Friday, March 21, 2014

Apostrophes of the Sun

Throughout the long days - thirty-nine in all - of what was optimistically, if erroneously, called a "brownout" that followed a cataclysmic typhoon here in the heart of the Philippine archipelago last November, I had alot of time on my hands and I managed to find great pleasure reading The Stories of John Cheever. Considering all of the marvelous qualities of his writing to celebrate (like his love for words like "probity" or how so many of his characters "lighted a cigarette"), I thought I should devote a post to Cheever's inimitably loving evocations of time and place.

While some claims have been made for Cheever's moralistic side, his confidence in universalities, his faith in what he himself (in his story "The Jewels of the Cabots") called "discernible moral truths," I prefer to think of him as a humanist, a writer who, long before he ever committed a word to paper, had chosen man over God, this world over the next. You can see it, hear it, and almost feel it in his celebration of the sun, the sky, the trees, the rain and snow, the falling leaves, the grass. He once said: "One always knows reading Fitzgerald what time it is, precisely where you are, the kind of country. No writer has ever been so true in placing the scene." Cheever was too modest to admit that he was talking about his own writing. One can sense the turning of the earth in his stories, the exact angle of the sun giving one the time of the year as well as of the day. And he could do it in one or two sentences.

But Cheever was always acutely aware of how his exteriors seemed to mirror the interiors of his characters, how the world in his stories somehow reflected or reinforced the moods of his people. And the way in which Cheever ties memory in with a sudden awareness of the season is one of the ways he gave his people a place all their own in the world.

The following are a few of my favorites.

"Snow lies under the apple trees. We picked very few of the apples, enough for jelly, and now the remaining fruit, withered and golden, lies on the white snow. It seems to be what I expected to see, what I had hoped for, what I remembered. Sanding the driveway with my son, I see, from the top of the hill, the color of the sky and what a paradise it seems to be this morning - the sky sapphire, a show of clouds, the sense of the world in these, its shortest days, as cornered." Oh What a Paradise it Seems

"The afternoon sun was clement and pure, and only the colored shadows made me remember that it was midwinter, that the cruise ships were returning, and that in another week jonquils would be twenty-five cents a bunch." "The Season of Divorce"

"Then it is a summer night, a wonderful summer night. . . . Up on the hill, the ladies say to one another, 'Smell the grass! Smell the trees!'" "O Youth and Beauty!"

"I took the regular train home, looking out of the window at a peaceable landscape and a spring evening, and it seemed to me fishermen and lone bathers and grade-crossing watchmen and sand-lot ball players and lovers unashamed of their sport and the owners of small sailing craft and old men playing pinochle in firehouses were the people who stitched up the big holes in the world that were made by men like me." "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill"

"For lovers, touch is metamorphosis. All the parts of their bodies seem to change, and they seem to become something different and better. That part of their experience that is distinct and separate, the totality of the years before they met, is changed, is redirected toward this moment. They feel they have reached an identical point of intensity, an ecstasy of rightness that they command in every part, and any recollection that occurs to them takes on this final clarity, whether it be a sweep hand on an airport clock, a snow owl, a Chicago railroad station on Christmas Eve, or anchoring a yawl in a strange harbor while all along the stormy coast strangers are blowing their horns for the yacht-club tender, or running a ski trail at that hour when, although the sun is still in the sky, the north face of every mountain lies in the dark." "The Bus to St. James's"

"The peculiar excitement with which the air of the city seems charged after midnight, when its life falls into the hands of watchmen and drunks, had always pleased him. He knew intimately the sounds of the night street: the bus brakes, the remote sirens, and the sound of water turning high in the air - the sound of water turning a mill wheel - the sum, he supposed, of many echoes, although, often as he had heard the sound, he had never decided on its source." "The Pot of Gold"

"It was nice driving home after parties in the snow, I thought. The snow flies into the headlights and made it seem as if we were going a hundred miles an hour. It was nice driving home in the snow after parties." "The Fourth Alarm"

"He walked in his garden at half past three or four. There was a quarter moon, the air was soft and the light vaporous, the clouds formed like a beach and the stars were strewn among them like shells and moraine. Some flower that blooms in July - phlox or nicotiana - had scented the air, and the meaning of the vaporous light had not much changed since he was an adolescent; it now, as it had then, seemed to hold out the opportunities of romantic love." "Marito in Citta"

"It all began on an autumn afternoon - and who, after all these centuries, can describe the fineness of an autumn day? One ought to pretend never to have seen one before, or, to more purpose, that there would never be another like it. The clear and searching sweep of sun on the lawns was like a climax of the year's lights. Leaves were burning somewhere and the smoke smelled, for all its ammoniac acidity, of beginnings. The boundless blue air was stretched over the zenith like the skin of a drum." "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow"

"It had just begun to snow. It was a little while after lunch. What an old fool your mother is but as old as I am I never cease to thrill at the miracle of a snowstorm. I had a lot of work to do but I decided to let it go and stand by the window awhile and watch it snow. The sky was very dark. It was a fine, dry snow and covered everything quickly like a spread of light." "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow"

"It was an evening in the fall. Bellevue Avenue . . . was declining, but it was declining gracefully; its decay was luxuriant, and in the back yeards roses bloomed in profusion, and cardinals sang in the fir trees. A few householders were still raking their lawns. . . . The sun was setting - there was a show of red light at the footof the street." "The Music Teacher"

Monday, March 17, 2014


The 2004 Irish/UK film production Omagh is a superior docu-drama. The details of the event portrayed in the film are written in stone: On Saturday August 15, 1998, a beautiful summer morning in an Irish village called Omagh, Northern Ireland, close to the border with the Irish Republic, was interrupted by the detonation of a huge bomb, planted in the trunk of a car which was parked on the main street, known as High Street, in the commercial center of the village, when large numbers of people, including school children, were present. The bombers, members the Real IRA, called the police several minutes prior to the explosion and told them where the bomb was. Taking the warning seriously, police arrived on High Street and began to tape off an area - about one block - and to tell people to leave the area when suddenly the bomb went off, killing 29 people.

After showing us the creation and the placement of the bomb by men of the Real IRA, the film focuses on one family, the Gallaghers - specifically on the father, Michael - who lost Aiden in the explosion. Once he learns of the bomb (and I wonder who could not have heard it in such a small village), Michael goes to the center of town, looking for his son. He finds a friend of his son's in a field hospital but he's unable to tell him anything of what became of Aiden. We see Michael sitting and waiting, until he is brought before a policewoman who asks him for a detailed description of his son's appearance. A short time later, Michael is met by a priest who, we must assume, tells him that his son was blown to pieces.

After the appalling excitement of the opening of Omagh (traveling to a remote farmhouse before dawn, watching, as if from a hiding place, how the bomb is manufactured and prepared, and taking us all the way up to the explosion - all handled brilliantly), the rest of the film deals with the aftermath - the long bureaucratic foot-dragging of the "official" inquiry, the revelations that the British government knew about the bombing and, because of secret dealings with the Real IRA, did nothing to either stop it or warn of it, the failure to prosecute those who did it - which is a part of the story that must've been told, but it bogs the film down from about midway. Even the eventual admission from the government ombudsman, that forms the climax of the film, feels too much like an anti-climax. A title at the end of the film states that "Since 1998 the British and Irish police have made 94 arrests in connection with the Omagh bombing. No one has been convicted."

The personal story of Michael Gallagher, his loss of a son, and the impact on his marriage and on his family is the focus of the story, although we meet others who lost someone in the explosion. This is a common device in such docu-dramas. Think of the Titanic disaster reduced to the fate one insignificant boy, played by the insignificant Leo Di Caprio. It's assumed that the totality of the event can neither be told nor properly comprehended without this narrowing of focus. Unfortunately, it also has a belittling effect - it makes the event seem smaller and considerably less important. In the films United 93 and Captain Phillips, we feel something closer to the full impact of two events of significant size, involving large numbers of people. One took place in the skies over the American Midwest, and the other in the Indian Ocean. I mention these particular films because they were both directed by Paul Greengrass, who also co-produced and co-wrote Omagh. Greengrass is expert at the film treatment of critical moments in history, like the hijack of United flight 93 on September 11, 2001, and the hijacking of the Alabama Mersk tanker ship by Somali pirates. Omagh was directed by Pete Travis, but it looks and feels like every other Paul Greengrass film: the overwhelming emphasis on the nervous, furtive, handheld camera style, the long-lenses that bring sometimes distant backgrounds much closer to figures in the foreground, the use of the camera as a witness to and a participant in the action, the real locations, the natural lighting, the emphasis on an uninflected, unglamorous, unadorned, "documentary" style.

But thematically and structurally, Omagh resembles another film about a moment in the history of the Irish Troubles: In the Name of the Father (1993). That film also centered on an IRA bombing, the bombing of a nightclub in Guildford in 1974. Among the victims of that atrocity were Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, and and Carole Richardson who became known as the "Guildford Four." In the Name of the Father was about a terrorist attack, but it was also about police and political corruption that put these seven innocent people in jail. Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill served sixteen years behind bars, until new evidence was found that exonerated them. However, Giuseppe Conlon, father of Gerry, who was arrested later as part of the "Maguire Seven" was never acquitted, since he died in prison. There was a genuine feeling of uplift at the end of In the Name of the Father, regardless of the years of their lives that the accused lost in prison. It wasn't because it was a better-made film, but that it was differently-made. The director, Jim Sheridan, chose to use dramatic devices, like period ('70s) music and much more dramatic acting and staging. Except for the vividly-observed explosion itself, and the carnage and confusion of its immediate aftermath, Omagh avoids dramatic emphasis completely. There are no scenes of outpouring grief, only a few brief shots of men carrying coffins. And there is no music, except for a song under the end credits. If the rest of the film is a little tedious, it's the more truthful for that.     

I am an Irish-American with utterly unsentimental feelings about the Old Country. In fact, I had to turn my back on the subject in the early 1980s when it became obvious to me that there would be no end to the internecine violence that has afflicted Ireland and the six counties of Northern Ireland for centuries. Despite encouraging signs that the people themselves have had enough and genuinely want to end the violence, and there have been some political moves that demonstrate a will to co-exist, I am still not ready to wear a piece of green (to avoid getting pinched) or drink green beer on this day. But I have to admit that watching the early scenes of Omagh put a lump in my throat. Maybe I was disgorging a potato?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Battle With Drink

St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner. Time to descant on a common weakness. Or is it "decant?"


by P.G. Wodehouse

I could tell my story in two words--the two words "I drank." But I was
not always a drinker. This is the story of my downfall--and of my
rise--for through the influence of a good woman, I have, thank Heaven,
risen from the depths.

The thing stole upon me gradually, as it does upon so many young men.
As a boy, I remember taking a glass of root beer, but it did not grip
me then. I can recall that I even disliked the taste. I was a young
man before temptation really came upon me. My downfall began when I
joined the Yonkers Shorthand and Typewriting College.

It was then that I first made acquaintance with the awful power of
ridicule. They were a hard-living set at college--reckless youths.
They frequented movie palaces. They thought nothing of winding up an
evening with a couple of egg-phosphates and a chocolate fudge. They
laughed at me when I refused to join them. I was only twenty. My
character was undeveloped. I could not endure their scorn. The next
time I was offered a drink I accepted. They were pleased, I remember.
They called me "Good old Plum!" and a good sport and other
complimentary names. I was intoxicated with sudden popularity.

How vividly I can recall that day! The shining counter, the placards
advertising strange mixtures with ice cream as their basis, the busy
men behind the counter, the half-cynical, half-pitying eyes of the
girl in the cage where you bought the soda checks. She had seen so
many happy, healthy boys through that little hole in the wire netting,
so many thoughtless boys all eager for their first soda, clamoring to
set their foot on the primrose path that leads to destruction.

It was an apple marshmallow sundae, I recollect. I dug my spoon into
it with an assumption of gaiety which I was far from feeling. The
first mouthful almost nauseated me. It was like cold hair-oil. But I
stuck to it. I could not break down now. I could not bear to forfeit
the newly-won esteem of my comrades. They were gulping their sundaes
down with the speed and enjoyment of old hands. I set my teeth, and
persevered, and by degrees a strange exhilaration began to steal over
me. I felt that I had burnt my boats and bridges; that I had crossed
the Rubicon. I was reckless. I ordered another round. I was the life
and soul of that party.

The next morning brought remorse. I did not feel well. I had pains,
physical and mental. But I could not go back now. I was too weak to
dispense with my popularity. I was only a boy, and on the previous
evening the captain of the Checkers Club, to whom I looked up with an
almost worshipping reverence, had slapped me on the back and told me
that I was a corker. I felt that nothing could be excessive payment
for such an honor. That night I gave a party at which orange phosphate
flowed like water. It was the turning point.

I had got the habit!

I will pass briefly over the next few years. I continued to sink
deeper and deeper into the slough. I knew all the drugstore clerks in
New York by their first names, and they called me by mine. I no longer
even had to specify the abomination I desired. I simply handed the man
my ten cent check and said: "The usual, Jimmy," and he understood.

At first, considerations of health did not trouble me. I was young and
strong, and my constitution quickly threw off the effects of my
dissipation. Then, gradually, I began to feel worse. I was losing my
grip. I found a difficulty in concentrating my attention on my work. I
had dizzy spells. I became nervous and distrait. Eventually I went to
a doctor. He examined me thoroughly, and shook his head.

"If I am to do you any good," he said, "you must tell me all. You must
hold no secrets from me."

"Doctor," I said, covering my face with my hands, "I am a confirmed

He gave me a long lecture and a longer list of instructions. I must
take air and exercise and I must become a total abstainer from sundaes
of all descriptions. I must avoid limeade like the plague, and if
anybody offered me a Bulgarzoon I was to knock him down and shout for
the nearest policeman.

I learned then for the first time what a bitterly hard thing it is for
a man in a large and wicked city to keep from soda when once he has
got the habit. Everything was against me. The old convivial circle
began to shun me. I could not join in their revels and they began to
look on me as a grouch. In the end, I fell, and in one wild orgy undid
all the good of a month's abstinence. I was desperate then. I felt
that nothing could save me, and I might as well give up the struggle.
I drank two pin-ap-o-lades, three grapefruit-olas and an egg-zoolak,
before pausing to take breath.

And then, the next day, I met May, the girl who effected my
reformation. She was a clergyman's daughter who, to support her
widowed mother, had accepted a non-speaking part in a musical comedy
production entitled "Oh Joy! Oh Pep!" Our acquaintance ripened, and
one night I asked her out to supper.

I look on that moment as the happiest of my life. I met her at the
stage door, and conducted her to the nearest soda-fountain. We were
inside and I was buying the checks before she realized where she was,
and I shall never forget her look of mingled pain and horror.

"And I thought you were a live one!" she murmured.

It seemed that she had been looking forward to a little lobster and
champagne. The idea was absolutely new to me. She quickly convinced
me, however, that such was the only refreshment which she would
consider, and she recoiled with unconcealed aversion from my
suggestion of a Mocha Malted and an Eva Tanguay. That night I tasted
wine for the first time, and my reformation began.

It was hard at first, desperately hard. Something inside me was trying
to pull me back to the sundaes for which I craved, but I resisted the
impulse. Always with her divinely sympathetic encouragement, I
gradually acquired a taste for alcohol. And suddenly, one evening,
like a flash it came upon me that I had shaken off the cursed yoke
that held me down: that I never wanted to see the inside of a
drugstore again. Cocktails, at first repellent, have at last become
palatable to me. I drink highballs for breakfast. I am saved.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Look to the Sky

I have always felt that characters and events I have read about in great works of fiction are at least as real as people I have met and experiences that I have had in my life. I am not confessing to a psychosis, since I am smart enough to know the difference between things real and imaginary - even if I often wish the real were as substantial as some of the imaginary people and places I have visited in books. If verisimilitude were merely an attempt to approximate the truth, or what we sarcastically call reality, then novels like Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Augie March wouldn't be nearly such marvelous creations as they are.

In Tolstoy's War and Peace there is a startlingly beautiful moment involving Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who is surely the most noble of Tolstoy's heroes. It takes place at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, when the Russian army was fighting against Napoleon's French army. Prince Andrei is caught in a losing position trying to defend old general Kutuzov. When the Russian standard, a flag suspended on a heavy staff, falls to the ground and a battalion of Russians is abandoning a battery of cannons to the French, Andrei leaps from his horse, rushes forward, picks up the standard and screams "Hurrah!" Running forward alone at first, hearing the whizzing of bullets past his head, Andrei manages to turn his men around and together they charge toward the cannons. But as soon as he reaches them and notices a strange tug of war between a Russian gunner and a French soldier over a mop, Andrei is struck down.

"It seemed to him as though one of the soldiers near him hit him on the head with the full swing of a bludgeon. It hurt a little, but the worst of it was that the pain distracted him and prevented his seeing what he had been looking at.

"'What's this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,' thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the French men with the gunners ended . . . But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky - the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with clouds gliding slowly across it. 'How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God! . . ." (Book Three: 1805, Chapter XVI)

Andrei appeared to be dying, but he survived the battle, and he remembered the sky that he saw, lying on his back in the midst of a terrible battle, for the rest of his life. I first read War and Peace when I was 20. I wasn't at all intimidated by its great length then, and by the time I finished it I found, as so many readers have done, that the novel wasn't too long but too short. I could've gone on reading about Tolstoy's marvelous people for at least another few hundred pages. 

I, too, couldn't forget the experience of Andrei. Years later I found myself turning back to that episode in which he saw the beauty and stillness of the sky. I was just turning 30 in Orlando, Florida. It was during Navy basic training in 1988. It was nothing like the Battle of Austerlitz, even at its most strenuous or unpredictable moments. But it was the first real physical challenge of my life. Living, eating and sleeping among strangers in unfamiliar and inhospitable surroundings was stressful by design. Developed over decades to transform boys into men, I found it as much an emotional strain as a physical one. And at the particularly stressful moments, like being marshaled through drills on a parade ground known as the "grinder," in central Florida in June, I found casting my eyes, taking care never to move my head, skyward.

It inspired a quietude, a calmness that I needed - the sense that, no matter how unmanageable things became down below on the parade ground, the sky was lovely, reassuring, even indifferent to our madness far below. How could the rest of the recruits,or the drill instructor himself, know of the perspective I knew? Even now, when moments become too self-absorbed, when pain or despair threaten to appear, when experience becomes too overpowering, I remember to look to the sky. I'm lucky that, unlike Andrei, I hadn't had to face death in order to discover it, but I'm happy that I found it, thanks to him.