Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravity’s Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon (1973)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

I was familiar with Thomas Pynchon from having written a senior honors thesis as an undergraduate in 1972 on what writers in those days were calling “the absurd novel.” Alhough I focused on John Barth at the time, I was considering the contributions of Heller and Vonnegut as well, and had struggled through V.and been impressed by the very readable and clever Crying ofLot 49, so when Pynchon’s third novel came out in 1973, I really had to buy a copy of it.

But it was long—nearly 900 pages in the paperback edition I’d procured. And I was busy in the early stages of graduate school. So despite the hyperbolic initial reviews of the book—“If I were banished to the moon tomorrow and could take only five books along, this would have to be one of them,” wrote the New York Times reviewer, and from the Saturday Review, “At thirty-six, Pynchon has established himself as a novelist of major historical importance”—I let it linger on my bookshelf unattended for months. And as I heard of the frustrations of exasperated readers, and as the necessities and responsibilities of life kept mounting around me, those months turned into years and that great brick of a tome continued to sit on my shelf unopened for 46 years. But with some of the free time granted me by retirement, I recently took the plunge, picked up the book and actually read it.

Certainly the book’s reputation has not retained its stratospheric heights in the intervening four and a half decades. While it’s true that the book is included in Timemagazine’s famous list of the 100 greatest English-language novels published since 1923 (where it checks in at No. 39, right after The Grapes of Wrath and right before The Great Gatsby), it does not have the kind of widespread devotion that those novels have. And while it certainly has the reputation for being a very long, complex, and difficult read—as, for example, Ulysses or MobyDick have—there are far fewer readers who would claim Pynchon’s book is ultimately as rewarding as those. Even in the year after its publication, a year in which it won the National Book Award, it was selected by the 1974 Pulitzer Prize committee to receive the award in fiction,  but the selection was vetoed by the Pulitzer advisory board, who were reported to have found the novel “overwritten,” “turgid,” “obscene” in some parts, and overall “unreadable.” No Pulitzer for fiction was awarded that year.

Those remain the reactions of many of the novel’s readers, or perhaps I should say attempted readers. The book still has its staunch defenders, but the divided judgments of the Pulitzer group remain to this day. There is even a Website called “The 50 Best One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow” where you can read things like “I’m convinced this book could be an interesting 100 page novel if all the excess verbiage were excised” (Overwritten? Check.); “I’ve tried three times to read this book. The farthest I’ve got is about page 20. As I read, my mind drifts to other things” (Turgid? Yup.); “It is the rambling of some intellectual who is just trying to impress you with obscure references or shock you with descriptions of degenerate acts” (Obscene? Okay.”); and finally, “Life’s too short,” and “I finally threw it against the wall in disgust” (Unreadable? Apparently.).

Still, the book is considered by many to be the quintessential postmodern novel, and to be fair, perhaps it is simply the “postmodern” aspect of the novel that many other readers react negatively to. But those same readers do not react this way to Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five or the nearly-as-long Sot-Weed Factor or even The Crying of Lot 49. Milton talked about a “fit audience, though few” for his difficult epic Paradise Lost. Perhaps Pynchon had a similar limited audience in mind. The question to ask about Gravity’s Rainbow, then, may be, who is the intended audience?

For Gravity’s Rainbow has its defenders, of course. Chiefly they seem to admire its complexity (its sweeping encyclopedic scope and intricately wrought structure) and its tone (humorously irreverent and often scatological). The action focuses on Tyrone Slothrop, an American officer who, stationed in Britain late in the Second World War, comes under the scrutiny of British intelligence when it is discovered that the locations at which he has experienced erections with women in London correspond uncannily with areas of London struck by German V-2 missiles. The deeply paranoid Slothrop begins a quest that leads him across Europe in the last months of the war, searching for the location of, and the story behind, an ultimate rocket with the serial number 00000. The novel is divided into four major sections, each with a number of individual episodes separated by small squares, which some have likened to sprockets in a reel of film, since it could be said that Pynchon has emulated the structure of film in constructing the novel.

Slothrop becomes a picaresque character making his paranoid way through episode after episode, crossing paths with a Captain Blicero (a.k.a. Wiessmann), S.S. officer and rocket scientist; with a Dutch double-agent named Katje Borgesius with whom he has an affair; with the Soviet intelligence officer Vaslav Tchitcherine, who is on a quest to find his half-brother Enzian on whom he has vowed vengeance; with Enzian himself, who is commander of an all-African Schwarcommando company and has had an affair with Blicero; with silent film star Greta Erdman who is mentally unbalanced and addicted to masochistic sex; with the racist American Major Marvin Marvy, who is teamed with General Electric and trying to get access to German rocket technology and trying, at the same time, to eliminate Slothrop. One of the funnier scenes in the book is Slothrop hitting Major Marvy in the face with a pie thrown from a hot air balloon in which he is fleeing Marvy’s pursuing airplane.

But overall, as far as plot goes, there simply is no coherent plot in the sense that readers usually look for in a novel, but merely a set of vaguely related incidents with numerous sub-plots going off on tangents, and no real resolution to any of them—just for one example (and this may be a  spoiler in the usual sense, though I’m not sure the term even applies here), when Tchitcherine does at last meet his brother Enzian, nothing happens and they don’t recognize one another. So you don’t read this book for an absorbing plot.

There are a number of themes of note, including, first, the idea that nobody in a position of power is to be trusted (this book did come out during the Watergate scandal, after all): just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you . A second theme is the idea that technology has altered our society irreversibly and can be either a blessing or a curse—the rocket, for example, may take man to the moon (as it had begun to at the time of the novel’s first appearance) or it may carry an atomic missile like the one that destroyed Hiroshima at the end of the war, and which seems to lie behind the world-shattering rainbow vision Slothrop experiences at the climax of his story.

After this point, Slothrop becomes “scattered”—he seems not to be a united personality at all any more. And that’s just the epitome of the fact that you also don’t read this book for its memorable characterizations. The fact is there are some 400 characters in this 400,000 word novel, and you will never keep them all straight. Additionally, they are never introduced in any traditional manner, but simply dropped on us at the beginning of a chapter in which we are suddenly immersed in a crowded scene with no roadmap, something like the beginning of a scene in a movie. Sometimes we don’t even know what character is being talked about. Here, for example, is an effective use of this technique in the introduction of a scene from part one:

In silence, hidden from her, the camera follows as she moves deliberately longlegged about the rooms, an adolescent wideness and hunching to the shoulders, her hair not bluntly Dutch at all, but secured in a modish upsweep with an old, tarnished silver crown, yesterday’s new perm leaving her very blonde hair frozen on top in a hundred vertices, shining through the dark filigree.

But at its worst, Pynchon’s style can be bewildering and, as one of the one-star reviews above noted, can make your mind wander to other things before you get to the end of a sentence:

Whitecaps will come slamming in out of the darkness, and break high over the bow, and brine stream from the golden jackal mouth… Count Wafna lurch aft in nothing but his white bow tie, hands full of red, white, and blue chips that spill and clatter on deck, and he’ll never cash them in… the Countess Bibescue dreaming by the fo’c’sle of Bucharest four years ago, the January terror, the Iron Guard on the radio screaming Long Live Death, and the bodies of Jews and Leftists hung on the hooks of the city slaughter-houses, dripping on the boards smelling of meat and hide, having her breasts sucked by a boy of 6 or 7 in a velvet Fauntleroy suit, their wet hair flowing together indistinguishable as their moans now, will vanish inside sudden whiteness exploding over the bow… and stockings ladder, and silk frocks over rayon slips make swarming moires… hardons go limp without warning, bone buttons shake in terror… lights be thrown on again and the deck become a blinding mirror… and not too long after this, Slothrop will think he sees her, think he has found Bianca again-dark eyelashes plastered shut and face running with rain, he will see her lose her footing on the slimy deck, just as the Anubis starts a hard roll to port, and even at this stage of things-even in his distance-he will lunge after her without thinking much, slip himself as she vanishes under the chalky lifelines and gone, stagger trying to get back but be hit too soon in the kidneys and be flipped that easy over the side and it’s adios to the Anubis and all its screaming Fascist cargo, already no more ship, not even black sky as the rain drives down his falling eyes now in quick needlestrokes, and he hits, without a call for help, just a meek tearful oh fuck, tears that will add nothing to the whipped white desolation that passes for the Oder Haff tonight…

Now then: tell me please what is the subject of that sentence?

My point is, readers who are looking for a narrative with a strong plot, relatable characters, and rendered in lucid, articulate prose will be put off by Gravity’s Rainbow. If you believe in the absurdity of the universe (The universe is meaningless; If the universe has any meaning, it cannot be known; If any meaning can be known, it cannot be expressed in language), then you may appreciate Gravity’s Rainbow as the perfect marriage of form and content. For myself, I’m glad to have finally read the book, but I won’t be re-reading it any time soon. At least not for another 46 years.

Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

An Odd Couple: Judy and Joker

Judy (Rupert Goold 2019)

and Joker (Todd Phillips 2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

If you want to come out of the cinema with a smile on your lips and a song in your heart, you might want to avoid the way I spent last Saturday afternoon, going to back-to-back screenings of Rupert Goold’s new biopic of Judy Garland, starring Renee Zellweger as one of the premiere entertainers of the last century, and Todd Phillips’ dark “origin movie” of the Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Gotham City’s “Clown Prince of Crime.” They make an odd couple, but aside from their devastating stories, the two films have this in common: Though we are really not yet into the late-in-the year Oscar-contender season, critics are already touting Zellweger’s performance as almost certain to garner her fourth Oscar nomination, while Phoenix’s sympathetic homicidal maniac has generated Oscar buzz for him as well, in a film that, though it has received mixed reviews here, won the Golden Lion (top prize) at the Venice film festival earlier this year. Like Zellweger, it would be Phoenix’s fourth nomination. Unlike her, he has not won before.

Another thing the movies have in common is how much their stories owe to the pharmaceutical industry. Teenaged Judy Garland, viewed as nothing but a commodity both by her studio and her blindly ambitious stage mother, was fed amphetamines every morning to give her energy for the day, and barbiturates every night to send her to sleep. It was a pill habit that she continued for the remainder of her life, climaxing in death by barbiturate overdose at the age of 47. As for Arthur Fleck, AKA the Joker, his problem is the opposite of Garland’s: An invisible man, alternatively scorned and ignored by the rest of society, Flick suffers from mental illness, in part apparently inherited from his once institutionalized mother, in part the result of brain damage inflicted in an abusive home. He is on seven different (unspecified) medications. But when city budget cuts lead to the shutting down of the clinic he visits weekly, and it becomes clear to him that society doesn’t really care about people like him, the off-his-meds Arthur becomes, well, a rather significant danger to that society.

The third and most important feature both movies share is the disturbing suggestion that our lives are determined in Darwinian fashion by our heredity and environment, shackles that we forever struggle to free ourselves of. Judy Garland, daughter of a mother who pushes her mercilessly into stardom, and born with a burning desire to be adored by an audience (she tells us of performing at the age of two, and having to be dragged off the stage), is conditioned to need pills morning and night, which she eventually enhances with alcohol. She’s also conditioned to be taken care of and told what to do by the Men in Charge, the Louis B. Mayers of her world, who eventually become her revolving door of husbands. As for poor Arthur Fleck, he is the child of an ill mother whose boyfriend ends up abusing him, sending him to the hospital with brain damage.  He grows up in poverty with little chance to better himself, with no one to take enough of an interest in him to help his situation, taking care of a sick mother who gives him no encouragement, and being denied by an indifferent society the one thing—his medications—that would allow him to break out of the prison of his determined personality. In both films we are in situations where, in the words of W.H. Auden, “each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom.”

This is a takeaway particularly from Joker. Phillips, best known as a director for his three Hangover films, takes a turn down a dark road in this one, for which he also wrote the screenplay along with Scott Silver (Oscar-nominated for 2010’s The Fighter). The script owes a great deal to Martin Scorsese’s films depicting dangerous social misfits, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Scorsese veteran taxi driver Robert De Niro even appears in the film in a king of comedy role as a late night talk show host idolized by Arthur Fleck. The story focuses on a street clown with mental problems whose dream is to be a stand-up comedian, but as his unsympathetic mother unhelpfully says to him, “Don’t you have to actually be funny for that?” Sadly, Arthur is not. One of the symptoms of his mental illness, though, is a tendency to pathological laughter at inappropriate times: When we first see him, in fact, he is laughing hysterically in a meeting with his counselor, but we cannot be certain whether we are witnessing laughing or crying. And Arthur does not seem to be able to tell the difference. He also has some trouble with reality, being prone to fantasies about his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz of TV’s Atlanta). Arthur has no actual girlfriend, or friend of any kind. He endures physical abuse, bullying at his job (which he eventually loses), the loss of public help in providing his meds, and extreme public humiliation, until he finally snaps, striking back at the system.

And the personification of that system? It is young Bruce Wayne’s billionaire father, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen of TV’s True Detective), an unapologetic oligarch, born on third base and bragging about scoring, who is running for Gotham’s mayor and scorns the less fortunate as a bunch of “clowns.” And when Arthur snaps, he snaps big time, ultimately becoming a kind of folk hero for all of the have-nots in Gotham, who don clown masks and riot in the streets, ready to tear the whole system down. The path from Arthur to Joker seems inevitable. Arthur finally seems not to have the capacity to make another choice. It is society itself that could have chosen a different path, and elected not to.

There is a note of inevitability, too, in Judy, as screenwriter Tom Edge (in a script based largely on Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow) places most of the blame for Garland’s drug addiction and eating disorder squarely at the feet of Hollywood, and particularly of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery of TV’s Dickensian), who is depicted in flashback scenes with the teenaged Judy (Darci Shaw of TV’s The Bay) as controlling her diet and private life, and undermining her self-confidence. But the bulk of the film focuses on one major event late in Garland’s life: a five-week engagement at the “Talk of the Town” supper club in London, where she performed about six months before her death in 1969. Like many recent biopics, Judy follows the pattern set by Spielberg and Tony Kushner in Lincoln of concentrating on a single important event to encapsulate the life of the subject, and so avoiding the pitfall of the disjointed plot so easy to fall into with a whole-life-story.

Here, we meet Judy being tossed out of her hotel home with her children Lorna and Joey Luft because of her failure to pay her rent and so forced to let the children stay with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell of TV’s Man in the High Castle). Faced thus with losing custody of her children and broke through the mishandling of her money (mainly by agents and ex-husbands), and virtually unemployable because of her own undependability with her emotional and drug problems, Garland takes the only offer she has: a London engagement for producer Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon of the Harry Potter films). Delfont’s assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley from TV’s Chernobyl) is given the daunting, and ultimately impossible, task of keeping the fading but feisty star in line. For a time, her efforts are assisted by the young huckster/promoter Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock from The Last Black Man in San Francisco), who becomes Judy’s last husband and, in the film, her final disappointment (in real life, he was with her till the end and was the one who discovered her body).

In the end, unlike Joker,Rupert Goold (known chiefly as a major theater director in the UK) and Zellweger manage to create a story that is ultimately hopeful. Garland brings a lot of her disasters on herself through her own bad decisions, but also is able, when not strung out on pills and booze, to shine. Zellweger, remember, sang herself to an Oscar nomination in Chicago, and does her own singing here. She ain’t Judy, it’s true, but her renditions of songs like “For Once in My Life” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” are moving, and memorable. Garland’s resilience and optimism (you have to be optimistic to marry that many husbands) do come through here, and one charming (and totally fictitious) scene in which Judy has an impromptu dinner in the apartment of a gay couple who are longtime fans (played brilliantly by Andy Nyman of Ghost Storiesand Daniel Cerqueira from The Woman in Black) gives us a glimpse of the real Judy, free of the pressures of stardom and the anxieties of her personal demons. In the end, there’s something more here than a victim.

Both films have their issues: Some critics have worried that Joker may exacerbate the anti-social feeling of society’s disenfranchised who, like the clowns in the film, may simply want to tear the system down. I don’t share that fear, for, if I may quote W.H. Auden again, “poetry makes nothing happen.” The violently inclined don’t need a movie as an excuse. And just FYI, if you plan to see it, remember that R rating is truly earned by this film. As for Judy, it definitely plays fast and loose with the facts of Garland’s last hurrah in London, but it manages to portray the truth of her character.

In the end, Joker is a dark tale well told, mainly through Phoenix’s remarkable performance. But Zellweger’s Judy provides a ray of hope amid the detritus of a broken life. Three Tennyson’s for Joker, and half a Shakespeare besides for Judy and its glimpse of sunshine.

 

 

Quichotte

Quichotte

Salman Rushdie (2019)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Quichotte, was published in the United States on September 3, following an August 29 release in the United Kingdom and in India. His first novel, Midnight’s Children, won the coveted Booker Prize in 1981, and his fourth, The Satanic Verses, made him the object of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, placing him in danger of assassination and making him the most famous writer in the world, and the living symbol of the principle of freedom of speech. Does he still have the same talent for inciting controversy or inspiring strong emotions? His fourteenth novel, Quichotte, just shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, suggests that he does.

Despite strong initial reviews, Rushdie’s new novel, based in part on Cervantes’ immortal prototype of the picaresque novel (“Quichotte” is the French version of the Spanish Don Quixote, and references Jules Massenet’s 1910 opera Don Quichotte), the book has already garnered some mixed or even negative responses from respectable reviewers: Leo Robson, writing in The New Statesman, regarded Quichote as a “draining” novel and complained that “We’re simply stuck with an author prone to lapses in tact and taste, and a lack of respect for the reader’s time or powers of concentration.” Johanna Thomas-Corr, writing for The Guardian, said that “The novelist’s natural bent has always been towards the encyclopedic, but now he has graduated from encyclopedia to Google. Quichotte ends up suffering from a kind of internetitis, Rushdie swollen with the junk culture he intended to critique.” And Ron Charles at the Washington Post opined that “Rushdie’s style once unfurled with hypnotic elegance, but here it’s become a fire hose of brainy gags and literary allusions — tremendously clever but frequently tedious.”

I suppose I can see where these critics are coming from, but I found the book delightful, and the complexities they complain about wildly entertaining. I wonder if these critics have ever actually read Cervantes’ huge, episodic, meandering opus, whose protagonist wanders for a thousand pages across baroque Spain, encountering an encyclopedic plethora of characters and experiences, setting the pattern for the picaresque novel followed so beautifully by Rushdie. Or if they are unfamiliar with the post-modern absurd novel that characterized fiction of the sixties and seventies through such mammoth, meandering tomes as John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It may be that these readers think of such efforts as passé, relics of a different era, but if there was ever a time to look at American (and British, and Indian) society and recognize the absurd, this is it.

But Rushdie is quite familiar with Cervantes, and while he doesn’t follow the Spanish master’s plot episode by episode, like Joyce’s Ulysses with the Odyssey, he never loses sight of the spirit of Cervantes’ hero. He has discussed his inspiration in a recent interview, stating “Don Quixote is astonishingly modern, even postmodern—a novel whose characters know they are being written about and have opinions on the writing. I wanted my book to have a parallel storyline about my characters’ creator and his life, and then slowly to show how the two stories, the two narrative lines, become one.” And this he does, introducing readers shortly into his opus to a middling writer of spy fiction with the pen name of Sam DuChamp, who has self-reflexively created Quichotte, the contemporary Quixote, to examine his own life as well as the contemporary world, just as Cervantes satirized his own society. These goals result in precisely the kind of sprawling behemoth of a novel Rushhdie has produced: “So many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind,” he says in the book, “because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations.” Thus what we see in Quichotte is an America, and a Britain, that because of constant media bombardment in this “information age” are completely unable now to tell the difference between truth and lies. The world, he says, “has become so accustomed to wearing its masks that it has grown blind to what lies beneath.”

Quichotte begins with a scene amusingly parodying Quixote. As Cervantes’ hero went mad by reading too many chivalric romances, Ismail Smile, an elderly former pharmaceutical salesman, his brains addled by his obsession with watching everything he possibly can on television (and with an apparent inability to sift through all the chaff for kernels of truth or value), ultimately sees himself as the hero of his own story, and decides to rename himself “Quichotte” and set off on a quest that will take him across the country to New York City, where he will unite with his true angelic Dulcinea, a TV talk show hostess (conceived as “Oprah 2.0”) named Salma R., a South Asian-American born, like himself, in the city they still think of as “Bombay.” Along the way, Quichotte also imagines into being a son that he never had, a son he names Sancho who is to be, he says, “My son, my sidekick, my squire! Hutch to my Starsky, Spock to my Kirk, Scully to my Mulder, BJ to my Hawkeye, Robin to my Batman! Peele to my Key, Stimpy to my Ren, Niles to my Frazier, Arya to my Hound! Peggy to my Don, Jesse to my Walter, Tubbs to my Crockett, I love you!” This sort of over-the-top, endless plethora of pop culture references is what some of those negative reviewers are objecting to, but the purpose of Quichotte’s story, we are told by its author, is “to take on the destructive, mind-numbing junk culture of his time just as Cervantes had gone to war with the junk culture of his own age.” And this is what the book does, ad absurdem. But this is not a flaw. The bombardment of detail is the realization in print of a culture that does not separate truth from falsehood: Form matches content.

Behind this, of course, we also follow the life of Quichotte’s author DuChamp, who seems to be exorcizing his own demons through Quichote’s parallel life: like his character, DuChamp goes by an assumed name, was born in Bombay, sets out on his own quest to restore relationships with his estranged son—who in a nod to his father and to the spirit of Dadaism has taken on the name “Marcel DuChamp—and, like Quichotte himself, an estranged sister who is dying in London. Beyond this, of course, there is another presence that DuChamp senses, the presence of his own creator, whom he believes is God but we know is Rushdie. But from Sancho to Quichotte to DuChamp to Rushdie to God the novel swallows its own tail in a hall-of-mirrors construction that only tends to emphasize a world where truth is a matter of opinion. Fentanyl plays a significant part in both stories as Rushdie takes on the opioid crisis, as he takes on American gun culture and an unnamed president “who looks like a Christmas ham and talks like Chucky,” a “wholly imaginary chief executive who was obsessed by cable news, who pandered to a white supremacist base.”

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of this multi-faceted novel, which swells to incorporate not only the story of Don Quixote but also that of Pinocchio(complete with Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy), Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (with Mastodons taking the place of Rhinoceroses), and the favorite science-fiction theme of parallel universes. The book is a rollicking good time, even though it deals largely with devastating sorrow and disaster. Rushdie employs what Barth and Pynchon—and Heller and Vonnegut—chose to employ a generation ago: black humor in the face of an absurd world.

I do think this is a four Shakespeare book.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Paul Downs Colaizzo (2019)

Running a marathon is one of the most difficult achievements in the field of sports. Not because it takes remarkable athleticism, like hitting a 100 mph fastball, or throwing a touchdown pass against an NFL defense, or lasting a round with a heavyweight boxing champ. The thing about running a marathon is that almost anybody who is not disabled can do it. No, you’re not going to run like a Kenyan if you weren’t born with the physical gifts to do so, but you can finish a marathon if you work hard enough and your body holds up to the pounding. You can start, as my wife did, by running a single block, then a mile, then a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon, and then the 26.2 miles that make up the distance of a marathon. No one who hasn’t done it or strained themselves trying understands the grueling daily grind and determination that make up the quest. But everyone who has done so will appreciate Paul Downs Colaizzo’s new film, Brittany Runs a Marathon.

Colaizzo, who wrote and directed the film, is a successful playwright (he authored the critically acclaimed play Really, Really), but this is his first venture into filmmaking. So far this venture seems pretty successful, having won the Audience Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Critics and audiences alike are liking this quirky film, and it’s not difficult to see why. Colaizzo based the story on the experience of his own close friend and former roommate—whose name is, well, Brittany (you get to see pictures of her in the credits)—and so hits on real-life humor and hardships that real people in the audience will recognize as genuine.

Brittany Forgler is played by Jillian Bell, already recognized as a skilled comic actress with impeccable timing and delivery, demonstrated in films like 22 Jump Street and Office Christmas Party. This time she is asked to carry a movie, playing a New Yorker who’s pushing 30 but still wants to spend all night partying and can barely make her rent. Visiting a Yelp-recommended doctor from whom she hopes to score a prescription for Adderall, she gets smacked with a bitter dose of reality instead, being told that her weight, blood pressure, and body mass index are all in the unhealthy zone. And she must face the unpleasant truth that unless she makes some lifestyle changes, she’s heading for serious health issues down the road. Bell is funny but also touching in her realization of this crisis in her life, and she is successful in making her quest for a healthier life one that we care about with her. Bell was committed enough to the role to have lost a good deal of weight herself in the making of the film to better present, and understand, what her character was going through.

But there is far more to the film than Brittany’s successful diet-and-exercise program that gets her into shape to run a marathon, difficult as that regimen can be. Brittany’s unhealthy body is merely a symptom of an overall unhealthy lifestyle that includes alcohol and drug abuse, sex with strange men in the bathrooms of sleazy bars, an abandoned career in advertising, and a general overall problem with self-esteem—the latter in part the cause and in part the effect of those other issues.

Much of this is reflected in, and exacerbated by, her relationship with her roommate and “best friend” Gretchen (Alice Lee from TV’s Take Two), who is a thin, beautiful and narcissistic wannabe Instagram “influencer,” and to whom she plays the self-described “fat, funny sidekick.” It’s a familiar character dating back at least as far as Sancho Panza. In most movies, it would in fact be Gretchen who was the lead, and Brittany a minor character there to provide comic relief and to be a foil to the protagonist. But Colaizzo has said that in this film he intended to “take a stock character from big American comedies, the ‘fat sidekick,’ and turn the camera squarely in her direction,” and that’s what he’s done.

Turns out that in this case, the “sidekick” role was a protective shell for Brittany, who striking off on her own and doing things for herself instead of following Gretchen’s lead, finds that her relationship with her girlfriend was never real and always depended on her repressing her own desires and needs in favor of Gretchen’s. But at the same time she is realizing this, she is resisting anybody else who might be more sincerely interested in her friendship. Turns out that, like Groucho Marx, she doesn’t want to belong to a club that would have anybody like her as a member.

This includes her upstairs neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins of TV’s Casual and Robot Chickens), whom she and Gretchen see jogging every day and whom they have nicknamed “Moneybags Martha,” because they know she has a family and an apartment in Manhattan but uses her flat in Brittany’s building as a studio for her art. Brittany resents any fitness help Catherine wants to give her, believing (quite wrongly as it turns out) that in-shape Catherine has a perfect life and could never understand Brittany’s real problems. It also includes Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar from Blindspotting), who looks and acts like a kind of snarky Indian Jeff Goldblum. Jern is supposed to share the dog- and house-sitting job Brittany takes to make money for a gym membership, and turns out to have moved into the house he’s supposed to be watching. She resists him for a long time, believing he can’t possibly have her interests at heart.

This resistence to real relationships comes to a head in a devastating scene at a birthday party for her brother-in-law and substitute father Demetrius (Lil Rey Howery of Get Out), where after several drinks she lashes out with unprovoked venom at an overweight woman guest who has come to the party with a fit-looking male companion. It is an extremely painful scene in which Brittany spews forth all of her own self-loathing at a victim with whom she identifies. There is nothing simple about Brittany’s character, and Bell and Coraizzo are determined that we see her truthfully and see her whole.

One exception to this misanthropic side of Brittany’s character is her relationship with Seth (Micah Stock from TV’s Bonding), a fellow novice runner who has resolved to get himself into shape after he embarrassed his son by becoming winded in a sack race at the boy’s preschool.  She bonds with Seth as they bring up the rear their first day of running with Catherine’s running club, and, swayed by veteran runner Catherine’s extolling of the New York Marathon as a kind of Holy Grail for which to quest, the three of them make a pact to train for the event. But Brittany ultimately splits with Seth as well as Catherine when she thinks they are showing her pity. Can’t explain more without throwing in spoilers.

Suffice it to say that there are significant challenges and a roller coaster of ups and downs as Brittany makes her way toward her goals both in running and in human relationships, not to mention in self-image. The movie isn’t perfect—it would be nice to understand Brittany’s relationship with Seth better to understand why she doesn’t blow him off as she does everyone else. It would be nice to know a little more of Jern’s backstory to understand better why he is the way he is. But these are quibbles. Bell and Coraizzo have managed to create a character and  story that will resonate with anyone who’s ever tried to get into shape or tried to develop a more positive self-image. In other words, pretty much everybody. Except you Kenyans out there.

Three Tennysons for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
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Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

East of Eden

East of Eden

John Steinbeck (1952)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Having read and enjoyed John Steinbeck’s classics Of Mice and Men and the The Grapes of Wrath during my senior year of high school back in 1968, and spurred on by renewed interest in the Nobel-Prize winner’ work after his death that year, I got myself a copy of his other best known novel, East of Eden, sometime around fifty years ago. Daunted by the sheer size of the 700-page novel, I set it aside to read when I had more time. Fifty years later, I’m retired and yes, I’ve finally had time to read this novel, which Steinbeck considered his best.

I was amazed, actually, at what a quick read this book was considering its 700-page length. It’s not surprising that the book was a No. 1 best seller after its release in September 1952 (and climbed to number two again in 2003 after Oprah made it her book club choice). Steinbeck himself wrote that East of Eden “has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years,” and, further, that “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.” While I don’t think the novel has the focus and impact of The Grapes of Wrath, and may betray the conscious effort of the old master trying too hard to convince us this is his masterpiece, there is so much to celebrate in this novel that I can only call those early critics (who initially found the book preachy, disorganized, oversimplified in its depiction of good and evil, and unconvincing in its characterization, particularly of the brutal Cathy, churlish and ultimately short-sighted.

My acquaintance with Steinbeck’s story had previously come chiefly from Elia Kazan’s classic 1955 film version of the book, which featured the astonishing debut of James Dean as Cal (Caleb) Trask. I knew that film left a lot of the story out, but I was surprised that in fact it covered only perhaps the last quarter of the novel. But the film, concentrating on just one generation of the Trask family and leaving out the secondary development of the Hamilton family, was at once more unified and more focused than the novel itself, and in fact was initially better received by critics. And since the film focuses the book’s themes of sibling rivalry, inexplicable parental preference for one child over another, possibly irresistible tendencies toward good or evil, and the pressing need for love and the dire consequences of denial of love, it’s pretty easy to see in the film the novel’s inspiration in the Cain and Abel story—just in case you didn’t get it from the title (from Genesis 22.4.30: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.”)

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in my confusion over (and distaste for) the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain raises crops, Abel tends sheep, and both offer sacrifices to God. But God inexplicably prefers Abel’s offering to Cain’s, and no real explanation is offered in the text. Theologians love to explain the divine preference away and so justify God’s responses by assigning ignoble motives or attitudes to Cain, but nothing in the text itself validates these interpretations. It is simply an inscrutable preference—one might be tempted to call it “election”—of Abel over Cain. One temptation is to assume that Abel was simply created good and Cain evil. But Steinbeck refuses to accept that conclusion. He does confuse the story in his novel by noting that Abel therefore had no offspring, and hence all human beings are descendants of Cain, but Steinbeck didn’t read too carefully after chapter 22, since it is clearly stated that Adam and Eve had another son, Seth, from whom later generations are descended. But more importantly for the novel’s theme, Steinbeck’s character Lee, the Trasks’ Cantonese cook, adopted family member, and resident philosopher—who learned Hebrew solely for the purpose of understanding the Cain and Abel story—explains that the Hebrew word timshel means “thou mayest” when God uses it to address Cain, and therefore Cain (and all mankind since) is predestined neither to virtue nor iniquity, but has the ability to choose his own path in life.

In Steinbeck’s sweeping family saga, the Trask family’s patriarch Cyrus, a Civil War veteran who becomes a military adviser in Washington after the war, has two sons, Adam and Charles (the “A” and “C” names reflect Abel and Cain respectively). Adam resents his father but is loved the most, while Charles loves his father, who is indifferent to him. When Cyrus prefers Adam’s gift of a stray puppy to Charles’ present of an expensive knife, Charles tries to kill Adam.

This scenario repeats itself in the next generation. After inheriting a good sum of money from his father, Adam marries Cathy, a girl of questionable virtue (who has in fact killed her own parents), then moves to California with her. She finds she is pregnant, and though she tells him she doesn’t want to move to California and doesn’t want children his response of “Nonsense” suggests that perhaps he was not really listening to her. After, having given birth to twin boys, she shoots him and leaves, he is somewhat more disposed to believe her. Is she the Eve to this Adam? Or is she perhaps the serpent, bringing sin into his California Paradise?

The twins, Aron and Cal (there’s that “A” and “C” thing again) do grow up with contrasting docile and wild tendencies, and surprise surprise, when Cal tries to give Adam a huge gift, Adam rejects it, preferring Aron’s good intentions. Needless to say, this has dire consequences for both Cal and Aron, and raises the question of whether Cal inevitably takes after his mother—and his uncle (who, for all we know, may in fact be his biological father). But remember the meaning of timshel.

Steinbeck said that he wrote the book for his young sons, Thom and John (at the time aged six and four). He wanted them to understand their own family history, and to describe for them in loving detail the Salinas Valley that is the setting of the tale, and in which Steinbeck himself had grown up. He begins the novel with a long and sensually rich description of the valley. He also includes as a foil to the serious and nearly humorless Adam a semi-fictionalized version of his own maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, who with his wife, Liza, has emigrated from Ireland and managed to scrape a living for his family of nine children out of a rough, infertile piece of land, while befriending and helping Adam Trask when, with his father’s fortune, he moves in from the east and buys the richest ranch in the valley. The relationships within the Hamilton family, which has its own Messiah in the form of young Tom, are at once more complex and less stark than in the Trask family, owing almost certainly to a less severe and more loving patriarch than Adam, or Cyrus—or, for that matter, the God of Genesis.

Curiously, one of the Hamilton daughters marries a Steinbeck, and they have a son named John who, it turns out, tells us he is the narrator of the story. It’s a clever twist and no doubt one that delighted Steinbeck’s children when they were able to read the book. But it lets the rest of us in on the degree to which this novel was extremely personal to the author—so personal that he actually kept track of his writing process on the book with a double-entry journal in which he wrote notes and letters for his publisher commenting on his process on the left side of the page, and wrote out his actual draft of the book on the right. The letters were published the year after Steinbeck died in a commentary called Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.

Ultimately this epic novel is a significant achievement in 20th-century American literature and has a universal mythic quality. It would be churlish of me not to award it four Shakespeares.

 

COMING SOON!

The latest Merlin Mystery from Jay Ruud, THE KNIGHT OF THE CART, will be available September 15, but you can preorder your copy today! To learn more about this and other Merlin Mysteries, visit https://encirclepub.com/product-tag/ruud/

 

Blinded by the Light

Blinded By the Light

Gurinder Chadha (2019)

In 1927, the movie industry was revolutionized by Warner Brothers’ release of The Jazz Singer—a musical drama that featured the first sound dialogue and the first synchronized recorded musical score, including six songs performed by Al Jolson, the most popular singer of his time. The film traced the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young singer who defies his family’s old-world Jewish traditions, embodied chiefly by his cantor father, and though Jakie leaves his home and changes his name to make it as a jazz singer, he cannot escape his heritage.

Flash forward to 2019 and change the venue from early 20th century New York to Thatcher-era Britain, change traditional Jewish culture to Pakistani, and you’ve got essentially the same plot, repackaged to make it more timely. There have, of course, been countless similar movies in the 92 years in between (including two remakes of The Jazz Singer itself, not to mention recent films that give the basic intergenerational conflict a South-Asian flavor, like The Big Sick), so the question we need to ask about this film is this: Given the fact that we’ve seen this plot countless times before, what is there in this iteration of the old cliché that makes it worth our while to watch it again?

Well, people went to The Jazz Singer to hear Jolson sing. If you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan (and if you’re not, get off of my page) you may want to go to this movie to hear Springsteen. Not that he appears in it himself, but it is his music that inspires the film’s young protagonist Javed (the remarkable newcomer Viveik Kalra, who was essentially picked straight out of acting school to play this part) to follow his own path and defy his autocratic father Malik (a surprisingly sympathetic Kulvinder Ghir of TV’s Still Open All Hours). And Springsteen liked the premise of this film so much that he allowed them to use 17 of his songs, thus making the film’s soundtrack a beautiful thing to behold. And there are really not many movie experiences this summer more joyous than seeing three teenagers romping to “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road” in Bollywood style production numbers in the working class British factory town of Luton.

Secondly, the film’s optimistic depiction of how music or art can both inspire and bring people together raises this movie above the cliché. Javed, an aspiring poet, has been writing his thoughts and his verse in journals for years, but never seems to be willing to make his work public, except by occasionally writing lyrics for his lifelong white neighbor and friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman of Game of Thrones).

But in school, the Muslim Javed meets a new Sikh friend named Roops (Aaron Phagura of TV’s Him), who clues him in to the Boss. From the moment he sticks the cassette tape of Born in the USA into his 1987 Walkman, Javed is hooked. Astounded by the feeling that a white American New Jersey rocker can speak with such instant understanding to the son of a Pakistani immigrant factory worker in British Luton, Javed exclaims “Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt!”

Feeling his own emotions put into Bruce’s words—“It’s a town full of losers/I’m pulling out”— Javed finds the inspiration to hone his own writing, winning an essay contest that his sympathetic English teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell of Avengers: Endgame) enters him in, writing a love poem for the activist white girl Eliza (Nell Williams, another Game of Thrones alumna), and finally writing decent lyrics for old buddy Matt. In fact, Javed even finds a way to bond with Matt’s dad (a lively Rob Brydon from Tristram Shandy), a huge Springsteen fan. Thus music brings together white and brown, immigrant and native, Muslim, Christian and Sikh. Sure it’s idealistic and maybe a bit cheesy, but it does feel good and there’s something true about it.

That truth comes in the face of real racism and xenophobia that the film does not shrink from. The film was directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), who knows what it was like growing up in London with an East African Indian background. Chadha co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Paul Mayeda-Burges loosely basing the script on a 2007 memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, who traced his own Javed-like obsession with Springsteen in a book entitled Greetings from Bury Park (Bury Park is a district of the city of Luton, and the title, of course, puns on Springsteen’s debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.).

The film presents quite starkly the skinhead bullying Javed meets on an everyday basis, the swastikas and “Pakis Go Home” graffiti spray-painted on their doors, white children urinating through the mail slots of a Pakistani apartment, even a pig’s head stuck on a community minaret. When Javed publishes a front-page article in the local newspaper extolling the importance of the local mosque, his father Malik is furious with him—such a thing goes against his time-honored approach of keeping his head down and not making waves, essentially of being inoffensive himself in the face of much that is offensive. But when Malik, caught in the high unemployment brought on by Thatcher-era economics, is laid off from his job at the local GM plant after 16 years, he wonders why he ever came to Britain.

It is impossible to see this film without seeing the obvious parallels with the white nationalist politics of Brexit-era Britain and Trumpesque America. The movie isn’t suggesting that pop music, or any other art, is going to heal those deep divisions. After all, as the highly political W.H. Auden said, “poetry makes nothing happen.” But it does make the inoffensive point that (though no fan of the president, whom he has called “deeply damaged”), Springsteen’s music is in many ways the voice of white working class America—from which much of Trump’s base comes—and voices precisely the same concerns and desires that fire South Asian immigrants. On the level of basic humanity, this film strikes home in an unexpected way.

In 1927, Jolson performed in blackface in that first talking musical, evincing a casual racism that is shocking today to anyone who watches the old film. Although it is often hard to see, and may be two steps forward and one step back, society moves inexorably toward enlightenment. Blinded By the Light takes the old story and presents it with a contemporary sensibility, despite its setting more than 30 years in the past. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

COMING SOON!

The latest Merlin Mystery from Jay Ruud, THE KNIGHT OF THE CART, will be available September 15, but you can preorder your copy today! To learn more about this and other Merlin Mysteries, visit https://encirclepub.com/product-tag/ruud/

Baudolino

Baudolino

Umberto Eco (2000)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

The historical Baudolino was an early eighth-century saint who lived in the Piedmont area of northwestern Italy. A hermit reputed to have prophetic powers, Baudolino eventually became the patron saint of the nearby town of Alessandria, his relics having been removed to the city after its founding some four centuries later. The title character of Umberto Eco’s sprawling 2000 novel is named for the patron saint of his native city—that same city in which Eco himself was born, making this perhaps the most personal of all Eco’s novels.

The city of Alessandria was founded the year 1168, and was originally built as a fortified city by the Lombard League, a confederation of northern Italian cities for the purpose of defending their traditional rights against the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa. Accordingly, its inhabitants named the city for Frederick’s great enemy, the Pope Alexander III. There is further a statue in the cathedral of modern-day Alessandria honoring a legendary peasant by the name of Gagliaudo, who according to local lore saved the city from a siege by the emperor Frederick when he gorged his cow with all the last remaining grain in the city and led it out so that he could be captured with it by imperial troops, who killed the cow and found its stomach stuffed with grain. Gagliaudo was able to convince them that the city was so full of grain they had no room to store it all, and so were giving it to their beasts. The ruse purportedly convinced the emperor to give up the siege and withdraw from Lombardy. Eco includes the legend in his book, and even makes peasant Gagliaudo the biological father of his protagonist, Baudolino.

But that doesn’t begin to introduce this wildly freewheeling book made up of loosely disparate episodes ranging across the known world of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Baudolino bounces from Italy to Germany to Paris to Constantinople to mythical lands east of India, and manages to combine a young man’s rise from obscurity to university life and the intrigues of an imperial court with crusading adventures and a quest for the Holy Grail and manages to throw in tall travelers’ tales and a locked-room murder mystery. Eco was a scholar in medieval studies as well as semiotics, and combined both interests in his widely popular and acclaimed first novel, The Name of the Rose. But critics and scholars were on much firmer ground with that novel: they could understand what it was—a realistic historical murder mystery with a unified plot and finite set of characters, set in a medieval monastery, with a Holmes-like detective steeped in the scientific method of Roger Bacon and the nominalism of William of Ockham. What’s not to like?

What has most perplexed readers of this book is their inability to fit it into any conventional notion of genre or form. By turns a Bildungsroman (reminiscent of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), a historical mystery (like The Name of the Rose itself), a philosophical fable (at times recalling Voltaire’s Candide or Johnson’s Rasselas), a fantastic traveler’s tale (like the popular medieval Travels of Sir John Mandeville), but chiefly it falls under the broad heading of a picaresque comedy, and so has elements in common with everything from Don Quixote to such more recent exercises in fabulation as John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.

Accepting Eco’s form as its own organic construct is the first step toward a true appreciation of this book. The second is accepting the slippery protagonist as the prince of fabulators. Baudolino, a self-confessed inveterate liar, relates his life story to the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates—real-life author of a twenty-one book History of the Eastern Roman Empire covering the period 1118 through 1207, a text including a description of the sack of Constantinople during the infamous Fourth Crusade. It’s during this sack that Baudolino relates his life story to Niketas in a number of individual narratives over a period of several days. Like Niketas, we are regaled with the story of Baudolino’s adoption by Emperor Frederick and his unrequited love for Frederick’s wife Beatrice of Burgundy, his education at the University of Paris, his role in defending his home town against the Emperor’s forces, his marriage to and loss of his 15-year old girl bride.

Added to these episodes, which may be true, are his many fictions, beginning with his own poems that are passed off as the compositions of one of his friends, and his forging of relics—including nails of the True Cross, relics of the Magi for the Cathedral at Cologne, six preserved heads of John the Baptist, and the Holy Grail itself, which is in reality a wooden bowl used by his father Gagliaudo. Ultimately he forges letters from the legendary Prester John, mythical ruler of a fabulous Christian kingdom in the extreme East, and then leads a group of friends, with a forged map, to find Prester John—who must exist because they have letters from him. He and his companions, passing themselves off as the twelve biblical Wise Men, meet fantastical giants and pygmies, uniped “Skiapods” and creatures Othello described as “men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,” great floppy-eared Panotti, and half-virgin, half-goat Hypatias (female versions of Satyrs), all straight out of Pliny the Elder and Mandeville’s fantastic travels, and all seeing no difference between themselves and the other creatures other than their bitter differences in theology. At least that’s what Baudolino tells Niketas.

Meantime Baudolino’s companions form a motley crew of 12th-century philosophers, courtiers and scholars, including a rabbi named Solomon who wants to come along to the kingdom of Prester John in hopes of finding the ten lost tribes of Israel; a poet who turns out to be the famous historical Archpoet, most famous of the Goliards—writers of student verse in Latin; another romantic poet in love with a woman he has never seen and can only envision (paralleling remarkably the legendary biography of the famous Provencal troubadour Jaufre Rudel), the mythical Kyot (purported to be the source for Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, a romance of the Grail); Robert de Boron, real-life author of the French romances of Joseph of Arimathea and Merlin; and a shady Byzantine priest named Zosimos who is even more of a trickster than Baudolino himself.

And so the book is a comic post-modern romp of intertextuality that really should delight the medievalists who read it. Beyond that it is an exploration of the ability of the human mind to create stories that ultimately shape the real world. Baudolino’s imaginary inventions, forgeries, and outright lies ultimately shape the external world even as they shape his own conception of his world: he believes in the Grail even though he created the relic himself. He believes in the kingdom of Pester John even though he bases his belief largely on his own forged letters purported to come from that kingdom. He even seems to believe in the clearly mythical beasts he claims to have seen in the far east, particularly the Hypatias, one of whom he seems to be in love with. In a book filled with theological debates as well, his experiences seem to give credence to the argument that God must exist if human beings have the ability to imagine Him. And ultimately, of course, the book underscores the role of the writer, the fabulist, like Baudolino and like Eco himself, in the construction of reality for their contemporaries. At the end of the novel, the historian makes the conscious decision not to include any of Baudolino’s revelations in his history—even though that omission is itself a falsification. But we are assured that one day, an even greater liar will come along and restore the tale. Which the lying author Eco has done.

On its first appearance, Baudolino was less well received than most of Eco’s previous books had been. It was too little like more conventional novels to be popular. In our current environment, as we deal with fabrications, mendacities and downright lies every day at the highest levels of our society and see how reality is daily shaped for us to a high degree, it is sobering to see what Eco portrayed as a philosophical proposition materializing in the real world in highly unpleasant ways. In Eco’s book, it is a splash of cold reality, revealing to Baudolino his own culpability in a way that he must, in the face of the facts, accept as true, that snaps him out of his imagined world. Perhaps Eco is showing us our own future through this imagined past.

I do like this book much more than its first reviewers did. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

 

COMING SOON!

The latest Merlin Mystery from Jay Ruud, THE KNIGHT OF THE CART, will be available September 15, but you can preorder your copy today! To learn more about this and other Merlin Mysteries, visit https://encirclepub.com/product-tag/ruud/

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Simon Curtis (2019)

The Art of Racing in the Rain was a huge bestseller for author Garth Stein in 2008, the sort of novel that cries out to be made into a movie, since it will have a guaranteed audience of folks who already fell in love with the book. There was one little stumbling block in this book’s road to cinematic glory: The narrator and true protagonist of the novel is a dog—Enzo, named for legendary Italian racecar driver Enzo Ferrari. Of course, animation is always a possibility in such a case, but the fact is the novel was written for adults and the plot was not so very kid-friendly. CGI is another possibility these days, but it’s not, after all, a superhero story and such effects probably wouldn’t set the right tone. And so the filmmakers opted for alternative number three: a voiceover by Enzo from veteran actor Kevin Costner.

And that choice was a particularly happy one. Costner’s narration is warm, folksy, wise and funny. Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) has chosen to make Enzo a golden retriever, rather than the mixed-breed mutt he is in the book. Dog lovers will find him beautiful and loveable, and his musings philosophical and full of common sense. And dog lovers are unquestionably the intended audience for this film.

Apparently there are not a lot of dog lovers amongst film critics these days, for The Art of Racing in the Rain currently has only a 43 percent rating from critics on the film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. And it’s possible this negative critical reception has served to keep down the audiences for this film, since it made a rather disappointing $8 million over its opening weekend, well behind the other two major opening films, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ($21 million) and Dora and the Lost City of Gold ($17 million). But weighing in against outright condemnation of the movie is the heartening fact that 96 percent of the 1,610 audience-member reviews posted on Rotten Tomatoes liked the film (as opposed to just 72 percent of Scary Stories audience members, and 89 percent of Dora viewers).

How does one explain this remarkable 53 percent discrepancy between critics and audiences? Critics are likely to explain it this way: The movie is cliché, manipulative and sentimental, with a plot that is trite and predictable and deliberately designed to pull at viewers’ heartstrings with hackneyed motifs like the family dog, a young girl in danger of being taken from her parents, and a lingering death. Audiences like the movie because they are suckers for such manipulation.

Audiences, however, are likely to answer thus: We can relate to someone we love wasting away from illness because most of us have been there. We can empathize with the possible loss of a child because we love our children. And damn it, we love our dogs too.

Besides, many of those audience reviewers are likely among those readers who enjoyed the book and knew exactly what to expect when they bought their tickets. Curtis and screenwriter Mark Bomback (War for the Planet of the Apes) have created a film adaptation that stays extremely faithful to the novel, so most of what critics are complaining about are things that come directly from the film’s source material—which means that, if the critics knew anything about the book ahead of time, they already had a negative review written in their heads before they saw the movie. You can’t really blame Curtis or Bomback for the film’s canine point of view, or the manipulative sentimentality, because it’s all to be laid at Stein’s door. All except the embodiment of Enzo as a golden retriever. And none of the critics seemed to want to complain about that.

The film opens with the aged Enzo nearing the end of his life (thus capturing the dog-lover’s heart from the first moments), and the story is told almost completely through Enzo’s flashbacks. He is adopted as a puppy by Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia of TV’s This Is Us), a Seattle-based race car driver with a lot of  talent but still looking for his big break. Denny and Enzo are inseparable, as Denny takes his dog to the race track and watches videos of his own performances as well as classic races with Enzo, all the time talking to him about his philosophy of racing, a philosophy that Enzo picks up and applies to life itself. Denny is at his best driving in the rain, for he knows better than other drivers that the secret is to “create your own conditions” rather than allow the rain to dictate what you do. Concentrate on the present rather than the past or future, Denny tells Enzo, and remember that when you drive, the car goes where your eyes go. All these little snippets of wisdom are, we and Enzo assume, applicable not just to driving but to maneuvering through the tempests that life will throw at us.

Enzo’s first squall comes in the form of Eve (Amanda Seyfried of Mama Mia! Here We Go Again), whom Denny meets and is immediately charmed by. Enzo doesn’t really see the attraction. “Denny was clearly taken with her grooming,” he relates. “She probably bathed every day for all I knew. I admit I loathed the attention he lavished on her, with her opposable thumbs and plump butt.” But he learns to share his beloved Denny when he and Eve are married, and when daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong from TV’s Anne) arrives, Enzo takes very seriously his role as her protector. Eve’s wealthy parents, Trish (Kathy Baker of TV’s Picket Fences) and Maxwell (Martin Donovan of TV’s Big Little Lies), whom Enzo calls “the twins,” don’t much like Denny, and Enzo is wary of them, rightfully as it turns out. Denny and Eve’s tranquil life soon goes off the rails, but I won’t spoil it by saying any more. If you’ve read the book, you already know.

All these things, as mentioned, are seen through the lens of Enzo’s eyes and his memory. Thus, for example, for a film whose title suggests that “racing” will be an important element, there are precious few actual race scenes in the movie, and those there are, are mainly seen on television, because that’s where Enzo sees them. So if you’re looking to see a movie with thrilling race scenes, wait for Ford v Ferrari later this fall, because you won’t find it here. One of the critics’ main knocks on this film is that we don’t really get particularly close to the characters, and that they seem thinly developed, and this mainly because we don’t know them directly, we know them only through Enzo’s thoughts.

But critics who say that seem to be missing the point. The fact is that this is not a movie about the human characters. This is a movie about a dog. That’s what the dog lovers in the audience understand that the critics do not. This is Enzo’s story. Enzo spends his life learning, from his own experiences, from Denny, and from watching TV, which he does a lot. We learn from the aged Enzo in the movie’s first scene that he has become wise through conscious effort, because he firmly believes something he’s seen on a television documentary about Mongolia: According to Mongolian legend, dogs may be reincarnated as human beings if they achieve a certain level of enlightenment in their canine lives. And the film is the story of Enzo’s enlightenment through his loving relationship with Denny.

For me, that particular aspect of the movie, and the book that inspired it, is the least compelling point. From my own experience of dogs and humans, I can say that a dog, as capable of selfless love as any human (and more capable than most), is as worthy a creature in his own right as the majority of people and has no need be reborn as a human. And I suspect that the dog lovers who are this film’s intended audience will feel the same way. I’ll give this one three Tennysons.

 

amed a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

Wonder Boys

Wonder Boys

Michael Chabon (1995)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

A lot of readers know Michael Chabon mainly for his epic 2001 Pulitzer-Prize tour de force The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the kind of book that gets permanently in your head and that you realize if it were the only book he had ever written Chabon would be a Salinger-level genius. But the fact is it was the earlier Wonder Boys that first put Chabon on the literary map after his promising first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988). And this was in part because of the highly successful film version of the book starring Michael Douglas, Robert Downey, Jr., and Tobey Maguire and directed by L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson. But more than simply the basis of a hit movie or the precursor of a great book, Wonder Boys is an excellent novel in its own right, and a book that should particularly appeal to writers.

The novel’s protagonist, Grady Tripp, is a creative writing professor and fiction writer at a small Pittsburgh liberal arts institution, whose Korean-Jewish (third) wife has walked out on him on the eve of an important annual conference hosted by his school’s English department. Known as “WordFest,” the conference brings together writers and publishers from around the country for a weekend of social and professional interaction, including a John Updike-like major speaker referred to only as “Q.” Among the participants in the conference will be Grady’s editor and former college buddy Terry Crabtree, who’s been waiting for a finished novel from Grady for years.

There are three significant conflicts for our poor protagonist as the novel spans the WordFest weekend: Turns out his wife has left him because he’s been having an affair with Sara Gaskell, the chancellor of the college who also happens to be married to the head of Grady’s department. Grady has some vague thoughts of getting back with his wife, and even endures a bizarre Seder at her parents’ house amid his other conference responsibilities, but since he’s just found out that Sara is pregnant with his child, he’s pretty sure that’s not going to work out.

Grady’s second conflict is trying to convince Crabtree that he’s about to finish his book. After an acclaimed and promising first novel called The Land Downstairs, Grady has been working for seven years on a manuscript called “WonderBoys,” a manuscript that has now run to 2,611 pages and shows no sign of ever concluding. Keeping in mind that Wonder Boys is Chabon’s second novel, and that it came out seven years after his own successful first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, it’s no stretch to suspect that Chabon is projecting some of his own writer’s anxieties onto his protagonist. But that becomes pretty obvious when one finds that Chabon himself worked for those seven years on a novel called Fountain City, about building a perfect baseball stadium in Florida, before he abandoned that novel and fairly quickly wrote this one. (Grady is also based on the well-known Pittsburgh professor and former teacher of Chabon’s named Chuck Kinder, who worked for decades on a book about his own relationship with author Raymond Carver, and whose manuscript grew to a behemoth 3,000 pages).

Finally, Grady also finds himself in a darkly comic plot involving one of his students, a certain James Leer, a young writer who arouses conflicting emotions of sympathy, befuddlement, and jealousy in the older man. James has written a novel that shows great promise and solid talent, and that he’s actually finished with far fewer than 2,000 pages. And it’s a novel that Crabtree seems more interested in than Grady’s interminable tome. Crabtree’s feelings for James are less conflicted and more carnal in nature. But James ends up attending a WordFest party at Sara’s house, shooting her dog and brazenly stealing Marylyn Monroe’s jacket from Sara’s husband’s Joe DiMaggio memorabilia collection.

This is a novel that is all about writers: young writers, old writers, successful writers, failed writers who’ve gone over to the dark side of publishing, blocked writers who are just trying to find a way out of the corner they’ve written themselves into. And therefore it’s also a book for writers. If you writers don’t see yourself in one of the characters, you’ll likely see yourself in another.

But if that were the only thing about Wonder Boys that was valuable, you probably needn’t read the book at all, but just go find the movie and watch it. And while that would certainly not be time wasted, you’d miss the language of the book. Chabon is one of the great current masters of the English language, so it you just watch the movie, you’re going to miss sentences like this:

Although it was only nine o’clock he had already gone once around the pharmacological wheel to which he’d strapped himself for the evening, stolen a tuba, and offended a transvestite; and now his companions were beginning, with delight and aplomb, to barf. It was definitely a Crabtree kind of night.

It’s funny, it’s playful, it has an infectious rhythm to it, and it has that ironic and unexpected punch at the end that not only rounds out the passage satisfactorily, but for good measure helps construct the character of Terry Crabtree without any obvious kind of exposition like “Terry Crabtree liked to party. Often he took things too far.” In these two sentences is a seminar in how to write modern American prose.

As for Grady himself, Chabon calls him

an elephantine piece of machinery… all vacuum tubes and gear work with a plain old analog dial of a face, such a dented, gas-guzzling old Galaxie 500 of a man.

Is there a more effective way of describing someone completely out of step with contemporary society, a society determined by new technology, than to describe him as if he himself is a relic of the Web-less past?

Or consider this picture of Grady’s impregnated love interest Sara:

She imprisoned her glorious hair within its scaffolding of pins, painted a thin copper line across her lips for makeup, and aside from her wedding ring the only jewelry she generally wore was a pair of half-moon reading glasses tied around her neck with a length of athletic shoestring. Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam. 

The conceit of Sara’s hair as a living thing that needed to be tamed and imprisoned, and the thought of undressing her compared with the release of zoo animals, are images almost metaphysical in their imaginativeness, but they effectively evoke a woman with a wild streak effectively restricted by the constraints of her position as chancellor. Again, Chabon’s language is fanciful and entertaining in itself, but serves the larger purpose of establishing character.

Wonder Boys is a funny, entertaining book, whimsically over the top in its plot but all too real in its characterization, that ultimately deals with poignant questions of squandered potential, self-destructive behavior, the promise of youth and the possibility of redemption. Like all of Michael Chabon’s books, it’s a comic novel worthy of a serious read.

 

Named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino (1969)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Most moviegoers these days think of 1969, if they think of it at all, as a vague time in the distant past when men first landed on the moon, hippies roamed Los Angeles, and America was being great again in an endless war in Vietnam. If you’re 106 years old like me, you remember 1969 well, and remember it was also the year of Woodstock, the inauguration of Richard M. Nixon (who knew how distinguished and presidential he would look 50 years later?) and the year the Chicago Cubs folded in September and lost the pennant to those unspeakable Mets, sending me into a decades-long depression. But I digress.

Quentin Tarantino was born in 1963, so his actual memory of 1969 is fuzzy at best. But having been six years old in 1969 Los Angeles, Tarantino must have felt some childhood fears at the time of the Manson family murders in August of that year, though those fears may by now be lost in the glow of childhood. In any case the Los Angeles of Tarantino’s ninth film (he has said that he plans to make only one more movie after this one) does have a bright sheen about it, like childhood memories. This effect is no doubt the product of the fact that Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson have shot this movie (as they did with The Hateful Eight) on film rather than digitally, giving it the look of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Midnight Cowboy, or the original True Grit—or for that matter Dean Martin’s The Wrecking Crew, which featured a starlet named Sharon Tate—all filmed in 1969.

There’s a nostalgia that hangs about this movie as it recreates an LA of the late ’60s through the clothes people wear, the places they go (the Playboy Mansion?), the cars they drive, the TV shows they watch (Mannix! Batman! The Green Hornet! Hullabaloo!), the films they reference (Three in the Attic! Rosemary’s Baby!), the media in use (Vinyl albums! TV antennas! Or is it antennae?), and especially the music that forms the soundtrack of the film, including Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Mamas and the Papas, and most significantly Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” whose opening line, “Hot August night,” zeroes us in on August 8, 1969—the night of the Sharon Tate murders that becomes the point at which the film’s plot ultimately arrives. One has to wonder why, with all this attention to the entertainment media of the time, Tarantino hasn’t included the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” in the soundtrack—that song that supposedly inspired Charles Manson to commit his murders in the hope of bringing about an apocalyptic race war. Maybe Paul McCartney just didn’t want people reminded of that association. Or maybe Tarantino didn’t ask.

The film, which earned $40 million its opening weekend (Tarantino’s best opening), currently has an 84 percent approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.com, though audiences give it only a 71 percent rating. It’s not difficult to see why some viewers are less than positive about the movie: the negative reviews complain that the movie is overlong (it is some 161 minutes), and that the plot is meandering and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. There is some justice to these claims, although to be honest I never felt like looking at my watch (I don’t have one anyway and my Fitbit is broken) and as for the meandering plot, that’s pretty much par for the course in a Tarantino movie—you just let yourself go with it and trust that in the end, all the different strands will come together. Or mostly. And that’s what happens here.

The story focuses on Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, a veteran of Tarantino’s Django Unchained), who is a fading star who rose to fame in a hit TV series of the 1950s and early ‘60s called Bounty Law, a thinly disguised reference to the old Steve McQueen star vehicle Wanted: Dead or Alive. And it centers, as well, on Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds), who was Rick’s stunt double in his old Bounty Law days and has remained Rick’s best friend. Cliff is a former war hero (and assuming he’s playing his age, that would be World War II, not the Vietnam War, as some young whippersnapper critics are suggesting), but is no longer welcome on set as a stunt man because of, let’s say, a questionable incident in his past, and he lives in a trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In theater with his faithful red pit bull Brandy. Cliff seems to get by only through working as Rick’s driver and all around factotum.

Rick lives in a spacious mansion on ritzy Cielo Drive but it’s unlikely he’s going to be able to keep up that lifestyle for long. Having left his successful TV show for what he expected to be a meteoric movie career, he was stymied when that career hit a brick wall after two forgettable efforts. And now he is reduced to guest-starring as the villain on current TV shows. He’s heartened by the fact that Roman Polansky, the hot-shot director of Rosemary’s Baby who’s taken Hollywood by storm (as Quentin Tarantino, the hot-shot director of Pulp Fiction, was to take Hollywood by storm a quarter century later) has moved in next door to him. But his prospects seem slim, and when a Hollywood casting agent named Marvin Schwarzs (an unexpected Al Pacino) offers him the chance to star in a spaghetti western in Rome (as former western star Clint Eastwood did to resurrect his stalled film career in the mid ‘60s), Rick sinks into depression, fearing his career is over.

But cast as the heavy in the pilot for the (real life) TV show Tanner, Rick is able to cast off his gloom and get back his confidence with the help of his eight-year old co-star Trudi (a scene-stealing Julia Butters from TV’s American Housewife) and by working with James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant from TV’s Deadwood) and Wayne Maunder (the late Luke Perry in his last screen role), the real-life stars of Tanner.

Meanwhile Cliff, who likes to tool around town in Rick’s white Caddy, picks up a young hippy hitchhiker who calls herself Pussycat (Margaret Qualley from TV’s The Leftovers) and who offers to engage in debauchery with him as he drives her home. In the hilarious scene that ensues, Cliff insists that she produce proof of age before such a thing can take place. It’s instructive to remember that all of Tarantino’s earlier films were distributed by Harvey Weinstein, and that after the scandal that shook Weinstein’s world Tarantino wanted nothing more to do with the former film czar and sold the rights to this film to Sony. It’s hard to watch this scene without seeing a subtext.

Turns out that Pussycat lives with a whole “family” of hippies—almost all girls—on the Spahn Ranch, where Cliff and Rick used to shoot westerns. He demands to see his old friend George Spahn to learn whether the family is taking advantage of him. Spahn is played by Bruce Dern, a veteran of westerns himself (including Hang ‘Em High with Eastwood in 1968 and, yes, Lancer in 1969). The part was originally intended for Burt Reynolds (whose first big break was as Quint on the long-running Gunsmoke—the character that Quentin Tarantino’s parents named him after), but Reynolds passed away before filming began. Spahn doesn’t remember much, and is too old to care, but seems happy enough to collect rent in the form of sex from the Manson “wives,” particularly from Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning).

After his Lancer success, Rick decides to accept Schwarzs’s offer and takes Cliff with him to Italy to shoot spaghetti westerns for six months. It’s worth noting here that Tarantino’s title is a direct allusion to Sergio Leone’s epic 1968 Italian western Once Upon a Time in the West—and Leone, of course, invented the spaghetti western with his trilogy starring Eastwood. Rick, we assume, had a lesser director, but he does return in August with Cliff and a new Italian wife.

Shoehorned in between scenes featuring Cliff and/or Rick are scenes following Rick’s neighbor, Polansky’s wife, the starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie of I, Tonya). We know, of course, what is about to happen to her, but we watch her go about her daily routines oblivious of the horror that awaits. She does not have a lot of lines, but in a sense she doesn’t need them: she comes across, in her bubblegum attachment to Paul Revere and the Raiders and her childlike delight in watching herself on the big screen, as pure innocence and aspiring youth and optimism, the embodiment of the ideal ‘60s LA before life turned noxious after the disasters of the late ‘60s. But this film is a fairly-tale, remember. Anything can happen “once upon a time,” and remember what Tarantino did to history in Inglorious Basterds.

Tarantino fans might be disappointed at how brief and relatively mild the violence is in this film, which is more about relationships in a Jackie Brown kind of style. But they will be happy to see many Tarantino veterans in cameos, including Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight) and Michael Madsen (a Tarantino regular since Reservoir Dogs). And there are some brilliant cameos by Tarantino newcomers like Damien Lewis (of TV’s Billions) who does a brilliant Steve McQueen impression, and Mike Moh (from TV’s Empire), who has a hilarious stand-alone scene as a young Bruce Lee as Cato on The Green Hornet testing his martial arts against stuntman Cliff.

Overall, this film is highly enjoyable. Brad and Leo have a great chemistry—like a new Newman and Redford (Butch Cassidy was a 1969 film, remember). The plot points do all come together at the end, but to tell you how would be a spoiler. And ultimately this as a Tarantino film that ends with hope and optimism, and that’s something we all need these days. Even if it’s only a fairy tale. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

 

Just named a finalist for the INDIE award for best Mystery novel of the year:

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW a finalist for this year’s INDIE award for books by independent publishers. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

Order from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Quagmire-Quest-Merlin-Mystery/dp/1948338122

Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-in-the-quagmire-jay-ruud/1128692499?ean=9781948338127