Hello. I’m Jay Ruud and I’m glad you’re here.

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Reviews

I go to a lot of movies. I also read a lot of books. So I figure, why not talk about them here? Which I do. A lot.

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Werewolves in Their Youth

Werewolves in Their Youth

Michael Chabon (1999)

I freely confess to being a Michael Chabon completist, at least as far as his fiction goes. Ever since reading his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I have aspired to read every novel and short story Chabon ever wrote, from his acclaimed first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) through his most recent semi-fictional novel about his grandfather, Moonglow (2016). The list includes two collections of short stories: A Model World and Other Stories (1991) and this one, with the promising title Werewolves in Their Youth. With Werewolves, I have completed this self-imposed task—at least temporarily, until Chabon’s current fictional project (purported to be a sequel to his 2002 YA novel Summerland) is published. One general truth I’ve observed in all of this reading, which pertains to the book under discussion here, is that Chabon’s novels tend to be far more impressive than his short stories.

I’m probably not the first of Chabon’s sympathetic readers to think this, and I’m certainly not the first to put it in writing. In 2003, Chabon was guest editor for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, and in the editor’s preface to that collection he lamented—humorously but not insincerely—that the short story in English, as practiced for some fifty years, was almost exclusively “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” Most readers, he suggested, were bored by this. And, he added,  “I am that bored reader, in that circumscribed world, laying aside his book with a sigh: only the book is my own, and it is filled with my own short stories, plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew.” He seems to have been referring to his own (at that time) recent collection, Werewolves in Their Youth: nine stories, the first eight of which follow the sort of Joycean pattern he suggests in this comment. Chabon was making an argument for genre fiction in his editorial comments for McSweeney’s, an argument for science fiction or mystery or horror (the American short story was fathered, after all, by Poe), and in the final story of Werewolves, Chabon breaks out of his slavish homage to Joyce and provides a macabre homage, instead, to H.P. Lovecraft.

That final story, “In the Black Mill,” actually purports to be written not by Chabon himself but rather by August Van Zorn, whose name readers of Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995) will recognize as the pulp fiction writer who, as a boarder in his grandmother’s hotel, served as a kind of role model for the young Grady Tripp, the protagonist of that novel: Van Zorn wrote horror stories at night ‘”in a bentwood rocking chair…a bottle of bourbon on the table before him”—until his ultimate suicide. He’s the model of the old plot-driven genre writer who cranks out one story after another while Grady spends seven years writing an unpublishable novel thousands of pages in length. In a move reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s use of his imaginary science-fiction author Kilgore Trout, it’s Van Zorn Chabon turns to as the supposed author of the very Lovecraft-esque “In the Black Mill.”

This story, set in the Yuggogheny Hills near Chabon’s native Pittsburgh, involves an archeologist who, researching the former Native American residents around the town of Plunkettsburg, begins to take an interest in the history of the local Plunkettsburg Mill, wondering why so many of the men who work at the Mill are missing parts of their bodies: here a finger, there an ear, even perhaps a foot. What exactly do they manufacture in this Mill? No one ever seems to be able to tell him. He tries at one point to enter the Mill, passing as a laborer, but is thrown out before he can get inside. The feeling that something sinister is going on in that place becomes stronger and stronger, and the narrator needs to drown his apprehensions by indulging in the local beer, “Indian Ring.” The horrifying denouement is everything you’d want in this particular sort of genre thriller.

There is a kind of Gothic vibe that unifies all the stories in the collection, though in all but the last it is more figurative than real. The title story, which begins the volume, focuses on two schoolboys, Paul and Timothy, the latter of whom consistently says he is a werewolf. Paul tries to dissociate himself from his friend, who is too weird for anyone else in the class, and Timothy ends up attacking another student and gets sent to a special school. In “House Hunting,” a young quarreling couple is shown a house by a drunken realtor who keeps pocketing random items as they go through the house. In “Son of the Wolfman,” a couple who have unsuccessfully tried everything to have a child is rocked when the woman is raped and becomes pregnant. In “The Harris Fetko Story,” a professional football player is estranged from his father and former coach, now remarried, and has to decide whether to attend the bris for his new half-brother. And in one of the most successful stories, “Mrs. Box,” a young bankrupt optometrist with $20,000 worth of equipment in his trunk is fleeing town to get away from his failed business and his failed marriage, when on a whim he decides to visit his ex-wife’s elderly grandmother only to find that she’s lost her short-term memory, and he decides to rob her.

Each story has a kind of monster, a kind of extreme character whose behavior is beyond everyday classification. A “werewolf” as it were. The stories are also united by the recurring theme of failed marriage or other significant relationship, and by the conventional “epiphany” ending that often restores a relationship or brings a flash of insight to the protagonist: In other words, the kind of story Chabon deprecated in his McSweeney’s foreword. But the collection is not so very disappointing: Chabon’s insightful and vivid prose, what critics have called his “perfectly self-contained” and “finely crafted” sentences, still sparkles in these stories. Marriage, he writes in what could describe the whole collection, is “at once a container for the madness between men and women and a fragile hedge against it.” Of our football player he says “Inside Harris Fetko the frontier between petulance and rage was generally left unguarded, and he crossed it now without slowing down.” And our realtor is described thus: “Bob Hogue was a leathery man of indefinite middle age, wearing a green polo shirt, tan chinos, and a madras blazer in the palette favored by the manufacturers of the cellophane grass that goes into Easter baskets.”

If you decide to take a look at these stories, you’ll enjoy this kind of vivid language, and you’ll be rewarded with the tour de force horror story in the end. It’s also fascinating to consider this book as the one that immediately preceded the publication of Chabon’s work of genius, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which he might be said to break out of the mold of the conventional realist novel. Prior to that novel, Chabon was most often compared to Fitzgerald, or occasionally Cheever or Updike. After Kavalier and Clay—well, he’s a genius in his own right That shift seems to occur in this particular book, in the chasm between the first eight stories and “In the Black Mill.” If you’re a Chabon fan, you’ll definitely find this book worthwhile. If you’re a Chabon completist, you’ll have to.

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

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Greyhound

Greyhound

Aaron Schneider (2020)

When Americans think of Naval battles during World War II, they usually think of the South Pacific. I know I do, since that was where my father served after Pearl Harbor. But the longest continuous military campaign of World War II, the longest and largest naval battle in history, was the Battle of the Atlantic, which began immediately after the war erupted in Europe in September 1939, when the British announced a naval blockade of Germany, and the Germans responded with a counter blockade. The battle pitted German U-boats and other warships against British and Canadian ships and, after the United States entered the war in December 1941, American ships as well. It finally ended when the Germans surrendered in May 1945. Essentially the battle involved the Germans’ attempt to stop the flow of supplies crossing the Atlantic from North America to Britain that allowed the British to keep fighting, and that brought equipment to Britain that would ultimately be used for the invasion of mainland Europe. The Allies ultimately were victorious in the battle, and hence the war, but in the nearly six years during which the fighting raged, the Allies lost 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships, while the Germans lost 783 U-boats and 47 other warships.

Now a small glimpse of that battle is available in Tom Hanks’ new film, Greyhound. Hanks has had an almost obsessive interest in the Second World War ever since making Saving Private Ryan, one of the best films ever made about the war. He and Steven Spielberg created the acclaimed miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and a third miniseries,Masters of the Air, is purportedly in the works as well. So it is no surprise that Hanks has had this film as a pet project for years. The story was adopted from The Good Shepherd, a 1955 novel by C.S. Forester, the English novelist famous for the Horatio Hornblower series as well as the novel that provided the basis for a little film called The African Queen. Hanks himself wrote the screenplay for Greyhound, and got Academy Award winning director Aaron Schneider to direct it, his first feature film since 2009’s Get Low. The film had been scheduled for nationwide release in June, but, in another sad pandemic story, was brought out instead streaming on Apple TV+ on July 10. Hanks was reportedly heartbroken that the film would not be released on the wide screen.

The story gives Hanks another opportunity to portray a simple, ordinary man who, confronted with extraordinary difficulties, rises to the occasion and performs admirably, relying on steady competence and what Hemingway called grace under pressure. Like Sully or Captain Phillips, or even Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, Greyhound’s Commander Ernest Krause is a man with everyday talents and abilities, but with outstanding knowledge, tenacity, and courage under fire that allows him to fight off a wolfpack of enemy submarines in an attempt to save his ship and his convoy.

The plot goes like this: In February 1942, just two months after America’s entry into the war, Commander Krause is given command of the destroyer USS Keeling, codenamed Greyhound. He has the task of escorting a convoy of 37 merchant ships, along with a British destroyer, codenamed Harry, and two other supporting warships, codenamed Eagle and Dickie. It is Krause’s first command, and the convoy is on its way to Liverpool. The convoy enters the area known as the Mid-Atlantic gap, nicknamed the “Black Pit,” where they will be out of range of any air support either from North America on the one hand or Britain on the other. And this is where the German U-boats are most dangerous. The convoy will be without air cover for at least fifty hours, during which they will be at their most vulnerable to enemy attacks.

It isn’t long before Greyhound hears from the convoy’s flagship, informing Krause that they have intercepted transmissions that they believe are from a German submarine. Krause takes his ship off after the U-boat, which dives before Greyhound is able to get within firing range. But shipboard Sonar is able to pinpoint the position of the enemy vessel, and Greyhound destroys the U-boat with depth charges. When one of Greyhound’s midshipmen rejoices “Fifty less krauts!” at this success, Krause mildly corrects him: “Fifty less souls.”

This is a clear sign of the commander’s character. He does not think of his adversaries as a faceless “Other.” We see him in prayer several times during the action, mostly when he says a silent grace before the meals that his personal messmate, an African American seaman named Cleveland, brings him and which we never actually see him eat, since something always takes him away just when he is about to have a bite. He neither eats nor sleeps in the fifty hours in the Black Pit, but pushes himself to be on top of everything at all times. He pushes his crew as well, but another of his notable traits is his kindness to the men. Even when they make errors, he uses it as a teaching moment rather than berating them. You might find him a little too gentle, given the stakes of the battle they are in. But this is the man he is. Forester’s novel spent a good deal of time inside Krause’s mind, but the film does not have this luxury. We get no psychological study but instead a trim, tense 90-minute drama that is continuous action, so that we know Krause only by what we see him do.

Like Krause, we are given no time to rest as one crisis follows hard upon another as the film goes on. Immediately upon sinking the first U-boat, Greyhound is called to assist a Greek supply ship that is sinking, and Greyhound must dodge torpedoes as it moves in to help. There are now six U-boats forming a wolfpack surrounding the convoy, waiting to attack in the night. Five ships are attacked, including an oil tanker, and when Greyhound seeks the vessel that torpedoed the tanker, Krause makes a critical error in judgment that causes him to waste a number of depth charges—a mistake he will soon have reason to regret. But before the scene ends, Greyhound is called to two places at once and Krause must choose either to speed off to protect another ship from attack, or to rescue survivors of the tanker explosion from the sea.

To give away his choice, or more of the plot, would only be to engage in spoilers. So I’ll leave it there. Overall, the film rushes from one crisis to another, and you’ll be kept on the edge of your easy chair, or wherever it is you stream movies these days, with suspense. There is a feeling of actually being there in a sea battle, kept in a high state of alertness for fifty hours in that Black Pit. But it’s really only ninety minutes.

Hanks is watchable as ever, the consummate everyman hero. But one of the weaknesses of this movie is that he is the only character that we get to know at all personally. His sympathetic messmate George Cleveland (Rob Morgan from Just Mercy) and his loyal navigator and right-hand man Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham, perhaps best-remembered as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) are really the only other members of the crew that make more than a passing impression on us, and they don’t have a lot to do but follow Krause’s orders. The only other memorable character is Krause’s romantic interest Evelyn (played by an underused Elisabeth Shue), who pops up in the first scene to decline Krause’s marriage proposal as he heads out for the war, and to exchange Christmas gifts with him. We never see her again, but she does give him a pair of slippers that are going to come in handy during those long fifty hours on his feet.

The movie uses a lot of CGI effects that simulate the feeling of being in a war zone. But this is no Saving Private Ryan—there is nothing close to the realism of the Normandy invasion of that film. In fact, in many ways this film is more reminiscent of another Normandy film, The Longest Day. Like that movie, it makes use of on-screen labels, like “British Destroyer HARRY” and “British Destroyer EAGLE” when Krause looks at those ships through his binoculars. And like The Longest Day, Greyhound is determined to give you detail after detail, often in technical military jargon that many viewers will find annoying after a while.

In some ways, this film is less a war movie in the classic sense than a kind of pseudo- documentary intended to tell you everything there is to know about how this (fictional) skirmish was fought. The opening scene with Elisabeth Shue, designed apparently to give us an idea of Krause’s life outside this episode, seems out of place in this film, since it introduces things never resolved and raises a lot of questions never answered. Despite the delight of seeing her, the film may have been better without it, though it does, as my wife pointed out, establish Krause’s uncertainty of command after waiting so long for a commission. Overall, I’ll give this film three Tennysons, because it does a great job at creating suspense, and because of Hanks’ capable performance. But there are a number of things missing here.

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

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Invisible Man

Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison (1952)

In my continuing quest in my retirement to read every important book I never got around to reading during my own education or my university career, I was most recently drawn to one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, Ralph Ellison’s InvisibleMan. Having recently read and reviewed Native Son, another acclaimed novel by a Black American novelist often contrasted with Ellison’s in the popular consciousness, I figured it was time to give Ellison his due, and took on this rather lengthy tome as my next project. The book has an impressive pedigree: It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, and subsequently was placed at number 19 on the Modern Library’s 1998 list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20thcentury, and then placed on Time magazine’s top 100 English-language novels since 1923, the year of Time’s birth.

Invisible Man is a picaresque novel, or a Bildungsroman—like Saul Bellow’s first major novel, The Adventures of Augie March, which appeared a year later than Ellison’s debut novel, won the National Book Award a year later in 1954, and also appears on those respected Modern Library and Time magazine lists. This is a genre that has always been well-liked but seems to have been particularly popular in the early 1950s. In a Bildungsroman, the protagonist moves from youthful innocence through experiences that mature him/her and force him/her to see the world more realistically. Both Ellison and Bellow present this sort of wandering hero, one who searches for a personal identity, who knows success and failure, who wavers between alienation and social acceptance in modern American society, in what Auden called the “Age of Anxiety.” And both do it with often comic nuances. But Ellison adds the extra layer of American racism to the mix. And while both novels belong to some extent to modern American realism—Ellison has noted his admiration for, and debt to, Hemingway—Invisible Man also owes something to Faulkner in its frank and complex examination of racism. And certainly Ellison was aware of, and partly influenced by, the realism of social protest novels like Native Son.

But Ellison’s novel, which navigates between styles like a skilled racer finding the best lane, goes beyond most of his predecessors and contemporaries in being not simply a modern novel, but a post-modern one. Part of this is due to a Kafkasque absurdity and surrealism in several sections of the book. This is most evident in a scene in which Jack, the narrator’s director in what Ellison calls “The Brotherhood,” gets so angry with him that his glass eye pops out, essentially revealing his symbolic blindness. Other absurdist scenes include the narrator’s semiconscious experience in the “Factory Hospital” in which doctors talk about lobotomizing him, and the darkly surrealist nightmare scene of the riot in Harlem in which the narrator flees police, Black rioters and White vigilantes to end up hiding in a subterranean coal pile. The last two scenes are reminiscent of, and perhaps were partly an inspiration for, Yossarian’s operation scene and his wandering through the dark nighttime streets of Rome in that quintessential post-modern novel, Catch-22.

But the first and most immediate influence on Invisible Man is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The novel begins with the statement

“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Dostoevsky’s prototypical existential novella begins “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.” Both narrators are nameless and remain so throughout the books. This, of course, adds to Ellison’s character’s “invisibility.” Ellison’s narrator also literally lives underground, where he steals power from the electric company in order to live, and so very deliberately recalls Dostoevsky’s “underground man.” Even Ellison’s invisible man’s tone is, like Dostoevsky’s narrator’s, spiteful and bitter at times, particularly at the beginning of his rant. But cynical and disillusioned as he is, his tone becomes more hopeful as he tells the story of how he got to this point.

Like most first novels, Ellison’s is semi-autobiographical. Like his narrator, Ellison was the grandson of slaves. Born in Oklahoma in 1914, and growing up in Tulsa, Ellison left to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he planned to study music. Booker T. Washington had founded Tuskegee in 1881, and the school serves as the model for the narrator’s college, with its mythic “Founder,” in Invisible Man. Ellison left college in 1936 to live in Harlem, where he became acquainted with many of the most important African-American icons of the time, including Richard Wright as well as Langston Hughes and the artist Romare Bearden. With Wright, Ellison became attracted to the communist party, but like Wright, and his unnamed invisible man, he became disillusioned with the party, feeling they had betrayed African Americans.

The novel follows this general story arc. Beginning in an unnamed part of the rural south at an unspecified time—likely about 1931, if we think autobiographically—the narrator, star pupil at the local high school, gives a speech at his school about the Black man rising through self-effacing hard work , and is invited by local White leaders to give the speech at one of their meetings—a meeting that first includes a brutal and humiliating “Battle Royal” in which a group of young Black students are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the entertainment of the White leaders. The speech is a hollow irony after that stomach-turning spectacle, but the group does present the narrator with a scholarship to a respected Black college.

The college, whose philosophy is essentially that expressed in his own graduation speech, turns out to be another disillusionment, as the White donors who help fund the school reveal themseves to be condescending racists—his hometown crackers with better manners and more genteel excuses—and his college president a charlatan who cares only about his own power and nothing for his race, and who expels the narrator for exposing a rich donor to the community of area Blacks who do not attend the college.

Exiled to Harlem, the narrator finds work in a paint factory, where an accident nearly kills him. After this he is taken in by Mary, who rents him a place in her building in Harlem, and who is the only completely unselfish and positive person he meets in the book. Later, after giving a spontaneous rousing speech while witnessing the eviction of an old Black couple from their home of a quarter century, he is recruited by the Brotherhood, Ellison’s euphemistic name for the communist party, and works for them, thinking he’s working for the betterment of the people of Harlem, until he comes to realize that the party is simply using African Americans to further their own agenda, and cares nothing about the individuals he wants to help.

By the end, the narrator, invisible as a Black man in a White society in whom people see only their own preconceptions; invisible as an individual in a modern western industrial collective; invisible as a man who, forced into cynicism by the destruction of all his ideals, has scorned society to live underground; actually expresses some hope. It’s hard to tell how seriously to take this hope: Throughout, the narrator has been characterized as something of an egotist, always motivated underneath by his hope of becoming a leader, a respected mover and shaker. And that has contributed to his naivete all along. Maybe his final determination to come out from underground is just another of these false starts. But at least he knows by now how complex the issues of race and identity in twentieth-century America are, and recognizes that all people are individuals. Maybe there is hope after all. In his last moments before going underground, he is after all trying to get back to Mary’s place.

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

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Hamilton

Hamilton

Thomas Kail (2020)

If you were never able to get to New York and cough up the $500 or so it would have cost you to see the live Broadway production of the phenomenal hit Hamilton in 2016, you can now see it on the small screen for just the price of a month’s subscription to Disney+. And while it might not be quite the same as being in the room where it happened, the new filmed-live stage production that began streaming over the July 4th holiday weekend is the next best thing, allowing viewers to feel the energy and intensity of the live Broadway show while also using nine different cameras deftly to bring us closeups and aerial shots we could never actually see from an orchestra seat in the Richard Rodgers theater on West 46th Street.

Unless you’ve been living in a hole in the ground for the past month (which I admit is a real possibility in the current pandemic), you know that the live-performance film of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit, originally scheduled to be released in theaters in the fall of 2021, was put on the front burner by Disney+ as a fitting offering for the Independence Day weekend, a canny and apt choice considering it a) tells the story of one of the most important but least well-known of the framers of our nation; b) is already a hugely popular production, not only among those who have seen it on the stage but of the millions more who have made its soundtrack the best-selling original cast recording of any musical in history; and c) takes the bold step of casting Black, Asian and Latinx actors in the lead roles of America’s founding fathers and mothers—the story of America then told by America now, as Miranda has put it—at a moment when America, on her birthday, is seriously questioning her past and her systemic racism. The moment, in other words, is ripe. As Hamilton might say, how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Sure, Disney had its eye on challenging Netflix as the most influential streaming provider and social media presence, and paid $75 million for the exclusive privilege of airing Hamilton.  It remains to be seen just how well their gamble paid off. But I know they got my money. Of course, I am a big fan of the Broadway musical, and an avid student of history, so I may actually be what my wife would call the intended audience. But truth to tell, this is hardly a typical musical, using a variety of styles but mostly rap and hip-hop. How many rap musicals can you name? Well, of course, there is Miranda’s own In the Heights—the movie version of which had been scheduled to appear in theaters this summer—but other than that not many have been Broadway hits. Clearly though, there seems to be a market, and this may be the wave of the future. And Miranda is no dilettante in this musical genre: He credits artists like Tupac, Mobb Deep, Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, Jay Z, Pharoahe Monch, and others, as the inspirations for particular numbers or even specific lines, rhymes, or words. Now admittedly, I can’t tell one of these artists from another, so you might think that someone my age (in the category of “ancient”) would be less than enamored with the music here.

But it is impossible not to appreciate the electric energy of the musical’s songs. And the fact is Miranda is quite a student of the classic Broadway musical: There are deliberate allusions to several of them, going all the way back to Gilbert and Sullivan, to whom he gives a nod when he has Washington state “Now I’m the model of a modern major general,” and including Rodgers and Hammerstein, when Aaron Burr insists “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” alluding to South Pacific’s antiracist anthem. But it’s not only specific lines. Miranda has made no secret that many scenes in Hamilton reflect or echo classic musical scenes. The concept of Hamilton’s opening number Miranda has credited to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, where the chief characters of the musical set the stage for the entrance of the protagonist, adding that the idea of making Hamilton’s chief antagonist, Burr (“the damn fool that shot him”) act as the story’s narrator was inspired by Judas’s narration of Jesus Christ Superstar. The idea of another early scene, in which Hamilton and his posse (Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan and John Laurens) raise their glasses to freedom and discuss the coming revolution, Miranda has attributed to Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, though many viewers will see an echo of Les Miserables’ “Red and Black” scene. Miranda notes a debt to Les Mis as well in the song “Satisfied,” in which Angelica Schuyler laments having lost Hamilton to her sister Eliza, wherein he has said he was “tryin’ to out-Eponine Eponine.” As for Hamilton’s first meeting with Eliza (at a dance), Miranda says he was thinking about Tony’s first meeting with Maria in West Side Story. And “The Schuyler Sisters” introductory song in New York (“the greatest city in the world”) Miranda has called it his “One Short Day in the Emerald City” (from Wicked). I guess what I’m trying to say here is that fans of traditional musical theater will feel right at home with this production.

Historically, Miranda’s show has the blessing of historian and biographer Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton was Miranda’s inspiration. Miranda also used Chernow’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 2010 biography of George Washington in researching his script, and asked Chernow to be the show’s historical consultant. While Chernow was quick to point out some of the poetic license Miranda took with the historical facts—putting Mulligan, Laurens, and Lafayette together with Hamilton in 1776, for example, when Hamilton had not met them all yet at that point—he saw the reason for Miranda’s compressing certain events for the sake of the story. And it was certainly with Chernow’s blessing that Miranda used various primary sources in composing scenes of the play: letters between Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler, polemics Hamilton and Jefferson had written attacking each other’s positions in print, Washington’s farewell address, and Hamilton’s Reynolds Pamphlet (admitting and delineating his extramarital affair), among others.

Miranda sparkles and sizzles as the show’s main focus, Alexander Hamilton, the “bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman,” an immigrant from a Caribbean island who rose to power and influence in his new country, the fledgling U.S.A., purely through his own drive, hard work, and self-promotion. Just like his country, he says, he’s “young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.” (There are three duels in the play, during the last of which Hamilton ironically literally does throw away his shot—so there’s a lot going on in that number). As Hamilton’s antagonist Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom Jr. (who won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical) is cold, ambitious, opportunistic and careful—“”talk less, smile more” he advises Hamilton early on—and a pleasure to watch as his emotions range from the tender love of a father in “Dear Theodosia” to envy and frustration in “The Room Where It Happens.” As Angelica, the sister-in-law Hamilton can’t get out of his mind, Renée Elise Goldsberry (another Tony winner as Best Featured Actress in a Musical) dominates every scene she is in with a stunning stage presence and a magnificent voice. As George Washington, Christopher Jackson brings a dignity and gravitas to the role of the Revolutionary War hero and first president. One of the few white actors onstage is Jonathan Groff, who plays the extremely white King George III in a hilarious serenade to his colonies, to whom he promises “I’ll kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” Groff’s songs are in a Brit-pop style that contrasts sharply with the rest of the score, and sounds so much like a Beatles’ song that Miranda and musical director Alex Lacamoire deliberately added instrumental allusions to “Getting Better” (guitar riff), “Penny Lane” (vibraphone) and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (synth). If you know Jesus Christ, Superstar, you might say that this number out-Herods Herod.

The most memorable performance for me came from Daveed Diggs, Tony winner for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, who pays Lafayette in Act I and Thomas Jefferson in Act II. Diggs prances around the stage, engaging Hamilton in Rap Battles at cabinet meetings and rejoicing over Hamilton’s public fall with the gleeful “Never gonna be president now!”

There has been some serious backlash over Hamilton since its nationwide premier this week, mainly from people saying it strikes the wrong note in the current moment, when the nation is dealing with very public examinations of its history of systemic racism. Indeed, the slavery question was swept under the rug by the very constitution that Hamilton defended in 51 essays of the Federalist Papers. The role of the Founding Fathers in the institution of slavery is glossed over in the play, according to critics. A close look at the play suggests that this is not entirely fair: Hamilton’s best friend, John Laurens, is an ardent abolitionist who plans to organize a regiment of 3,000 Black soldiers who would be fighting for their own freedom in the Revolution. Hamilton chides Jefferson for Virginia’s use of slaves as their unpaid labor force. But it’s true that slavery is not the central issue of the play. At least not overtly. The casting of Black actors to play the Virginia slaveholders Jefferson, Washington, and Madison is an ironic reversal that celebrates the fact that in today’s world, the human worth of these descendants of slaves is at least equivalent in value to those figures they portray onstage. But there is no getting around the fact that Miranda’s play, first performed in 2015 during the optimism of the Obama administration, when putting a Black man in the role of president seemed natural, was intended for a very different America than the current one, in which long-held divisions and prejudices are exacerbated daily from powerful sources, and where only one unequivocal response will do. Miranda has responded to such criticisms, tweeting that they were valid: “The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get,” he tweeted. “Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game.”

One show can only do so much. And this one does a lot, and does it magnificently. Four Shakespeares 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.

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The Night Watchman

The Night Watchman

Louise Erdrich (2020)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

I’m beginning this review on June 25, the 144th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” That battle was the culmination of the career of the cavalry commander responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of Native Americans, and his defeat became the excuse for the slaughter of hundreds more. That string of battles was sparked by the U.S. government’s seizure, in violation of their own treaty, of the Native Americans’ sacred Black Hills, and part of a larger series of wars whose undisguised intent was to eliminate any competition for the westward advancement of white Americans and the annihilation of anyone standing in the way of that expansion. Yet those pesky Indians kept preserving their traditions and ways of life after agreeing to treaties and retiring to their reservations. But it turns out that some of those reservations were on land that American corporations could profit from. And treaties? Well, they were made to be abrogated, weren’t they? Still, Indian wars looked bad, so new methods had to be developed. Thus the period from 1953 to 1968 is known, in the history of American Indian relations with the U.S. government, as the “Termination” period.

It began with a U.S. senator from Utah named Arthur V. Watkins, who was appointed chair of the Senate Interior Committee Subcommittee on Indian Affairs in 1947. A Mormon who associated Native Americans with the evil Lamanite tribe in the Book of Mormon, Watkins conceived of and pursued a policy aimed at terminating the special status of Indian tribes under U.S. law. In 1953, Watkins’ allies introduced a bill concurrently in the House and the Senate that was passed as House Concurrent Resolution 108. This law aimed to eliminate any laws that treated Native Americans differently from any other U.S. citizens; to eliminate the BIA; to end all federal supervision over individual Indians, Indian tribes, and their resources. Of course, it was those resources that were the chief target. Watkins compared his bill to the Emancipation Proclamation, saying it would “free” Indians and entitle them to “the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States.” In other words, it would force them to assimilate, and would wipe out their tribal identity, their identity as Indians. The bill became known as the “termination bill,” and it specified the first thirteen tribes to be terminated. Among these tribes were the Turtle Mountain Chippewa.

The Turtle Mountain band is Louise Erdrich’s mother’s tribe, and the writer’s maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was tribal chairman in the early 1950s, a period when he also worked as night watchman at a factory on the reservation. In 1953, in the wake of the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 108, Gourneau in his role as chairman traveled to Washington with other members of the band to testify before Congress in an attempt to stave off termination. That is the seed from which has grown Erdrich’s most recent novel, The Night Watchman. Erdrich has changed the name of the protagonist to Thomas Wazhashk, but has made no secret that Thomas is based very closely upon her grandfather.

The novel follows two separate but connected story arcs. The first, of course, is Thomas’s story, from the moment he learns of the infamous “termination bill,” through his working out what it really means for the tribe, to a meeting with BIA bureaucrats in Fargo, where one of his fellow tribesmen, a minor character named Eddy Mink, responds to the cessation of Federal monetary support for Indian people by saying, “The services that the government provides to Indians might be likened to rent. The rent for use of the entire country of the United States.” Thomas’s story culminates in the Turtle Mountain representatives’ testimony before Senator Watkins’ committee in the nation’s capital. Erdrich’s presentation of these events is carefully researched and presented in a restrained, straightforward manner, like bureaucratic Nazi memos about the Holocaust.

The other story arc in the novel concerns Thomas’s completely fictional niece Patrice Paranteau, whose friends often call her “Pixie,” a nickname she detests. Patrice has an alcoholic father who comes home occasionally and brings chaos to the peaceful home where Patrice lives with her mother, sister, and brother Pokey, and it is Patrice who supports the family, working in the jewel-bearing plant at which Thomas is night watchman. She takes a good deal of pride in being the best at the intricate work of laying jewels into keyboards to be used in watches. In a recent interview in Time magazine, Erdrich said, “The jewel-bearing plant is real and it still stands. It hired mostly women, and what an extraordinary thing. I was excited to write a book that had indigenous people doing factory work because you don’t read that.”

Patrice’s story arc has two strands. First, her sister Vera has left the reservation and gone to Minneapolis, where she has had a baby. But since then, her family has lost touch with her. Determined to discover what’s happened to Vera, Patrice borrows vacation days from her factory friends and takes time off to go to the Twin Cities to find her sister. Like most quests, her first venture off the reservation turns into a learning experience, in which her most memorable adventure is taking a job in a nightclub as an underwater dancer dressed in a rubber cow suit and billed as Babe, Paul Bunyan’s Blue Ox. But although in the cities Patrice is able to find a noir world of drugs and prostitution that her sister may have been involved in, she never is able to find Vera.

Her adventure does give her the confidence to accompany Thomas to Washington and be part of the group that testifies before Congress. Back home, though, Patrice is being wooed by two men: One is Wood Mountain, a Chippewa boxer her own age, and the other the older non-Indian math teacher and coach of Wood Mountain’s boxing team, Lloyd Barnes. Wood Mountain also becomes involved in Thomas’s story as the tribal chairman organizes a huge boxing match pitting Wood Mountain against his nemesis, the Anglo-champion Joe Wobleszynski, in order to raise money to send the Turtle Mountain delegation to Washington.

The two strands of the plot complement one another in more than overlapping events. Patrice’s odyssey demonstrates what Thomas and his delegation are bent on showing the politicians: These people are unique and valuable as Indians, and their reservation is a part of that character. To terminate them would be to terminate a way of being human that would not otherwise exist. I certainly don’t want to spoil the plot of the book, so I won’t say more about it. I will say that this is a novel into which Erdrich has poured all the narrative skills she’s shown in previous novels from Love Medicine through Plague of Doves and The Round House, creating a world in which readers can become absorbed and in which we meet characters we know well enough to think of as real. From the factory to the boxing ring to the underwater dancing, we believe we are in this world, and when magical realist aspects occur, like Thomas’s conversations with his long-dead boyhood friend Roderick, or even the mystical vision he experiences when he thinks he is freezing to death—a vision of angelic spirits “filmy and brightly indistinct” in the sky, Jesus Christ among them, who “looked just like the others”—they seem events as acceptable as anything else.

In her Afterword to the book, Erdrich notes that “In all, 113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million acres of tribal land was lost. Wealth flowed to private corporations, while many people in terminated tribes died early, in poverty. Not one tribe profited.”As I get ready to post this review just before a Fourth of July weekend when a U.S. president plans, amid nationwide clamoring over this society’s systemic racism, to celebrate the holiday at a giant monument to four white guys carved by a member of the KKK on a sacred mountain stolen from Indian people in the Black Hills, it’s hard to imagine how this book could be more timely or significant. Four Shakespeares 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.

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Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods

(Spike Lee 2020)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

During the Vietnam War, African Americans comprised about 11% of the total U.S. population, but at one point made up 32% of the soldiers serving in combat. During the period from 1966 and 1969, when the defense department increased the draft in order to build up troops in Vietnam, some 41% of those drafted were Black. After this situation was decried by protesters, adjustments were made. The abolishment of college student deferments in favor of a draft lottery changed the character of the draftees and evened out the biases, but ultimately the total number of black combat deaths remained disproportionate to the population, at least in the bloodiest years.

Despite this history, none of the most significant Vietnam war movies—The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, et al.—have focused on the black experience in Vietnam. Until now: Spike Lee’s latest effort, Da 5 Bloods, now available streaming on Netflix, closes that gap, and does so in a memorable way. This is the first great film of this bizarre year of 2020, and it comes, not accidentally, against a backdrop of cultural revolution in response to systemic racism embedded in American society and whitewashed in American history, including the way that history has been memorialized on film.

Spike Lee has certainly been doing his best to adjust that particular lens with films like Malcolm or 2018’s BlacKkKlansman.In his latest film, Lee has four black septuagenarian Vietnam veterans meeting in a kind of bucket-list reunion in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), from where they plan to trek into the jungle in order to recover the remains of their revered squad leader “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman), killed in action on their last mission and buried in the jungle, after they had vowed to bring him home. But it turns out they also left something else in that jungle: a case of gold bars from Fort Knox, worth something in the neighborhood of seventeen million dollars, earmarked as payment to a jungle tribe for their help against the Viet Cong. But the plane carrying the gold was shot down in the jungle, and only the four remaining “bloods” know of its existence. And they have come to retrieve it after fifty years. With Norman’s encouragement, the foursome had agreed upon the laudable goal of using the money to enhance the lives of victims of oppression in their own neighborhoods back home. Think of it as a kind of “reparation.”

But in the decades that have passed, each of these veterans has had his own traumas to bear, and the quest for the gold and for Norman’s remains becomes, as all quests do, a quest into the psyches of the questers. Setting out on the search are Otis (Clarke Peters of TV’s The Wire), who is the de facto leader of the mission, and is dealing behind the scenes with a Vietnamese woman (his former lover) and a French businessman in order to fence the gold; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., who worked with Lee in BlacKkKlansman), who more than any of the others is trying to make sure everyone gets along; Eddie (Norm Lewis of TV’s Scandal), a businessman who likes everyone to think he’s the most successful of the group, and also (in what becomes an important detail later on) their former medic; and Paul (Delroy Lindo from Lee’s Malcolm X), the most disturbed and dangerous of the group, who is also its emotional center. It was Paul who held Norman as he died. It’s Paul who is still most afflicted by PTSD. It is Paul who wears a MAGA cap, for which he is berated by his fellows but which is merely a symptom of his profound sense of disenfranchisement. We soon find that Paul cannot relate to or reconcile with the Vietnamese people just as he is alienated from his own society, and from his family. The first surprise of the film happens when Paul’s son David shows up, hoping to take the trip into the jungle with his estranged father. David (Jonathan Majors from The Last Black Man in San Francisco), who is Otis’s godson and an African American Studies teacher, just wants to form a bond with his old man, though Paul isn’t really interested. But David becomes, for the audience, a kind of chorus figure, and it is largely along with him that we learn about the past.

The film makes generous use of flashbacks, which are signaled by the switch from widescreen to the traditional TV aspect ratio (a trick that takes those of us who remember those days back to the time when we watched the war on our TV news every night). In the flashbacks, the four veterans play themselves without any technology tricks to make them look younger. It has the effect of underscoring how vividly present those memories still are to the former soldiers. It is in these flashbacks that we get to know the beloved Norman, whom Otis, telling David the story, calls “our Malcolm and our Martin.” Chadwick, who has made a film reputation by playing mythic black heroes like Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, and James Brown—and the truly mythic Black Panther—is the perfect choice to play the revered Norman, who brought these men together, taught them how to stay alive in the jungle, taught them their own history (from Crispus Attucks to Martin Luther King) and gave them a social consciousness—“War is money. Money is war,” he tells them, and compares their white officers’ use of black troops as cannon fodder to their treatment at the hands of police back home. This is all stuff that David is well aware of, but that Paul and his bloods needed to be woke to in 1969.

There are so many twists and turns in this film that anything more I tell you about the plot takes us into spoiler territory. But unlike the blatant political message of the movie (which you’ve probably already got), one of the most interesting aspects of the film is Lee’s more subtle means of placing the film in context. Actually, into several different contexts.

The film begins with carefully chosen vintage news stills and clips that put us in the milieu of 1969, beginning with one of Muhammed Ali explaining why he refused induction into the U.S. armed forces as a conscientious objector, repeating his declaration that “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me nigger.” The series of clips also shows members of the Black Panthers in an eerily déjà vu moment decrying police brutality, as well as Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis voicing opposition to the war. Other iconic images, like the South Vietnam National Police chief executing a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner with a shot to the head during the Tet Offensive of 1968—an image broadcast into every home across the U.S. on the six o’clock news—and the famous photograph of the screaming, naked nine-year-old girl running in tears from an American napalm attack.

Lee also pays tribute to the films that inspired this one, including a scene that recalls another film about a treasure hunt, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”), one that recalls the chaotic ending of another movie about a quest through a southeast Asian jungle, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (“Madness! Madness!), and most particularly and most often that classic Vietnam War movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, from the beginning of the quest in Saigon, through the boat trip down the river into the interior where they have a nearly disastrous encounter with native boats (and the score blares Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie”).

So much goes on in this film that it’s impossible to do it justice in a short review. But I do want to mention the Terrence Blanchard soundtrack, which alternates classically orchestrated music that swells almost ironically to give a heroic sense to the action with popular music from the time of the war, including six songs from Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Goin’ On, including the title track, stripped of its instrumentation, sung in a single pleading voice of protest and pain.

And I want to mention one more thing: In a film filled with memorable performances (especially from Clarke, who is always worth watching), Delroy Lindo’s tortured, mad, bigger-than-life Paul must be singled out as the first Oscar-worthy performance of the year. In a climax inspired in part by Bogart’s maddened Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and in part by no less epic a figure than King Lear, Paul rejects his former comrades, finds it sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child, and storms off alone into the jungle, raging in soliloquy face-to-face with the camera as he moves. It’s a sequence worth the price of admission.

Trust me, you won’t want to miss this film. Four Shakespeares 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.

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Native Son

Native Son

(Richard Wright 1940)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

You’re not going to like Bigger Thomas. Even from the beginning of the novel, the protagonist of Native Son is surly to his family, irascible and even violent with his friends, and resentful to his new white employer and his daughter and her boyfriend who try to relate to him on a human level. But Richard Wright never wanted you to like him. Quite the opposite. In his earliest published work, the collection of stories called Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright had produced a text about Black experiences in racist America that garnered him a plethora of sentimental admirers. “I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about,” Wright wrote about his first book’s reception, and in his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” he said that in Native Son he set out to tell a story “no one would weep over.” And once Bigger has accidentally suffocated his white employer’s daughter Mary Dalton, and burned her body after decapitating her so he could fit her head in the furnace, and followed this up with the rape and murder of his Black girlfriend Bessie Means, no one is likely to.

But like him or not, there is no question that his story is a significant turning point in American literature. Until 1940, when Native Son made Wright the first African American to have a “Book of the Month Club” selection and also made him rich, selling 250,000 hardcover copies in its first three weeks, no Black novelist had approached the subject of race in American society so directly and so damningly. Wright’s literary models were all white: naturalist novelists attacking social ills, like Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris or Sinclair Lewis, or Russians like Dostoevsky, or century-old abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose title he had borrowed for Uncle Tom’s Children. But as the literary and social critic Irving Howe wrote in an oft-quoted assessment: “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” Native Son spawned the likes of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin on the one hand, and made it clear on the other that racial oppression in American society was not going to be overcome without struggle and, almost certainly, violence.

Native Son was ranked No. 20 in the Modern Library’s much discussed list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. Time Magazine also included the novel in its “100 Best English-language Novels since 1923” (the year Time debuted). The reason for these accolades is different, it seems to me, from the reasons that other books appear on these lists. The characters in Wright’s narrative are not especially noteworthy—the white characters tend to be stereotyped, either outright unapologetic racists for the most part, or politicians happy to use racist sentiments for their own political gains (like Buckley, the state prosecutor in an election year), or skin-deep liberals like the wealthy Henry Dalton, a philanthropist who provides a job for Bigger, gives money to the NAACP, and donates ping-pong tables to an outreach program for African American youths, while renting rat-infested apartments to Black families only in designated areas of the city. Bigger himself is a flat character, intended to be so by Wright so that he could be what he called a “meaningful and prophetic symbol” of Black people in general. For that, Wright has come under criticism from some of the African American writers who followed him, notably James Baldwin, who acknowledged that, to some extent, “No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” But Baldwin, and others, have gone on to fault Bigger’s character for being completely out of touch with his own people, with Black culture. To a large extent, Baldwin notes, Wright’s book is written mainly for a white audience.

Nor is the plot of the novel especially noteworthy or clever. Some of the events are a bit far-fetched (he ends up killing the young woman the very same day he takes the job from her father) or contrived (the furnace starts smoking at the precise time that the room is full of newspaper reporters, leading to the discovery of the bones in the ashes), and worst of all, rather than letting the narrative speak for itself, Wright includes a courtroom scene in which Bigger’s lawyer, Max, gives a lengthy speech detailing everything that is wrong with American society that has ultimately resulted in the production of a Bigger Thomas. Mark Twain once advised writers “Don’t say ‘the lady screamed.’ Bring her on, and let her scream.” In his last act, Wright not only tells us that the lady screamed, he explains ad infinitum how, why, and how much she screamed. The book at that point becomes as didactic as any medieval morality play, and less entertaining. But it’s also another flaw in the plot: Bigger’s lawyer never calls a single witness, barely cross-examines witnesses brought by the prosecution, never tries to find flaws (and there definitely are some) in the state’s case against his client. His entire defense strategy is based on having Bigger plead guilty and putting society on trial. Would any real lawyer try a case this way?

Where, then, does the strength of this novel lie? Like its forerunner Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son is most moving when it depicts the society in which this crime was incubated. The story begins in Bigger’s home—a one-room apartment he shares with his mother, brother, and sister, in which he has to chase down and kill a rat as soon as he wakes up. It is a room rented to them by the company owned by Henry Dalton, father of the girl he will kill later that night. It is rented to them for twice the rent a white person would be asked to pay because, Dalton explains later in court, there is a shortage of housing in the designated Black area of the city (and Blacks cannot rent anywhere outside of that ghetto). So the law of supply and demand drives the cost of rent up. And no, Mr. Dalton could not charge less for his rentals, because he would be undercutting the other property renters in the district, and that would be unethical. That is what he says would be unethical.

Bigger’s schooling was substandard, and he had considered going to a flight school and learning to fly planes but he was the wrong color to be admitted to the school. He considered joining the army, but in the Jim Crow army of the late 1930s his only opportunities would be of the ditch digging variety. So economic opportunities were pretty slim. Nor does the legal system treat him at all fairly: He is questioned by the state’s attorney without having a lawyer present; has no money, of course, to retain a lawyer and is never offered a public defender; he is charged with crimes for which there was no evidence he had committed, including the universal assumption that he must have raped Mary Dalton before killing her; and he goes to court without any hint of the presumption of innocence.

Much of this last circumstance is fed by the local media, in the form chiefly of newspapers, which Bigger keeps looking at, liking the publicity of being on the front page. But he is guilty in the papers long before his trial, as the stories refer to him as a murderer and rapist. In one story he reads:

“Though the Negro killer’s body does not seem compactly built, he gives the impression of possessing abnormal physical strength. He is about five feet, nine inches tall and his skin is exceedingly black. His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast.

His arms are long, hanging in a dangling fashion to his knees. . . . His shoulders are huge and muscular, and he keeps them hunched, as if about to spring upon you at any moment. He looks at the world with a strange, sullen, fixed-from-under stare, as though defying all efforts of compassion.

“All in all, he seems a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization. In speech and manner he lacks the charm of the average, harmless, genial, grinning southern darky so beloved by the American people.”

The passage is so egregiously racist that it stretches the limits of our credulity, but the fact is Wright was basing the language on actual articles that had appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1939 concerning Robert Nixon, an African American executed for killing a white woman that year.

In the midst of all this can Bigger find solace in religion? His mother is a true believer, and tells him consistently to pray. She sends a Black preacher to comfort him in his cell: Reverend Hammond, who tries to give Bigger the comfort of religion, but only succeeds in angering him, and when Bigger sees the burning cross of the KKK on top of a building, he tears off his cross. Religion in the book is simply an opiate to keep the Black masses in their place, dreaming of pie in the sky by and by while they put up with the indignities of this world.

Bigger’s lawyer Max believes that communism might provide the answer, and Wright, secretary of the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club in 1940, may have agreed, though he renounced communism two years later. But Bigger does not agree. His last exchange with Max reveals no faith in an ultimate classless society where Blacks will have true equality. Like religion, Bigger sees Max’s view as finally just another pipe-dream.

In the end, what Wright portrays in the novel is what some see in the current wave of police violence against people of color: The truth is that is that the system is perfectly calibrated to produce the ends that it produces. Bigger is the product of systemic racism. Look how far we’ve come in 80 years.

Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare 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.

Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.

 

Tennysons

This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.

 

2 Jacqueline Susanns

If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.

 

1 Robert Southey

Skip it.
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.