The action films of the 1970s shot in and around New York embrace a curb-level realism – an obsession with gritty locations – that no studio or backlot can possibly reproduce. The storefronts, dented cars, barren parks and filigreed subway els dress movies like The Seven-Ups, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, and the French Connection, racing along with the action in glimpses and high contrast light and murky shadow. But there was life in those shops and apartments and row houses, life in a city that no longer exists, a life that was both tougher and less material than the New York three decades on – a city that still expects cartoonish credit-laden consumption even as the consumer markets that created neon expectations can no longer deliver on the promise.
In one of the Bronx neighborhoods Ray Scheider drove so recklessly through in chase of some drug-dealing punks, a dysfunctional family of Italian-Americans sweated out the tough times – times that inspired Twisted Head, a hilarious and cutting memoir by its youngest progeny, the actor and writer Carl Capotorto.
You may remember Capotorto as “Little Pauli” in The Sopranos, but there was nothing of the mythical mob glamor about his childhood in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx. Capotorto was the youngest child of a family dominated by a father with a violent temper, and the book’s title comes from the literal translation of Capotorto – “twisted head” – which seems so perfectly suited to the temperament of Philip Vito Capotorto.
The Bronx of Carl Capotorto’s youth was still recognizable in the Bronx of the 1980s, where I arrived as a rookie political reporter for The Riverdale Press. Congressman Mario Biaggi, the pornographic Globe Theater, the shops on Arthur Avenue, Bronx Park and even Cappi’s Pizza and Sangweech Shop under the el on White Plains Road are all familiar.
But equally familiar is the close-in third generation immigrant American experience in New York; mine was Irish and based around Yonkers, but Capotorto’s experience was the same as many of the kids I knew who grew up around Dunwoodie in the 60s and 70s. I recognize the characters from their families, and from my own – the always-simmering pot of “gravy,” the uncles and their tales of European war, the trips to Playland, the allure of “the city,” the music, the cars, the long family gatherings.
Capotorto keeps his personal memoir moving and although his father’s anger provides the dramatic core of the story, the episodes with the women in his life – his mother, his sisters, his grandmother – give Twisted Head much of its richness and humor, as does the author’s struggle with homosexuality and acceptance in adolescence. The story never tips into either self-absorbed pathos or two-dimensional ethnic and sexual cliche; Capotorto deftly balances the details of the city and the times with the story arc of his family and his life.
In the end, despite the author’s evident personal struggle, you’re not at all sorry for Carl Capotorto’s early life in the Bronx. It was, after all, a rich childhood filled with picaresque characters that gave Capotorto a rare gift: a story well worth telling.
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.
I believe we must treat our political foes with respect in the arena of public opinion. And so I will dedicate this post to the Governor of Alaska. This is Banned Books Week, and it’s always appropriate to look at what drives literary censorship in this country. According to the American Library Association, more than 400 books were challenged in 2007. The 10 most challenged titles were:
1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
3. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
7. TTYL by Lauren Myracle
8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
9. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Click here to see why these books were challenged. And read one of ’em. That’ll show the bastards.
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.