REVIEW or retrospective

Feminism & our human destiny

June 7, 2017 | 13 Comments

A moral master of prose style

April 25, 2017 | 12 Comments

I’m always circling back to James Baldwin. My latest return, reading The Devil Finds Work, his essays on American cinema, was spurred by watching the recent documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. I found the film, as a work of history, of racial reconsideration, of brilliantly structured art, quite literally stunning. Based loosely on Baldwin’s unrealized plan to write a book about three slain friends—civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.—the documentary was nominated for an Oscar. It opened nationwide on February 3, and I saw it shortly afterward in a screening at Ohio State. I’ve been trying since then to watch it again. The film’s power derives, in large part, from its periodic juxtaposition of images of American racists of another era with those who’ve gaped and japed at recent rallies.

Such a stinky revelation of human insufficiency. Hence the timeliness of Baldwin’s urgent message that race is America’s story. Race is where our nation’s transcendent ideals meet the angels and demons of human nature. Is America only an accident of its riches or is it an avatar of the expanding human spirit?

Baldwin sank his teeth in such foundational issues. Which is partly what makes him one of America’s greatest writers. He loved America and its culture, but was an outsider—made doubly so by his race and his homosexuality—and he wrote in fierce, profound clarity and despair. The Devil Finds Work shows you what it’s like for such a man to consider movies he loves and ones he hates. It’s a racial and social deconstruction of American cinema.

Writing of the “mindless and hysterical banality” of the evil in The Exorcist, Baldwin reveals his own feeling of insufficiency before the “heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.” Any human’s freedom carries the almost unbearable burden of honestly confronting one’s failure to be fully human: “To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and if I can respect this, both of us can live.”

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Pain’s parallel kingdom

April 12, 2017 | 7 Comments

After a divorce and well into single motherhood, at 38, Sonya Huber contracted an autoimmune condition in which the thyroid slowly erodes. Within three months of that, she felt her skeleton “pulsing.” A new bodily self-sabotage—rheumatoid arthritis. As Huber points out, autoimmune diseases are when the body attacks itself, for largely unknown reasons. She endures constant joint pain—the main effect of her particular arthritis—along with whole-body aches and odd effects. Woven through Pain Woman Takes Your Keys is her effort to accept and make sense of her suffering.

The linked essays in Pain Woman Takes Your Keys form a memoir with a narrative arc. Her desperation early on, when she realizes her fate, but still knows what it feels like to be pain free, makes her “feral.” She sees specialists and cries. She demands, of herself and doctors, to be healed. She settles for palliative measures. Medical professionals’ power over her—their ratings of her “difficulty,” their cold rejections, for endless insurance-related and humdrum reasons—gradually make Huber wary, furtive, meek. This degradation feels instantly real, and you’re angry on her behalf. Friends and colleagues, not knowing what to say when they notice a flare-up, often blunder. They suggest yoga, acupuncture, massage, all of which soothe but cannot defeat what’s undefeatable.

The book’s witty title essay is about one of her few refuges, writing. At first afraid that the “fogginess and ache” of rheumatoid arthritis would destroy her practice, Huber still goes to the keyboard for an hour or more a day. The focus helps. Sometimes blogging is the best she can do.

Her essays in Pain Woman Takes Your Keys form a memoir that sends a message from pain’s parallel kingdom.

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A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 25 Comments

Natalie Portman’s inspired performance and its complex layering of time frames distinguish the film Jackie.

Portman nails Jackie’s breathy finishing-school voice—you imagine it began as an instructed affectation, as an adaption to a wealthier milieu, or as an ambitious adoption that became her. She also conveys Jackie’s sincerity, her flashes of insecurity, her fidelity to duty, and ultimately her pain. After the horror in Dallas, she plans Jack’s funeral, even as she medicates herself with alcohol, comforts her two young children, and oversees the packing of her family’s possessions for their abrupt exodus from the White House.

The movie opens after all that, scant days after the funeral, with Jackie being interviewed. She wants to further her husband’s legacy by cementing his image as a noble leader, as an aristocrat who loved the people, as a demigod. This foreground frame (or recurring braid, if you choose) grounds the narrative. Otherwise a succession of flashbacks, not always linear, the segments reflect Jackie’s PTSD and the nation’s disorientation.

Like many a boomer, I carry memories of November 22, 1963, when Kennedy fell in Dallas and Jackie scrambled briefly onto the car’s trunk: to retrieve a piece of his skull, the movie affirms, not to flee, as it appeared to many at the time. Then, as we watched: Oswald’s killing and JFK’s funeral and John-John’s brave salute. But I’d never contemplated Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief, much less her PTSD.

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Making life add up in art

December 28, 2016 | 17 Comments

I was surprised, even knowing Bruce Springsteen’s songs, when I heard him say, promoting his autobiography Born to Run on the radio, that he’s been in therapy since 1983. This was one of the reasons I bought the book. How is that possible for such a beloved man? For rocker so incredibly charismatic and vibrant yet down to earth? For an American success story? What’s the deal, Bruce?

Springsteen answers my question early in Born to Run, revealing the details and circumstances of his exquisitely screwed-up family. And why and how he bore the brunt. But also the curse of depression, and maybe bipolar disorder, that plagues his kin and himself. A figure at once grounded and mythic, Springsteen reveals his behind-the-scenes heroic struggle with emotional baggage and mental illness. That’s his double-whammy, existential and biological. He experienced his father’s rage toward him—and outright contempt—plus he inherited his old man’s disease. Add to that how hard it is just being human, let alone a celebrity, and oh mercy.

The theme of his interior struggle isn’t incidental but, threaded through his massive book, it’s what he’s come to explore and to offer. He’s a good writer—no real surprise—whose prose is conversational and rhythmic.

The matter of Springsteen’s songwriting—the nitty gritty of how he does it—is what some readers will miss. Instead we get his savvy and hyper aware analysis of his work. For instance, I’ve always thought his 1975 breakout album, Born to Run, sounds over-produced, but didn’t expect Springsteen’s confirming verdict on its flawed “bombastic big rock sound.” But, he adds, offering a deeper insight, that’s the dark side of its “beauty, power, and magic.” He’s exquisitely tuned to tradeoffs—he wants it all—and struggles to accept them. Springsteen’s autobiography both reveals his battles with his fragile psyche and explores how he tries in art to make meaning from his life.

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Dirge for the undead

December 1, 2016 | 14 Comments

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been often cited to explain the white rage that surfaced and was grotesquely showcased during and in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential campaign. Vance’s bestseller is an intermittently interesting if not ultimately cohesive hybrid: part memoir, part summation of sociological reports. Vance’s own bootstrap exodus from poverty is inspiring and even moving. But he doesn’t explain so much as morally indict “hillbillies”—and the “welfare state” that, in his view, has abetted their desultory-unto-criminal ways.

An asset of Vance’s origin is that he can blast his people, as it were, for being shiftless without risking the accusation of elitism. His bluntness can be refreshing. But his lack of deep historical perspective and good solutions troubled me. Beyond the moral of his own story—get lucky with one or two parental figures and work like hell—Vance offers cursory insight into his former culture. This may stem from his getting his own answer early on, in high school, reading studies of America’s black underclass. He saw a direct parallel. In short, the poor will always be with us, so don’t coddle them.

Yet he shows himself, late in the book, having graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School, volunteering to do try to help stray kids from Appalachia and its broad diaspora. It’s what worked for him, a few random, happenstance interventions, plus his own herky-jerky yet upwardly moving efforts.

Vance seems most influenced by what he learned early—from his kick-ass Mamaw, from welfare cheats and lazy workers he encountered in jobs, from studies of inner city black folks. In short, he blames “the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.” Nobody, liberal or conservative, wants to carry freeloaders. But where’s the balance between that sense of justified outrage and the resentment that led to the utter horror of England’s old debtors’ prisons? (Which largely stocked the Appalachians initially with the British Isles’ downtrodden.)

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Dusting off. Moving forward.

November 9, 2016 | 11 Comments

When Chris Offutt was ten, growing up in an Appalachian backwater, he asked a librarian for a book on baseball. She gave him J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It was a revelation, such writing that was “personal, told in an intimate way, about family issues of supreme importance.” He never read another book for juveniles, and he became a writer of short stories, novels, screenplays, and multiple memoirs. Back in May, I read Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, one of the more interesting books I’ve read this year.

This powerful story concerns his brilliant, driven, awful father. In part, My Father, the Pornographer is a portrait of Appalachian Kentucky. Offutt’s town had a toxic charcoal briquette factory and that was it. He was the smartest kid in school, sometimes beaten by teachers who resented him for that and for his quiet defiance of authority. His Kentuckian father, from a farm in the western part of the state, had picked the tiny company town in eastern Kentucky to be a big-fish insurance salesman. He was that, and increasingly a terrifying tyrant to his children. Especially when he quit his lucrative office work to become a freelance writer. Offutt, as his oldest child, got the job when he died of archiving the man’s ton published and unpublished science fiction, fantasy, and pornography. Literally a ton of novels, stories, and comics. Offutt pere could write a novel in three to seven days.

His secret, parallel 50-year project was the creation of extremely sadistic comics. Sometimes he wrote them for patrons, wealthy collectors. Other than a brief description of these comics, the memoir is not unduly graphic. But it’s sad and disquieting. What Offutt endured from his father and this environment turned him toward literature. But he grew up with the permanent wound of feeling unloved. Part of the book’s brilliance, saturating its deft syntax, content, and structure, is that it escapes self-pity while making you feel for Chris’s experiences and what seems his ongoing burden.

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