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“You got eyes…”

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Mania – The Story of the Outraged & Outrageous Lives That Launched a Cultural Revolution
 By Ronald K. L. Collins & David M. Skover
Top Five Books

(This review was originally published in The Washington Independent Review of Books on May 20, 2013)
Poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote in 1957, after the vanguard of the Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) had ignited angel-headed hipsters from coast to coast, “What will happen afterwards I don’t know, but for the next ten years or so we are going to have to cope with the youth we, my generation, put through the atom smasher.”

Fast forward.

In 1972, the Rolling Stones, about to begin a larger than life, chaotic, full-blown rock and roll road trip across America, released what became one of their most important records—Exile On Main Street. A mythic American landscape unreels in the music, loud and profane, a love letter to the land. One tune, “Rip This Joint”, actually refers to nine locations in three minutes—points on Mick Jagger’s and Keith Richard’s romantic mental maps of the USA—Buffalo, D.C., Tampa, Little Rock (“… and I’m fit to drop/ Ah, let it rock!”) The Stones’ entourage on that infamous airborne tour, included a polite, unobtrusive older gentleman from Switzerland, Robert Frank, a photographer and film maker. Frank’s strange and dark photographs adorned much of the cover of Exile. In 1956, he had published a collection of photographs of an America few had seen in the placid postwar 1950s—The Americans. Jack Kerouac wrote the book’s introduction. He wrote, Frank] “…sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film…to Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.”

Rexroth was right. Something happened. And Frank’s presence on that 727 in ’72 with the lascivious lolling tongue on the tail, continued the Beats’ atom-smashing legacy beyond all expectations. Its DNA is here with us today. And Mania, a marvelous, cunningly written night journey through the back alleys, bars, mental institutions, and jazz joints of ‘40s and ‘50s urban America, is hypnotic and addicting like a Charlie Parker a solo, a Keith Richard’s riff or a button of peyote. To Ronald Collins and David Skover, I now give this message: You got eyes. And ears.

Not a simple historical survey of the life and times of the founding members of the Beats—Kerouac, Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon—Mania is narrative, a tale, with the distinct tang of you-were-there non-fiction as fiction. Novelistic. Not unlike Kerouac’s fictional non-fiction. It’s a gamble, but Collins and Skover pull it off with bebop style. Here’s their depiction of Lucien Carr’s showing up at William S. Burrough’s New York City apartment door after killing an acquaintance just before dawn:

“I just killed the old man.”

Burroughs was shocked. “What?” Could it be true? Had Lucien snapped?

Before Bill could say more, Lucien told his story and handed him the blood-stained pack of Lucky Strikes that had been in Kammerer’s pocket.

“Have the last cigarette.”

Strange. Burroughs paused. Then, with his trademark nasal sneer, he spoke. “So this is how Dave Kammerer ends.”

One might complain, raise an eyebrow with this technique—quoting historical conversations is risky business, asking a lot of buy-in by the reader. Did Burroughs really say that? But Collins and Skover go to great lengths, backing up their scholarship with extensive endnotes, meticulously citing sources. Though I’d quibble with the layout of the notes—they’re a bit labyrinthine and there are no note numbers in the text, making for a bit of confusion—the end result is clear. The authors know what they’re doing.

Riffing on the styles of their subjects, Collins and Skover take further risks. Allen Ginsberg enters the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute:

“How does a doctor…repair the mind of a man who was damaged by a deranged mother?

Who grew to hate his father.

Who was insecure, yet had an inflated sense of self?

Who abused drugs?

Who lusted for fanatical men?

Who cavorted with junkies, criminals and whores?

Who had mystical experiences?

Who confused fact with fiction?

Who in the asylum befriended its craziest patient?

Who loved life’s darkest sides?

And who wasn’t quite sure if he preferred normalcy to madness?”

The Biblical cadences of Ginsberg’s epic poem of mid-century American disillusion, Howl, get the point across—Ginsberg had issues. Clever? Yes. Effective—I think so. But it’s not overused. This isn’t your father’s survey of 19th Century Romantic Poetry.

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Further evidence. Here, we’re talking Kerouac:

“CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, clack clack, clackclackclakcclackclakc, clack-clackclackclack. Ding. Zzzzziiiipppp.

I first met Neal not long after my father died…I had just gotten over a

Click, click, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack ….

serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had some…”

Yes, typewriters. Kerouac said, “My heart resides in a typewriter, and I don’t have a heart unless there’s a typewriter somewhere nearby…” Thankfully, the typographic clacks and clicks don’t go on long, but we get the point—Kerouac poured himself into writing. And Truman Capote’s barbed remark, “That’s not writing, it’s typing,” doesn’t matter anymore. But Kerouac’s writing does.

Like any good narrative, Mania’s pace picks up as the tale reaches its centerpiece—the writing and publication of Howl. “Part III, The Poem & Prosecution,” on its own, is a bravura piece of journalism. Again, the book’s you-are-there feel is gripping:

“Allen typed typed typed typed typed. He filled seven pages of single-spaced strophes, rejecting inapt words or inferior phrases…

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked…

Winding down to the end, he knew he had done it. He had breached the dam that obstructed his poetic imagination. And with the fury of a Hebraic prophet, he had railed on behalf of the madmen and madwomen in his life…a gesture of wild solidarity…a sort of heart’s trumpet call.”

Sweetly optimistic, fervent and steadfast in its commitment to the idea and ideals of America, Mania sings and blows true to a subterranean literary tradition. Proof positive that sometimes, a generational atom smasher isn’t all bad.

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Pepperland starred on Booklist…

Great starred advance review from Booklist, coming May 15! A snippet:

“Wightman’s first novel is a riotous, occasionally electrifying celebration of love and music, capturing the turmoil of its times with a touch of otherworldliness that seems right in sync with rock ’n’ roll.”

Now available at bookstores, Amazon, et al. Rock.

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The fun stuff

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The Fun Stuff
by James Wood
FSG, 340 pages

James Wood is one of my favorite critics, The New Yorker, et al. My copy of How Fiction Works from a few years back is beat up and dog-eared. Wonderful.  The opening essay in his fine new collection of pieces about grand writers from Thomas Hardy, Tolstoy, Cormac McCarthy to the King James Bible, is about, of all people, Keith Moon, the Who’s maniacal drummer is crazy, chaotic, sensitive, unexpected.

Best line: “…for me, this playing (Moon’s) is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.”

Exactly. Rock ‘n’ roll on the page. I too am trying to do just that.

Good book.

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Pepperland, Side 1, track 1…

Pepperland has 9 “sides”, like, you know, vinyl. We used to call ’em records. Anyway, each side has “tracks” or episodes. Each Side has a musical theme that, in some way, expresses the feel of what’s going on. Side 1 is the Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice. Two smart, idealistic young people 1970 – Pepper Porter and Susan Frommer (Sooz), summer beaches, summer pools, dark clouds already on the horizon. Check this vintage video out – looks like it was shot with a Bell & Howell Super 8 home movie camera. High tech of the day.

Sing like it’s 1966.

No short answer…

Quick Question – New Poems
By John Ashbery
Ecco, 108 pages

I’m not sure why I love John Ashbery’s poetry. Maybe it’s because each poem is like a favorite old album you think you know by heart but then there’s an earthquake and the needle jumps from track 2 to track 5 and now you’re here, not there and the scenery has changed but not completely. And you go back and read it again, everyday language electrified on some weird alternating current that switches sometimes slow sometimes fast.

Quick Question opens with “Words to That Effect:”

“The drive down was smooth/but after we arrived things started to go haywire,/first one thing and then another. The days/ scudded past like tumbleweed, slow then fast then slow again.”

And that’s the way it is with Ashbery. A little haywire, one thing, then another. Thing is, you’ve got to keep going back, tasting the words again and again. I’m still reading 1975’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Elusive and mysterious. Just like life.

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Just in from the Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.

You gotta go here for all the details about Pepperland – the novel. Due out on May 21, 2013 from Running Meter Press/Big Earth Publishing. Paperback and ebook. You’re gonna like it.

http://www.barrywightman.com/

She asks him—do you want to play your little rock ‘n roll songs or change the world?  He says—both.

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Pepperland opens at Boswell Books – May 21, 2013

An evening in Pepperland – May 21, 2013, 7 PM – at the best bookstore in southeast Wisconsin, Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Avenue in Milwaukee. C’mon down – all the cool kids will be there! Maybe even Sooz and the Dark Stranger…

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Quiddity

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If you crossed Patti Smith (shaman rock ‘n roller, poet, writer) with Vladimir Nabokov (in his lecturer guise) with Steven Wright (deadpan comic famous for his one liners) you’d have something sort of close to Mary Ruefle. Well, not really. But if you’re a writer, this book’s for you. And judging by the number of dog-eared pages in my copy, which I’ve been carrying around for weeks, Madness, Rack and Honey is invaluable. It has a certain quiddity.

What a word. “The essence of a thing; also, a trifling point, a trivial inessential thing.”  It’s whatness.

It’s in her book.

At Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she teaches poetry, her lectures have been standing room only for years – they are literary seances, hushed and silent as she communes with our writing spirits. If you write, you need to read this book.

These Modern Times…

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Umbrella
By Will Self
397 pages
Bloomsbury

Not for the faint of heart. Umbrella is challenging reading, sometimes bewildering, but frequently beautiful. And that’s why a determined reader keeps on going. A Modernist throwback, Umbrella makes it new. It’s like Will Self has pulled his old James Joyce jersey out of the closet, tried it on and it still fits. Time and POV shift all the time (sometimes in the same sentence) amid paragraphs that go on and on with little white space, and no chapter breaks. So you’re thinking to yourself–is Mr. Self just jazzing around, proving some postmodern point? He is…but it’s still a lovely story with rewards for the diligent.

Like John Coltrane’s most astral work or that obscure record from 1974 that on first listen was tough going but you just knew there was gold deep in the grooves, you keep going back to it because something ineffable draws you back. You’re seeking those pleasure bursts of words that explode on the page, rare and valuable in these Modern times.

And besides, any novel that opens with a few lines from the Kinks’ 1970 hit, Ape Man, is okay in my book.

Miami vice…

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Back to Blood

By Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown

(This review was originally published in The Washington Independent Review of Books on January 28, 2013)

I dreamed I was in Tom Wolfe’s outlandishly superficial, depressing new novel, Back to Blood. (Note: the following two paragraphs contain material that may not be, er, suitable for all readers. Reader discretion is advised.)

I was on I 95, deeply tanned in a shirt two sizes too small, behind the wheel of a Ferrari 403 marooned marooned marooned marooned in Miami traffic baking under the south Florida heat lamp tropical sun, A/C on full blast, going nowhere fast.  Then THUMP…BEAT…THRUST…SMACK…it’s the middle of the night and I am frantically searching for a place to park…SMACK ::::what, no valet at this place?:::: C R A A A S H! My glass-faced iPhone murmurs soothingly pling plingpling pling pling. Dios mio.

 I am an art investor of some repute though I used to be a cop and have arrived at what I understood was to be Chez Toi, a trendsetting, terribly cosmopolitan Miami hotspot but it turns out to be an IHOP in a strip mall in Broward County, and that there’s a 700 PAGE WAIT for a table. It’s evident I’ve been had.

Mee-ah-mee—city of the lowest common denominator. Though everybody looks marvelous and everybody is on the make.

Then I woke up.

Dios mio.

But here’s the thing. No matter how much I may complain about the strikingly lousy payoff of this bloated, overweight novel with a flamboyant cover no one will mistake for anything else, no matter how much I may insist that Back to Blood is about as shallow as Biscayne Bay at low tide in a full moon August, Tom Wolfe, assumed to always have his reportorial finger on the zeitgeist, may have succeeded in getting in our face—holding up for our consideration, a glittery, flocked orange and teal-shaded funhouse mirror. And the view is uncomfortable and despite all the beautiful beautiful beautiful people—it ain’t pretty.

Not surprising. Think Wolfe’s 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the documenting of the first flowering of late 20th century financial wizardry and a new, uncompromising breed of Wall Street wolves, Masters of the Universe. Back to Blood attempts to document Miami, a not-so-efficient melting pot city of a new world—a swampy miasma of races, exiles, crime, art and money in the early days of the 21st century. Wolfe, delivering his Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2006 said, “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.” And that is exactly what Back to Blood is about.

Status. And that’s it. This novel attempts no serious sociologic exploration of what the future may hold for Miami—perhaps the pointy tip of the spear as we move to an ever more diverse America. There appears to be little consequential fictional intent—only mere twists, distortions and comic book illusions of the petty lives of people of whom we care not a whit.

The plot? Don’t worry too much. It mostly has to do with Nestor Camacho, a young reasonably earnest but hapless, ripped young Miami cop who mostly tries to do the right thing but gets into Big Trouble. Magdalena, his knockout, Latina, sex-addiction nurse girlfriend who works for a creepy quack shrink, who, Dante-like, escorts her on a cigarette boat floating tour of mass orgies, a gang of Russian oligarch art investors/thugs/forgers, the Miami mayor, the chief of police; cops, cars, cell phones, Anglos, African-Americans, Cubans, Haitian immigrants, cell phones, strippers, newspapermen, lowlifes, aging Active Adults and cell phones, form the vast cast.

Wolfe’s initially charming typographic tics (see above) portend a wild, perhaps metafictional, ride; but, ultimately, in Wolfe’s hands, it’s just an annoying roller coaster you can’t wait to get off. There is very little magical writing: pretty much a reportorial this-happens-then-that-happens, very few memorable passages amidst the arid desert of his prose. Here’s a good one:

“Imagine a picture book with the same photograph on every page…every page…high noon beneath a flawless cloudless bright blue sky…on every page…a tropical sun that turns those rare old birds, pedestrians, into stumpy, abstract black shadows on the sidewalk…on every page…”

Sadly, this doesn’t go on. Bummer.

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But maybe this is Wolfe’s point—look, this is happening, this race to the bottom of surface-only consciousness—not that that’s big news, but it’s happening on a grand accelerated scale and it’s going to get worse. Welcome to the moronic inferno.

True enough, but not enough to save the novel.

Saul Bellow, speaking of “the contemporary crisis of distraction” way back in pre-interwebular, antediluvian 1990, said a writer must compete with dark powers, a nonstop blast of mindless entertainment and information. “They are the powers of an electrified world and of a transformation of human life the outcome of which cannot be foreseen.”

In Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe does not compete with those dark powers. He embraces them. If only it made a better book.