Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2010
- Hard Rain Falling—Don Carpenter
- The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film—Michael Ondaatje
- Tinkers—Paul Harding
- Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin—Hampton Sides
- The Broken Word—Adam Foulds
- It Happened in Brooklyn: An Oral History of Growing Up in the Borough in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer
- How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer—Sarah Bakewell
- Barney’s Version—Mordecai Richler
On the day I arrived at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, amid the snow and the painfully cold sponsored parties, I met a screenwriter who wanted to talk, not about movies or agents or distribution deals, but about this column, and this column only. Given the happy relationship between books and film, and the mutual understanding between authors and those who work in the movie industry, I presumed that this would be the first of many such conversations about the Believer; indeed, I was afraid that, after a couple of days, I would begin to tire of the subject. I didn’t want to be asked, over and over again, what the members of the Polysyllabic Spree were really like, in real life; I wanted the chance to offer my opinion on Miramax’s troubles, or the potential weaknesses in the new setup at WME. I made it my policy from that moment on to engage only with people who didn’t look like Believer readers. It was a policy that proved to be amazingly successful.
So Michael was the one who slipped under the wire, and I’m glad he did. He wanted one shot at a book recommendation—presumably on the basis of the fact that my own had ruined his reading life over the last few years—and hit me with John Williams’s novel Stoner. (To my relief, the title turned out to refer to a surname rather than an occupation.) Stoner is a brilliant, beautiful, inexorably sad, wise, and elegant novel, one of the best I read during my grotesquely unfair suspension from these pages. So when Michael, emboldened by his triumph, came back with a second tip, I listened, and I bought.
Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling is, like Stoner, part of the NYRB Classics series, but it didn’t begin its life, back in 1966, wearing that sort of smart hat. Search the title in Google Images and you’ll find a couple of the original covers, neither of which give the impression that Carpenter could read, let alone write. One shows a very bad drawing of a hunky bad boy leaning against the door of his jail cell; the other is a little murky on my screen, but I’m pretty sure I can see supine nudity. And of course these illustrations misrepresent Carpenter’s talents and intentions, but they don’t entirely misrepresent his novel: if you’d paid good money for it back in ’66, in the hope that (in the immortal words of Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the hapless chief prosecutor at the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960) you might be picking up something that you wouldn’t want your wife and servants to read, then you wouldn’t have asked for your money back.
A lot of books containing descriptions of sex have been written since the 1960s, and I pride myself on having read at least part of every single one of them, but there was something about Carpenter’s novel that dated the dirty bits, and sent me right back to my 1960s childhood. Every now and again, I would, if I delved deep enough in the right drawers, come across books that my father had hidden carefully away—John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, for example, first published in 1749, but still being read surreptitiously, in the U.K. at least, over two hundred years later. (Wikipedia tells me that Fanny Hill was banned in the U.K. until 1970, but I found the family edition long before that, so I don’t know where my father got his copy. He has gone up even further in my estimation.) We are long past the time when literature was capable of doubling as pornography, and I doubt whether twenty-first-century teenage boys with access to a computer bother riffling through The Godfather and Harold Robbins paperbacks as assiduously as I did in the early ’70s. These days, regrettably, sex in novels must contain a justifying subtext; what dates the coupling in Carpenter’s novel is that, some of the time at least, the couples concerned are simply enjoying themselves. I can’t remember the last time I read a description in a literary novel of a couple doing it just for fun. (And if you have written exactly such a novel yourself, I am happy for you, and congratulations, but please don’t send it to me. It’s too late now.)
Hard Rain Falling is a hard-boiled juvenile-delinquent novel, and then a prison novel, and then a dark Yatesian novel of existential marital despair, and just about every metamorphosis is compelling, rich, dark but not airless. Carpenter is, at his best, a dramatist: whenever there is conflict, minor characters, dialogue, people in a pool-hall or a cell or a bed, his novel comes thrillingly alive. The energy levels, both mine and the book’s, dipped a little when Carpenter’s protagonist Jack Levitt finds himself in solitary confinement, where he is prone to long bouts of sometimes-crazed introspection. Form and content are matched perfectly in these passages, but that doesn’t make them any more fun to read. Most of the time, though, Hard Rain Falling is terrific—and if you’re reading this, Michael, then I’d like you to know you have earned a third recommendation.
I finished Hard Rain Falling in Dorset, in a wonderful disused hotel which pitches its atmosphere halfway between Fawlty Towers and The Shining’s Overlook. I was there with family and friends, and, though I never forgot that I am a reader—I read, which helped to remind me—I completely forgot that I am a writer. This meant that the flavor of The Conversations, a collection of Michael Ondaatje’s erudite, stimulating, surprising interviews with the film editor Walter Murch, was different from what it would have been had I devoured it during the rest of the year. In these pages a couple of months ago, I said that books about creativity and its sources are becoming increasingly important to me as I get older, but this has to be something connected with work—when I read these books (Patti Smith’s memoir was the most recent, I think) I try to twist them into a shape that makes some kind of sense to me professionally. There is so much that is of value to writers in The Conversations; any book about film editing that manages to find room for the first and last drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” in their entirety, has an ambition and a scope that elude most books about poetry. If I’d been in a different mode—in the middle of a novel, say—I’d have been much more alert to the book’s value as a professional aid; and just occasionally, something that one of these two clever men said would jerk me out of my vacation and back to my computer all those miles away. Murch’s reference to “Negative Twenty Questions,” for example, a game invented by the quantum physicist John Wheeler to explain how the world looks at a quantum level and much too complicated to tell you about here… something about the way Murch used the game to illustrate the process of film editing dimly reminded me of how writing a book feels, if you end up plotting on the hoof.
But mostly I read the book simply as someone who has seen a lot of films, and as Murch edited Apocalypse Now and The Godfather and The Conversation and The English Patient (and reedited Welles’s Touch of Evil using the fifty-eight-page memo that Welles wrote to the studio after he’d seen the studio’s cut of the film), then I was in experienced hands: this book is a dream, not just for cineasts, but for anyone interested in the tiny but crucial creative decisions that go into the making of anything at all. At one point, Murch talks about recording the sound of a door closing in The Godfather—a film, you suddenly remember, whose entire meaning rests on the sound of a door closing, when Michael excludes Diane Keaton from the world he promised he’d never join. If Murch had gotten that wrong, and the door had closed with a weedy, phony click, then it’s entirely possible that we wouldn’t still be reading about his career today. And there’s tons of stuff like that, discussions that seem like the nerdy fetishization of trivia, until the import of that trivia becomes clear. Harry Caul in The Conversation was going to be called Harry Caller (after Steppenwolf’s Harry Haller), until he decided that “Caller” was an insufficiently oblique name for a professional bugger. So “Caller” became “Call,” which became “Caul” after a secretary’s misprint, which in turn gave Coppola the idea of dressing Gene Hackman in his distinctive semitransparent raincoat. And Murch is reminded of this by a story of Ondaatje’s about W. H. Auden, who saw that a misprint in a proof produced a line better than his original: “The poets know the name of the seas” became “The ports know the name of the seas”…. Oh, boy. If you’re who I think you are, you would love The Conversations. Strangely, though, every friend I’ve pressed it upon so far has already read it, which suggests (a) that it’s clearly one of those books whose reputation has grown and grown since it was first published, in 2002, and (b) my friends think I’m some kind of dimbo who only reads football reports and the lyrics of Black Sabbath songs.
And, in any case, it turns out that editing is kind of a metaphor for living. Our marriages, our careers, our domestic arrangements… so much of how we live consists of making meaning out of a bewildering jumble of images, of attempting to move as seamlessly as we can from one stage of life to the next.
There comes a time in the life of every young writer of fiction when he or she thinks, I’m not going to bother with plot and character and meaningless little slivers of human existence—I’ve done all that. I’m going to write about life itself. And the results are always indigestible, sluggish, and pretentious. If you’re lucky, you get this stage over with before you’re published—you have given yourself permission to rant on without the checks of narrative; if you’re unlucky, it’s your publisher who has given you enough rope with which to hang yourself, usually because your previous book was a brilliant success, and it can be the end of you.
Tinkers is Paul Harding’s first novel, and it’s pretty much about life itself, and it won him the Pulitzer Prize; he got away with it because he has a poet’s eye and ear, and, because he’s a ruthless self-editor, and because he hasn’t forgotten about his characters’ toenails and kidneys even as he’s writing about their immortal souls. (That’s just an overexcited figure of speech, by the way, that bit about toenails and kidneys. There are no toenails in Tinkers, that I remember. I don’t want to put anyone off.) Harding was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I don’t know whether he was taught by Marilynne Robinson, but if he was, then I would have loved to sit in on their tutorials; Tinkers, in its depth, wisdom, sadness, and lightly worn mysticism, is reminiscent of Robinson’s Housekeeping. (And I’m not suggesting for a moment he ripped her off, because you can’t rip Marilynne Robinson off, unless you too are wise and deep and possessed of a singular and inimitable consciousness.)
Tinkers is about a dying man called George Crosby; he’s an old man, coming to the end of his natural life, and he’s hallucinating and remembering, failing to prevent the past from leaking into the present. And George’s dying is linked to his father Howard’s life, and eventual death. Howard sold household goods off the back of a wagon toward the beginning of the last century—he was a tinker. George repaired clocks. It’s breathtakingly ambitious in its simplicity, but Harding is somehow able, in this novel that runs less than two hundred pages, to include the moments on which a life turns, properly imagined moments, moments grounded in the convincing reality of the characters. I was going to say that it’s perhaps not the best book to take on holiday, because who wants to be reminded of his own mortality while he watches his children frolicking in the icy British surf? But then again, who wants to be reminded of his own mortality after he’s wasted a day messing around on the Internet instead of writing a very small section of superfluous novel, or a screenplay that probably won’t get turned into a film? On reflection, the holiday option is probably the better one: When my time comes, I hope that my children frolic before my eyes. I certainly don’t want to see an unedited paragraph of a superfluous novel.