Archive for October, 2011

Few things have touched my life more than football and the Marine Corps. That’s not a statement meant to be profound or noble or dramatic. It’s just a fact. I have loved football since I was old enough to sit in front of a black-and-white TV and watch USC play Notre Dame, Alabama play Tennessee or the Saints play anybody. I played on the playground, in the yard, in the church parking lot. It didn’t matter. Collected football cards and helmets. Had one of those electric football games. Got a football signed by three Ole Miss football players. But, being small, even as a kid, I knew my football future was a very finite thing. But when I – unexpectedly – found myself at the doors of a new high school entering the ninth grade (but that’s another story), I saw a chance and I took it. I was still too small, and I was not very good, nor was I exceptionally fast (I got better). And my high school, Lowndes County Mississippi’s New Hope High, had a very good team.

But I made it onto that team, and for the next four years, I found a lot of what had been missing in my life up to that point: a sense of belonging, discipline, pride and what it means to not quit. In fact, Coach Butch Jones and Coach Randy Sullivan instilled in all of us an ethos that quitting was a far worse mark on your character than failing, or not making the team. And that football team, truth be told, was the first time in my life I’d not quit at something – an accomplishment that came in handy a few years later while sweating under the enormous strain at Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. I can remember thinking, while being physically thrashed by the USMC drill instructors, “Well, this isn’t as hard as football practice.”

And one of the football icons of the time was a fellow Mississippian: Walter Payton. I have never – and I don’t say this lightly – seen a better football player. Ever. And I played against Marcus Dupree (and at least two other former opponents made it to the NFL). And, of course, “Sweetness” transcended football – he was a kind, generous, almost mythical paragon of decentness, even to this day. I taught my own son to “play like Walter,” to “never die easy,” and was proud when he wore #34. When my son decided to do a school project on Payton’s life, I was genuinely moved, and we read Walter’s autobiography “Never Die Easy” together. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried the moment I found out Walter had died. He remains my favorite NFL player of all time (with no disrespect whatever to Archie Manning).

So, like many, I was a little disturbed when I heard the news about a new bio on Payton by Jeff Pearlman. The reviews said it was harsh; that it pulled Payton down into the mire; that it smeared a good (and dead) man’s name. I haven’t read it yet – but I will. And I’ll read it for what it is – a complex story of a complex man. As a journalist, I understand that the story strives to paint a complete picture of Walter, not deify him – yet not to tear him down. Apparently, I’m in the minority on that view, because Pearlman posted this piece on CNN today. I read it with great interest. If you don’t read anything else about Walter Payton – or the bio – read this.

 

It’s official: Wade Stuart returns in November. I don’t have an exact release date yet (so stay tuned), but the second Wade Stuart novel, A Simple Murder, will be released as a Kindle edition within weeks.

In this installment, Stuart has resigned from the ATF and is content to while away his days in Hawaii as freelance reporter. But when he reports on a murder aboard the Marine base on Oahu, he discovers a sinister plot to kill hundreds of innocent tourists.

You can catch up with Stuart’s exploits here by getting a copy of Enemy Within, the first Wade Stuart novel.

The Great American Novel

Posted: October 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

I still haven’t gotten out of the introduction to Tender is the Night. It’s not that it’s that fascinating, I’ve just had very little time to relax, much less read, this week.  But I enjoy taking my time and learning a little about the process behind one of the great novels, and especially the writer.  And Fitzgerald is a lot to absorb.

Yes, I know I’m a book geek. Reading is fundamental.

What grabbed my attention last night was a note Fitzgerald wrote to himself in 1932, before he started writing Tender is the Night.  The note reads:

“Show a man who is a natural idealist, a spoiled priest, giving in for various causes to the ideas of the haute bourgeoisie, and in his rise to the top of the social world losing his idealism, his talent and turning to drink and dissipation. Background one in which the leisure class is at their truly most brilliant and glamorous … “

Yes, it’s a familiar, maybe even trite, theme. That’s kinda the point — nearly 80 years after Fitzgerald wrote this “note to self” — years that have seen the world’s most devastating war, the rise and fall of empires and ideologies, space exploration, the invention of television, computers, cell phones and myriad other inventions of convenience and entertainment — the human condition hasn’t really changed all that much.  Then again, if you read Ecclesiastes, you’ll see the same theme, hardly unchanged since the time of Solomon.  And Thomas Wolfe hit on much the same theme in Bonfire of the Vanities.  Yet, it’s a subject to which writers, many of them, anyway, seem to be drawn.  Why is anybody’s guess, since every writer has his own motivation — and perspective — but Fitzgerald gives this theme a little more light when he describes a character as being like Gen. U.S. Grant before the Civil War, “waiting to be called to an intricate destiny.”

I had to read that one a couple of times. Who hasn’t felt like that — waiting to be called to an intricate destiny — one that often goes unfulfilled for a thousand excuses disguised as reasons?  If only I could get out of this place … If only The Man/They/Everybody Else could see my true talent … If only I weren’t surrounded by idiots … If only.

And this is only the introduction.

Like I said, I’m a book geek.

I recently ran across an ancient copy of Tender is the Night. It was buried in one of my many boxes of books in the basement. I have no idea how I came into possession of this novel — I’m guessing it was a high school reading assignment, and I just hung onto it.

It’s not a first edition. In fact, after reading the fascinating introduction, I’m not exactly sure which edition I’m reading. Presuming I got the book in high school, it was already a reprint of an edition after the first (and maybe subsequent editions). Hence, the introduction.

Apparently, writing this novel gave F. Scott Fitzgerald fits (not a good thing for a guy who wasn’t exactly emotionally stable). It took him nearly a decade to write it — and the original manuscript totaled more than 400,000 words. Yes, 400 THOUSAND. And Fitzgerald remarked at the time that he “only had 15,000 more” to write. And when it was finally finished and published, he didn’t like the end product. So he wanted to “fix” it by deleting some scenes, moving others around and rewriting still others. This, apparently, was accomplished in his second edition, which had the novel told in chronological order. Still, he wasn’t entirely satisfied and fussed with this novel for years, perhaps until he died.

Part of the reason for his obsession was the fact that Tender is the Night was not all that well-received. He was worried that no one would remember the novel. Well, someone remembered it well enough to assign it to high schoolers 35 years later as mandatory reading. I have to admit, though, I don’t remember much about it. So I’m going to re-read it and see what I learn this time through.

Sitting here like a drone in my Virginia home, waiting on Monday Night Football to start. I say like a drone because I do so knowing full well I won’t stay up to see the end. Why? Because I live in the Eastern Time Zone, and the game won’t begin (the lovefest pregame, that is) until 8:30. And living in an area where the morning commute resembles Occupy I-95 (without the signs) does not lend itself to late nights — especially since I did that anyway last night, but only because the Saints were beating the living hell out of the Colts and there was no way I was turning that off.

I’ve never liked Eastern Time. Everything comes on too late. The news, sports, Seinfeld, all the good shows (“Son of Anarchy,” “Justified,” “American Horror Story,” etc.). I miss the Central Time of my youth, where things come on at a decent time — I mean, you can actually watch an entire football game, or watch your favorite show and still have a little time to read, watch the news, whatever before turning in to face another day on the Commute of Death.

Time isn’t the only difference between the two zones, though. In Central Time, you’ve got, for example, okra, grits done the right way, the Saints (and New Orleans), the Cardinals (but not necessarily St. Louis), the SEC, the right kind of barbecue, the Gulf Coast, the Grand Old Opry, Beale Street, catfish, shotguns, tea (without the unnecessary adjective, “sweet”) and Faith Hill. Ok, you also got your water moccasins and hardcore conservatives, but the shotgun takes care of the snakes and the Opry and barbecue can pretty much take care of the hardcore conservatives.

Here in the Eastern Time Zone, we have sushi bars, bagels, I-95, the Government, the Ivy League, Boston (and unfortunately, the Red Sox), the Redskins, the Nationals, blizzards, nor’easters, Alberta Clippers, schools that start after Labor Day, lima beans (please), and “pee-CAN” pie (people, for the last time, it’s pronounced, “puh-cahn”), and far too many Starbucks. True, there’s New York (the city, not the Yankees, Mets, Football Giants or J-E-T-S), jobs and Vietnamese restaurants, but we spend all our money on gas to sit in traffic for so long that we never have time to go out to eat — or stay up late to watch the ball game.

Throw the World Series in there and you’re talking a sleep-deficit-fueled full-on rant. Like this one.

Last post, I wrote about Steve Yarbrough, one of Mississippi’s best working writers. His website is here. Interesting fella. The man can tell a story.

I’ve received a much larger response to that post than I anticipated, all of it good, so I’ll probably elaborate on the subject of redneck noir again sometime soon.

Meanwhile, I’ve finished editing (or at least I think I have) the second Wade Stuart novel, A Simple Murder. Look for it soon. Working on book cover design now.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to invoke Jeff Foxworthy in this post. Hell, I won’t even mention him.

Sitting around in airports most of the last two weeks has allowed my mind to wander — probably a bit too much. Not long ago, I got to thinking about writers and movies, and how my favorites all seem to have something in common. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, other than that commonality had its roots, its very breath of life, in the South. And not just the South, the Deep South. And not just the mint-julep, y’all-come-back-now, belle of the ball Deep South. More like the moonshine, you-ain’t-from-around-here-are-you-boy?, crazy-aunt-with-a-shotgun Deep South. But not stereotypes, which are all too common and all too easy. I was thinking … “redneck noir.” Hey, that sounded pretty good — I thought I actually had an original idea! Until I Googled it the next morning.

Yeah, it’s been used. But it hasn’t really been defined, at least officially (whatever that means). I’m going to run with it. So you heard it here first.

So, what does it mean? I guess the first part is to define “redneck.” As I said, it’s not stereotypes, although stereotypes do play into it. To me, there’s a redneck culture that — while including NASCAR, moonshine, an accent and coondogs — that involves more a way of life than anything else. (Believe it or not, a politician defined it just about as well as anyone ever has. See Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s Born Fighting for a lengthy discourse on the redneck culture).

And even the word deserves a little more scrutiny here. Contrary to what people outside the South may think, not every Southerner sees him or herself as a redneck. Kind of like a lot of Cajuns think the word “coonass” is an insult to Cajuns, some Southerners get offended if you call them a redneck. True, within Southern culture, there are very distinct social lines, both in the black and white cultures. In other words, while folks up in Michigan (where I’m sure you could find a redneck or two) may refer to all Southerners as rednecks, down in Mississippi, it’s a totally different distinction. This, in sociolinguistics terms, is called covert prestige, which is a fancy way of saying, “We may call each other that, but you can’t.”

But I’m digressing. When I use the term, I am referring to a culture, not a type of person (I could spend another 20 minutes drawing the distinction between “redneck” and “white trash” but that’s another story). A culture that is primarily, but not exclusively, Southern. It’s not quite Everyman, more like Everybud. It’s typically a working-class, pragmatic — even fatalistic — culture that measures its members by their personal honor (which is defined by the group ethos), their “guts,” their skill in certain real-world situations (whether it be outwitting a crooked cop, running a trot line or having the best business in town). It’s people built from the ground up, who respect an honest day’s work and are suspicious if not outright distrustful of those with power and/or wealth. They don’t want to be told what to do, and they aren’t likely to tell you how to go about your business. They can take a lot of the world’s tough lessons because they’re used to it, but push them too hard and they won’t just push back, they’ll knock you on your ass. They’re proud and stubborn, and loyal almost to a fault. And if you betray that loyalty, you are dead to them.

So to tell the story of this culture, in a redneck noir way, is to stay far, far away from stereotypes. Our literature and movies are filled with examples of getting it all wrong. I remember a cringe-worthy “Shake and Bake” commercial from my youth that made Southern kids look like a bunch of dunces. And I will say with a straight face that The Beverly Hillbillies was closer to the truth than The Dukes of Hazzard.

So who gets it right? Who set the standard? The standard, if there is in fact one, had to originate with Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Don’t believe me? Read (or watch via Netflix) “Barn Burning” or read Wise Blood. “Barn Burning,” one of Faulkner’s short stories, highlights the Snopeses, a Mississippi family that appears throughout his writings. If you strip away the convoluted language, the stream of consciousness and the profundity of what Faulkner was doing, therein is the redneck culture. And it’s been copied ever since. There are a few writers who have, in my opinion anyway, nailed it. James Dickey, for example. No, I’m not talking about that damn scene in Deliverance. Forget that part, and really focus on the locals in that movie — not how they talk and look, but who they are.

Speaking of Deliverance, Burt Reynolds got it right. In his early movies (Gator, White Lightning), Reynolds got inside the redneck male’s psyche and pulled it out for all of us to look at. One of the best, and most hilarious, looks at the culture came from Roy Blount, Jr.  Blount wrote the laugh-out-loud Crackers (another derivative of redneck that is in fact an insult) shortly after Jimmy Carter won the presidency.

Today, the landscape feels a little different. Like the Westerns of old, which were reinvented into what some now call Revisionist Westerns, today’s redneck writers have most definitely injected the noir into it. My three favorites are all very similar in style, and they’re all from Arkansas. Of course I’m talking about Billy Bob Thornton. Say what you will, but the man’s a genius when it comes to writing the South. Sling Blade is, as far as I’m concerned, the most perfect piece of fiction ever put on the screen. Nobody has ever captured the dialect, the culture, the whateveritisthatmakesuswhoweare like Thornton did with that movie.

Not to get too “inside baseball,” but here’s an example of what I mean. Sometime at the beginning of the movie (or the version I rented anyway), an image appeared onscreen – presumably, a sling blade. When I saw that image, I remarked, aloud, “That’s what my daddy used to call a ‘kaiser blade.’” Then, very early in the movie, Thornton’s character (Carl) states that he killed his mother with “ … a kaiser blade. Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a kaiser blade.”

After I saw it, I almost quit writing fiction altogether because I thought I could spend the rest of my life and never get anywhere close to that. The other two writers that are in this group are Ray McKinnon and Walton Goggins. You may remember McKinnon from “Deadwood.” He’s also currently in “Sons of Anarchy.” He’s also a hell of a writer.  Redneck down to his toes. He and Goggins are sort of writing and acting partners and won an Oscar for their short, The Accountant. It’s a grim look at poverty, alcohol abuse, hard people and hard decisions. It’s also nearly as arresting as Sling Blade. The scene around the campfire brought me completely off my couch in awe. Goggins and McKinnon also wrote, produced and starred in Randy and the Mob, a hysterical, odd movie — same themes, different twist. And they’ve teamed up with Billy Bob. Goggins is also in the cast of “Justified,” where he plays an Iago-esque villain and foil to the hero.

And now that I mention “Justified,” Elmore Leonard gets it right, too — and he’s not even a Southerner. Leonard wrote the short story that became the series, and his novels typically feature at least one redneck, or a character with strong redneck tendencies. His writing has been called “gritty realism.” But “Justified” is where he really gets it right, because it’s a really a story about characters, and there are plenty. I’ve written about the show before, so I won’t rehash it here, but this is the best working example of redneck noir in entertainment today.

But, my primary example is still the late Larry Brown. I’ve written about him before, too. While there are other Southern writers out there with the same style (Mississippi’s Steve Yarbrough and Alabama’s Tom Franklin), Brown’s work comes closest to defining the style I’m thinking about. He went on a tear with a group of novels – Dirty Work (1989), Joe (1991), Father and Son (1996), and Fay (2000) —  that  left me not only in awe of his skill as a storyteller, but genuinely moved by his depiction of a culture. Likewise, Yarbrough’s Oxygen Man takes the culture head-on – a white Mississippi male whose only real friends are black men with whom he works on a Delta catfish farm. At first glance, it feels like a racism story, and in a way it is. But Yarbrough goes where few writers do (Faulkner being one) and where even fewer go with such skill. Yarbrough delves into the class divisions, rather than the racial ones, in Mississippi society (see cover prestige above). Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (and if you’re from Mississippi, the title needs no explanation), draws parallels in its treatment of the racial divide – and even flips some of the conventional roles – a black cop, a white thug.

What all three have in common is what defines redneck noir – they strip away all the stereotypes and dare to be honest. What remains is an examination of a culture that is often tragic, sometimes violent, always human.

So. Redneck noir. Like I said,  you heard it here first.

OK, I admit, the headline “iBone” got my attention immediately. In the latest issue of GQ (which I read as my only remaining magazine subscription), Marshall Sela writes about what could be the latest rage in apps – or the worst idea for getting sex in a long time. It’s a GPS-based app called “Blendr,” which is based on aprevious app called “Grindr,” which has been used for a while now by gay men looking for a quick and as-close-to-anonymous-as-you-can-get-without-actually-being-anonymous sexual encounter.

You can read the whole, um, piece here.

But what really caught my eye in Sela’s story wasn’t so much the prurient nature of such drive-by sexual adventures as it was the evolution of basic human nature in the face of modern technology (which, ostensibly, is supposed to bring us together and make the world a smaller community while opening the doors to countless opportunities to all). Here’s what he had to say:

“Contrary to the plan, technology has limited our choices. When you check boxes that define your preference in a date – say, Latina, between 24 and 27, loves birds, is a Unitarian, oh, and should also have hazel eyes – you’re narrowing your world quite a bit there. We no longer ‘happen across’ anything: we Google. We don’t flip through TV channels; we look atthe cable menu and choose by title – or watch things you’ve chosen in advance, then recorded. Don’t answer the phone without that caller ID. Don’t bother listening to that whole CD – you want to hear that one song you already like. In every corner of this newest of worlds, very little happens that isn’t planned out. Technology has trumped serendipity.”

Well put. If you’re one of those people who think “spontaneity”is putting your iPod on shuffle, this should be food for thought.

You know, it’s 2011. And we’re still banning literature in this country. The current culprit is a high school in Palm Desert, Calif. I used to live in that area, it’s not exactly known as a hotbed of American conservatism. But, lo and behold, the local administration took exception to the high school’s intent to put on … wait for it … “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Read the entire story here.

That’s right. Tennessee Williams. And only one of the best American plays ever written. Why, you may ask? For “references to sex, homosexuality, alcohol and mild curse words.” One of the “mild curse words” that offended (or raised his concern, depending on how you read the piece) the principal was “crap.”

I understand community standards, public taste and all that (hey, I didn’t get a “C” in First Amendment Law for nothing), but really? I don’t know why it is, but administrators always seem to be “shocked” by literature that has been around for decades (or even centuries). Catcher in the Rye was controversial when it was released. I even read it in high school as an assignment. But it wasn’t reported to be “banned” in some schools until years later. Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees (along with several others) was declared “obscene” (how, I don’t know. I read it twice).

I could understand if the play in question was, say, “Hair.” But “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?” Please.

“Where’s that from?” the flight attendant asked as I stood in line to board my aircraft recently, trying to be patient as the members of Zone 1, 2 and 3 shuffled aboard of me. The rigmarole of air flight used to bother me a lot more (and it still gets on my nerves), but, hey, I wasn’t going anywhere until we were all aboard anyway?

I didn’t realize he was talking to me at first, until I saw that he was looking at my jacket lapel. I glanced down. “Gulf War,” I said. His eyebrows raised in question, and I added, “Combat Action Ribbon.”

He smiled, nodded, and said, “My best friend was with the 175th Rangers over there.” I returned his smile, then said — as it occurred to me — “That was a long time ago now.” He nodded, and I moved on to my seat.

It was a long time ago, now, and I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that it’s been 20 years  — years — since the war. Yet, I can recall specifics with absolute clarity. Twenty years ago this month, I was, quite literally, in the middle of the Saudi desert with the 1st Marine Division, about six weeks into what would become an 8-month deployment. When I think  back on the time span between the day we got there (an indescribably hot August afternoon) and the middle of October, that seems like 20 years. By then, we’d already gotten in-country, unloaded our gear, reclaimed the gear that was stolen from us, fixed the broken gear and gotten out to the field. “The field” in this case being a godforsaken patch of sand somewhere south of Kuwait. Then we dug in. And waited. And waited. We were living off rumors, caffeine and nicotine. Mail was more valuable than platinum — this was an era before cell phones, Skype and e-mail. The chow was awful, the boredom dangerous and the morale held steady (depending on who you asked).

By this time, the worst of the heat had passed, so we were actually able to sleep at night (when we weren’t on watch or responding to the latest rumor about Scuds being fired, artillery being fired, tanks coming at us, gas attacks or goatskin-covered infiltrators — the usual stuff). I’d been “on loan” to 11th Marine Regiment (from my home battalion, based in Hawaii) for about a month and had become an acquaintance of the Regiment’s intel officer, Capt. Rich Haddad. As the weather cooled, we started scrounging around for better “quarters” — ours consisted of a pile of sandbags, two cots and mosquito netting. We figured that if we’re going to be stationary for a while, we might as well be comfortable.

Read more about the war here.