Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Tony Baer: Recent Reads (a guest post): Anna Kavan, Ted Lewis, W.L. Heath, John Allen, Nat Turner, John Rechy, Eugene O'Neill, Carl Panzram, Agnes Smedley, Nelson Algren, Carlos Bulosan, Ralph Ellison

Ice, Anna Kavan.  A waifish, opiate-addled writer’s last breath:  a translucent bone thin blond heroine.  An obsessive pursuer, racing through a glacial earth, hallucinations and reality colliding like icebergs in a continental drift.  Sparse, terse prose, reporting a world to come.  Catch her if you can. 

GBH, Ted Lewis.  A drunken, booze guzzled writer’s last belch:  an alcoholic paranoid underworld kingpin, some underling in his outfit is screwing him.  How many kills and how much isolation til he peels down to the ugly core, exposing the rotting seed within. 
Only bummer is that unlike Kavan, Lewis lacks the courage of his convictions, going 3rd person omniscient after the kaleidoscopic downfall—just to make sure you got it, dear reader.  Wouldn’t want you left feeling as confused and wasted as your protagonist, would we?

Violent Saturday, W.L. Heath. So you’re reading Appointment in Samarra, or Tender is the Night, or maybe Revolutionary Road, and in the middle of it, and while the upper crust handsome couples self-immolate in wanton lust and plastered parties, some bank robbers come to town and blow everything to smithereens.  
I dug it.

Narrative of the Life of John Allen, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman, Being His Death-bed Confession to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison (1837).  Short, surprisingly readable, unapologetic, plain language life story of a burglar.  It's surprising to see that people were actually able to write in fairly modern American English in 1837.  Mainly a series of stories recounting various crimes and time in prison.  Unfortunately, he died about 2/3 of the way through the story, so the end of the book is written in the 3rd person by the warden.  According to Wikipedia, and probably more interesting than any content in the book, is this factoid:  "The book is most often associated with the copy in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum. This copy was bound in the author's own skin, tradition holding that Allen requested that a copy of his confession be bound in his skin and given to John A. Fenno, who had earlier resisted Allen's attempt to rob him."

Confessions of Nat Turner (the 1831 version--not the Styron novel).  Again, fairly plain English, which is nice.  I was shocked how violent Nat Turner's Confession was.  God told him to start killing slaveholders, so he and his buddies started doing it--Manson style.  They axe-murdered entire families, men, women, children, even infants.  Not at all apologetic, and not particularly abolitionist.  Nat Turner says his own master and family were fairly kind to him--so it wasn't retribution.  Nat Turner was a very religious man, memorized large chunks of the Bible, never took a drink, never gambled, never cursed, never engaged in sexual improprieties, and was revered by the other slaves who knew him as a kind of a prophet who thought he was on some apocalyptic mission from God.

City of Night, John Rechy (1963).  Semi-autobiographical story of a hustler, raised (razed) in El Paso, then onto New York, LA, Hollywood, San Fran, Chicago and finally to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  Definitely gives you the feeling for the life of a hustler in mid-century America, and all of the strange encounters of street life.  Has the ring of truth.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill.  You know what's odd is the passive-aggressiveness of the upper class when compared to the pure violence of the lower depths in the prior 3 books mentioned above.  Yes, the characters are all tearing each other apart.  But if you translated it in into another language, I bet the violence wouldn't register with the reader at all.  They're all drinking and syringing themselves to death, yes, but the proximate cause of all the pain is the guilt they thrust at each other like rapiers to the gut.

Panzram Papers by Carl Panzram:  The short memoir of a serial killer written right before execution in 1930.  Remarkable document.  Clean, simple, hardboiled prose.  Events flatly described without remorse and without pride.  No desire for either reprieve or profit.  No belief in redemption in this world or the next.  He made a gift of the memoir to a death-row guard he'd grown to like.  The guard, trying to find a publisher for years, finally got it published in 1970.  Read on Kindle:  $2.99 on Amazon

Daughter of Earth
, Agnes Smedley.  1929, semi-autobiographical novel of a poor Missouri farmer's daughter.  But this daughter is a freaking firebrand.  She is not going to accept a mediocre life if she can help it.  And she ain't gonna be dominated by shit.  This is the story of a born rebel who tries to bull her way through all the world's oppressive forces to become free.  No prison can cage her spirit.   Her only novel.  And pouring your soul into something like this, you doubt she had anything much left to say on the subject of her life.  [TM: she did write some short fiction, and nonfiction for The Masses and elsewhere]

Somebody in Boots, Nelson Algren.  1935.  Semi-autobiography of a road kid, part time hobo, part time pimp, small time criminal, full time loser, wandering around aimlessly across America after his father murders the guy that took his job and his sister converts the family home to her personal brothel.  After the book failed to sell, Algren tried to gas himself.  When that failed, he reinvented himself with the much less convincing (IMHO) but much better loved Never Come Morning.  Algren rewrote the book in the '60s using '60s hipster prose as Walk on the Wild Side, from which Lou Reed made a song (with some Warholian Factory flourishes).    

America is in the Heart, Carlos Bulosan.  1946.  Semi-autobiographical novel about a poor Philippine farmer's kid chasing after the American dream, travelling across the sea, finally to arrive at Alaskan canneries and migrant labor camps.  Trying to avoid the life of crime of his brother, a cheap crook, he shifts back and forth between shiftlessness and decency.  Inspired by his buddy John Fante, he writes down the story of his life.  

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. 1952. Despite a long life, Ellison only finished this one novel--another semi-autobiographical one.  And reading it, it's pretty easy to see that he, like Smedley, probably said all he had to say.  He grew up believing all the bullshit.  That if he'd be a good boy he could pull himself up by his bootstraps and make something of himself.  He was a really good orator.  He was recognized in high school for it.  And was to be given a medal and scholarship by the mayor at a town hall.  So he showed up to give his speech about being a good boy and lifting yourself by your bootstraps.  But the mayor said 'Oh, first things first, boy--first you gotta have a boxing match with 5 other black boys'.  So the white drunken crowd threw them all but naked into the ring and wanted the black boys tear each other to pieces, which they did, the winner getting a $10 bill.  Afterwards, he gives his speech on black and white unity to which no one listens.  He then goes to Howard University, where he works really hard to be a good boy.  He's so good that the chancellor chooses him to chauffeur around a big fat old white donor.  The donor orders him around.  He wants to see the real townfolk.  So on the white dude's orders they stop by the house of the town pariah who tells the donor his story of how he mistakenly impregnated his daughter one drunken evening.  The donor is equal parts appalled and titillated and really needs a drink.  So demands to be driven to the closest watering hole which happens to be the town whorehouse.  For showing the donor the reality of the town, he's expelled by the chancellor.  He heads to NYC, where the Commies pretend to befriend him in order use his oratory to cause Harlem riots, which they think might spearhead a revolution.  Now everyone hates him.  The Commies, the Black community, his family, the university.  He is nothing.  He is an invisible man.  

Reprinted from the Rara-Avis discussion with Tony's kind permission...

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