John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
The funny guys and girls who are confident (it was dawning on me, there at that orientation) are the ones who hold court at parties. The funny guys who are diffident become comedy writers. Or, as I once read in an interview with an Onion writer speaking about the makeup of its staff—the closest thing we have to the National Lampoon in its heyday—they’re the guys who are outside the party, making fun of the guy inside telling jokes.
When the supernatural is put aside, this is a tale of the horrors and uncertainty of growing up. The monsters are the trappings of maturity: adult’s fixations with money, sex, and power, and the lies they tell, especially the most important one of all -- that adults know and understand the world.
Detroit may not be cranking out the fire-breathing cars or the finger-popping Motown hits the way it used to, but the Motor City has been inspiring some splendid writing in recent years. The latest addition to this long and growing shelf is Matt Bell’s stirring second novel, Scrapper, a book that gets its hands dirty wrestling with the wreckage -- both material and human -- of a once-mighty city. Kelly is the novel’s titular scrapper, a loner who cruises the city’s abandoned heart, known as the zone, looking for metal he can salvage and sell. It’s lonely, dangerous, back-breaking, and marginally criminal work, but Kelly does it without complaint. He isn’t living any sort of real life, just “wallowing in the aftermath of terrible error.” Even so, he proves to be a savvy guide to the city’s underground economy, the contours of its decline. He knows, for instance, that the decline began long ago, as in, “Nearly two million citizens in 1950 but then fewer every year.” He knows about emptiness: “The farther he moved toward the center of the zone the more the neighborhoods sagged, all the wood falling off of brick, most every house uninhabited, the stores a couple thousand square feet of blank shelves, windows barred against the stealing of the nothing there.” He knows about the relative value of scrap: “A hundred pounds of copper pipe paid more than double a truckload of steel.” And he understands the gradations of the city’s scrap yards, from legitimate to flagrantly illegal: “The unofficial yards kept unofficial hours. You could show up in the middle of the day and find the place deserted, show up at midnight and find three guys playing cards, getting high, cutting scrap. They paid a fraction of the price, the price of no questions asked.” Such details are important because they ground the novel in a very real and very sinister world. Reading Scrapper, you don’t so much enter a conventional fictional world as you succumb to a fugue state, or a fever dream. Bell is a brave writer, willing to work without a safety net on a high wire of his own making. He stumbles from time to time, but that doesn’t diminish this novel’s admirable ambition. The story gains steam when Kelly meets a girl at a bar and they begin a relationship. An emergency dispatcher, she knows cars and she loves the local hockey team, the Red Wings, which is to say she’s a true Detroit girl. In time Kelly learns that she’s suffering from an unnamed progressive disease that has the markings of multiple sclerosis, which will provide a test for his love and his mettle. The story finally soars when Kelly makes a horrifying discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy chained to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. He frees the boy, takes him to the hospital, and watches his own simple life mushroom with complications, including the suspicion that he was involved in the boy’s abduction, and his mission to seek vengeance against the abductor. These complications lead to a nearly schizophrenic split in Kelly’s personality, between the rapacious scrapper and the high-minded “salvor.” There are stumbles, as I say. Sections narrated in the second person by the kidnapper feel contrived. A sudden shift to first-person narration by Kelly is jarring. Two sections -- one set in Cuba, the other in the Ukraine -- add nothing to the story. In the former, a terrorism suspect talks like a Don DeLillo character on a bad Cosmopolis day: “In your country, if I had shot a man in my youth, could my crime be almost an accident, an inevitability, an unavoidable outcome of a system?...A crime, yes, but the crime of having been younger, less educated, less patient. There would be those who would protest my harsh treatment.” No one talks like that, and I have no idea why this man is in the novel. But such missteps are minor compared to this novel’s larger virtues. Kelly was a state champ wrestler in high school, under the tutelage of a demanding, abusive father, and now he takes up boxing. This leads to a bravura boxing match, during which Kelly absorbs a vicious beating and Matt Bell proves he can write like a dream, can make boxing a metaphor for a way to live life: How to protect yourself from the blow you can’t see coming. This was what the other boxers talked about...(b)ecause it was the blow you couldn’t see coming that knocked you out. If you stared into every punch you could never be put down. The illusion of control. Self-determination in battle. Kelly didn’t believe in anything else he’d once believed in but he thought he might believe in this. For such insights, Bell acknowledges his debt to On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates. Maybe the finest thing about Scrapper is the way in takes us into a deep-pore underworld that’s rarely explored in even the best books about Detroit. Paul Clemens has written beautiful and sad stories about the decline of blue-collar Detroit, but Scrapper is something new, a book by a writer willing to explore worlds so dark you need a miner’s helmet to navigate your way. The novel’s publication coincides with the appearance of a wonderful new non-fiction book by David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story offers a vivid snapshot of the moment when Detroit reached its peak, from late 1962 to early 1964. Meanwhile, Dominique Morisseau continues to write wrenching plays set in Detroit’s glorious and turbulent past. There have recently been insightful books on Detroit by Anna Clark, Mark Binelli, Charlie LeDuff, Scott Martelle, John Gallagher, and others. And Angela Flournoy’s terrific debut novel, The Turner House, the story of a sprawling Detroit family’s crumbling home place, has just been long-listed for the National Book Award. With Scrapper, Matt Bell has joined some fast -- and fast-growing -- company.
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.
When the novelist is suspected of autobiography, what is left for memoir? Marcel Proust said so much in his book that by the time accounts of the man himself were published, most delightfully by his maid, Céleste Albaret, they were concerned largely with what he had already written, and how. In his nine short novels and three miscellaneous prose texts, the Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s unnamed, first-person narrator sits in a bathroom, escapes to Venice, visits Japan and China, and fails to write a book in Berlin, but time is short, and little is confessed outside the bounds of the odd, spare narratives. English-speaking admirers of Toussaint’s jaunty, limpid prose might thus warm to the news of Edward Gauvin’s translation of 11 short essays by Toussaint on style, influence, and where he wrote his books. Recently released as Urgency and Patience: Essays by Dalkey Archive Press, one of the most cosmopolitan publishers of fiction in America, the essays were first collected in 2012 by the venerable Éditions de Minuit. As in his elliptical fictions, Toussaint’s recollections of the writer’s life tend to insinuate rather than disclose. We learn of his offices, of his first day of writing, and of how he met his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, and his hero, Samuel Beckett. It is a memoir only in the sense that the Essais are. Indeed, particularly in L’Urgence et la Patience, the prose is pure anti-Ciceronian. The signature long sentences -- irregular, disjoint, apparently spontaneous -- capture thought in action; quick, steely aphorisms underline the point. If Toussaint is often held up against Alain Robbe-Grillet, then Michel de Montaigne, Pierre Charron, and François La Mothe Le Vayer are not far behind. While the French of Toussaint’s L’Urgence et la Patience fairly glitters and flies, the English of Gauvin’s translation tends to normalize, even clot. To some extent the disappointment flows from Toussaint’s fastidious attention to sound. Toussaint relates in the eponymous “Urgency and Patience” (essay three) that he once went so far as to excise a description of a commode from The Truth About Marie because it added nothing to the “charming sonorities” of the word (“le bahut”) itself. Toussaint insists that readers “hear the word, not see the object”; translation has chiefly objects to give. On the other hand, it would not have been difficult to reproduce Toussaint’s striking syntax in English, but like those meddlesome editors of the great Senecan stylists of the 16th century, Gauvin cannot leave Toussaint’s brilliant execution of the loose style alone. In the “Urgency” half of “Urgency and Patience,” the fast, fleeting, almost Damascene flood of sudden illumination-- Ici—au cœur même de l’urgence—, tout vient aisément, tout se libère et se lâche, la vision réelle ne nous est plus d’aucune utilité, mais l’œil interne se dilate et un monde fictif et merveilleux nous apparaît mentalement, nos perceptions sont à l’affût, les sens sont aiguisés, la sensibilité exacerbée, et le basculement s’opère, c’est un jaillissement, tout vient, les phrases naissent, coulent, se bousculent, et tout est juste, tout s’emboîte, se combine et s’assemble dans ces ténèbres intimes, qui sont l’intérieur même de notre esprit. —is straitened into the neat, clipped clauses and even sentences of Gauvin: Here, at the very heart of urgency, everything comes easily, floats free and lets go; actual sight is of no more use to us, but the inner eye widens, and a fictive, fabulous world appears in our minds. Our senses are alert, our perceptions heightened, our sensitivity intensified; a tipping takes place, a gushing, and out it all comes, sentences are born, flow, fall over each other, and everything is right, everything works out, everything gathers and fits together in this intimate darkness that is the inside of our very minds. Apparently there was too much falling over of sentences for this translator. The deadening is hardly unique. Ironically, in “Patience,” when Toussaint sets the stage slowly, “At the table, a bit embarrassed,” his translator now wants it all at once, “A bit embarrassed at the table.” A perfect example of the période coupée, “Tout importe, la condition physique, l’alimentation, les lectures” (essay three), becomes more conventionally, “Everything matters: physical fitness, diet, reading.” Toussaint tells us in “The Ravanastron” that it is the form of a sentence, not its meaning, that concerns him, but the translator seems not to notice. Gauvin’s ear for English idiom is likewise imperfect. What should plainly be “how the devil” (“comment diable,” essay six) is given, bizarrely, as “sweet Christ.” Subjects and objects come and go, as when “that I can attest” (“que je peux certifier,” essay 10) becomes “can attest,” and “which allowed one to picture the furniture” (“qui permettait de se représentait le meuble,” essay three) becomes “which allowed readers to picture it,” though not the “it” that concludes the sentence -- one antecedent the word, the other its referent. In general, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the translator’s English isn’t quite up to Toussaint’s French. Toussaint is an author from whom to pick and choose, and it is the third part of Running Away, with its inimitable evocation of unspoiled Elba, that forms an ideal companion to the essays in Urgency and Patience. Unlike his oddly unmentioned master Thomas Bernhard, whose typical scenarios recur repeatedly in Toussaint’s novels -- the academic who cannot finish his book, middle-aged men taking refuge in houses and routines, or again escaping family in restorative Mediterranean locales -- Toussaint’s essays suggest a markedly more sensuous tone than his often austere fictions. Whereas Bernhard’s forays into autobiography get no sunnier than recollections of bureaucratic prize-giving ceremonies and a five-volume memoir of incontinence, Nazism, and chronic intractable tuberculosis, Toussaint plants radishes, enjoys hotels, reads Proust, and extols the virtues of armchairs and private libraries. Toussaint has fun. He rarely seems far from the Tuscan archipelago, reading Proust in Barcaggio, Corsica, making up a hotel in Venice, thinking of one in Portoferraio, writing on his MacBook Pro in a large room, in Erbalunga, Prunete, Cervione, Corte. Wandering in Italy near the end of his life, Friedrich Nietzsche once urged, lapsing into French, “Il faut méditerraniser la musique,” and while there are warm northern interiors and dark comfortable apartments in Toussaint’s reminiscence, it is the suggestion of the Mediterranean that lingers here, fertile in dry soil yet, the orchards of Médéa, deep blue Corsican rosemary, hills of fragrant maquis, far from Brussels and Berlin.