Before the meeting: This is another excellent book I wouldn’t have read but for my wonderful book group.
The book moves disconcertingly from genre to genre. After a bit of hayseed comedy, it develops into one of those murder mysteries where wisecracking out-of-town detectives arrive to help resentful local cops with an apparently insoluble case. Then there’s some social satire as the detectives, who are both African-American, make fun of the racism endemic in the small town. It’s all good TV detective show fun with an anti-racist bent.
Then the corpses multiply, each murder scene featuring a dead and mutilated White person paired with a long-dead Black person whose clenched fist holds the other’s severed testicles. It could be a highly implausible serial-killer yarn, or a revenge ghost story about racist violence in the USA (against Chinese people as well as African Americans, as the narrative makes unnervingly clear). A magic realist parable, perhaps, in which the murder scenes eerily evoke, and partly reverse, iconic images of lynchings? Or a tale of witchcraft? Certainly one key character identifies as a witch, but then she is also an amateur archivist who has accumulated records of thousands of lynchings from 1913 to the present. Or maybe, as the plot widens, it’s a zombie apocalypse, one whose allegorical meaning lies right on the surface. And Donald Trump makes an appearance. In the end, it’s a genre mash-up that manages – perilously – to stay coherent.
It’s all – to quote Quentin Tarantino from another context – ‘so much fun’. But it doesn’t lose sight of the monstrous historical reality. For example, one chapter consists of a ten-page list of names, in the manner of a spread in Claudia Rankine’s brilliant book, Citizen (my blog post here), and reminding me of Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah’s short story ‘The Finkelstein 5’, in which Black vigilantes kill random white people while shouting the names of Black people who have been murdered (my blog post about Friday Black, the book the story appears in, here).
A book that plays around like this with form and genre, that preaches a little, chills a lot and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, has to work brilliantly at the scene level and even the sentence level. This one does. I could give lots of examples, but take the moment at about the one-quarter mark, when the detectives, Ed and Jim, visit the juke joint on the edge of town.
The narrator doesn’t say so, but everyone in the joint is Black. Apart from one character who passes for White and another who is revealed to be Black late in the book, this is Ed and Jim’s first encounter with the town’s Black people. (In classic movie structure the one-quarter mark is the second turning point, often involving a change of location.) When they walk in, everything stops:
Jim and Ed stared back at the staring faces. ‘Yes, we’re cops,’ Jim said loudly. ‘And we don’t like it either. Everybody carry on. Have fun. Break the law, if you like.’ A couple of people laughed, then others. There was the sound of someone breaking a rack at the pool table in back. The dancing and chatting started up again.
Maybe you have to enjoy writers like Elmore Leonard to be tickled by moments like this. I do and I am. You almost don’t notice that what is being described is a tacit alliance, or at least deep mutual understanding, among the Black characters, whether they’re cops, people relaxing at a bar, or possibly murderers.
What happens as Ed and Jim question the bartenders continues on that note. The bartenders express no sorrow for the racist White men who have been killed, but it’s different with the photograph of the Black corpse whose face has been beaten in. This corpse has appeared at the first murder scene, disappeared, turned up at the second murder scene, and disappeared again. Soon after this scene he will be identified [rest of this sentence whited out, but you can select it with your cursor if you don’t mind spoilers], mistakenly but with great thematic impact, with Emmett Till, whose murder sparked outrage in 1955. At this stage, most of the townspeople, Black and White, believe that this ancient corpse is somehow the murderer.
Jim pulled the picture from his pocket. ‘This is kind of hard to look at, but tell me if you recognise this man.’ The man cringed at the sight. ‘Ain’t nobody gonna recognise him. What the fuck happened?’ Jim shrugged. ‘If this man is alive, we want to find him before that cracker sheriff and his deputies do.’ ‘How can that man be alive?’ the bartender asked. Jim shrugged again. ‘Franklin, come here and look at this.’ The other bartender came over. Jim held up the photo for him to see. ‘Lord, have mercy. What’s that?’ ‘That’s a human being,’ Ed said. ‘Somebody did that to another human being. Do you recognise him?’ The second man shook his head. ‘He must be dead. Is he dead?’ ‘On and off,’ Jim said. The man offered a puzzled look. ‘We don’t know,’ Ed said.
‘Somebody did that to another human being’ lands like a well placed rock in the middle of the hard-boiled humour. It’s a sentence that is to gather force like a snowball in an avalanche. An awful lot of the writing in this book is as impeccable as that.
Why The Trees? Trees don’t feature in the book much at all. But a character sings the Billie Holiday classic (written by Abel Meeropol / Lewis Allan):
Southern trees bear strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop
Nearer to the meeting (spoiler): On Friday 28 April news broke that Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose accusation led to a notorious racist murder, had died. Percival Everett got there just before Real Life: in the novel Carolyn Bryant, aka Granny C, is the third person to die in the presence of the small Black corpse. It’s unlikely that the Real Life Carolyn Bryant even heard of this book, but the timing!
After the meeting: Tragically I came down with a heavy cold (not Covid) on the morning of the meeting, and spared them all the risk of infection. It’s now a couple of days later and the customary brief account of the evening hasn’t materialised, so all I can say in this section of my blog post is: a) one chap beforehand said he could barely read for tears of laughter, until the book went dark and the laughter dried up; b) on the night itself, the conversation turned – as it does – to identity politics, including pronouns (several of us have gender non-conforming family members or friends); and c) they all had a good time while I stayed home nursing a stuffy nose.
[I posted about this in my old blog in 2008, and am retrieving it to this one because it mentions Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, who died in January, and whose more recent book of essays, Alive, Alive Oh! I plan to blog about soon – JS, 31 March 2019]
As I mentioned last month, I started reading Schulz and Peanuts to check its suitability for a young fan. I’m happy to report that in general it passes with flying colours. A young woman has a termination, and the break-up of ‘Sparky’s’ first marriage is gruelling, but these are both handled with a good bit more tact than you’d find in many YA novels.
Every week, for just months short of 50 years, Charles M Schulz sat at his drawing board to produce six daily strips and a longer Sunday piece. He inked every line himself, and penned in every letter until his final stroke meant that the speech balloons in the very last frames were filled by computer-generated lettering. Peanuts was the most important thing in his life; he hated being away from home, and died the day his last cartoon was published.
This isn’t a tale of heroic physical exploits or grand public gestures, but David Michaelis seems to have interviewed every living soul who had a meaningful connection with his subject, from the psychology student who gave him an impromptu – and effective – counselling session on his agoraphobia at a tennis tournament and never had another conversation with him, to Joyce nee Halvorsen, the main model for Lucy, his first wife and the mother of his many children (one of the best bits of the book could have been titled The First Wife’s Story).
The result is a fascinating, many-faceted portrait of an artist and of a man. Peanuts strips are scattered through the pages, not as decoration but as integral elements of the narrative. Cartooning was not only Schulz’s life work, the fulfilment of a central ambition; it was also, dare I say, a spiritual discipline by which he found perspectives on the difficulties and dilemmas of his life (and the lives around him) that allowed the release of laughter. While Michaelis is very bold (and repetitive) in some of his psychologising, I found his thesis persuasive: that what we common or garden readers received as Schulz’s comic reflections on life in the abstract were often if not always born out of particular moments of pain or joy. Schulz seems to have been an excellent exemplar for Neil Gaiman’s advice on how to deal with trouble: Make good art.
Michaelis places Schulz interestingly in the history of comics – though he barely mentions comic books as opposed to strips, and surely the moral panic in the 1950s epitomised by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (which led to a nun confiscating a Phantom comic from me in Grade Three, and to our teachers’ recommending that we read the boring Catholic comic Topix) had something to do with the runaway success of Schulz’s wholesome creation. It’s surely not entirely coincidence that for a time in the 1940s, before he got his big break, Schulz did lettering for Topix.
[I passed the book on to my young friend, whose mother reports that after dipping into it he said, ‘It’s not all that interesting to me, even if it is to Jonathan. But he reads everything.’ Then, softening the blow, ‘Some of it is pretty good.’]
Place is People is a strange little book, neither an attractive collection of photographs to introduce the suburb to visitors nor a quick historical overview. It’s got elements of both those, but is something more personal and less orderly than either; if it was even more personal, it might have been an extended prose poem, but it isn’t quite that either.
Mary Haire leads walking tours, and the book has something of the serendipitous feel of such tours: here’s a little girl walking to school; let me tell you about a boy that age who went to the same school a hundred years ago. I know more about my suburb’s history having read it; some errors have been corrected, and some tantalising trails laid in my mind: Cardinal Freeman was born here, for instance, and the young woman at the florist’s is a single mother. How can I put those two snippets in the same sentence, you ask? I plead that the book sets a precedent with its gloriously unconcerned potpourri approach to its subject.
Talking at Gleebooks recently, Helen Garner paid tribute to Elmore Leonard’s essay, ‘Ten Rules of Writing‘: she has his sentence, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ on the wall above her desk. In The Spare Room, she has given us a feminine Elmore Leonard story: it’s about the emotional tangles between two women, or at least those tangles provide the language for its telling, but it has the clean lines, the sure forward movement, the lack of hooptedoodle, that give such pleasure in Leonard’s tough-guy narratives from The Tall T to, say, Pagan Babies.
It’s a very quick read, and an intense one. There’s plenty of complexity, some of which I’ve found making itself known to me weeks after finishing the book. For instance, ‘Helen’ the character, who is manifestly a version of Helen the writer, claimed my allegiance and assent to her judgements while I was reading, but has since come to seem much less reliable, much too caught up in her own emotional reactions to be able to give us the full picture (some of which the book gives us in spite of her). It’s a magnificent achievement.
I doubt if David Campbell (1915–1979) is still studied in Eng Lit courses at many Australian unis, but I hope he is fondly remembered and occasionally reread by more than just me. He and Martin Johnston share a posthumous moment in John Forbes’s elegiac ‘Lassù in Cielo’; he cropped up in a footnote in the John Manifold collection I read last month; a recent Poetica featured his correspondence with Douglas Stewart; lines and images from his poems arrive in my mind unbidden from time to time.
Most of the poems in this selection are a strange mixture of the bucolic and the erudite (and just in case I’ve misused those words, I mean rustic and scholarly), and there’s a pleasant music to them. When I read the sequence of twelve twelve-line rhyming poems of ‘Cocky’s Calendar’, I found myself wondering how he managed to pick up his pen again after writing something so wonderful. Back in the early 1970s, in an Aust Lit seminar on this sequence, a student from North America totally didn’t get them: while the rest of us were being drawn into the poetry’s intensely personal relationship with the landscape, he lost patience altogether and said the whole thing read like verse you’d find on a Norman Rockwell calendar. I thought then that he was missing something, and I find I still do. This is the ninth poem, for September:
Now, here and there, against the cold,
The hillsides smoulder into gold
And the stockman riding by
Lifts to the trees a yellow eye.
It's here the couples from the farms
Play in one another's arms
At yes and no – you'd think the trees
Sprang from their felicities.
So may our children grow up strong,
Got while the thrush drew out his song,
And love like you and I when we
Lie beneath the wattle tree.
How about that present tense ‘lie’, eh?
I think the sequence as a whole speaks to me so strongly because of my father. At a family gathering once, another farmer, of a younger generation, said something about the boredom of spending a whole day driving around a paddock in a tractor (this was before the days of air-conditioned tractor cabins and iPods). When my father said mildly that he didn’t get bored, one of my female cousins asked him what he did with his mind when he was out there all day. As he drew breath to answer, my mother came to the rescue by changing the subject (‘Oh Jenny, you know you’ve been asking me about tatting, I have a pattern here I can show you’). Probably to his relief, my father didn’t get to answer the question. I like to think that David Campbell’s contemplative poems, even though his is a sheep property while my father grew sugar cane, provide some version of what my father might have wanted to say back then over tea and scones.
With The Omnivore’s Dilemma I was back to farming, in three categories: industrial, of which I read with a mixture of horror and curiosity; pastoral, which is not synonymous with ‘organic’, but tends to have the virtues claimed for it; and personal, in which the author creates a meal from things he has personally grown, hunted and killed, or foraged. I don’t know that anyone could read this tremendously engaging book without changing the way they think about food. It’s very heartening that it was a New York Times best seller. If you want a quick look at the central part of the book, which deals with ‘intensively managed grazing’ or clever grass farming, here’s a video from Michael Pollan’s recent TED talk:
The book integrates into its narrative any number of lively essays: on the ethics of meat-eating (in which Pollan engages with Peter Singer), the joys of hunting (ditto Ortega y Gasset), attempts at humane design in modern abattoirs (Temple Grandin), the US domestic and international politics of corn (in which he doesn’t discuss the so-called Free Trade Agreements that leave the US free to subsidise its grossly inefficient corn agribusinesses while preventing other nations from continuing with similar protections, but he makes their absurd brutality abundantly clear), on just about anything you can think of that’s related to his central question, ‘What should we have for dinner?’ Some of it is very funny. Some is inspiring. Some horrendous. All of it is engrossing.
I hadn’t read David Campbell’s The Man in the Honeysuckle before. As with Selected Poems, I’m fairly indifferent to the learned bits, mainly translations and imitations from the Russian, but some of the lyrics, especially the Aust Pastoral pieces, are extraordinary. The book was published posthumously, and it’s hard not to read a number of the poems as being poignantly suffused with a sense of death as imminent. ‘Crab’, ‘The Broken Mask’ and the whole ‘With a Blue Dog’ section stand out for me in this first encounter. How’s this:
Wind in Casuarinas
Camped under the she-oaks
With a dog and swag
The woman a white sapling
A straight flame
Blown all ways
And the children off
On their several roads
Lives rounding like river stones
Or washing out in wheel ruts
A high sky over tree and hill
And the clouds taking fire
I am spread out I burn
Yellow and rose – blessing and blest
A still flame in the arms of the she-oaks
Life butting into the world
With five wants and a howl
And shambles out with a blue dog.
I want to put ‘five wants and a howl’ right up there with ‘helpless, naked, piping loud’.
I don’t imagine Elmore Leonard would care much for this Heat. There’s hoptedoodle galore … though generally very high quality hoptedoodle. Ironically, the one article that seem to me to be 90 percent hoptedoodle is by a crime writer whose point seems to be that crime fiction has advantages from being bound to an absence of hoptedoodle (but maybe I was just irritated because her essay on the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction totally ignores the existence of children’s literature and science fiction).
There’s a terrific piece on blogging by Kerryn Goldsworthy, not a hopt or a doodle in sight; a lovely pairing of a story by Eva Sallis (‘Abattoir’) and an essay by Elizabeth Campbell (called ‘Why Little Girls Love Horses’ on the contents page but ‘Envy Worship and Passion’ on its own title page); chiming mentions of the catacombs of Paris, of which I’d never heard, first in one of Jennifer Maiden’s still-intriguing George Jeffreys–Clare Collins poems and then in an engrossing essay by Sarah Knox about researching historical novels, her own and Hilary Mantel’s; and a number of memorable pieces on aspects of migration: Elisabeth Holdsworth’s memoir ‘New Holland’, a short story by Hoa Pham, poems by Ali Alizadeh (on his unborn baby) and Peter Skrzynecki (on his late father). There’s lots more. I’m a happy subscriber.
I understand that it must be a nightmare to copy edit a magazine like this: so many words, so many different voices, so little time. But there are enough lapses to present a significant obstacle to the reader, at least to this one. At one point, havoc is ‘wrecked’; as something wreaks havoc just a few pages later in the same article, it seems likely that the error resulted from an editor’s dependence on a spellchecker rather than ignorance. In the sentence, “The memoir becomes a book about illness to many reviewers; a ‘survivors’ tale; a plumbing of the issue of women’s health, and the continuing masculinist paternalism of the public health system” it looks very much as if the apostrophe after survivors was misunderstood by someone who inserted another before it to make it function as a quote mark; and the comma after health almost derails the sense. I don’t want to go hunting for similar moments, but the erratic comma and absent apostrophe in ‘reconstruction, so redolent of the historian’s duty, and the re-enactors fancy’ just leapt up at me from further down the same page (p 172). This might be just the irritated snitchiness of an underemployed pedant, but in this context it becomes hard to tell if the truly eccentric punctuation in a number of the poems is what the poet intended or the product of editorial inattention.</curmudgeonly grumble>
How could I resist reopening The Branch of Dodona, my only other David Campbell book? This one had pride of place in the bathroom for a week, to allow for contemplative reading in short bursts. Again, it’s his farming poems – in this volume, the ‘Works and Days’ sequence, with its love–hate relationship to sheep – that speak most strongly to me. Even his ‘My Lai’, which I remember him reading at Vietnam Moratorium Readings in another age, works so powerfully because of the farmer-to-peasant solidarity it embodies:
I was milking the cow when a row of tall bamboo Was mowed by rifle fire With my wife and child in the one harvest, And the blue milk spilt and ruined
I’m not sure what the friend had in mind who gave me Diane Athill’s reflections on old age, Somewhere Towards the End, as a present for my 61st birthday. As Ms Athill is almost exactly 30 years older than me and still going strong, I’ll assume she wasn’t hinting it’s time I hang up my spurs.
In terms of my current reading, the book’s matter-of-factness, its almost belligerent steadiness of gaze play as a sober counterpoint to the rage and evasion of The Spare Room: both books generate what Athill calls an ‘addictive excitement of the mind’, and they speak to each other. Ms Athill’s brief reference to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety endorses Sarah Knox’s praise of it in her essay in Heat. The book has in spades a (to me) miraculous quality that I think of as Protestant integrity, a quality also displayed, ineffably, in the manner of my friend J’s leavetaking. I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. She manages to be remarkably cheerful about things usually discussed, if at all, in gloomy mode. One chapter begins, for example (the emphasis is mine):
When you begin discussing old age you come up against reluctance to depress either others or yourself, so you tend to focus on the more agreeable aspects of it: coming to terms with death, the continuing presence of young people, the discovery of new pursuits and so on. But I have to say that a considerable part of my own old time is taken up by doing things or (worse) failing to do things for people older, or if not older, less resistant to age, than myself.
Can’t you just see that paragraph, followed by the word ‘Discuss’, as an exam question on The Spare Room?