Race, Drugs and Murder: A Brooklyn Tale

The best book ever written about the scourge of drugs and the racial chasm in the deep interior of Brooklyn was Greg Donaldson’s gritty 1994 true life new journalism book, The Ville. It covered the lives of two men – one a Housing cop and the other a gang member – along with a vast cast of extras in a two-square mile area encompassing parts of the Brownsville and East New York. In The Ville, justice was elusive and escape from “the life” almost impossible. But it was the portrayal of race and an endless cycle of urban failure that stayed with this reader.

The new first novel by Justin Peacock, A Cure for Night, doesn’t really pack the same chilling portraiture as Donaldson’s non-fiction account of the early 90s, but it does build a cinematic and dramatic story that contains the same elements of crime and race and failure in the public housing projects of New York. At its center are two public defenders – Joel Deveraux, a former white shoe litigator whose personal drug habit destroyed a highly-paid career, and Myra Goldstein, a feisty and committed defense attorney – drawn together over a shooting in the courtyard of a Brooklyn housing project.

The story unfolds mostly in dialogue and it’s got a ripped-from-the-headlines feel that ties it closely to some of the best crime procedurals on television. Peacock’s story is undoubtedly authentic, based on his own experiences as a defense lawyer, and he reveals a healthy disrespect for a criminal defense system that seems like a revolving door of poorly-tried cases and quickie plea bargains.

The crime at the center of the novel forces a view of the racial realities of life in inner city public housing that is free of any blinders: a white college student is killed during a meeting with a black drug dealer. Naturally, the murder hits the tabloids. Peacock’s lead character is weak, only semi-skilled, and easily pushed about by the currents in his life – he’s a follower. Luckily, he’s paired with the best of the Brooklyn Public Defender’s office, a young woman driven by both her belief in the law and her own abilities.

It’s a procedural whose best moments lie not in the highest drama, but in the mundane turning of the court calendar and the droning job toward a verdict. It’s a darkly liberal book: some victims clearly have no chance in the society Peacock presents. But it’s also a tale that is frost-bitten by a cold existentialism; this is life in New York for many people and it will always be so. The title is, in a way, a kicker to a journalist’s front-page story – there really is no cure for the night.

A Book for the Times: World Made by Hand

For many years now, curmudgeon-blogger-painter-author James Howard Kunstler has been predicting the downfall of America’s vast consumer society in stark terms, in his non-fiction books (like his 2006 The Long Emergency) and on his iconic blog, Clusterfuck Nation. Read Kunstler for a couple of weeks, and he will piss you off. Read him for a few months, and you’ll question the financial underpinnings of the western world – some of the verities slowly begin to fray. Two months ago, for example, Kunstler posted a typical essay called “The Coming Re-Becoming” that factored the assumptions we Americans make for our strength and general well-being in the alleys and by-ways of sheer luck:

Everywhere you turn in this nation, you see a society primed for implosion. We seem unaware how extraordinary the American experience has been, especially in the last hundred years. By this, I don’t mean that we are a better people than any other society — these days, ordinary people in the USA make an effort to appear thuggish and act surly, as though we were a nation of convicts — but for decade-upon-decade, we were very fortunate. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s may seem like a relatively peaceful and gentle “time out” from a frantic era of hypertrophic growth, compared to the storm we’re sailing into now.

Fortunate, indeed – and now that the entire financial system is shaking, I’d like to recommend Kunstler’s 10th novel, World Made by Hand, a sharp cinematic imagining on everyday American life after the failure of the energy grid.

I read the book between trips upstate this summer, which was perfectly appropriate, as World Made by Hand unfolds in the sleepy town of Union Grove, New York along the Hudson River north of Albany – a region down on its economic luck even before the apocalyptic events hinted at in Kunstler’s tale. But as Robert Earle, a former software engineer, attempts to balance his base own survival with more human pursuits in a town edging toward violence and anarchy, we glimpse that world through his eyes.

The New York State Thruway as a walking trail. Abandoned strip malls, gas stations, and shopping outlets. The absence of mass media, except for the occasional Bible-thumping when the power cranks the radio back on. The real meaning of horsepower. In short, it’s like a field trip to an Amish village or a 19th century agrarian recreation – but littered with carcasses of automobiles, commerce, mass production and media. The Hudson is again the super-highway it was when the French and British fought for it. All food is produced locally. Drugs are scarce to non-existent, and contagion sweeps away whole generations. Recycling isn’t a feel-good fad – it’s survival. And violence in the absence of real law threatens the last of civilization.

The people in World Made by Hand are thin; they’re hungry, sure – but there’s not too much meat to their characters, either. Women fare the worst: feminism has not survived, and they are reduced either to a means of production or sad, wandering specters. The men aren’t much better, because life has become cheapened and introspection has as much validity as 50-inch Trinitron.

The most affecting character is the cultish preacher Brother Jobe who comes to town to build a new community of believers, only to find personal tragedy. Jobe has seen trouble all over the east coast, and knows that his chances in upstate New York are his last; although things are bad, they’re not as bad as elsewhere – there are terrorist bombs and lynch mobs across the land. The failed nation is rarely addressed directly, but unfolds in conversation – like this one between Earle and his new live-in lover, a young widow of Union Grove’s increasing violence:

“The world has become such a wicked place,” she said quietly, just a statement of fact

“There’s goodness here too.”

“Where is it?”

“In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love.”

“I’m afraid sometimes that we drove those things out of existence.”

“No, we carry them in our hearts. They’re always with us.”

“I don’t know what’s in my heart anymore. It’s too dark to see.”

“Light follows darkness.”

To a writer and soap-box shouter like Kunstler, World Made by Hand is not so much of a warning as a promise. Yet, you can also sense a yearning from the author – who lives, after all, in Sarasota Springs – for a return to that earlier time. Indeed, there are portions of the new life in Union Grove that are admirable; the reliance on a communitarian movement for survival is one. A closer tie to the means of food production is another. You get the feeling the author himself thinks he might do well in the reinvention years he hints at in economic/political blog posts circa 2008.

This economic spasm is a result of the credit explosion in all its variety and complexity and derivation. Kunstler’s bleak future stems from energy policy. Yet the events of these last two weeks can be tucked neatly into the back story for World Made by Hand. It’s a good read. And it sure as hell beats watching the Dow or sorting through the bailout paperwork.

The Adams Chronicles

John AdamsWhat to make of John Adams, the highly-promoted mini-series now unwinding through the late 18th century on HBO? The formula of the weekly episode is well-set and sadly telegraphed: Adams unsure and agitated as portrayed by a bewigged Paul Giamatti, some heinous medical procedure filmed in gruesome detail, tension in the long-suffering but strong Adams marriage, and lush and gorgeous locations and set design.

The medical tic particularly detracts. Yes, we know all about smallpox and the gory separation of limbs from wounded bodies in naval settings – we learned at the literary knee of Stephen Maturin, after all. What made John Adams a great man, always my favorite Founding Father, wasn’t his exposure to nasty colonial doctoring. His greatness originated in the rare combination of political philosophy with political tactics, wrapped into a sturdy bulldog temperament. Giamatti’s Adams occasionally captures this quality, most memorably during the too-short portrayal of negotiations of the Second Continental Congress. But too often, this Adams looks like a second-tier player, a utility infielder among revolutionaries like Washington, Franklin, and even Jefferson.

In reality, Adams was the indispensable political engine; Washington regarded him as the Revolution’s most able political actor and for good reason. The latest episode portrays virtually his entire European diplomatic forays (there were two in the 1770s, the series conflates them) as personal failures, massive wastes of time. In fact, as David McCullough’s fine biography – upon the which the HBO series is based – conveyed, Adams provided a valuable counterbalance to Franklin’s more easy-going diplomacy. While Franklin undoubtedly knew the French, Adams pushed for the fledgling republic’s immediate needs; without Adams’ urgency, Franklin’s success was hardly guaranteed. Continue reading

Westminster Soap Operas: New Labour, Ancient Power

The DealLast summer, another occasional blogger on this site gave me a sterling backstage view of Parliament, a thoroughly enjoyable excursion through wood-lined passages and old stone arches, into robing rooms and vaults and the like. So I was thinking of that very tour as The Deal unfolded on my screen recently – a tight, well-acted bit of British political drama in Westminster that follows the rise and rivalry of a pair of prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in their evolution from old Labour back-benchers to New Labour Titans.

The Deal, written and produced by Peter Morgan, came to America via HBO (I Tivo’d it) and was directed by Stephen Frears, who brought us The Queen in all its Mirrenesque splendour (yes, I’ll spell it that way, thank you) and it stars David Morrissey as Brown and Michael Sheen once more as Blair. Indeed, I wondered momentarily if Frears and Sheen filmed it as part of The Queen set-up, the way Peter Jackson did The Lord of the Rings trilogy in one, long shoot.

In the same week, I also watched the conclusion of a bit of mildly entertaining fluff from BBC One called The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, about the unlikely rise of a middle-aged woman from supermarket manager to Number Ten on the back of a purple women’s revolution. It aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, which has really stretched its modifier in recent years – this was no master work. Just a Parliament-based soap opera with a fairly dour, depressive cast. Nothing like the fabulous House of Cards, for instance, a 1990 series that chronicled the rise of a ruthless British conservative to power in a post-Thatcher Britain. The Andrew Davies script of a Michael Dobbs novel was written for Sir Ian Richardson, who inhabited the Shakespearian villain, Francis Urquhart, to a rapacious turn. They don’t do Whitehall like that any more. Continue reading

Dirty Streams and Broken Towns: Richard Russo’s Upstate Social Order

Richard Russo

There is a moment in Alan Bennett’s wonderful novel in miniature, The Uncommon Reader, recommended here by Maud Newton, when the royal literary figure in question realizes the joy of discovering a favorite writer has been hiding in plain sight, awaiting only discovery and a hundred or so quiet evenings. A few years ago, I had that delicious immersion in the work of Richard Russo, a famous modern writer whose work I’d lazily ignored since his first novels of the 1980s.

Discovered, the Russo canon became a sprint through the lives of drifters and losers in a string of upstate New York towns, a pleasure-filled reading dash along the broken-down mainstreets of Mohawk and North Bath and Empire Falls. Russo used the economically-depressed real world of upstate to craft his entirely fictional alternate universe, where seemingly minor happenings become major events in the lives of his compelling characters. Some public building was always burning, some love affair was ending, some failed, hard-drinking son was fighting with his failed, alcoholic father. And the mill was always closing down.

Yet these small lives had meaning in Russo’s literary vocabulary; they amounted to nothing, barely a headline or two in the local weeklies and never registered to the fast set in the world capital down the Hudson. But Russo dressed those lives in detail, in connections, in the creation of small societies of men and women. So too do they still matter in Russo’s epic Bridge of Sighs, in many ways his most ambitious novel, which occasionally wanders to New York and Long Island and even Venice – but whose beating heart remains in Thomaston, New York, another failing town where the tannery has poisoned the water and boosted the rate of deadly cancers. Continue reading

Springsteen and the American Muse

SpringsteenHere’s the lead: Bruce Springsteen’s deep and nourishing Magic, released today, isn’t on a par with Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But it’s firmly on the next level down, alongside The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle, Nebraska, The River and Tunnel of Love. And that’s saying something for a rock star of 58 years in age who has nibbled around the edges of pop music for the last two decades without fully wading in.

Magic is a self-referential work of mature genius, a work of its time, and a record built on the foundations of others, from Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison to the Byrds and Dylan and Phil Spector. Unlike The Shamus, whose terrific review appears below, I’ve spent several weeks with Magic and have listened to its best tunes dozens of times – it’s frankly brilliant, and worthy of the best in the Springsteen canon. It’s the work of an older man, the rare record recorded by a star in late middle age who drops the teen angst and captures both those long decades and the deep pop groove, filled with happy hooks and fills.

Further, there’s a darkness there that I admire deeply – a writing in the shadows that rekindles what I first loved about Bruce Springsteen’s writing, when I was a skinny teen and he was a skinny 25-year-old. Continue reading

Late Summer Reading: Books About Terrible People

Most of the characters in Claire Messud’s lush and vicious fourth novel, The Emporer’s Children, are funny, bright, entitled New Yorkers – and they’re all fairly horrible human beings. You recognize them, you walk along with them, but you don’t sympathize. And why would you? The “emporer” of the title is lordly literary genius Murray Thwaite, an overblown writer and man of both letters and talking head territory – a haughty waste of a man surviving on his reputation and cruel to boot. He seduces his 30-year-old daughter’s best friend, ignores his loyal wife, looks down his nose at his upstate relations, and enables his daughter’s failures.

Yet, the world of Messud’s tale revolves around Murray’s dwindling light – until the karmic bill comes due in September, 2001. I appreciated that Messud didn’t avoid stereotypes; she plumbed their depths and found some wellspring water instead. And she captured the climbing, selling, soul-numbing existence that’s necessary – absent evident and productive brilliance – in New York’s literary business.

In the end, these truly horrible people finally confront an emotional crisis and the idea that that an outside world can indeed puncture the ambition of their reading circles. The question at the end is simply “why?” Were these self-absorbed people worth plumbing – or was their shallow narcissism the very point. Messud’s book came out last year, but I read it last week and it seemed a good marker against some of my other summer reading, fictional side of the coverlet. It left me unsettled and unsatisfied; I admire the skill in crafting the relationships and the storyboard, but wondered about the flimsy underlying message – did I somehow miss it?

In terms of self-absorbed New Yorkers – and women who write and aspire – I much preferred Laura Jacobs’ 2003 novel, Women About Town, which I read earlier this summer. Why? I liked those characters, especially the loony lampshade designer with the blue-blooded pedigree. They were more of a gas to hang out with. (So call me shallow. Go ahead. I dare you.) Continue reading

The Bronx is Burning, But It Lacks the High Heat

Billy and ReggieWhen I got there, the Bronx had already burned. In the mid-80s, I was a reporter for The Riverdale Press covering Bronx politics. The borough was still reeling from the abandonment of the previous decade, and a covey of politicians had its hands out for Federal rebuilding dollars. The Bronx was open for business, but a lot of the money went into the pockets of prominent Democrats. A young Federal prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani was making his name bringing cases against virtually the entire political leadership of the borough, working in tandem with a wily old District Attorney named Mario Merola – a Democrat who was prosecuting his fellow clubhouse members.

It was great time to learn the reporter’s craft, and as the scandals hit our front page, George Steinbrenner brought Billy Martin back for the third of four tours as manager of the Yankees. He broke his arm that September in a fight with pitcher Ed Whitson. I spent a lot time around the Bronx County Courthouse and the Stadium neighborhood, covered regional planning issues and listening to community leaders who vowed to bring the borough back. In those days, rubble-strewn lots and burned-out building shells were common; one misguided program put decals of fake curtained windows – complete with shades and flower puts – up over the grim, empty window frames.

It was also the time when Steinbrenner first started talking about moving the team to New Jersey or elsewhere. Strangely, the Bronx plays the smallest of supporting roles in The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler – about what the character of Mickey Rivers gets in the highly-promoted ESPN mini-series, which kicked off this week with a disastrous bit of television programming: a 70-minute delay while the network waited for Vlad Guererro to win the increasingly lame homerun hitting contest at the All Star festivities. The Bronx may be burning, but the borough itself is forgotten.

And if the first installment is indicative, the whole venture may well lack the real heat of what should be a compelling take. One thing’s for sure: without John Turturro’s stunning potrayal of the mercurial Martin, the series might have the vibe of a sloppy History Channel re-enactment.
Continue reading

Jerusalem on the Jukebox: Chabon’s Yiddish Noir

So lush is the detail in Michael Chabon’s brilliant The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so developed the back-story, the alternative history, that it’s the rare short novel that feels long – like you want to live in its dark and distinct precincts a little longer.

YiddishChabon has described the book as an ode to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, and it continues his long fascination with detectives who descend from the lineage of Sherlock Holmes. A writer of short stories, essays and anthologies, Chabon has produced one other novel of massive creation – the wonderful The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000. Like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it created a world of characters and places, and a code – or index – to what was happening: an incredibly deep encyclopedia of small chapters, clippings of the “past,” timelines, and people.

His latest work tops that achievement; it feels like Chabon wrote many thousands of pages of extra material and then synthesized it all to a tight crime drama featuring a small circle of dark and damaged characters – like he wrote big, boiled some water, and published the infusion.

The tea drinks well. Of course, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union revolves around an imagination-grabbing premise. A swath of Alaska has been set aside as the Jewish homeland, with its capital in the former frontier town of Sitka. The book is filled with Yiddish, and you’ll acquire more of a working knowledge of that evocative tongue by reading it. And at the center is a detective. A great failed, jaded, sad and sickly shadow of a Jewish dick.
Continue reading

Richard Thompson’s Sweet Warrior: Battles Everywhere

Richard ThompsonThe earnest thump-thump-thump of the bass drum on Dad’s Gonna Kill Me – the headline-grabbing anti-war single from Richard Thompson’s new Sweet Warrior album – creates a rhythm that doesn’t exactly match that of Baghdad, the song’s setting and the “‘Dad” of its title. The backing rhythm there, of course, is not so regular as deadly, and the thumping, discordant IEDs are clearly on Thompson’s mind these days. The record crashes with songs of warfare, some of the battlefield variety, but more of the type that has typified the work of the prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist for four decades – roadside bombs of the romantic variety being Thompson’s stock-in-trade since the late 60s.

Sweet Warrior is (critical cliche alert!) a smashing return to form for the brilliant Mr. Thompson, if any be needed. The record is filled with hooks and sweet melodies, arcane rhyme and story-telling, rolling staccato guitar leads and buttery chord changes. It suffers only from the occasional over-swinging by the spry 58-year-old (a reaction to the old charge of non-singing from his early post-Fairport days) and the huge expecations of a small but intensely loyal fan-base that expects immense and drawn-out guitar soloes and snarling lyrical charm at every turn.

Thompsons erect the warrior theme and dances carefully through its twists and turns. With 3,500 odd western soldiers dead over the last four years and the echoes of “Islamofacism” lumping together all those who turn toward Mecca (and Thompson has been one of these) in the pall of world violence, concocting a rock record that blends wit with tragedy, war-time violence with romantic disunion, for an audience of Anglo-Americans (and the artist lives half-time in both lands) is, to say the least, a delicate mission. It succeeds.

But ultimately, Sweet Warrior must also pass the hum test – and for this critic, it lands a strong grade on that particular exam.
Continue reading