Over at More Intelligent Life, you’ll find my reflections on the Joseph Mitchell centenary. Mitchell is, for my money, the greatest reporter-stylist of his era; the essay points to a few reasons why. In related news, The New York Times today reports on a blog version of the diaries of that other great reporter-stylist, George Orwell.
A few years ago, I was standing on the platform at College subway station in downtown Toronto. It was 9 pm, well beyond the evening rush. Further along the platform and also waiting to board the next train was someone I recognized – a colleague from work – older and embittered, a grumbling and grouchy sort. I’d barely spoken two words to him in the newsroom and wasn’t in any mood to increase those numbers.The train arrived and this happened: A few people piled out and then one person in particular came out of the train and stood face to face with my grouchy colleague on the platform. They began punching each other in the face as if they were sworn enemies, all the while adjusting themselves on the platform so that Grouchy could go into the subway car, and the other guy could come all the way out. It was as if they were doing a dance. Before the doors had closed, and after at least a dozen punches had been thrown as they did their subway ballet, Grouchy was in the car and the other guy had gone up the stairs. I was within earshot – not a word had been spoken, not an insult slung. I guess some people just piss other people off.So that’s my subway story. That and the time I slipped on the top step at an outdoor entrance to Leicester Square tube station in London and tumbled down an entire flight of stairs, to the bemusement (and in many cases, indifference) of London’s commuting throngs.Every commuter or traveler seems to have his own subway story. The front page of a recent Globe and Mail Travel section takes the reader into the subways, undergrounds, tubes and metros of cities around the world. Writer Mark Kingwell, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, is the tour guide, expertly guiding the reader through some of the world’s buried treasures. It’s a fascinating read, and includes bits by other writers and travelers, each sharing subway anecdotes. All packaged with some fine photos.All of which leads me to a book I purchased a few years ago – Underground: Travels on the Global Metro – a coffee-table book featuring some stunning work from photographer Marco Pesaresi. The cities explored are: New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Calcutta, Milan, Mexico City, Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid. Each section is prefaced by a short essay. The book even has an introduction by none other than Francis Ford Coppola.Pesaresi is a remarkable photographer. His camera sometimes conspires with the passenger – causing a pose, an attitude (Mexico city). Sometimes, it is seemingly invisible (Milan) capturing but not appearing to intrude on a pre-existing mood (Tokyo). Sometimes it seems to be lurking, capturing quiet moments that likely would have been shaken off by the subjects, had they been overwhelmed by a more intrusive photographer.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold and the ditch he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Not in a weird way. The nights dark beyond all reckoning of darkness, days endless gray. He rose from the reeking sleeprags and looked towards the east for a hint of light. Long ago snuffed by lowhanging dust, crusted and festering whoremouth. In the dream from which he’d wakened he and the child had wandered in a cave, scrounging for rotted batmeat. Shadows playing the walls like clownpuppets, the whitegloved fingers gnarled and ginshaken. Encircled by the dim, an abattoir lullaby. They came to a great stone room within which lay a longdead lake, its water stagnant and foul. And on the far shore a eunuch mime, naked save for a filthy gray cravat. Dead eyes milky and hollow. With a thin straw to its dirtscarred lips, it knelt, sipping from the brack. It heard their steps, craning its mimeneck to see what it could not. Skin translucent, ribs charbling and swortled, the heart beating tiredly. Facepaint smeared. It waved sadly in their direction, for it could not speak. Then it scuttled into the inky blackness. The man shook his head in the freezing predawn. No more peaches before bed.
With the first gray light he rose and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Godless and blasted. A madman’s timeshare. The trees dead, the grass dead, the shrubs dead also. The rivers dead. And the streams and reeds, the mosses and voles. Dead as well. He glassed the ruins, hoping for a shred of color, a wisp of smoke, a faroff Cracker Barrel. There was nothing but swirling gloom, a grasping murk. He sat with the binoculars and the gray, and thought: the child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God God never spoke, although he might have scribbled something on a paperscrap and passed it along. He bit hard on his blistered upperlip. If only I had thought to give him a name. If only.
An hour later they were on The Road, an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks in case they had to make a run for it. Cannibal rapists, roving bloodcults. Greenpeace volunteers. In the knapsacks were essential things: tins of food, metal utensils, a broken Slinky, a canopener, three bullets, a picture of ham. He looked out over the barren waste, the scorpled remain. The road was empty, as was its wont. Quiet, moveless. Are you okay? he said, quotation marks dead as the reeds. The boy nodded. Then they started down the road, humming a sprightly tune. The tune was silent, and unsprightly.
In time they had arrived at a roadside filling station. It was still and precise, a blaggard’s assbath. Ashcovered and freighted with doubt. They stood in the road and studied it. The windows were unbroken, the pumps intact. I think we should check it out, the man said. There might be snacks. Cheez-Its, maybe. The boy looked on as he entered an open door. The man, not the boy. Nothing in the service bay save for a standing metal toolbox, a trash-filled wastecan. Waterlogged tittymagazines. In the small office, ash and dust, soot and flumb. A cashregister, a telephonebook, a metal desk. He crossed to the desk, standing over the phone. He picked it up and punched at the numbers. Three three three, three three three, three three five three three. The boy stood at the door. What are you doing? he said. The man hung up the phone. Jingle Bells, the man said.
In the service bay he tipped over the trashdrum and sorted through the plastic oilbottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs, standing the bottles upside down to drain into a pan. This reminds me of ketchup, the man said as he watched the slowdraining oil. The boy brightened. Can you tell me about ketchup, Papa? the boy said. Please tell me. The man stared, remembering another world entire, a world of jellies and mustards, of condiments boundless. Perhaps later, he said. I’ll tell you about ketchup later. The boy watched the slowing oildrip, chin in his hand. Okay.
On the far side of the valley the road passed through a fearsome charswath. Blackened and limbless trees, ashblown and dead. On a distant rise, the heatscorched ruins of a farmhouse. Tilted roadside lightpoles. Faded billboards advertising motels, the use of irony. An abandoned Vespa. Are you having fun? he said. The boy hesitated, shook his head. Are you sure? Yes, the boy said. I’m sure. The man looked out over the blasted land, the pebblestrewn waste. Impressions? the man said. The boy kicked at a small black rock. No, said the boy. The man’s heart ached. The boy used to love his impressions.
That night they lay beneath their filthy plastic tarp as rain fell from a godless heaven. After stowing the cart in a jagged roadside scarp, they had found a spot a good distance from the road. A thick copse of deadburnt spruce. The dirt underhead was hard, and with the wind and the cold and the running viscous ash it was difficult to sleep. Can I ask you a question? the boy said after a time, his teeth chattering.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
Okay. Tomorrow maybe?
No. Not tomorrow. Not for a long, long time.
Oh. Why not?
Because we’re going to be okay.
The boy considered this. Okay, he said.
There was silence for a time. Then the boy spoke again. But could we maybe die the day after?
No. I will protect you. No matter what.
Okay. The boy paused. But what if we did? Or maybe just me? Could I maybe die?
The man laughed into the tarpgrit as thunder pealed across the wet, bleakened valley. And leave all this? he said.
The reviews are beginning to come in for Bill Clinton’s My Life, and Michiko Kakutani, at least, wasn’t very impressed. Read the review here.In other book news, I happened to catch a reading of a very interesting book on the radio last night. Here in DC we have C-SPAN radio, and they occasionally air the audio from their “Book TV” broadcasts (Yes, radio in DC is pretty bad, and that’s why I end up listening to C-SPAN radio). The book was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche and his account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea was riveting. Also in the book: modern day pirates in Indonesia and the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to secure 95,000 miles of American coastline.
The Litblog Co-op blog is stirring once again. Here’s what’s going on. The spring Read This! selection will be revealed on Monday followed by the rest of the finalists for this round. There will be six weeks worth of discussion about the books, and anyone who comments over the course of the six weeks will be entered into a drawing to win all five books for the round. And while you’re there be sure to check out the four finalists for the summer round. We’ve decided to start announcing the finalists early so that everyone has enough time to read the books. For all the details, get yourself over to the LBC blog.
It has, once again, been a long time since I wrote to The Millions. My hiatus this time around was due to constant travels and lack of time to read. I managed, nevertheless, to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as intended and began David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I do not dare comment on Crime and Punishment, since it is merely my introduction to Russian literature and so many people and scholars have already done a much better job than I can ever hope to do. Let it suffice that I really enjoyed every word in Crime and Punishment and look forward to continuing my Russian Lit. education through both Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov, I think, will be next – and Tolstoy – I have War and Peace in mind, please tell me your suggestions – before I move onto others such as Pushkin and Chekhov – whose The Cherry Orchard and some other plays I have read. Next I picked up Infinite Jest with the naive hope that I could make serious headway into it in one month. I enjoyed the 150 pages that I managed to read in my month-long quest to devour Wallace’s little monster. It was, I have to admit, very confusing and I constantly found myself in anticipation of stories that begun and were, in the mere 150 pages I read, not continued. The reason I stopped was not because of my growing frustration with the novel – as happened to a couple of my friends – but because I reported to the army to serve my mandatory military service. Infinite Jest is not quite the light read that I could manage in the barracks after a full day of marching and obeying orders barked at me, therefore I put it on hold. Thus far I have not managed to return to it.[See Also: Max’s thoughts on Crime and Punishment]While in the army I picked up Turkey’s bestseller Su Ciglin Turkler (Those Crazy Turks) by Turgut Ozakman. Ozakman studied both national and private archives related to the Turkish Independence War for over sixty years. About fifteen years ago the premise of his book and most of his research was complete and the novel in progress was turned into a movie script for a four-part TV series. I remember watching the series at a very young age and being very impressed by it. My father had read the newly published Su Ciglin Turkler during my parents’ visit to New York in January and left the novel for me to read. I took the novel to the army, where only pre-approved books are allowed into the barracks and subversive writers are banned, and began reading it there. Ozakman’s narrative is very simple and fluent. The story sticks to historic facts to the point of making Su Ciglin Turkler more of a history book than a novel. The author avoided writing a history book by narrating the individual lives and adventures of historic characters in fiction. The combination creates a very strong storyline that reflects the historic moments in Turkey’s three year long struggle to freedom following World War I and touches a nerve in the reader by relating the greatly humane stories of unheard heroes and heroines. Su Ciglin Turkler makes its readers laugh and cry out loud at certain points, infuses a healthy dose of nationality that makes the reader long for the determination and unity exhibited in the birth of the Turkish Republic – as well as wonder why such stamina and selfless goodwill is missing from the scene today – and provides a great glimpse of the nation’s foundations. Unfortunately, as with most Turkish novels I read, with the exception of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, Su Ciglin Turkler is only available in Turkish. If you know the language or the novel is ever translated, I strongly recommend it. That was my army novel, and I admit the setting proved perfect.See also: Part 2, 3
Last week, Max directed our attention to a major new piece of reporting on the financial crisis: a Portfolio article by Millions favorite Michael Lewis. The author of Liar’s Poker, among other books, Lewis is a gifted explainer of an industry badly in need of explanations. In the Portfolio piece, for example, he immerses us in the world of short-sellers who saw the subprime meltdown coming. However, the key paragraph – wherein trader Steve Eisman has an epiphany about how investment banks are leveraging subprime bonds – resorts to a sports metaphor, and thus fails to demystify an elusive instrument at the center of the financial crisis: the credit default swap (CDS).”When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats,” Lewis writes.But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. ‘They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,’ Eisman says. ‘They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans.’I’ve heard financial insiders inveigh against peons who “don’t know a credit-default swap from a turnip,” but how are we to wise up, if explanations only come in the form of metaphors (athletic or agricultural)? Grabbing a fig leaf from the N+1 playbook, as it were, I decided to ask a friend in finance to explain the Peyton Manning analogy, as simply as possible. Here’s what he had to say (wait for “the rub”):Assume the following: Eisman buys a crappy mortgage security (say, a $1,000 bond from a mortgage given to a strawberry picker who makes $14,000 dollars per year). Say the mortgage rate the strawberry picker pays is 15%. This means he’s agreed to pay $150 a year to Eisman. But Eisman is worried that the strawberry picker will default because the guy’s house value has collapsed and his income is drying up. Thus, Eisman wants to buy insurance on the $1,000 he’s loaned. The way he does this is via a credit default swap.A CDS is essentially an insurance policy on a loan, and here’s how it works. Eisman finds a counterparty willing to sell him insurance on his loan (a big investment bank like Lehman Brothers). Eisman agrees to pay the bank a fixed rate every year for protection of the mortgage security he owns (the crappier the loan, the higher the rate). Let’s say for the $1,000 loan to the strawberry picker, his rate will be 10%. The bank pays him nothing on a regular basis, BUT, if the borrower defaults, they pay him the full $1,000.So: if times are good and everyone makes payments on time, the payments are structured as follows: The strawberry picker pays $150 per year to Eisman; Eisman pays $100 per year to Lehman (which then uses some of the cash to provision for losses, and uses the rest to make more loans). The strawberry picker gets to keep his house, Eisman keeps $50 per year (loan payment from strawberry picker minus the insurance premium he pays to Lehman), and Lehman gets $100.Got the structure? Now here’s the rub.Imagine Eisman never actually had exposure to the loan in the first place. Being the brilliant skeptic he is, Eisman would never lend $1,000 to a strawberry picker with little income. He thinks that strawberry man is doomed to default on that loan, and he actually wants to bet AGAINST him. So instead of giving the loan and buying insurance, he just buys the insurance (hence the often used and rarely understood term “side bet”). To do this, Eisman still has to pay the “premium” for the insurance he’s bought, and since it’s a risky loan, the rate is high (e.g. $100 per year in the example above). [Though he stands to win $1,000 if the loan defaults.] In effect, Eisman is paying a “subprime-like” interest rate to Lehman every year! That’s what Lewis was getting at.I would have used a different metaphor. I would have said it’s like a New Yorker buying a bunch of home insurance policies in New Orleans because you are expecting that there will be a massive hurricane coming to wreck them. Now lets say that the insurance company took the money you were giving it, didn’t provision for the coming doom, and instead, used that money to lend to more people building and buying houses in New Orleans.That’s leverage upon leverage upon leverage. And that’s the mess that is unraveling before us.