid for by years working in the trenches of New York corporate law. He enjoys a loving relationship with his wife Carol, is a proud father to his daughter and likes going to Yankees games. He knows that in the greater scheme of things he was never especially successful, but in his time working for the firm Patton, Corbett & Strode he has earned a reputation for being a man who got the job down. He is also thankful for managing to survive the Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed.

It was Wilson Corbett who hired him for the firm and gave him the opportunity to make something of himself. Now his widow has requested that Young do one last favour for his former mentor. She is an old lady doubly haunted by the loss of her husband and the recent death of their son Roger, killed in a freak traffic accident moments after leaving a bar. She requests that Young find out what her troubled son was thinking about in the last few days of his death. Both the police and a private investigator named James Hicks have failed to give her any sense of resolution for the tragedy. So she has turned to Young, for isn’t he a man who can get results?

What he discovers is a case far less simple than it first appears. It emerges that Roger, broken by divorce and his failure to live up to the business reputation of his father, may have been involved in something quite serious. There are hints of fraud, an unusual relationship with a Czech hand model and even Hicks tries to convince Young not to continue with the case.  Even his wife questions the extent to which he is willing to pursue the last wishes of a dying woman. What exactly is he getting involved in?

Folks I have a very simple system for reviewing these books. I have a collection of book-marks that I have amassed over the months. Every time I find a turn of phrase I enjoy, or an interesting passage, I insert one of the book-marks to spur on my review later.

This afternoon I ran out of book-marks.

Harrison’s writing is lean, smart and very wry. George and Carol are a great couple and it is a huge relief to read about an investigation where the male protagonist does not discard wife and family for some ephemeral goal. In fact Carol spurs on the plot at several points, whereupon Harrison notes ‘Now and then I am reminded that my wife is smarter than I am.’

Young is also a refreshingly self-aware investigator, anticipating the usual pitfalls of femme fatals and dangerous criminal plots without any of the insistent gullibility of some detective fiction protagonists. The story itself is tautly and intelligently told, with no John Grisham-esque fat on the bone. It is no surprise to discover that this book was originally published in serial form in the New York Times.

This is smart and intriguing fare from a genre that insists on mystery, but often delivers formulaic plotting. Recommended.

He came to acting with the Irish city boy’s instinctive aversion to the Method’s open, emotional display based on affective memory. He mistrusted any director who would probe and pry too much behind the hard-earned facade, instinctively more comfortable with Kuleshov’s dictum that “people performing organized, efficient work appear best on the screen.”

Growing up Burt Lancaster represented for me the values of Old Hollywood royalty, an impression formed after I first saw childhood favourites such as Tough Guys and Trapeze. Here was an actor with all the physical traits of a American celebrity – bronzed, bright blue eyes,with an athletic build and a ready smile – with an evident intelligence and grace in his manner. I knew very little about him, but I had inherited a sort of awe for the man from my parents.

As it turns out, Kate Buford’s biography describes how he was a producer of independent film Marty starring Ernest Borgnine. That was a movie my dad would often talk about, so I feel an even greater affection for the actor/producer than I did before.

Of Scotch-Irish stock, with his grandfather traveling to the States from Ulster, Lancaster was born in New York’s East Harlem. As such he grew up with Jewish and Italian-American children of immigrants. The values and cultural influences of that early time would stay with him for the rest of his life. I was confused at first as to why Buford mentioned his film with Viconti, The Leopard,  so regularly in the early passages of this book, until she reveals that his performance in that film was the culmination of that childhood heritage. The film casts a New York Mick as an Italian aristocrat without any hints of an imbalance. It was the role Lancaster was born to play.

The other great influence on the actor’s career was his entering into the life of a circus acrobat, along with his long-time friend Nick Cuccia. There he discovered a talent for the trapeze and a discipline that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. The young, bookish boy with a slight frame had grown into a tall, muscular performer, with a domineering voice that could bellow from the centre of a stage just as well as ply his audience with a coaxing Irish charm.

Lancaster’s discovery and rapid elevation into the craft of acting, following his return from America’s World War II campaign in Italy, was notable not only for the speed of his ascent, but his desire to control his newfound career. From early on, the ambitious autodidact paid close attention to every aspect of business on film sets, quickly developing his own opinions on how things should be done, before forming a partnership Harold Hecht to produce films, with Hecht-Lancaster becoming a mini-studio in their own right, winning Oscars for films such as Marty. Lancaster’s ability to capitalize on his celebrity by making a studio picture to pay off bills before jumping at another personally chosen independent project set the tone for indie cinema auteurs in the future, such as John Cassavetes or Steven Soderbergh.

With fame came of course inevitable temptations. In this regard Burt Lancaster was no trail-blazer, his wife Norma raising an ever increasing family of children while he philandered with co-stars. His decent family man image and fame was also at risk due to his association with suspected communists and radicals during the HUAC Senate hearings. Lancaster, Buford notes, was no communist, but carried with him the values of loyalty to friends that he had learned in New York’s East Side. The despised liberalism of his associations was more evidence of survival traits he had learned growing up.

What is remarkable about Lancaster’s career is the way in which he weathered such controversies, including chinese whispers about his own sexuality, to sustain a very successful film career. Until ill-health robbed him of the ability to do so, he continued to appear in films well into his old age, include well-known hits such as Local Hero and Field of Dreams. Despite his much-feared explosive temper, he was also noted to be quite humble in taking credit for the advantages of his fame, unlike his self-proclaimed ‘buddy’, Kirk Douglas. Lancaster’s involvement in political fundraising went mostly unremarked upon, with the exception of prominent AIDS awareness ads in the 80s.

Buford’s book is a fitting celebration of a remarkable period in Hollywood history. Recommended for the eager cineastes out there.

He said occasionally to Mary, revealing his deepest feelings, ‘I was lucky. I got away with it.’ He meant that his bad start, his mistakes, the things that might have wrecked him, had somehow combined to establish him. He had almost fallen in with that part of humanity of which he was frequently mindful [..] the part that did not get away with it – the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.

Years ago, whenever I had to prepare for an exam, I decided upon a strange little tradition to avoid undue stress. I would plug away at my studies in the weeks before the exam, but during the end of term period I would refuse to look at my textbooks and read a decent novel instead.

There was one book that I repeatedly read in this manner and that was Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Ideas simply dance off the page of this book. I have always found it a very inspiring read, as well as an enjoyable one, that put me in the perfect frame of mind for sitting in a room and calmly answering a series of problems. So for me an unread book by the author is always a pleasure.

The Victim concerns a man named Leventhal who works for a New York magazine publisher. During a sweltering hot summer in the city, he finds himself alone. His wife has travelled South to be with her family. His brother is away working in Galviston, leaving Leventhal to check in on his sister-in-law and her children. He feels it is his duty to take care of the young family, but resents the hysterical calls he receives from his brother’s wife Elena. When he is called away from the office because of an emergency, his resentment towards her grows when he discovers her youngest son Mickey is seriously ill and she does not want him to be sent to hospital, preferring to care for him at home. Lonely without his wife and frustrated with his brother’s absence , as well as concerned that his employer at the magazine will not tolerate his abrupt departures from the office on these emergency calls –  Leventhal’s nerves are already dangerously frayed when he encounters a man from his past named Kirby Allbee.

Though he has not thought about Allbee in years, he is surprised at how readily his name comes to mind when he meets the fellow in a public park late one night. Leventhal can see that the man has hit on hard times, his face flush with drink and remembers that only for the grace of god he might also have shared this humiliating fate.

Allbee drops a series of hints that he has been expecting Leventhal, that he owes him for a serious wrong done to him. Then, frustrated at the obliviousness of his perceived enemy, Allbee accuses him of deliberately ruining his life. Leventhal protests that he has no idea what the man opposite him means, but then recalls that it was Allbee who had recommended him for a job interview with a publisher that quickly went sour. Leventhal had argued with the man, a Mr Rudiger who was used to having his own way and flew into a rage when this interviewee saw fit to lecture him on how to run his own business.

However, Leventhal also remembers that Allbee had always been a serious drinker, a friend of a mutual friend who would often make excuses for his poor behaviour at parties and who enjoyed making malicious anti-semitic remarks within hearing to provoke him and other Jews. In Leventhal’s eyes Allbee is yet another New England Old Family aristocrat who cannot accept responsibility for his own failings.

Despite himself though, he begins to sympathize with the twisted Allbee, even evidence a strong paranoiac streak of his own. The man seems to appear wherever he goes, eventually invading Leventhal’s home, which he is powerless to prevent. Each of them believes himself to be a victim of the other, but also of their class, their race, everything that makes them who they are.

Bellow in effect has reinvented Dostoyevsky’s The Double and aligned it to a Jewish & Anglo-Saxon x/y axis. The demented Allbee views Leventhal’s success as being a result of Jewish influence in the professional sector. Leventhal is infuriated by this, but doubts himself, questioning the validity of his indignation.

Bellow is a master of introspection, the doubling of these two tormented men is perfectly captured. A modern classic.


 


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