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Archive for the ‘Essays and reviews’ Category

SnowdenA couple of months ago AdBusters put out the word that they were looking for new visions to empower and inspire the eco-warriors and Occupiers who have lost their passion and need a fresh injection of ideology and righteous anger to motivate them and rekindle their energies.

I gave it some thought and wrote up a manifesto of sorts, a call to arms, an appeal for a “slow revolution”.

Dutifully sent it off to AdBusters around the end of February…and never received so much an an acknowledgement in reply.

Guess they didn’t like what I had to say.

Well, I’m attaching my “Blueprint For a Slow Revolution” to this post and you’re free to download and peruse it. Pass it on to whoever you like, see if it provokes any discussion.

Frankly, I think it’s a deeply subversive and dangerous document.

Read on:

Blueprint for a Slow Revolution

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Journal 1I’ve kept a journal since 1996. Not regularly, not religiously—Samuel Pepys, I am not.

Usually the entries consist of a few hundred words, an abbreviated emotional weather report. The problem is, I don’t often write about being happy, content with my lot in life. No, it seems like the only time I want to be a diarist is when I feel the need to vent, blow off steam, expound about my frustration and fury and self-loathing and disappointment. Anyone having nothing more than my journals to go on would think me a very petty, thin-skinned, peevish bastard with the prickly disposition of a rabid hedgehog. It is, if I may say, a very distorted portrait.

But on my 49th birthday I started keeping a daily journal, a comprehensive record of “My 50th Year”. It was supposed to conclude on my 50th birthday but there were some pages left over in the second notebook so I probably have about another six weeks’ worth before I wrap things up. I think these two volumes, which will eventually clock in at around 450 handwritten pages, give a far more well-rounded depiction of the life and times of yours truly.

However, at this point I must confess I’m second-guessing myself, wondering if I’ve done the right thing. Because I have to say, there are definite drawbacks to keeping a daily record of your…activities.

First, one has to determine what to put in and what to leave out. Usually I write in my journal quite late in the day so I tend not to be too long-winded. I don’t waste time composing my thoughts, just scribble down what I’m feeling at that moment, what events of the day stand out most. It’s all very internalized, world news and current affairs largely superfluous. I might have alluded to Nelson Mandela’s death last month but, to be honest, I’m not sure. Authorial license or a shameful omission?

Second, one has to assess just how candid and uninhibited one can be. Obviously a journal or diary is intended to be personal and private, but I’m also aware of how many authors and artists have had their most intimate thoughts exposed to the world (with or without their consent). If I don’t end up destroying these notebooks before my death, I have to count on them being read by some curious party. How much detail regarding my life do I want to impart to a complete stranger?

Finally, when keeping a regular journal you soon come face-to-face with just how bloody boring and without incident Journal 2your life is. I mean, I’m no Graham Greene, jet-setting about, playing baccarat with Kim Philby one day and having lunch with Fidel the next. I’m not even in the league of John Cheever, who wrestled with his sexuality and emotional highs and lows with admirable clarity and candor. I’m more like, well, Walter Mitty—living in fantasy realms of my own invention, with little relation to reality. My self-made universe, fraught with wonky physics, shifting dreamscapes and enticing might-have-beens. When I’m deeply immersed in a writing project, I spend most of my waking hours there.

The transition back to the real world can be unsettling.

I’m a full-time author, stay-at-home husband and father. I don’t really do much of anything. I write (obsessively). I hang out with my family. I read. I watch the occasional good movie. Listen to music. Socialize (infrequently). That’s it. Try journaling about that for over a year. Sitting down each night, opening the notebook to a new, unmarked page and coming up with yet another pithy way of expressing “Wrote today, not much else”. It’s a daunting task, even for someone blessed with my fertile imagination.

I’ve taken to heart Flaubert’s advice to be “regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”. Perhaps too much to heart.

This past year of being a daily diarist has opened my eyes. In my view, my life has become too constricted, too orderly and mundane. I can’t begrudge the hours I spend engrossed in a project but I must do something about the time when I’m “off duty”. Now that our sons are no longer at home and I’m no longer their steward and caregiver, I can direct my energies toward other interests.

Certainly the desire to travel has taken on new significance. Currently, we’re saving money for a trip, putting away whatever we can so that, one day, we can take off and see some place we’ve never been. Locales we’ve always dreamed of visiting.

Rome. Athens. Constantinople.

Thermopylae. Epidaurus. Troy.

Time to spread my wings, seek inspiration farther afield.

My first view of the Mediterranean or the Aegean, storied seas celebrated by the likes of Homer and Shelley and Byron. Possessing a blue, they say, like no other.

What dreams, what tales and verse and images, will our travels stimulate?

Will the ancient, historical lands we traverse seem strange, exotic…or will it be more like coming home?

wall (abstract)

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Picture 2To me, he was the best.

When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.

More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.

He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.

I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.

And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.

I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.

There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.

The King is Dead! The King is Dead!

Long will we mourn his passing.

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"Gulag"After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)

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“I don’t care if it was Bob Dylan,” one disgruntled fan snarled as we lined up to make our way out of the Credit Union Center, “I thought he sucked. He absolutely sucked.”

I didn’t hear anyone protesting, no apologists willing to leap to the great man’s defense.

Rarely have I seen an audience leaving a live performance so utterly listless. They’d come for spectacle, a chance to pay tribute to one of their heroes and here they were, shaking their heads, trying to figure out why a legendarily enigmatic artist would present them with such a haphazard, irritating evening of music.

Talent certainly wasn’t the problem. Dylan’s touring band—Donnie Herron, Tony Garnier, Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball, George Recile—are top flight musicians but they were cruelly hamstrung by Dylan’s presence, subdued, seldom breaking out of the tightly controlled box he stuck them in. The positioning and body language was instructive:  the backing band remained huddled (cowed?) on one side of the stage while Dylan crouched behind an electric keyboard on the audience’s right.

Ah, yes. That fucking keyboard. A good place to hide, Bob, if you can actually, y’know, play the goddamned thing. Dylan, remember, started out on keyboards with his high school band back in Hibbing, Minnesota. Unfortunately, someone should tell him that his technique hasn’t improved since he loudly and tunelessly thumped out Little Richard hits fifty-five years ago. I know a number of fine harmonica players have taken him to task for his misuse of their precious harp, but what Dylan really needs is a classically trained pianist to come along and slam a keyboard cover on his fingers. Repeatedly. His inexpert noodling, amplified and isolated, evoked continual winces throughout the 90-minute show.

I can understand taking a fresh approach to old, stale material, but Dylan’s re-inventions reduced beloved favorites like “Visions of Johanna”, “Shelter from the Storm” and, yeah, even “Blowing in the Wind” to a discordant and indistinguishable mush.  Was there a single song off his latest (B+) album, “Tempest”? If there was, I didn’t hear it. There was a perfunctory rendering of “Man in the Long Black Coat”, an epic tune casually tossed off, a forgettable five-minute abridgement. I cannot think of one song other than the opener “Watching the River Flow” that worked all the way through.

On those rare occasions when the band finally did cut loose—during extended jams on “Highway 61″ and “Levee’s Gonna Break”—we got a hint of what might have been possible, had they, like the thoroughbreds they are, been given their head and allowed to run. I found it maddening to watch superb artists diminished and under-utilized to that extent.

Only one other recent experience in the arts left me as angry and disillusioned with a revered artist and that was a viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme”. Like Dylan, Godard has what I think is an unhealthy contempt for his audience and, as a result, “Film Socialisme” is a futile mess, a blot on a distinguished, ground-breaking career.  This attitude that you can continually flip the bird at people who pay good money and come to your work expecting to be enlightened or entertained or just not bored, exposes artists at the end of their creative rope, an acknowledgement that if you can no longer provide the goods, you might as well sell the rubes lusterless trinkets and spent tailings from exhausted mines.

I think it’s a shameful stance, childish and self-indulgent. While Dylan was under no onus to play pre-packaged, excruciatingly faithful renditions of his classics, he was obliged to at least make them recognizable versions of the originals. And though he may think of himself the consummate iconoclast and contrarian for refusing to cater to the crowd, he also revealed himself as a man no longer able to rock and roll.
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I would be remiss if I didn’t sing praises of Zimmie’s opening act, the great Mark Knopfler and his stellar accompanying band.

Now this lad knows the score.

He avoided playing all but one of his “Dire Staits”-era hits (“So Far Away”), yet left those present cheered and enlivened by his musicianship, poise and presence. He teasingly responded to those dolts who like to shout out requests from the floor (do you people know how fucking retarded you sound to everyone else), and played his heart out, generously collaborating with his musicians, recognizing their virtuoso skills.

Some of us wondered ahead of time why Dylan would choose such a celebrated artist, a headliner in his own right, to take to the stage ahead of him. Both share a love of history, epic ballads, cinematic storylines—they could well be brothers in arms.

But unlike Dylan, Mr. Knopfler has never forgotten the folks out there beyond the footlights, the steep price they paid for being there.

As he left the stage, he blew kisses to the crowd.

Contrast that to Dylan’s coldly dismissive raspberries…

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As previously mentioned, I’ve been asked quite a few times why I decided to write a western.  Even old pals were left scratching their heads. Not only a western, a traditional western, featuring a gunslinger who might have been played by Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott.

Well…

As some of you know, I also keep a film blog. I spent most of the last couple of days composing a lengthy personal essay on my love of western movies. I think the piece perfectly sums up my attraction for the genre and I hope you’ll click on this link, pop over and give it a read. I don’t often write non-fiction of this length but I’m really pleased by how this piece came out.

Don’t be shy about contributing your thoughts, opinions and reminiscences, perhaps offer your own roster of all time faves.

Always looking for tips on great films…

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I have a very small circle of friends.  I mean real friends, you shallow Facebook generation, people I’ve known for years and with whom I have a shared history.

It’s small…and getting smaller.

Part of it is natural attrition:  people grow away from each other or their lives becomes too busy or what have you.  Or they die.

I’ve lost good friends, men and women I’ve been closely associated with more than two decades, for all of the reasons just stated.

Others I’ve shed.  Deliberately, ruthlessly.  With knowledge aforethought.  What can I say?  You cross me and I can be a real bastard.

I’m the first to acknowledge that it ain’t no easy chore being my friend.  The long silences no doubt grate.  And you know I hate, hate, HATE talking on the phone.  The telephone is an infernal device, the only thing left that can really threaten my concentration.  If a phone rings anywhere in my house between 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 (when someone else will be home to answer it), I immediately explode into a string of expletives that would melt the ears off a plastic dashboard Jesus.  Interrupt my work and you run the risk of being murdered.  It’s that simple.  God help the poor fucking telephone solicitor who breaks my train of thought.  Perhaps that’s why so many calls are automated these days.  People like me were traumatizing employees.  Whose lousy pay offered poor compensation for the frequent tirades and threats they endured, their headsets smoking as they fumbled for “disconnect”…

I don’t do small talk, couldn’t give a fuck about the latest movie you’ve seen or book you’ve read or the gorgeous autumn walk you just enjoyed.  Dig?  I.  Don’t.  Care. If you got any thoughts or observations, stick ‘em in a 100-word e-mail and zip it my way.  I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.  That’s a pledge.  E-mails allow me to keep in touch on my time and terms.  It is the perfect platform for a busy curmudgeon.  It is the only form of communication I welcome.

And, of course, when I do get together with my friends they have to put up with my admittedly caustic wit and, let’s be honest, rants on my new favorite pet peeve or a long lecture on Gnosticism and the novels of Philip K. Dick.  Amazing how, at once, a person can be both boring and a boor.  I manage it quite easily.

I have a natural compulsion to entertain, to be the center of attention.  I’m capable of saying almost anything, the most provocative and cringe-worthy statements, refusing to recognize the fine line between satire and offensiveness.  I despise political correctness; watching our tongues and minding our manners like good little Stalin-era proles.  Fuck that.

Nights out with me are rare but they’re usually memorable.  Just not for the right reasons…

For the most part I enjoy being alone.  Very comfortable with silence and solitude.  I don’t require company or diversion.  I’m doing something creative literally every single day of the year and I simply don’t have much time for other things.  When I’m not working, I’m with my family.  If I’m not doing either, I’m sleeping.  That’s pretty much the schedule around here.  The reality you have to adapt to if you’re going to remain in the picture longterm as a pal and confidante.

There’s one other thing and this is important:  you wanna be my friend, you gotta read my work.  Every single word of it.  Read it, listen to it, hold an informed opinion on it.  Having any conversation with me and not alluding, however briefly, to my raison d’etre, my entire purpose for existing on this planet, is like slapping me in a face with a sock full of canned ham.  You don’t recognize the central role writing plays in my life and respect the enormous amount of time and effort I expend on putting words on paper, you ain’t no friend.  You might be an acquaintance, a chum, but you sure as fuck ain’t part of the inner circle.  You’re somewhere out in the Oort Cloud, a distant signal, a far point of light.

I fully recognize that these are hard terms, entirely one-sided and solipsistic.  But the closer I get to fifty I’ve become less and less tolerant of superficial relationships and part-time pals.  And, unfortunately, I live in a pretty remote locale so there’s little chance of mingling with fellow writers and artists, who would have a better grasp of my obsessions and the demons that relentlessly drive me.  My wife and I have talked about moving to a larger center, where there are more opportunities to take in good movies, enjoy a cultural evening out.  With our boys getting older, a year or two from heading out on their own, it might be time to seriously ponder a change of address.  We’ll see.

Whatever happens and wherever I live, creativity and the compulsion to express myself will remain my primary focus.  Unless my brain is fully preoccupied with a project or artful experiment, I become bored, restless.  Dangerous.  If it’s frustrated or annoyed, a mind like mine can quickly turn on others…or itself.  It rages fearfully.  Vindictive and brutal, refusing to forgive the slightest fault.

Believe me, it’s a good thing I’m such a workaholic.  It’s better for everyone involved.  Those long silences mean I’m deeply and happily immersed in a book or story or short film.

Be sure to ask me about it the next time we run into each other.

I’m always happy to talk shop with a friend.


(Visuals by Cliff Burns)

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Back from my trip to Montana and I’m ten days older, a helluva lot wiser and a great deal more appreciative of the beauty, wonder and diversity all around us.

I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous.  But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive.  On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.

The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state.  I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood.  There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long.  The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990′s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now).  I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there.  The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case.  When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.

Montana had worked its magic on me.

This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively.  The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too:  we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt.  A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it.  And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer.  I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.

Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming.  Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up.  Lee, you’re a gem.

Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest.  And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.

Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured.  Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak.  We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place.  A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old.  Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.

“Come on downstairs.”  We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear.  John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.

Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler.  Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years.  We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat.  I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you.  Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction.  And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it.  After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”

I think I might have stopped breathing.  Of course I had.  I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…”  Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”

I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar.  What a lost opportunity.  Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”

Well.  There it is.

Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes.  Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted.  Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit.  Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it.  “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor.  “Plug ‘em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply.  There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons.  While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—

And there he was.  James Crumley.  Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness.  To me, Crumley is the man.  For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen.  He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well.  Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking.  Ah, Jim…

I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture.  Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait.  To your good soul

Met any number of terrific people in our travels.  We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell.  I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures.  Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.

Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent.  They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business.  People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington.  They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors.  I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.

Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back.  I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan.  The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive.  I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.

Author photo courtesy Ken Harman (Thanks, Cap’n!)

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My wife and sons have temporarily departed for more northerly climes, visiting family members who live right next to a lake near Thompson, Manitoba.  Idyllic spot, natural and picturesque.

Why didn’t I tag along (you ask, impudently)?

Because my mind isn’t ready for a vacation right now.  Matter of fact, for some reason summer is the time of year when my Muse really puts the pedal to the metal.  A good number of my novels and best short stories were drafted during the months of June-August.  Maybe a hormonal thing, who knows?  So, while everyone else is outside, barbequing or going to the lake, renting a cottage, enjoying yourselves, you’ll find me in my sweltering 10′ X 12′ home office, my door open, the fan on high to make the environment livable as I toil away on some literary project.

This year is no exception.  My western novel, The Last Hunt, devours much of my time.  I’m supposed to be taking a break from it at the moment but I can’t help poking my nose in, doing more research, scribbling notes, conceiving questions for some of the historians who have generously offered to lend a hand with the scenes set in Yellowstone Park. They’ll provide me with historical background, period detail and invaluable advice and input (and God bless ‘em). I’ll be visiting that region of Montana later this summer, doing some on the spot scouting and location hunting.  It will be my first trip of any significance in a long time (I blush to say how long).  This borderline agoraphobic workaholic is trembling at the notion of being away from my desk for any length of time but I am utterly convinced of the necessity of this trip.  It will better establish the mood and setting of The Last Hunt and add some of the authenticity I think the present draft is lacking.

But I must confess I have another reason for remaining home.  It isn’t often I get the house to myself for days at a stretch and on those rare occasions that I do…well, I like to take full advantage of it.  I play loud music, from the time I get up to the wee hours of the morning.  I keep the windows shut, the drapes drawn and for one or two days I let myself go.  Stalk about in my bathrobe, unshaven, neglecting the laundry, neglecting to eat properly, neglecting to answer the phone or interact with the outside world.

It’s glorious and terrifying and, ultimately, beneficial.

I sit in my office, staring at my slippers while The Vandelles, A Place to Bury Strangers, The Replacements, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, etc. thunder from overhead speakers, loud enough to force me further back in my chair.  Lately, I like my music hard and dirty, a la the Vandelles’ “Lovely Weather” (crank it up!).

Meanwhile, I’m doing a good deal of scribbling—journaling and spontaneous or “automatic” writing like the Surrealists used to champion.  These writings represent Rorschach Tests and they give a pretty good idea of what’s on my mind, the preoccupations and fears dogging me.  Plenty of speculations on the spiritual front—I keep that up, I’m liable to end up with a gazillion page Exegesis, similar to Philip K. Dick.  And will likely be considered just as loony, should anyone happen to stumble across these errant, inexpert ramblings on God, the nature of reality and my own pitiful existence.

These writing exercises often trigger intervals of hellish introspection, long hours spent reviewing past sins and ruminating over the sorry state of my literary career, even after a quarter century of putting words on paper.  The mental boo birds come out and I subject myself to a great deal of vitriol before the nattering voices either subside, wear themselves out or are chastened by a very Bugs Bunny-like snarl originating from the depths of my id:

Aaaaaaaa, shaddap!”

I have trouble sleeping when my family’s away, find the nights hard to endure. I kill time by staying up and watching a double or triple header of movies.  Guy flicks and guilty pleasures; science fiction and thrillers given precedence.  This time around I’ve set aside flicks like “Michael Clayton”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Searchers”, “Shadow of the Vampire”,  “The Bad Lieutenant”.  Nothing too crazy, re: anything by Ken Russell or (shudder) “Eraserhead”.

And for reading material, Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival and Graham Hancock’s Supernatural.  Far-fetched stuff?  Pseudo-science?  To me, what these lads propose is nowhere near as crazy as some of the notions held by billions of people of all faiths around the world.  I am intrigued by what triggered that “monolith moment”, when our kind first opened their eyes to the possibility and mystery of the world and took a crucial evolutionary step, moving further away from their humble origins and toward a spectacular destiny.  This transformation coincided with the earliest cave art and the enactment of burial rituals, a species awakening to the existence of other realms and principalities.

Mebbe Bill Hicks is right and a certain humble fungus, naturally occurring, is responsible.  I guess we’d need a time machine to find out for sure.  Intriguing thought, though…

I suppose when all is said and done, my time alone is therapeutic, cathartic.  I miss out on a chance to hang out with good folks, do some boating and fishing in some of the most gorgeous scenery this country has to offer.  But the soul-searching, self-Inquisition and psychic ass-kicking blows off steam, relieves the accumulated pressures that accompany the creative life.  In my solitude, I can confront my demons and it’s a no-holds-barred, no quarter given bloodbath.  It’s not pleasant but it is necessary.  All part of the ongoing struggle to define myself as an artist, to better delineate the precepts and ideals I live by, requiring me to identify aspects within me that are working against those higher purposes and undermining my essential faith in the worthiness of my endeavors.  Demons, indeed, with hideous countenances, avid, savage expressions and appetites.  They are the worst parts of me and during the next few days I shall brawl, joust and treat with them, in the end probably settling for another draw, a few more months of relative peace on the emotional/spiritual front.

You say that’s not much of a bargain but, then, clearly your demons aren’t nearly as unreasonable, their intentions not as deliberately malign.

For that, count yourself lucky.

You are very fortunate indeed.

Photos by Sherron Burns

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“I…am…not…afraid…of…you.”

Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant.  These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades.  Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them.  Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit.  Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody.  Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter.  Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?

Never in hell.  I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid.  A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.

This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.

“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”

“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”

“Only the chapter I had to.”

“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”

“That was half decent.”

“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”

And so on.  Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.

What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store?  Waiting for the rain to subside?  I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?

* * * * *

I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles.  It’s getting scary.  We’re running out of space.  Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor.  Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand.  I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles?  How much can she get for all these fucking books?

And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans.  If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.

Sweet.

Or perhaps not.  It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore.  I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch.  Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…

Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more.  Isn’t that weird?  Isn’t that, well, nuts?

It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.

I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder.  When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.

Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that.  The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess.  That’s it.

Pitiful, ain’t it?

But, of course, it isn’t just books.  I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it.  I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending.  Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.

No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control.  Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals.  Thanks, kids!

We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling.  The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down?  That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational.  It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity.  The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.

I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old.  Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days.  I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist.  Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.

I’ve been a reader all my life.  Forty years with my nose in books.  Books have always offered me comfort and consolation.  In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality.  As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today.  I would be one of them:  mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.

All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.

A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage.  Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.

New and old enthusiasms:  Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice.  It goes on and on…

When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)?  How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words?  Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?

Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.

How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years?  Two hundred?  Three hundred?  The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…

I’m a sick man.  Addicted to the printed word.  Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically.  Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy.  How could I have missed them?  Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.

The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.

Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there.  Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant.  A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.

Photos by Sherron Burns

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