Sweet Mysteries of Life

My father died when I was young, and there are a few million things I wish I could talk about with him. He was 53 and I was 20. I’ve significantly outlived him.

I inherited most of his books — and it’s daunting. He had everything. Go into my living room, where I keep this prized library, and you’ll find an impressive collection  of world literature. Run your fingers over the spines: Thuycides, Plato, Aristotle, through all of Jane Austen and Henry James, and that fun couple, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne

This photograph of Raymond Chandler kind of looks like my father.

I have a beautiful edition of Leaves of Grass, printed (appropriately) with a grass leaf cover. I have his copy of The Bible as Living Literature

He loved Vladimir Nabokov, and could recite parts of Finnegans Wake from memory. He was a huge fan of James Joyce and so the portrait of Joyce next to the living-room bookshelves — which I purchased from a Dublin street artist — is there in tribute to him. I’ve appreciated Joyce’s short stories but never made it through Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.

I have such strong memories of my father performing passages basso profundo.

But his tastes were so catholic. Note lower case. 

My father was one of those guys with a book in every room — living room, family room, bedroom, bathroom. Different books for different moods.

I share one of his addictions, though mine did not appear until many years after his death. We both love(d) detective fiction.

I remember when we were stationed in England in the 1950s. Dad had a lot of paperback mysteries strewn around the house. My brother got custody of those books when Dad died, so I’ve been playing catch-up.

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason

The recent HBO series devoted to the Perry Mason origin story got me reading the Erle Stanley Gardner omnibus my son Jack bought for me last year at a garage sale. Mom and Dad used to devour those books.

I bought a few Raymond Chandler collections from eBay. Dad, in particular, loved Chandler.

And there was a less-well-known writer, named John Dickson Carr. I remember so clearly my father reading his book, The Problem of the Wire Cage. I await the arrival of a battered 60-year-old paperback from eBay.

I wish I could talk over these books with my Dad. I was so unformed when he died. In the last year of his life, he bought me two books that meant so much to me — The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I was the only member of the family who showed no interest in following him into a medical career, so he wanted to support me in the work I chose.

Carl Hiaasen

Somewhere along the way, I became a fan of mystery novels. Maybe it started with Carl Hiaasen’s books, back in the 1980s. I’m not sure those are traditional mysteries — they’re more like farces with undertones of ecological skullduggery.

His latest book, Squeeze Me, spoofs the crimes against humanity at the Palm Beach White House, where the president is known only by his secret service code name: Mastodon.

Hiassen’s novels have only a couple of continuing characters. Alternating novels feature Skink, the renegade former governor of Florida. War hero and patriot Clinton Tyree returned from Vietnam filled with idealism and entered public life. He was elected governor, but then became frustrated by the rampant corruption in the state, and so disappeared.

But he didn’t exactly disappear. Tyree went underground as an eco-terrorist, subsisting on roadkill.

Thankfully, Skink appears in Squeeze Me. (He has also appeared in one of Hiaasen’s entries in his best-selling series of young-adult novels. Hoot is the best-known of his YA books.)

Squeeze Me got me laughing during this pandemic, and I wrote about that book a few posts back. Find it here.

Michael Connelly

But my old man would have really loved books by two writers whose work is like crack to me: Michael Connelly and Tom Corcoran.

Both are known for their long-running series of novels with continuing protagonists. Connelly and Corcoran are so expert at their craft that it does not matter in what order you read the books. You can read the latest Connelly novel about Harry Bosch and not feel left out.

Bosch is the character to whom Connelly most often returns. He was introduced 30 years ago as a Vietnam veteran, born to a prostitute and a (then) unknown father. His mother is murdered, Bosch grows up in foster homes, serves as a tunnel rat in Vietnam before becoming a cop. With each case, he avenges his mother’s murder. “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”

Along the way, Connelly has introduced other continuing characters, including FBI profilers Rachel Walling and Terry McCaleb. He had to kill off McCaleb several years back, because Clint Eastwood bought the rights to a novel featuring McCaleb. The character was around 40, but when he was played by the Great Squinter in Blood Work, Connelly realized he had to dispose of his creation. In a meta moment, Connelly addressed the issue of Eastwood’s major plot twist that perverted the relationships in the Blood Work novel. This showed in conversation, when McCaleb notes — not long before his demise — how it sucked to be played by a geezer in the movies.

Along the way, Connelly created another character. Since he showed a great affinity with police stories, he decided to master the courtroom thriller. Thus was Mickey Haller born. Turns out he’s the half brother of Harry Bosch — we finally find out the identity of the father — and works out of the backseat of his car. Connelly inaugurated a series of Lincoln Lawyer novels, then two years ago, introduced a young detective who lives in a lean-to on the beach, Renee Ballard. 

Another continuing character, Jack McEvoy, harkens from Connelly’s days as a newspaper reporter. He appeared in The Poet, The Scarecrow (one of Connelly’s very best) and Fair Warning. Once a mad-dog journalist, these days Jack works for a non-profit reporting collective. Connelly keeps up with the times. His characters often show up in each other’s novels. Bosch might appear in a McEvoy book and Bosch makes frequent walk-ons in the Mickey Haller stories.

(FYI, Bosch is the excellent Prime Video series starring the perfectly cast Titus Welliver as the detective. If you have not seen it, six seasons await your binge. The seventh season is in production.)

A few years back, the jacket of a Tom Corcoran novel bore a quote from Connelly that said Corcoran’s book Air Dance Iguana was “the reading highlight of the year.” 

That is high praise. 

Tom Corcoran

Corcoran’s protagonist isn’t a police detective. Alex Rutledge is a Key West photographer well connected to cops and reporters and gets roped into solving mysteries in America’s southernmost city. 

Corcoran’s books have the added attraction of their setting. He gives us the underbelly of Key West, not just the tourist version. His books are fecund with sights, sounds and tastes of Key West. 

As an even further added attraction: the setting, the heat, the lack of clothing, the island breezes . . . they all combine to make these Corcoran books sexier than your average detective novel.

I’ve read all of his books and his new one, The Cayo Hueso Maze, is his best. Again, you can start with this Alex Rutledge novel, then read the rest of them — and trust me, you’ll want to — in any order.

Corcoran was an Ohio boy, but was assigned to Key West in 1968, and he’s spent most of the last 50-plus years in the islands, and he knows the town’s deep history, having palled with Tennessee Williams, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. He wrote a couple of songs with new-kid-in-town Jimmy Buffett (whom he also housed when Buffett lacked a place of his own) and co-authored two unproduced screenplays with Hunter S. Thompson.

(Of course, if you’re interested in Corcoran’s life, you can always read my swell book, Mile Marker Zero.)

We are in the middle of a global pandemic, so reading a Tom Corcoran book might be the only way to take a trip to the island.

Click on these links to buy the two latest books — Connelly’s The Law of Innocence and Corcoran’s The Cayo Hueso Maze

Michael Connelly’s website: www.michaelconnelly.com
Tom Corcoran’s website: www.tomcorcoran.net

Laughing to keep from crying

Carl Hiaasen practices rage humor.

Carl Hiaasen

He’s so angry — over the environment, greed, political imbeciles, and general assholery.

Yet instead of standing on a mountaintop to spew screeds about injustice, he uses humor to craft magnificently twisted tales in which the bad guys get what they deserve. (Besides, there are no mountaintops in Florida.)

He makes us laugh as he eviscerates the unjust. I just finished his latest, Squeeze Me, and in the modern landscape, there is much that angers Hiaasen.

I’ll give nothing away, but a lot of the action takes place at the Florida estate of the President of the United States. He’s a rotund toupee-wearing blowhard referred to only by his Secret Service name, Mastodon.

It’s a wonderful book. A couple of times, I had to close the book and sit and laugh for a moment. I had a chuckle every other page or so.

But as I was reading — and laughing — all I could think about was the righteous anger underneath. I’ve read all of Carl’s novels and they are without exception excellent books. I marvel at his word choice and the music of his language.

What a great, distinctive voice.

His writing is masterful and his passion is there, the foundation underneath the humor. I’ve always been fond of Double Whammy and Native Tongue and Lucky You. But hell, I love all of his novels. I can’t think of one that wasn’t simultaneously funny and thought provoking. You rarely find someone who can succeed on both of those platforms.

He’s deft, this Hiaasen fellow.

Every now and then, I recall Native Tongue, which is about a corrupt South Florida theme park called the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. Every afternoon at 3, the park watches a parade called the Pageant of Florida History, featuring tributes to wastewater and break-dancing migrant workers. I’ve broken out in random laughter on the subway when that crosses my mind. (Usually my fellow passengers scoot away from me when this happens.)

But this new book — Squeeze Me — may be his best work. It so well reflects our time, set as it is in the post-Covid-19 world. Carl has us laughing just to keep us from crying.

It’s funny. When someone is a social critic, those on the far right think they’re unpatriotic or anti-American. Seems to me the critics are the ones who love their country long after a weaker soul would have given up on the enterprise.

Carl’s so angry about the maggots destroying the environment and our system of democratic government. That anger inspires him to make us see, through laughter, the lurking tragedy. When I think of what’s behind the anger, I recall John Lee Hooker, who sang, “It’s in him and it’s got to come out.”

Lucky for us, he channels his Wagnerian rage into his novels. Rarely has fury been so funny.

I hope he’s OK, though. This book makes me wish I could buy him a bowl of soup.

Going off the cliff

 

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis

If anything good has come out of our culture in the last 18 months, maybe it’s that us Clueless White Guys are beginning to understand the problem.

To many of us, the election of the Pussygrabber in Chief was like sticking our heads in a sink full of ice cubes. And not long before that, there was that viral video showing a woman walking around the Five Boroughs getting catcalled by everything male.

As a Clueless White Guy, I’ve got to tell you how much those two events affected me. When I saw the catcalling video, I asked my adult daughters if that’s really what it was like to be a woman. Yes, they said, and worse.

And then that vile, groping guy got elected president.

This is all heavy on my mind as I read Becky Aikman’s new book, Off the Cliff. Aikman tells the story of the making of Thelma & Louise, and all of the behind-the-scenes battles to get the story on screen.  The story of two renegades from sexual oppression and violence, it was the work of Callie Khouri, who became the first woman in 60 years to win a solo Oscar for screenwriting.

Since the film became such a touchstone of popular culture – 25 years ago now! – it might come as a surprise to Clueless White Guys what a struggle it was to make.

The lead roles were played by women! That’s as rare as frost on a frying pan! A story about women — note plural — that did not cast them in the standard roles of “mom” or “hooker” (or perhaps both at once).

The script was by a woman! Great mother of jabbering Jesus! Since when does that stuff happen?

And, of course, the director was the guy who made Alien. Yes! This makes perfect sense!

Off the Cliff doesn’t tell a story that merely pits women against men. The director, Ridley Scott, is as much of a horndog as the rest of us, but he is drawn to the story and making Thelma & Louise was his education and consciousness raising.

Studio head Alan Ladd Jr. also pushed the film, and we learn how he was the rare executive to move into production films with strong female leads. It was Laddie (as he was called), who suggested to director Scott during that earlier collaboration on Alien, “Say, why don’t we make a woman be the hero?”

Sigourney Weaver, here is your career.

The two stars of the film, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, were not the first choices. It was going to be Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer. Then it was Meryl and Goldie.

Becky Aikman

Sarandon is the hero of the book, both for her principled character as an actor and in the role she played, but also as a mentor to younger artists such as Geena Davis and … well, and nearly everyone else she comes across. She understands the characters and knows the power of the story. And she stands up for Davis when she catches the slightest whiff of exploitation.

And who better than Susan Sarandon to be charged with consciousness raising?

(Offscreen tidbit: George Clooney was turned down for the role that Brad Pitt got. This is the film that made Pitt into a star. Would the cosmos have evolved differently if Clooney had gotten the part? Discuss.)

There are a lot of great making-of-the-film books out there, dating from Lillian Ross’s magnificent Picture (about John Huston’s struggle to make The Red Badge of Courage in 1952). Later entries included John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio (about the horrifying Rex Harrison version of Doctor Doolittle), and Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (about turning The Bonfire of the Vanities into a film).

Aikman’s book is one of the best of the making-of subgenre and certainly one of the best books about filmmaking since Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

But Off the Cliff is not just a book about making a movie. It’s about the culture that so devalues the contributions of the majority of its citizens. Aikman doesn’t preach; she doesn’t need to. The story is up on the screen.