That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Posts Tagged ‘bruce springsteen’

I destroy those I cannot control.

Posted by kozemp on March 2, 2015

And so, we have reached the point in our narrative – or my narrative, at least, as though there were any other narrative I really cared about – where I make a direct artistic connection between James Ellroy and Bruce Springsteen, and stop at HP Lovecraft along the way, and the connections work, and I will heretofore be proclaimed as either genius, or madman, or both.

But we’re not quite there, not just yet.

So:

Me and James Ellroy is a funny sort of story. I came to Ellroy through the movie version of LA Confidential. I distinctly remember, after seeing the movie, sitting in the food court at LaSalle with Tony Romero and talking about picking up the book it was based on and him saying – almost 20 years later I still remember his exact words – “I hear it’s a fucking tome.”

I had discovered crime fiction as a teenager with Andrew Vachss – which is a bit like discovering recreational drugs by drinking a shot glass of LSD – and became one of those people who gleefully dove into the black pit every chance I got because… you know, I don’t actually know why. It’s true that I did have a severe conservative/authoritarian streak when I was a teenager and early adult, but that got fixed a long time ago and I can still pick up Hammett or Chandler or Thompson or whoever and thoroughly enjoy myself. It’s weird, I suppose, but I can’t tell you why I like soccer either. So here we are with me as a… as a kid? A young adult? Is there a word for that 18-21ish age? Whatever you call that time when you’re 18-21ish, by then I was long since that kid who had a pathological need to read novels that movies I liked were based on. How many other kids my freshman year at Chestnut Hill do you think read Silence of the Lambs? I would hazard “not many.”

Fun fact: some internet sleuthing has revealed that LA Confidential was the second book I ever bought off Amazon – after Neuromancer, which surprises, I imagine, precisely no one.

Anyway, I bought and devoured LA Confidential, and again almost 20 years later it is still one of only two books where the last lines are seared into my brain forever. The others are the last lines of Gatsby, also surprising, I imagine, no one.

I was pretty blown away by the book, and who wouldn’t be? I was already head over heels in love with the movie, after all; moreso, possibly, than whatever demure, emotionally distant brunette I was also head over heels for at the time. (I legitimately cannot remember which one it was, but, yes, I am aware that I have a type.) The book is at once both this brutal distillation of the movie and a grandiose, exploded version of it. The core of the film and the book are still the same – Los Angeles as seductress, sunny exteriors and rotten insides at every turn, and good men doing bad things. There are some key differences, sure: the Ed Exley of the novel is a little more carefully drawn and deeply motivated (and much more a conniving schemer, if you can believe that). The story is a lot more expansive. The end is completely – and I mean COMPLETELY – different. And then there is the subplot in the book in which – I am not making this up – a thinly-veiled pastiche of Walt Disney is revealed as a serial child rapist and murderer.

Yeah. It’s James Ellroy. /shrug

Even with that – and in typical fashion for me I was so engrossed in the story I tended to blow through it to get the broad strokes as quickly as possible and I missed a lot of those details on the first read (aka A Song of Ice and Fire Syndrome) – once you get used to Ellroy’s… let’s charitably call it “unique” style, which doesn’t take long, the book has the same core strength that the movie does. The characters are so strong they practically leap off the page, and for all the weirdness of the language it is still incredibly evocative in an odd way. More than almost any writer I’ve ever come across Ellroy’s books have a FEEL to them that is practically indescribable and impossible to replicate. Ellroy’s books… they SEETHE in an almost Lovecraftian way, like dark, misshapen things you know are hideous but you can’t take your eyes off of.

So I read LA Confidential, and went gaga for it, and immediately said “OH SHIT MAN WHAT’S NEXT?!” and grabbed myself a copy of White Jazz and I was toast. Completely hooked. This despite the fact that in pure writing terms White Jazz is less a book and more a collection of frenzied ravings that make the complete works of Philip K. Dick look like a carefully-considered sermon. On a sentence for sentence level it is more or less unreadable, but somehow as it accumulates it still works as a whole, and it introduces Pete Bondurant, and it has what in deference to spoilers I will call “the thing Exley does at the end,” which fulfills the promise he makes at the end of LA Confidential (the book) in the most satisfying and reprehensible way possible.

I don’t mention Pete Bondurant in passing; he is one of the main characters in American Tabloid, which is one of my Top Five Favorite Books Ever*, so clearly the whole James Ellroy thing worked out pretty well for me.

The thing about Ellroy is that as he got older his books started to… is “change” the right word? Maybe “drift?” They are still recognizably James Ellroy, they couldn’t not be, but there was something more to them that became more pronounced as the Underworld trilogy rolled on. If you start with The Black Dahlia, a book that seems to be powered by nothing more than madness and sheer style, and then go through the Underworld books, you can see that there is this weirdly emotional core to them that gets stronger and stronger.

I’m not someone who will read books purely for style. If I were I would like… well, among other things, Philip K. Dick. But the books slowly undergo this metamorphosis until you get to the last twenty pages or so of Blood’s A Rover and find that you are reading this shockingly sentimental, almost maudlin ending. After years of books that run on a combination of anger and glee comes this thing that is about… regret? Deeply personal, private regret?

From James Ellroy?

The fuck?

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. But one gets to the end of a James Ellroy novel, or one did up until that point, and expects shocking, bloody denoument, not the book quietly reminding you that the real point of all of this is to not end up a sad old man who wasted his life. To get that instead of what Exley does, or instead of Pete Bondurant waiting for the screaming to start, is one of those literary moments that is jarring and wonderful.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Perfidia.

I had actually missed Perfidia when it first came out – I recall one of my last Facebook updates, in fact, to be a lament that Ellroy had a book out and that I had missed its release. These things come few and far between anymore; with the Underworld books coming out in 1995, 2001 and 2009, Ellroy is getting positively GRRM-esque in his old age. My outrageous to-read-pile, both digital and deadtree, wasn’t helping, but eventually I came to the conclusion that leaving James Ellroy unread for so long had become a crime of, one could say, Ellroyian proportions.

So I started Perfidia. And it started as one would expect. Bad cops. Loose women. Wall-to-wall decadence and villainy. One of the book’s main characters is Dudley Smith, which as one reviewer noted is basically like making one of your main characters the Devil. One-third of the book is a view from the inside of pure evil.

But then…

I don’t want to say something in the book turns, because there isn’t a page number you can point at (or a percentage count in my case, YMMV) and say, “aha! This is the paragraph where everything changes!” It isn’t a single paragraph or a chapter. I’m frankly not sure that it isn’t there from the start. But there came a point, maybe halfway through the book, where I read one chapter about Dudley and realized, “holy shit, this is so SAD.”

And once I twigged to that it was all I could see.

In classic James Ellroy fashion no one in this book is what they appear to be, but they’re not what they appear to be to the other characters. Ellroy here lets us into his characters’ heads more than I think he ever has, and we see exactly what they are from the start, and just JESUS I cannot get over the overwhelming sadness that permeates the whole thing. I mean, the book is called “Perfidia,” which ought to at least give some sort of clue what he’s after. And there is still plenty of the litany of horrors that forms the ground level of any Ellroy book. Alongside that, though, there is this deeply felt despair at the novel’s core that reaches out and touches so much of it, and is so artfully and powerfully rendered that you kind of wonder why Ellroy hasn’t always done it like this. Even Dudley Smith – fiendish, profoundly evil Dudley Smith – gets a backstory and an inner life that is almost sympathetic. Even the Devil, apparently, can have his heart broken.

And that’s what this book runs on. Instead of anger and glee, it’s melancholy and heartbreak. It’s still James Ellroy – there are murders and beatings and sleazy dealings enough to numb the most jaded crime reader – but now with the added bonus of making you kind of want to give the characters a hug and tell them everything will be okay. And the whole thing is part of this very odd sort of temporally-transcendent literary experience that is dependent on having consumed an entire oeuvre over a lot of years.

My old buddy Frans and I were once having a conversation about music, and I forget the exact beginning of the line of discussion but we somehow got onto Springsteen and he said, and I still also remember this one exactly, “I mostly like the more uplifting Bruce songs. You know, like The River.”

I said, I thought not unreasonably, “uh… what?”

Before he could begin another typically Frans-ish line of hilariously awful reasoning I interrupted him and said, “dude, do you seriously not know what that song’s about?”

“Sure I do,” he said. “It’s about – ”

“The guy in that song kills himself at the end,” I interrupted him again. “He goes to the dry riverbed to jump off the bridge and commit suicide in the last place he was ever happy. It’s, like, Springsteen’s least uplifting song ever.”

He gave me his preferred look of cautious disbelief. “Are you sure?”

“Trust me,” I said. “I’m sure.”

A few years later he listened to Live in New York City and told me, “well NOW I get what you were saying about The River, yeah.”

Reading Perfidia is a bit like hearing the version of The River that’s on Live in New York City. How it’s the same song, but it’s not. And how you kinda need the old song to appreciate the changes to the new one, but the new song is still amazing on its own.

See?

Ellroy, Lovecraft, and Springsteen.

Told you I’d get there.

JLK

* The Great Gatsby and then in no particular order American Tabloid, Dune, Neuromancer, and Cryptonomicon.

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We know that come tomorrow, none of this will be here.

Posted by kozemp on February 13, 2013

The first DC Comic I ever bought was Batman 500, back in the fall of 1993.

Yes, that issue with the hideous gatefold, die-cut, foil cover. That cover was like a summation of everything that was wrong with 90s comics. I bought it at a shop called 4Cs, which was really more of a baseball card joint, but back in the day when I could walk to four different comic shops it was the closest. I bought it on a lark – I mean, at the time, as far as I thought, DC sucked. However, possibly because I was 15 years old, I fell totally in love with it, and essentially doubled my comic reading workload.

The last DC Comic I ever bought was a hardcover collection of The Black Mirror, a Batman story by Scott Snyder, a few weeks ago.

I read, I suppose it was last week, the announcement that DC was hiring Orson Scott Card to write Superman and my initial reaction was, “are they out of their fucking minds?”

The funny thing about it is that that was a showbiz reaction. It came from the same sort of place as when I said “are they out of their fucking minds?” 6 or 7 years ago when it was announced that Robert Downey was going to play Tony Stark. It’s ludicrous! He’s damaged goods! What a stupid decision! This will doom the project before it begins!

Don’t get me wrong, I still found (and find) Orson Scott Card to be a repulsive, evil excuse for a human being, but I didn’t think about it in moral terms until this morning.

This morning I saw two things.

One was an announcement that a comic shop in Dallas said that they would not sell a Superman book written by Orson Scott Card because of his repulsive, evil depictions of gay people.

The other was DC’s response to the (heretofore unknown to me) outcry about hiring Card. A response in which they actually defend their decision to hire this repulsive, evil excuse for a human being. A response in which they not only have the appalling nerve to claim that the people they choose to hire do not represent them, a logical fallacy that will make your eyes bleed if you think too long about it, but which they had the astronomically more appalling nerve to release to precisely two outlets: The Advocate, and Fox Business Radio.

I read those two things, and something in my head snapped.

Something in my head snapped, and for a little while I had trouble accurately pinning down precisely what I was feeling. I was hurt by it, deeply and profoundly hurt, and I was incredibly, powerfully angry that not only had DC done such a thing, but when presented with the loud cry of outrage that followed it, they chose to double down on it and act as though they were somehow doing something admirable. I was hurt at the fact that DC doesn’t care about people’s feelings or how what they do looks. I was angry that DC could be so reckless and cavalier with their duty of care towards such an important icon of American culture.

But there was a third feeling in there, one I couldn’t pin down for a while until I talked to a friend of mine about it. It was in the course of that conversation I recognized what I was feeling:

Shame.

I have said before, many times: in whatever that special place is, be it over their bed, or at their desk, or in the kitchen, or over the front door, lots of people keep a picture of Jesus as a reminder of what they aspire to, and the kind of person they want to be. Or a picture of Albert Einstein. Or Martin Luther King. Or the Dalai Lama. Or whoever.

Over my desk, there is a picture of Superman.

There is a picture of Superman over my desk because Superman is my barometer, my yardstick for measuring right and wrong. Superman is that for me because, setting aside silly temporal considerations of story or plot or whatever, Superman is a god walking the earth, an omnipotent being who can do and have anything he wants, and he chooses to devote his life to helping other people. He chooses to always do the right thing. And when he’s done he puts on a pair of glasses and goes home and doesn’t ask for credit, or recognition, or thanks. He is the perfect representation of human altruism, the very best of us given form.

Superman is my barometer because he can do and have anything he wants, and he chooses to be Superman.

And I felt shame about it.

I felt shame because having grown up with all of that as such an important part of my life, having this now be part of it made me feel as though I was somehow complicit in it. As though, because he was now one of the people guiding it, the hateful, evil things Card represents are also part of me as well. I recognize that is irrational, yes, but it doesn’t change the fact that I felt it all the same.

I’ll tell you something: I can deal with hurt feelings. I can deal with anger. By this point in my life, having come out on the other side of all the crazy that’s happened over the years, I can deal with anger and hurt feelings like a fucking champ. But shame doesn’t go away so easily, and that anger – not the initial anger at the act itself, but the deep, soul anger caused by someone you trusted making you ashamed – that dies even harder. I’m not an angry guy, not anymore, even though it takes a lot of work for me to be that, but when Bruce teaches us “hold tight to your anger,” I think maybe this is what he was talking about, that breaking the covenant we have to take care of one another is the only thing worth getting angry about.

So, yeah, I’m there.

And before we unilaterally reject anger and conflict in all its forms – which I wholly endorse 99.99% of the time – let’s not forget, this isn’t the first time we’ve gone round and round with DC on this. Recall last year, when DC made the announcement that one of their “major” characters was going to come out as gay, and when the time came it turned out to be Alan Scott. You almost have to give them credit, since for however reprehensible the move was they managed to pull it off while giving themselves perfect political cover from both sides: the fans and media who rightfully ask why there aren’t any major gay characters at DC get their “Green Lantern is gay” headline, but DC can still turn to the repulsive, evil excuses for human beings who would be outraged by that and whisper, “don’t worry, the REAL Green Lantern isn’t gay.”

If you think for even one second that isn’t what DC was doing, just remember they released their response to two places: The Advocate, and Fox.

Their CYA used to be subtle, at least.

It was when I was wrestling with all this hurt and anger and shame that I realized I just couldn’t be a part of it anymore.

My friend put it best: they gave a purveyor of hate speech the keys to Superman. And, yes, I could just as easily not buy the book. Hell, there was no way I could buy the book. The problem is that the book isn’t the disease; the book is a symptom. The disease is that there are people running DC Comics who thought this was okay. Who thought this was a good idea. Who thought they should give a purveyor of hate speech the keys to Superman. That is so fundamentally and intrinsically WRONG that if I think too much about it I physically shudder and twitch, as though by body is trying to wrench the idea out of itself.

I’m not going to pretend that having a conscience – or at least one that I listen to – isn’t still a bit of a new thing for me, relatively speaking, but as the saying goes: I cannot, in good conscience, give money to people who think that. And no matter how hard I try I can’t shake this anger. I’m not sure I should.

So after almost 20 years, me and DC Comics are done. And, yeah, for me, that kinda sucks. Admittedly I don’t think I’ve ever read less DC in the last 20 years than I do now, but still. No Night of Owls. No Death of the Family. No Snyder/Lee Superman. No Rotworld. No Aquaman, no Flash, no Green Lantern, none of it. Not until this gets fixed. Not until something is done about this.

DC and I are done until this is fixed, and until someone apologizes for the shame, and the anger. Because for however much I want to do both, the leadership at DC Comics is so venal, so corrupt, so degenerate, they thought that given the choice between reading their books and looking in the mirror, I would choose the books.

You don’t have to be Superman to choose the mirror.

JLK

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Gone Walkabout, Day Six: In Which Precious Little Actually Happens

Posted by kozemp on December 16, 2009

Once I had made the plans to head back home through Chicago, I always knew that this was going to be an easy day. Chicago to Cleveland is only 350 miles, and when you’ve routinely been clocking 450-500 miles a day a quick little 5-hour shot like that is chump change.

So, then, the very few interesting things that happened on the road yesterday were:

– I mentioned that my uncle lives off of US30 in Indiana. He does, out near Valparaiso, but from there he commutes to Chicago. After making that drive in the outbound direction yesterday morning I do not envy him his morning commute of 40 miles into the frankly baffling Chicago interstate system. My GPS spoke more in the first half hour trying to get out of Chicago (“keep right,” “keep left,” “bear right,” etc) than it did on any entire day the  rest of the trip. The Byzantine system of highway interchanges would test even the toughest driver, but to do it in rush hour traffic twice a day, great gods. The man is made of sterner stuff than I, though inasmuch as he hunts spies for a living that was sort of a given anyway.

– Since my driving day was reasonably short, I made the one and only sightseeing stop of the entire trip when I went to the University of Notre Dame. It was 35 degrees and pouring when I was there, so I didn’t really get to DO anything other than drive around and look at how pretty everything was, but suffice it to say I have now seen yet another college campus that assures me that I was utterly, totally robbed at LaSalle (on the campus front). Notre Dame isn’t THE nicest campus I’ve ever seen – that’s still, and likely always will be, UCLA – but I’d wager it’s probably #2 on the list, even in a depressing December rain.

– On a related note, deserted college campuses are kinda creepy. Even the nice ones. Anyplace that is SUPPOSED to have lots of people in it is always weird and uncomfortable when there aren’t people, and being dark and rainy in the middle of the day does not alleviate that weirdness any. (And, before you ask, I never loved rehearsing in empty theatres, either.)

– The drive across Indiana and Ohio on I-80 is only slightly less boring than the same stretch on I-70, and only there by virtue of the fact that things resembling civilization occur a little more frequently along the way.

– This does assume that we include Toledo in our definition of “civilization,” which I am frankly not 100% sold on.

– Important safety tip #3: If you find yourself driving cross-country on a Midwestern interstate on a dark, rainy, and otherwise unpleasant day, and you find yourself at a point in your life where you have a thing for someone, and your iPod serves up “Tunnel of Love,” unplug your iPod from whatever is broadcasting it to your stereo and throw it out your car window. You may want to increase your speed a little before you do this so that you guarantee it will shatter into unrecoverable pieces when it hits the ground.

You must throw it out the window because if this confluence of circumstances takes place it means that not only has your iPod inadvertently gained sentience a la Wintermute, it has also become manipulative and psychotic like Wintermute and it knows that the combination of a seemingly-unending Midwestern winter and a 45-minute folk opera about the birth and death of a marriage will convince you that the pursuit of relationships is an inherently and absolutely doomed endeavor.

– Actually, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, if you are on a long drive with your iPod set to album shuffle you should probably avoid Bruce altogether. Song shuffle, fine, go for it, but when you listen to entire albums straight through… suffice it to say that no matter how bright things seem at the start, Springsteen albums never end happily.

Tomorrow: the story of the final push home (and oh boy do things happen).

JLK

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