Archive for August, 2011

31 August 2011: Midweek money!

Posted: August 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

Hey, just opened the mail and BAM! a totally unexpected royalty check from McFarland & Co., Inc., publishers of Into the Storm.

I still can’t quit my day job, but this gift horse’s mouth will not be looked into. Especially on the day I have to pay bills.

These days, I mostly watch sports when the teevee is on. There are two shows, though, that I never miss: “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified.” The reason? Story and characters.

“Sons of Anarchy” was my hands-down favorite (and if push comes to shove, still is), but after a second season of “Justified,” I’m feeling pulled more toward the latter.

Justified” is the story of Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal (played by Timothy Olyphant) who is a dead-eye with the Glock in his hip holster and a penchant for attracting trouble. When he guns down a Miami mobster in an outdoor cafe right out of “Miami Vice,” he is exiled (or repatriated?) to his native Kentucky, where the fun real begins.

Raylan is a good man fighting the bad inside him. Elmore Leonard may have created the character, but the writers of the show, and Olyphant, breathe life into him. Raylan fully understands that sometimes  you have to do a bad thing to make things good, and if not good, at least right.

The same holds true for the other characters — every one of them is suppressing, if not downright grappling with, an inner turmoil that eats at them. Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) tries not to deal with the death he caused as an Army Ranger by focusing on his job, which consists of being a frighteningly accurate marksman. Art, Raylan’s boss, sees a little of himself in Raylan and even understands him, but is also the boss. Winona wants Raylan back, sort of. She wants him back, but only if he comes back the way she wants him to. But she hates living without him. And so on. It takes superb writing and acting to convey all this, and the show has it in spades. The dialect is dead on, the culture is pitch perfect (even if the show does occasionally slip into redneck stereotypes). I get these people. Hell, these are my people (to a certain extent, anyway). Every time I watch it, I see somebody I know. The cast is outstanding. Olyphant, of course, starred in HBO’s “Deadwood,” (more about that connection in another post), and other cast members bring authenticity to the Appalachian setting — none more so than Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder (and comes close, very close, to stealing the show). There are some things you just can’t fake, and Goggins stays true to his Southern roots with every line of dialogue. I mean, Olyphant is enough of actor to make you think he’s from Kentucky, but Goggins makes you swear he is (he was born in Alabama and grew up in Georgia). The cast, the writing and the authenticity combine to make a very powerful bit of story-telling. Like Larry Brown on TV. Really.

None of which diminishes my enjoyment of “Sons of Anarchy” one bit. Kurt Sutter is an interesting person and a great writer. And he knows how to keep his audience — in the off-season he regularly uploads to his “WTF? Sutter” YouTube page. Sutter’s mastery of the story arc — and some of the best acting on TV, via Ron Perlman and Katie Sagal, among others — make this show unmissable. You don’t have to ride a Harley to watch (but it helps!), and you don’t even have to appreciate the fact that the story is a very loose take on “Hamlet.” Where “Justified” is more of an intense interaction among complex individuals, “Sons” is more of a saga where the whole equals more than the sum of its parts. Yes, it has motorcycles, porn stars, guns, drugs and salty language, but underneath all the cuts and handguns and leather are stories about people — the good guys and the bad guys — living their lives the only way they know how, and making whatever accommodations they can to survive. There are scenes that make you squirm, not because of the violence, but because of the tension of the incessant moral dilemmas.

Two totally different shows. But, both are, as far as I’m concerned, the best-written shows on the magic box.

29 August: A Monday of firsts

Posted: August 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

Picked up my first Twitter follower today: Litopia, “the web’s oldest independent writing community.” Tons of info that will probably take me days to get through, but pretty cool. If you’re a writer, they’re worth checking out.

Larry Brown is not for the faint-hearted or those who like happy endings or strong doses of reality. That’s probably why (a) you may have never heard of him and (b) Hollywood has yet to latch onto one of his novels.

Because he was from Mississippi (Brown died of a heart attack in 2004, at 53), the inevitable comparisons to other Southern writers has often been made. Comparing Brown to someone like John Grisham, though, is like comparing a Jeep to a semi. To me, his writing evoked a sort of a bridge between William Faulkner and Harry Crews.

He wrote about what he knew — the everyday people of North Mississippi. And he did it with an unnerving authenticity. I don’t know when or how I discovered his work — probably Joe or Fay — but after I read the first page, I knew I was going to approach the craft of writing differently. Brown brought it, whatever “it” happened to be. Whatever it was, it was unfailingly real. His Mississippi wasn’t mint juleps and money and status. It was, more often that not, whiskey, handguns and hard times. He wrote about the people without turning them into stereotypes or sliding into sentimentality. His characters were flawed; that is, human. They seldom got what they wanted, but often got what they deserved. His descriptions were flawless. From Joe:

“The old man could see beer cans lying in the ditches, where a thin green scum nourished the tan sagegrass that grew there. He was very thirsty, but there was no prospect of any kind of drink within sight. He who rarely drank water was almost ready to cry out for some now.

“He had his head down, plodding along like a mule in harness, and he walked very slowly into the back of his wife where she had stopped in the middle of the road.

“‘Why, yonder’s some beer,’ she said, pointing.

“He started to raise some curse against her without even looking, but then he looked. She was still pointing.

“‘Where?’ he said. His eyes moved wildly in his head.

“‘Right yonder.’

“He looked where she was pointing and saw three or four bright red-and-white cans nestled among the grasses like Easter eggs. He stepped carefully down into the ditch, watchful for snakes. He stepped closer and stopped.”

But as much as I admire his writing — which makes you hear the crickets, feel the humidity and see the soybean fields — it was his commitment to becoming a better writer and his tenacity that earned my respect. Afflicted with terminal humility, he constantly sought to be a better writer.

I have many influences, but Larry Brown always seems to push his way to the front of the crowd.

Now that summer’s unofficially drawing to a close with an earthquake and a hurricane, the summer reading list is pretty much done.

Don’t know why, but I decided this summer to read some of the great fiction of our time (“our” meaning the last 50-60 years or so). Maybe because Borders went out of business this year and I was able to snag them cheap.

Anyway, here’s what I read this summer:

1. Catcher in the Rye: J.D. Salinger’s classic coming-of-age story that was controversial as hell back in the day. Even in these enlightened times, I can see why.

2. Of Mice and Men: Probably the best short novel ever written. It’s said that OMaM could be put on the stage without changing a word or direction. Yeah, pretty much.

3. Coming Back Stronger: Drew Brees’ first-person story of his rise to NFL almost-stardom, his imminent fade into history (courtesy of a devastating shoulder injury) and his rebirth in a city being rebuilt, New Orleans, and skyrocket ride to superstardom. It’s a Super Bowl story, and clearly not a Pulitzer candidate, but an enjoyable read (not least because I’m a hard-core Saints fan).

4. No Angel: Former ATF agent Jay Dobbins’ gripping tale of his time as an undercover cop/member of Hells Angels (the only federal agent to ever infiltrate the club). It’s all Jay, all the time, but you cannot put it down. One awesome story.

5. Seven Plays: The title says it all: seven plays by Sam Shepherd (aka Mr. Jessica Lange). I love reading (and watching) plays — after all, I’m from the same town as Tennessee Williams. Shepherd’s stuff is cutting-edge almost to the point of being bizarre (and in some cases past that point), but the way he keeps it together is fascinating. And a little breathtaking as you read it.

6. The Father of All Things: Tom Bissell‘s journey to Vietnam with his Marine dad was easily the best book I read all year, let alone summer. I met Tom a few years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and spent an afternoon chatting with him on a porch. I’d had his book for years without reading it, but I’m glad I finally did. His writing is a lot like his personality: thoughtful, wry, smartass and at times outrageously funny. If you haven’t read Tom’s work, start.

7. Portnoy’s Complaint: There’s coming-of-age stories, then there’s coming (wink)-of-age stories. Roth writes the latter. Hysterical.

8. Valhalla Rising: Many years ago, I got into an argument with someone over who was the bigger badass, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee or Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt. I argued the former (and still do). But I read a few Dirk Pitt novels and enjoyed them, but not nearly as much as some people. I picked up Valhalla Rising a couple of weeks ago. It’s not bad, if you don’t mind the unlikely dialogue, the impossible feats of derring-do and the absolute perfection with which the characters perform their role.