Archive for April, 2011

Since David Foster Wallace couldn’t promote The Pale King, others decided to read publicly from his posthumous novel on his behalf. In Los Angeles, for instance, actors from various television shows I’ve not seen as well as Henry Rollins (for some reason) signed on to “bring Wallace’s work to life,” according to the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy.

Although I’ve already expressed my dislike for The Pale King in a review for my local paper and in a previous dispatch, I’ll give one more illustration of what irks me about his method and then be done with it. The receptacle of quirks embodying information overload that Wallace names Claude Sylvanshine is declared a “fact psychic,” someone who intuits useless data. The facts that come to him out of nowhere are “ephemeral, useless, undramatic, distracting.”

They’re also, at least sometimes, not facts at all.

Wallace has Sylvanshine unintentionally realize something about “the 1938 featherweight WBA champ.” Yet no such fighter existed. The National Boxing Association, founded in 1921, didn’t become the World Boxing Association until 1962. In addition, the phrasing here suggests that sanctioning bodies (whose initials usually precede weight classes in references to championship titles) award their belts on an annual basis, which they don’t. When Henry Armstrong decided not to defend his crown after knocking out Petey Sarron in 1937, New York’s top 126-pounder, Mike Belloise, faced Joey Archibald for the NBA’s championship in 1938. Archibald won and held the title until 1940, when he lost it to Harry Jaffra, and he then retrieved it from Jaffra the following year.

What bothers me about this is not that Wallace didn’t know boxing history or patois – even though it would not have been hard to look up any of this stuff. Instead, it’s that he tries to have it both ways: facts pop unbidden into Sylvanshine’s skull and yet inaccuracies do not matter. The facts Sylvanshine magically registers are “not incorrect,” Wallace writes, incorrectly, “just irrelevant, pointless.” Wallace says: “The fact psychic lives part-time in the world of fractious, boiling minutiae that no one knows or could be bothered to know even if they had the chance to know.” Perhaps, then, getting things wrong doesn’t matter, since no one knows these kinds of things anyway. Well, except for those who do bother to know them…

One might suggest that Wallace simply made a mistake here, or that he intended the false fact as a small joke for the few readers likely to notice it. Then again, perhaps Wallace fans would simply say of solecisms like this, as the Wallace character in the novel says at one point, “Although, you know, whatever.”

Reading fiction in which the writer’s deliberate decisions might count for little or nothing made me think of a scrupulously careful novelist who did believe conscious choices made all the difference. More specifically, it brought to mind this passage from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood, Stephen continued, make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art?” I’m not calling Wallace an indiscriminate hacker, but I can’t call The Pale King a work of art either.

Read Full Post »

Modern American boxing writing began with coverage of Jack Johnson’s defense of his heavyweight title against Jim Jeffries in 1910, or so George Kimball asserts in At the Fights, the Library of America anthology he edited with John Schulian. In the single selection concerning that bout, novelist Jack London says Johnson “played and fought a white man in a white man’s country, before a white man’s crowd.” Thus, from its beginning 101 years ago, boxing writing has never been exclusively about sports. Like many others in the rapidly constructed arena in Reno, Nevada, where Johnson and Jeffries fought, London thought the contest expressed something about racial politics, although as Kimball and Schulian point out in a head note, London’s most infamous line about a Johnson bout – “Naturally, I wanted to see the white man win” – occurs in an earlier article, one on Johnson’s ascension to the championship via victory over Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, in 1908. In still another piece, London urged Jeffries to return from retirement and retrieve the title for “the White Man.”

Johnson’s success did reveal something about racial identity, though not in the way London wanted. Though he preferred not to view himself as a representative of a race or a cause, Johnson did topple the myths of racial superiority harbored by the likes of London.

Kimball and I both spoke at events commemorating the centennial of Johnson-Jeffries and both contributed to the literature about it. In his collection Manly Art, Kimball includes an article about efforts to pardon Johnson for a bogus 1913 “white slavery” conviction. My Reno talk about the resonant symbolism of Johnson beating Jeffries on the Fourth of July, subsequently appeared in fall 2010 edition of The Nevada Review, and on their website the editors of that journal direct readers to some related works. Further, I write about At the Fights and Manly Art (as well as Johnson-Jeffries) in the May/June 2011 issue of The American Interest.

Read Full Post »

Even before I’d read the book, I anticipated critical praise for David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published fragmentary novel The Pale King. His previous books won him ardent admirers, and rumors about The Pale King suggested it would be exactly the kind of thing that would please his fans. I was not wrong in anticipating excitement over Wallace doing again what he’d done before.

Some reviewers did find much to like in the book and its accountant characters and invoke its unfinished status to explain away any weaknesses. Here’s how Richard Rayner concludes his review for The Los Angeles Times: “Much of the The Pale King is … hard work, but it’s welcome rather than the reverse, a shadow of the now lost ‘something long’ that Wallace might or might not have completed but still brilliant, a Spruce Goose of a book that barely achieves takeoff but glimmers and sparkles with sufficient suggestions of the grandeur that might have been.”

The job of a reviewer is to assess actually existing books, not books that might have been. (My review for The Oregonian appears in section O, p. 10, of the April 17, print edition.) If Wallace had lived to finish The Pale King, then it might have been very different. Perhaps it would have been better. Perhaps it would have been worse. I can’t say. Nor can anyone else. If, years in the future, an alternate version appears, with chapters rearranged and additional material added, I would not be surprised. However, as of April 2011, what there is to evaluate is what editor Michael Pietsch assembled.

And that book, in my opinion, is aggravating and tiresome. In a prefatory note, Pietsch recalls thinking that if anyone could make the IRS interesting, Wallace could. But I don’t think Wallace actually tried to be interesting in The Pale King, and, in any case, his isn’t. He repeatedly draws attention to the boringness of the text, as if doing that were clever. Some readers apparently think it is. Judith Shulevitz, for instance, insists that it’s “almost never boring” in an overwhelmingly effusive Slate review. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys listening to people go on and on and on about their drug use in college, then you might dig The Pale King. (Rayner at least notices that there’s plenty of “dead ink” in addition to what he considers “great writing.”)

I suspect Wallace enthusiasts congratulate themselves on their own perceived cleverness for “getting” what he’s up to in his highly self-conscious, digressive, long-winded, inconclusive, footnote-laden fiction. (Unlike Emily Cooke, of The Millions, I never grew to “love” Wallace’s footnotes.) In The Pale King characters praise the fortitude necessary to endure boredom, and a certain brand of reader inevitably stepped forward to announce his heroism for braving Wallace’s wearisome book.

The Pale King has no clothes. Reading it made me remember the anecdote about Kingsley Amis throwing Martin Amis’s Money across the room when he saw that his son put a character named Martin Amis in the novel. Wallace having a David Wallace character alone doesn’t bother me. (And I actually like Money.) But The Pale King reads like an elaborate but painfully unfunny joke. Deliberately tangled prose about boring subjects doesn’t stop being boring because of self-referential commentary about boringness. I imagine the author of Lucky Jim would be annoyed, as I was.

Read Full Post »

One especially nice aspect of the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, for me at least, was the chance to meet not only fellow book lovers but also some with whom I have a publisher in common. Mongrel Empire Press, which brought out my Fighters & Writers, also published Spare Parts by Ken Hada (the event’s organizing force), Oklahomaography by Joey Brown (who read some of her poems immediately after the session in which I read essay excerpts), a biography by Al Turner (who presented parts of an autobiography-in-progress as well as a poem listing boxing among the things he enjoys) and Surface Tension by Patrick Ocampo.

Unfortunately, as inevitably happens at conferences with concurrent panels, I couldn’t take in every reading (I missed both Hada’s and Ocampo’s) or meet every MEP writer (Alan Barecka and Nathan Brown were also in attendance, according to the schedule).

Prior to my stay in Ada and time at East Central University, my association with MEP was my only connection to Oklahoma, where I had not been before. Now I feel like I have stronger ties.

With Ken Hada at the Scissortail Festival, Ada, Oklahoma, April 2, 2011

Read Full Post »

During the Arkansas Literary Festival, Isabel Wilkerson described her efforts to give high school students a sense of the oppressive, invasive restrictions enforcing the racial stratifications that drove many black Americans to seek freer, less confined lives by leaving the South and heading north and west in the Great Migration, the subject of her book The Warmth of Other Suns. Everyone has already heard about separate white and “colored” drinking fountains and whites-only restaurants, she said. For those too young to grasp the full extent of the racist caste system of the past, she sought examples to which those just learning to drive could relate. Some states forbade black motorists from passing white ones, regardless of how slow they might be moving. She sees youngsters’ bafflement over such ridiculous rules as a sign of progress.

Wilkerson provided other illustrations to drive home just how unrelenting – and absurd – Jim Crow legislation was. Speaking at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, she cited a law that required court rooms to have separate bibles for black and white witnesses to place their hands on when swearing to tell the truth; she described a trial’s delay when one of those books could not be found.

To give her audience a sense of how different the world would be if the Great Migration had not occurred, Wilkerson asked listeners to imagine the state of music, and culture generally, if Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk had either never existed or never been able to become the great musicians they did. If those artists’ parents had not moved north, we might never have heard their music, she observed. It probably never would have been made. I’m not sure if this particular thought experiment would resonate with 21st-century teenagers, most of whom probably don’t listen to jazz, but it sure struck a chord in me.

Read Full Post »

The fact that I’ve written a fair amount about both Christopher Hitchens and Philip Larkin alone would be a sufficient reason for me to direct readers to “Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man,” Hitchens’s review of Larkin’s Letters to Monica in the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic. Both authors factor in “Dedicated Writers,” for instance, an essay included in my Fighters & Writers. In passing, Hitchens notes that Larkin’s uneasy affection for jazz “helps furnish a key to his muse,” an idea I examine closely in “Ugly on Purpose.”

But a more substantive explanation also exists. Hitchens echoes points I’ve tried repeatedly to make, and I welcome the amplification. He argues that individuals with repellent characters can still produce exceptional art. Perhaps it’s inevitable that some readers will look to writers’ lives to make sense of their work. “It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one,” Hitchens writes. Still, biography can’t explain literary alchemy any more than it should be used to condemn or dismiss the fine work of wretched men. One can be a loutish bungler and still be a great writer – a point I stress in another Fighters & Writers piece, one about George Orwell (whom Hitchens invokes in the Atlantic article).

Read Full Post »

While in Little Rock for the Arkansas Literary Festival, I did the usual reading followed by questions and answers from the audience and book-signing. But that’s not all I did there.

I’d volunteered for the Writers in the Schools program, and on Friday, April, 8, I spent a few hours at Hall High School. I read from and talked about Fighters & Writers, from which I chose (mostly) different selections than I presented the following day at the Arkansas Studies Institute, including some I’d not previously performed in public. I also talked about writing generally: how one becomes a scribbler, dedication to craft and related matters. (I noticed that students were more familiar with the boxers I mentioned than the authors, which didn’t surprise me, but they asked more questions about writing than sports, which did.) I addressed a group of about 60 or 70 students in the media center/library and visited several classrooms to address smaller groups. Students and teachers took time away from determined preparation for upcoming batteries of standardized testing and attentively listened to what I had to say. I only hope they got as much out of my visit as I did.

Read Full Post »

My reasons for participating in both the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival and the Arkansas Literary Festival were not purely literary. They were also culinary.

I knew that by spending ten days in Oklahoma and Arkansas I would not only meet fellow writers and readers, which I did, but that I would also enjoy some fine barbecue, which I also did. I gave presentations related to Fighters & Writers three times during my miniature Southern tour, but had barbecue in half a dozen different places. Indeed, the main reason my wife and I stopped in Arkadelphia was because our Arkansas guidebook proclaimed a joint there, Allen’s BBQ, to be the best in the state. Folks in Little Rock disagreed. Some said Famous Dave’s was superior (even though it’s a franchise operation headquartered in Minnesota); others pointed to Sims (which has local roots). We tried both. I won’t say which I think is number one because I think it would take more than one meal at each restaurant to judge fairly. If I get another chance to do further research, I’ll surely take it. (Ron Settlers, proprietor of Sims, told us that the reason we can’t get comparable ribs in Portland, Oregon, is because proper preparation requires the hickory wood that grows in the South.)

Appropriately enough, Rex Nelson, the moderator of my Saturday afternoon session at the Arkansas Literary Festival, writes about barbecue, boxing, books and other shared interest at his blog, Southern Fried.

Discussing boxing and books with Rex Nelson at the Arkansas Literary Festival, April 9, 2011

Read Full Post »

Once or twice before on this site, I’ve recorded what struck me as curious, almost uncanny coincidences. While I assign no special meaning to such occurrences and discern nothing supernatural in them, I do find them intriguing. A couple more happened in connection with book festivals.

The first thing my wife and I did when we reached Little Rock was drive to Central High School, site of the Little Rock Nine’s brave challenge to racially segregated schooling in 1957. In the visitor center at the National Historic Site, we started talking with a Park Service employee who not only was planning to attend the poetry slam organized as part of the opening night of the Arkansas Literary Festival but who was also slated to moderate a conversation a couple of days later. (We did see Spirit Trickey during the Spoken Word Live! competition at the Mosaic Templers Cultural Center, but weren’t able to attend her talk with Jay Jennings about his book Carry the Rock.)

Often, it seems, Norman Mailer factors in these synchronous episodes. (Coincidences fascinated the novelist, even if he didn’t actually like them. “If psychic coincidences give pleasure to some, I do not know if they give them [sic] to me,” he writes in Cannibals and Christians, while the narrator of his Tough Guys Don’t Dance reminds himself that “not all coincidence was diabolical or divine.”) A week before we met Spirit in Arkansas, we met Paul Austin in Oklahoma. At the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival authors’ reception at the Oak Hills Country Club, Austin told me about time he spent with Mailer and José Torres, both of whom figure prominently in Fighters & Writers, including one of the passages I’d planned to read during the festival. (Austin worked on Mailer’s movie Maidstone.)

With Paul Austin at East Central University, Ada, Oklahoma, April 2, 2011

When she learned of our intention to drive from Ada to Little Rock, Austin’s wife, novelist Rilla Askew, wrote out directions to various sites that factor in True Grit, whose author, Charles Portis, turned out to be the subject of a panel discussion we did attend at the Arkansas Literary Festival (one led by Jay Jennings, in fact). The route we ultimately took involved a stop in a town with another cinematic connection, McAlester, the location of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, which we drove past and which a few years earlier staged the contests chronicled in the documentary Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, which we’d seen at the Indie Memphis film festival.

Prison Rodeo Statue, McAlester, Oklahoma

Read Full Post »

I don’t like baseball. I offer my thoughts on the game in an essay called “Opening Day Shutout.” I received an email from nonfiction editor Caleb Thompson on Thursday, March 31, regarding plans for The Monarch Review to run the piece.

The timing could not have been better. I was sitting in Estep Auditorium at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, on the opening evening of the 6th annual Scissortail Creative Writing Festival. Susan Perabo was just about to read a short story. Perabo, I learned, views baseball rather differently than I do. Indeed, she described learning of a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame that named her as the first woman to play NCAA baseball. A little over a week later, I read from Fighters & Writers as part of “The Sports Book” panel at the Arkansas Literary Festival. Bob Reising joined me. His book, Chasing Moonlight, is about – what else? – baseball.

Despite all the writerly affection for the sport, I remain baffled by its popularity.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: