Jun 172003

The relative reputations of Oliver Goldsmith and George Crabbe have long troubled me; I worry about such things.

Goldsmith is best-known for The Deserted Village (1780), which still appears in many standard English literature textbooks, like the one I had in high school. Crabbe is scarcely known at all. Goldsmith slaughters him in a Googlefight by a three to one margin, although to be fair Goldsmith, unlike Crabbe, has some fame outside of his poetry for his plays and his one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, which are better than the poetry, and for being a butt of Samuel Johnson’s jokes, which are excellent.

The Deserted Village mourns the death of the English village, somewhat prematurely, in a manner befitting someone who spent most of his adult life in London coffeehouses:

And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree;
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
The young contending as the old survey’d;
And many a gambol frolick’d o’er the ground,
And sleights of art and feats of strength went round;
And still, as each repeated pleasure tir’d,
Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspir’d;
The dancing pair that simply sought renown
By holding out to tire each other down:
The swain mistrustless of his smutted face,
While secret laughter titter’d round the place;
The bashful virgin’s sidelong looks of love,
The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove…

Etcetry etcetry. You notice nothing because there is nothing to notice. Another dozen lines of this and we are informed that “all these charms have fled,” along with the villagers themselves. It does not occur to Goldsmith that the villagers may have fled because they thought that they would find a better, or at least less miserable, life in the city, which the mortality rates of the time bear out. Instead the usual villains, trade and wealth, are called to account:

But times are alter’d; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,
And every want to opulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.
Those gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
Those calm desires that ask’d but little room,
Those healthful sports that grac’d the peaceful scene,
Liv’d in each look, and brighten’d all the green,–
These, far departing, seek a kinder shore,
And rural mirth and manners are no more.

This poem irked Crabbe to no end, though not because of its foolish economics: why people left the village for the city concerns Crabbe not at all. What concerns him is Goldsmith’s sentimental picture of English rural life, which Crabbe, who grew up in the country and spent considerable time as a village parson, knew very well. In his reply, The Village (1783), he paints a rather different picture:

Where are the swains, who, daily labour done,
With rural games play’d down the setting sun;
Who struck with matchless force the bounding ball,
Or made the pond’rous quoit obliquely fall;…
Where now are these? Beneath yon cliff they stand,
To show the freighten pinnace where to land,
To load the ready steed with guilty haste,
To fly in terror o’er the pathless waste,
Or, when detected, in their straggling course,
To foil their foes by cunning or by force;
Or, yielding part (which equal knaves demand),
To gain a lawless passport through the land.

It is obvious whom to believe, but more than that, Crabbe’s verse is superior in every detail. His couplets are firm where Goldsmith’s are flabby. He eschews, except to mock, the clichés of the period, where Goldsmith indulges in them. “Swains” and “gambols” and “shades” that were already tired by the time Milton used them in Lycidas a century and a half before. There is nothing else especially rural about Goldsmith’s details; he seems to be viewing his subject from an immense distance, as, in fact, he is.

The Deserted Village lives, briefly, when he forgets that he is supposed to be apotheosizing the villagers and begins to satirize them instead. Thirty dull lines on the virtues of the minister, and then this:

The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e’en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.

I know bloggers like that. I may even be one. Goldsmith’s characterization of the “parlour splendours” of the “village statesmen” is also very sharp:

While broken teacups, wisely kept for show,
Rang’d o’er the chimney, glisten’d in a row.

These are the best lines in The Deserted Village. It is a poor harvest from a 400-line poem that has been in the canon for more than two centuries.

Crabbe’s village minister, on the other hand, is unforgettable:

And doth not he, the pious man, appear,
He, “passing rich with forty pounds a year?” [the quote is from Goldsmith]
Ah! no; a shepherd of a different stock,
And far unlike him, feeds this little flock:
A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday’s task
As much as God or man can fairly ask;
The rest he gives to loves and labours light,
To fields the morning, and to feasts the night;
None better skill’d the noisy pack to guide,
To urge their chase, to cheer them or to chide,
A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
And, skill’d at whist, devotes the night to play.

His village doctor is better still, or worse:

Anon, a figure enters, quaintly neat,
All pride and business, bustle and conceit;
With looks unaltered by these scenes of wo,
With speed that, entering, speaks his haste to go,
He bids the gazing throng around him fly,
And carries fate and physic in his eye:
A potent quack, long versed in human ills,
Who first insults the victim whom he kills;
Whose murd’rous hand a drowsy Bench protect,
And whose most tender mercy is neglect.

Crabbe is at his best in natural description. He was a sort of amateur botanist, who annoyed his wife by bringing home mosses and lichens and spreading them around the bedroom. Goldsmith’s description is all “mossy” this and “shady” that; here is Crabbe’s:

From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thin harvest waves its wither’d ears;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o’er the land, and rob the blighted rye;
There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infant threaten war;
There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil,
There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf,
O’er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.

“Sickly” in particular, with its double meaning, is a master-stroke. You will not find more accurate nature poetry than this in any English poet save Hardy — not in Wordsworth, who interested himself in nature only as a prop for his jejune philosophy, and certainly not in Goldsmith.

Crabbe also provides a clue to Goldsmith’s continuing popularity, and to his own neglect:

From this chief cause these idle praises spring,
That themes so easy few forbear to sing;
For no deep thought the trifling subjects ask;
To sing of shepherds is an easy task;
The happy youth assumes the common strain,
A nymph his mistress, and himself a swain;
With no sad scenes he clouds his tuneful prayer,
But all, to look like her, is painted fair.

I couldn’t say it any better myself. So I won’t try.

(Update: Several solecisms corrected. I was drunk when I wrote this.)

Jun 082003

Homework help continues apace, as the search strings grow increasingly, and suspiciously, specific. IP wants to know “what does no man moved me mean in Emily Dickinson’s poem I started early I walked my dog”? He further inquires “what does frigates in the upper floor mean in Emily Dickinson’s poem I started early I walked my dog”?

Well,, the poem begins, “I started early, took my dog,” not “I walked my dog.” You might want to reread it a couple times before resorting to Yahoo. As for “frigates,” consult the dictionary: they’re ships. The “upper floor” is the sea’s surface; you will note that mermaids are in “the basement.” You’ve heard of rats deserting sinking ships? Rats (and mice) board them the same way, on ropes. That’s what “hempen hands” are.

“No man moved me” is more difficult. The sea in this poem represents, most generally, destructive power. It is death, and has elements of male sexuality as well: the tide goes “past my bodice” and “made as he would eat me up.” She is saying that she was untouched by, and even unaware of, this power until she experienced it; and having done so, she flees to the safety of “the solid town.” The sea withdraws, like a proper gentleman, but its latent power remains, and we shall all confront it eventually.

I trust you can write your term paper now, and next time you have questions, just ask, OK?

Jun 032003

Special thanks to AC Douglas, for flagging this bitter little resumé of the state of poetry. And extra-special thanks to “Abiyah,” “a locally acclaimed hip-hop artist,” for touching, in one ill-written paragraph, on everything that has gone wrong with aesthetic theory in the last couple of centuries:

Certainly, there are basics of poetry that may need to be learned, but the learning of these techniques may inhibit rather than enhance the Hip Hop poets ability to express himself or herself. Academia or academic settings tend to discourage the Hip Hop poet, especially those who are innovative and experimental. Poems cannot and will not be created by recipe. In a classroom setting, particularly one focusing on creative writing, pre-emptive judgment calls by an instructor on the validity of a students poetry can be extremely detrimental. The instructor must be well-versed in cross-cultural contexts in order to fairly interpret each individual students poems.

Put aside the question of how one is to know that one is original by cultivating a studious ignorance of the history of poetry. Like Keynes’s proverbial madman who hears voices in the air, Abiyah assuredly has no idea what a profound debt she owes to academic scribblers, a bunch of late eighteenth-century German and English aestheticians in her case. “Innovation” and “experimentation” did not spring, like Athena, fully armed from Zeus’s breast. Until quite recently poetry was generally conceded to give words to the familiar: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Folk poetry like The Iliad is this way practically by definition.

The Elizabethans did not especially prize originality. They often rewrote each other’s poems, trying to improve them. (This tradition, ironically, survives in hip-hop in the remix, although for rather different reasons.) One of Ben Jonson’s best lyrics, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” is a translation of Philostratus, an accurate one, the scholars say, though lacking Greek I cannot judge. The theory of the organic imagination originated, probably, with Herder and Schelling at the end of the eighteenth century, and was popularized, plagiarized, and jargonized by Coleridge — “esemplastic imagination,” “assimilative power,” “coadunating faculty,” and the like. The mind of the genius was supposed to be not like a mirror, reflecting an agreed-upon external reality, but like a plant, taking mere nourishment from reality and recombining it in strange and wonderful ways. (Shakespeare, its best illustration, largely owes this theory his exalted reputation.) Hence originality is the true mark of genius. It is a small distance from originality to shock, and from this theory to épater les bourgeois.

Our locally acclaimed hip-hop artist is certain the purpose of poetry is to express oneself. I’ve got a news flash for you, cupcake: nobody cares about your precious personality except your mother, and maybe not her either, if she’s anything like my mother. Self-expression, too, is a relatively recent development in aesthetic theory, heralded by the ever-grandiose Wordsworth in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which makes it sound a good deal like road rage. The more spontaneity, the better, according to J.S. Mill: Natural poetry, the best kind, “is Feeling itself, employing Thought only as the medium of its utterance.” Naturally technique and study are positive hindrances to spontaneity; our hip-hop artist reminds us that “poems cannot and will not be written by recipe.” This whole business so irked T.S. Eliot that he called for “the extinction of personality”; too late. The spiritual descendant of Wordsworth and Mill is Picasso, with his “Whatever I spit — that is art.” And here we are.

*The definitive work on the evolution of these ideas is M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, although Abrams appears not to recognize the disastrous consequences of the ideas that he chronicles so thoroughly.

May 282003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle

Since Jim Henley kindly listed me among poetry bloggers, the least I can do is a little poetry blogging, I figure. Remember that endless series on How to Read a Poem I wrote a while back? Thought not, but no matter: it’s practice time. I will take Wallace Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice-Cream, partly because it’s interesting and short, partly because Stevens is one of my favorite poets, partly because it’s inscrutable on first reading, and mostly because AC Douglas suggested it, and I like to indulge AC Douglas. The third-party imprimatur also protects me from accusations of choosing a poem that happens to illustrate my theories, not that I would ever do such a thing.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

My advice was first to paraphrase, and to paraphrase first look up words that you don’t understand in context, “deal” in my case. There is nothing mysterious about “a dresser of deal”: “Deal” is a term from the lumber trade, meaning a board of fir or pine at least 3″ by 9″. (Stevens’ Collected Poems actually has a period after “deal,” which shatters the syntax, so I’ve followed most editors and used a comma instead.)

Now that we know all the words, what the hell is going on? Some sort of social event, whose nature is finally cleared up in the second stanza, when a sheet (embroidered with fantails, in a stab at art) is pulled from a dresser to cover a woman’s head. This is a low-class funeral, with flowers in last month’s newspapers, sloppy wenches, and a dresser with three glass knobs missing.

I also recommended pillaging the poet’s life and work, should it prove useful. Here it does. Stevens was a wealthy and cultivated man who knew Key West well, which is probably where this poem takes place, since ice-cream was commonly served at funerals. His poetry has a single theme: hedonism. For Stevens all is illusion but immediate sensation. “Let be be finale of seem” means “Abandon all effort to give meaning to existence, and take what comfort you can from the roiling life around you.”

Ready to paraphrase:

“Observe the cheap goings-on in this cheap kitchen at a funeral: girls who won’t dress properly, a cigar-roller making ice-cream, a boy bringing flowers in old newspapers.

“Now go to the next room, where the dead woman’s body is laid out, uncovered. Take a sheet out of the drawer and give her a shroud. The sheet is hand-cut, but embroidered with fantails; she tried to make some art out of her life, poor as it was. But the sheet’s too short and her feet stick out, making her look even colder and deader than when she was uncovered. Artifice fails to hide the brute facts. Take a good look. (‘Let the lamp affix its beam.’) Reality is in the kitchen, and there is nothing else.”

If you prefer, Helen Vendler, a reliably awful critic, supplies a more overwrought version. Ignore the prefatory chatter about ur-narratives and ur-forms.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream essentially inverts ars longa, vita brevis, the embroidered sheet being literally too short to serve even as a proper shroud. Vita, if we translate it loosely as animal vitality, is what lasts. Truth resides with the wenches, the muscular roller, the big cigars, and the concupiscent curds. In the idiom of the seventh line, be trumps seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Now that I understand the poem, I don’t like it. Stevens’ immense metrical gift does not desert him; the last two lines of each stanza are beautifully executed tetrameter/alexandrine couplets, which are almost impossible to manage gracefully in English verse, where pentameter is expected. But the poem is snobbish: Stevens invites the reader to sneer at the characters of the poem as from a hill. It is written entirely in the imperative, except for the last line of each stanza, to some unspecified hearer. Imperative tense, used this way, enforces distance: when the boxing announcer says “Let’s get ready to ruuuumble!” you can be sure that you (or he) won’t be doing any rumbling, personally. Stevens takes special pains to remove himself, and his reader, from the scene, the better to hold his nose. Even the pleasures of hedonism are only for the few, and only for a while, and here they have spoiled. Now hedonism is an exceptionally limited view of the world, but it has real compensations, and Stevens has written about them elsewhere, in some of the greatest lines of the last century:

She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

(Update: AC Douglas offers his own analysis. He doesn’t seem quite as unhappy with mine as the rest of my commentators.)

May 252003

Mike Snider, via The Blowhards, mourns the dearth of hetero male sex poetry. I got your hetero male sex poetry right here! Granted, I had to raid the 16th century to find it.

All my senses, like beacons’ flame,
Gave alarum to desire
To take arms in Cynthia’s name,
And set all my thoughts on fire:
Fury’s wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard’s heir,
Cupid did best shoot and see
In the night where smooth is fair;
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake;
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
And thus unto myself I spake:
Sweet god Cupid where am I,
That by pale Diana’s light:
Such rich beauties do espy,
As harm our sense with delight?
Am I borne up to the skies?
See where Jove and Venus shine,
Showing in her heavenly eyes
That desire is divine:
Look where lies the Milken Way,
Way unto that dainty throne,
Where while all the gods would play,
Vulcan thinks to dwell alone.
I gave reins to this conceit,
Hope went on the wheel of lust:
Fancy’s scales are false of weight,
Thoughts take thought that go of trust,
I stepp’d forth to touch the sky,
I a god by Cupid dreams,
Cynthia who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams;
Leaving hollow banks behind,
Who can neither forward move,
Nor if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.
There stand I, like Arctic Pole,
Where Sol passeth o’er the line,
Mourning my benighted soul,
Which so loseth light divine.
There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace:
He that lets his Cynthia lie,
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away:
Let no love-desiring heart,
In the stars go seek his fate,
Love is only Nature’s art,
Wonder hinders love and hate.
None can well behold with eyes,
But what underneath him lies.

–Fulke Greville

Greville (Lord Brooke), incidentally, friend and biographer of Sidney and finance minister to Queen Elizabeth I, is the greatest English poet that you’ve never heard of. To clear up a few difficulties of diction and syntax: “Die” has the standard Elizabethan double meaning of sexual climax. “Lies,” in the last line, has both of its modern senses. “Thoughts take thought that go of trust” means that one’s own anxiety makes one’s thoughts unreliable; it is a gloss on the preceding line.

This poem mocks the conventions of Elizabethan courtly love poetry and praises sex for its own sake in the most brutal terms. Greville gives us the dithering lover, absorbing himself in spiritual concerns, in three brilliant images: the river running away from the river-bank, the North Pole deserted by the sun (the “line” of “Where Sol passeth o’er the line” is the Equator), and the convict preaching from the gallows. The poem’s brutality derives from the fact that Greville, a Calvinist, believed in the absolute separation of body and soul, and allegiance to one, for him, entails rejection of the other. He later turned to the soul and wrote even better poems than this one, which is a post for another day.

May 152003

I receive a suspicious number of hits for search strings containing “analysis” — “Emily Dickinson there’s a certain slant of light analysis,” and “analysis invictus” and “herrick virgins time analysis” and the like. (On the other hand, I’m #30 on Google for “bestiality tutorial.”) Finally, yesterday, “Alison” fessed up:

AAAAHHHHH somebody help-im reciting this poem sonnet for a speech and drama exam tomorrow, ive been trying to find info on Lizzy [Elizabeth Daryush, who may not have answered to “Lizzy”] for ages but cant find anything im so frustrated!! anyway id just thought id let you all know-some of your comments were helpful though! Bye

You know, Alison, in my day we didn’t have this new-fangled Internet thingy. We had to walk ten miles through a blizzard to the library to plagiarize Lionel Trilling. And we liked it!

Godofthemachine.com: helping high school students with their speech and drama homework since 2002.

May 062003

Dissent is always stifled, like a sneeze, or crushed, like a grape, and finally after months of trying I’ve managed to stifle some. A while back I complained about a silly anti-war poem by Sam Hamill, of Poets Against the War, not on the grounds that it was against the war, mind you, but on the grounds that it was bad — monumentally, embarrassingly, high-school-creative-writing-class bad. In fact I have argued elsewhere that the nature of poetry is such that any decent poem about war is likely to be anti.

Joel Peckham, who teaches English, God help us, at Georgia Military College, of all places, was undeterred.

It is always amazing to me that if an artist espouses a view that is not in keeping with the main current of American thought, he or she is considered out of touch or irrelevant. Articles like this reflect the diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today. Anti-war protesters have been called cynics. It is much more cynical to dismiss art because you don’t like what the artist has to say. There have been, of course, great anti-war poems written over the past 2000 years–and quite a bit of dreck. The anthology most likely includes a good deal of both genuine poetry and a good deal of simplistic thinking. What is good will survive, what is bad will not. I also find it humorous that people are so upset about this that they are writing anti-sam hamill articles in almost every major publication and in almost every article, the central argument is that the movement and the poets are irrelevant. Apparantly not.

As usual this article is simply another effort to stifle dissent. The worste art is not the kind that has “a message,” it is the kind that has none.

Pass over the dreadful writing (“diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today”), the dreadful spelling (“worste” is probably a typo, but “apparantly” is not), and the dreadful thinking (“dissent” posited as a virtue, as if society were better off because some people believe that the earth is flat or that Walt Disney is living in suspended animation on the Spanish Riviera). The remarkable aspect of this is that it has nothing to do with what I wrote. I dismissed Hamill’s poem on literary grounds, grounds on which it is indefensible and Peckham does not bother to defend it. Hamill’s politics are ridiculous, and I said so, but Wallace Stevens’ philosophy is ridiculous too, and he wrote great poetry. Good poetry and “simplistic thinking” can coexist, despite Peckham’s insinuation to the contrary. Good poetry and bad writing cannot.

Nor did I argue that Poets Against the War are “irrelevant,” which requires an object in any case. Irrelevant to whether there would be war, certainly; irrelevant to the good name of poetry, certainly not.

We have in Peckham a textbook case of what I.A. Richards used to call the stock response, which is a bit different, psychologically, than the straw man. Knocking down the straw man is a diversionary tactic, employed by those who at least recognize what the real argument is. In the stock response, on the other hand, a reader reads one thing, convinces himself that it’s just like something he’s read before, and proceeds to reply vigorously to that other thing. It saves time, but it’s a form of local insanity.

Peckham turns out to be a poet himself, and a poet against the war too: who would have guessed? I can’t reprint his verses here, as they lack Hamill’s one conspicuous merit, brevity; but feel free to see for yourself. They’re little quietist numbers, written in Whitmanesque long lines, full of children and fish and tomato plants by whose mere invocation the reader is supposed to be moved. They’re better than one would expect from the above prose sample, and better than Hamill’s; they are not good. And before writing one ought to learn to read.

Apr 142003

Richard Price has now written seven novels; Samaritan is his latest. He also writes screenplays for booze money, although some of them, notably Sea of Love and The Color of Money, turned into quite decent movies. Price grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx and knocked about some before finding his vocation. His first four novels, The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, The Breaks, and Ladies’ Man, were written from his own experience. They have their moments, especially his first, The Wanderers, which still enjoys a considerable reputation. But in retrospect they look like apprentice work.

Price eventually ran out of experience, and sallied forth to do some reporting, out of which came his fifth novel, Clockers, an epic of the crack trade. With Clockers Price became the Balzac of the underclass. Like Balzac, he has an unerring eye for status detail — which soft drink, which brand of sneaker, how low you wear your jeans. In the first chapter of Clockers you learn that the preferred reading of crack dealers is shopping catalogues.

Ever since Peanut fished a dozen catalogues out of a garbage can, everybody was in a state of mild disorder, passing around the thin glossies as if they were sex books. Strike would have cracked a whip if it was anything else, but he was the worst. He’d meant to go over to Rodney’s store an hour before, during the dinner lull, but had remained glued to the bench, a half-dozen catalogues on his lap, running his fingers down page after page of camisoles, hand-carved Christmas-tree angels, computerized jogging machines, golf putting sets for den and office, personalized stationery, lawn furniture — anything and everything for man, woman or child. The catalogues made him weak in the knees, fascinated him to the point of helplessness, the idea of all these things to be had, organized in a book that he could hold in one hand. Not that he would order anything — possessions drew attention, made you a target. None of the boys would order out of a catalogue either, not necessarily because they were paranoid like Strike, but because the ordering process — telephones, mailings, deliveries — required too much contact with the world outside the street.

You don’t find this out hanging around writers’ workshops.

Price also has a remarkable ear. (He spends a good deal of his time in Hollywood doctoring dialogue.) One of the characters in Samaritan is a prison autodidact, but Price never says so, he doesn’t have to; just listen to him talk:

“You working?”

“Yeah, well no, not like an employee per se. However, I’m working on something. I got this idea for a nonprofit organization to help inmates return to so-called society? I call it LIFE — Living in Fear of Extinction. I want to set up a whole reentry program, you know, literacy, computer literacy, how to fill out résumés, how to communicate, how to be prompt, how to be inspirational, how to make eye contact. See right now, I’m at the research stage, I need to learn how to file an application for tax-exempt status, how to find sponsors, how to–“

“Anything else?” Ray unable to hear this shit.

“Other? Well, yeah, I had this T-shirt thing goin’ on, you know, bought shirts in bulk, designed my own logo, hooked up with this printer did silk-screening on a delayed payment schedule but that’s all on financial hold for the time being, and I was also working on a comic book I wanted to publish, called Dawgs of War, about the future, when America wages war on the Republic of Nubia and it was gonna focus on one platoon of guys from the hood, how they get educated over there, you know, come to understand that they’re fighting…you know, that they’re on the wrong side…”

“Per se,” “inspirational,” “on financial hold for the time being” — all of this is exact. But the acronym and, especially, the question mark after “so-called society” betray the hand of the master.

Children are prominent in all of Price’s novels, and the only novelist I can think of who shows a comparable understanding of the species is Richard Hughes, in A High Wind to Jamaica. Price’s children aren’t the precocious wiseasses of sitcoms, or Spielbergian tuning forks who, quivering to the music of the spheres, always sense the truth and can’t persuade the cold-hearted adults to believe them. They’re children — half-formed, amoral savages struggling to become adults.

Samaritan, like its predecessors Clockers and Freedomland, is a police thriller. A crime is committed early on, the perp is unknown, and the story ends approximately when the investigating officer, always a major character, discovers who did it. (The legal machinations are always omitted. Price likes cops but seems to have no use for lawyers.)

Although the plotting is always handled competently, and the identity of the perpetrator is always difficult to guess, Price’s real interests lie with motive. His novels are whydunits more than whodunits, which I guess you could say about all good novels. They are mysteries because human motives are mysterious.

In Samaritan the victim is Ray Mitchell, a former high school teacher and cabdriver turned television writer who, at loose ends, decides to move back to his own neighborhood and do good. Mitchell is assaulted and seriously injured. He knows who did it but refuses to talk. An old acquaintance of his from the neighborhood, Nerese Ammons, a twenty-year veteran with six months to retirement, winds up investigating the crime. The novel alternates chapters, to impressive effect, between the events leading up the assault and its aftermath.

Mitchell spreads his money around — pays for one woman’s funeral, underwrites another man’s T-shirt business — learning the hard way the truth of John Jacob Astor’s remark: “Why does that man hate me? I never lent him money.” It buys him first bemusement, then solicitation, and finally enmity and a serious whack upside the head. “Ray thinks he wants to make a dent,” his ex-wife says, “when he really only wants to make a splash.” Nerese, too, questions her own motives in bothering with this case when she could just ride out the last few months to her pension.

Ray himself is far from stupid, and he knows that his motives are mixed. He tells Nerese about blowing a big TV deal and taking it out on his daughter Ruby at the mall:

“We get in the mall and I say, ‘Ruby, the hell with it. Let’s just buy shit. Whatever you want, who cares…’ She says, ‘That’s OK, I’ll just look.’ I’m like, ‘Ruby, c’mon, I just swung a big deal [he’s lying and she knows it], a dollar’s like a penny today.’ And I sort of bully her into buying some studs for her ears, can’t get her to buy clothes, can’t get her to buy any skin stuff, she grudgingly lets me buy her some teen magazine and it got really tense, the both of us like in this battle in the mall. And at one point she stops at a kiosk where they’re selling belly-button rings, and she got hers pierced a few weeks before and I see her eyeing this one ring, sort of a curved silver rod with dice at either end and, I’m instantly breathing down her neck, ‘You want that? You want that?’ Which of course makes her want to run away. She says, ‘Just looking,’ and wanders off. I’m so panic-stricken, the minute her back is turned, I buy it plus two others, then I sort of mosey up behind her, say, ‘Miss, did you drop these?’ and show her the three belly-button rings in my hand and she, goes, berserk. She starts sobbing and screaming at me, ‘Stop buying me stuff! Stop buying me stuff! Please! Daddy! Please! I don’t want anything!'”

Ayn Rand covered thoroughly the horror of altruism for the giver. Price deals with its horror for the recipient, for whom it’s like an oversolicitous host raised, in this case, several orders of magnitude. While Clockers is painted on a larger canvas, it lacks Samaritan‘s psychological penetration.

Which is the better book? Depends on your taste. But they’re both awfully good, and in different ways, which gives me hope that Price may have yet to do his best work.

(Cross-posted to BlogCritics.)

Apr 102003

Michael at 2 Blowhards discusses how publishing fads — which he charitably refers to as “consensus” — come to be. His commentators offer various unsatisfactory explanations. Many are of the “workshop” variety: editors and publishers have to promote books, therefore they promote what they have, and what’s wrong with that? The economics of the publishing industry puts this out of court. Publishers, like movie studios, depend on blockbusters for their survival. These are lottery industries, and it matters far more if you can squeeze 100,000 extra copies out of the latest Clancy or King than if Morrison or Rushdie sells 25,000 or 30,000 copies.

Social theories are more to the point. Publishing people all go to the same parties, where they exchange opinions about books. Naturally they expected to do an ungodly amount of reading. Michael Kinsley wrote an amusing article a while back about being a book prize judge. He was theoretically required to read more than 400 books.

Nobody in book or magazine publishing reads even one-tenth of what he’s supposed to have an opinion on, and shortcuts become indispensable. This is why book critics are far more widely read than books. They save time. If you haven’t got round to Rushdie or Morrison or Jonathan Safran Foer or whoever happens to be the novelist du jour — and you probably haven’t — it’s safest to praise them, most likely in the terms of Michiko Kakutani, whom you have read. (I, too, have opinions on Morrison and Rushdie despite having read only brief excerpts of the latter, which struck me as show-offy and not half so clever as the author obviously thought them, and the former not at all. Morrison’s fatuous public utterance makes me doubt that she is intelligent enough to be a good novelist. This is slender evidence, and it may be the opposite of the publishing consensus, but then they don’t invite me to their parties.)

The Blowhard thread evinces a simultaneous distrust of publishing fashion and genuflection toward the Canon. This is very common, and very odd. Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It’s subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of “metaphysical” poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne’s “difficulty” when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a “classic,” and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is “metaphysical.” Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne’s actual merits.

Time has its virtues. People have been reading Homer for three thousand years, and there’s probably a reason. But English poetry is only 500 years old, English prose even younger. Hapless undergraduates still battle the Red Crosse Knight mostly because C.S. Lewis thought Spenser was the exemplar of the “Golden Style.” Bulky self-regarding Wordsworth is too much with us, late and soon, because he happened to come along with the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, just as the heroic couplet was going out of style, and because he promoted himself tirelessly. The Canon is more reliable than the fashion, as some of the dust has settled, but it is a sort of fashion, just the same.

(Update: Brian Micklethwait comments.)