Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Service With a Smile by P.G. Wodehouse

I will never write a Wodehousian novel: I know that. But the one in my head that I would write, if I were capable, would be the Unified Field Theory Wodehouse book, in which Psmith's plots collide with Jeeves's, with Uncle Fred kibitzing on one side and probably Mr. Mulliner narrating large chunks of the story.

Wodehouse himself never did that, largely because even his normal books were over-complicated and fussy, requiring a lot of time and attention to get all of the silly plot details exactly right, so that everything felt plausible in Wodehouse's least plausible (and most sunny) of all possible worlds. But it's a beautiful dream, and I wish somebody was capable of doing it at the level of the Wodehouse of about 1940, because that would be a kick-ass book.

I was reminded of that while reading Service With a Smile, because this is a crossover book in a smaller way: it brings Uncle Fred (aka the Earl of Ickenham) to Blandings, to spread sweetness and light there in his own way. This is fairly late Wodehouse (1961), so it ends up being an Uncle Fred book that takes place at Blandings -- Lord Emsworth is basically a minor character, and his brother Galahad entirely absent -- rather than the equally-blended souffle of my dreams.

As always, the joys of Wodehouse are in his books' frivolity and lightness: the worst thing that can happen in a Wodehouse novel is that two young people will not marry the people they love...well, that they love deeply and passionately, but intermittently, since they're always breaking engagements at the drop of a hat (and forming multiple engagements as well, as in this book). In this case, it's primarily Uncle Fred's young friend Bill Bailey, a poor vicar engaged to the daughter of an Wall Street tycoon -- she's is at Blandings under the tutelage of Emsworth's formidable sister Lady Constance, who of course does not approve of the match. Uncle Fred and Bill of course are at Blandings themselves, the latter, inevitably, under an alias.

There is also, as there must be, a plot to steal the famous pig The Empress of Blandings, led by the unpleasant Duke of Dunstable, also currently a guest at Blandings, and aided by Emsworth's current horrible secretary, Lavender Briggss, who I am sorry to say has a very distinctive speech pattern that Wodehouse may have meant to indicate a particular social or physical origin. (This is less than clear to an American sixty years later, frankly.)

The plots -- there are a few minor ones I've neglected to mention, as well -- circle each other in that inimitable Wodehouse fashion, as the marriage possibilities and the career-advancement possibilities and the making-money-by-stealing-a-pig possibilities all get tangled up in each other until it seems that there's no way for sweetness and light to win out in the end.

But of course it does: this is Wodehouse after all, and Uncle Fred's plots do find happiness for all of the characters who deserve it (and possibly even one or two the reader would not think deserve it).

This is a late Wodehouse novel, from two of his lesser-known series: if you've never read him before, don't start here. My general advice has been to begin with Joy in the Morning, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, or Leave It To Psmith, but you could also grab any random Jeeves book from before 1960. If you haven't tried Wodehouse, and like silliness, you should try at least one, once.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Quote of the Week: Secret Shocks

"Everything's been electric lately. Lately everything I touch gives off an electric shock: doorknobs, the railings of stairs, the water from the faucet, the car when I get out. I put my finger to the object, raise it to my lips: electricity. I slap things first to ground myself. I assault the metal around me on a constant basis, before it can strike me back, The keys on my ring hum with voltage; I must grab them with my teeth clenched, before dropping them in my pocket where they might ignite a naked nerve. My day's filled with hitting things,. Only at night, on a mattress that  holds no current, do I confront a different electricity altogether."
 - Steve Erickson, Leap Year, p.10

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Smile When You're Lying by Chuck Thompson

It's easy to pretend to be more radical, more transgressive than everyone else: you just have to say that you are. Living up to it is another thing.

Chuck Thompson's 2007 memoir/collection of travel essays Smile When You're Lying positions him as the one truth-speaker among travel writers. The one who doesn't use superlatives like candy (except when he does, later in the book, describing the people of each place he likes as the best in the world at something he particularly respects). The one who will tell the truth about why people go to places like Thailand (for sex; he never mentions this again after bringing it up in his fiery intro and is remarkably quiet about drugs as well). The one who is fearless and unafraid to burn bridges (except for the very long list of editors he effusively thanks at the end).

That all would be fine: we expect a little showmanship from our writers, particularly those (like travel writers) who are always aiming for the new and the hot.

But I unfortunately read this book, which presents itself as an expose about how travel magazines are a big profitable business that stifle contrarian views in favor of relentless puffery [1], more than a decade after Thompson wrote it. The magazine market of 2019 is not what it was in 2006 when Thompson wrote this book -- hell, no business in the world is what it was in 2006, purely because of 2006, but magazines, and print periodicals in general, were already on a downward trend due to the rise of the Internet and a massive advertising transition there.

Thompson shows no sign of seeing that his entire world was about to change: he presents a monolithic, massively profitable entity when we all know it was nothing of the sort. (And I think that transition hit Thompson as well: he seems to have spent much of the last decade transitioning into TV/Internet himself, as executive producer of CNN Travel and editorial director of CNNGo.com.)

So he wasn't prescient: how many of us were?

Smile When You're Lying is still fun, a loose assemblage of stories vaguely organized around travel and Thompson's life, with no actual structure (geographical, historical, thematic) to be discerned. It is divided into three sections by airline seat -- Aisle, Middle, and Window -- but my high-powered instruments were not able to detect the actual differences between them.

Thompson, as one might guess once one realizes he has spent most of his career as a reasonably connected travel editor/producer himself, is not actually as radical in practice as he is in rhetoric. (Again: how many of us are?) Smile When You're Lying has a reasonable hook, which Thompson uses to hang some loosely-related material, and he's pretty entertaining along the way. I suspect that if he'd instead written a more traditional "how I grew up and got out" memoir -- he's from Juneau, and had an interesting background from the glimpses he gives here -- it would have been more coherent and focused, but it probably also would have been more personal, and Thompson would rather be bold than personal.

Instead, each of the eleven chapters is supposedly about something but ends up pulling together a bunch of stories from a particular time and place in his life -- again, generally related to his travel-writing career, but taking that very broadly to start with an ill-fated cross-country car trip when he was about eighteen and including a couple of years spent teaching English in rural Japan. It does start out more fire-breathing than it ends, with digs at various periodicals and book lines (that this reader started to think wouldn't hire him, or where he has personal conflicts with major editors), before it settles down into more stories about stuff he did, or, more accurately, stuff that happened while he was there to see it. (He's a writer: they're much more likely to hang back and observe.)

It's entertaining and rabble-rousing, and contains possibly a few facts that might be useful to the reader later on. Just don't spent any time buying into his introductory screed: it doesn't go anywhere, in this book or in real life.

[1] It's not actually that: it's a loose baggy collection of stories from Thompson's life, most of which happened during his career as a travel writer and all of which happened somewhere other than his house. Thus it is a travel book.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Leap Year by Steve Erickson

I doubt anyone has noticed this -- or cares -- but I've been using Wednesdays this year for reviews of SF/F books, or of fantastika more generally. So far it's worked out, though I'm not tailoring my reading to fill specific slots, and I obviously had a lot of dead air earlier this year.

Today, though, I have a book with possibly the oddest set of tags in the history of this blog. Today I'm here to write about Steve Erickson's 1989 supposedly non-fiction book Leap Year, the story of the previous year's presidential election (Dukakis vs. Bush I, though we had no idea there'd be a II at that point), narrated by the Erickson, who traveled the country in the occasional company of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's slave mistress. [1]

Erickson uses Hemings as a lens on the corrosive effect of race and slavery on the USA, but that's only one thread of a very discursive, circling book. Erickson spends very little time actually with the candidates or out on the trail talking to "regular Americans" in the usual campaign-lit way. (He fails to even get press credentials for the Republican Convention, and so misses that entirely.) Leap Year is instead a deep look inside the head of one man, conflicted about his country, as he travels around that country. Oh, and pursued by a revenge-driven Al Gore, in case you think it couldn't get any weirder.

It has no chapters. Its paragraphs sometimes run for pages; its sentences almost that long. The book itself isn't long -- only 192 pages -- but every page is hard-fought, full of depths Erickson had to dig out with pick and shovel in the mine of his idea of America. Erickson is wrestling with himself and his country the whole time, and Leap Year contains some of his best thoughts and writing of his career. It doesn't have much of shape, unfortunately: the election itself turned out to be a snoozer, bland primaries leading to the obvious candidates nominated on both sides, and then Dukakis utterly failing to come across as a plausible President or provide a single compelling reason to vote for him. So the external conflicts Erickson probably was counting on in his book pitch fizzled out, leaving him alone in the dark night of Reaganite America, full of racist dog whistles and the coming apotheosis of the Southern Strategy.

Leap Year is the book of that moment in time, and that's why Hemings is in it. You can say that every great country has a thousand weirdly specific, quirky things that can only be explained by one, big, central fact that everyone pretends is dead and buried -- for the UK, it's the class system, for the US, it's slavery. Erickson never lays out that theory explicitly in Leap Year, but its spirit is behind every word: remember that 1988 was also the year of Jesse Jackson's greatest prominence in Democratic presidential politics, the year he came as close as he ever could to being the nominee.

Erickson is at his most prescient when he's talking fantastically about the current day, so Leap Year still reads like a bolt of electricity now, after Obama and during a Republican administration that has taken all of the lessons of Reagan, coarsened them and pushed them past any logical limits, and has given up entirely on even the idea of truth.

I doubt many people will read Leap Year for the coming presidential election year. They should.

[1] "Mistress" makes it sound like she had a choice in the matter: in Erickson's telling, she did. What she thought about that choice, and what that choice meant for her and for all America, are important in the book.

This is also a decent place to point out that Hemings was three-quarters European, the generation-younger half-sister of Jefferson's wife, who came into Jefferson's household as an infant with that marriage and who he apparently began sleeping with in Paris, when she was fifteen. Erikson's male main characters are always flawed men who fail disastrously at the things they think are most important: Jefferson fits that mold perfectly, horribly.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

P.G. Wodehouse died in 1975, after writing only fourteen Jeeves and Wooster novels among his roughly hundred books during a seventy-plus year career as a working writer. It was difficult for his estate to claim then that there wasn't enough Wodehouse, so they busied themselves with licensing the existing books to publishers around the world, commissioning a quite good TV series in the early '90s, and other activities.

But time marches on, and the bottomless gullet of book publishing is always hungry for new works. And so, eventually, the Wodehouse estate, for whatever reasons we may want to attribute to them, decided that, maybe, just maybe, there weren't quite enough Jeeves and Wooster books after all.

Maybe they had a beauty parade of would-be Wodehouses, maybe they quietly asked a few well-connected agents to recommend authors who might be interested, maybe they just threw darts at a Sunday Times bestseller list. In any case, Sebastian Faulks was anointed as the Man with the Plan. (One might surmise that his previous sharecropping work, the James Bond novel Devil May Care, somehow figured into the decision.)

Again, we don't know how many drafts he wrote, how picky the Wodehouse estate was, or any of the other really juicy behind-the-scenes details. But, in 2013, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells was published, a full 38 years after Wodehouse's final novel, the minor Jeeves and Wooster book Aunts Aren't Gentlemen.

Faulks is a "real" novelist in a way Wodehouse wasn't, which has its pluses and minuses. Faulks seems to want to have characters that grow and change, and that are actually living in a specific point in time -- those are all things that Wodehouse studiously avoided, and one might consider that, as it were, an important gap in the literature that creates the overall Wodehouse gestalt. On the other hand, Faulks is also serious enough to write a deeply Wodehousian book, full of impostors at country homes, sundered loves, quotes from improving books from Jeeves, young people engaged to the wrong other young people, and the usual tangle of would-be marriages and unhappy guardians to be all put right in the end.

Wedding Bells is Wodehousian without ever quite turning into a Wodehouse novel: Bertie has emotional depths, which I found deeply distracting, and Faulks doesn't quite manage the Wodehousian two-step of telling the book from Bertie's point of view while still showing how confused and dim he actually is. His prose, also, is Wodehouse-esque without trying to closely ape the same style: this is probably a good thing.

All in all, Wedding Bells feels like an alternate-world Jeeves novel, one written in a universe where there is a consistent Wodehouse shared world, where each book can be placed at a moment in time (likely all in the interwar period), and where major characters change from book to book. That's not the world we live in -- and I for one am very happy I don't have to contemplate the book in which the Empress of Blandings has gotten too old and must be put down -- but it was pleasant to visit for the space of one book.

But Wedding Bells, like most posthumous sharecropped books, is at best a thin replica of something distinctive. What it most does is remind us of how inimitable Wodehouse was, and send us back to reading his real books. (And, come to think of it, that's probably precisely what his estate wanted. Tricky fellows!)

Friday, September 06, 2019

Quote of the Week: Something to Say

"For a while I didn't have anything more to say. I was working in a comic-book store on Melrose Avenue. This is the main drag of Pop Angeles; it used to be art galleries and thrift shops, and then about a decade ago punk seized control of its low-rent aspects. Now there are retro diners and record stores and gelato shops and trendy eateries and this comic-book store where I worked. Punks and New Hollywood moguls and alleged bohemians and tourists and counterculture newspaper editors from Oregon who can't wait to move to New York because Los Angeles isn't hip enough for them all collide on Melrose Avenue; a Jewish retirement home sits in the middle of it; Holocaust victims on the patio watch the passing parade. I worked in the comic-book store about eight months. I attended to the needs of adolescent boys who required this issue or that of Punisher or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I also had to put up with the grownups, young men in suits and ties who would burst in red-faced and hot under the collar about the ways Superman was stripped of certain facets of his X-ray vision in the most recent adventure. The most appealing thing about the job was the way everyone thought it was beneath me. Even the other people who worked in the store thought it was beneath me, though not necessarily beneath them. This was just something I had to overcome, it just took time to persuade people that it wasn't beneath me at all, that I was in fact perfectly suited to such an occupation. By the end of the time I worked there they believed this. I completely convinced them. I left finally because there was something to say again, and so I wrote another book and now that's over and it's the beginning of another year."
 - Steve Erickson, Leap Year, pp.13-14

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Florida Man and His World: Two Books by Craig Pittman & Dave Barry

Sometimes you read two books because they cover the same thing, because you expect they'll bounce off each other in your mind. It doesn't always work out right -- books often aren't what you expect they will be, and you can never know how you'll react to them -- but it's always good to stretch yourself.

This was a very, very minor way of stretching myself: reading two books about how weird Florida is. Craig Pittman's 2016 book Oh, Florida! (an expansion and reconfiguring of a blog series of the same name in Slate a few years earlier) is the more-or-less serious version of the "hey! lookie how crazy this state is!" story, with more than a little history and a dozen-and-a-half thematic chapters. Dave Barry's Best. State. Ever. (also 2016) is vastly more frivolous, a book barely half the length with half as many chapters, all but the first of which were "go there and do the crazy thing" reports. (Since Barry had been retired as a columnist for about a decade, and the book doesn't credit previous publication, my guess is that all of the visits were for the book -- but it's possible that he did manage to sell them as articles as well, and the book just kept silent on that.)

I, of course, read them in the wrong order: Barry first, since it's shorter and funnier and sillier.

The reductive way of contrasting the two books is to point out that Pittman is a reporter: mostly on an environmental beat, for the Tampa Bay Times for the past decade or so, with three serious books of reportage on serious issues (manatees, orchids, grasslands) behind him. He's good at research, knows a lot of facts, and has a point of view that he doesn't let get in the way of a good story. He's also a native Floridian, that rare (but endlessly self-identifying) breed.

Barry, on the other hand, is a humorist: he wrote a column for several decades, and has made a very good living off writing one to ten thousand funny words about This Silly Thing on a regular basis for most of his adult life. He moved to Florida long enough ago that he spent most of his career there, though I still think of him as a Northeastern guy, since he was syndicated out of a Philadelphia paper when I discovered him.

Amusingly, Pittman covers most of the factual pieces in Barry's book, along with much more, in his longer and more in-depth book. (Pittman is silent on the Skunk Ape and did not, unlike Barry, attempt to get salable copy out of being a middle-aged man in a hot Miami Beach night club. Barry's chapters are also all about Being Dave Barry in a specific place and milieu; Pittman is much less present in his own book.)

The real difference in the two is tone. Barry is rich and successful, and got that way by being willing to be silly and happy in public, writing about any nutty thing that came his way. Florida, as Pittman says many times, is the land of the optimist and the dreamer, so Barry fit in well there. Barry gives no sign that the deep endemic corruption of his state matters in the slightest to him, or that any of the systemic issues -- the climate change that will probably doom Miami, the bone-deep racism curdled into things like "Stand Your Ground" laws, the toxic and hypocritical brand of evangelical Christianity so common there, the pure demographic weight of millions of old people who move there to waste their money and avoid paying taxes before they die -- are of any concern. So Barry's book is sunny and entirely happy: hey! let's chase a Skunk Ape! wow! let's go drinking in Key West! cool! it's the biggest retirement community in the world, and they're having lots of sex!

Pittman, on the other hand, clearly sees the rot. But he's a classic reporter, and so doesn't show any evidence that he thinks the rot could be entirely turned around or cured. Florida is a land for scams and schemers, he says: it might be possible to clean up parts of it here and there, but there's always a new crazy money-making idea (or an old one back again, like land speculation) and always several million idiots willing to put their money into it and probably lose it all. That's amusing, assuming he's talking to people too smart to be taken in by the schemes; the rot in other areas (destroying habitat for animals or humans permanently, the gun culture that kills millions, all of the particularly Florida kinds of corruption and graft and malfeasance) is less amusing, but equally entrenched. Pittman doesn't like any of that, but he doesn't have a muckraker's zeal to fight against it, either. And he's got a long, long catalog of nasty funny things that happened in Florida to run through before the end of his book, carefully organized into thematic groupings so the reader can see all of the depressing similarities.

(Pittman's epigraph is not "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." But it could easily have been.)

So Pittman's book is subtly depressing for a careful reader. I image it's had a lot of uncareful readers, though: people who skim it for the crazy stories, let those reinforce their existing prejudices, and meander on with their little, misinformed lives. We can never do anything about those people. They will always be with us, and much of the time feel like a majority. Perhaps it's good news that, in Florida, they are at least entertaining in their idiocy?

If you want a silly, amusing book about Those Crazy Floridians, Barry has exactly what you need. If you want a deeper understanding of why they're Crazy, even if that doesn't lead to any blueprint to helping them (or you) get any saner, Pittman is the writer for you.