Malamud, Singer, Roth, Bellows, Doctorow & That Bronx Gypsy
Saturday, March 22, 2014
Hart and Schaffner are dead; Marx, ringed
round with laurels, has notoriously retired. But the firm itself was dissolved
long ago, and it was Saul Bellow who, with a sartorial quip, snipped the
stitches that had sewn three acclaimed and determinedly distinct American
writers into the same suit of clothes, with its single label: Jewish Writer. In
Bellow’s parody, Bellow, Malamud and Roth were the literary equivalent of the
much advertised men’s wear company — but lighthearted as it was, the joke cut
two ways: it was a declaration of imagination’s independence of collective
tailoring, and it laughingly struck out at the disgruntlement of those who,
having themselves applied the label in pique, felt displaced by it.
Judging the World
Library of America’s Bernard Malamud
NY Times Review by Cynthia Ozick March 13,
|Jerome Charyn - Photograph by Deborah Flomenhaft|
That cover review in my NY Times Sunday
Book Review caught my eye. Inside (and more later) I read one of the most
amazing interviews with a writer that I have ever read. It was an interview
with Philip Roth.
Until around 1963 I had no concept of a
writer’s religion. It never occurred to me that my fave science fiction writer,
Isaac Asimov was Jewish. At the time (and even for me today) a writer’s
perceived religious background was immaterial.
It was in 1963 that my ears first heard
from my philosophy professor, Ramón
Xirau, that Baruch Spinoza (considered to be a Dutch philosopher who ushered in
the Age of Enlightenment) was a Jewish philosopher. By 1965 I was reading all I
could find of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, not only because I like his writing
which was challenging but also because he was a Jesuit priest. Thus, to me, he
was a Roman Catholic writer. From there I went to discover the two British
authors who had converted to Catholicism, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. I had
read C.S. Lewis in the late 50s as a science fiction writer but was not aware
of his deep Anglican thought.
So much for the
religion of writers. It has never been important for me. On the other hand I
was never interested in reading Philip Roth. Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. I
have never seen pictures of these guys smiling. They seemed much too studiously
serious for me. And then there was Isaac Bashevis Singer. He, too was obviously
Jewish and serious.
I must thus state here
that I have never read Malamud, Singer, Bellow or Roth. But this is going to
change in the next few days as I am going to read a Philip Roth novel and who
knows what’s next?
As soon as Rosemary,
our two daughters Alexandra and Hilary arrived in Vancouver in 1975 I instantly became a member
of Book-of-the-Month Club. One of my first purchases was E.L. Doctorow’s
Ragtime. Since then I have enjoyed, Billy Bathgate, City of God and The Waterworks. It never occurred to
me think Doctorow is Jewish. While I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Picture
This, again that author's religion did not compute with me.
Since the late 80s I
began to read Jerome Charyn and became so enthused that by October 1995 I was
sitting in Charyn’s apartment interviewing him. I had no reason or interest to
ask him, “What is your religion? Are you Jewish?” All he told me during the
interview was that his parents were originally from some place in Russia. He
intimated that he (Charyn) had Gypsy blood in him. If you look at this author
photos beginning in the middle 60s you would readily believe this.
|Jerome Charyn - Photo by Bob Jewett|
In my Buenos Aires of my youth, my best friend was
Mario Hertzberg. He lived with his parents and two brothers in an apartment
across the street from my house on Melián. Once he showed me a framed picture
of a slightly older version of himself. I inquired and he answered, this was my
other brother, he died in a concentration camp a few years ago. This was 1950.
My knowledge of Hitler, WWII and especially of concentration camps was spotty.
In our neighbourhood I was “el inglesito”, Mario was “el alemán” and our mutual
friend Miguelito “el tano” as he was Italian. The word Jewish did not come up.
It was during my
military service in 1965 that to make some ends meet I worked as a waiter in a
la Boca dance/bar on weekends. One day I noticed one of the most beautiful
women I have ever seen in my life sitting at a table. I inquired and was told
she was a “lady of the night”. In Spanish it was “Es una puta rusa.” I had not
known that for many years Jews in Argentina were blanket-called
This was confirmed
when I acquired a beautiful girlfriend called Susana Bornstein. My family
instantly said, “Es una rusa.”
In the two years in
the Argentine Navy I never met or read in any list the single name of a
non-commissioned or commissioned Jewish officer. The Jews of Buenos Aires
seemed to be part of the arts. They wrote plays, directed films, were sculptors
and painters or were part of the avant-garde.
All of the above
somehow conspired, ever so pleasantly, when I finished Jerome Charyn’s I Am
Abraham. That coincided with my reading on March 15 (I get the Sunday NY Times
delivered the night before) the March 16 Book Review with the cover piece on
Bernard Malamud by Cynthia Ozick. It made me think about Jewish writers. Inside
I found a remarkable interview (Q& A) with Philip Roth by Daniel Sandstrom,
the cultural editor at Svenska Dagbladet, for publication in Swedish
translation in that newspaper.
The whole interview was
fantastic but this segment charmed me and made me look twice at the man who has
never posed with a smile:
I know that you have
reread all of your books recently. What was your verdict? And what was your
opinion of “Sabbath’s Theater” while reading it again?
When I decided to stop
writing about five years ago I did, as you say, sit down to reread the 31 books
I’d published between 1959 and 2010. I wanted to see whether I’d wasted my time.
You never can be sure, you know.
My conclusion, after
I’d finished, echoes the words spoken by an American boxing hero of mine, Joe
Louis. He was world heavyweight champion from the time I was 4 until I was 16.
He had been born in the Deep South, an impoverished
black kid with no education to speak of, and even during the glory of the
undefeated 12 years, when he defended his championship an astonishing 26 times,
he stood aloof from language. So when he was asked upon his retirement about
his long career, Joe sweetly summed it up in just 10 words. “I did the best I
could with what I had.”
And then further down
Roth gives a list of American writers in an interesting context:
Do you feel that there
is a preoccupation in Europe with American
popular culture? And, if so, that this preoccupation has clouded the reception
of serious American literary fiction in Europe?
The power in any
society is with those who get to impose the fantasy. It is no longer, as it was
for centuries throughout Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the
populace, nor is it the totalitarian superstate that imposes the fantasy, as it
did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet
Union. Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming,
voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things,
freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for
them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least
impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt
to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic
amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not
I cannot see what any
of this has to do with serious American literary fiction, even if, as you
suggest, “this preoccupation has [or may have] clouded the reception of serious
American fiction in Europe.” You know, in Eastern Europe, the dissident writers used to say that
“socialist realism,” the reigning Soviet aesthetic, consisted of praising the
Party so that even they understood it. There is no such aesthetic for serious
literary writers to conform to in America, certainly not the
aesthetic of popular culture.
What has the aesthetic
of popular culture to do with formidable postwar writers of such enormous
variety as Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Don DeLillo, E. L.
Doctorow, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren,
John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Stone, Evan Connell, Louis
Auchincloss, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks, William Kennedy,
John Barth, Louis Begley, William Gaddis, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman,
David Plante, Richard Ford, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Raymond Carver, Edmund
White, Oscar Hijuelos, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Norman
Mailer, Reynolds Price, James Salter, Denis Johnson, J. F. Powers, Paul Auster,
William Vollmann, Richard Stern, Alison Lurie, Flannery O’Connor, Paula Fox,
Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Hortense Calisher, Jane
Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley,
Lorrie Moore, Mary Gordon, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty (and I have
by no means exhausted the list) or with serious younger writers as wonderfully
gifted as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Nicole Krauss, Maile Meloy, Jonathan
Lethem, Nathan Englander, Claire Messud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen,
Jonathan Safran Foer (to name but a handful)?
That is one incredible
“but a handful” but for me there is a glaring omission. Why is E.L. Doctorow
not in that list?
|Jerome Charyn - Photo by Miriam Berkley|
I was thinking about
Doctorow because during the writing of several blogs on Jerome Charyn’s I Am
Abraham I found this!. It is a 1971 review for the NY Times of Doctorow's The Book of Daniel by Charyn.
Jewish or not, that
man( Charyn) of letters, over 50 novels, told me about one of his novels (which I have) Darlin'
Bill, a fantasy about "Will Bill" Hickok, won me the Richard and
Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts
and Letters in 1981. It is given to 'that novel that is a commercial failure
but is nevertheless a literary achievement'. You have to lose in order to win.
In past years it's been won by Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Philip Roth,
Thomas Pynchon and Bernard Malamud."
Before 1981, by 1973, Jerome Charyn, then thirty-six, had written seven novels.
Each one had "sunk into invisibility". He decided to "scribble a
crime novel". He invented a New York
tribe of pork-eating marrano pickpockets, the Guzmanns (from Lisbon
angels of doom in the fall of ping-pong-playing NYPD homicide detective Manfred
Coen in Blue Eyes. And should Charyn write a sequel to his 2012 Under The Eye of God, that ex pink commish, Isaac Sidel, Vice President of the United States will sit at the White house as the first American President.
My life has been rewarded every time I
have opened a Charyn novel, something that began for me in 1989. Next on my agenda, any novel I can find at the Vancouver Public Library by Philip Roth. And who knows Malamud, Singer and Bellows next?
Inside my copy of Doctorow's The Waterworks I found a clipping from the NY Times, March15, 1999,
WRITERS ON WRITING
Quick Cuts: The Novel
Follows Film Into a World of Fewer Words
By E.L. DOCTOROW
This is the link just for you John Lekich if you have gotten this far.
Mileage of I Am Abraham on Twitter
|Jerome Charyn - Photograph Mariana Cook|
That Silver Sword of Appomattox
That Dark Lady from Belorusse
And Zero at the Bone
Blue Eyes, the butterfly and a picot
That Vampire of Paris
I Am Abraham & Mileage On Twitter With Old Photographs
Friday, March 21, 2014
One of my favourite writers in Newyorican
Jerome Charyn. Recently he published I Am Abraham a novel on Abraham Lincoln. Like
his previous novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, I Am Abraham is a first
person autobiographical novel. Charyn’s novel puts us into the head and mouth
Thanks to the internet and that I have a
daily blog (over 3000 of them since I began in January 2006) I am able to write
about anything I want (I rarely rant) and I illustrate it to my taste. Luckily
some years ago I traveled to New York
to interview and photograph Jerome Charyn. This means that I can illustrate my
I Am Abraham “reviews” with my portraits of him.
After I write a blog I then put a link into
facebook (note that this must be in lower case) and in Twitter. It just so
happens that Charyn has three Twitter handles, one as Charyn, one for his Lincoln novel and the
other for the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. His friend/agent Leonore Riegel
also has a Twitter handle. And some of these Charyn/Riegel connections are in
All that means is that I can re-tweet and
re-facebook to my heart’s content.
Then I had another idea. I used the
wonderful American Civil War photographs available in the Library of Congress
and other official sites to illustrate (not the blog) but the Twitter and
A few days ago I received a notification
from Twitter about my two most popular tweets of the week.
It would seem that the attraction consisted
in the old photographs I used. My friend John Lekich has explained. “They are
old photographs but those people look alive.”
That Silver Sword of Appomattox
That Dark Lady from Belorusse
And Zero at the Bone
Blue Eyes, the butterfly and a picot
That Vampire of Paris
Tit for Tat - Me & My Sensitive Nipples
Thursday, March 20, 2014
The NY Times headline caught my eye and I
decided to look up the origin of the expression “tit for tat” which I believe
was much in use when I was a young boy and a young man. I had not heard of that
expression in the last few years until I saw this NY Times use.
I also believed that the expression must
have a sexual connotation. It does not. This is what I found. And this was pretty cute, too!
For most of my early years I was oblivious
to the human breast and in particular the female one. I was much more
interested in the horsepower of the original Chrysler 300. In 1955 when I was
13 years old I would read with lots of interest Tom McCahill’s car reviews in
Mechanix Illustrated of automobiles that were not yet called muscle cars.
I must admit that in 1955 I had not seen
one single female breast in a pristine undraped manner. The closest were
Mexican magazines that showed daring cleavage courtesy of the then very hot
girl, Brigitte Bardot.
In 1955 I was in a small mining town in Northern Mexico, Nueva Rosita in the state of Coahuila.
My mother taught the children of the American engineers of American Smelting
& Refining Company. It was a mining town with a two room school. One room
was from the first to the fifth and the second room from the sixth to the eighth.
My mother was the teacher in the latter and I was in the 8th grade. We
were six boys in the eighth grade.
|Alex W-H crossing the equator Dec 11, 1966|
It was at the beginning of that term that I
became worried. I was developing and alarming sensitivity in my nipples and I
was growing tiny breasts. I knew very little about sex but I was still confused
enough to suspect that my body was telling me that I might have to soon wear
I waited for the problem to resolve itself
but it did not. Meanwhile I felt very good that I was attracted to the
extremely lovely Ana María Ramos
who had huge eyes and dramatic black eyebrows. I rarely ever got enough nerve
to talk to her but when I did my whole body tingled.
Finally I had to go to
the only person I had any confidence with, my mother. She was not able to
illuminate any of my suspicions about my body but did arrange to have me see a
I have no memory of
the doctor but I do remember that he told me stuff I have never forgotten. He
told me that what was happening to me was quite normal and that the little
breasts would soon disappear as my body was being surged by all kinds of stuff
as it prepared to convert me into a man.
It was the second fact
that makes me wonder how many men (and women) are aware of this.
My suspicion is that
most idiot men (I am an exception thanks to that Nueva Rosita doctor) think
that only women have sensitive breasts. In fact I found out that sensitivity in
the breast area and in the nipple varies in both women and men. There are women
who will never ever be sensitive as there are men who will never lose their
extreme sensitivity. I am one of those who have suffered from tight T-shirt
burn on my nipples. Ha!
In 1966 I was handcuffed to the yardarm of the ELMA cargo ship Río Aguapey and painted with Prussian blue. It took me a while to remove the paint from my nipples. Luckily I was able to convince the sailors not to use adhesive tape on them.
I cannot speak for
other men but I can write here that my personal sensitivity has made me a great
admirer of female breasts and in particular that empty concavity between
breasts that is so commonly called cleavage. I have a particular preference for
the concavity between smallish breasts.
I was able to study
this variation in concavity at the American Hotel in Nueva Rosita where my
mother and I shared a small apartment. Beside the dining room there was a reading
room with a magazine rack. There was a handsome bachelor engineer called Juan
Jaime who was subscribed to the men’s magazines of the day, True, Argosy and
Esquire. None of these featured nude women, just vast expanse of cleavage. Once
or twice Jaime did leave (was it a mistake?) a Playboy and was able to see all
of what I had only an imaginary inkling.
At age 71 I have to
note that my interest in that empty concavity has not diminished. Unlike the
average 71 year-old, I have thousands of files featuring that empty and hallow
(hollow, too) concavity and more, too.
As a portrait
photographer more often than not, those concavities have faces. The former mean
nothing without the latter. Sometimes a pair or even one hand can compensate
for the lack of a face.
In 1997 when Vancouver Sun's Saturday Review editor Max Wyman was about to retire he called me up to tell me that he thought that I should review a book for him. He was going to send it to me by courier. I remember that he said something like, "It is appropriate that you review Marilyn Yalom's A History of the Breast for us."
Some 10 or more years
ago I was often invited by three architects and two journalists to accompany
them for beer at the Number 5 Orange or the Marble Arch. They would always
order a couple of pitchers of beer. The men behind the bars all knew me so I
was indulged in bottomless soda water which was my beverage of preference. As
the exotic dancers’ talent for dancing began to diminish in inverse proportion
to breast augmentation my interest waned. I had given up my pipe smoking years
before and the architects smoked lots. But I must clarify that these men were
not drunks. As soon as their two pitchers were consumed they got up to legally
(I am almost sure) drive, unimpaired home.
There was one day that
I will never forget as it was the last day I ever went to a strip bar. I have
been back, of course for unmitigated circumstances. Just as we were about to
leave, one of the architects said, “Let’s wait to see her tits. Then we can go.”
I have never liked the
word tit or its plural tits. I felt shocked and offended. I was ashamed that
somehow by the use of that word, the female human being up on stage was
cheapened and demoted to a moving object.
That happened at the
Marble Arch and the paradox is that my interest in taking erotic photographs
has increased as I attempt to do this photography with justice, respect, love
and lastly with lots of zing!
In this age of
pornography, where subtle is not in the vocabulary, I feast on subtlety. And
somehow a word that must accompany subtlety is elegance.
Helen Lawrence A One Take Film & Larry Campbells' Ghost
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
|Mayor Gerry Grattan McGeer|
This is the background as I see it to
tonight’s terrific opening performance of the Arts Club Theatre Production of
Helen Lawrence – Vancouver Confidential. It was conceived by Stan Douglas with
story by Chris Haddock and Stan Douglas & written by Chris Haddock. It runs to April 13.
1. Bill Millerd in the program notes
In the spring of 2012 director Kim Collier (Tear the Curtain!/Electric
Theatre Company) talked to Rachel Ditor and myself about the project and we
became intrigued, not only by the new technology that Stan Douglas was working
on, but also the involvement of Chris Haddock.
2. Playback (a form of it) Raymond Chandler’s second-to-last novel (followed by the unfinished Poodle Springs) had been written in 1944
before, Little Sister,
1949, and The Long Goodbye,
I found this out in the introduction by Philippe Garnier to Playback - A Graphic Novel by Ted
Benoit and Francois Ayroles. The latter is the illustrator and the former the
man who adapted the original film treatment by Chandler who had tinkered with it until
1947 when he tried to sell it, unsuccessfully, to Universal Pictures.
What is interesting about this original screenplay was that it was set in Vancouver. Chandler wanted to
explore the ramifications of Canadian liquor laws, its justice system and wanted to
play with the idea of crossing borders with necessary documents. When Chandler was unable to sell his screenplay he moved the
action to La Jolla, California, and renamed it Esmeralda. The original
version of Playback begins with a beautiful blonde on a train to Vancouver.
3. I met Chris Haddock, if briefly behind
the scenes of Larry Campbell's victory night at the Vancouver Public Library
atrium in November 2002. I had taken the photographs for Campbell’s
campaign and I was aware how Campbell’s
career as City Coroner had been the inspiration for Haddock’s Da Vinci’s
Inquest. I think Haddock and I might have nodded at each other, we both knew
|Larry Campbell & Jim Green, Nov 2002|
4. When I saw the opening performance of
the joint Arts Club Theatre/Electric Theatre Company production of Tear the
Curtain on September 15, 2010 I was amazed by an original blend of theatre with
film that reminded me of a Czech theatre production called Magic Lantern that I
saw during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The production combined live theatre
with back projection.
5. Helen Lawrence is an almost seamless
(more on why below) improvement of what has preceded it.
In a seamless production you would be at the movies seeing
a film and not knowing that the actors in back alleys, hotel rooms and bars were
not there but on a lit stage and filmed while combining their images to the background
Luckily for us Helen Lawrence is done so that
you see the silhouettes of the camera persons behind the huge scrim in front on
which is projected that combination of actors and backgrounds. The actors are in
“living” colour but the finished product is in effective black and white with lots
of noir lighting touches.
The actors all look the part, in particular
Nicholas Lea (as Percy Walker, he of the hatpin), and Lisa Ryder as the Chandler blonde. Everybody
else is just about perfect.
But there was one person mentioned but not seen.
The Vancouver mayor,
shortly after the war, 1947 in Helen Lawrence, would have been Gerald (Gerry) Grattan McGeer. His picture is shown above. The likes of him would have
never allowed for a corrupt-on-the-take police chief like Gerard Plunkett’s Chief James Muldoon or
a nasty drunkard Sergeant Leonard Perkins played to tipsy perfection by Tom
McBeath. I just wish our Honourable Senator would have perhaps used spring break to appear in tonight's play. Campbell would have fitted in perfectly.
|Major Larry Campbell - November 2002|
I am a sucker for anything experimental and
I tip my hat to the Arts Club Theatre Company for taking a chance. I have
always considered Robert Montgomery’s 1947 camera-point-of-view film noir Lady
in the Lake a masterpiece.
Some might say why go to the Stanley to see a movie? I
would answer, “Go to the Stanley
to see a one take movie and you see it being filmed. Now that’s a movie you
will not see anywhere else.”
Jerome Charyn's White House & Teddy's Desk
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
|Theodore Roosevelt - The Commish at his desk.|
It was a cowtown compared to London, Paris, or Berlin, a carbuncle south of Baltimore, created by George Washington, the
first American king, to house a squalid little government that was frightened
of its thirteen constituent states. It was built on a swamp, around a limestone
mansion for the president-king, a mansion that began to crumble and peel soon
as it was put up. It was a city of mosquitoes, Washington, D.C.,
with a dampness that bit at you in the winter and made you feverish in the
long, summer blaze. It couldn’t even rule itself. Congress squatted over the
city, prepared its finances, and stroked it to sleep. It had a few scattered
markets and fisheries, not centers of trade, just monuments, cafeterias,
alleys, and government houses. But it was the wartime capital of the world.
The Franklin Scare – Jerome Charyn – 1977
Ulysses put his son to bed, but he couldn’t
find the key to his trunk. He walked out of the Willard in his old travel uniform
with missing buttons and a frayed cuff, crossed the miasma of Pennsylvania Avenue,
and wandered into the Mansion. Nicolay & Hay [John Nicolay and John Hay,
secretaries to Lincoln
and his biographers] hadn’t expected Grant until tomorrow. And here he was in
the middle of a White House gala with mud in his boots.
Folks swarmed around him – gloves were
lost, crinolines collapsed, and shoes were trampled on in that swarm. It was
like an invading army in our salon. And that’s how I first met Ulysses Grant. I
looked into his blue-gray eyes, and could feel that sense of risk I hadn’t been
able to find in my other generals. He fights, he kills. He stole the Mississippi from the
Rebels. And now he’s come to the capital in his rumpled uniform, a commander
who made sure his mules were fed.
I Am Abraham – Jerome Charyn - 2014
A reader lives through many disappointments
and frustrations in one’s life. As a lifelong reader I can attest to this.
Perhaps the most taxing one is waiting for
a favourite author to get on with it and write another. As a Joyce Carol Oates
fan I can count on at least one a year. But, alas, Colin Dexter, Eric Ambler,
Daphne du Maurier, Michael Dibdin, José Saramago and Reginald Hill, not to mention John Cheever, they no longer
have access to a writing desk.
This means that I
often re-read du Maurier's The House on the Strand, Ambler's A
Coffin for Dimitrios, and Dibdin's the Dead Lagoon. There is not one year that I don’t
dip into Cheever’s The Swimmer.
I am particularly
jealous of those who discover a writer with a long suit of novels late in the game. They can
have an orgy. Rosemary and I are patiently waiting for one more Andrea
Camilleri, Montalbano procedural to be translated from the Italian. While she does write in English Donna Leon and her Commissario Guido Brunetti solving crime in Venice appear only once per year.. When is the next
one? And aren’t those who can buy or check out all her, 20 plus novels in a
reading frenzy to be disliked for that pleasure?
I know that with
patience I can expect a Le Carré, a Joseph Kanon and a Martin Cruz Smith soon enough.
frustration is when a favourite writer loses a publisher. There is one pleasant
exception I can cite here, my friend and Niagara-on-the-Lake author R. Robert
Janes has just published two new Kohler/St-Cyr on The Mysterious Press (the same publisher of Jerome Charyn's Isaac Sidel novels of which I will mention below) in which
they are printed on demand.
A similar frustration
happens when authors abandon my favourite protagonists. Robert Wilson left Inspector
Falcón in Seville
and Arturo Perez-Reverte insists on writing serious novels while we wait for
one more Capitán Alatriste.
There are a few
compensations beyond re-reading. I can discover new authors or especially now
turning on my wife and a few friends to some of these authors who do not suffer
One such author is
Jerome Charyn who to date, after the recent publishing of his “first-person-novelized-biography”
on Lincoln, I Am Abraham has 34 other works of fiction listed and 12
non-fiction ones including one of the best ever about New York City, Metropolis.
Some of his novels are
We know that in I Am
Abraham, mulatto seamstress and First Lady confidant, Elizabeth (Yib) Keckley
holds a school for the black children (and Lincoln’s sons Tad and William) in the White
She didn’t want to be
consoled. All she wanted was a classroom. So I [Abraham Lincoln] to sit in one
of her classes, not to spy on her, you see, but to get acquainted with Yib and
her chalkboard. She didn’t seem startled when I entered her classroom in the
basement and sat down on a tiny stool next to Willie and Tad and the servant
boys. I’d just come back from the War Department and was still wearing my
chapeau. It was unconscionably impolite, and I placed the stovepipe hat on my
knee, like a toadstool on a writing desk. Desks were in short supply, and all
her pupils had to sit around a rickety table with their tablets and black lead
pencils, while Elizabeth,
still in her mourner’s black gloves, scratched a word on the chalkboard with
all the flair of a schoolmarm.
I Am Abraham, Jerome
He was a common
sailor, a boy in summer clothes, Seaman Oliver Beebe. He hadn’t come off any
ship. He was only a barber, a barber who stayed on land. He mingled with
obscure admirals at the old Navy
Building on Constitution Avenue.
He went from office to office, clipping hair. The admirals trusted him. He was
quiet, discreet, and he had small, lovely hands that could massage a bald spot
or powder runnels behind a Navy man’s ear. Seaman Olive Beebe.
He came through the
north gate with a card signed by the Chief of Naval Operations. A soldier
inspected his barbering tools. A Secret Service man accompanied him to the
usher’s office. It was routine business. One of the admirals had recommended
Seaman Beebe. The President’s other barber was sick. An usher escorted him up
to the second floor. He was gone in half an hour.
No one expected to see
him a second time. It was the end of May. He wore the same summer “whites.” The
weather in the mansion was intolerable, but the sailor didn’t seem to sweat. He
had the President’s signature on his pass. He was given full authority to come
and go. The Boss snatched him up from the admirals. He had nothing to do with
the Navy now. He was assigned to Headquarters, the Commander-in-Chief.
The Franklin Scare –
Jerome Charyn – 1975
You must at this point
trust me that if you have enjoyed I Am Abraham, the next Charyn novel to find
and read is The Franklin Scare. You will learn of the barber seaman who lives
in the White House attic, you will find out of the complex relationship
Roosevelt had with his wife and you will be startled (all in good fun) to
discover Beeb’s connection with J. Edgar Hoover.
relationship with White House goings on does not end here.
You might know that
Theodore Roosevelt was the first acting Police Commissioner in New York City. He worked at a famous desk. Read Caleb Carr's The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness to learn more.
What you might not
know is that another man, a fictitious character in a string of Charyn novels,
Isaac Sidel who rose in the ranks to become the “Pink Commish” (because of his
leftist leanings) also occupied that desk.
What is delightful and
delicious is that we know that by the end of Under The Eye Of God (Jerome Charyn – 2012) Isaac Sidel is Vice President of the United States and is about to become the
occupier of the White House (there are problems with the Pres) and perhaps sit at that other desk once used by
Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.
The January sun beat
down on his pate. He bit into the wind that swept off the canal. He could
finish up his seven days of mourning right now. He clung to Daniel and Darl,
clung to Marianna, and he knew what would please him most in the president’s
palace – the waft of butternut cookies from the White House kitchen, with both
of Inez’s babies beside him.
Under the Eye of God –
An Isaac Sidel Novel
The Lord's Fiddle
Monday, March 17, 2014
The Lord's Fiddle
I dreamed that God
decided He'd learn
to play the fiddle.
But there was none
to be found in heaven,
so He entered the
Great Vault behind the
in which reposed holy treasures,
such as the Tablets of the Law,
Taking a good sum of
cash (U.S. dollars are
always good) God departed
But to His surprise,
He discovered that nowhere
was there a single fiddle
The stores were empty:
it seemed that
everyone on the planet
So He tried to borrow one.
But Paganini, Heifetz and
Menuhin were all dead,
and those alive - even the
jolly, good-natured Perlman -
refused to lend Him theirs.
"Never lend anyone your fiddle,
or your car, or your toothbrush,"
they told Him.
("Or your wife,"
an old Minskener
(who in 1907 emigrated
from Czar Nicolai's Russia
in a cubby-hole of a store
down on the Lower East
called out that he had
one fit fiddle left,
and would sell it to God
if He promised to play
Back in heaven, though,
God couldn't find anyone
to teach him.
A wizened, little Angel
backgammon with Abraham,
chess with Solomon,
pick-up-sticks with Gideon,
solitaire with Job,
explained that all the
famous violinists and teachers
no longer had any connection
"You see," said the Angel,
"the violin has nothing to do
with heaven -
only with the pain of earth."
That was it.
So God took his fiddle -
glowing like a ruby
in the navel of the sky,
silent as a mute who knows
the secrets of the universe
but cannot utter a word of them -
to the Great Vault behind the
and kissed it
and locked it away
along with Miriam's timbrel,
Joseph's vari-colored coat,
and the single pebble
that - crooning like
a shepherd's psalm -
Between The Sheets - An Excruciating Play That Satisfied
Sunday, March 16, 2014
It is my feeling that Toronto’s young
playwright, Jordi Mand probably has never heard of Horace’s advice from his Ars Poetica where he instructs
poets that they should never resort to a "god from the machine" to
resolve their plots "unless a difficulty worthy a god's unraveling should
happen.” But she did take the advice.
There is no deus ex machine that can
possibly save the bleak ending of the Pi
Theatre production of Mand’s play, Between the Sheets which my granddaughter
Rebecca Stewart (16) and I witnessed in this site specific play inside a real third
grader’s classroom at the Admiral
Seymour Elementary School in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Strathcona.
Many of our city’s couch potatoes say we
live in a no-fun city. Why venture out when downloading a movie from Netflix is
|Standing left, Caitriona Murphy, centre Stephanie Moroz, right Jordi Mand|
Or we could go to see a conventional
and safe play at a major Vancouver
venue and be properly entertained without the taxing of our emotions or thought
Why would anybody leave the comfort of a
roaring fire in the den to pick up one’s granddaughter (not a happy camper at
school) to take her to a play on a bleak and gray Sunday afternoon and have her
say, “So you bring me to a school on my spring break!”
The fact is that Rebecca Stewart and I did
all the above and found Between the Sheets so excruciatingly real that we felt embarrassed
to be present during the escalation of what began as a parent/teacher meeting.
The director of Between the Sheets as well being the
Artistic Director of Pi Theatre, Richard Wolfe has his own theatrical agenda. This
agenda is to push us (Lotus Land inhabitants that we are, we need some of that) into theatre that will challenge us. Last year’s Terminus
(also a Pi Theatre production) probably caused many planning trips to Ireland to
cancel abruptly. Terminus made Dublin
seem like a hell on earth. But I would never reject Wolfe's idea that plays should be sugar-free. One needs such jolts.
Such was the delivery of this play, the
starkness of the location under unpleasant fluorescent lighting, the smell of
the linoleum floor (I asked Rebecca to check for chewing gum under the desks
but she told me that it would only happen in high school) and finally a
performance so real that it seemed effortless, that I felt that I did not
belong there. My Rebecca added later that unlike in a normal theatre you could
read the expressions on other people’s places since was sat around the
proceeding but left the centre of the classroom empty.
At one point, Caitriona Murphy (who plays
Marion, Alex’s mother, whose father and teacher Teresa Stewart, Stephanie Moroz is perhaps having a fling with) brushed past me as the whole classroom was the stage.
The dialogue at one point made me think, “This
is terrible. She is using the expression ‘trophy wife’. This play is full of clichés.” And then I thought again and saw how real all
this seemed. People do talk like that. It was not a reality show. It was a discussion between women who
in the end do meet for a few seconds and see eye-to-eye. That brief comfort
zone was then shattered with no resolution.
I feel that I was right in taking my 11
year-old granddaughter Lauren Stewart to see the excellent Arts Theatre
Production of Mary Poppins a few months ago.
I also feel that taking Rebecca to Between the
Sheets (lots of f-words and the shocking use, once[!], of the C-word, Rebecca
opened her mouth wide) was a challenging afternoon that in its own way did
entertain us, but more important it helped, perhaps diminish that chasm that
sometimes separates grandfathers from their granddaughters.
Between the Sheets is on until March 26. For info here.