Toole explores boxing from inside the ring

Pound for Pound by F.X. Toole. HarperCollins, 2007. 416 pages.

Million Dollar Baby by F.X. Toole. Harper Perennial 2005. 256 pages.

What makes a fighter?

In his mid-forties, a time of life when the last thing most men look for is a punch in the face, F.X. Toole — his real name was Jerry Boyd — looks for an answer to that question. Since his boyhood, boxing had interested him. In the 1940s, he listened to the fights on the radio with his father. Later he watched the fights on television or at Madison Square Garden, which he once described as his personal Camelot. Toole followed the careers of various fighters, read whatever he could find on the great Irish boxers like Sullivan and Corbett, and admired both the winners and losers in the ring. But always the question haunted him — What makes a fighter? — and so he determined to find out in the one way that truly counts.

F.X. Toole stepped into a ring.

He trained hard, put in the hours shadowboxing, hitting the heavy bag, and sparring, but by his own admission he generally got pounded. He had trouble seeing without his glasses, he was older and slower than the twenty-somethings who danced with him in the ring, he had teeth cracked and inlays fall out. Eventually, as he writes in the introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he stopped sparring because he had to wear braces to correct a jaw condition, one unrelated to boxing. But he stayed in the game, serving 20 years as a corner man, cut man, and trainer. Open-heart surgery slowed him down, but his coronary problems never kept him from the ring for very long.

Toole had also been writing and seeing his work rejected for 40 years. Finally, when he was 70, Million Dollar Baby — the original title was Rope Burns — was published to critical acclaim. Toole lived two more years, dying before the release of the Academy Award winning movie while at work on a boxing novel. His last words were “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book.”

Toole ran out of time in his last fight, but the people who loved him, his children, and two men named Nat Sobel and James Wade, have given us his marvelous book.

Pound for Pound (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 978-0-06-088133-7) surely ranks as one of the great fictional accounts of what it means to be a boxer, what the sweet science takes — and sometimes how little it gives back — to its practitioners. In addition to its recreation of ringside action, Pound for Pound should also rank as an outstanding book for its writing, its characters, and its realism.

Pound for Pound gives us the portrait of two fighters, men who bob and weave, stick and move, but who fight their hardest battles outside the ring. Dan Cooley, who runs a body shop in Los Angeles with his partner, Earl Daw, “a dark-skinned black man” who had fought as a middleweight with Dan as his trainer, has lost his wife, his children, and even his grandchild to death by accident and disease. When his grandson darts in front of a car and dies in the beginning of the novel, we see Dan fall to pieces, trying to drink himself to death, wanting to take revenge on the young and innocent Hispanic driver, attempting but failing to kill himself. Through his memories, we learn of the various bouts he once fought, of the fighters he’s trained, of the sport that he had once loved so passionately.

Eduardo “Chicky” Garza y Duffy is a Texas middleweight with a troubled home-life. His grandfather, Eloy, once a champion boxer himself, now spends much of his time drinking and drugging, vices which worsen after Eloy’s wife Delores dies. Assisted by his grandfather, Chicky begins his own professional ascent in the ring, but two corrupt managers, one in Texas, the other in Los Angeles, take advantage of the young man’s ignorance and nearly end his boxing career.

What makes Toole’s book so special is not only his boxing acumen — he clearly knows the game — but his ability to put us into the shoes of the fighters and trainers, and their family. Here, for instance, he describes Chicky’s feelings for his grandfather:

“Chicky loved the old-timey Texas way Eloy spoke, his accent even more pronounced than El Paso’s great and charming golfer Lee Trevino. Once Chicky began to wear boots and a wide-brimmed hat, he quickly gave up the vato street talk of Victoria courts to sound as much like Eloy as he could. He soon sounded as Texas as guys with nicknames like Cooter and Cotton ... When the Longhorns were playing the Aggies on TV, Eloy talked to Chicky as if he were a peer and it made him feel like a man, like an hombre.”

Toole’s powers as a writer are highlighted by the ending of the novel, which was undoubtedly the part completed after his death. The story at the end of the novel comes together beautifully, but the descriptions, particularly of the fight scenes, lack the intensity of those found throughout the rest of the novel. Toole had the knowledge of a man who for thirty years had stood ringside, learning which cannot be reproduced second-hand. This contrast doesn’t diminish the book, but instead make us stand in awe of the skill and insight of F.X. Toole.

In Pound for Pound, Toole tells us what makes a fighter. In his introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he tells us why he loves this sport so much. As a trainer, he is giving a rubdown to a black heavyweight at the gym. Another man, a featherweight, paroled after serving time for rape and robbery, strung out on drugs, enters the gym and begins verbally abusing the “white racist power structure” and how he was the victim of white oppression.

“So there he was, going on about pigs. I should mention that my heavyweight had a white wife. When he asked the featherweight if he couldn’t see that I was white, and that maybe he should watch his jive-ass mouth, the featherweight didn’t miss a beat.

“‘Yeah, I see he white, but Toole be different.’

Magic. It’s why I’m in it. For the voodoo.”

(Jeff Minick is can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Chick-lit at its finest

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo. Guideposts, 2009. 288 pages

Art and literary whodunits are so plentiful these days that they might nearly constitute their own genre. The DaVinci Code is the best-selling of these works, but anyone who visits a library or bookstore can find a whole tribe of detectives purporting to trace missing letters, paintings, or books of Dickens, Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and others. Possession, A.S. Byatt’s superb novel of such sleuthing with its comparison of the Victorian to the post-modern, involves missing letters, poetry with clues, and nuanced speech. Missing medieval manuscripts, often with magical powers, are also popular topics for such fictions, ranging from The Name of the Rose to The Rule of Four.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find in Beth Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life (Guideposts, ISBN 13-978-08249-4771-2, $14.99) another such literary mystery. Here a young American, Emma Grant, still grieving and angry over her recently ended marriage and her seemingly ruined academic career, flies to London to search out some missing letters written by Jane Austen. Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrot of 22 Stanhope Gardens has contacted Emma, hinted at the letters, and invited her to come for a visit. Once Emma makes contact with Mrs. Parrot in London, the older woman reveals one authentic letter, then gives Emma a series of tasks to perform, all of them having to do with Austen’s life, before she will produce the other letters.

In the meantime, Emma has also met Adam Clark, an old friend who broke away from her after her marriage. Adam, also a professor, helps Emma find her way about London, shares meals with her, and slowly falls in love with her once again. Together they complete the last tasks set for Emma by Mrs. Parrot.

As she draws closer to the Austen letters and the band of women who have guarded these letters since Jane Austen’s death, thus respecting the author‘s last wishes to keep her private life separate from her books, Emma feels more and more empathy for Austen herself. An Austen fanatic since adolescence, Emma had begun blaming Austen and her dauntless heroines for deceiving her, for leading her to believe in happiness and dreams. Just as she is about to give up her dreams and her love of Austen, however, Emma instead finds herself attracted to the Austen of the missing letters, the woman who lost the man she loved to a storm at sea and who rejected another suitor offering her everything she desired but love.

On her quest for clues and academic glory, Emma not only falls in love with Adam, but also must face Edward, her ex-husband, again. In their marriage, Edward had continued his philandering with graduate students (Emma’s surprise at this adultery in turn surprises even the casual reader, as Emma was herself at one point the graduate student carrying on the affair). When apprehended by Emma, Edward had then helped support the graduate student in question in a plagiarism charge Emma had brought against her. Near the end of Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Edward comes crawling back to Emma, professing his love but in reality wanting her to sign a release stating that she won’t sue the university for her unjust termination.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life should appeal to Austen fans and to those who know little about the revered author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. While Patillo herself is an impassioned amateur student of Austen‘s life and work, she writes to the readers through Emma with an enthusiasm that is infectious. Her quests take her, and us, to some of the places Austen lived. Her encounter with Austen’s desk in a cottage in Chawton perhaps best reveals Patillo’s love of Austen and her ability to pass that love to us through her own writing:

“Here, at this table, Jane Austen had risen from the ruins of her life like a phoenix from the ashes. She’d written or rewritten almost all of her novels on this tiny bit of wood, at this wonderful window overlooking a busy village street...

“In spite of all the distractions, she’d created her masterpiece with nothing more than paper, pen, and ink. Virginia Woolf was famous for saying that any woman who wanted to be a writer needed to have five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own. Austen had possessed neither of these things, and yet somehow she had outshone authors with far more worldly advantages.”

Jane Austen Ruined My Life undoubtedly belongs to that genre of fiction known these days as “chick-lit,” and should indeed please a wide audience of female readers: those who want a good detective story with a female protagonist, those who enjoy fiction set in England, those who treasure all things Austen. Although males in general may be disinclined to pick up such a book — just as, judging from their readership, they are disinclined to pick up Jane Austen’s novels — those men interested in women (which should include, we may assume, a goodly portion) might gain some insights by such an adventure. Here, for example, in one small incident Patillo reveals both a woman’s sense of dress and her modern conflict with the world of fashion. Visiting Chanel, Emma comes across a dress which she calls The One:

“Trying the thing on only made it worse. It fit perfectly, and the pink was the perfect shade for my skin tone. For the first time in almost a year, I felt pretty. Desirable. Worthy of attention. I knew that I was not supposed to invest my self-esteem in fashion, but when a dress made you look that good, how could you not?”

Freaks and morality

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 464 pages.

“Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Taken from her lecture “The Catholic Novelist in the South,” this statement by Flannery O’Connor is perhaps her best-known aphorism. It is interesting to read beyond this statement in the same lecture, where the author explains herself more deeply.

She writes that the South is Christ-haunted, that “as a belief in the divinity of Christ decreases, there seems to be a preoccupation with Christ-figures in our fiction” (The same may be said of the fiction of Nathanial Hawthorne, which O’Connor admired, in its own focus on faith and Christian morals in a time when New England was leaving behind its traditional religious beliefs). She goes on to say that “the writer from the South may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost his ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

O’Connor then said that “the South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies.” At the time O’Connor offered these thoughts, the South was torn by racial strife and change, and was in many ways radically altered from the South which shaped O’Connor and her writing. Today’s South has become a place of cities, of immigrants both from the North and from other countries, a land in which the bloody history and cruelties of the past have been effaced in some ways by social change, a culture in which the customs of the past have shrunken before the standardization brought by a national media.

The South of Flannery O’Connor’s last years was not the South of William Faulkner’s youth, and the South of this new millenium retains only the vestiges of the the South described by O’Connor in her novel Wise Blood or in her short-story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Our present situation does not preclude the existence of Southern writers — they are many, and range in subject and style from Lee Smith to Cormac McCarthy — but allows us to acknowledge the changes both in the South and in the preoccupations of her writers.

For a close-up look of Flannery O’Connor’s South, readers may now turn to Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown and Company, ISBN 978-0-316-00066-6, $30). For readers unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor, here is a splendid introduction to her life and work; those familiar with her fiction should also relish this biographical tour.

In the first half of Flannery, Gooch uses georgraphy as an outline for O’Connor’s life, following the writer through her childhood in Savannah and Milledgeville, where she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in 1945; then to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, where she soon enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts graduate writing program, the first of its kind in the nation; to Yaddo in upstate New York, where she enlarged her circle of friends to include Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick; to New York City, where she spent most of her time writing Wise Blood; to rural Connecticut, where she babysat for her friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, while continuing to write; and at last to Milledgeville, where she lived out the rest of her life after being diagnosed with lupus.

Gooch’s book is especially valuable for its portrait of O’Connor’s friendships. From her justly renowned collection of letters, The Habit of Being, we know that O’Connor, who spent the last third of her life in Milledgeville, often ill and far away from the literary life of New York, valued companionship and the visits of friends. In Flannery, Gooch underscores this importance of her friends to O’Connor.

Nearly every page of this biography recounts conversations and letters between the author and her far-flung acquaintances, giving us a portrait of a woman who loved lively talk and stimulating thought. Many of these friends — Maryat Lee, Betty Hester, Louise Abbot — differed greatly from O’Connor in their morals and religious beliefs, yet her own tolerance and their fascination with her mind bound them together. Through these portrayals Gooch gives us the background and times in which — and some might say, against which — O’Connor wrote.

Flannery does have its flaws. The notes at the back of the book are matched to various pages, but are difficult to follow. Gooch often skims over the literary side of O’Connor’s work, though few readers will come to this book seeking deep criticism. From time to time, Gooch also uses vague or even juvenile language, describing Andrew Lytle, for example, as “a card-carrying Southerner” and labeling some of the reviews of O’Connor’s work as “mean.”

When O’Connor was five years old, a newsreel company visited her home in Savannah to record on film her chicken, a buff Cochin bantam, walking backwards. O’Connor, who had taught the chicken this trick, remained a bird lover her entire life, becoming obsessed in her later years with raising peacocks. Gooch astutely uses the chicken walking backwards as a central theme to the author’s life and to his book. He writes:

“And just as her Cochin bantam morphed into a peacock ... so this clever child performer grew into the one-of-a-kind woman writer, ‘going backwards to Bethlehem,’ who freighted her acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages, running counter to much trendy literary culture.”

Snippets from a poet’s life

Fall of Frost by Brian Hall. Penguin Group, 2008. 352 pages

Since his death in 1963, Robert Frost has come to occupy a place in the highest echelon of American poets. In anthologies and textbooks, poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Less Traveled,” and “Mending Wall” remain perennial favorites. The last 10 years alone attest to Frost’s continuing popularity, having given birth to two more biographies — Jay Parini’s Robert Frost: A Life and Jeffrey Myers’ Robert Frost: A Biography — as well as to such works as The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost and The Notebooks of Robert Frost.

We may now add to these volumes Brian Hall’s fictionalized life of the poet, Fall of Frost (Penguin Group, ISBN 978-0-14-311491-8, $15).

Hall’s novel follows a sort of accordion structure, that is, the book tells the story of Frost’s life not in a straightforward narrative, but in a series of short chapters, folds of time and circumstance emblematic of different events in Frost’s life, with the folds themselves coming together by the end of the book to give us a unique picture of this extraordinary poet, his work, and his often harsh world.

Chapters 15 and 16, for example, show us Frost as a child in San Francisco with a bully for a father — he died young, an alcoholic — and his mother reading to him, a backward, sickly child and a late reader. Chapter 17 then sweeps us to Derry Farm in New Hampshire, 1902, while Chapter 18 lands us in Amherst, Mass., in 1932 (These “chapters,” by the way, are sometimes only half-a-page long).

By focusing in this way on different facets of Frost’s life and world, and by writing poetically and impressionistically himself, Hall brings Frost alive for his readers. We are made to feel Frost’s sufferings — his struggles to earn a living, the deaths of four of his six children before his own death, the mental problems of his sister and one of his daughters. Again and again, we bear witness to Frost’s gritty determination to overcome his multitudinous difficulties, to triumph as a poet.

In some of the Fall of Frost’s more amusing and more touching sections, Hall shows us Frost at the end of his life. It is 1962, and Frost is traveling to the Soviet Union, an old man sick and half-deaf on a quixotic mission to lessen the nuclear tensions between the USSR and the United States. Frost’s forthrightness causes consternation in both camps, and Hall’s depiction of Khrushchev and Kennedy in relation to the poet are particularly entertaining. When the Washington Post reports that “Frost Says Khrushchev Sees U.S. as ’Too Liberal’ To Defend Itself,” Kennedy explodes, shouting “As it is, half of Congress wants me to invade Cuba tomorrow. They’ll use this! It makes me look soft. It makes everything worse.”

In the meantime, we see Khrushchev wondering if the Americans have sent Frost to him as a test of some sorts, a test which he can’t quite understand. This particular chapter ends with the Soviet premier opening a manuscript by an unknown author which, though Hall doesn’t tell us so, is Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. As his aide reads to him from the manuscript, “The premier closes his eyes. He feels with pleasure the warmth of the setting sun on his face.” It isn’t just the sun that is setting, of course, but the Soviet Union which even then was fading into twilight.

In an “Author’s Note” at the conclusion of Fall of Frost, Brian Hall points out that he has approached his novel “in the spirit of a biographer who wanted to stretch his usual form to accommodate more speculation than nonfiction generally allows.” Hall paraphrases the conversations in his novel from Frost’s public statements, his diaries and letters, and the records left by the poet’s friends and family. Here in Hall’s depiction we come face-to-face as well with Frost’s amazing ability not only to remember hundreds of lines of poetry, his own and those of other writers, but to bring them into conversation at appropriate moments.

Fall of Frost is a pleasure to read, a triumph in portraiture for all who love poetry, biography, and fine writing.


Although Kerry Madden’s most recent book is Up Close: Harper Lee (ISBN 9780670010950, $16.99, 2009), young readers this summer may want to seek out some of her earlier books as well. In her Maggie Valley trilogy — Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, and Jessie’s Mountain — Madden slips readers into the early 1960s and the lives of the Weems family. Here we meet Livy Two Weems, the12-year-old daughter of a Daddy who is “a poet in his soul” and a Mama who “claims a paycheck is worth a sight more than a dang poem.”

With nine siblings, including a new-born baby, Livy Two has her hands full helping her parents with chores and taking care of her younger sister, Gentle. Like her father, she also has big dreams of making it in the music world, writing songs and then playing them on her battered guitar.

Livy Two’s character, and the tone of these three books in general, can be sampled in Louisiana’s Song in a scene where Daddy is still recovering from a car accident. Livy Two lands a job with Miss Attickson, the bookmobile lady, and as they ride through the mountains delivering books, Madden gives us insights into the lives of the mountain poor, their love of books and learning, and the shy compassion of Livy Two, who finally summons the courage to ask for a book on brain trauma that might help her understand and care for her stricken father.

Adolescent readers should enjoy these stories with their local color and their messages of hope and the power of determination in the face of personal obstacles.

Highly recommended.

Patriot’s story is unflinching, honest

American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day by Robert Coram. Little, Brown and Company, 2007.

Robert Coram’s American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day (ISBN 978-0-316-0679-3, $15.99) tells the extraordinary story of a man who served in three wars, spent years as a POW in North Vietnam, became the most decorated officer in the U.S. Air Force, and fought for veterans rights in the 1980s.

Born in 1925, Day grew up poor in Sioux City, Iowa. He taught himself to hunt and put meat on the table at an early age — his father gave him a beaten-up .410 shotgun when he was 10 years old — and he learned the value of work, caddying, again at the age of 10, at a nearby country club golf course. After Pearl Harbor, and just weeks shy of his high school graduation, Day joined the Marines, having first eaten bananas for several weeks to meet the minimum weight requirements (a tactic also followed by Audie Murphy, World War II’s most decorated soldier, who was, like Day, slim and slight of build).

After serving in the Marine Corps, Day returned home to Sioux City, attended college and then law school on the G.I. Bill, married Doris Sorensen, and then, after a brief stint running a local detective agency, joined the Air Force, which at that time was a new branch among the services.

Over the next 20 years, Day became a legend among his fellow pilots. His most famous exploit before his imprisonment as a POW occurred in Britain, when the F-84 he was flying caught fire on take-off. Within seconds Day found himself ejecting at only 300 feet altitude from the falling aircraft. His chute failed to open, but he crashed into trees, smashing his right ankle and becoming the first man in the history of the Air Force to eject from a jet aircraft without a working parachute and survive.

Day’s greatest exploits occurred during his captivity in Vietnam. After being hit by a North Vietnamese missile, Day landed alive but injured and was immediately captured by ground forces. Within a few days, he escaped his guards and fled toward the DMZ, the embattled area separating North and South Vietnam. After a grueling trek south — his wounds were open and untreated, and he was reduced to eating frogs and berries from bushes — he was within sight of the Marine Corps camp when he was again taken prisoner.

Closely guarded this time, Day began the brutal years of captivity when camp guards regularly beat and tortured him and other prisoners, including John McCain, who became Day’s good friend. His worst moments of torture came when his interrogators had him beaten with fan belts.

“When Day was dragged off to the quiz room on the morning of the sixth day, his buttocks and thighs were swollen and puffed out about three inches. Atop the hamburger-like flesh, from the middle of his thighs up to the small of his back, a scab was trying to reform. Day’s lower legs were twice their normal size, and his toes were like overstuffed sausages. A watery fluid oozed from his testicles.”

Eventually, Day and most of the other POWs came home. Coram’s description of their return and of their reactions to those prisoners who had taken early release for “good behavior,” which essentially meant collaborating with the enemy, offers a fascinating insight into the sense of honor such men carried with them. Having expected that these early releases would have been drummed out of the service, Day and the other long-term POWs were astonished to find their former comrades living normal lives and even honored by the military.

Coram discusses the animosity between these two groups at length, explaining why Day, McCain, and the others who had not taken early releases were so obsessed and incensed with those who had done so. Coram shows how the military itself reacted to these revelations, demoting some officers and forcing others into retirement. Though Vietnam POWs are in the public mind all of a kind, honorable and strong men who bore witness to the Code of Conduct and to American ideals, Day and his comrades regard the POWs as two separate groups, one composed of traitors and snitches, the other of men who did their duty.

Bud Day’s life of confrontation and controversy didn’t end on his release from the military. He used his legal knowledge to help fellow veterans struggling for better medical treatment. He campaigned for several politicians. He supported the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their opposition to the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry. He remained friends with John McCain, but opposed him politically on many issues.

In the Preface to American Patriot, Coram cites a line from the James Michener novel The Bridges of Toko-Ri:

“I recalled that line from James Michener when the admiral is standing on the bridge of an aircraft carrier watching his pilots take off against the terrible defenses at Toko-Ri and says to himself, ‘Where do we get such men?’”


Novelist, poet, biographer, and essayist, Jay Parini’s most recent book is Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America (ISBN 978-0-385-52276-2, $24.95). Here Parini has written literary essays about books which not only have shaped American history, but which also contributed to what Parini calls our “national myth.”

Some of Parini’s choices — The Federalist Papers and The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, for example — are conventional. Others are more daring, though they make sense when we consider their impact: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, The Feminine Mystique.

Parini is a fine writer who in Promised Land treats readers to his vast knowledge of literature and his love for American history.

Finding distinction in literature

The Genius by Jesse Kellerman. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008. 384 pages

Sixty years ago, Graham Greene, one of the great English writers of the 20th century, differentiated his novels from what he regarded as his lesser works by calling the latter “entertainments.” Novels — Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter — constituted his serious writing, the themes, characters, and plots by which his literary reputation would rise or fall. Entertainments, on the other hand, were in Greene’s eyes those works written off the cuff, lightweight fiction aimed at the wider audience of best-sellers in airport bookshops, composed with an eye toward cash rather than literary fame.

In their lists of the author’s works, current reprints of Greene’s books do not delineate between novels and entertainments. Indeed, Graham Greene’s distinctions cast between his serious and his light fiction may even indeed strike us as humorous, false or perhaps Victorian in a world moving from a print culture to an oral culture and a society in which other media — television, computers — play a much greater role than that of the printed word.

In many ways, however, such a distinction between “light” and “heavy” literature might prove useful to an American culture in which sheer entertainment is often viewed as the high peaks of our culture. Americans 60 and 70 years ago distinguished between “high” and “low” culture, with the former being best represented by a performance of Beethoven sonatas and the latter by the music of Frank Sinatra or even Bennie Goodman. In the intervening years, low culture has swallowed up high culture. For those who doubt such a proposition, we need only ask a few questions. Who among us can them name a great—or for that matter, a not-so-great— American composer of the last 20 years? A great American painter? Thousands of poets publish today, but which of us can name a great American poet writing today? Who can name three American playwrights? In the 1950s, the names of “high-brow” artists — Picasso, Rockwell, Pollock, O’Neill, Hemingway, Faulkner, Frost, Sandberg, and others — were household words known to everyone with a high school education. Today popular culture focuses almost exclusively on actors, pop musicians, and a few best-selling writers.

To a certain extent, of course, “high” art itself must take some of the rap for its decline into oblivion. Many artists left off long ago making any attempt to appeal to a broad audience. A portrait of this rejection, inadvertently offered, may be found in Jesse Kellerman’s novel The Genius (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 978-0-399-15459-1, $24.95).

Ethan Muller, the novel’s narrator and son of one of Manhattan’s wealthier families, finds himself an art dealer after a troubled childhood in which his father essentially abandoned him to loneliness and private schools. He operates his Chelsea gallery with some success, his artists running from Egao Oshima’s “lovely, shimmering paintings” to Jocko Steinberger’s “papier-mâché genitalia. All of the Oshimas had pre-sold, and several of the Steinbergers had gone to the Whitney. A good month.”

Then Tony Wexler, the confidant of David Muller, Ethan’s estranged father, calls Ethan and asks him to look at some drawings abandoned by Victor Cracke, a tenant in Muller Courts in Queens, one of the more squalid pieces of the Muller real-estate empire. After some hesitancy, Ethan arrives at the building to look over the drawings, only to find that they are not only works of genius but that there appear to be box-loads of them, with each drawing ultimately fitting together into a some vast map of Cracke’s vision of reality.

Unable to locate the artist, Ethan uses a select few of the drawings to open the next show at his gallery. After the media cover the show, Ethan receives a phone call from Lee McGrath, a retired policeman who recognizes one of the faces in the drawings as belonging to a boy murdered 40 years previously.

Here the novel widens its scope, moving to include a world of child murder, violence, and death alongside the wild world of postmodern art. Ethan becomes part-time detective, obsessed with finding Victor Cracke to determine whether he was the killer not only of the boy spotted by McGrath, but of four other boys in the drawings as well. During his search he encounters McGrath’s daughter, Samantha, a district attorney to whom he is quickly attracted.

Meanwhile, we encounter through a series of vignettes the Mullers who built the fortune which helped pay for Ethan’s education and which he has now rejected along with his father. We see what Ethan can’t see, that the accumulation of so much money and capital brings both freedom and a self-made prison to this ambitious family, that a scandal which haunts the family will eventually have repercussions for Ethan as well.

The Genius offers its readers many gifts: Kellerman’s knowledge of the art world, an array of believable characters, a tightly-wound plot, and some fine writing. What distinguishes The Genius from many other suspense novels is that Kellerman blends various philosophical insights entertained by Ethan, particularly ideas on genius, art, and morality, into the plot without slowing the action. Here, for example, Ethan offers us his thoughts on himself, on genius, and on the ordinary:

“Ordinariness is nothing to be ashamed of. It carries no moral weight. I don’t believe that geniuses are worth more in some cosmic Blue Book. They are worthy of more attention, of course, because they’re so rare — one in a million, or rarer. What that means for the rest of us is that someone has to be the first of the remaining 999,999 souls; and the higher up you are, the closer you come to the genius’s vantage point.

“To pursue that — to clamber up, to stretch our fingertips in the hopes of grazing the surface — can you imagine a more uniquely modern aspiration? A better metaphor for our oversaturated era than the desire to be the president of a fan club? The hero for the age is Boswell.”

Bradbury succeeds again with new novel

We’ll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury. William Morrow, 2009. 224 pages

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Ill., — the town became Greentown in Dandelion Wine and many of his short stories — in 1920. He published his first short story in 1938, married in 1946 — he and his wife Maggie raised four daughters — and continued for the next 60 years to write: short stories, novels, poetry, essays, even a space opera. In addition, he worked as a creative consultant on the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at Disney World and the Epcot Center, and for the design of malls, where he tried to bring his ideas of small town setting into urban setting.

In the last 25 years, many found Bradbury’s stories weaker than those he had written in The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man. The style remained the same, perhaps too much so; the repeated one-sentence paragraphs seemed more a self-parody than good storytelling. The broad sentimentality found in all of Bradbury’s books was often given too much sail; the plots and characters of his stories seemed awash in emotion dishonestly earned. Bradbury’s name and not his talent found publishers for novels like Death Is A Lonely Business and Let’s All Kill Constance. Bradbury was like an old championship fighter who, despite the fact that his reflexes have slowed and his legs are gone, keeps climbing back into the ring to take another pummeling.

But even old fighters sometimes have a few good punches left. In We’ll Always Have Paris (William Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-167013-8, $24.99), the 89-year-old Bradbury again shows himself as a master of the short story.

“Masinello Pietro,” the first story in the collection and the one which Bradbury in the introduction to the book cites as his favorite, follows Massinello Pietro in his struggles against the neighbors and then the police. Pietro, who was once rich but gave his money away to the poor, now leads the life of an eccentric whose antics have annoyed those living near him:

“I invested what little I had left in dogs, geese, mice, parrots, who do not change their minds, who are always friends forever and forever. I bought my phonograph, which never is sad, which never stops singing!”

“That’s another thing,’ said Tiffany, wincing. “The neighborhood says at four in the morning, um, you and the phonograph ...”

“Music is better than soap and water!”

Although most readers wouldn’t want Pietro as a neighbor — his property is filthy from the animals, and loud music, even the classics, played at four in the morning would drive everyone but an insomniac nuts — the story makes a case for liberty and eccentricity, and serves as a warning against the forces acting against those two great goods. In this passage Bradbury clearly puts the case:

“His house, ablaze with votive candles and pictures of rising — flying — saints, the glint of medallions. His phonograph circling at midnight, two, three, four in the morning, himself singing, mouth wide, heart open, eyes tight, world shut out; nothing but sound. And here he was now among the houses that locked at nine, slept at 10, wakened only from long silenced hours of slumber in the morn. People in houses, lacking only black wreaths on door fronts.”

Bradbury was always particularly adept at short-short stories, tales of modern life that read like fables. In “When the Bough Breaks,” he writes a beautiful story of a couple waking in their bed to a storm and the sound of a baby crying in the nearby forest. Slowly they realize that though they had talked of having no children, they are meant to be the parents of this weeping spirit-baby. They make love — here Bradbury, always the master of discretion, leaves this part to the reader’s imagination — and the child ceases its weeping. Describing the story makes it sound trite or silly; Bradbury’s story, however, has the power of the professional behind it.

The title story, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” tells of an American who leaves his wife in the hotel to go for an evening walk in Paris. He encounters “a strange young man” who takes the American silently to a gym, removes his shirt, removes his own clothes, and kisses him on the forehead. They do not become lovers, promising only “next time.” The man returns to his wife and promises her that they will return to Paris the following year.

This story reflects some of the weaknesses of Bradbury’s spartan descriptions and terse dialogue. We’d like to know why the American followed the young man, why he allowed himself to be undressed in the dark gym, why he then refused the young man’s advances. Hemingway once said that writing is like an iceberg, that “there is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that does not show.” Here, and in other earlier stories of the last two decades, Bradbury sometimes carries this theory too far; too little shows, and the story then seems as if he was himself uncertain of his own characters and their motivations.

“Fly Away Home” returns to Bradbury’s love of the idea of space travel (For years, Bradbury disliked flying and didn’t have a driver’s license, one of the things which made him an object of ridicule from John Huston when they were working together on the film “Moby Dick”). Here a captain and crew land on Mars, only to find themselves terrified at being so far from all that was familiar on earth. One of the men suffers a mental breakdown, and the others appear close to the edge, when a supply ship from Earth brings a pre-fabricated town to them: a barber shop, a drugstore, a church, a library, a hotel, a pool hall, a bar. This town reassures and relaxes the crew, all of whom were chosen from small towns. Here Bradbury provides not only insight into the human psyche, but also tells us once again that these “stereotypes” may make downtowns and shopping malls more attractive to consumers.

Bradbury ends his book with a poem “America.” The last lines from a man who has loved his country for so many years read:

“You be the hoped-for thing a hopeless world would be.

In tides of immigrants that this year flow

You still remain the beckoning hearth they’d know.

In midnight beds with blueprint, plan and scheme

You are the dream that other people dream.”

Anne Rice’s spiritual journey

Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 256 pages.

The books are piling up around my desk, which means the time has come for a spring cleaning.

Several books, all read in the last three months, seemed suited to the Easter season. First off the pile is Anne Rice’s Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (Alfred A. Knopf, 978-0-307-26827-5, $24), in which the best-selling author of Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat tells us of her own transformation: her New Orleans childhood in a devout Catholic family, her falling-away from the Faith, her struggles as a writer, mother, and wife, her return to the Faith.

In many ways Rice’s journey reflects the via dolorosa traveled by many of her generation. She married young, spent part of the sixties in radical Berkeley, drank too much for a while, suffered travails as a wife and mother (her daughter died young, followed by her beloved first husband, Stan), and then slowly found her way back to a Faith which she could embrace. After writing some 20 novels about vampires and other otherworldly beings, Rice shocked many of her readers by shifting her focus to the life of Christ:

“From the summer of 2002 through the spring of 2005, my life was consumed with research. I studied not only the ancient historians Philo and Josephus, and all the New Testament scholarship I could lay hands on, but Scripture itself, reading over and over again the Gospels until the language, to which I’d grown so dead in childhood, came alive again, and the vital story of Christ’s life flowed through chapter and verse.”

Although the mawkish jacket cover detracts from Called Out of Darkness — a somber Anne Rice stands at the elbow of a statue of Saint Anthony holding the Christ Child — the worn adage about a book and its cover holds true. Rice fans old and new should enjoy this memoir.


Riven (Tyndale Fiction, 378-1-4143-0904-0, $24.99) tells the story of two men: Brady Wayne Darby, a punk and a small-time criminal, and Thomas Carey, a pastor defeated by life who eventually takes a job as a prison chaplain. Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series, writes in a note on Riven that “This is the novel I’ve always wanted to write ...” Like some authors of another generation — Dreiser, for example, or James Jones — Jenkins writes with an acute eye on what he sees as true without worrying too much about style. He takes time developing his characters so that when they finally meet we are thoroughly acquainted with their lives.

Jenkins does a particularly fine job in sketching out the life of Thomas Carey. Many people doubtless know a minister like Carey, a good man, a man of Biblical principles, who nevertheless seems unsuited to the church or congregation to which he is called. Such a life, as Jenkins shows us, is fraught with perils: poverty, rejection, depression, a sense of aimlessness. We follow Carey as a wealthy church elder bullies him into leaving his latest post, the torments suffered by him and by his wife as they look for a new position, the grind of poverty in the face of middle-age and diminished powers. Jenkins’s Carey lets us feel his struggle and empathize with his mental and spiritual pain.

Darby, who will eventually meet Carey, grows up in a trailer park, abandoned by his father, verbally and mentally savaged by his mother, and torn by the needs of his younger brother. Here again Jenkins does a splendid job in sketching and then fleshing out a character. We watch Darby’s wounds fester, his small vices grow into cankers of hatred, his brushes with goodness and with his own talents—the owner of a laundromat does his best to befriend Darby, and Darby later displays gifts as an actor—left withered and dying. Even his honest attempt to find love and companionship with Katie, a wealthy girl who ends up in his AA group, blows up in Darby’s face.

Riven is not a novel in which all turns out well, and the ending itself is both shocking and unrealistic. Yet Jenkins has nonetheless built up a solid tale here of redemption and change.


In The Shack (978-0-9647292-3-0, $14.99), Wm. Paul Young gives us a story in which Mackenzie Allen Philip, known to his friends as “Mack,” receives a mysterious summons to the isolated shack where his murdered daughter Missy was found. Mack, who has felt dead in his life and heart since Missy’s killing, ventures to the shack, half believing that there he will encounter God.

Not only does Mack meet God in the shack — the Almighty appears to him as a large black woman, which might seem shocking had that role not already been done in television and movies — but he meets Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well.

Mack’s pilgrimage then becomes a series of dialogues with each person of the Trinity, discussions which range from the nature of the Holy Spirit to the meaning of forgiveness and love. Many of these discussions offer food both for thought and for discussion with friends. Young is excellent, for example, in his examination of the Trinity and how it works both as a basis for family and for love.

The Shack is also a book, however, which seems designed to be hurled against the nearest wall. Young gives the obligatory slap, for example, to institutional religion, having Jesus say at one point: “I don’t create institutions — never have, never will.” (And yet Christ did obediently participate in an institution, his own Jewish faith; he also instituted the Eucharist, left many commandments for his disciples, and made Peter the keeper of his Church).

Of women Young writes: “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.” Has this guy ever been in a church these days? Has he ever dealt with some of the women who today run most churches? Some general once said that there is no more vicious animal on the planet than a young American soldier. Right on the heels of that soldier is a 50-year-old matron who has just been denied her place on next year’s church decoration.

Frank is always provocative and thought-provoking

Criminal Justice in America by Marshall Frank. AuthorHouse, 2008. 276 pages.

In Criminal Injustice in America: Essays by a Career Cop (AuthorHouse, ISBN 978-1-43892062-7), former policeman Marshall Frank gives us his take on the criminal justice system through a series of essays. Although Frank has explored the ideas behind these essays in numerous newspaper columns and novels, here he attempts an in-depth assessment of what he calls our “desperately fractured” criminal justice system.

Frank, who used to reside in Maggie Valley but recently relocated to Florida, begins his book by giving us a look at his background — cop, columnist, novelist, lecturer — and a list of his prejudices. He correctly writes that he considers himself “a centrist conservative, though I have some liberal leanings about social issues, like appropriating government funds for stem cell research, keeping a strict separation of church and state, and endorsing gay rights.” He adds that “I, for one, relish independent thought and hope my readers do the same.”

Certainly Criminal Justice in America trots out some rarely-heard ideas regarding radical change in the criminal justice system. Frank’s views on sex crimes, particularly those committed by child molesters, run contrary to the thinking of most Americans today.

Here, for example, he strongly recommends that child molesters, who according to Frank seem as drawn to their vice as drunks to booze or addicts to crack, receive counseling and help when apprehended. In another chapter, Frank suggests that all federal judges, including Supreme Court judges, have term limits of 15 years. He calls for the elimination of the requirement of a unanimous verdict, as well as for the elimination of the 12-person jury. He advocates the automatic deportation of all illegal aliens convicted of a felony, after they have finished their sentences, and recommends the completion of the fence along the border with Mexico to halt immigration and to slow the problems caused by illegals within the criminal justice system.

These and many other of Frank’s suggestions make Criminal Injustice in America a book well worth reading. The essays are written like newspaper columns and are easy on the eyes, and the conversational style is easy to comprehend.

Yet Criminal Justice in America does present some problems for the discerning reader.

In addition to a good number of typos and mistakes in the book, the statistics, which Frank uses abundantly, sometimes raise more questions than they answer. He writes, for example, that “the Catholic Church scandal earlier in this decade saw 4,392, (or 4 percent of all Roman Catholic clergy in the United States) being accused of sexually abusing children, as far back to the 1940s. (Per the John Jay Report commissioned by the Conference on Catholic Bishops).” Besides the minor mistake here — it is the Conference of Catholic Bishops — we are left in the dark. Does this mean that only 100,000 men have served as priests in the United States since the 1940s? And of the accused, how many priests were convicted?

This foggy statistical analysis extends throughout the book. In the very next paragraph, we learn that during a five-year period there were more than 2,500 cases in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic, “all involving sexual misconduct. More than 1,800 of those incidents involved young people, eighty percent of whom were students.” Questions: what were the other 20 percent? If we’re making some sort of comparison to priests, how many educators were accused as well as convicted?

Another complaint that might be directed at Criminal Justice in America is the cost of the programs recommended by Frank. Exorbitant as criminal justice costs now are, to institute the recommendations listed in this book would make the recent stimulus package look like the work of pikers. Many chapters in this book recommend creating more judges, more attorneys, more counselors, more day cares, more educational programs. To be fair to Frank, he lists these changes under the heading of “The Magic Wand,” which is a sort of personal wish list, yet the cost of these programs versus the cost of the current system — in money, in resources — is never compared on any realistic level.

Finally, Criminal Justice in America advocates more repressive and constrictive government than we already have now. In his discussion of abortion, for instance, Frank writes that we should “create legislation making it a crime to harass and harangue pregnant women at abortion clinics.” Even if we assume that the majority of Americans might favor such a move, is it not possible that such a recommendation, enacted into law and enforced by armed police, would lead to other protesters being banned? Frank writes that we need to expand “law enforcement sting operations throughout America to catch pedophiles surfing the Internet for children.” This idea not only increases law enforcement on the Internet, but raises the question: where in the hell are the parents in their children‘s lives? Why aren’t they watching out for children? Frank writes that we should “pull radio licenses from stations that play gansta rap on the public air waves.” Again, why pull radio licenses when the country allows such music to be created in the first place? And pulling radio licenses — what if the government next decides that we shouldn’t listen to gospel music or to certain political broadcasters?

Frank tell us at the beginning of Criminal Justice in America that he once met a house painter at a yard sale who recognized him.

“The painter extended his hand and said, ‘Howdy, I know you. I don’t always agree with what you say, but you sure do make me think.’ That’s better than a paycheck any day.”

The painter’s remarks hold true in regard to Criminal Justice in America. Frank is his own man, blunt, outspoken, sometimes out of his league but always a searcher, a digger after facts and solutions. Few readers, liberal or conservative, will agree with everything this former Miami homicide detective says in his critique of our laws and courts.

But he will make you think.

Conservatism with a small “c”

Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman. Metropolitan Books, 2008. 304 pages.

Try to imagine a book enthusiastically reviewed by George McGovern (former Democratic presidential candidate), Ron Paul (former Republican presidential candidate), and Nicholas Von Hoffman (author and commentator). Bill Kauffman has spent many years staking out his ideas on politics, particularly on conservatism with a small “c.”

Author of several books and writer of essays for such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Onion, and The American Conservative, Kauffman has expended considerable energy, talent, and time on one single theme: that real conservatives, those who trace their lineage back to John Randolph of Virginia, to Thomas Corwin, the conservative Ohio senator who opposed war with Mexico in 1847, to moderns like Senator Taft of Ohio, are often those who oppose and lead the opposition against American foreign wars and bigger government control.

In Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism (ISBN 978-0-8050-8233-9, $25), Kauffman brings under one big tent much of his thinking of the last few decades regarding Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, imperialists and anti-imperialists. Although he addresses the gnawing issues of today from many different angles — Republican social concerns like abortion, Democrat traditional interest in bigger government — Kauffman focuses chiefly on the idea of conservatism and warfare. He raises the question: how did conservatives (again, note that little “c”) acquire a reputation as a bunch of warmongers?

Much of Ain’t My America is obsessed with that question and with the its answer, namely, that conservatives traditionally are not warmongers obsessed with expanding American power or with crushing our enemies. Quite the contrary, in fact. As Kauffman digs through the bone yards and reliquaries of American history, particularly its wars, he demonstrates time and again that Americans generally regarded as conservative in the past were rarely supporters of overseas wars. From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, from the fields of Gettysburg to the battlefields of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, American soldiers have gallantly fought wars which large portions of the population — often the majority — have opposed, at least initially. Using example after example of politicians, protesters, and conservative anarchists, Kauffman demonstrates that real conservatives — and real liberals — have much in common, especially in regard to the foreign policy of the United States.

Consider, for example, Thomas Corwin, Ohio senator, who in 1847 during the Mexican War thundered at the Senate that “If I were a Mexican, I would tell you, ‘Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hands, and welcome you to hospitable graves.’” Dozens of other examples follow, showing conservatives and libertarians from both of America’s political parties opposing war as well as various writers and thinkers, including the novelist John Gardner, who like Kauffman was an Upstate New Yorker.

Kauffman ends his book with this plea:“The decline of Western civilization? I see it writ across George W. Bush’s petulantly vacant mug. As for John Gardner, daffodils, baseball, bluebirds, my daughter, and the Davids of Albion — hell, they’re the only hope our little corner of American civilization has left.

Come home, America. Reject the empire. Please.” As Ron Paul states on the back of the book, “For those who have been neoconned into believing that conservatism means unquestioned support for the welfare state, Ain’t My America is the perfect way to show that real conservatives defend peace and liberty.”


Nancy Sherman, who has taught at Georgetown University and the United States Naval Academy, has written two books on virtue and character. With her third book, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind (ISBN 0-19-515216-6, $26), Sherman takes a look both at stoicism, the ancient philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and the part played by stoicism in the American military.

Although Stoic Warriors may sound academic, Sherman’s writing is in fact lively and readable. She employs frequent examples of stoicism in the military, where men and women of all branches learn early to “suck it up,” to get tough, to complete their mission despite physical obstacles and personal feelings. Using numerous anecdotes from the wars of the ancient Greeks to our present conflicts, Sherman examines such concepts as “toughness” in war, morals, anger, and abuse. She reveals how quickly a “virtue” such as toughness can become a vice, especially in regard to enemy prisoners or civilians.In addressing the commonalities between ancient Stoics and modern warriors, Sherman also looks hard at such topics as “Fear and Resilience” and “Permission to Grieve.” In all these chapters Sherman considers the value of the philosophy of stoicism to the soldier in terms of military leadership; she addresses the issue of anger from the standpoint of stoicism, showing how that philosophy so strongly advocates self-control; she examines the value of military brotherhood and individuality both from the stoic viewpoint. Sherman writes that the military men and women who took her courses particularly felt the pull of these words by Epictetus:

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices ... So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men ... And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me.’”

Stoic Warriors should appeal to many readers who enjoy their military history flavored with a strong dose of philosophy.

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