So here we are, not just turning the calendar’s page, but hanging a new calendar altogether. I’m in my office for the first time in a couple of weeks, getting ready for the online Brit survey class that begins tomorrow. But it’s been a week or so since I last checked in, so…
The Spawn and Main Squeeze went back to Terpville on Wednesday — I probably won’t get to see them in person again until Commencement in May, but it was good having them here for a week. Mrs. M and I chauffeured them to an airport about an hour up the road; actually, Mrs. M drove up, while I drove us back. And on the way back, we stopped and picked up a few provisions, most notably a large jar of one of my favorite hot sauces (from a restaurant I discovered back when the Berries were in the recording studio). I’ve already put the sauce to work, making roast-beef-and-swiss hoagies for the last few days. Meanwhile, the eagle-eyed Mrs. M spotted some cans of my favorite Cincinnati-style chili on sale at a grocery near the restaurant, so there was at least some compensation for having to let the girls go.
(I know, I know — I have canned Cincinnati-style chili more or less on a weekly basis, but it’s a generic version. If you’re actually from the area, you can tell the difference, and the Skyline-vs.-Gold Star-vs.-Dixie Chili debate is real. Ideally, you get it at diner/greasy-spoon style joints known as parlors, but we expats do the best we can.)
The holiday brought plenty of reading material, which I’ve poked at between football games, or perhaps among them, as I’ve watched more than two over the break. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I started with Jeffrey Meyers’s Johnson bio. Having read several other Johnson biographies, I didn’t run into a great deal of new information, but Meyers tells the Cham’s story efficiently enough, and draws upon Boswell’s suppressed material (and that of others) in order to support his text. This does not mean the book is without factual errors — there are at least a couple (Goldsmith’s burial site and the location of Tom Davies’s bookshop). Meyers also spends considerable time dwelling on Johnson’s probable masochism — I think his case is pretty solid, but as at least one Amazon reviewer observed, Johnson’s own salvation anxiety was a much greater and more definite source of torment than the manacles with which he entrusted Hester Thrale.
I think the book’s chief strength is found in its title; this bio is not intended to be hagiographical, nor should it have been — Johnson was far more complicated than hagiography allows. Nonetheless, by giving a reasonably deep look at Johnson’s various physical and psychological anguishes, Meyers vividly portrays Johnson’s sufferings. I would argue that in the process, he actually demonstrates that Johnson’s flaws and triumphs stemmed from the same sources. His work was remarkable in and of itself — that it was accomplished “amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow” makes it heroic, and reminds us that for all his flaws (including those Boswell tried to skip), Johnson gives us much to admire. . . and I still do admire him.
A much shorter read was an early effort in the genre we now call the graphic novel, Dark Horse’s 2007 reprint of It Rhymes with Lust. The 1950 collaboration between Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller (writers) and artists Matt Baker and Ray Oslin was published by St. John Publications, which fans of crime fiction will recognize as the company that published the legendary Manhunt magazine. The idea behind the “picture novel” was to provide a bridge between comic books (still seen as juvenilia at the time) and adult literature. (That’s not adult in the Tijuana Bible sense, by the way — while there’s plenty of allusion to the titular sin, the action is kept off-panel.) There’s nothing in the story that will surprise folks who are familiar with the genre, and indeed, I don’t think it pushes any boundaries that EC wasn’t simultaneously trampling, but it’s executed in a workmanlike manner, and an interesting example of a work that was a few decades ahead of its time.
I’m currently working my way through Ross Thomas’s The Fools in Town Are on Our Side. I’m not very far into the plot at this point — really, much of the novel’s first part provides us with the narrator’s voice and back story. But that narrator (the wonderfully named Lucifer C. Dye) is intriguing to a fault — which I suspect may be part of the point. As with Milton’s Satan, we’re meeting a character we almost certainly can’t trust — but we’re interested in him, and eager to see how things turn out for him. I’ll let you know if and when my thoughts change.
So let’s wrap things up with a bit of music, huh? Tony Hiss’s introduction to Fools suggests that one of the reasons Thomas seems to have swiftly receded into obscurity is because with the end of the Cold War (which provided the milieu for much of Thomas’s fiction), the work has become less accessible for post-1990 readers, and although it may not seem like it to folks like me, that’s been a while.
[Side Note: I had a brief exchange with my friend the Mad Dog last night regarding the recent death of Betty White. I suggested that while Ms. White was indeed a good performer (and even more importantly, apparently a good person), the sort of social totemization she underwent in her last years and that now culminates is a different sort of phenomenon. I contend that what we are seeing is in fact a manifestation of a 20th-21st-C. mass media pastoral myth. We’re observing the passage of the pop cultural figures of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (Mary Tyler Moore! The Golden Girls!), and therefore have to acknowledge the passage of the relatively monolithic media landscape of a demographic’s youth, with the accompanying youthful innocence. As always, it’s Margaret we mourn for. As I pointed out to the Mad Dog, while he and I may think of nostalgia as focusing on the 1950s — Happy Days was popular in our youth, after all — many (most?) of the people who experienced 1950s culture as adults have now joined the majority (If Happy Days begins in, say, 1955, then Fonzie and Richie are likely in his mid-to-late 80s now.) In turn, the era most folks online look back on with nostalgia would be the 80s, which after all were about 40 years ago. As I told the Mad Dog, we’re older than we think. This earned me a “Shut up.” End of Side Note.]
But today’s song is also a product of that Cold War. The Hunters were a Dutch band (although there was also a British band of the same name) that featured a young man named Jan Akkerman on guitar. Akkerman would go on to achieve considerable fame as guitar hero for 70s prog rockers Focus (best remembered for their blast of weirdness, “Hocus Pocus”, but they were really much more than that.) But here he is as a relative youngster, with 1966’s “The Russian Spy and I.”
See you soon!