Friday, May 28, 2021

Strangeness on a Train

 

I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Of Patricia Highsmith, I was never as enthused. But after reading Strangers on a Train, I’m enthused enough to re-read Ripley.

Why, you ask? Well, Hitchcock made a really masterful film, Strangers on a Train, in stunning black & white. Two men, Guy Haines, a tennis player, and Bruno Anthony (Charles Anthony Bruno in the book), meet on the pre-Amtrak passenger train running between D.C., where Guy lives, and New York. Through both the dialogue and the visual storytelling Hitchcock was so good at, we learn Bruno is a psychopath, who wants his mommy to himself, and would like to be rid of her wealthy capitalist husband—”the Captain,” she calls him—whom Bruno hates. Guy wants to divorce his wife, and but she’s refusing to sign the final divorce papers. One of Bruno’s hobbies is plotting perfect murders, and he proposes one to Guy—swap murders. You do my murder, I’ll do yours. Criss-cross. Bruno thinks it’s brilliant because, no one can connect Guy and himself, therefore, he’d have no motive for killing Miriam Haines, just as Guy has no motive for killing Bruno’s father. Guy absolutely refuses, but Bruno has another hobby, drinking, and ignores Guy’s objections.

Murder at the amusement park
Murder at the Amusement Park

Shortly after they meet, Bruno travels to Metcalf, follows Miriam, and in a classic scene still studied by film students, strangles Miriam (in a reflection in her eyeglasses) in an amusement park. He gets away clean, and proudly tells Guy what he’s done, and asks Guy to keep his part of the bargain, the bargain Guy never made. The film ends with another classic scene, (one which I like because it is so over the top), with a terrifying out-of-control merry-go-round ride, cops who shoot first and look out for bystanders later, children trapped on tons of whirling machinery, manic carousel horses, and a struggle to the death between Guy and Bruno.

Much as I love this film, which I’ve seen numerous times over the last 40 years, I am now in awe of the novel which I just completed for the first time. Whereas my man Hitch builds suspense through visual storytelling and action, Patricia Highsmith rachets up the tension in her writing by increasing the psychological pressure on the protagonist.

Patricia Highsmith is hard to like. She was a drunken, atheist, lesbian, who hated blacks, Koreans, and Jews. I’d previously read and enjoyed The Talented Mr. Ripley, but felt while it was a clever idea, it was too wordy, too introspective, and too slowly paced. In a word, overrated. And frankly, I spent several weeks trying to get traction in Strangers, falling asleep each night wondering how long Highsmith could drag out the initial scene on the train.

Recorded books seem to make all the difference for me on these slow-paced introspective books. I bought Strangers on Audible, and the opening flowed as easily as the movie version. Soon I found that some of those boring bits I’d rather skip when I’m reading show the characters’ psyches and in the case of Bruno, his psychosis. Guy is a contrast to Bruno in every way. Guy is sober; Bruno is a drunk. Guy is in love and planning to marry Anne; Bruno hates women, except his mother. They’re opposites. Or wait, as the book goes on and Highsmith weaves her web, maybe they’re not opposites. Maybe they’re opposite parts of the same character. Maybe they’re doppelgängers.  

For Margaret avec plaisir
Inscribed "For Margaret avec plaisir
Patricia Highsmith"

A key difference between the Hitchcock film and the Highsmith book is that just a few pages past the midpoint of the book, Guy gives in to Bruno’s demand that he fulfill his part of the bargain—the other half of the double murder. Guy kills Bruno’s father. From there on Guy becomes guilt ridden and increasingly like Bruno.

It’s fair to say Hitchcock and Highsmith take the Train on two separate tracks from this point on. There is no tennis match in the book, no return to the amusement park, no final shootout, no merry-go-round disaster, no resolution of the plot in a final burst of action. In the book Guy is consumed with an ever-growing sense of guilt.

Charles Bruno’s father employed a full-time detective, Arthur Gerard, (suggestive of Inspector Javert) on his staff. Gerard knows Bruno hated his father and knows of his hobby of plotting murders. The story is set in the days when people wrote down names, addresses, and phone numbers of their acquaintances, and it’s not long before Gerard is asking Bruno, “Who’s Guy Haines? When did you meet him?” Gerard learns Haines’s wife Miriam was murdered not long after Bruno met Haines. Hmmm.

Bruno continues to foist himself on Guy and Anne, and Gerard, relentlessly, gathers in the threads, forms his theory.  What’s most interesting though is how Highsmith entangles her characters, Guy and Bruno, in their webs of lies. Will they get away with it? Or will Gerard trap them? Highsmith builds suspense by dragging out Guy’s internal dialogues to the limit, keeping emotions heated to a fever pitch, and delaying the denouement, (or is it the actual climax?) Truly, she’s a master of suspense like Hitch himself, and in a way I might never have thought possible. In the end of the book, Gerard extracts a confession from Guy, a guy who could have committed the perfect crime if he’d kept his nerve.

Patricia Highsmith wrote a short book called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, which I read several years ago, hoping it might help me learn the writing game. The book contained plenty of anecdotes about short stories--she was a big fan of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as a market for her work, and thus far in my career, it’s been the best market for my short stories—but I thought it was a little light on the “how to.” One takeaway though is the precept, “The starting point for a chapter outline should be the question to oneself, ‘How will this chapter advance the story?’” I perceive in Strangers on a Train, Highsmith advances the plot by progressively pushing the characters’ emotions to the point of no return, through strongly written chapters showing how their internal tensions build.

This little essay is primarily about what I learned about writing suspense from reading Highsmith. But here’s a sidebar. Many of Hitchcock’s films were adaptations from existing literature. Over the years, have read Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, Vertigo (D’Entre les Morts) by Boileau Narcejac, and “Rear Window” by Cornell Woolrich. I had no overarching plan in reading these. They fit in with my interests. Then last winter, I took a class called “Alfred Hitchcock and Adaptations,” and read

·  Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

·  “The Song of the Dragon” (Notorious) by John Taintor Foote

·  The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White, and

·  Rope by Patrick Hamilton

Some of the Hitchcock films follow the writing closely, others use the text more as a jumping off point. But in all cases, it’s been fun to look at the similarities and disparities between the different mediums, and see how Masters of Suspense work in their art forms.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Two Nadas, Please


I have been struggling over a new blog post for a couple weeks. I feel like writing about baseball. I could pull it off, but many interested in “A blog about my writing” follow “From the Spitbucket.” A couple months ago, I subjected them to a post about nude swimming in high school. Too soon to do baseball.

My writing has been stuck for a while, as it often is when Osher—a lifelong learning program I’m enrolled in at Johns Hopkins—classes roll, and we’re five weeks into a semester now. This semester, I’m taking Shakespeare with Jim Blue, a retired physicist who seems to enjoy the challenges of the bard. We’re just finishing Comedy of Errors, which I find delightful. Reading something like Comedy of Errors gives me a lift because, right or wrong, I perceive it as a piece of entertainment, exactly the sort of thing I like to write. Comedy of Errors is a lot of fun. Starting next week, something completely different, Titus Andronicus.

I’m also taking “Alfred Hitchcock and Adaptations,” with Mary Dutterer. Mary is an associate professor of English at Prince George’s Community College who had a minor in film studies. I enjoyed her class on the Coen Bros., and I love Hitchcock. So many of his films were adaptations of works written as short stories, novels, or plays, and I like the idea of looking at what he did with pre-existing texts, and how. My agent, Lawrence Jordan, has put the idea in my head that my fiction would translate well to a screen, and I’m enjoying looking at a written work and then at what changes in the Hitchcock movie, and what stays the same. Interestingly, I’ve already read a few works that Hitch adapted—The Birds, by Daphne du Maurier, Psycho by Robert Bloch, and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, but we’re not covering those in this class.

My last class on “Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway,” has been the most exciting. It didn’t take long—the instructor, Robert Jacobs, mentioned the iceberg theory the first week and that knocked me on my butt. It was not so long ago—2016? 2017—that the iceberg theory was near to my heart and I hoped in the back of my mind when I would sit down at my humble cathode ray tube to write. But somewhere during the last three years, I lost the iceberg theory and started writing to the “movie in my mind” (MIMM) hypothesis. Under the MIMM, I try to paint for the reader some characters in a scene that he can visualize, and then try to keep the reader engaged in the action while the characters take it from there. It’s a fun way to write, and it seemed good enough for what I wanted to do—produce a piece of entertainment (viz. Comedy of Errors, above). But I frequently had the nagging feeling that I was leaving something out. Perhaps more correctly, that I was not leaving enough out.

I had some early success—my first two stories were published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Perhaps I got cocky or careless. Sure, it’s swell writing a fun story that readers can visualize. I’ve continued to have some successes, (more published stories in EQMM, agents offering to represent novels), but some failures too, which make me wonder if I’ve kept the literary quality up.

The revelation, the reminder to remember the iceberg, comes at a good time for me. I was slouching through a humdrum section of a WWII novella, trying to make it with only my characters, but even the characters weren’t fully alive. They were slouching toward a murder attempt at Lake Tahoe. I didn’t know enough about my plot to know what to write next. But since I was already thinking about Hemingway, the answer came to me, “write one true sentence.” Following which, it should be easy to write another. And another.

So much for any writer’s block.  

After I finish this story, I’ll go back and work it again, (and maybe again), and fill in the rest of the iceberg. But that’s not all. A writer learns a lot from revisiting Hemingway’s short stories. Figuring out what is being said in a Hemingway short story and what is being not said tells the would-be author what he needs to know about the iceberg theory and how to use it. We’ve read stories about suicide, madness, adultery, abortion, impotence, and cowardice, from which we learn the writer must show the whole story, the wretched and horrible along with the beautiful. And watching how Hemingway slips into the internal dialogue of a broken mind shows you the depth of “one true sentence.”  

I look forward to the Ken Burns documentary “Hemingway” beginning April 5 on PBS.  

 


Friday, February 5, 2021

The Second Murderer

Second Murderer: What, shall we stab him while he sleeps?

First Murderer: No; then he will say ‘twas done cowardly when he wakes . . .

Second Murderer: Faith, some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.

            —Richard III, Act I, scene 4

 

Raymond Chandler quotes the above lines from Shakespeare in his letter to Blanche Knopf, of Alfred A. Knopf his publisher in the summer of 1939, reporting progress on his novel-in-progress, The Second Murderer. A year later, he had dropped that working title. The Second Murderer was to become Farewell, My Lovely.

Like other Chandler novels, Farewell, My Lovely (FML) (1940) was based on, cobbled together, or “cannibalized” (Chandler’s term), from three of his previously published stories—“The Man Who Liked Dogs” (Black Mask, 1936), “Try the Girl” (Black Mask, 1937), and “Mandarin’s Jade” (Dime Detective, 1937). Those latter two were Chandler’s only sales in 1937, and as such appear to be his sole source of income for the year.

Chandler had not yet developed the name Phillip Marlowe when writing the short stories. The detective in the first two was named Carmady, no first name given. The detective in “Mandarin’s Jade” was John Dalmas. But they were all Marlowe-in-training. Philip Marlowe—Chandler’s white knight, who was to be the best man in his world, and a good man in any world. Carmady and Dalmas narrate their stories in a similar first-person voice, with the same cynical sense of humor that Marlowe would later employ. They have a tough time hewing to their knightly chivalry in a world of gambling, booze, drugs, double-crosses, and most of all corruption. But they never stray from their personal code.

The plots of the individual stories have some twists and turns, but each plot feels resolved at the end of the story. In “The Man Who Liked Dogs” (TMWLD), Carmady is trying to find a kidnapped or runaway teenage girl, Isobel Snare, who was last seen with her large police dog. Carmady traces the dog to a machine-gun toting killer, Jerry “Farmer” Saint, the man who liked dogs. Carmady is hit on the head and comes to in a private psychiatric hospital, where the corrupt police chief keeps inconvenient people locked up and shot full of hop. He busts out and finds Isobel, who has secretly married Saint, on a gambling ship outside the three-mile limit.

“Try the Girl” (TTG) opens with Carmady down on Central Avenue, where he meets a giant of a man in exceptionally loud clothes, Steve Skalla. Steve just did eight years in the joint, and he’s out, looking for his girl, Beulah, in Shamey’s, a dive where she used to work. Shamey’s is under new management, no longer a white establishment, but a spot for the “colored folks.” Skalla gets too rough with the boss, and flees, hiring Carmady to find Beulah. Carmady’s search leads him to Shamey’s widow, an old lush. She’s heard Beulah singing on radio KLBL under a different name. Detective work at KLBL leads Carmady to Beulah’s house. But by the time Carmady arrives, Skalla has already found the house and killed the radio station exec who was having an affair with Beulah. The radio executive’s pre-psychotic widow shows up and pumps four .25 caliber slugs into Skalla’s belly. After they take him to the hospital, Beulah comes home. Carmady beats her up, so that she can say she shot the radio station exec in self-defense.

"Mandarin's Jade” (MJ) tells the story of a late-night ransom exchange for a jade necklace, during which p.i. John Dalmas takes a sap to the head, and he loses his client, Lindley Paul. (Lindley, by the way, lives on Quinonal Avenue in Castellmare, at the top of the 270 steps behind Thelma Todd’s sidewalk café. Dalmas climbs them.)

Castellmare in "Mandarin's Jade"
Montemar Vista in Farewell, My Lovely 

Paul was carrying a cigarette case of special rolls—possible jujus—and those lead Dalmas to Soukesian the psychic. Soukesian chloroforms Dalmas, who shoots a foul-smelling Hollywood Indian. He meets Mrs. Philip Courtney Pendergrast, the young, blond, hard-drinking wife of a very old, very rich man. Mrs. Pendergrast owned that jade necklace. In a barfight, Dalmas is hit on the head with a full bottle.

If you see a coherent thread that runs through these three stories, you’re doing better than me. But consider that Chandler was more interested in writing and language, and in character than in a coherent plot. His success stitching the stories together reminds us that scenes are indeed the building blocks of fiction. We open with the scene from TTG in which Philip Marlowe (Carmady) meets Moose Molloy (Skalla) looking for his girl Velma Valento (Beulah) at Florian’s (Shamey’s). The action is essentially the same—Moose busts up the joint.  This is a great opening scene, and Chandler has pumped it up from five and a half pages in TTG to thirteen and a half in FML. The descriptions in FML are similar, but richer in detail. The characters’ names have changed, and they have more depth.

After leaving Central Ave., Marlowe does a little detective work, and then we have the FML version of the scene in which he questions the hard-drinking widow, Jessie Florian, (Violet Lu Shamey). Later that afternoon, back in his office, he takes a call from a prospective client, Lindsay Marriott, (Lindley Paul of MJ), and we’re off to Marriott’s house—same as Paul’s house, at the top of the steps behind the sidewalk café. Marriott needs a bodyguard for his errand that night, making a payoff for a stolen necklace of Fei Tsui jade. Later that evening, in a deserted canyon, Marlowe waits in the dark and takes a sap to the head from behind. When he awakes, Marriott is dead.

How does Chandler connect Marriott and the stolen necklace to Moose and Velma? That’s one of the mysteries you can ponder for the next 200 or so pages. Basically, Chandler simply drops the scene with Marriott's murder into the story of Moose and Velma. 

It’s not long before the calling cards packed in with Marriott’s special rolls lead Marlowe to Amthor (Soukesian) the psychic. Amthor calls the cops claiming Marlowe tried to blackmail him, but instead of taking him to jail, they knock him unconscious and lock him up in a private hospital run by Dr. Sonderborg (Dr. Sundstrand in TMWLD), a drug dealer who keeps him docile with heroin or morphine  injections.

Chandler combines these disparate plot threads simply by dumping the scenes from the three short stories together and making the characters consistent throughout. Sure, Farewell, My Lovely is about Moose’s search for Velma, a second murder, a psychic, a drug dealing doctor, corrupt cops, a gambling ship, another murder, a ravishing blonde with a secret past, a corrupt police chief, a gambler who runs a corrupt city government, a double cross, and a fourth murder. It’s about scenes that probably have no business being together. If the novel seems consistent and lucid, it’s because the scenes are so well-written and the characters so much fun and so real, that the reader gets the overall impression of reading a swell, coherent novel. As Chandler said of his work, "my whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn't matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style."

 

“The Man Who Liked Dogs”

“Try the Girl”

“Mandarin’s Jade”

Farewell, My Lovely

Detective/narrator

Carmady

Carmady

John Dalmas

Phillip Marlowe

Head of the asylum

Dr. Sundstrand

 

 

Dr. Sonderborg

Corrupt chief of police

Fulwider

 

 

John Wax

Honest ex-cop

Red Norgard

 

 

Red Norgaard

Gambling ship

The Montecito

 

 

The Montecito

Gambler

 

 

 

Laird Brunette

Drunken widow

 

Violet Lu Shamey

 

Jessie Florian

Femme Fatale

 

Beulah / Vivian Baring

Mrs. Philip Courtney Pendergrast

Velma Valento / Helen Grayle

The big man

 

Steve Skalla

 

Moose Malloy

The shine joint on Central

 

Shamey’s

 

Florian’s

Marlowe’s Client

 

 

Lindley Paul

Lindsay Marriott

Marlowe’s Helper

 

 

Carol Pride

Anne Riordan

The Pyschic

 

 

Soukesian

Amthor

Looking at the way I write and the way Chandler stitched the scenes from three divergent plots together, I’m thinking of trying the technique myself with some of my unsold stories.

P.S. Who is the second murderer? That’s one of the mysteries of the book I won’t spoil, but the Second Murderer is the one who killed Lindsay Marriott.

 


 

 


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 Hindsight

 

I didn’t expect a pandemic. Even if I had, I have always proudly believed that we are an exceptional country, and I didn’t expect America to fare so poorly.

My family and I coped well. Tasia works from home; her requirement to go into the office once a week fell by the wayside. I’m retired from my government career, so I don’t have to go out. Our pay, pension, annuity, and social security benefits appear in our bank account at regular intervals, like magic. We’re both introverts and found it easy to stay in with each other and our son, Shane.



Poor Shane finished his B.S. in Chemistry in the early spring, and actually got a lab job in the early days of the pandemic when millions of others were losing their work. Sadly, it didn’t last, and I feel sorry for him, a recent grad stuck in the house for months with his parents. I think he’s being considerate of us, and doesn’t go out much or take chances that might kill us, but what sort of life is that for a young single man?

Our daughter, Molly, lives near Austin, Texas, in a county that's done well with Corona. Her young man, Tex, proposed and they've set a date for 2021 at the Driscoll. I'm raising funds for a wedding.

I stopped going to the gym around March 15, and what little muscle I had has melted away. Today, I’m ten or eleven pounds lighter than I was this time in 2019. It’s not just the loss of muscle from not working out—I suffered a mild attack of pancreatitis in July, stopped drinking (again), and really lost weight then.

Though I’m shocked about the loss of muscle, I’m happy about losing weight—I look better, feel better, my pants fit better, and even my balance has improved. I’ve been out there running, about three miles a day, about five days a week. The weather has had its usual ups and downs, but it was good enough that a snowstorm the week before Christmas was the first time I missed two days in a row during the pandemic. This has been my most consistent streak in the last 30 years. (Been a runner since ’78.)    

We live in the ‘burbs, and I can roll out to run without a mask—early in the hot weather, around mid-day since November. After the first couple weeks I realized I didn’t need to pass within six feet of anyone. Traffic is light, and if other peds approach, it’s easy to cross the street.

I had a physical in August, a bad tooth pulled, a blood draw, and a skin-cancer checkup with my dermatologist in the fall. I’m frequently stiff. My lower back used to hurt occasionally. Now it hurts more regularly. But all in all, I feel well, just old.

I was 72 a couple days ago, just after Christmas.

I stopped going to my classes at Johns Hopkins for Old Farts (JHOF) around March 15. After closing a couple weeks, JHOF resumed via Zoom, and I finished the spring semester without much enthusiasm. I had no camera on my mojo box, so I had to borrow Tasia’s laptop. I acquired a webcam, and reluctantly returned to school for fall semester, but things picked up. Zoom classes were more enjoyable. In fact, with all the isolation, I think school was a good discipline. I needed to get upright and sit at the computer six to eight hours a week (I cut a few classes 😊).  

I was developing a short story, “The Purple Journal,” early in the year. I had shared a bad, early version with my writers’ critique group in 2019, and after getting their feedback, I felt I did a great job revising it. I’m up to 21 rejections now.

I finished a first draft of my third novel, The Fall of the Hotel Biarritz. It’s basically an action story, a little over the top, in the manner of “The Gutting of Coffignal,” “The Big Knockover,” or Cotton Comes to Harlem. I decided to see if it was good enough to get the support of an agent, and it did—I signed with the Lawrence Jordan Agency. Lawrence seemed to genuinely enjoy reading my draft and had some ideas for turning Biarritz into the start of a swell career for me. Having flopped around like a flounder in my approach so far, I welcome his help. I was hoping my swell career might be further along by now, but I don’t think Lawrence has pitched the book yet.

Somewhere in here, I fired my writers’ critique group. They were good, but, man, the pandemic doesn’t make things easy—especially social interaction.

Lawrence Jordan put the idea in my head to try my hand at a thriller. I thought of making a baby-steps transition from what I write now to thriller, and I wrote “Friends of Durruti,” a “men’s-action-adventure,” suitable for True or Argosy. Unfortunately True folded in 1974 and Argosy in '78. “Durruti” is a prequel of sorts, Frank Swiver’s first investigation, a risky venture which he undertook in 1937 at the front in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a bit of an espionage story and a historical fiction, in which Frank crosses paths with Soviet General Kléber and his NKVD commissar Alexandr Orlov.

“Friends of Durruti” is the first work I’ve tried to push out without benefit of review of a writers’ critique group. Working with such a group though is not merely a matter of accepting a bunch of suggested edits—it’s about learning how others perceive your work, and how to read, edit, and revise accordingly. I’ve tried to apply what I’ve learned in my groups the last eight years.

Three rejections for “Durruti” so far. Which means I haven’t had a sale this year.

We expected Molly and Tex up here in Md. for Christmas. Prior to Christmas, Molly tested negative; Tex tested positive. Like so many others, they didn't travel, and like so many, we spent a quiet Christmas without loved ones. But Molly and Tex (really Mike) are both all right now, thank goodness. We missed you, Molly and Mike.

***

I’ve read more than usual during the plague. I’m a slow reader, so even more than usual isn't a great deal. But this year I benefited from Audible and recorded books. Usually I get a paperback and read along with the recording, but not always. I finally read The Magus, by John Fowles, which I’ve struggled to finish for years. The Magus, and Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo, were so well-written and so well-read that I didn’t need to follow along. I listened on my walks. (Patti Smith read Blood on Snow in a lower-East-Side deadpan that was perfect.)

I read The Girl in the Green Raincoat, by Laura Lippman, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest by William Shakespeare, a graphic novel version of The Great Gatsby, and The Case of the Careless Kitten by Erle Stanley Gardner. The Daughter of Time had no pace and went on for an epoch. The Shakespeare was disappointing, but Gatsby was great, and my introduction to Perry Mason was fun. My second reading of Cotton Comes to Harlem in early December was a bit of a revelation. Chester Himes was better than I remembered.

I read along with the Audible versions of Died in the Wool by Ngaio Marsh, The Safety Net by Andrea Camilleri, and The Snow Was Dirty by Georges Simenon. I could do a whole blog post about Dirty Snow, . . . and maybe I shall, in 2021.

Happy New Year! Here’s to better days ahead.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Shrinkage of Anthony Bilge

 

Author’s note: Today’s post is not about writing. I just felt like telling this story that has been with me for 54 years . . .

I attended two schools that required students to pass the Red Cross Junior Life Saving Test to graduate. Yet here I am, not only a high school grad but also a Bachelor of Arts and a non-swimmer.

I’d say I slipped between some cracks at college. During freshman orientation, they gathered us all at the pool and told us to jump in, one-at-a-time, and they would assess our skills.

“I can’t swim,” I said to Coach Raymond. “If I jump in, you’ll have to haul me out.”

“Well, we don’t want to do that,” he said. “Just remember to sign up for a swimming class during the next two years.”

I made a note of it, but my follow-up was not so good. Still no one checked to see if I’d met the requirement when commencement came along. Those were perilous times. Four students at Kent State, 15 miles away from our campus, had just been killed four weeks earlier by the Ohio National Guard, and I don’t think anyone cared whether some long-haired freak like me could swim.

High school though, had been a different story. They kept track of things, and in the spring of my senior year, my gym period was in the pool.

Though my memory is foggy and I’ve been unable to verify this, I have a very strong recollection that the school closed the pool and “natatorium” to students of one gender when the opposite gender had swim class. The boys swam without suits. (It was supposed to be the same for the girls, but I don’t know.) Although this seems bizarre now, when I was seventeen and less experienced, it seemed perfectly normal. After all, the school doesn’t want to launder and pass out shared suits, and kids didn’t want to carry a used, wet swimsuit back to English class or stuff it in their lunch bags.

Apparently, some schools the custom was "clothed females, naked men."

Ours was a posh suburb, and our school had a successful swim team. The swimming coach was devoted to the team, but despised us non-swimming schlubs. Coach Barleycorn would toss us a water polo ball and say, “Get in the pool and have fun.” Then he’d retreat to his office, and to the bottle of gin he allegedly kept in his desk drawer, rather than helping us with our buoyancy

Now the school system and my suburb had been very white 12 years earlier when I started my education. The first black kid entered my elementary school when I was in sixth grade. Six years later when I was a senior, we were more diverse, but not much. I’d guess by 1966, the year of my graduation, Shaker Heights was less than five percent black. But of the 25 or 30 senior boys who couldn’t swim, it seemed at least half were black. Side note: I’d been showering with the guys after gym class since fifth grade, and these black fellows were among the first uncircumcised cocks I'd ever seen, the suburb at that time being about 70% Jewish.

I was a bit of an outsider at my school, a very blue-collar gentile amidst the upscale Jews, and I often felt the victim of bullying. I was terrified not only of the water, but of the other kids in the class, especially two black non-swimmers, Bass and Bilge. They were known (to kids like me) as poor students and troublemakers. Bass and Bilge sensed my awkwardness and were quick to tease and pick on me using our unsupervised class time to keep me uncomfortable. I did not learn to swim.

But due to the lack of interest shown by Coach Barleycorn, neither did anyone else. June rolled around and we were still shivering naked on the pool apron or splashing spastically in the shallow end for 45 minutes each week. Long about the end of May, it so happened that maintenance had started painting the ceiling of the natatorium, and there was a scaffold next to the high diving board at the deep end. Coach Barleycorn made an appearance with a class roster on a clipboard and a ten-foot pole. He said, “OK girls, climb up on that scaffold, walk out on the board, and jump into the pool. You'll be fine. I’ll be right here to fish you out with this pole, and I'll mark that you passed the Red Cross test.”

It could have been worse—they could have hung a rope from the scaffold and made us climb that, (rope-climbing had been my first major gym class trauma)—but at least there was a ladder to the top of the scaffold. I climbed the ladder. The connection between “scaffold” and “execution” was clear to me. I took a deep breath and sprang feet first into the air, eyes closed. I enjoyed the feeling of free-fall—my stomach flipped, like on a roller-coaster. I had some confidence that underwater, I would begin to rise, to bob up like a cork, and when my head broke the surface I breathed again and opened my eyes. Coach Barleycorn’s ten-foot pole was within easy reach.

There was nothing left to do. I was graduating. Academic finals were a cinch compared to this ordeal. So I relaxed and watched the others. The last was Anthony Bilge. He climbed up there on the 30-foot high scaffold and began to tremble. Details are lost on a near-sighted young boy who did not have his glasses in the pool, but I recall his taut hamstrings, and his slender glutes as he hunched over at the waist. Bilge was scared stiff. “Jump, Tony,” shouted his friend Bass.

He bent down and steadied himself on the scaffolding. “C’mon, kid. Jump,” yelled Coach Barleycorn. “I’ll pull you out.” Bilge clutched the diving board and started to cry. I could hear the sobs from thirty feet below. It was uncommon for a senior boy to cry openly in school from fear or terror. Bilge’s career as a bully was finished.   

I felt vindicated. There were things Bass and Bilge could do in gym that I couldn’t, but at least I didn’t stand naked on the diving board high above my peers, crying.

Bilge was not in my social circle. I never knew if he graduated, though I assume they accommodated him somehow. I didn’t care. He no longer could terrorize me.

 

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Letter

Yes, I’m a big fan of mystery short stories, not only the hard-boiled work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but even the Victorian-era Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. I have also long been enamored of the short fiction of W. Somerset Maugham. It doesn’t hurt that Chandler apparently read Maugham and gives him a tip of the hat in his great story, “Red Wind.”

I have four Penguin volumes of Maugham’s stories, (including Volume 3, the adventures of Ashenden, a secret agent of the British intelligence department during the First World War). Though his prose often seems old-fashioned and formal, he could always tell a story in a clear and straightforward manner. His stories teem with hypocrites, drunks, and murderesses. Although I pattern my writing more after Hammett and Hemingway, I have even tried my hand at a couple tales done in the style of Maugham. His stories often concern morality or moral principles and hypocrisy. People act out of passion, just as in a good murder mystery.

I won’t say Maugham’s stories are plot-driven rather than character-driven, but I believe they are more often about the tale he tells rather than about the moment of epiphany (as in the more “modern” style of Joyce or Chekov). The story itself seems paramount in the telling. What I like best about Maugham’s work is that they are melodramatic, and often heavy with irony.

Perhaps serendipitously, our movie in film class this week was The Letter, starring Bette Davis, based on Maugham’s story and stage play of the same name. Maugham had a habit of inserting thinly-disguised characters from real life into his literary works—such as Paul Gauguin in The Moon and Sixpence—and “The Letter” was based on a real-life scandal involving the wife of the headmaster of a school in Kuala Lumpur, who was convicted in a murder trial after shooting dead a male friend in April 1911.

In the original story, the female lead, Leslie Crosbie, shoots and kills a man named Hammond, who she says tried to rape her while her husband was away for the night. Leslie was “fragile . . . graceful . . . delicate . . . quiet . . . pleasant [and] charming.” She seemed well-suited to the lonely life of a planter’s wife in remote Malaya. In any event, “She was the last woman in the world to commit murder.” The British community in Singapore learns after his death that Hammond had taken up with a Chinese woman. Thus the white planters are quite prepared to accept Leslie’s story that Hammond was a sex-crazed rapist. Leslie is jailed but her acquittal seems a foregone conclusion. However, her attorney learns she had written Hammond a letter the day of his death telling him her husband would be out all night and inviting him to come by. The attorney buys the potentially incriminating letter from the “Chinawoman,” using the husband, Robert’s, life savings.

The endings of the story and the movie are different. In both, Leslie is acquitted, but the story ends with a subtle scene which shows Robert understands his betrayal and their marriage is finished. Leslie recounts to her lawyer shooting Hammond (six times) and her face becomes “distorted with cruelty, and rage and pain. You would never have thought that this quiet, refined woman was capable of such fiendish passion.” Then, “those passions, . . . were smoothed away as with your hand you would smooth crumpled paper, and in a minute the face was cool and calm and unlined . . . She was once more the well-bred and even distinguished woman.” A moment of epiphany, in the modern storyteller’s style. Hypocrisy, and great melodrama.

But in 1940, we had a motion picture production code, and The Letter failed on two counts—it contained adultery and an unpunished murder. And so in the film, in the last couple scenes, Leslie/Bette Davis finds a knife on the matting on her patio. She leaves it there. Robert abandons her.  When Leslie walks out into the garden, Hammond’s Chinese woman is waiting with an accomplice and stabs her to death.

So it goes.   

My film class rabbi (seriously) put forth the proposition that The Letter is William Wyler’s effort at film noir. As supporting evidence, he cites:

     •   Shadows

     •   Venetian blind lighting

     •   A McGuffin (the letter)

     •   A crime

     •   A femme fatale

Interestingly, I might make the argument that Maugham’s more open-ended short story is true noir. The main character, Leslie Crosbie, is alive and acquitted at the end of the story. But her husband Robert knows the truth and has walked out, the implication to me being that he intends to abandon her. Leslie’s lawyer has burned the letter, but it’s easy to infer that in the society she inhabits, the truth of her affair will seep out and she will become an outcast, shunned by colonial society, like her murder victim Geoffry Hammond had become when he took a Chinese woman for his mistress. Like most noir protagonists, she’d be better off dead. 


Friday, September 11, 2020

 

Haiku

     (Bless you!)

Way back in 2015, when I was still a young lad, I took a brief seminar called “Literary Detective Fiction.” It was a small but good class (four of us) with a good instructor (John Straley), in a lovely setting (Pebble Beach, Calif.)

John Straley (https://sohopress.com/authors/john-straley/) shared with us that he keeps a journal and writes a haiku each day. “A haiku has the same virtues as a murder mystery,” he says.

Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. John doesn’t care about the number of syllables. But he looks for a seasonal reference in the first two lines and an emotional turn/surprise ending. (The emotional turn helps me with the Aristotelean reversal I strive for in a good mystery or suspense story.) Finally, the ego of the writer should be invisible, which is also important for me to remember when writing fiction.

Beginning with a "nature" image seems consistent with John’s thoughts on writing:

  • Ecology is about place.
  • Everything starts with "the place"
  • Characters evolve from place
  • A story has to know where it is in time and place. 

I managed to start a journal and write haikus (on and off) for about five months after the class.  I enjoyed it. Here are a few of mine:  

Evergreen trees pop

Against a fierce blue background

Not just for the rich.

We held most classes outside, and when I wrote that one, I was looking up at the underside of this tree:

 

Sunday, I found a few other Catholics and we went into Carmel, to church.

Early mass, warm sun

Shines bright on Carmel Mission

Not quiet but hushed.

 

From something said in class:

Surfaces in rain

Appear, shiny and poppy.

Vivid when wet.

Back in Maryland:

Dog days dragging on

Nothing moves, chiefly the air,

But including me.

 

Into a humid

Day I sink, like a warm bath.

I like cold showers.

2015 was a year of locusts here.

Late summer chirping,

Buzzing in the morning air.

Noisy li’l’ buggers.

Me (and War) on literary fiction:

Existential angst!

Hooie! What is it good for?

Absolutely naught.

And:

Wife’s office upstairs;

I work down here. Ought to keep

In touch more often.

 

Anyhow, that was fun. See if you can use the comments section to post some of your own haikus.