Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Madness Methods: 'Monkeybicycle' Issue 9


For the last several months, I've been generally familiar with the fiction/poetry journal Monkeybicycle, having selected some of their stories for the Instafiction archives. Going by those samples, and by my recent reading of their latest print issue, there's no explicit theme, but rather an explicit mix of styles: straightforward narratives, experimental forays into different forms and plot arcs, and the occasionally, intentionally off-kilter humorous piece. Generally, this could be a treacherous variety, since literary magazines rarely have a medium between "strict adherence to a given style" and "anything goes." However, Monkeybicycle 9's mix is fascinating, with a strong complexity that requires multiple readings. I went into it expecting breezy, "summer"-like literature (I don't mean that negatively), but what I ended up with was a challenging, diverse collection that gave me more insight into the journal's overall mission. This mission isn't a concrete, quotable statement, but rather an intangible atmosphere. Most importantly, I now have a list of writers whom I'll be eagerly following in the future.

"I later learned that my mom had waited to buy my cake until the night before at an hour when the only open store was our local erotic bakery. But at the time I suspected that she wanted to announce that Alfy Wiggins, her second-born, 12-year-old son, was the sort of boy who would want a penis cake for his birthday. This was not true (52)."

"But it was too late. Bernie had already run downstairs. I soon heard the downstairs freezer door open and shut, and then the screen door slammed. Bernie had run away twice already that year. The first time he had taken a half-eaten bag of potato chips from the kitchen and then climbed a tree in our front yard, fending for himself for a whole afternoon until Mom and Dad came out and begged him to come back inside. The second time he had run outside with a loaf of bread and a pack of cheese slices, then had climbed back into his room through the window. He sat in his room all afternoon watching everyone in the neighborhood frantically search for him while he ate cheese sandwiches (57)."


These out-of-context passages come from Rory Douglas' "The Best Birthday Party Ever," a touching, hilarious story about the awkwardness of adolescence and the quiet family troubles that never go away, even during moments of celebration. Before, had I been asked to give an example of a "usual" Monkeybicycle story, this would have been my selection. Douglas combines a knack for sometimes dark humor and strange interactions, but without sacrificing a strong grasp of good storytelling. These ideas pop up frequently in this issue, with another excellent example being Jon Steinhagen's "The Next Place," told almost exclusively in dialogue between two literal, eccentric companions. They stand outside of a potential new dwelling and through their conversations explore past apartments and hints to what they ultimately desire. As much as I tend to loathe "quirky" as a description for any piece of fiction, Steinhagen's story fits this in the best of ways:

"What will we net by relocating ourselves to this address? asked Squiller. A roof over our heads? We can get that anywhere.
A metaphorical roof, said Trill. We don't currently share a top-floor apartment, nor is this a top-floor apartment. In other words, no matter where we live, we'll have a ceiling over our heads, which is just as good as a roof--possibly better.
Better? asked Squiller.
I'm not in the mood to go into the physics and metaphysics of it, said Trill. Go on. You were warming to your subject, and I was wrong to interject.
Quite all right, said Squiller. Stop me if you disagree. Now: We will have two bedrooms, one bathroom, one kitchen, one living room, and one dining room. Correct?
And one porch, said Trill. Or what passes for a porch in these buildings.
The dining room will be smaller than the living room and the main bedroom will be smaller than the dining room and the second-best bedroom will be smaller than the main bedroom, said Squiller.
Don't say second-best bedroom, said Trill. That's the bedroom I always get (41)."



Some of the stories are complex, layered narratives, with an early example of this being "Shapeway" by Colleen Morrissey (pictured above). It's a fictional history of an early 20th century theater owner and his wife, told from both of their points of view, and balancing their respective views on their relationship and the history of the small theater. Throughout these explorations, the two share curious insights into Edie's (the wife) personality, which adds to and detracts from the story's conclusion, since her makeup shifts between coldness and warmth for those around her. The selected passages are beautifully written, tense looks at Edie's relationship with her various family members, the first part narrated by Tom, the second narrated by herself:

"Edie was in our bed, soaking wet, her black hair stuck like tar to her face and shoulders, her legs wide apart. She was sitting in a round black-red puddle of blood that sunk so badly into our mattress that we never could get the stain out. She was crying. The only times I have ever seen Edie cry were during that first birth and her mother's death.

Edie reached out to me, and I went right to her, kneeling beside the bed. She clutched her slick arms around my neck and shoulders, her cheeks pressing into mine.

'It's all right,' I said to her, one of my hands on her back, holding her to me, and my other one on her stomach, tryng to make her feel better somehow.

'Tom,' she said, 'Tom. I don't want it anymore. I don't want it.'

'I know,' I said.

'I want it to be just you and me (19).'"

"Yes, six years after his death I remarried. I don't like to think so, but maybe I did love Tom less than he loved me. I never did find it easy to care for people. When friends moved away or went off to school, everyone else would say how much they missed them, and I did, too, but I always got the feeling that I missed them less than anyone. Even when I was little, before my brothers and sisters were born, my mother would go into town for the day to shop, leaving me with my grandmother, and I never cried. I hardly even noticed she was gone. When she'd come back, ready to comfort me and be barreled down by a running embrace, she'd find me in the yard petting the chickens, and I'd say 'Hello, Mama,' as calm as anything. I think it hurt her feelings that I didn't bawl or scream like other children did (26)."

I was especially moved by Marshall Walker Lee's (pictured below) story "Cape Canaveral," a meticulously plotted work about a young man's relationship with his father before, during, and after a shuttle launch. Lee's work also ties nicely into my above mention of the necessity of rereading the issue. I didn't know what to make of "Cape Canaveral" at first, but my second reading allowed me to both foresee where he was going with the actions and at the same time this revealed new motives and characterizations. I also enjoyed how Lee incorporated such a specific, American event as the backdrop, using a complex moment as a support for complex relationships. I'm still amazed at how quickly my opinions changed on this story, since a little bit of time allowed me to disregard my first impressions and reassess the story's meaning.

"Three. Two. One. Liftoff. The shuttle drags against the ceiling of the world, scissoring the blue sky, opening a seam through which thick white smoke pours. The crowd goes positively apeshit. One man jumps for joy, literally jumps, again and again, as if on springs, until he trips and tumbles down and rises with his face and chest splattered with muck. The others cheer and smear their own faces with mud. They press closer to the swamp, closer to one another. They kiss their neighbors on the mouth.

At my side, my father cries softly.

I say, 'You are crying because you are happy, because you have seen this wondrous thing, because you have fulfilled a childhood ambition.'

'No, no, no!' my father wails. 'I am crying because I have failed myself. What I wanted was to be onboard the ship. To be strapped inside the nose cone and to feel my stomach tight against my spine. To be in space and see the world spin through my little window (114).'"




Thematically, the poetry in Monkeybicycle 9 also follows a balance between the standard and the offbeat. As I've mentioned before, despite my handful of poetry reviews, I'm much more confident in literary criticism as opposed to poetic critiques. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dustin Hoffman's "Amateur Paleontologist Stumbles Into My Foot," which at first seems like a strange set up for a poetic exploration, but quickly evolves into deeper conversations about chance, personality, and a much, much bigger picture, touching upon science and metaphysics in the span of a few stanzas.

"His apprentice lugs an armful of phalanges through my foot, over the arch to his makeshift table, bones like stars against my blushed tendons.
These are clues, code he must decipher. Nose slick with sweat, his
bifocals slip,
teeter the tip of his dusty nose. But he doesn't correct, lets them dangle,

slice bone-blur through his vision. Nothing matches, attaches,
the way he wants it to. He bends, fingertips lacing ligament brambles,
until a shard pricks, snapped metatarsal--the apprentice and his fat hands,
he thinks, cement grip that choked the future by cracking the past (100)."

Jessica Levine's "Day Into Night" is also a careful mix of the emotional and the scientific. Similarly to the dark humor/interactions that link some of the seemingly unrelated stories, the poems of Hoffman and Levine share these very faint similarities. So while Monkeybicycle 9 doesn't have the aforementioned explicit theme, there are very slight connections, which add to what I feel are the "intangible connections."

"3.
In the absolute unwinding of day,
in the softened pleat, the well-worn thread,
in the peace of the laundered hour--
I ride our speeding planet into darkness
advancing by splayed degrees,
obeying laws I don't understand (138)."

I would have liked more essays in this issue, only because the two featured essays are so compelling, and I'm curious to compare the themes and styles of Monkeybicycle's essays selections. Kelsi Sexton's "Rafting Event" is a stunning example of creative nonfiction, a carefully detailed look at lemur activity. She writes with a passion for zoological studies, highlighted with terrific prose, creating a work that combines both forms without being distracting.

"Some lemurs fit in the palm of your hand, others easily breach four feet. Some scratch posts with scent-marking glands in their wrists, a semipermanent 'Lemurs were here' impressed on soft bark. Others sing to each other in the waning light of the moon, brief reminders that they aren't alone. Some lemurs even kiss. It is a cast of characters no Amazonian or Sumatran rain forest has been able to match (48)."

I include A.A. Balaskovits's "Black Spots" as an essay, but it could very well be a fictionalized account. It details the life of a firefighter grandfather (her own? or the one of the unnamed narrator?) in Chicago, and even if it is fiction, there's an undeniable path of a family history, and it works both ways. If this is an account of Balaskovits's own grandfather, it's a beautiful examination of his life and career. If this is a short story, there's no doubt it could reflect the outlooks and observations of anyone who has had a firefighter in his or her own family. In any case, the prose is beautiful and evocative, and after several readings, these feelings never waned.

"I don't know much about what kind of insides it takes to go into a burning building, so I can't picture bright flames disfiguring his face. I haven't seen many photographs of him, so when I think of him I think of my father with white hair and thicker glasses. I imagine him reaching down to pick up the body of a child and holding only ashes in his big, gloved hands, his mouth open but unable to utter noise, breathing in those small black spots. He must have inhaled so much that day. He held those children inside him like the city holds the memory. I think each time Grandfather exhaled, he tasted them, that infinite sorrow of their brief lives on his tongue, and each word he said was tinged with the flavor (171)."

I feel I've given a proper range of examples to show the diversity of Monkeybicycle 9. Like almost any collection, there were some pieces that didn't work for me, some experimentation with forms and language that were too forced and too obviously "different," therefore being a slight distraction from the story in the name of creativity. However, there is nothing in this issue that's any sort of filler or throwaway piece--the stories themselves are compelling, even if I had the occasional issue with the styles. As a whole, what seems like a random assemblage has careful, emotional connections. It's always fascinating to discover new creative voices, and again, I'm excited to keep abreast of the forthcoming works of the writers featured here. Monkeybicycle 9 is a challenge, and I mean that in a very complimentary manner. Most importantly, as I continue to follow their productions, I now know what the journal is capable of doing--they're unafraid of presenting different styles and voices, but instead of a hodgepodge collection, there's an emphasis on celebrating the varying directions. For the most part, this is terrific summer reading, and a concrete example of what's out there when readers (both professional and curious) continually beg for recommendations of new readings. As a reader, writer, and bookseller, I've long championed small presses, since there's so much out there that seems to be overlooked. This is a great example of what I mean.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer Times: Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor"


NOTE: Some of the cited passages are NSFW.

I'm participating in a new book club, organized by one of my co-workers. I volunteered to host the July session, with the selection being Colson Whitehead's 2009 novel Sag Harbor. Before I get into the book itself, the book club meeting gently reinforced the fact that literary critics, whether of the armchair or professional variety, can stumble on intentions and do the occasional misreading. The most recent example is Janet Maslin's misreading of Patrick Somerville's This Bright River, which led the author to pen his own response, the much-shared "Thank You For Killing My Novel." When I was in college, I wrote several pages' worth of criticism on a short story (I've forgotten which one), only to be called to my professor's office to be told I had missed a key element of the plot, one so big that it rendered my paper completely wrong. As my stomach clenched, the professor smiled and offered me a chance to rewrite it. He told me a story about his first year of teaching: he was explaining a text to a full lecture hall, and a student raised his hand and said "I hate to interrupt, but that's not what happened in the book." The professor told me how embarrassed he was when he realized his student was right, that he had truly gaffed on the plot. So where am I going with this? I'll explain in more detail as I get into Sag Harbor's intricacies, but my opening statement to the book club was eventually proven to be the opposite of Whitehead's most likely intentions.

The novel tells the story of Benji, a black teenager who spends his summers at his family's home in Sag Harbor. His parents normally come on the weekends, giving him and his brother free reign during the week. It's 1985, Benji is fifteen years old, and he's determined to reinvent his image and personality. During the school year, he's one of the few black students at his prep school, but during the summer, he's part of a larger group of well-to-do black vacationers in the area. His friends are a cast of characters with unique personalities, but with traits that anyone can remember from their high school days: Marcus tends to get left behind on group outings; Randy calls shots based on the fact that he has a car; NP (with a hilarious nickname origin that would be too much to spoil here) grandly exaggerates his exploits; and so on. Benji observes the (mis)adventures and monotony of a long summer, but what seems like the foundation for a typical coming of age novel is rather a platform for careful details of personalities and teenage yearnings without any true dramatic climaxes or "payoffs." However, Whitehead's writing turns the mundane into fascinating studies of interactions. Through Benji's narration, the stories behind the actions and personalities of him and his friends become compelling. A good example is the youthful obsession with complex ritual handshakes:

"Yes, the handshakes were out, shaming me with their permutations and slippery routines. Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap? I was all thumbs when it came to shakes. Devised in the underground soul laboratories of Harlem, pounded out in the blacker-than-thou sweatshops of the South Bronx, the new handshakes always had me faltering in embarrassment. Like this? No, you didn't stick to the landing: the judges give it 4.6 (Whitehead 43)."

Experimentation with language is also carefully, hilariously rendered:

"I said 'Shut up, bitch.' I'd been experimenting with 'bitch,' trying it out every couple of days. Going well so far, from the response (Whitehead 93)."

"You could also preface things with a throat-clearing 'You fuckin',' as in 'You fuckin' Cha-Ka from Land Of the Lost-lookin' motherfucker,' directed at Bobby, for example, who had light brown skin, light brown hair, and indeed shared these characteristics with the hominid sidekick on the Saturday morning adventure show Land Of the Lost. 'You fuckin'' acted as a rhetorical pause, allowing the speaker a few extra seconds to pluck some splendid modifier out of the invective ether, and giving the listener a chance to gird himself for the top-notch put-down/splendid imagery to follow (Whitehead 41-42)."

Benji and his brother Reggie survive during the week by working at an ice cream parlor and Burger King, respectively (Whitehead is spot-on in his descriptions of the drudgery and nastiness of summertime food counter work). The rest of the time is spent awaiting the parental visits on the weekends and trying to cram as much activity into the end of the week as possible. Some of these are specific (Benji accidentally gets shot in the eye during a BB gun war), and sometimes these are general. Throughout, Whitehead never wanes in at least a succinct sociological overview of the happenings, and even with mentions of The Cosby Show and New Coke, the events aren't exclusive to Benji's 1985. The teenage male dynamics can apply to almost any era or demographic.

"Summers we brawled. We were hungry for slight, for provocations big and small, and when one didn't appear, we trumped up charges. Turf. The more whole you were, the more turf you had. You could tolerate the occasional trespass. But if you had so little turf that you felt like you barely had any air? You told someone they had crossed a line they didn't know existed. Then you punched them in the face.
The first equations of manhood. Generally you punched someone younger and smaller. Common sense. A more even match was sometimes unavoidable. The standard fight was brief and awkward. A quick blow to the face sent you into your favorite stance, one that cannot be found in any boxing primer in the land, or sent you searching after a cherished martial-arts movie pose, Praying Mantis, Turtle Position (Whitehead 136)."



So where did my book club steer me in the right direction? Based on the other Whitehead novels I've read (The Intuitionist and John Henry Days), I was expecting, either metaphorically or explicitly, more explorations on racial issues, and Whitehead does touch upon these, but not in a way that makes them the driving forces of the novel. My original complaint was that Whitehead would present a racial or sociological issue, and then move on to another plot point. However, as I've come to realize: Benji is fifteen years old. Almost no fifteen year old has the capacity to ruminate on issues except on a surface level. Therefore, Whitehead has made Benji one of the most realistic teen characters in recent fiction. As a black citizen, he's obviously aware and sensitive to cultural issues, but his main fascinations are with sex, avoiding boredom, and how he's perceived to others. That's not to say that Benji's narration isn't touching or without complexities. His relationship with his father is fraught with tension. His father is tough, teaching Benji how to stand up for himself in the face of racism, but also excessively intense, getting into fierce arguments with his wife about, of all things, the purchase of the wrong kind of paper plates. Benji has a chance encounter with his older sister, a beautifully rendered scene that, while fleeting, is Benji's biggest "coming of age" moment, when he realizes his sister has no plans to visit the house while she's in town. Even followed up later by Benji's first experience being alone with a girl, the meeting with Elena holds the most emotional weight.

"'What are you doing here? When did you get out?'
'I just popped in for the weekend,' she said. 'I'm visiting Derek.'
Bobby checked out her friend, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
I said, 'Oh, I didn't know.'
'It was a last-minute thing.'
'When are you coming over? 'Cause I work--' I began to say. Because I didn't want to miss her.
'I'm probably not going to have time to make it over there,' she said. 'Probably. It's just a quick visit.'
'Oh. (Whitehead 237)'"

Being a series of small and less-small moments, Sag Harbor is a challenge to discuss and write about without resorting to the basic recaps of the various scenes. However, its simplicity is very deceptive, since every action has a direct link to either Benji's emotions and makeup or Sag Harbor's citizens and demographics. Its creation doesn't have the complicated setups of Whitehead's first two novels, but that doesn't mean its lacking; the novel asks some of the same questions in a different format. I tend to be wary of books or films that have a "coming of age" angle, since this is normally a fancy way of saying a given character loses his or her innocence/virginity/combination of the two. However, Benji remains relatively untouched by the end of the summer, despite some new understandings and experiences. Whitehead is smart enough to show that a single summer, despite its literary potential, isn't enough to truly change someone. Benji still has a lot of teen years left, as well as adulthood, and his keen observations are more for the reader's sake than his own. Sag Harbor also continues with what Whitehead occasionally did in John Henry Days, blending a literary work with genuine hilarity. That's a very rare balance, since comical writing is not an easy task. However, this work manages to combine hilarity, genuinely moving discoveries, and breezy summertime happenings into a work with fascinating cultural depictions. Whitehead is one of the most fantastically diverse writers working today, not out of a need to reinvent himself, but out of his ability to explore a myriad of topics in wildly different formats.

Work Cited:
Whitehead, Colson. Sag Harbor. Copyright 2009 by Colson Whitehead.



Friday, July 20, 2012

Ninth Inning Town: Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City On the Make"


For the last several weeks, I was mentally plotting an essay about Chicago's collective psychology in relation to the views on the professional sports teams and athletes. While this could very well be a piece I return to, a random reading and thoughts on other strains of civic psychology turned me in a different direction. Back in May, when Chicago hosted the NATO Summit, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a telling remark that was supported and repeated by local media outlets. Despite the protesters and general apathy about the magnitude of the meeting, Emanuel stated that he wanted to show off Chicago as a "world-class city." This isn't the first time that this idea has circulated, and it always strikes me as odd and pointless, since Chicago is the third-largest city in the country, yet local politicians and boosters maintain a mentality of Chicago being a small town looking to make good.

More recently, Chicago was beset by a nasty heatwave and a rash of gang shootings (which seem to be always ongoing, sadly). A local news channel conducted interviews with tourists vacationing downtown, with some of them stating they would have had reservations about visiting had they been aware of the rise in violent activity. While violence can happen anywhere at any time, part of me was incredulous, since a lot of upper-class visitors remain in the confines of the downtown shopping districts and would never come close to venturing to the areas with concentrations of violence. Media outlets often conduct interviews with the people living in the dangerous neighborhoods, yet I found it strange to watch interviews with people who have only heard of the less-savory parts of Chicago. These thoughts were in my head as I recently read Nelson Algren's poetic 1951 exploration, Chicago: City On the Make. The slim volume contains a wealth of sociological views and assessments, and while not all of them still apply today, it's still an excellent example of how Chicago's image, from both the outside and the inside, maintains a distinctly unique veneer unlike other major metropolitan areas.

Algren shares stories of his own childhood and tells Chicago's tale from the points of view of the drunks, the working class, and the hustlers, the nameless folks who oftentimes share the same personal qualities as the powerful in the city's hierarchy. The working class people represent the majority in numbers, yet are more likely to be disciplined and reviled for doing on a small scale what the elite minority do on a bigger scale. This is Algren's take on Chicago's beginnings:

"They hustled the land, they hustled the Indian, they hustled by night and they hustled by day. They hustled guns and furs and peltries, grog and the blood-red whiskey-dye; they hustled with dice or a deck or a derringer. And decided the Indians were wasting every good hustler's time.
Slept till noon and scolded the Indians for being lazy.
Paid the Pottawattomies off in cash in the cool of the Indian evening: and had the cash back to the dime by the break of the Indian dawn.
They'd do anything under the sun except work for a living, and we remember them reverently, with Balaban and Katz, under such subtitles as 'Founding Fathers,' 'Dauntless Pioneers,' 'or 'Far-Visioned Conquerors (Algren 11-12).'"

Some of Algren's passages are deftly comic and still timely, providing an early, hip assessment of how to handle Chicago's citizens and outlook. A paragraph about the suburbs might appear to be an insult, and in today's Chicago, residents of the city will likely smile, at least inside, at this take:

"So if you're entirely square yourself, bypass the forest of furnished rooms behind The Loop and stay on the Outer Drive till you swing through Lincoln Park. Then move, with the lake still on your square right hand, into those suburbs where the lawns are always wide, the sky is always smokeless, the trees are forever leafy, the churches are always tidy, gardens are always landscaped, streets are freshly swept, homes are pictures out of Town and Country (Algren 26)."

To reference my opening paragraph, Algren writes about his youthful attachment to the Chicago White Sox, especially in the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. What led me to ponder Chicago's attitude toward athletes came about after Kerry Wood's retirement from the Chicago Cubs. After years of brilliant flashes and too many injuries, I couldn't help but wonder if Cubs fans still clung too tightly to Wood's 1998 game against the Houston Astros. In that game, Wood's fifth as a major-leaguer, he tied a baseball record with twenty strikeouts in a 1-hit shutout. His arm was constantly injured by the sheer force of his pitches, and for years, Cubs fans kept hoping for a resurgence, with that single game defining Wood for the duration of his on and off tenure with the team. Algren makes a reference to White Sox pitcher Charlie Robertson, who, coincidentally, threw a perfect game in his fifth major league game and never made any true progress afterward.

"(And what became of No-Hit Charley Robertson, who stepped off a sandlot one afternoon to pitch that perfect game for the White Sox? What ever became of No-Hit Charley, who put twenty-seven men down on strikeouts and infield popups--and then stepped back to his sandlot and left nothing behind but that perfect afternoon when nobody in the world could get a hit?) (Algren 54-55)."



Dozens of other writers have made names for themselves by exploring the lives of the downtrodden and blue-collar. The difference with Algren, at least through the lens of Chicago: City On the Make, is that, in addition to seeming like one of the people, is his deft understanding of how Chicago reflects its citizens. While the same claim can be made for Bukowski's Los Angeles, Algren was a much stronger writer. His prose is poetic without being forced or obvious, and while the work is a creative rambling, there are no obvious embellishments or romanticizing. Algren's Chicago was a tough place, and much like today, while solutions for the problems are needed, it's much easier to put a positive spin on the good qualities, even with serious problems in the background. One can only imagine how Algren would have responded to Emanuel, who welcomed the NATO summit with only passing nods to the protesters and the need to call attention to the myriad of problems in the world. Much like today's world, some of the issues in Algren's time were best represented in creative acts. As he states in his 1961 Afterword:

"When the city clerk of Terre Haute refused to issue warrents [sic] for arrest of streetwalkers in spite of his sworn legal duty to issue warrants for arrest of streetwalkers, and instead demanded of the Terre Haute police, 'Why don't you make war on people in high life instead of upon these penniless girls?' the little sport performed an act of literature (Algren 81)."

In the Afterword, he also acknowledges the negative reception the book initially received, since people were more comfortable reading positive spins rather than grim realities. This is still represented in today's political world, when attempts to shed light on problems can be met with resistance or a desire to maintain the status quo. In the 1950s and today, higher ups would much rather put emphasis on Chicago as a tourist destination than thoughts like:

"The slums take their revenge. And you can take your pick of the avengers among the fast international set at any district-station lockup on any Saturday night. The lockups are always open and there are always new faces. Always someone you never met before, and where they all come from nobody knows and where they'll go from here nobody cares (Algren 67)."

Despite these sketches of the seamy sides of city life, there's never a question of Algren not living Chicago. Chicago: City On the Make isn't a tour guide, but in the midst of the stark honesty, there's a bustle and liveliness that Algren continually evokes, even in the saddest pages. It continually evokes the often-used phrase of "history being written by the winners," when in reality, there's much to be gained from accounts of the losers. Before mainstream activism, before Howard Zinn, and before the start of the Occupy movements, writers like Algren were doing their best to shed light on the masses, even if nobody (at the time) wanted to read or think about such things. This is where Algren's beautiful prose becomes most important. Look at the carefully plotted and detailed paragraph below. Again, it doesn't romanticize, but it genuinely sympathizes.

"The nameless, useless nobodies who sleep behind the taverns, who sleep beneath the El. Who sleep in burnt-out busses with the windows freshly curtained; in winterized chicken coops or patched-up truck bodies. The useless, helpless nobodies nobody knows: that go as the snow goes, where the wind blows, there and there and there, down any old cat-and-ashcan alley at all. There, unloved and lost forever, lost and unloved for keeps and a day, there far below the ceaseless flow of TV waves and FM waves, way way down there where no one has yet heard of phonevision nor considered the wonders of technicolor video--there, there below the miles and miles of high-tension wires servicing the miles and miles of low-pressure cookers, there, there where they sleep on someone else's pool table, in someone else's hall or someone else's jail, there where they chop kindling for heat, cook over coal stoves, still burn kerosene for light, there where they sleep the all-night movies through and wait for rain or peace or snow; there, there beats Chicago's heart (Algren 67-68)."

And finally, I'd like to offer cited remarks as a representation of the state of Chicago journalism. In a recent "revamp," The Chicago Sun-Times has started a terrible trend. Chicago "celebrities" are given a one page editorial to sound off on their pet projects and view of the city. While the money often goes to good charities, the paper lets it be known that they paid the writers an excellent sum for terrible writing. The first editorial was an awful, embarrassing op-ed by Jim Belushi, who commanded a $1,000 writing fee (again, donated to charity, which is noble, but I'm still shocked that he can command that kind of money from a supposedly struggling newspaper). Chicago is full of great, hungry writers who would do anything for that kind of platform. Instead of actively seeking out the thousands of voices in the city, the Sun-Times plays it safe with pointless celebrity ramblings. These Algren pieces are my way of protesting this.

"Therefore its poets pull the town one way while its tycoons' wives pull it another...(Algren 57)."

"It used to be a writer's town and it's always been a fighter's town (Algren 62)."

Work Cited:
Algren, Nelson. Chicago: City On the Make. Copyright 1951, renewed 1979 by Nelson Algren.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Moving Forward: "From the Back Of the Bus" by Dick Gregory


With the exception of some autographed titles and a few first editions, my book collection has little in the way of collector's items or fierce sentimental value. I'm big on margin notes, underlined passages, and freely lending books to friends with the full knowledge that it could be months until I have them returned. However, at last month's Printer's Row Lit Fest, I discovered a couple of vintage paperbacks published in the 1960s. They were encased in plastic and in pristine condition, and I spent a few weeks leaving them untouched. However, curiosity got the best of me, and my overriding belief in books being enjoyed rather than functioning as centerpieces won out. One of these titles was From the Back Of the Bus by comedian/social activist Dick Gregory.

I've been superficially familiar with his life and writings, and I was eager to read this particular work after I found it at the Lit Festival. My initial research shows that Gregory is still going strong as an activist, even with the occasional foray into conspiracy theories and sometimes outlandish ideas. The contents of From the Back Of the Bus weren't what I originally expected--the bulk of Gregory's writings are brief asides, jokes, and monologue samples, all grouped together by various subject headers (Ku Klux Klan, Miami, Hypocrisy, to give an idea of the mix). When discussing black writers, artists, and activists of the early twentieth century, the easy thing to mention is how revolutionary they were, and this is absolutely essential in regard to Gregory's work. He uses his humor to break barriers, but the overall atmosphere is one of an upfront challenge to the white audiences of the time. He mixes social commentary and says what a lot of people were likely thinking at the time, from both sides of the racial divide. The idea of comedic revolutions, especially in such a social context, is literally awesome, and considering the books publication in 1962, one can only imagine how shocking and ahead of the curve it really was. This is a fascinating artifact from the beginning of the Civil Rights decade.


The longest passage in the book is the introduction by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who gave Gregory his first break as a regular comedian at Chicago's Playboy Club. For all of Hefner's own criticisms and facets (spearheading the sexual revolution vs. Playboy continually objectifying women), he deserves credit for his early promotion of Gregory's material. Years ago, I remember a moving tribute from Gregory during the Comedy Central Roast of Hugh Hefner. In the midst of constant, tiring jokes about Hefner's age and sexual proclivity, Gregory moved him to tears by thanking him for giving him the chance and, most importantly, not censoring or asking him to tone down his material. As Hefner boldly states in his introduction:

"But more than this, Gregory has added a new dimension to the world of comedy. He is a black funnyman who does not get his laughs by fearing ghosts in B movies, rattling 'dem bones' or other such demeaning antics. He is another much-needed spokesman for his people, one who can reach the ear of the world in a way that makes it listen (18)."

This idea is important, especially in context. From a 1960s standpoint, one of the most vivid examples of breaking racial barriers in comedy was the banter between Sammy Davis, Jr. and the rest of the Rat Pack. According to writer Bill Zehme, the comedy, which was composed of seemingly racist jabs, was a way of calling attention to stupidity with stupidity. I find the Rat Pack comedy to be vastly overrated, and while Zehme has his points, I feel that Gregory's work was a much more authentic, real way of dealing with the views of that given era. From the Back Of the Bus isn't a work that lends itself to a capital-R "Review," but some of Gregory's passages are still very fresh and vivid fifty years later.



"Just for laughs, I've been thinking about buying one of those army rocket belts. You saw it in the papers--where you can jump fifteen feet up and land 120 feet away. Gonna take it down to Birmingham and tease Hell outta lynch mobs (Gregory 29)."

"All the record stores are playing that subversive song again...I'm Dreaming Of a White Christmas...It's kinda sad, but my little girl doesn't believe in Santa Claus. She sees that white cat with the whiskers--and even at two years old, she knows damn well ain't no white man coming into our neighborhood at midnight...be honest now. How many of you have ever seen a black Santa Claus? He ain't even black after he comes down the chimney--and he should be!...(Gregory 38)."

"You gotta realize, my people have never known what job security is. For instance, comes another recession and the economy has to tighten its belt--who do you think's gonna be the first notch (Gregory 59)?"

"I'm really kidding. Florida happens to be one of the most liberal states in the South. Why I can go to any place I like--restaurants, nightclubs, theaters--and I only have to do one thing. Change my name to Ricardo (Gregory 89)."


While I'm sure From the Back Of the Bus has its own following and has received its own attention despite the fact that I'm new to its existence, I was also fascinated by its combination of text and photography. The photos are the work of Jerry Yulsman, and the images tie very carefully into Dick Gregory's texts. These are not random images, but rather carefully constructed placements that give the work a layered, multimedia atmosphere. The images I've included, combined with the texts and captions, are a combination of mild humor and intense juxtapositions. The above image of Gregory in a fancy tuxedo and top hat, accompanied with the remark "Whaddya mean--I depreciate your property..." is still striking and yet again takes on increased significance with its era. It's impossible to tell whether these images are more from the imagination of Gregory or Yulsman, but I can imagine the two men sharing ideas of how to place the man in context with his surroundings, and, in effect, place his ideas within a then-contemporary context. My favorite image is the last one included, featuring a suited Gregory standing in a building that is either under construction or hollowed out from neglect. The connotations take on so many meanings, reflecting success in the face of failure, as well as Gregory's own journey of personal success and early substandard living. Yulsman's photos are not just random accompaniments; his closeups and long shots of Gregory are stunning, unheralded examples of striking photographic art, challenging stereotypes as well as engaging in hip, self-aware conversations about black consciousness and the still-ongoing struggles of race in America.

In some cases, these assessments would be a stretch, but in today's world, there is still a struggle with bigotry and reflections on race relations. While Gregory's words and Yulsman's photographs are still meaningful today, I feel the importance comes from placing them in their original context. While America still has a long way to go with its race dialogues, it's stunning to see these groundbreaking works of art and realize how they shook up and subverted the mindset of the 1960s world. In short, and without any hyperbole, From the Back Of the Bus still maintains its groundbreaking emotions, and I'm hoping it eventually finds its way back in print, not only because of its sociological weight, but also because of its terrific comedy and willingness to start dialogues that are still needed.

"On the other hand, if you've liked the book--don't tell you friends. Just take me to lunch when it's not Brotherhood Week (Gregory 125)."

Work Cited:
Gregory, Dick. From the Back Of the Bus. Copyright 1962 by Dick Gregory Enterprises, Inc. Photography by Jerry Yulsman.

Monday, July 2, 2012

(Breaking) The Rules Of the Game: Spike Lee's "He Got Game"


As a teenager, I religiously watched the NBA Draft every June, even though it tended to hold the same interest level as the MLB All-Star Game: there's a lot of hype, pageantry, and breathless conversations by the hosts and announcers, and I'd enjoy the first hour and a half before being sidetracked by other activities. I haven't had cable for a few years now, so the time I devoted to this year's draft was limited to web previews and recaps. By sheer coincidence, I ended up watching Spike Lee's 1998 film He Got Game the same evening as this year's draft. In favorable hindsight, I feel that I got much more out of the film than I would have gotten out of the back-patting idolatry of the NBA showcase. Lee's film is presented with setups of conventional cinema, but almost gleefully tears down these conventions in one of the most unexpectedly artful films of the 1990s. Admittedly, there are large chunks of Lee's filmography that I still need to catch up on, but I've noticed that even his lesser acclaimed films have at least a touch of creativity not seen with a lot of filmmakers. He Got Game has a devoted following among basketball fans, and as always, Lee is unafraid of tackling even the most sensitive subjects head-on.

The film opens with a beautiful jazz soundtrack and footage of various youths--male, female, black, white, urban, rural--shooting baskets in a variety of ways, slowed down to showcase the art and physics of a ball arcing into a hoop. It then turns into a drama, with an established scenario that is both standard and slightly implausible, but done in a straightforward manner so the viewer doesn't get terribly caught up in the logistics. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is summoned to meet with the prison warden, who offers him a deal. He's prepared to let Jake out of prison for a week to connect with his estranged son Jesus (now-NBA veteran Ray Allen). Jake is given a letter of intent to fictional Big State University: if he can convince Jesus, the nation's best prep basketball player, to accept a scholarship to the school (an idea proposed by the unseen governor, one of the school's biggest boosters), Jake will receive an early parole. Carefully monitored by an ankle bracelet and two police supervisors (including a terrific performance by Jim Brown), Jake is set up in a Coney Island motel and is generally free to come and go, with the seemingly insurmountable goal of a.) getting in his son's good graces, and b.) getting him to sign the letter of intent.

Jesus is rightfully angry at his father for the murder of his mother (this isn't a spoiler in a sense; when the scene plays out in a flashback, it makes the situation more complex, but not absolving Jake of wrongdoing) when he was a child. He rebuffs Jake's attempts at a connection, and is dealing with a serious amount of pressure. Everyone, from his high school coach to national commentators, are anxious to know which school Jesus plans to attend, assuming he doesn't jump straight to the NBA. He's the primary caretaker of his younger sister (a beautiful acting job by Zelda Harris), along with his ineffectual aunt and uncle. His girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) is pressuring him to meet with an influential sports agent, whom she claims is a family friend. Jesus is continually claiming that he doesn't know where he wants to take his basketball career, and even in the face of corruption and pressure, he's steadfast in his resolve to (no pun intended) do the right thing.


His natural assumption is that his father wants money, not believing that he's out of prison on a "work-release program" (as Jake claims). As the film progresses, the idea of money becomes even more intense. In one of the film's best sequences, one of Jesus's associates asks him if he's ready for the people claiming to love him because of his wealth. A series of faces are projected on the screen, imploring Jesus for a handout in between claims of love and respect, until one of the faces goes even further: a young woman claims "my baby needs diapers, I need Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel." This idea, while relatively unexplored in 1998 (I could be wrong; I was fifteen years old when the film was released), has taken on more sociological meanings today. In 2005, the NBA established a rule that all eligible draftees had to complete at least one year of college ball, forbidding players from entering the NBA straight out of high school. There was rightful controversy over this, as expressed in the film in two different ways. Talented high school players, wanting to get their families out of the projects and poverty, now have to complete a year of college beforehand. The allure of money, as documented countless times since, leads a lot of young black players to be overcome by an influx of "friends" and estranged family members looking for security. Later in the film, Jesus pays a visit to another school, and is treated to lavish inducements to play for them, including sexual enticements and a ludicrous pitch from the school's religious coach (a hilarious cameo by John Turturro). Even before the 2005 rule, the idea of a student-athlete was fragile at best, and now, with players choosing colleges with an eye on getting to the pros after a year, it's even more laughable. Lee manages to make these two financial aspects both singular ideas as well as intertwined realities. Another wrinkle presents itself during a meeting between Jesus and a white sports agent. The agent does everything he can, from flattery to illegal bribes, to make Jesus sign a contract and turn professional. The agent knows nothing about Jesus's true personality, and the scene is shot to show how the man is doing his best to exploit the young man for his own financial gain. In a still prevalent world in which poor black men face limited options, the idea of exploitation is intense. If Jesus had no basketball skills whatsoever, he wouldn't be getting the kind of attention he does. This idea is meant to be obvious, but the claims of personal affection and respect are done not out of any true meaning, but because of dollar signs.

When not trying to coax a conversation with his son, Jake is primarily alone. However, he forms a bond with Dakota, an abused prostitute living in the motel room next to his (an early role by Milla Jovovich). Lee sets up the interactions between Jake and Dakota carefully, lulling the viewer into an expectation of a confrontation between Jake and the pimp. Instead, Jake manages to borrow money to get Dakota off the street for one night. They have sex, and while there's a definite connection between the two, Lee doesn't opt for the obvious solutions. There's no fight between Jake and the pimp, and there's no illusion that he and Dakota have magically found true love. Rather, it's the portrait of a bond between two very troubled people, and it's rendered as touchingly as can be. Jake, in agony over his son's hate, needs an interaction, and it shows his genuine goodness in the face of his previous actions. This notion of Jake's bad qualities being born out of his inner goodness (and the other way around) is also shown in the flashback to his wife's death. After riding young Jesus too hard during a practice session at a nearby court, their fight dominoes into an intense confrontation at home, leading to his wife's death. Jake is at fault, but his crime spiraled out of hand. In He Got Game's most wrenching scene, Jake tries to revive his wife and doesn't try to cover up or absolve himself from wrongdoing. Watch the scene, and look at Denzel Washington's eyes as Jake tells his son to call 911.



Jake and Jesus do end up having their conversations, culminating in their final interaction (more like a showdown). Jake gives his son an ultimatum, to be decided in a brief game of one-on-one. While the outcome is important, the scene is tied together by Jake's final instruction to his son, telling him to get rid of his hate, which will make him no different than anyone else on the street, talent be damned. Jesus makes his choice, and the film ends with alternating shots of Jake and Jesus shooting baskets alone, with a final shot that mirrors the film's opening (at least thematically) and hints to the act that spearheaded their biggest fight years ago and also leaves the window open for both men coming to terms with each other and themselves. Does this sound sappy and not unlike any other film ending? It sounds that way, but Lee pulls it off very carefully. It also shows the therapeutic benefits of shooting baskets by oneself. When I lived in Seattle, I dealt with my writing frustrations on my apartment's basketball court, and almost always came away from it refreshed and with renewed focus. Lee takes the tired cliche of "sports as more than just a game" and elevates it to a metaphysical level.

He Got Game has been on my "to-watch" list for years, and it's arguably one of the best sports films ever made. There are no cliches or easy answers provided, and Lee knows the game of basketball so well as to share its importance to the people who love it most, with the shady outside aspects leaving the game itself untarnished on a simple, pure level. Even with the standard cinematic conventions, it's an art film on many levels. The decision to cast NBA star Ray Allen as Jesus was a move of genius, since there are so few scenes showing him actually playing the game. He has the look and demeanor of a young man being exposed to too much at an early age, and Allen's stumbles with acting (in a few scenes, his voice barely rises above a monotone, flat delivery) make his role that much more believable, and everyone, from the main characters to the smaller supporting ones, are cast perfectly. Most importantly, Lee takes the ideas of race and opportunity in America and gives them a new sort of complexity. The business world of collegiate and professional basketball have always had a divide between predominantly black and poor players and white ownership and management, and fourteen years later, He Got Game can still be viewed as a contemporary sociological commentary.