“Blue Sky Day” / a poem by Tom Evans

It sometimes amazes me

On a crisp sunny blue sky day

Like today,

That when a policeman passes me

On the sidewalk and says ‘hello,’

And makes me feel like a normal person,

That he hasn’t seen

Through me, and recognized

Me for the imposter I am.

But how could he know

When I dress myself in decent clothes,

My workplace just around the corner,

In this small town where everyone

Knows everyone,

That I don’t belong,

Terrified of being found out

At any moment?

And I am extremely grateful

He lets me go on my merry way

To make it through another workday

Though I’d rather be anywhere else than there

On a crisp sunny blue sky day

Like today.

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The People from Heaven / John Sanford

I read about John Sanford probably 40 years ago, remembering that he had been highly praised, and had it in the back of my mind to explore it further, but when I went to to do so, could find very little on him, not surprising as this was well before the Internet came into being. Not helping my quest any was the fact that a guy named John Sandford had written a boatload of very popular books, and, when the Internet did arrive, his was the only name that came up in searches. Still having it on my mind as time went on, I gradually gave up, but must have retained it because, a few weeks ago, having come across a book I hadn’t known existed by Marion Meade called Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. I immediately took it home and while reading it, was perusing a glossary of people mentioned and the name “John Sanford” immediately caught my eye. The rest is history, but I never cease to be amazed at how things can connect years apart if you just keep reading.

The People from Heaven was published in 1943, and, although this is said of many works, it was truly ahead of its time, the principal reason it never gained traction with the critics, much less the public. As with most original works of art, the book was doomed to failure by critics who couldn’t categorize it, failing to recognize something truly path breaking had been produced.

At the time, the poet Carl Sandburg lauded the book, and poet William Carlos Williams, an early champion, publishing several of Sanford’s stories in Contact, said it’s “the most important book of fiction published here in the last 20 years.”

The title was taken from the  cry of celebration purported uttered by the indigenous peoples hailing the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans to their shores, “Come, come to see the people from Heaven!” And how’d that work out for them?

The plot, without spoiling it, centers around Eli Bishop, a propertied white man and chief racist, an American Indian father and son, an independent-minded prostitute, a Jewish refugee from czarist pogroms, and the hero, an itinerant Black woman locally referred to as “America Smith,” who strikes a blow for freedom in her own way.

It stridently portrays and condemns in no uncertain terms racism toward the Negro long before the Civil Rights movement, the Jew a decade before the holocaust, and the Native American which had really never been addressed until the sixties. While containing all the elements of modernism and radicalism, it didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of previous works labeled as such, works like Tobacco Road, Bottom Dogs, Uncle Tom’s Children, Freedom Road, U.S.A.: a trilogy.

Speaking of William Carlos Williams, he is a possible influence based on his use of historical documents in his book In the American Grain, except that Sanford employs it as verse and interwoven with the narrative, consisting of nine poetic commentaries depicting episodes of persecution and oppression ranging from the 15th through the 19th centuries. Another direct inspiration is Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (see my earlier entry regarding that book) for the brief but candid brief biographies of the characters Sanford employs.

Other works it brings to mind would be Our TownWinesburg, Ohio, even some elements  of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” especially as its setting is in the same general area of New York, and for it’s portrait of small town life in that same time period. It captures the immediacy of the time period more than anything I’ve ever read.

Born Julian Shapiro,  in Harlem, Sanford was a childhood friend of Nathanael West (born Weinstein), to whom the book was dedicated, and who suggested his friend also change his name,  and he became John Sanford from then on. Ironically, the Communist Party, of which Sanford was a member of the Communist Party, condemned his book as too far- left. He and his wife, both screenwriters, were blacklisted in the 50s witch hunts, setbacks from which they (as many) never fully recovered. Sanford lived until he was 98, authored 24 books, including a 5-volume autobiography, half of which were written after the age of 80, he wrote right up until the month before he died.

A noteworthy feature of the book is his employment of colloquialisms, obsolete words, poetic descriptions, and some just laugh-out expressions , so impressive I felt it necessary to list a few so you could get a better feel for the book:

“I’m like a bear-steak…the more you chew me, the bigger I get”

“I’m a three-cornered liar if she wasn’t prettier dead than a live woman sleeping”

“He don’t eat enough to keep a snow-bird alive.”

“He brought the [dollar] bill out of his pocket as if it were a strip of adhesive-tape plastered to his thigh.’

“…you couldn’t drive a prune into me with a mallet.”

“faunching,”

“feeling kind of loppy,” ”

snuzzling”

“meeching”

“extravasate”

“the breeze made fingers in my hair”

“Leaves were flippant in an infrequent wind…”

“…and fireflies were moving stop-lights in the accumulating gloom.”

“Now there’s a prayer that weighs a pound and a half!…”

“sweat like a stone crock”

“…a spiral of fly-paper drilled the smoke-marbled air.”

“I don’t get any more sunshine than a clam.”

“…so bow-legged he couldn’t stop a hog in a hallway.”

“Heads turned like electric fans…”

“…but he stuck around like a fly at a butchering-bee…”

“…either we just run down a pole-cat, or else somebody in this car needs a bath.”

“She pays her rent as regular as you change your drawers, and that’s once a month.”

‘…he ain’t got no more to say about where he’s going than a dish of ice-cream at the Poor Home.”

Be warned the book contains several harrowing passages, one describing Jewish girls being shot from trees; America Smith’s account of her birth and rape; and one of the verse inserts describing the Jesuit Brébeuf’s torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois.

It is a magnificent book, one for which at least two reads are necessary to get the full import, which I suspect will be even more pleasurable the second time around. I’ll let you know.

 

Book Review: “Judas” / by Amos Oz

I knew that Amos Oz was an Israeli writer, but that was about it, and I’d never read anything by him. On a recommendation (my therapist’s actually) I thought I’d give it a try, as I’d always had an interest in Judas, and am so glad I did. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an unequivocal masterpiece.

It is a novel of ideas (I think you’ll agree that’s rare enough these days) concerning the founding of the Jewish state, the relationship between Jesus and the Jews (and ultimately Judaism vs. Christianity), Judas and the Jews, Judas and Jesus, Arabs and Jews, discussed in unconventional ways, presenting very different (and extremely interesting) perspectives that deviate greatly from the conventional narrative propounded by politicians and religious leaders alike.

Set in 1959 Israel, the story concerns a young Israeli graduate student at a  crossroad in his life: his girlfriend has just left him and married a former boyfriend; he’s dropped out of graduate school mainly because reversals in his family fortunes didn’t allow him to continue, but even then he was stalled on his thesis on Jewish views of Jesus and Christian views of Judas.

Shmuel Ash, the main protagonist, answers an ad seeking a companion for an elderly invalid male. His first name, Shmuel, couldn’t help but bring to mind the prominent place of the schlemiel in Jewish literature, whether Oz intended this or not. He thinks it will just be he and the old man at first but then discovers a much younger woman lives there, whose idea it was to place the ad. She (Atalia) is very mysterious and very beautiful, smelling of violets, and immediately captures Shmuel’s heart.

We gradually find out she is the daughter of one of Ben-Gurion’s arch rivals, the lone dissenting voice in the movement for a state of Israel, believing there could be a two-state solution with the Arabs. For this he was expelled from the Zionist executive committee and branded a “traitor.”

Naturally this interests Shmuel, who has been writing a thesis on the greatest traitor in history, and he spends long hours in the National Library delving into the history of that era. Unfortunately he can find no trace of his papers, no record of his speeches, and has to abandon this research also.

The old man he is taking care of is Atalia’s father-in-law, whose beloved son (Atalia’s husband) was killed in the 1948 war. Although he disagreed strongly with Atalia’s father’s views he invited him to live with him after his fall from grace. The old man comes to love Shmuel as a son during his three-month stay there, and gains Atalia’s grudging admiration also.

It seems Shmuel is the fourth of a succession of young male caretakers, all seduced by Altalia, who had a bit of Estella Havisham about her, then sent away. Things seem to be going differently for Shmuel even though all along he sees her as unattainable.

This is all I will say about the plot, aside from mentioning it has a perfectly ambiguous ending, hopefully it is enough to spark an interest in the book. As a minor spoiler alert I’ll just say there is an incredibly harrowing and graphic chapter devoted to Jesus’ crucifixion narrated by Judas, a real tour de force, which makes the book worth reading for this alone, although there is so much more.

There is not a lot of action, but the story moves apace and Oz tells it carefully and lovingly. As it  turns out, some of the subject matter is taken from the author’s life, as delineated in his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The book wrestles with the big topics of Jesus’ humanity, the basis of anti-Semitism and other prejudice, the hope for eventual peace in the Middle East, and love.

Originally published in 2014, this edition, translated from the Hebrew, was published in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Book International Prize in 2017. Oz is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this book puts him over the top.

Confessions of a Neophyte / Stories by Tom Evans

FYI to anyone interested, I wanted to announce that I have gone the self-publishing route, using Kindle Direct Publishing. The above-titled collection contains 6 stories, 2 or 3 of which I’ve already posted here. My intention is to add more to the collection as they arrive. Disclaimer: there is a nominal fee of $1, but I’d be glad to send anyone free review copies if they’d like one. Just let me know. And if by a miracle anyone should actually decide to purchase a copy I’d appreciate it if you’d leave some comments or rate the book, as this will help move it up the ranks, and, believe me, it’ll need all the help it can get to do so. I’m still not sure how this all works but I believe you can find it if you search Amazon or Kindle under the title or author. If I find a more direct way to provide access I will post what I presume will be some sort of link here. The formatting isn’t that great but until I can get that figured out it looks much better in landscape. As always, thanks in advance for your response, etc. etc.

this link will show you a preview of the book: https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B01M98NKOK&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_9Y5-xbD56BR5C

“Bottles and Books” / A Story by Tom Evans

The young man began working in the college library that fall. Arriving early for work on his first day, he went upstairs and checked out the literature section, as was his custom in libraries and they were all there. First, the Americans: Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. Next, the Russians: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol. Not one of their books were missing, either, they were all there. Others he would discover later. To change things up a bit, he settled for a book about T.S. Eliot, The Invisible Poet, by Hugh Kenner. So began his career as a reference librarian.

One particular day the young man began to inhabit the bodies of the patrons he served. A young woman came to the desk and spoke to him and he realized it was himself speaking. An older man came to the desk and began writing on a piece of paper and the young man realized it was his own handwriting. One patron paused at the desk to peruse a book he had just borrowed and the young man realized it was he reading the book, and further, he had written the book. It was as if no one else had spoken, written, or read a word that day.

Well, the day had a very musical quality about it. Yes, it was like a great piece of music, a vast symphony to which he was waltzing with several beautiful partners. There was warmth and sound and touch and taste all around and he was a fibre woven through a beautifully wrought tapestry.

Until he ended up in a bar where his attendance record was perfect. His composure was gone as he walked in out of the cold. He began to regain it little by little as he looked at all the bottles lined up behind the bar. No one is going anywhere tonight, he thought. There is plenty to drink and even some food should I want it and everyone is here and no one is going anywhere. He took comfort in this, in the beautiful bottles with their brightly colored labels, in looking out the steamed up windows of the bar, where he could just see the billowing snow, and the cars crawling through the snow furrowed streets.

The jukebox was playing a favorite song, one he’d often played over and over himself, the archetypal rock ballad, with its maudlin lyrics backed by ass-kicking music. Many thoughts came to him, some from the sad past, some about the null future, mostly impinged upon by those of the horrible present. His head began to ache and that familiar scared, nauseous feeling swept over him…the golden girl from the west who turned out to be unfeeling and unfaithful…

The old man sitting next to him was rambling on about the old days, waving his cigar like a conductor a baton, how this very ground upon which the bar stood, all the way to the University, was open field, where he and his friends had played every day as kids. He didn’t seem sad about it, strangely. I know you, old man, with all your talk of bachelorhood and lechery, you must be lonely in your old age, though you would never admit it. You’ve told me this story many times, but you have a good heart and I suppose I can humor you and make the usual replies…his father, of his death and how he hadn’t been there when he died, through unforgiveable willfulness…

He saw a man with a beautiful face sitting at the bar, it was the face of a long-lost friend, a brother, a lover. He realized he had known this face all his life (even longer), yet it had no name unless he remembered it. Of course when the face spotted him and asked what he was staring at the young man was devastated because he didn’t know the face at all, it could be anyone…his abusive childhood, the foster homes prior to that, who were his parents…

He looked around the bar and saw the collage of faces and bottles. Books have titles, bottles have labels, people have faces. Bottles and books, he thought ruefully, I know bottles and books. He left soon after that, and, out in the cold night, drunk and in tears, he noticed how bright the sky had become, a false dawn. He promised to do better, to somehow put his life (such as it was) back together, and made his way to where he slept.

A year later, after things began to work themselves out (as they will), the young man was walking home from work late one autumn evening, and when he saw his sky-blue house nestled in the leaves in the distance, he thought, with a start: They haven’t found me out yet? When I began paying my bills again I thought they must. I am a well-oiled cog in the system, able to survive at last, and a lot of energy emanates from my little house.

What he really thought was: Is this my house, is this my life?

 

THE END

©Tom Evans 2016

Miss Lonelyhearts / Nathanael West

Nathanael West, although he died at an early age, has had a tremendous influence on future writers and writing, as I will discuss later. Having published only 4 books, The Day Of The Locust, Miss Lonelyhearts, A Cool Million, The Dream Life of Balso Snell,  West, described by one biographer as a “homicidal driver”, was killed in a car crash on December 22, 1944 in California as he was returning from a hunting trip in Mexico with his wife. As he often did, he was most likely extemporizing on one topic or another, not paying one bit of attention to the road, added to the fact that this time he was distracted as his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald (who wrote The Last Tycoon after being inspired by West’s The Day Of The Locust), had died the day before, failed to stop at an intersection in California and drove into an oncoming car. It is the consensus of most critics that The Day Of The Locust is perhaps the most famous of his four novels; I’m not sure what they are basing this on and I beg to differ (it sold only 22 copies during his lifetime), as  I believe Miss Lonelyhearts undoubtedly is.

West was born Nathan Weinstein in 1903 in New York City. West, being Jewish, was excluded from fraternities during his matriculation at Brown University and thus it was commonly thought that this was the reason he dropped the name Weinstein, but his brother-in-law S.J. Perelman (the famous humorist) always maintained that this was not case, but dropped the name because he simply wanted a short, recognizable name. An indifferent student, West spent his early life managing Manhattan hotels and writing in his spare time. As the manager of Sutton Club Hotel, Sutton Club Hotel West made many literary contacts, among them Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Jr., and James T. Farrell. He was known for letting other authors stay for free in empty rooms simply because he enjoyed their company. Although West had been working on his writing since college, it was not until his quiet night job at the hotel that he found the time to put his novel together. It was at this time that West wrote what would eventually become Miss Lonelyhearts, having published two years earlier The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a novel he had conceived of in college.

Several of his ex-Easterner writer friends financed their writing by working on motion pictures, and, tired of living in poverty, when he got a job as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures, he left for Hollywood in 1933. Once beyond Pasadena, however, the thought never left him that he was prostituting himself, which several friends predicted might happen. At the time of his death, though, West was making money at last. He had just earned $35,000 – around $500,000 in today’s money – for writing screenplays, including for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”.

One friend thought him “the most thoroughly pessimistic person I have ever known” yet good company and witty. Fitzgerald once told a mutual friend that he and West were much alike, for they were moralists, wanting “to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them.”

The idea for the novel Miss Lonelyhearts came from an actual “agony” column being published in the Brooklyn Eagle, “Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart Letters,” the letters from which  he would later copy, almost verbatim, into his novel. In West’s novel, the eponymously named (although a male) Miss Lonelyhearts, gets letters from readers seeking guidance and wisdom, but to Miss Lonelyhearts they all asking the same thing he is struggling with, the “big question”: the meaning of life. He takes his column seriously and despairs because he cannot help them, or himself.

West examines all the usual bromides: hedonistic pleasure, art, getting back to nature, exotic travel, and drugs, rejecting them all after revealing them to be foolish fantasies. Even suicide is deemed absurd. West reserves the greatest disdain, however, for the consolations of religion. “If he could only believe in Christ,” he writes, “then everything would be simple and the letters extremely easy to answer.” Elsewhere he writes: “Christ was the answer, but, if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business.”

In an already bleak era (The Depression,the book being published in the year (1933) the national unemployment rate was at its highest), Miss Lonelyhearts went farther than any American novel ever had in its contemplation of despair. Its structure  is a tantalizing juxtaposition of the real and unreal, dream and exposition, and often difficult to tell which is which, where  West obfuscates the boundaries between Miss Lonelyhearts’ fevered dreaming and his day-to-day life, as is also the case in Day of the Locust. Miss Lonelyhearts, as West himself intimated was his answer to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which makes it ultimately a refutation, where there is no answer for our cry of help. There are parallels of structure (some critics going as far as stating he took his structure, and the psychology which underlies the structure, intact from Crime and Punishment; themes of guilt, superstition, depiction of a hallucinatory world where characters exist in an almost somnambulant state, muttering to  themselves;  pointing out that both use three narrative devices: the set speech, the confession, and the dream. His boss Shrike (one of the all-time great character names) is presented throughout as the antichrist, and readers have often wondered at the ending (Spoiler alert), where seemingly having rejected Christ, Miss Lonelyhearts becomes a Christlike martyr. Although there are many Christ-like figures throughout literature, the closest to Miss Lonelyheart was Melville’s outsider, Bartleby the Scrivener.

His influence? Indeed, Flannery O’Connor critic Sarah Gordon has pointed out that the closest literary ‘kin’ of her novel Wise Blood in American letters arguably is Miss Lonelyhearts. Another critic believed Flannery O’Connor found a literary model in Miss Lonelyhearts during the long gestation of Wise Blood. In addition, his use of black comedy heavily influenced later writers such as John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William Burroughs, Robert Coover, James Purdy, and Thomas Pyncheon, among others.

I find it so ironic that Nathanael Weinstein became Nathanael West, went west to survive, and, consumed by it, ultimately died there. Perhaps Dorothy Parker (as she often did) said it best: “Wildly funny, desperately sad, brutal and kind, furious and patient, there was no other like Nathanael West.”

discussion of the writing process; contributions of all kinds welcome