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Kevin Wilson, "The Museum of Whatnot"

As I mentioned earlier, this year I don't intend to review short stories as formally as I did last year - no set goal for number of stories, no central repository for stories reviewed during the year. Instead I'll review stories as I come across them and which seem particularly deserving of comment. This year I might even add commentary about just how I came to find a particular story, which I hope will add a little personal color to what could be an otherwise sterile review of just the story itself.

The first story I'm looking at this year is Kevin Wilson's wonderful "The Museum of Whatnot". I've been carrying around a printout of the story in my messenger bag for about a year now but for some reason never got around to reading it. Maybe it due to the mild hype Wilson's story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth was getting at the time; hype of any degree usually puts me off. But on the train this morning I found myself in the impossibly rare circumstance of being without a book - I finished a couple of chapbooks yesterday but forgot to pack a new book before leaving the house this morning. So with the morning commute being my prime reading time, I felt lost not having a book and scrounged through my bag for whatever I could find. I re-read a couple of old articles about Algren and veterans of the Chicago City News Bureau before coming across Wilson's story. And now I'm quite sorry I didn't read it sooner.

The story is about an odd museum of knickknacks, bric-a-brac and other odds and ends (not "junk" however; one of the museum's board members disdains the term, “Because calling it junk could significantly lower someone’s estimation of our knickknacks.”) which various people have inexplicably accumulated over the course of their lives and bequeathed to the museum to save the objects for dubious posterity. The museum's curator is a single and very solitary woman in her early thirties who lives in an upstairs apartment in the mansion which houses the museum but, oddly enough, doesn't share the mania for collecting that one might expect from someone in her position. Instead, her room is minimalist to the point of barrenness - she doesn't even want to display an empty keepsake box on her dresser (which nobody but her will see anyway) and instead fills it with spare change to bestow it with some degree of functionality.

The curator is alone without really realizing just how lonely she is, but slowly becomes aware of her loneliness via her mild but growing fascination with an older doctor who visits the museum once a week to linger over an unwieldly collection of spoons. He's not a collector either, but to him the spoons represent a touching absence from his life. Though she's attracted to him, still she holds back, as she mostly avoids human contact (which in its own way is a sort of possession) as avidly as she does material goods. But by the end of this quietly moving story the two have arrived at the very tentative beginning of what may or not become a significant relationship.

An excellent story, extremely well done, and one which will definitely have me seeking out more of Wilson's work.

January 29, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Howard Zinn

Historian and progressive icon Howard Zinn has passed away, at age 87. I'm a great admirer of his, and he will truly be missed. Fortunately, his groundbreaking writings will live on. In fact, when our homeschooled daughter is a little older, I want one of her American history texts to be A People's History of the United States. She should, of course, also read the conventional history text that is a standard part of the curriculum in American schools, but I want her to read Zinn to gain a different perspective. There are, after all, at least two sides to every story.
“From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
Rest well, sir.

January 28, 2010 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

State of the Union

Just one comment about last night's State of the Union address. When Obama announced that he wanted to redirect $30 billion of bailout money - which had been repaid by the big banks - toward small community banks to spur lending to small businesses, did anyone else notice the expressions on the faces of John Boehner and Eric Cantor (the top two House Republicans) when the camera immediately cut to them? Both had looks of disdain, bordering on revulsion. Their reaction was probably mostly just their reflex response to anything that Obama proposes, but I also couldn't help thinking it was emblematic how the Party of Wall Street feels about everyday schlubs like you and me on Main Street.

January 28, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tim Hall, Full Of It: The Birth, Death and Life of an Underground Newspaper

Though formally a novel, Tim Hall's Full Of It: The Birth, Death and Life of an Underground Newspaper is based heavily on the author's real-life experiences as writer and editor of a scrappy underground newspaper in Manhattan during the mid-1990s. The paper (a self-described "bar rag") is created by a memorable bunch of oddballs, including the narrator, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic; the poet and artist Jack, who at first is de facto editor despite having little interest in managing anything; Buzzy, a borderline psychotic whose sole talents seem to be aggravating everyone else; and various misfit writers, artists and hangers-on. The story is about good versus evil, as the paper's staff soon divides into two camps, with the good (the narrator, Jack and co-founder Ross) and the evil (Buzzy and her various minions) fighting desperately for control; interestingly, though, this good/evil dichotomy isn't absolute, as two staff members who seem good at the beginning have gone completely psycho by the end. The book is very much a coming-of-age story (despite the narrator being in his mid-twenties, and not the teenager usually depicted in such stories) as the narrator, formerly drifting through life, finally finds himself as a writer and begins the first steps toward making something of his life.

Full Of It is a funny, lively and very entertaining read, and is set within in an artistic community and era which are fondly and lovingly described but are also, sadly, have all but disappeared. Definitely worth checking out.

(Disclaimer: Tim Hall is a local writer whom, although we haven't met in person, I have corresponded with extensively during the past year and consider to be a friend. So take my assessment of the book however you wish; I'm the first to admit that I'm no literary critic, but instead a fan. And I'm a fan of this book and the writer, and if you check out either one you just might become a fan as well. Just saying.)

January 27, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Separated at birth?





January 26, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tell us what you believe, Mr. President

Why all the mixed messages?

The economic philosophies emanating from the White House are all over the map. A year ago, Obama looked like a Keynesian, proposing a bold stimulus package that was designed to boost growth through increased federal government spending. But almost immediately he backtracked, catering to conservatives in Congress by adding to the stimulus plan a number of tax cuts whose potential impact on economic growth was at best questionable.

And now, when economic and especially employment growth has been slow - partly because the spending portion of the stimulus wasn't big enough - he's proposing more relief for the middle class. But at the same time, once again catering to deficit-fearing conservatives, he's proposing a three-year freeze on key areas of discretionary federal spending to slow growth of the deficit. Never mind that this spending has little impact on the deficit (even the administration admits the cuts are largely "symbolic"), and that entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security as well as military spending will not be touched.

Lastly, last week he again railed against Wall Street, decrying its rampant greed and calling for stricter regulation and the separation of banking and trading activities on the part of the big banks, while at the same time arguing for Ben Bernanke - Wall Street's champion enabler and deregulator - to be retained as Federal Reserve chairman.

So what does Obama really believe? Is he a Keynesian, who believes government spending can boost economic growth, or a deficit hawk who is wary of running up the national debt? Is he a populist who believes Main Street is more important than Wall Street, or is he eager to appease the financial titans? It seems like every time he proposes a progressive initiative, he immediately dilutes it with conservative provisions in some sort of compromise attempt to appease the Republicans in Congress, few of whom have any interest in working with him anyway.

He's forever tacking toward the center. And the center is a great big nowhere.

January 26, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

National Handwriting Day


January 24, 2010 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Asbjørnsen and Moe


Absolutely love this edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North, by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. Asbjørnsen and Moe were 19th century Norwegian folklorists who collected and ultimately published old folk tales and legends from various sources throughout the country. The stunning images shown above and below (and throughout the linked-to document at Project Gutenberg) are by Kay Nielsen.




January 24, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


Unless you enjoy corporations and lobbyists controlling our political process - in fact, if you think they should have even more power than they already enjoy - and eagerly anticipate an accelerated onslaught of attack ads during every election, the Supreme Court's appalling ruling yesterday should have you as pissed off as I am right now. Here's one place you can make your voice heard. Let's take back democracy before it's completely destroyed.

January 22, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


A few years ago I suggested an alternative to an iPod's shuffle function - pull up a specific song from the "songs" menu and let it play on from there, which provides an alphabetical playlist which is every bit as random as shuffle play. This morning as I stepped off my train, I had a hankering to hear Elliott Smith's "Sweet Adeline", which I pulled up and then went the alphabetical route, which lead me to discover there are five songs on my iPod that begin with the word "sweet." Here they are:

Elliott Smith, "Sweet Adeline"
Iris Dement, "Sweet Is the Melody"
Seam, "Sweet Pea"
Mudhoney, "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More"
Camper Van Beethoven, "Sweethearts"

Doomed singer-songwriter, twangy-voiced folkie, fondly remembered Chicago indie rockers, grunge godfathers, and goofy 1980s iconoclasts. Random, indeed!

January 20, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

Nelson Algren, The Last Carousel

Given my love of Nelson Algren's writing, I can't quite explain why I didn't come around sooner to The Last Carousel, his late collection of short stories and memoirs which was the last book published during his lifetime. Probably this was due to my general impression that the quality of his writing toward the end of his career had greatly diminished along with its considerably reduced quantity. Algren published extensively during the Forties and Fifties, with the stellar novels The Man With the Golden Arm, Never Come Morning and Walk on the Wild Side, the story collection The Neon Wilderness and the book-length essay Chicago: City on the Make. But by the late Fifties his output had slackened, for which numerous reasons have been suggested, none of which have proven completely satisfactory. Through the Sixties and early Seventies he was mostly writing magazine articles and some short stories, along with a never-completed novel, Entrapment, which was apparently the artistic millstone of his last few decades before his death in 1981.

My ignorance of The Last Carousel wasn't any lack of availability, as the book has been in print with Seven Stories Press since 1997, and an earlier edition has been on the shelf at my public library for the entire 10 years I've been a patron there. (I did check it out once but only read his hilarious piece on his Hollywood screenwriting fiasco and Otto Preminger before setting it aside and turning my focus elsewhere.) As I mentioned, my impression was that his writing had declined in his last decades, and I suppose I didn't want to sully my admiration for him by reading his less accomplished work. And now I've come to regret that presumption, because now I've finally read the book, devouring it over a few pleasant weeks and enjoying it a great deal.

To my great surprise, Algren's gift for writing - especially for fiction - was nearly as strong later on as it was during his 1940s prime. His terrific long story, "Bullring of the Summer Night", about the jockeys, owners and hangers-on at a third-rate Arkansas horsetrack, suggests that not only was Algren not wasting away his later years at the track, but that his powers of observation and description had barely diminished at all. In fact, he might have had a great horseracing novel in him had he opted to expend the effort. (In the interview collection Conversations With Nelson Algren, he suggests that after the Fifties he lost the energy and devotion for writing novels, which he figured wouldn't be appreciated anyway. He also seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his life away from writing, and dreaded being chained to a desk writing another "big book.") "Moon of the Afry Darfy" and "Watch Out for Daddy" are fine extensions of "Bullring", whose disgraced jockey Hollis Floweree is memorably depicted in "Arfy Darfy" as he drifts to Chicago and tries to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, while "Daddy" concerns two doomed addicts - a hooker and her pimp - who work out of the seedy bar where Hollis drinks.

As good as the fiction is here, though, my favorite piece in the collection is "Everything Inside Is a Penny" which despite its fictional touches appears to actually be a memoir from Algren's childhood. His warm rememberance of his South Side days - his mechanical genius father, his hectoring mother, the Catholic girl from the apartment upstairs who is young Nelson's first love, the trips to the West Side to visit his grandfather - are bracketed in preface and conclusion with a haunting description of an abandoned El station (apparently the station on the Lake Street line he passed through when visiting his grandfather) and the snowdrifts, lonely lights and memories which still linger there. The El station passages remind me quite a bit of the portions of The Man With the Golden Arm during which the lonely and forlorn Zosh whiles away her empty hours gazing out of her flophouse window at the windswept tracks outside; both invoke sadness, loss and what will never come again.

Though I'd recommend that newcomers to Algren first check out the early novels and especially Chicago: City on the Make, more seasoned Algren readers would be well-advised to check out The Last Carousel, which has plenty of great writing in its own right and is a surprisingly strong addition to his body of work. 

January 19, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Royko vs. Sinatra: Postscript

A few months back, I posted about the infamous angry letter than Frank Sinatra once sent to Mike Royko, as Old Blue Eyes was quite miffed over a Royko column which he felt had insulted him. At that time I thought the hilarious column which Royko wrote in response, which I remembered as being titled "Don't Bet Against Sinatra", was no longer in print. However, this morning at the library I browsed through One More Time, one of two Royko anthologies still in print, and was pleased to find the column there, under the unfamiliar title "Mr. Sinatra Sends A Letter." And even better, it's available online at the ethically slippery but relentlessly addictive Google Books. Go check it out - it's one of my very favorite Royko columns.

January 18, 2010 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

One Sentence Movie Review: Revolutionary Road (2008)


Revolutionary Road (2008): Fix your reality first, then work on your dreams.

Notes: Relentlessly bleak portrait of a marriage, one which I enjoyed even more than I had expected. The best DiCaprio film I've seen so far. Now on to the novel.

(Thanks to Kevin Smokler for the "one sentence movie review" concept.)

January 18, 2010 | Permalink | Comments (3)

Andreas William Heinesen

Birthday of a writer I've never heard of but am now quite interested in learning more about...
It's the birthday of the Faroe Islands' most famous writer, Andreas William Heinesen, born 110 years ago in Tórshavn (1900), a place he called the "navel of the world." The islands, which belong to Denmark, are in chilly waters halfway between Iceland and Scotland.

He spoke Faroese at home, a language descended from Old Norse and now spoken by fewer than 80,000 people in the world. But he wrote his novels and poetry in Danish, which he'd learned at school. Despite critical acclaim as a poet, he was so fretful that his Danish wasn't good enough that he read every single page of his first novel out loud to a native Danish speaker. That novel, published in Denmark in 1934 as Blæsende Gry, was translated into English and published just last year as Windswept Dawn (2009).

All of his books written in the Danish he acquired at school have since been translated into the Faroese that he grew up speaking. His novels Den sorte gryde (1949) and De fortabte spillemænd (1950) have recently been translated into English as well, as The Black Cauldron (2000) and The Lost Musicians (2006).
How wonderful that his books have been translated back into his native tongue, Faroese, which I assume is one of the world's many threatened-if-not-dying languages. For a translator and publisher to make this sort of effort to make his works available to a small and likely shrinking readership is truly admirable.

January 15, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Going Indie

After I finish The Last Carousel sometime during the next few days, my reading will take a decidedly indie turn in the coming weeks. Next up on the agenda is Tim Hall's Full Of It: The Birth, Death, and Life of an Underground Newspaper (Undie Press), Matt Bell's The Collectors (Caketrain Press), Rebecca Lee's Bobcat (Madras Press) and Claudia Smith's Put Your Head in My Lap (Future Tense Books). Stay tuned.

January 14, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Art Shay

The Chicago Reader points to a new Art Shay photographic exhibition, Art Shay True Colors, which opens this Friday at Thomas Masters Gallery (245 W. North Avenue in Chicago) and runs through February 15. A bit out the way from my office in the Loop, but a show I'd definitely like to see from the venerable artist.
Incorporating his known poetic punch and blunt bravery, Shay True Colors exhibits the peaks of our history with life’s softer moments and fresh perspectives of fleeting irony. From a man joyous and green working on the el to mourners over Martin Luther King’s open casket, we see Shay's roaming, unceasing perspective upon more than five decades.
Which reminds me that I really need to move Shay's Chicago's Nelson Algren to the top of my wish list. And not just because I'm absorbed in reading Algren at the moment.

January 13, 2010 in Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)


My powers of observation must be a bit dulled by the holidays, subfreezing temperatures, etc., because it wasn't until yesterday that I discovered the "random article" function on Wikipedia. So I clicked away, and these are the opening lines for the first ten articles I found:
Giuseppe Peroni (c. 1700 -1776) was an Italian painter of the Baroque period.

Chung Jae-Hun (born January 1, 1980 in Seoul, South Korea) is a South Korean starting pitcher who plays for the Doosan Bears in the Korean Baseball Organization.

Fatsia is a small genus of three species of evergreen shrubs native to southern Japan and Taiwan.

2007 in British radio: This is a list of events in British radio during 2007.

Story Paper Collectors' Digest was a journal published from November 1946 until May 2005.

Raizdos or Roigos was a king of the Odrysians of Thrace after ca. 280 BC. He was possibly the son of Cotys II.

Boofzheim is a commune in the Bas-Rhin department in Alsace in north-eastern France. It's name is probably derived from the French "boeuf" (bull or ox).

Nottingham Cooperative (or Nottingham as referred to by its residents) is a 21 room housing cooperative located at 146 Langdon St. in Madison, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Mendota.

Dimmer is a musical group from New Zealand. The driving force behind the band is Shayne Carter, a prominent New Zealand musician and member of such bands as Straitjacket Fits and Double Happys.

Carpophthoromyia scutellata is a species of tephritid or fruit flies in the genus Carpophthoromyia of the family Tephritidae.
A truly random and electic collection. This got me thinking what could possibly be the common denominator (if any) among the ten subjects, but then I realized that such a project would likely short-circuit my limited intellect or at least keep me gainfully unemployed for the rest of my life. So instead, I spent ten or fifteen minutes creating my own common denominator; that is, incorporating all ten into a flash fiction piece. So here 'tis.

In his third floor room at Nottingham, Billy turned down the volume on Dimmer's debut album and fired up the shortwave radio. Though Billy - a devoted botany/entomology double minor - knew he would soon return to his studying, where he was simulteneously reading about both the carpophthoromyia scutellata species of fruit flies and the fatsia evergreen shrubs of southern Japan and Taiwan, he still could not resist fiddling with the radio's tuner. He finally settled on a station from York, England, which was rebroadcasting a 2007 report on the Korean major leagues and the remarkable no-hit, twelve-walk shutout thrown by Chung Jae-Hun. But by the time the announcer had moved on to a chat with the avid collector of old issues of Story Paper Collector's Digest, Billy had lost interest, switched off the shortwave and turned Dimmer back up. He had done all of this while his roommate Rog chatted in the corner on his cellphone, complaining to his girlfriend about the tedious Peroni lecture he endured during art history class that afternoon before musing on his upcoming summer excursion to the Alsatian commune of Boofzheim, where he would be studying the ancient Thracian myths. Though mostly annoyed at Rog's banter, Billy couldn't help smiling at the latter, because while everyone else in Madison assumed Rog's name was short for Roger, Billy knew it was actually Roigos, after the Odrysian king. This revelation would have undoubtedly brought ridicule on Rog, even amongst their hyper-educated colleagues, and Billy's smile was for the knowledge that their secret could always be used as a weapon of blackmail against his roommate.

January 12, 2010 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (3)

The Flatiron, Under Construction


Though I've seen images of the iconic Flatiron Building countless times (including a framed poster of Edward Steichen's famous photograph, which once adorned my college dorm-room wall - yes, I've always been a geek), this is the first I've ever seen of the building under construction. Two oddities catch my eye - one, the unfinished fifth and sixth floors, as if the builders just skipped over those floors and vowed to get back to them eventually; and two, the scaffolds on the top floors being supported from within the building itself instead of from the ground.

January 11, 2010 in History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Not Fade Away


My friend Frank Jump is the subject of a lovely film by Jim Sayegh, Not Fade Away. The film highlights Frank's photographic documenting of "fading ads" painted on brick walls in New York City and elsewhere, which he charmingly refers to as "this ongoing project that doesn't want to go away." Frank has been a huge inspiration to me, both in photography and life in general. Please take a look at the film.

January 10, 2010 in Personal, Photography | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Are you going to be on our side?"

Another terrific Algren passage from The Last Carousel, this time from "I Guess You Fellows Just Don't Want Me." It's unclear whether the piece is a short story or personal anecdote, which is of course a moot point when the writing is this great.
Ipso's draftboard was a bit startled when he materialized at the induction center. Being three inches over six feet, weighing only 129 pounds, and the manner in which his head was set on his shoulders wouldn't have attracted special attention had it not been for the tiny American flag waving from the left lens of Ipso's tortoise-shell specs. The pin holding the frame had been lost; so Ipso had inserted the stem of the tiny flag to keep the glasses from falling off. Removing the flag from its stem would not only have been unpatriotic, Ipso explained, but would also constitute a felony.

All the inducting officer could think to ask was, "Are you going to be on our side?"

"I'd like to die for my country," Ipso announced, "but I have bad teeth."

"That's all right," the officer decided, having recovered from his first surprise, "we don't want you to bite the enemy."
I can just see the priceless look of incredulous disbelief on the officer's face when he first took sight of this goofball. This is certainly a varied collection, but one that I'm thoroughly enjoying.

January 8, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Michael T. Fournier, The Minutemen: Double Nickels On the Dime

Michael Fournier's The Minutemen: Double Nickels On the Dime benefits greatly from the author's passion, enthusiasm, and in-depth knowledge of the Minutemen's great album. Fournier's structure is very straightforward, with a short introduction followed by a more lengthy (but brief - this is the Minutemen he's writing about, after all) song-by-song discussion. The song pieces provide both details of lyrics and instrumentation, as well as interesting background on the band's history and mindset. On the downside, however, I found Fournier's writing style to be too casual for my tastes, seeming less like text and more of a transcription of the lectures he gives as a college instructor on the history of punk rock. The too-frequent asides ("Awesome!") and sloppy grammar - somewhat acceptable in everyday speech, but awkward on the written page - distracted me time and again from the otherwise interesting narrative.

Reading the book was a unique experience. After receiving it as Christmas gift, I zipped through it cover to cover over the holidays, but even as I did so, I realized that the song-heavy focus of the narrative meant it really should be read while listening to the album. So I read it again on the train while plugged into my iPod. With the iPod on pause, I would read the installment of one song, then listen to that song as I read through the installment again. This really helped me see the songs in much greater depth, although the repeated play-pause-play did lessen the listening flow of the album to some extent.

Despite my reservations on the writing style, if you're a fan of Double Nickels I can definitely recommend this book, which will undoubtedly enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of the album.

January 6, 2010 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bill Gleason

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Chicago sportswriter Bill Gleason, who died over the weekend at the ripe old age of 87. I can honestly say I don't remember any of his writing (he was with the Sun-Times, and my family read the Tribune) but his real legacy was as a founding member of "The Sportswriters" talk show, first on radio on WGN and later on TV on SportsChannel. The setting of the show was wonderfully natural - four guys sitting around a poker table in a smoke-filled room (literally - Gleason and Ben Bentley would be puffing big cigars for the entire broadcast), arguing, laughing, launching opinions that they could sometimes back up, sometimes not. In other words, just like any everyday sports conversation you yourself might have. Gleason came across like the crusty, wise, seen-it-all old timer (even more so than the even older Bentley, who only seemed expert on the subject of boxing) who lent an air of gravity to the red-faced bluster of Bill Jauss and the hip smartassery of Rick Telander. It was just four guys talking - no guests, no call-ins, none of the blowdried ego-stroking that passes for sports talk shows these days.

"The Sportswriters" was the only show I could stomach on the maddeningly middlebrow WGN, the leading Chicago station of the era which my parents listened to avidly. One of my fondest memories is driving home from somewhere or another on Sunday afternoons, listening to the show with my dad (whom, owing to the combative nature of the show's participants, always called it "The Sportsfighters"). Gleason, like my dad, was one of those no-BS, old-school guys that are becoming rarer every day. Farewell, sir.

January 4, 2010 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (2)

"They were killed because their outlawry was so profitless."

I'm continuing to work my way through Nelson Algren's story-and-essay collection The Last Carousel. In "After the Buffalo", he delivers a sympathetic portrait of Bonnie and Clyde, concluding that they weren't so much criminals as much as outsiders on the wrong side of respectable society. Here he makes the connection between the infamous outlaws and the hardscrabble American South which created them.
Neither Barrow's forebears nor Bonnie's had performed gallant deeds for ladies in farthingales against a background of trellised honeysuckle and the scent of magnolia. Their home had not been pillared mansions bearing Greek entablature. Their homes had been cabins and shanties and wagons. Yet it had not been the gentlemen of the Old South, but these wilderness castaways, among whom the myth of the cavalier persisted most strongly.

Driven out of England by Cromwell, the myth found sanctuary in the American South. And flowered its finest amid cotton-mill waste. And in those grubby small towns where Main Street was rutted by wagon-wheels; and the last gas-lamp on the outskirts looked tired all night long.

A myth sustained, during the Civil War, not by Southern commanders and politicians, but by the Southern farmer, hillman and tradesman of the rank and file. These were the ones whose savagery in battle kept alive a myth as unreal as a dream; a dream that they were fighting and dying in defense of white-columned mansions; although their own fences were sagging and unpainted. A Quixotic belief, though their own lives were brutal and mean, that they fought to save their honor. And it was this fantasy, when the war was lost, which informed their refusal to accept defeat...
What strikes me most about this passage is that though Algren strays from his more familiar subject matter, his authorial voice remains constant. (That "the last gas-lamp on the outskirts looked tired all night long" could have come right out of The Man With the Golden Arm.) Though it's not about the hopeless urban hustlers and prostitutes he is best known for writing about, this passage is unmistakably Algren.

As is this marvelously succinct and biting conclusion:
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were not gunned down simply because they were outlaws. They were killed because their outlawry was so profitless. There were no payoffs, no kickbacks, no graft and no fees involved in rawjaw robbery. Had they had the enterprise - as others had - to arrange fake bank robberies for a percentage of the take, they might have become respectable and prosperous members of a business community.
Perfect, simply perfect.

January 3, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)