Back when I was an undergraduate English major with plenty of time on my hands, one of my favorite activities was to wander through the deserted stacks on the fourth floor of my university library (where all the fiction lived) and pluck from the shelf any book that caught my eye.
One spring day in my sophomore year I felt drawn, for whatever reason, to a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949.
As I scanned the index I noticed with great surprise and excitement that the book contained a story by J.D. Salinger that I hadn’t read before. It was called “A Girl I Knew.” Greedily, I slid to the floor, crossed my legs, and flipped to page 248, ready to start right in. The only problem was that there was no page 248. In fact, in between John Rogers’ “Episode of a House Remembered” and Alfred Segre’s “Justice Has No Number,” there was nothing. Some sneak had gone and ever-so-carefully removed the Salinger story with a razor.
Worse things had been done in the name of Salinger, I knew, but still I was vexed. The story’s simple and wistful title had me curious, and my discovery seemed somehow predestined.
That semester I was taking a class called “Later Twentieth Century American Literature.” The professor was a short, nervous, extraordinarily kind Fitzgerald scholar from Darlington, South Carolina who, unlike most members of the faculty, wore a jacket and tie everyday. His passion for literature was so great that he would usually remove the jacket within the first three minutes of class, revealing a curious but endearing pattern of sweat stains. Though Dr. Mangum had been teaching many of the same books for upwards of thirty years, he could not have lost a drop of his enthusiasm; nor was he the dreary sort to insist upon purely textual readings of the classics.
And so, when we read J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Dr. Mangum told us in his charming, slightly stuttering drawl all about Salinger’s life and known eccentricities: his predilection for much younger women. His mixed feelings about his half-Jewish heritage. His hermetic existence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The pack of cutthroat New York attorneys he’d hired to track down and sue anybody who attempted to circulate, either in print or on the internet, bootleg copies of his uncollected magazine stories. The theory that the post-traumatic stress disorder he acquired from his particularly horrific experiences in WWII is what led to his eventual seclusion.
Starting in 1940 when he was only 23 years old, and not yet the cult figure who’d penned The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger began publishing short stories in a variety of commercial and literary magazines including The New Yorker, Story, and Good Housekeeping. Salinger remained vehement through most of his life that, with the exception of those collected in Nine Stories, none of his other short magazine fiction – a total of twenty-two pieces – would ever be put into book form.
Evidence suggests that Salinger chose to safeguard these stories not because he doubted their quality, but out of spite towards both the world of publishing and the world at large. Several of these “Uncollected Stories” (as they are officially known by Salinger-philes to distinguish them from the “Unpublished Stories,” the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of stories that Salinger may or may not have written in the final five-plus decades of his life) deal directly with the war, and a few, like “A Girl I Knew” are thought to be autobiographical.
Though I didn’t feel like breaking the law in pursuit of some ramshackle, Xeroxed copy of the “Uncollected Stories,” I saw no moral dilemma in tracking down an un-butchered copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949 where I could find “A Girl I Knew.”
I made a trip to the Richmond, Virginia public library, which at first revealed another TBASS: 1949 in which “A Girl I Knew” had been ever-so-carefully razored out. But after sending a recalcitrant librarian to the basement to retrieve yet another copy of the anthology – which had been apparently been gathering dust since about 1950 – I was able to read the story. I wasn’t sorry that I’d gone to the trouble.
While a few of the selections in Nine Stories had seemed a bit flat to me (“Teddy” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” come to mind) I found “A Girl I Knew” to be positively brimming with humor, pathos, and romance. It managed, in a mere 12 pages, to make me both laugh out loud and to cry.
The story itself is simple. It could be classified as a love story, though a strange one, in which the word love is never mentioned, the lovers never so much as hold hands, and the only verbal exchanges between them are formal, awkward, and embarrassing.
It is an almost painfully realistic rendering of the sort of crush one has while young, the harmless sort one can reflect on later in life and think, without bitterness: “I wonder what So-and-So is up to?”
The twist that makes this story a tragedy is that our young heroine is a Viennese-Jewish girl, born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the real genius of this story, to me, the real kicker, is that even if there had been no Hitler, no war, the protagonist and the girl would not have ended up together. They lived on different continents; when they met the narrator was too young and self-involved to really desire commitment; the heroine, long before Nazi troops invaded Vienna, had married another man.
Part of the sadness here comes, of course, from a young woman being robbed, senselessly and viciously, of her life. But it is sad, too, in the way it deprived a young man, a man who hadn’t even known her that well, the luxury of remembering her without bitterness, of being able to ask lightheartedly: “I wonder what So-and-So is up to?”
The story is told as reminiscence, and the tone, to start, is light. It begins:
At the end of my freshman year of college, back in 1936 I flunked five out of five subjects. Flunking three out of five would have made me eligible to report to the Dean’s office for an invitation to attend some other college in the fall. But men in this three-out-of-five category sometimes had to wait outside the Dean’s office as long as two hours. Men in my group – some of whom had big dates in New York that same night – weren’t kept waiting a minute. It went one, two, three, the way most men in my group liked things to go.
Our precocious, underachieving narrator is a young man called John; his name reveals that he is neither a Caulfield nor a Glass, though he could easily belong to either family. “At eighteen,” he recalls, “I was six feet two, weighed one hundred and nineteen pounds with my clothes on, and was a chain-smoker.” When he returns to his family’s New York home, the news of his expulsion preceding him, he is greeted by the butler, who looks “tipped off and hostile.” His mother lectures him about applying himself. His father, a stern, no-nonsense type, wants to put him straight into the family business.
However, lucky for our young narrator, going directly into the family business means sailing for Europe to learn “a couple of languages the firm could use.” After our gaunt, slightly disaffected protagonist arrives in Vienna (and gets over his disappointment that the city does not, in fact, have gondolas) he proceeds to have a grand time: skiing, ice skating, hanging out in the lounges of posh hotels, writing insincere love letters to girls back home.
But then, intruding upon his blissfully non-committal existence, comes Leah, a sixteen year-old girl who lives with her family in the apartment below his. He is taken with her immediately. One afternoon he investigates some mysterious singing he hears coming from outside his window. The source, he discovers, is a young, beautiful girl, standing on the downstairs balcony “almost completely submerged in a pool of autumn twilight.”
She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.
In the four or five months our narrator spends in Vienna, he and Leah meet a few times a week. Every meeting takes place in his sitting room where they drink coffee and have long painful conversations in which he speaks awkward, halting German and she in rudimentary, heavily-accented English.
“Uh. Ist die Fenster – uh – Sind Sie sehr kalt dort?” I would ask solicitously. (Is the window – Uh – Are you very cold there?)
“No! I feel very warmly, sank you.”
Only once do they meet outside their apartment building, and this happens accidentally, when John bumps into her at the cinema one evening with a young man, who, he learns during their next meeting, is her fiancé.
We begin to feel a bit sorry for Leah when we learn that her father has arranged a (presumably unwanted) marriage for her. (“‘My fahzzer is wedding us when I have seventeen years,’ Leah said, looking at a doorknob.”) At 16, she works five days a week in her father’s cosmetics plant, work she doesn’t enjoy. Of course, this is merely grim foreshadowing of what her life will become.
When John leaves Vienna for Paris, “to master a second European language,” he doesn’t tell Leah goodbye face-to-face, but in a note. He promises to write to her and to send to her a copy of Gone With the Wind; he never does either of these things. “I was very busy in those days,” he recalls.
He returns to America and re-enrolls in college. “About the same hour Hitler’s troops were marching into Vienna, I was on reconnaissance for Geology 1-b, searching perfunctorily, in New Jersey, for a limestone deposit.”
For years he tries in vain to learn whether Leah has escaped Vienna. In 1940, at a party in New York, he meets a young woman who had gone to school with Leah, though she isn’t sure whether or not Leah has gotten out of Vienna. She only wants to talk about “a man in Philadelphia, who looked exactly like Gary Cooper.” This attitude of cold indifference is one he runs up against continually.
Eventually our narrator joins the Army and ends up back in Europe. After the war has ended, he is finally able to go to Vienna and he learns for certain that Leah has been killed.
Biographical records show that Salinger spent several months in Vienna before the war, working for his father’s meat importing business. While there he boarded with a Jewish family, who later all perished in camps. Little is known about them.
At the end of “A Girl I Knew,” John visits his old apartment house in Vienna, which has been converted into American officers’ quarters. He begs permission from a staff sergeant to go up to his old room, just for a moment, so he can look down onto the balcony and see the spot where Leah once stood.
James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime. This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again. Once is almost never enough. The agony is just too delicious. Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels. When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.
Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit. When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”
Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes. I count myself among them. So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.” Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels. In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson. “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”
True on every count. There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned. But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment. Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties. As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”
The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes. Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele. With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.
The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”
Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.
Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”
In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity. Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not. Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.
Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time. In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote. To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”
Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up. The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning. In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar. A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30. All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system. Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.
Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money… They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too. Henry Fisher is got plenty of money. But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it. They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.” And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things… I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”
Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then. And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.” That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.
Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit. Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river. You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you. When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”
And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:
“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.
“A quart of my own private Scotch. Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that. I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”
“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.
“He don’t drink much. Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”
“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.
“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.
Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity. Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk. A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived. I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic. Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves. He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery. It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get. Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.
While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years. To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves. Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.
Right off, she stunned me. She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim. She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red. I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s. When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.” Then his voice had trailed off. I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone. Marnie set me straight.
“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said. “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it. I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health. I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell. He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell. They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.” (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.) Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent. If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.
So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder. He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good. There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.
Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis. Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”
“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore. I don’t write what they look for today.’ He was probably right. He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”
Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year. “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested. I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross. I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor). I’m still collecting archival material. In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul. My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work. I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.” Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.
So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine. This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book. The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877. A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis. That is just plain wrong. (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)
And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind. Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.
And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated. Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in. Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover. The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.
Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”
Well, believe it. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison. Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger. It definitely happened to Harper Lee. And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter. “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said. “It’s pretty unreal.”
What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal. It’s just about impossible.
CocoRosie’s new album, Grey Oceans, comes out on Wednesday. It’s their fourth album and their first release from SubPop. Through Wednesday, SubPop is streaming the album for free at SoundCloud. For those who don’t know CocoRosie, they’re a freak-folky, trip-hoppy, fantastically costumed, often cross-dressed, incestuously close and otherworldly pair of sister singers and musicians. If Björk and Billie Holliday had twin girls, they might sound something like CocoRosie (likewise, the offspring of the Cocteau Twins and Bessie Smith). There are also shades of Cat Power, Portishead, and the classical-folk-hip-hop work of the young singer and violin virtuoso Emily Wells in the duo’s work.
The story of the band’s genesis has become something of a legend and it’s integral to their mystique. No matter who’s telling it, it sounds like a fairytale and I think it’s better told as such:
Once upon a time there were two beautiful sisters named Sierra and Bianca Casady. Their mother, Christina, was Syrian and Cherokee and maybe a little Gypsy too and their father was a creepy Iowa farmer infatuated with Native American religion and Voodoo who took his young daughters to New Age ceremonies where all of the adults got scarily wacked out on peyote. He eventually became some kind of shaman. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of other obscure evils, the beautiful Gypsy mother left her husband and spent her daughters’ childhood years wandering through New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii, and California, sometimes enrolling her daughters in school and sometimes not. The girls liked wearing costumes, casting spells, and making up stories about imaginary lands.
At some point in this wandering, the sisters were separated. The eldest, Sierra (also called Rosie), ended up in Paris studying voice and opera. The younger, Bianca, also called Coco, ended up in Brooklyn, where she studied philosophy and sometimes went to ironic “Kill Whitey” hipster parties. Eventually, Bianca got tired of the hipsters and decided to travel abroad. Her first stop was Paris where, after ten years, she was reunited with her beloved sister Sierra in Sierra’s tiny garret flat. There, the girls shut themselves in and recreated their childhood world: dressing up, making up songs and stories.
Bianca had brought some sort of archaic recording device to Paris and the sisters recorded some of their songs from the strange and distant land of their private imaginary world sitting in the bathtub (because it made a nice echo), playing guitars, harps, snake-charming flutes, wind-up music boxes and electronic children’s toys, jangling chains and coins, thrumming their fingers on tin cans. The homemade demo that resulted from this bathroom session found its way into the hands of Touch & Go Records producer Corey Rusk. He couldn’t stop listening to it. He found Sierra and Bianca, signed them, and together they released the songs under the title La Maison de Mon Rêve (2004). CocoRosie was born.
It’s quite a tale and you won’t find a straighter version of it. (The Casady sisters aren’t much for anything that’s not tinged with fancy or fairydust, as Fernanda Eberstadt’s excellent profile of the band in the New York Times Magazine a couple of years back illustrates in great detail.) And the fantasy and fairytale continues in their music.
The sisters’ private mythology is equal parts Victorian childhood and modern Gothic. They are innocents who know about the dark side (miscarriages, incest, racism, disfigured and battered women, cemeteries in the back yard) but still believe in angels, fairies, God, St. Nicholas. This, combined with their ingenious use of found sounds, strange and improvised instruments, samples, echoes, overlaid vocals, their mix of the primitive and nostalgic (feline yowls, a recording of their mother chanting in her native Cherokee, tinkly old music boxes), classical (Sierra’s wordless operatic trills and wails), and hypermodern (synthesizers, beat boxes, electronic children’s toys, and talk boxy/auto-tune voice effects) might convince you that the Spiritualists were right and that what you’re listening to is really a recording of the voices of the dead disrupting a radio broadcast or a trip hop D.J.’s set.
This haunting, scary-pretty, Weird Sisters siren singing is not for everyone. It tends to make lovers or haters. My husband believes that the singing of these madwomen in the bathtub might be put in the mix with death metal, the Barney song, and looped recordings of crying babies, as a tool of interrogation and torture. But I’m a lover: CocoRosie’s bathtub album had me at, “Jesus loves me/But not my wife/Not my nigger friends/Or their nigger lives.” Hearing this track, “Jesus Loves Me,” from La Maison de Mon Rêve (2004) was one few jaw-dropping experiences of my recent musical life—and it wasn’t just because of the lyrics.
If you listened to the song out of context, as I did the first time, you might think that you’d stumbled upon an early recording of a backwoods white supremacist version of the original 19th century hymn—except that the very white Sierra, who sings lead vocals on this track, sounds kind of like Billie Holiday. (Incidentally, Sierra also sounds like a 90-year-old bedlamite, and I say this with the utmost respect.) This haunting blackvoice inflects many of La Maison de Mon Rêve lyrics. And not only can CocoRosie sound black, and occasionally use a kind of Gone With The Wind/Huck Finn Southern black dialect (“dat fo sho”, “all dem kears”), their lyrics also mimic the idioms of early blues. “I swear I won’t call no coppa,/If I’m beat up by my poppa,” Bessie Smith sang in her 1923 “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.” On the bluesy, beat-boxed “By Your Side,” Sierra, with the same casual tolerance of domestic violence, sings “I’ll wear your black eyes,/Bake you apple pies,” in a voice that, again, you might mistake for a quavery late Lady Day. This isn’t Zooey Deschanel, America’s milque-y indie sweetheart, giving “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” a try (as good as her retro girlpop stuff for She & Him is, her version of this song feels a little thin).
The sisters’ songs are unsettling and otherworldly and, I find, totally addictive and transporting. Their first album is still my favorite. In spite of its undeniable affections and stylizing, it still has a naively original quality, and for all of its contrivances it doesn’t feel contrived–kind of like Michel Gondry’s film La Science des Rêves (The Science of Sleep). The child’s imaginary world/children’s art project atmosphere feels authentic and touching and wonderful, if also fragile and a little disturbed.
The sisters’ second and third albums, Noah’s Ark (2005) and The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn (2007) have been increasingly polished and produced and the found sounds, musical styles pastiched and electronic effects have multiplied—though the unearthly feral child/fairyland vibe, the suggestions of unwholesome sexuality (the cover of Noah’s Ark, for example, depicts three unicorns in what appears to be a sodomy conga line) , and the invocations of a quasi-Christian fallenness that inflected La Maison remain creepily entrenched in their mythology.
And so it is on in their latest album, Grey Oceans, their fourth full-length release and their SubPop debut:
Baby girl don’t you cry
Momma’s gonna buy you a glass eye
And it will glimmer like starlight
Sierra sings on “R.I.P. Burn Face”, which is my favorite track on the album. It’s also the most coherently melodic, a lament for those lost at sea, or possibly for a disfigured girl who’s drowned herself. (Coherent narratives have never been the signature of CocoRosie lyrics and they aren’t now.) The album’s first three tracks, “Trinity’s Crying,” “Smokey Taboo,” and “Hopscotch” (which features Bianca’s in her signature babyvoice singing a kind of vaudeville-y, children’s tap chorus-line tune of the sort that becomes maddeningly lodged in the brain), are beautifully arranged and mixed—really, all of the tracks are. But there’s something a bit less personal about this album: Grey Oceans won’t send you headlong down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass, as previous albums have done.
This one feels more generic, more manufactured in its polish. And, worse than generic, several of the tracks on which Bianca sings in her uncanny baby voice sound like counterfeit Björk songs. The title track, “Grey Oceans,” is like this. The only difference is that Bianca Casady doesn’t have Björk’s ability to break and balance the fey child’s patter with lusty, athletic yelling-singing. On “Fairy’s Paradise” Bianca sings the opening lines, “He draws near the periphery,/In disbelief on delivery,” but most of her r’s and l’s sound like w’s (He dwaws neaw the pewifewy,/In disbeweif on dewivewy) and it’s, well, it’s just ridiculous. “Undertaker,” possibly an autobiographical song about the obscurely evil Casady father, features a haunting intro and coda sample of the Casady sisters’ mother chanting in Cherokee. It’s quite something but, again, Bianca’s parody Björk voice just doesn’t work, as it doesn’t quite in “The Moon Asked The Crow” (in spite of its catchy hip-hoppy beat).
Bianca’s baby-voice can work (“Armageddon” on Noah’s Ark, is great), but here it’s brought to the fore and carries the lead vocals on most tracks. And it sounds like Bianca’s playing it up more, distorting her pronunciation to a clownish degree, often while singing melodramatic autobiographical lyrics, and what was once uncanny verges into the absurd.
But absurdity is not the sum of this album. It’s got intimations of the signature CocoRosie strange beauty as well. I am glad to have two such outlandish, otherworldly fantasists in the world and making art.
Like at least several members of my generation, my understanding of the Vietnam War is limited to a kind of shivery awful reverence felt in the presence of veterans, or when looking at photos of the great and glorious war dead. My impressions are a mélange of movie stills (Willem Defoe), novels (Fallen Angels), songs (Adagio for Strings), photos (Eddie Adams), legends (friend’s dad’s Zippo collection), and, it must be said, Walter (The Big Lebowski). I feel like this can’t actually be the case, but I simply do not remember learning anything about the Vietnam War in school. I have read The Quiet American, but I had no idea what it was about, and I have read Tim O’Brien stories, which feature young men who had even less of an idea. Unfortunately for them, they still had to go and get themselves exploded, physically or otherwise. Cue the Adagio, cue the hairs on the back of my neck.
Given my pathetically skewed and Forrest Gump-y understanding of the Vietnam War, I was very pleased to see The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game, which was written by my former college professor, Thomas Bass, whom I consider to be a huge fucking deal, not only because he writes books and was in The New Yorker, but because he taught a class wherein we read Neuromancer. I’ll start my review with a digression, which is that there is a major problem with nonfiction books, regarding what to call them. The truth being what it is (that is, stranger than fiction), nonfiction books with titles that accurately present the facts either sound absurdly melodramatic or tremendously boring. Some nonfiction books try to circumvent this by choosing titles of impossible vagueness, but that can end up worse.
Taking a short gander at the limited selection of nonfiction books in my home at the moment, I see a book called Rebel Land, a somber-looking read about Turkey with a title which could nonetheless pass as the forgotten third in the Gone With the Wind franchise (after Scarlett). The Spy Who Loved Us attempted to solve the problem with a modest sort of pun, but puns tend to put everyone on the defensive right away. I don’t know how to fix the problem (“Vietnam: WTF?”), I am just noting its existence.
James Bond references notwithstanding, The Spy Who Loved Us is, in fact, about a spy who loved us, “us” in this case being America, and the spy being Pham Xuan An, Reuters and then Time correspondent and go-to journalist in Saigon, who, while loving us and filing articles for the American news complex, spent his nights planning the Tet Offensive and writing messages to the North Vietnamese in invisible ink. It’s a hell of a story. In fact, it took me longer than usual to read, because there was much to process. This book is not Vietnam 101, so I had to fill in some things on my own.
Given that the book is not 101, my hope of understanding the conflict remains unrealized, although I now have a better sense of how hard it might be to fully understand anything at all. What I learned about the actual events are as follows: the French were there, and felt very strongly that they should continue to be there, and espoused a (befuddling under the circumstances) enthusiasm for Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The Japanese, were there, Chinese were also there betimes, and sometimes Koreans. Vietnam told France to go away, but Americans were like, no, no, France stays (even though they apparently liked the Vietnamese when they were fighting the Japanese while France was collaborating furiously). Then the Americans, for no reason that I can understand, started coming over for long visits and someone called Lansdale decided there was to be a war. There was the North, which were the Communists, and the South, which were the non-Communists, except for the Vietcong, who were also Communists. The Americans were with the South, and did something involving Catholics and puppet government.
Thomas Bass provides lots of background, but mostly to explain the education and evolution of Pham Xuan An, who, showing remarkable fidelity during several decades that would seem rife with near-constant turncoating, was a devoted (and heavily decorated) Communist. Through various channels, An worked in Intelligence for the South Vietnamese, and then as basically the most important journalist in Vietnam. He seems to have been friends with literally everyone, but he was also a spy. I know from John Le Carré that spies exist in nebulae and shades of gray, often simultaneously holding two incompatible views, and An was apparently no exception. He seems to have been a moral spy, as moral as anyone could be during war. In spite of spying, An, purportedly provided genuine assistance and objective reportage for every major news presence in Vietnam.
The thrust of the Bass’s book as I read it is that An was a purveyor of truths, as a spy and a journalist. If journalism can be said to change the course of human events, An worked in two opposing ways to end the war, one directly, with a clear national objective, and the other obliquely, by reporting the ugly facts to the world outside (even if the ugly facts were subsequently rewritten by the Henry Luce/Time machine). An’s story has breathtaking implications on a variety of fronts, which is clearly why Bass invested years and quite considerable effort to write this book (considerable effort admirably concealed, I should say; The Spy Who Loved Us reads like a book, and not a dissertation, always a threat in nonfiction).
The Spy Who Loved Us was well-researched and well-told by someone who obviously cares quite a bit about the material. Reading it reminded me that I need to read more nonfiction, because history is full of incredible stories, and I know hardly any of them. For example, I did not know that the CIA has admitted to orchestrating news stories like, a lot. That a Quaker fellow self-immolated in front of McNamara. That spies were incrementally cut into pieces to reveal their information, and that sometimes they didn’t. That the man holding the gun in the Eddie Adams photo wasn’t such a bad guy to begin with. That journalism is a byzantine nest of loyalties and codes of behavior. That America lost the Vietnam War.
I will likely continue to ascribe certain cultural symbols of America’s Vietnam with a schmaltzy sacrosanctity (sleeveless jean jackets, empty helmets). I sound facetious, but I think for people who experience history second- or third- or fifth-hand, for whom events have slim or no personal relevance, it is easy to make objects and images the locus of a lukewarm national sentiment. This book reminded me that the Vietnam War took place in Vietnam, not a tropical corner of America, and that Vietnam was full of Vietnamese people, who suffered horribly and made complex series of decisions, and for many of whom the end of the war was a victory wrested from a hundred years of occupation. Throughout the The Spy Who Loved Us there are a number of people, American and Vietnamese, who describe An as the ultimate patriot, but it’s not as though the Vietnam War was simply Vietnam against the colonial and neo-colonial oppressors, it was between Vietnamese people as well. And they all died in spades, so it seems likely there are people out there for whom An’s life and work would be a great source of rancor. I don’t know. It’s a lot to think about. And it should be; war should always be a lot to think about.