John Feinstein is one of the big names in sports journalism. He’s written books on a number of headline-getting sports stories and consequently can be heard often on sports radio as an expert guest. Feinstein’s background is as a newspaper guy, writing for the Washington Post among others. The Last Amateurs is about college basketball in the Patriot League, a (mostly) non-scholarship league that struggles to survive in the world of big time college ball. To Feinstein, this is one of the last bastions of unadulterated amateur basketball in the United States. These kids play for little more than the love of the game and the glory of winning the league’s one berth to the NCAA Tournament. He follows the seven teams from schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Navy through a whole season, focusing on the personalities, on the struggles peculiar to this one of a kind league, and on the great basketball games that never came close to showing up on a Sportscenter highlight reel. Feinstein’s newsy writing and copious background anecdotes keep the book moving at a fast pace. It isn’t, however, the transcendent sports writing of a Roger Angell. Instead, the book reads like a dozen Sports Illustrated articles strung end to end. As such, this is a fantastic book for fans of college basketball, as it really captures what is best about that game.
According to John Updike’s “Rules for Reviewers,” critics review books, rather than reputations. Then again, most readers also expect reviewers to situate a book in its proper generic context, and here Charles Bock’s debut novel presents a sort of paradox. Beautiful Children’s burgeoning reputation – the unusual amount of attention it has garnered from media outlets including The New York Times and this blog – positions it as a literary novel for grownups, part of the great tradition that runs from Flaubert through Updike and down to Rick Moody (the writer to whom Bock is most often compared). In at least one respect, this claim may have merit. But at the level of several of the basic elements of fiction – plot, character, setting, prose style, themes – the book comes across as something quite different: less a novel about its titular children than a novel for them.The story centers on – or circles around – the disappearance of 13-year-old Newell Ewing one summer night in Las Vegas. At first, we surmise that Newell has been kidnapped; later it turns out that he has run away. Specifics notwithstanding, the novel insists on the magnitude of Newell’s fate by tracing its effect on other characters, much as Rutherford studied the nucleus by examining the way it scattered smaller particles. And so Beautiful Children takes on complexity, moving backward and forward through the lives of nearly a dozen characters, at times quite beautifully. The melodrama of Newell’s disappearance may enforce narrative momentum, but it’s the fractal structure of the novel that actually earns it. Like Donald Kaufman in the movie Adaptation, Charles Bock is “good with structure.”The problem is that he seems unsure how to fill a structure meaningfully. Inner life, in Beautiful Children, consists more of sordid backstory than of consciousness, or perhaps Bock sees the two as interchangeable terms. With the possible exception of Newell’s father, his characters never rise above the level of caricature. He seems unwilling to imagine a thinking, feeling human being sinking to the depths of the novel’s sleazier denizens. But our literature is full of characters who are unpalatable but alive, like Joseph Heller’s Slocum, or Henry James’ many schemers.Bock’s discomfort with interior life puts an added pressure on the surface details he uses to deliver characters, and here, too he falters. The strained banter of the younger characters consists largely of dated catch-phrases – for realz – and their attire, on which Bock lavishes detail, tells us little more. Beautiful Children is the sort of novel that refers to a major character only as The Girl With the Shaved Head, as though that, at this late date in history, still connotes anything.To the extent that plot arises from human choices, the novel’s characterological vacuum sucks steadily at the foundations of its story. Because Newell is so generically a pain in the ass, and because his sorrows exist mainly to serve Bock’s tee-shirty themes – Modern Life is Rubbish; Growing Up is Hard – his actual disappearance, when we witness it, seems wholly unmotivated. The many events that follow from it chronologically (though they precede it in the novel) become random, the products of a counterfactual.Bock seems to sense and to fear the moral unintelligibility his book builds toward, and attempts to salvage significance in fits of inflationary prose. As one suspicious reader’s letter to the Times pointed out, Bock’s grandiosity is often clumsy:Electricity lit up Ponyboy’s skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy’s nostrils.But I’m not convinced that Beautiful Children doesn’t sometimes stumble into a kind of Dreiserian grandeur. And, as I learned from Charles McGrath’s profile of the author, Bock came to writing rather late; his sentences may, with time, mellow into eloquence. Likewise, his gift for warping narrative time into audacious shapes seems to hint at better novels to come. On the strength of word-of-mouth, this one could have found a respectable natural audience: seventeen-year-olds eager to hear their melancholy reaffirmed, explicitly. But now, through the good offices of Random House et al, the woeful tale of Newell Ewing will have to contend with the expectations of a much larger group of readers…at least one of whom holds out hope that Bock’s bestseller status won’t blind him to the need to work harder to satisfy those expectations. That might be an actual tragedy.
Finding the entrance points to New York’s musical undergrounds has never been quite as simple as decoding MTA maps, though that’s usually the first step. Two excellent new books chart a decade-and-a-half worth of street-level detail, illuminating not only entrance points, but how they were willed into existence. Ed Sanders’ Fug You: An Informal History of the PEACE EYE BOOKSTORE, the FUCK YOU PRESS, the FUGS, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side handles 1962-1970, while Will Hermes’ astonishing Love Goes To Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever takes care of 1973-1977. The City’s secret connecting forces, the subway and otherwise, rumble evocatively beneath each, both New York classics in their ways.
Besides Allen Ginsberg, there was perhaps no bigger mover, shaker, or self-promoter in the mid-’60s East Village than Ed Sanders. Born in Kansas City in 1939, he founded The Fugs with the poet Tuli Kupferberg, immortalized in Howl!, who “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & firetrucks.” As a singer, bookstore owner, and poetry zine publisher Sanders found national notoriety, including a February 1967 cover of Life, and helped network the New York counterculture to a larger national platform. Like Neal Cassady in the west, Sanders provided a link, as well, between the Beats and the hippies, and — in Sanders’ case — soon the Yippies. “We’re on the EAST SIDE,” The Fugs sang proudly on “We’re The Fugs,” a sloppy and joyous theme song that came two years pre-Monkees, and giggled in the face of congenial West Village guitar strummers. “Dope, peace, magic Gods in the tree trunks, and GROUP GROPE,” Sanders declared on “Group Grope.” They never quite made it big — they didn’t quite crack the top 50 on the Cashbox chart — but it was enough.
There is glee in Sanders’ vivid telling, playing straight man to an absurd world, despite being the one making the pornographic avant-garde films and selling Allen Ginsberg’s pubic hair and “well-scooped cold cream jar” through a rare books catalog he operated from his bookstore, where he spat out publications on a mimeograph. He is fond of asides that call lightly on deeper traditions he locates himself in, often the Egyptian hieroglyphics he taught himself to read at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Allen and Peter Orlovsky located a three-room pad at 704 East Fifth Street, near Avenue C, on the sixth floor. It was just $35 a month — Hail to Thee, O Rent Control!” For Sanders, the glory of the City is as a staging ground for what he has called “the forces of peace,” a thread he traced in his nine-volume America: A History in Verse, published between 2000 and 2008, which reads like an upbeat Howard Zinn and (besides The Fugs’ first recordings) is arguably Sanders’ most essential work.
In Fug You, those Forces wander local bars and underground newspaper headquarters, weather obscenity busts and CIA tails, and engage in pornographic avant-garde cinema and the still-thriving poetry scene. Sanders spews a dense and heady stew of facts, dates, and addresses with a mostly compelling lightness, cutting it every now and again with some groovy beauty. Here he is on The Fugs’ entrance to a 1968 gig in Los Angeles:
The club had rented a searchlight the night of our rite, which beamed white tunnels of psychedelic allure up towards Aquarius. There was an anarcho-bacchic Goof Strut parade into the parking lot of the club behind a mint-condition ’38 Dodge (similar to a Kienholz work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
But Sanders’ details can grow mechanical (or, worse, self-aggrandizing) as they accumulate. He enthusiastically catalogs group gropes and the varieties of drug use, but rarely gives much of his own experiences. There is almost none of his midwestern upbringing, and precious little on the brilliant and vivacious Tuli Kupferberg. Sanders himself has been a slightly-too-enthusiastic ’60s memoirist since at least 1975, when he published the first volume of his Tales of Beatnik Glory novels, and it’s possible he’s just out-biographied himself, which might account for Fug You’s occasional cold formality, despite its title. Though there is an element of archetypal ’60s solipsism to Fug You, and much of Sanders work, Sanders was there and kept his bearings.
For all that, though, Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings on Fire comes across as more personal than Fug You. A Queens teen in the mid-’70s, Hermes himself shows up throughout, offering surprisingly tender evocations of his music-loving youth. “I’d been mugged on trains a few times, twice at knifepoint, coming home from Manhattan shows alone at night,” he writes, segueing from a Village Voice cover story about the atrocious state of the subway.
But the worst was in May , when I was stuck on a broken-down E train for an hour en route to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to meet a girl I was cross-eyed crushed-out on. She had tickets to see the Grateful Dead five hours north that night, at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. When I finally arrived, the girl and the bus — the last Ithaca run of the day — were gone. …Fucking subway.
Though drugs and the Dead turn up enough times to communicate that Hermes is writing from his continued position as a serious music head, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire is hardly a memoir in a literal sense. Instead, he picks up not long after where Sanders left off, the East Side counterculture almost in ruins at the outset. Though plenty of books have covered similar subjects — notably Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, and Tony Fletcher’s All Hopped Up and Ready to Go — Hermes finds fresh details everywhere, a dizzying succession that piles luminously atop another in a bright layering of punk, hip-hop, disco, Latin, avant-garde, and jazz history.
In a typical passage, he writes, “As it turned out, Einstein [on the Beach]’s most indelible music involved the incantations of ‘One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,’ which were being rehearsed on Spring Street just as the Ramones, down at CBGB, counted off every song “One-two-three-four!” He specializes in sudden juxtapositions, jumping from Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese’s favorite post-work Chinese-run Latin joint (La Tacita de Oro on 99th and Broadway) while shooting Taxi Driver, to Rubèn Blades’ favorite post-work Chinese-Cuban place (La Caridad on 78th and Broadway) not far away, near the Beacon Theater.
Two of the genres whose births Hermes recounts — hip-hop and disco — arguably evolved into the two most global pop genres of the 21st century, both in forms directly traceable to New York in the mid-’70s. Other developments in punk and minimalism forever changed the conversation, sound, and infrastructures of rock and roll and classical music. Though the ceaseless crashing of names might prove overwhelming to non-music obsessives, quick trips to YouTube are an easy fix. At its most basic, the book is a rich and invaluable crash course in the roots of contemporary music.
As much as it belongs on that of any serious music fan, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire especially, belongs on a long NYC-centric bookshelf that begins with Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World. Read as an oddly upbeat and unintentional sequel to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, the heroes of Love Goes To Buildings on Fire are themselves pivot points in New York’s history between “Ford To City: Drop Dead” and the MARCH squads dispatched by the Rudolph Giuliani/Michael Bloomberg-era NYPD to crack down on illegal artist lofts. Mark Alan Stamaty’s Buildings on Fire cover illustration depicts the teeming City perfectly, musicians’ caricatures sprouting like towering fauna from the cement. It was a City growing denser. In 1960, just before Ed Sanders arrived in New York, there were roughly 336 artists, writers, and musicians per 100,000 American citizens, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. By 1980, just after the end of Hermes’s period, that number was up to around 565 per 100,000, and likely even greater in Manhattan, where the general population had shrunk to its lowest level in a half-century, a City about to transform into something beyond its own oddest dreams.
The sounds and ideas of disco and hip-hop and punk and salsa and minimalism and free jazz made their way across rivers and around the world on the backs of ever-cheaper technologies. Everywhere, they mushed into advertising and bland pop mutations, but also freethinking new turns, where the blueprints for counterculture remain deep inside the music, ready for deployment against lame government, bureaucracy, or blandness. And though those people making wondrous new things in their bedrooms or garages might not identify themselves as the Forces of Peace as much as Sanders and his Pentagon-levitating brethren may like, there is little else they could possibly be.
“The two worst sins of bad taste in fiction are pornography and sentimentality,” Flannery O’Connor wrote. “One is too much sex and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point but no more.”
Just enough of either to prove your point. O’Connor’s dictum applies perfectly to three writers creating great fiction set in the world of the Christian evangelical south: Jamie Quatro, April Ayers Lawson, and Michael Bible. Their stories are steeped in sex and spirits. They are willing to make imperfect characters do terrible things. They are better than most writers dramatizing God at the moment.
I spoke with Quatro back in 2013, soon after her debut collection, I Want To Show You More, was published. She claimed unity with O’Connor in thinking “the role of the artist, even — no, especially — the Christian artist, is to present the world as it is, in all its complexity and ugliness. Sometimes, to make sin appear as such.” She sent me back to O’Connor herself, quoting that an artistic must find “distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem [is] to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.”
For Quatro, that violence is not through wounds and blood, but in the “coexistence of the erotic and spiritual, the sexual and sacred…It’s why lovers often talk in such exalted terms, say things like they want to eat one another, to be one another. An artist must probe into these moments. She cannot look away.” I find the same spiritual sense in Lawson, whose sleek yet complex debut, Virgin and Other Stories, arrives later this year — though I think the Christian pulse is a bit more subdued. More shadow than statue.
I would place Michael Bible’s novel Sophia somewhere on the spectrum between Quatro and Lawson. Sophia arrives in fast, crisp sentences: first-person narrated, increasingly surreal vignettes that follow the misadventures of Reverend Alvis Maloney. He might have been a Flannery O’Connor character if there had been someone to pray for him every minute of his life. He’s sour and obscene and obsessed with saints.
In short, he’s worthy of a book, and Bible lets him loose. There are other characters in this novel, friends and lovers and enemies like Eli, Tuesday, Boom, Finger, Darling and Mayor Dick Dickerson, who owns a pawn shop and slaps bad employees with his antique cane — but this is Maloney’s show. He’s the self-admitted “lazy priest of this town’s worst church, nearly defrocked for lascivious behavior with female parishioners.” He’s the kind of pastor who finishes his prayers with “Amen?”, profoundly unsure about God but profusely hoping to figure it out.
“I want to die for the King of Kings,” he says, “but can’t quite get it right.” His examples are a litany of saints, described in prose-poetic legend, whose deaths are each more eccentric and violent than the former. His friend Eli asks him why he needs to read so many stories, and Maloney says “I’m trying to find a way to die with honor.” Or, more accurately, as he later says: “I want so bad to be a saint but I’m a coward and barely Christian.”
I might hate Maloney in the hands of another writer — I might find his jaunty obscenities tiresome — but Bible is a real talent. I’ll listen to a writer who offers paragraphs like this:
Behind the abandoned hospital on a peach tree hangs one rotten peach. Two black wizards approach dumpsters behind the church, black hoods and staffs. They are cosplay people maybe worshiping a comic book. They cast spells on each other, high five, chest bump. They pretend the peach is forbidden fruit. They wear jester’s shoes and speak Elizabethan. They try to light the Sunday sports section on fire with their eyes.
Sophia is a whirlwind. Maloney often doesn’t know what to do with himself, but he’s a character in constant awe, who prays almost as much as he has sex, who says “Lord, you give us tornadoes and purple sunrises. We praise your beautifully illogical ways. You performed great miracles long ago and nothing since. Why such confusion? We love you, wonderful idiotic Lord.”
Maloney loses more than a few lovers in Sophia but moves on, following Eli on the professional chess circuit, traveling across the country and back but staying grounded by his odd fantasies. The Holy Ghost is a woman that he flirts with nightly — and often hopes for more. Imagine Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony set behind a Waffle House.
When one character quips that Maloney should go to church, he responds “I am church.” I found his response less solipsistic than honest. If the body is a temple, it must occasionally get dirty, and Maloney gets filthy. At many points in the novel it is unclear whether he is experiencing a waking nightmare — including when Mayor Dickerson gains a penchant for kidnapping and brandishing a gun.
Bible makes a nice transition from plot-by-osmosis to some good old-fashioned chase scenes, but the real star of Sophia is Maloney’s jaw. Maloney never quite takes himself seriously — it is really difficult to find God holy if you don’t also find existence a bit hilarious — though Sophia does end on a note of grace. Flannery would be proud.
I invoke O’Connor here for obvious reasons, but also because she is a convenient contrast. O’Connor was a Catholic writing about evangelicals; Quatro, Lawson, and Bible are looking at the evangelical world from within. As good as “Parker’s Back” might be — I’m willing to say that it is a perfect story — it pivots from a Catholic theological position. These three new writers of the Christian evangelical south are operating more from a place of inhabitation than analysis — although they document similar messes. Sophia lives in a world where a pastor concludes “Too much beauty makes me sick.” Amen.