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.

3 Poems / Tom Evans

Poem on a Flower

My flower was laden with dew,
so pink, so moist, and open;
Like lips that are parted in two,
her center, her tongue, was golden.

And crossed by green blades of grass,
formed in a triumphal arch;
Through which some great man could pass,
or some great army march.

The Anvil

Forging the malleable soul,
glint of future,
bellowing past;
Stoking the white hot coal,
’til it rings of truth
at last.

While the heart brings forth life,
red and rife.

The Journey

Longer days may be
when summer comes around,
but the little boy must journey
and has not reached the town.
When he is all grown
where will he be found?

The way is full of turnings
the stars have still not shown,
through winter’s blast
and summer’s burning
will he remain alone-
and never find his home?

American Pastoral / a poem by Tom Evans

Strangely,

the seemingly

disparate photographs

coalesce,

calling to mind

a childhood occurrence.

 

The photo of the

Abbey at Rievaulx

I’m looking at

looks very much

like the town

I grew up in.

I imagine the Cistercians

pacing the wooded grounds

in solemn solitude,

and suddenly recall

my neighbors

searching the woods

at the end of our street-

frantic-

like black ants

combing the ground for food,

trying to find the boy

lured there

by a monster.

 

I was there

when they found him

in his death cramp

in the snow.

It called to mind

the picture entitled

“Big Foot in death”

from the battlefield

at Wounded Knee.

 

 

 

 

 

“Hope Springs” / a poem by Tom Evans

A day in early March,

the melting snow running in rivulets

down a gully along Reist Street,

(next to the cemetery),

the steam rising off wet portions of the road

as the sun evaporated the water.

A harbinger of spring, it was a sight

we awaited each year after the landlocked winter.

Walking to church, we

lingered as long as we could,

almost expecting a tadpole to

emerge from the pebbled, silty bottom.

(Even if it meant being late for church

we wouldn’t have wanted to miss that.)

It was spring wasn’t it,

the street finally bared dry,

errant green shoots along the

bank ready to unfold,

a crocus poking up here and there-

anything could happen.

The water clear and cold,

scent of wet cement, wormy soil,

and warmth in the air-

anything seemed possible.

But it wasn’t to be, and turning away,

we began the wait for next year.

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

discussion of the writing process; contributions of all kinds welcome