At the center of Martin Clark’s comic legal thriller Plain Heathen Mischief is Joel King, a fallen preacher from Roanoke, Virginia, who got in a little too deep with a young female parishioner. After a stint in jail, and facing a broken marriage and a life gone to shambles, Joel is taken under the wing of Edmund Brooks, one of Joel’s former flock, a mysterious man whose dealings we quickly learn are rarely on the level. “I work the sag,” Edmund explains, “Sag’s the sneaky tax and the holdback and the cushion and the reserve and the contingency and the ‘ol thumb on the scale.” It’s a whole lot of other things, too, but we soon discover that for Edmund, “working the sag” is mostly insurance fraud. Joel relocates to his sister’s in Missoula, Montana, but by then, vulnerable and destitute, he has already been roped into Edmund’s schemes. Edmund’s co-conspirator is a Las Vegas lawyer of the slickest sort, Sa’ad X. Sa’ad, a smooth-talking con-man. Mischief would have been mundane as a straight thriller, but there’s a comic aspect to the book that keeps it entertaining. The three co-conspirators play tough, each in his own way, but to certain degree they’re each doing little more than playing the part of gangster, and part of the fun of reading this book is seeing through their big talk. Eventually the schemes and scams pile on top of one another and things spiral out of control, and while he has written Joel as an, at times, infuriatingly delusional character, Clark does a great job of untangling the Mischief in the end.
Charlie Wilson’s War, the movie, is set to open nationwide on Friday. A recent screening in Manhattan was about two-thirds full, and the response when the lights came up was tepid applause. It’s not a bad movie, basically Tom Hanks wearing suspenders, grab-assing with Julia Roberts, and drinking a lot of scotch. It also features trademark Aaron Sorkin screenwriting: dense, snappy dialogue a la “West Wing” and A Few Good Men (Sorkin also has a new Broadway offering, The Farnsworth Invention), and direction by Mike Nichols (Primary Colors). Philip Seymour Hoffman rounds out the cast, and he does his usual fine turn as Gust Avrokotos, a CIA agent with a chip on his shoulder. It is a film based on actual events, events chronicled in George Crile’s book, subtitled “The Extraordinary Story of how the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times.” Charlie Wilson’s War, the book, takes a lot longer than the movie to absorb, but it is worth the time. It’s an amazing story that just about does justice to that rambling subtitle. In addition to being a sensational tale of political maneuvering, high-power high jinks, and clandestine operations, Crile’s reporting provokes deep thoughts about how the Cold War was ended and how legislative government really functions in America. Crile hints that Wilson, the Democratic Congressman from Texas, hard drinker, notorious philanderer, “Good Time Charlie,” as he was called, may have had a hand in saving the world from the Soviets. As a member of the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, Wilson wrangled millions of Federal dollars for the CIA to support the Islamic tribal guerrilla factions within Afghanistan that battled the Red Army, which occupied Kabul in late 1979, throughout the 1980s. Guns, mortars, mines, rocket launchers: things that jihadists need to kill Commies.”Afghanistan was the largest and most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA,” writes Crile. The partnership between Wilson, the congressman, and Avrakotos, head of the CIA’s South Asian Operations Bureau, made it happen. The degree to which the Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan, culminating in complete withdrawal in 1989, influenced the subsequent raising of the iron curtain, collapse of the U.S.S.R., and end of the Cold War, is a matter for debate. Wilson recognized that there was one place in the world, Afghanistan, where the U.S. had an opportunity to have a hand in the killing of Soviet soldiers. After seeing the refugee camps in Pakistan, and meeting with numerous mujahideen, Wilson came to view them as freedom fighters, and he championed their cause.But inspiring as Charlie Wilson’s story is, let’s face it: it’s frightening to think that an obscure congressman could have such awesome power to dictate American foreign policy. Did Wilson and Avrakotos break laws in the course of directing the most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA? Crile writes the following:At a time when [Nicaraguan] Contras could not get a dime from Congress, Charlie Wilson had managed to turn the CIA’s cautious bleeding campaign in Afghanistan into a half-billion-dollars-a-year operation that dwarfed any prior agency effort. For all practical purposes Wilson had hijacked U.S. foreign policy and was busy transforming it into the first direct winner-take-all contest with the Soviet Union… He was now engaged in the kind of sensitive diplomacy that is technically illegal for anyone other than the White House to conduct: Cutting arms deals with the defense minister of Egypt; commissioning Israel to design weapons for the CIA; negotiating all manner of extraordinarily controversial matters with the all important U.S. ally general Zia [ul-Haq, president of Pakistan].Whether or not his actions were legal, it would seem that Wilson was motivated by patriotic ideals, to aid victims of tyrannical aggression and hurt the U.S.’s great Red enemy. But part of what makes this such a jaw dropping story is that Wilson was able to accomplish what he did – and get away with it.Honest though his motives were, Wilson’s actions had unforeseen consequences, a fact that was brought home to him on September 11, 2001. All of the hijackers who hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon had spent time training in Afghanistan. I shuddered when I read this sentence:For anyone trying to make sense of this new enemy, it would seem relevant that for over a decade in the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. government sponsored the largest and most successful jihad in modern history; that the CIA secretly armed and trained several hundred thousand fundamentalist warriors to fight against our common Soviet enemy; and that many of those who now targeted America were veterans of that earlier CIA sponsored jihad.Especially when considered in light of the intelligence failures that predicated the 9/11 attacks, the CIA emerges from the Charlie Wilson saga with their usual black eye, despite the Afghan war with Soviets being supposedly the Agency’s finest moment. It is a perverse glory that comes with winning a “proxy” war. It would seem a rather ignoble pursuit.
To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today — whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal — and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” — four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture — is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming.
Our is a long love song,
A push into open air,
A stare into the barrel
With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project.
We are a pattern,
A percussive imperative,
A break beat
“repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word “we” as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” — the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.”
“We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies.
Baby we are hundreds:
Wild until we are free.
Wild like Amnesia
This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust.
Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black.
The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem — the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person.
In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production — ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children — but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite “a stare into the barrel,” and “repetition,” as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.
While reading Alice Munro’s new book, Dear Life, I kept finding myself thinking of something that had nothing to do with books, or with Canada, or with any of the dozen other things you might expect. What I thought of was a professional basketball game I went to 15 or so years ago. The Bulls were visiting the lowly Wizards (who were then still called the Bullets), and my friends and I had lucked our way into decent seats. It was the first and only time I’d seen Michael Jordan in person, and it was the strangest thing. You could feel a collective awareness in the building, like the smoke lingering after a fireworks show: he will outlive every one of us. Jordan’s name would appear the next day beside Calbert Cheaney and Bill Wennington’s in the box score, but years from now, when their names evoked nothing, his would be unfaded. He inhabited the court like a time traveler, visiting from a future in which he continued to exist while the rest of us — chewing our $7 hot dogs, taking his picture every time he touched the ball — did not.
Which is to say: contemporary greatness is a strange thing. Alice Munro’s books are reviewed right there beside Ann Patchett and Richard Russo’s; they’re set on the New Releases table between the latest from Jane Smiley and Dave Eggers. But they’re of a different order, they’re made of different stuff. The Mona Simpson quote that appears on many of Munro’s paperbacks (“The living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years,”) seems truer than ever, and it gives an air of preemptive nostalgia to the act of reading her. Soon enough it will seem very strange, almost miraculous, that we could go to the store to buy a new book by Alice Munro.
But for now, anyway, we can; the daily highlight reels must still be assembled. And so how does this latest collection of stories, her 14th, stack up? It is, I’m pleased to report, wonderful — even surprisingly so. Since 2001’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, published when she was 70, she had seemed to me to be in the cruising phase of her career. The three collections since then were full of good, solid, Munro-grade stuff, but with a couple of exceptions, there were no stories that I imagined would make it into her best-of collections. Her writing had simplified considerably, and she seemed, with her plots, to be retracing old ground. When she announced her retirement in 2006, I confess to feeling a certain relief; she was too proud and too self-aware to leave us remembering her like Jordan on the Wizards.
Well, she didn’t retire, and it’s a good thing she didn’t. Her writing continues in its understated mode, but the simplicity seems now to reflect an increased urgency, rather than a diminished capacity. There’s a kind of cut-the-crap quality to this latest batch of stories — material that might have once have taken up 20 pages she now deals with in a couple of sentences, unsentimentally, almost in passing. In “Gravel,” the news that the narrator’s sister has drowned arrives by implication, like the passings of the seasons. In “Train,” a man walks away from his life with as little fanfare as if he were walking out of a movie theater.
Here is how, in one of the collection’s best stories, “Leaving Maverley,” Munro describes a man whose wife has died after years of insentient dwindling in the hospital:
He’d thought that it had happened long before with Isabel, but it hadn’t. Not until now.
She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever. And people hurried around, as if this outrageous fact could be overcome by making sensible arrangements. He, too, obeyed the custom, signing where he was told to sign, arranging — as they said — for the remains.
“Not at all, as if not ever,” — these seven short, simple words give as clear an account of grief, of the infantilizing incomprehensibility of a loved one’s death, as anything I’ve ever read. The book is full of formulations like that — births and deaths, marriages and infidelities, rendered in unimprovable calligraphic strokes. Much of the material here will be familiar to anyone who has ever read her — the train trips and heartsick letters and unpaved roads — but the voice is newly sharpened, as if she were freshly aware of only having so many words remaining in her allotment.
And, in fact, such an awareness becomes explicit in places; growing old has, like a trip through a difficult country, endowed Munro with all manner of new information, and she has here begun to file her dispatches. “In Sight of the Lake,” about a woman’s increasingly baffled search for her doctor’s office, is as harrowing an account of old age as I’ve ever read. And “Dolly” makes the case, with worrisome authority, that jealousy and heartache are not occupations from which we may retire.
A surprise, then, is that the book ends with a sequence of stories that Munro could almost have written decades ago. “The final works in this book are not quite stories,” she writes in an author’s note (under the disconcerting heading “Finale”). “I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” A certain prurient ear-pricking is natural, when an author promises to share the actual goods about herself, but what she has to say turns out to be not so different from what she’s said about her childhood in her earlier books. We get the failing fox farm, the humble father, the ambitious and ailing mother. We get the house set uneasily between town and country, the rickety bridges, the trees known by name. The difference, if there is one, is the frankness with which she sets aside the possibility of artifice. It’s as if, after decades of plot trickery and composite characters, she longs to remove all the filters from her light, to show us the bare bulb. Here, finally, is the intelligence itself, the compassionate but merciless awareness that she has shone through all her hundreds of stories.
At the end of one of those stories, a dozen or so books ago, there’s a sentence that may be the best single thing she ever wrote, and it offers something like a key to her entire career: “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.” In Dear Life, Munro, equipped with a head-lamp the likes of which we may never see again, continues to explore.