Madison Smartt Bell is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, musician and someone I’ve known with long, intermittent pauses in between, since 1981. A mutual friend who had attended Princeton University with him first introduced me to Madison. This is how he remembers that first time in Hoboken:
“We were at 98 Willow, a kind of sinkhole below the train station, and then a Hispanic ghetto. Y'all were in the more civilized part of town, like five blocks north. The building had been built by a photographer with a little apartment on one side and that fantastic studio with a sort of filtered glass barn wall and roof-- amazing but impossible to heat as we didn't have wood for the stove and a lot of glass was broken out anyways.... ah, to be young again! It was fun no matter what...”
Honestly, while I was initially intimidated by Madison’s intensity and brilliance, he proved to be a supportive and generous fellow artist, blurbing my first novel, inviting me to Goucher College to meet with his creative writing students and introducing me to his agent.
Bell’s Soul in a Bottle, a memoir about contemporary Haiti, Amy Wilentz describes thus: "Soul in a Bottle, Madison Smartt Bell’s memoir of his visits and his commitment to Haiti, is both a rollicking adventure story and a profoundly spiritual enterprise. It offers not just a short testament to its author’s questing mind but also a smart and lucid tour d'horizon of recent Haitian political ups-and-downs, all of it inflected by Bell’s commanding knowledge of early Haitian history. When you read Soul in a Bottle, you can feel the real Haiti surround you, vivid, palpitating, breathing, and smoldering with ancient energy and contemporary ambitions.”
Bell’s biography is both impressive and eclectic. He is the author of twelve novels. He has also published two collections of short stories. In 2002, his novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson. Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and Wyn Cooper, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; Bell's eighth novel, All Soul's Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy,Master of the Crossroadsand The Stone that the Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries.
Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007. Devil's Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.
Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York, London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.
Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003. At present he is working to complete The Witch of Matongé, a novel as indescribable as The Golux’s Hat.
In preparation for my conversation with Madison, I reread a number of his interviews. In this quote from a piece by Jack Stephens in Bomb Magazine (2000), Bell discusses his treatment of a central figure from the novel All Soul’s Rising:
“We’re all human, sure, but different historical circumstances produce a very different mentality. The most extreme case that I’ve dealt with, and the hardest to write initially, is the character of Riau—in terms of being furthest away in his experience of the world from anything I or the reader would be familiar with. Doctor Hébert is much closer to the modern reader’s point of view—I think not anachronistically so (there were people with his brand of rationalist idealism running around in that part of the world), but he does serve as a pilot fish for the reader. In between there’s a whole lot of characters who think and react in terms of their own time as faithfully as I could get them to.”
MM: How do you get them there? Is it possible?
MSB: A good-faith effort is analogous to getting to know someone well enough that you can imagine her point of view. The less you have in common with that other person the more difficult it is, but you proceed in all the usual ways of getting to know someone.
The difference for the fiction writer is that you also have to create that person out of your imagination. If the character is distant in time or culture or both then it gets harder (with Riau I relied a lot on history and case histories of both marronage and Voodoo), but, it’s not impossible to get to a place where sympathy/empathy allows you to operate from within the sensibility of the character you’ve invented. Cynics will say all that is illusion, but so what? As fiction writers we are in the business of constructing convincing illusions.
MM: Is it something your readers can handle or understand?
MSB: Hmm, well, any answers to questions about audience tend to strike me as projections into a void, like a flashlight beam trained on outer space, whatever…. Most readers of fiction right now read genre fiction and I imagine they prefer stock characters, just for the sake of reassurance. These are people who want to buy a consistent product (nothing against that, by the way).
I think readers of literary fiction are there for the nuances of character in very large part. One does occasionally hear some avant-garde sneering about “character-based fiction” being passé—I wonder what the hell else you can base it on?
Those literary readers show up for a credible vicarious experience of being someone else. And, in fact, I think that’s our best defense to Plato’s case against the poets. Especially now, when in the United States assimilation is no longer a universal goal, when many groups composed of U.S. citizens prefer to preserve their cultural integrity and separateness.
In that situation it’s more important than ever for all of us to improve our ability to imagine the lives of others – and to carry those acts of imagination across cultural, ethnic, religious and racial lines—across all the borders defended by identity politics. The social utility of made-up stories is to improve the reader’s empathic faculty. The less we have that faculty, the more we have hate crimes. And we do seem to have our share of those.
Bell is rarely caught bemoaning his fate as a successful writer, which is probably a good thing. However, in reading his moving memory of his friend, writer Robert Stone, I found this quote:
“In the dark watches of the night when I’m looking for some way to justify having spent my whole life trying to make up stories and write them down, it’s usually one of Stone’s books I’ll pull off the shelf, meaning to comfort myself with just a few favorite passages. A day or so later, when I find I haven’t been able to resist reading the whole thing, backward and forward and all the way through, I will finally close it and put it away, thinking, Right, that’s it; that was it all along—the thing that’s still worth trying for.”
MM: Is writing what determines meaning for you, despite fatherhood, teaching, and the work in Haiti?
MSB: it’s more like, was I right to be a writer instead of a lawyer or full-time body-worker or itinerant musician? I think I do write from psychological need—it feels like an innate trait to me, and, if acquired, that happened very early, from being read to and learning to read when I was just a tween. The drive to publish is a different thing, and lately I wonder… well, an angry blogger wrote apropos of The Color of Night (I happen to think that’s one of my two or three best ever, but that’s another story) words to the effect of –goddammit Madison Smartt Bell gets to publish ANOTHER novel while hundreds of budding writers can’t even get a first one out.
After a flash of irritation I did think, well, dude has a point. Perhaps I have published enough—I mean I know I have published enough for ego gratification, although I still have stuff to say and I still need to turn a buck with it if I can…. Teaching would feel very dry, I think, if I weren’t writing too, alongside it. I love teaching students on the cusp of realizing their talent. But if I didn’t have something parallel going on I wonder if it would feel the same.
As for personal life, family…I need to write to be a whole person for the important people in my life, which is a very different thing from sacrificing those people for the work. In the eighties I used to hear some of my confrères justifying their bad behavior (affairs, usually) by saying ah, it’s all for the work!
I thought that was inauthentic in the French existentialist sense of the word (not to mention contemptible). I mean there are artists so desperately driven (Picasso, Malcolm Lowry) that they really can’t behave responsibly to others; the compulsion to create just burns everything down. But, I’m not one of them and I don’t regret it.
In a April 11, 2011 New Yorker piece, Bell discusses how he experienced an unnerving experience while staying in a Haitian hotel near a hounfor, a place where Haitians hold Voodoo ceremonies. Bell said, “Your ego is so reluctant to give up its place in your brain that its claws just tear you as it’s pulled away. One description that people use is it’s like having the peel broken off the banana but since you’re the banana it’s like being skinned alive.”
MM: Because I have been brought up in a completely spirituality-free, anti-religion family this description of being peeled not only sounded unpleasant but unlikely. Is this (meaning the peeling) helpful to your writing, life, and ability to manage other things, like the DMV, paying taxes, housework?
MSB: The quote refers to first-time possession experiences, basically. (You can read more about that in Soul in a Bottle.) I generally relate possession to inspiration to flow states (as they tend to be called in the general-creativity context), but the entry doesn’t have to be quite so rough! I mean most people don’t want to do that every day….I think a flow state is only useful at the DMV if you wish to run amok there; to prepare your taxes you really need to be in a so-to-speak, non-altered state so as to concentrate properly.
MM: I lived in a Zen Buddhist Monastery off and on for two years—polished wood, baked bread, had sexual fantasies about my teacher. Zip writing.
MSB: Perfect conditions for writing can often be disastrous. It’s a way of setting yourself up for failure. Walker Percy has a lot of good stuff to say about this problem (The Message in the Bottle, Lost in the Cosmos). But the Zen masters like to say, before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chop wood and carry water. That statement is deeper than the spin I’ll give it here: familiar mundane tasks that are not mental (tax preparation no; mowing the grass or mopping the floor, yes) CAN be good for inducing flow states.
When your body is chopping wood or carrying water your mind is on a medium leash. It can’t stray so far that you sink the ax in your foot, but it does have a degree of freedom and a sort of emptiness to run around in. That situation can be more propitious than the one where you’ve dedicated the time and laid your pencils and parchment out on the polished wood.
On the tediously familiar drives, I carry one of the little passport size moleskin notebooks in my shirt pocket to scribble down a stray idea or two….(Only at red lights of course!) and, later when I take up my instruments I already have a little something to work with… something I was just sort of playing with previously….
In Chapter 16, Bell references the Charles Manson murders, an event that defined much of my own sense of danger during the late sixties and early seventies.
“I was 12, I think, when the Manson murders happened. I did a little research on that part of the story, enough to make me realize what a different time that was from the one we’re in now. There was a moment in the 1960’s when it really did look like society might collapse, implode or transform itself beyond recognition.”
MM: Your reference to Manson resonated with me. My oldest sister went to Radcliffe in 1968 and briefly dated the head of the Harvard Black Panthers. I was always afraid she’d be murdered. The whole Manson thing was such a potent combination of drugs, celebrity, violence and conspiracy. Was it the fact we had less access to moment-to-moment "news" or that the journalism that existed then told the truth and we didn't expect exaggeration? Was it the way one thing happened after another—Kennedy (Bobby), King, Manson, and Vietnam, always Vietnam?
MSB: I can’t track the “it” in the question here. As for the journalism of that day I doubt it was more truthful. It tended to be more unanimous. There were fewer voices, and they were more apt to harmonize. Television news had not yet understood that it was actually entertainment, so there was a sense of responsibility that has now disappeared.
During the publication of the Color of Night I made an appearance at my old high school in Nashville—a private boys’ day school that in the early 70’s was a conservative bastion—dress code, haircuts, compulsory athletics.
The school was devoted to preserving the lads from the dangerous influences afloat in the then popular culture. (It’s much more-user friendly now, I think….) I go back as this middle-aged dude remembering the old days and felt a closer understanding of the attitudes of the adults back then, especially the headmaster, a Yahweh-like figure who scared the dickens out of everybody.
There was more to it than loud guitars and hippie hair. If you were a terrified conservative clinging to the status quo you could look at the counterculture and see a concerted effort to overthrow the political system and the established social manners and mores along with it—and replace it with some new scary indefinable thing.
An exemplary insight I had during that visit is that when the Manson violence began to surface nobody understood how small and isolated he and his group really were. It looked like the tip of a big iceberg, which, of course, is what he hoped and intended it would become.
Manson’s political agenda was completely nuts, but the fact he even had one is alarming enough. He’s our Nechayev, I think, for what that’s worth.
(Note: Madison went to Princeton. I who attended Rutgers had no idea who Nechayev was).
MSB: Nechayev was a Nihilist when that was an actual group/movement, a revolutionary by any means necessary, stop-at-nothing, kind of guy. Dostoevsky was fascinated with the implications of his existence and that interest plays out in The Possessed, my favorite Dostoevsky novel.
MM: What is the apprenticeship for aspiring writers now? We had awful jobs, maybe an MFA program, incessant reading and writing. What do you tell writers?
MSB: I try to recommend books that might suit them. I have a young fantasy novelist to whom I just recommended Amélie Nothomb (the Belgian sensation)—just because outside of Alice in Wonderland it’s the closest thing I can think of to what she seems to be trying to do.
I still refer students to agents and publishers when their work is ready but my success rate has gone way down, along with everybody else’s. The irony of the situation is that at the same time that we manage to release six thousand trained fiction writers onto the market EVERY YEAR, that market (in terms of conventional trade publishing) has shrunk to a third of what it was in the 1980’s, when we had maybe a tenth of people coming out of MFA programs compared to now.
Dare anyone say that this situation is unsustainable? The digital revolution hasn’t helped much yet, though I think it will. There is a paradigm shift at work, but at the moment it’s stuck in the crawls of Amazon & conventional publishing trying to swallow each other.
The MFA system provides decent guild training still and can also provide useful networking to some—but even in the pool of most successful MFA’s now… well, most of those hatchlings won’t make it off the beach, much less survive the predators waiting in the water
“A good book will get published,” was a piece of hypocritical cynicism back in the eighties even (when the favored example was A Confederacy of Dunces, whose author had killed himself in despair before the book ever came out).
But between three and four hundred good works of fiction do get published every year in the U.S., some of them by new writers. So, there’s a chance, if not, statistically, a good one. Stubbornness is a virtue. In thirty years of teaching I have seen a lot of tortoises pass a lot of hares. So… silence, exile, cunning…. Always, good advice! I mean internal exile of course. Most of us got out of Ireland back in the 18th Century.
I haven’t yet devoured most of Soul in a Bottle but this excerpt from its preface where Bell describes how Haiti transformed him resonated deeply with me:
“In Haiti I became less devious, less ambitious, less fearful, less greedy for myself, less vaingloriously proud. In Haiti, it seemed natural for me to try to practice humility as a virtue, and practicing what elsewhere would have been a dangerous candor seemed in Haiti to be a practical necessity.
“In Haiti I tried to adopt a kind of personal openness, which I would have shunned (in horror) in the United States. I was compelled to be much more candid in whatever I said than I would have been elsewhere, and once I returned I felt compelled to be more forthright than usual in whatever I wrote about the experience. I could not write in the usual way. Linear domino chains of cause and effect lost their usual power over my writing. I couldn't seem to reason like I used to, for logic had stopped progressing from front to back and instead seemed to run around in all directions. This phenomenon made it hard for me to complete journalistic assignments, and it seemed to grow stronger with each excursion.”
MM: Being transformed by a culture is an amazing experience. My almost three months living in Abu Dhabi briefly made me an Uber Patriot. How do you reconcile your life in the United States with your Haiti insights? Can You?
MSB: There are numerous possible answers. No, it’s impossible, would be one. I learned at least that radically different ways of being are possible and that they can be just as viable as ours…. That’s worth knowing, and remembering.
One thing Haitian Voodoo offers to practitioners is suppression of the ego—liberation from the prison of the self—in an extremely dramatic way. Most religions offer something like it in one form or another. Lately, I’ve found I can get a similar effect from sitting in the silence of Quaker meetings—you don’t absolutely have to have the drums and the dancing.
I should say too that many Voodoo adepts can get to the same place without a lot of noise and commotion.
MM: Are you bringing anything valuable to their culture?
MSB: I got more than I gave, I think, though I tried to give what I could. Probably the best I have offered is reporting as honestly as I could.
MM: Why do you assume God has a face?
MSB: Ah, well, I don’t, necessarily…. But there’s this anthropomorphic thing that tends to go on. I think a lot of religious people imagine a sort of cross between a teacher and a judge. We hope for explanations, and also for forgiveness—forgiveness especially. A lot of people seem to want that.
Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has given a gift to the literary world with his retelling of Albert Camus’s 1942 classic, The Stranger, in The Meursault Investigation—told from the point of view of the brother of the Arab killed in the original book.
From the moment Daoud’s debut novel begins, the reader knows this is not a carbon copy of Camus’s landmark volume but a disturbing reflection of Arab culture and politics, with a stinging indictment of colonialism.
As Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation flashback to Harun’s memories of their childhood together while sitting in a bar in Oran in 1962, recalling the oppressing dominance of the colonists, warping the existence of the French, as well as those whom they crushed under foot. The Arabs, the dead man’s brother says, have not fared well upon their independence, noting that “the country’s littered with words that don’t belong anymore.”
He also wonders what kind of man was the killer of Musa, the boy he knew as a child.
Daoud’s prose penetrates the tortured soul of a grieving sibling, as he tries to make sense of Meursault’s motives when he took the life of his brother, much as a family member would try to rationalize the garbled meaning of any slaying: “Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by ‘the Arabs,’ blurred, incongruous objects left over from ‘days gone by,’ like ghosts, with no language except the sound of a flute.”
The bitterness of the tears over the death of Musa, his brother, is not enough; it all goes back to the expatriates lording it over Arabs, controlling their days and breaths. As our narrator expertly puts it, Meursault, the murderer, represents all foreigners, all those piloting the madness of colonialism, saying: “I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves.”
Glad to have someone’s ear, Harun tells his story in fits and starts, recounting a dream of his fallen brother arising from the Land of the Dead, the disappearance of his father, the tension stemming from Musa’s grudge against their mother for supposedly driving him away.
His brother rarely acknowledged Harun, looking upon him “as a piece of furniture requiring nourishment.” So why is Harun obsessed with his passing? After the murder, Musa’s body is never found. Harun’s conscience is seared because his mother partially blamed him, although he could not alter the tragic event.
Harun recalls the “weird funeral,” after his brother was declared dead following the traditional waiting period of 40 days. His mother was emotionally devastated, ordering him to wear her dead son’s oversized clothes, punishing him psychologically for her loss.
Whereas the Meursault slaying occurs in 1942, Harun finally cracks under his mother’s unquenched need for vengeance and his pressure-cooker guilt. He kills a French settler, so he will ceased to be constantly harassed for not doing anything to get revenge. The truth of this senseless killing frees him, but condemns him to become something less than human.
At this period of this revised look at Camus’s fiction, I thought of two quotes from the famous Africanist thinker Frantz Fanon about the powerless of people in a system that neglects and abuses them. One of them, from Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth: “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.” And the other, from his classic Black Skin, White Masks, notes: “What matters is not to know the world but to change it.”
In the Arab world, religious extremism is the catalyst for change. Daoud’s Harun looks at the upheaval and mayhem created in the wars of independence and doesn’t recognize the aftermath. He wonders if the Arabs have exchanged one cruel master for another. He is confused with the new religious zeal and its blind obedience to dogma.
As Harun says of the turbulent, post-colonist environment, “the truth is that independence only pushed people on both sides to switch roles.”
Who is this Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, who authored the controversial book? Readers are familiar with his insightful yet scathing columns in Le Quotidien d’ Oran, a French language newspaper, taking on all opposing views in his homeland. He loves Algeria and his people, yet there are those in the Islamic clergy and military who don’t love him. His writing often rails against strict Islamic rule and tyrannical police states.
When this book was first published in 2013 in Algeria, the knives came out, and he became infamous.
In Europe, the book sold to a wide audience. In France, it sold more than 100,000 copies. His book fell short of winning the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. Daoud’s appearance on French television provoked some imams in his homeland, and they issued a fatwa, saying he should be tried for insulting Islam and executed.
Daoud didn’t cower in front of the religious extremists; although he knew more than 70 writers had been killed by Islamic zealots during the civil war of the 1990s. Instead, he became more visible, seemingly to flaunt the boldness of his journalism, refusing to submit to the demands of the military or Islamic extremism.
Daoud’s work joins those who are unafraid to risk all in the Arab world: the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, Nawal El Saadawi, Abdelrahman Munif, Khaled Hosseini, Habib Selmi, Miral al-Tahawy, , Yusef Idris, Mahmoud Saeed, Laila Lalami, and Elias Khoury.
As for Daoud’s literary entry, it’s a beacon of Arab enlightenment and intellectualism, bold and original. First, read Camus’s existentialist work, The Stranger, with its notions of life’s uncertainty, cause and effect, action and consequences, irrationality and meaningless. Then turn to Daoud’s mind-numbing, blistering rewrite from the Arab view and be blown away.
The more I read this book, the more I felt that the real story was not that we have become a Plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) but are rapidly becoming an Aristocracy (rule by a privileged class.)
Professor Ronald P. Formisano, who is the William T. Bryan Chair of American History at the University of Kentucky, informs us that the world I was born into, “from World War II to the late 1960’s the benefits of a growing U.S. economy percolated from the bottom through the middle to the top of society. For three decades after 1945 a relatively equally distributed prosperity built a strong middle class that was the envy of the world. As John F. Kennedy put it, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ Those in the lower classes gained as much or more than those in the higher ones.
“The current state of disequilibrium in the United States began in the 1970’s, when the top 1 percent earned about 10 percent of the national income. Since then the income of the richest soared to 15-19 percent of the total in the late 1990’s; in 2007, the richest 1 percent took home 23.5 percent of all income. In the upper precincts of the 0.1 percent, 13,000 households took in more than 11 percent of the nation’s income.”
It couldn’t get any clearer than that. But what happened? How did this come about?
Plutocracy in America takes us down a path well trodden, covering the many whys—from government deregulation, a country flooded with cheap labor, both legal and illegal, and “technology and a virtual global media have led to rapid gains at the very top for the ‘Superstars’ in business and elsewhere. Celebrities such as musicians, athletes, and movie stars now can reach millions of people worldwide and thus command enormous paychecks.”
An example I often cite is the fact that Michael Jordan made $80 to $100 million dollars last year. He also made the same $80 million the year before that and the year before that. In fact, I doubt that Jordan can even remember the last time he made less that $80 million a year. And he is only in his early 50s!
This is what the good Professor is talking about!
The book also takes us down a road few have dared to go. Professor Formisano cites a study by Enrico Moretti:
“Yet Moretti’s analysis affirms that the causes and consequences of inequality are multiple and interrelated. Some are unintended results of social progress, such as the phenomenon known as ‘assortative mating.’ As more women have acquired higher education, broken glass ceilings, and entered better-paying professions, they tended to marry other higher-income professionals, contributing to income inequality.”
Here is my personal favorite example to illustrate the beast that we men are and why that very beastliness has always played a major role in the redistribution of wealth: Anna Nicole Smith was a high school dropout with a worthless husband and a child to support. One day she was Pole dancing at Gigi’s, a Houston strip joint, when an elderly man by the name of J. Howard Marshall wheeled himself into her show in his custom-made wheel chair. Soon, he was at Gigi’s on a regular basis, throwing more expenses gifts at Anna Nicole Smith than she knew existed in the many heavens folks love bragging about.
But he could afford it. He was worth 1.6 billion dollars. Three years later, the 26 year-old Smith and the 81 year-old Marshall married.
J. Howard Marshall died a year later, no doubt with a smile on his wrinkled old face, and he left her a large fortune as a thank you for making the end of his life filled with such pleasure.
Now, I ask you, do you think that Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, or any of those other overpaid, chattering women on television would do something like that!
Of course not. Mother Nature won’t allow this to happen, not on her watch! So, for now, it’s either you show up with a paycheck larger than theirs, or, forget about it, Bud.
It seems that until women can become as silly as men and stop hoarding their money, there’s little hope for us.
Plutocracy in America is an interesting book. I am glad I read it.
The literary event of the summer season has been the publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s second novel, about the Finch family of Maycomb, Alabama, the first being the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960.
Thus, fifty-five years separate these two publications, yet Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel in the usual sense of the word, as it was the first written of the two books. One cannot speak of the latter publication without speaking about the former, but perhaps first we should discuss the life of the author herself, Harper Lee. She was born in 1929 and grew up in the Deep South, in Monroeville, Alabama, where, as it turned out she was a close childhood friend of Truman Capote, who would come to Monroeville every summer to stay with his aunt.
The characters in both books are patterned after her own family and the people of her home town. Like Atticus in the books, her own father was a lawyer, and her mother, who was mentally unstable, died young, leaving Lee and her brother to be raised by their widowed father.
She attended Huntington College in Montgomery during 1944/45 and then studied law at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949, and then she moved to New York City to work for an airline. Like Capote, her foremost desire was to be a writer.
First she wrote Go Set a Watchman, but she was unable to publish it as it was seen as a series of anecdotes rather than a fully conceived novel. Perhaps she was cutting her teeth on this book, in preparation for the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, which when published in 1960 rapidly became so popular that it won the Pulitzer Prize; and in 1962 was made into an equally popular movie with Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus.
Now, all these years later Lee and her publishers have seen fit to publish the earlier novel, some of which contents may have been the reason for the lag in its publication.
To Kill a Mockingbird takes place during the Great Depression, during a three-year period of time, from 1933 to 1935. Six-year-old Jean Louise (Scout) Finch lives with her older brother Jem and their father Atticus, a lawyer. Jem and Scout’s friend is Dill, who is patterned on Capote. Atticus is now fifty years old.
Lee created a wonderful cast of characters in To Kill a Mockingbird: another family member is Alexandra, Atticus’s fussy and conventional sister. There is their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley, and their beloved black maid Calpurnia, who takes exceptionally good care of her charges. At the heart of the story is Atticus’ defense of a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of rape.
Judge Taylor appointed Atticus to defend Robinson, accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. The trial takes place in this small town in the Deep South during the 1930’s; this was before the Civil Rights movement, before Martin Luther King Jr. stirred up black Americans to demand their rights.
Many of Maycomb’s citizens disapprove when Atticus agrees to defend Tom. The town’s children taunt Jem and Scout for Atticus’ action, calling him a “nigger-lover.”
Atticus faces a group of men, intent on lynching Tom. Danger is averted when Scout, Jem and Dill shame the men into dispersing by forcing them to view the situation from Atticus’ and Tom’s points-of-view. Nevertheless, sad to say, despite Atticus’ admirable defense, the jury convicts Tom, who’s shot and killed while trying to escape from prison.
In Go Set a Watchman twenty-two years have passed. Scout is 26 years old. She lives and works in New York City and has returned to Maycomb to visit.
I love the first paragraph of this book:
"Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, with its tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surround by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose."
The year is 1955; the NAACP has a growing influence in the lives of black Americans; they are beginning to rise up against their oppressors. Scout lives in New York City. Atticus is 72 years old. He still works and is seen after by his sister Alexandra; he is somewhat incapacitated by arthritis. Jem died of the same heart condition that killed their mother, and Atticus has taken on a young man named Henry as his protégé.
Henry is bright and capable, but doesn’t have the Finch family pedigree. He would like to marry Scout, but she has other ideas. Atticus’ brother, Uncle Jack, a physician, plays a more prominent role in this book. Calpurnia has retired and lives in her home in the black section of town. A growing estrangement between the white and black citizens of Maycomb has been taking place.
No writer is better at evoking the world of children than Harper Lee. In this book she recalls several amusing incidents from Scout’s childhood: the story of when she, Jem and Dill were playing Revival and she stripped off her clothing in order to be baptized, just when the minister and his wife appeared for lunch—Atticus excuses himself so that he can go out on the back porch and laugh.
Then there’s story of Scout thinking she was pregnant after Albert French French-kissed her. Rather than suffer the shame of having a child out-of-wedlock, she plans to commit suicide.
There was resistance to publishing Go Set a Watchman because in it Atticus, who for all these years has been seen as a defender human rights, now, his dotage, has become a racist!
Go Set a Watchman might have remained a series of anecdotes and not a novel were it not shaped into a full-fledged, fully-realized novel by the narration of several incidents, the first being Scout’s visit to Calpurnia and the second her argument with Atticus.
When Calpurnia’s grandson runs amuck with the law, Scout takes it upon herself to visit Calpurnia to reassure her that Atticus will do his best to help. She is taken aback by Calpurnia’s coldness:
Calpurnia was wearing her company manners.
Jean Louise sat down in front of her. “Cal,” she cried, “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?
“’As long as I’ve lived I never remotely dreamed that anything like this could happen. And here it is. I cannot talk to the one human who raised me from the time I was two years old…it is happening as I set here and I cannot believe it. Talk to me, Cal. For God’s sake talk to me right. Don’t sit there like that!’
She looked into the old woman’s face and she knew it was hopeless. Calpurnia was watching her, in Calpurnia eyes was no hint of compassion.
A few minutes when Scout is sitting in her car, she thinks, “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me; she saw while folks. She raised me, and she doesn’t care.
“It was not always like this. I swear it wasn’t. People used to trust each other for some reason, I’ve forgotten why. They didn’t watch each other like hawks then. I wouldn’t get looks like that going up those steps ten years ago. She never wore her company manners with one of us…when Jem died, her precious Jem, it nearly killed her…”
Scout’s experience may be part of a national phenomenon—because of the agitation for desegregation, there is a greater distrust among the two races.
Assuming that he believes in equal rights, special privileges for none, Scout confronts Atticus, and finds that he is as threatened by desegregation as are most of his compatriots.
Atticus calls himself a Jeffersonian Democrat. He says, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia? … Look at it this way. You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You know the full implication of the word ‘backward,’ don’t you?
“You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?
”The population in nearby Abbott County is almost three fourths Negro…and, if the Negro vote edged out the white, you’d have Negroes in every county office…
“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the south were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em? Do you want this town run by—now wait a minute—Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby? Zeebo would probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered, you know.”
Keep in mind that the year that Atticus supposedly mouthed these words is about 1955, 60 years ago. Since then the Civil Rights movements, and, because of Lyndon Johnson’s insistence, desegregation has been achieved. It’s become a fact of modern life that people of all races can attend schools, ride on buses, and dine in restaurants. A “Whites only” sign has become an antique.
Giving Atticus the benefit of the doubt, we can see just how threatened white people of his class were by desegregation, afraid to put into practice the ideal that all people are created equal. It would have been beyond Atticus’s wildest imagination that “a Negro,” not only might be elected the Mayor of Maycomb but to our country’s highest office, the President of the United States.
That fact alone indicates that in spite of the still-troubled relations between whites and blacks, as witnessed in this summer’s turmoil over the shooting of unarmed black people by white policemen, progress has indeed been made. So, we can be grateful to Harper Lee for her honesty, for showing just how far we have come.
That’s where polymath author Bernard F. Conners now resides. Not only in the ultra-wealthy realm of his self-described Xanadu, but also in the realm of those whose lives are on the cusp of 90 years of age. His autobiography is remarkable.
Here’s a man who is no stranger to the world of books, having published a slew of successful novels decades ago. Not only did Bernard F. Conners earn bestselling status with Don’t Embarrass the Bureau in the 1970s, but also with Dancehall and The Hamptons Sisters in subsequent decades. He also authored Tailspin, a work of nonfiction. Did I mention that Conners has also been an FBI agent of distinction?
His noir-inflected, subtly Gothic, and highly readable novels did very well with many reviewers and legions of book-buyers, while at the same time Conners sustained for himself a varied career as a top-tier corporate executive (his fortune was made at the Canada Dry soft drink conglomerate), a real estate mogul, and more.
Conners also published The Paris Review and generously funded everything from one of its distinguished poetry prizes (established in his name) to a handful of its ancillary endeavors in the literary milieu.
All this sounds like Walter Mitty on steroids. But it’s merely a portion of the unique, world-class, and multifarious resume of Bernard F. Conners. Wait. It gets better.
Once upon a time, before all of the above, Conners was a gangly misfit and awkward social outcast who then morphed into an excellent athlete with superb boxing skills. We’re talking Golden Gloves caliber, through and through. We’re also talking some seriously impressive gridiron exploits as a quarterback for St. Lawrence University.
As for those boxing skills, they were so adroit that Conners won title bouts in the Army, which beat the hell out of the options: He was spared combat duties at the tail end of World War Two or in Korea. Yes, indeed, the author was one of those startled young Americans tapped by the long arm of Uncle Sam for military duty not once, but twice. Conners was first in uniform in 1945 and then again after the Korean War detonated in 1950. In the Army is where he first met George Plimpton.
It is the legend and legacy of George Plimpton that gives this unusual memoir its ultimate literary anchor. Conners and Plimpton were entwined for most of their adult lives as allies in the perennial publication of the always distinguished, keenly refined, and impecunious literary quarterly that Plimpton had co-founded with a cadre of like-minded others in the early 1950s.
In short, Plimpton always provided the editorial acumen while Conners wrote the checks. And yet, Conners was never a mere benefactor. His own books and his writing chops were superlative enough not only to earn a large readership for his mystery novels but also to induce the serious attention of Donald Fine, one of Manhattan’s most coveted, gifted, volatile, temperamental, and respected editors and publishers.
Conners fell back on his Golden Gloves training (metaphorically speaking) in order to deal with Don Fine’s infamous persona. Anecdotes abound.
Here’s one, tossed off with the dry humor and admirable restraint that Conners displays through his memoir: “Although a diminutive man, Fine had a gargantuan ego and temper. Legend had it that when he sold [his company] Arbor House to the Hearst Corporation in 1978, after signing the sales contract, he said to the Hearst representatives, ‘Okay, now get out of my office!’ “
Cruising with Kate derives its title from Conners’ lifelong love and devotion to his wife—their love story is no less rare and successful than the author’s enviable ability to straddle overlapping careers and to do well at the highest echelon of disparate environments.
Not that it was easy. The key motif in this memoir is the ever-present stress of “the butterflies” within, always making the author aware of his deep-seated insecurities. Nonetheless, he rose to all challenges and somehow made it look easy. But it wasn’t.
As for its subtitle—“A Parvenu in Xanadu”—one can safely assume that it’s a low-key admission on the part of the author. By definition, a “parvenu” is a “nobody” who somehow became somebody. More formally put, it’s a person who despite his or her obscure origins manages to acquire clout, riches, and some degree of fame.
And to use that subtitle is a classy way for Bernard F. Conners to admit that even now, he remains mystified, no doubt amazed, and grateful for his idiosyncratic life.
Perhaps that’s why he chose to write his autobiography in the third person, which is exceedingly rare in the writing of memoirs. Yet, it works. Instead of plying us with the usual insufferable “I this” and “I that” of more traditional autobiographies, the reader is engaged with “Bernard” as a third-person protagonist.
It’s as if the author has novelized his life in order to detach a bit and gain some perspective by stepping back. To say the least, it’s been a life of cinematic brio.
Thank God for the army, Father. At least it gave my life shape and meaning for the months we searched desperately for someone to attack.
Now look at them, Father! Our formidable enemy! Capable of killing millions in a single blow. Capable of bringing almost to a standstill, not only the mightiest nation the world had ever seen, but the entire world itself—a bunch of nondescript college professors from Vermont.
Colonel Bird never had a chance to see who it was that destroyed his life. He blew his brains out shortly after our outfit returned to reserved status.
He took a shiny, silver, old fashion Army issued Colt 45, that his father, a retired Tanker, a Brigadier, had given him when he graduated from West Point, and spattered bone, blood and gray matter all over his bedroom.
His neatly pressed, dress Army uniform, complete with the yellow ribbon of the mighty Calvary, and all the many medals he had won, was totally ruin.
In our first and only real “Trial of The Century” we all watched closely these ordinary looking three white men and one lone woman, and just stared as closely as the television cameras would allow.
I won’t bore you with all the details of the trial, Father. Or the endless horror stories of grief, broken lives and near total despair. Almost every single person in the country knew of someone who had died that day, or died days, or months later. It was if a large gray blanket had been thrown across the land.
Needless to say, the five were easily convicted, and promptly executed. But you know what, Father, they won. In the end, they had their day in court. They wanted to talk to the world. And they did, and the entire world listened. That was all they wanted. That was what all of this was all about.
They explained in cool, frightening detailed terms why they did what they did, and what they hoped would spring forth from their actions. And they were right; it was never the same again.
I remember this one guy because he was so different from the rest. He didn’t speak calmly in a high-toned, professorial manner. He was tall, super-intelligent, a little on the fat side. He had large bulging, light blue eyes, and an unruly halo of blond hair. He seemed barely able to breathe as he testified; as if he was hyperventilating. Even through the television you could make out little beads of sweat coming from his forehead. He spoke in rapid spurts of complicated words.
He was clear about one thing, however:
“We had one wake-up call this century, but we didn’t wake up, but allowed the money class to once again take over our lives, and push dumb movie stars, and non-thinking on us—as if we were all stupid idiots—as they raped the world. Martin Luther King would have done the same thing,” he insisted.
Martin Luther King? I was appalled, Father. How dare he! More like that nut case I heard about, Timothy McVeigh, or that other guy, the Unabomber.
But, as I said, they won, and the change they hoped for, and killed millions of people to achieve, came slowly, but it came nevertheless. So much of what we were as a nation had been centered on that small island we called Manhattan. So much history. So much human knowledge, despite the redundancies built after Sept.11—was lost. One by one, all of the important institutions that kept America afloat were going from bad to worse.
We then elected this one guy who was going to lead us back to the promise land. It was a promise land alright.
Maggie Mitchell has chosen an idiosyncratic slant on this too-common tale of abduction. Two twelve year-old girls blithely go off with the man in the car, despite knowing better, offering themselves up as easy prey, figuring anything’s better than spending another day on the Nebraska plains or holed up in Connecticut. The Nebraskan, the Pretty One (who’s also smart) has an evil stepmother who escorts her around to beauty pageants; the Smart One (who’s also pretty) wins prizes at spelling bees, which she loves, but feels ignored by her parents who are too busy serving stuffed French toast to the patrons of their bed and breakfast to spend time with her. The girls feel chosen by this handsome enigmatic man and compete with each other for his attentions. What his intentions are remains unclear. From the beginning we know that the girls are rescued after a few months and appear to be unharmed.
But the kidnapping is only one layer of the novel. Eighteen years after the kidnapping, the Smart One is an English professor and a novelist and her first book, Deep in the Woods, is about to be made into a movie. The Pretty One, a mildly successful actress is going to be in the movie, playing a fictional character, and for the first time since the kidnapping, the women will get to meet.
Peel back another layer: the Smart One is writing a sequel, an unhinged student knows her secrets and is stalking her. Will the girls be victimized again?
I’m sorry to confess that I’m not sure what would have motivated me to keep turning pages, other than my commitment to reviewing this book. Make no mistake: Pretty is is skillfully written. Mitchell generates a fair amount of suspense by having us follow the increasingly ill-advised movements of the Smart One. (“No,” you mouth, “do not go to that disreputable area of town, at night, where no one can hear your screams, to rendezvous with your unbalanced student!”)
But the book leaves you with too many unanswered questions.
The girls are never physically harmed in any way, aside from the initial act of abduction with which they seem all too happy to comply. Yet they live in an atmosphere of foreboding; they observe the gradual unravelling of their captor. They puzzle over his motives (as do I). He wants to protect them from our degenerate society of beauty pageants and spelling bees? What about the son he left behind? We are given no insight into his actions, no glimpse of his history, no street psychology interpretation. He encourages the girls to pursue old fashioned wholesome pastimes —acting, reading mysteries, stargazing, running through the woods at night, swimming in the lake at night. He observes them always, and yes, that’s creepy at times, but he’s not interested in sexual contact, and rebuffs their mistaken advances. He’s a certified mystery. We expect all along to learn more about him but we never do. Loose end. We never get a very clear picture of where the girls are being kept or how they are discovered. Another loose end.
I found the plot to be needlessly complicated. The use of multiple aliases (Carly May, Chloe, Callie, Lois, Hannah, Mandy) for the girls is downright mistifying and the characters themselves are confused by what to call themselves. Then there’s the fictional book of the abduction, the even more fictional sequel which is in the works, and the character of the present day wannabe abductor, Sean, for whom I could discover no motivation at all. Another character, Brad, is a platonic friend of the Smart One who patently would like to take the relationship in a different direction, but he’s just left by the wayside. Another loose end. And though each girl is given her own voice in alternate chapters, I couldn’t find much to differentiate them.
What about larger themes you ask. Here Mitchell shows us quite clearly that identity can be shaped as much by what doesn’t happen as by what does. These two girls sustain a trauma unseen by others. As young women, they are only beginning to exorcize their demons. On some level they are still waiting for their abductor to return and explain himself and for him to favor them again. The Smart One turns to writing as her outlet of choice, but the message is clear. Writing is hard and full of pitfalls: you too could devolve into a typing machine and neglect to wash your hair or clean up your martini glasses, and wind up not knowing what is true and what is made up! For most (mostly sane) writers, the imaginary worlds of their own creation are, many times, more alluring than the cold reality of their days grading papers, doing temp work, toiling at the factory or doing whatever puts food on the table.
Pretty is is, despite my carping, a well-put-together book, a quick read, perhaps a perfect beach book. Though if the scenario of forceful abduction appeals to you, take a look at Emma Donoghue’s The Room, a serious fictional study of what it means to survive kidnapping and years of sequestration. Ultimately, the two girls in Pretty Is, and the women they become, just struck me as silly.
How do you rate curiosity on a scale of human virtues – and would it ever occur to you to consider using curiosity as a centerpiece for a book? And would a reader stick to a book in which curiosity is the so-called hero?
You’ve come this far—stick with me for a short while.
Brian Grazer, a successful Hollywood producer has turned his “hobby” into "A Curious Mind," a highly readable book on that subject.
His hobby? Engaging in what he calls “curiosity conversations,” with the most accomplished people on the planet.
Just think about the following people, when you consider the value of curiosity: Salk, Euclid, Freud, Columbus, Jobs, Gates, Edison, Einstein, Guttenberg, King, (Martin Luther) Ford, and of course so many thousands of others.
We would still be living in caves and huntin’ and fishin’ and wearing clothes made of leaves and bark – had it not been for people who were curious. (and regarding that small voice I hear squeaking in the background, “Maybe we’d have been better off,” – I’ll take you on in another column)
“The goal of (my book) is simple,” writes Grazer, “I want to show you how valuable curiosity can be…and remind you how much FUN it can be and to show you … how you can use it.”
Grazer’s grandma encouraged his curiosity to the point where he was not averse to listening to (read that: eavesdropping on) other people’s conversations, which actually is how he became one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, a story he tells at the beginning of the book, that turned out to be the foundation of his career.
Interesting people make interesting stories—and Hollywood is nothing but stories. Grazer’s understanding of this concept sharpened as he moved from delivery boy at Warner’s studio to mogul-producer; A Beautiful Mind, Splash, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, and many more.
For over 35 years, Grazer has been tracking down people “in,” but mostly “out” of show biz with requests for a sit-down talk to last about an hour, calling them, writing letters, badgering assistants, often waiting years for appointments – in order to get their stories, to find out what made them who they are. Mostly, he used their “stories” for his own edification, but often they became the bedrock of his movie or TV inspirations.
“Over time, I discovered that I am curious in a particular way… in what I call ‘emotional’ curiosity. I want to understand what makes people tick. I want to …. connect with a person’s attitude and personality, their work, their challenges, their accomplishments.” And this is not to negate his broader curiosity about how things work.
The end of the book has a 27 page listing of people with whom Grazer has conversed , including well known and lesser known writers, artists, scientists, business moguls, politicians, “creatives,” (my word) sports figures, celebrities, academics, miscreants, “plain” people – you name it.
In the book you will learn who is a “good interview,” and who is a “stonewaller.” You actually get clear insights into personality and motivation, including Grazer’s own.
On a personal note, I thank him for validating my own propensity for being what my family calls, “Mrs. District Attorney,” as I struggle to keep my curiosity about people somewhat in check, recognizing a need for social boundaries. On the other hand, a journalist is a journalist, is a journalist.
When you look at a sequel, a reader must look at whether the book can stand on its own. Candice Fox’s new novel, Eden, manages not only to stand but shines in the shadow of its prequel, Hades, winner of the Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut Crime Novel.
Hades introduces us to Frank Bennett and his partner, Eden Archer. The events that bring them into Eden are touched on throughout the book giving enough info to catch us up on the dynamic and curious relationship Frank and Eden share, explaining how a pompous detective could be so close with Australia’s own Dexter, the homicidal Eden.
Eden begins with Frank near rock bottom. He’s drinking too much with little regard for getting his life back together after losing someone close to him. Eden needs her partner to get his act together because she desires to get back into action, and a case is coming down the pipe that has Frank and Eden’s names on it. Three girls are missing, the police believe they may be connected, and the partners are the premiere serial murder investigators.
As part of Frank’s recovery from depression, Eden sets him working for her father, the ex-crime lord and disposer of bodies, Hades. Frank reluctantly takes work from the known villain, but he feels trapped in the web of the murderous family. Frank agrees to investigate a stalker and finds himself diving into the past, a time when Hades’ word was law. Meanwhile Eden is undercover on a farm full of degenerates. Can Frank solve Hades’ problem before the old man takes matters into his own hands? Can Eden sniff out the killer? Or will she find herself the next victim?
It seems Fox has mastered the lovable-bad guy. Eden is a murderer you can’t help but cheer for. She is cold, impersonal, and sharp, but the author succeeds in endearing her to the reader, more so than the main character, Det. Bennett. In fact, Eden contained so much back-story for Hades I found myself more a fan of the crime-lord than our hero.
Not knowing how the first book went exactly, I had the thought that this book should have been called Hades and (taking hints from the ending) the next should be called Eden. I find Fox to be a gifted writer and look forward to many more Frank, Eden, and Hades books to come.
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