All posts by david

Master Craftsman Having Fun

Four Novels of the 1980’s: City Primeval, LaBrava, Glitz, Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard.  Library of America.  1010 pp.  $37.50.

Elmore Leonard began to relax into his craft when he entered the decade of the eighties, when he would turn 60.  He had stopped drinking, for one thing, spoke openly about how that affected him.  He was also starting to get major recognition, and make a lot of money.  His settings wandered from his native Detroit to places where he’d vacationed, like Miami and Atlantic City.  And he began to write scenes that might not have appeared in his earlier work.

Early in Freaky Deaky, for instance—said to have been his own favorite among his novels—a cop named Chris Mankowski is transferring from the bomb squad to some other department, maybe homicide, maybe sex crimes, and has a long interview with a police psychologist, who is trying to figure out if he has some hidden motivation for the switch.  The scene doesn’t add to the plot at all.  But it’s biting about the psychiatrist and revealing about Chris’ intelligence.  It’s also hilarious.

I’m a little surprised, perhaps mildly embarrassed, to have finished my eighth Leonard novel in a matter of weeks, with another Library of America volume waiting in the wings.  I consider myself a serious reader, often reflect on the fact that I don’t know how much reading time I have left.  There are major classics I still haven’t tackled.  But the sheer delight of being sunk into one of these Library of America Leonard volumes is not to be underestimated.  I look forward to getting home and reading every evening.  I’m never disappointed.

I can understand how Freaky Deaky was a favorite (though the title grates on me, I must say).  It marked a return to Detroit, for one thing (the name Mankowski was your first clue[1]).  It also takes a nostalgic look at the Sixties, though Leonard was too old to be a flower child during that decade.  Two aging radicals, Robin Abbott and Skip Gibbs, have gotten out of jail and made their way back to the city of their earlier triumphs.  Skip was a bomb expert, and Robin a general nay-sayer, opposed to everything except empty hedonism and manipulating human beings.  In every one of these novels from the Eighties, there is at least one character who is utterly immoral, a psycho- or socio-path (in LaBrava there’s a character who kills a man because he cut him off on traffic.  That the victim happens to be a judge is just an added bonus).  In Freaky Deaky there are two such people.  Leonard doesn’t analyze or try to understand them.  He portrays them in all their cold-bloodedness.

Robin and Skip have come back to Detroit because there are a pair of brothers there—Woody and Mark Ricks—whom they knew back in the Sixties, when they were all student radicals.  Woody and Mark are heirs to a vast fortune, a hundred million dollars, that the radicals had tapped even back in the old days, when the boy’s mother was in charge.  Now Woody is the official heir, and if Robin and Skip are amoral, Woody is an alcoholic slob, drinking heavily from morning to night, eating junk, pawing at women.  Early on in the story he rapes a woman named Greta who was hoping to talk about a job in a movie.  If Woody has a defense, it would probably be that he was so blitzed out of his mind that he didn’t know rape from consent.  Leonard’s characters are often major boozers, as if he’s looking at what might have been.  Woody is the worst.

He therefore seems an easy mark for Robin and Skip.  All they have to do is get him to transfer some money from his trust fund and sign a check.  The sky’s the limit, though they settle on a fairly modest $1.7 million (they can always come back next year).  They have to split the take with Donnell, the ex-Black Panther who takes care of Woody.  He is yet another in a long string of entertaining African American characters in these eighties novels.  He’s smart, savvy, and actually does a huge amount of work taking care of this white whale.  He won’t be outsmarted by Robin and Skip, but is willing to work with them if he gets his share (and it’s bigger than theirs).

Into the middle of this mess walk Greta (trying to get reparations for the rape) and our friend Chris, who has indeed transferred to sex crimes but who also has a knowledge of bombs.  It is through the use of bombs, and the threat of their use, that Skip and Robin are working on Donnell and Woody.  Chris happens to know all about bombs, and is as savvy as anyone.  He’s also—a no no for a cop in his situation—in love with Greta.  But that becomes okay when he gets suspended from the force for living outside the city limits.

I would agree that Freaky Deaky is the most entertaining of the novels in this volume, also the most nerve-wracking (those bombs go off when you least expect them to).  But it’s a close call with Glitz, set in a nostalgic Atlantic City, and LaBrava, in Miami.  I would rank these books in reverse order of their composition, which leaves me looking forward to the next volume even more.  I enjoy reading them as much as he enjoyed writing them.

[1] I can say that because my daughter in law is Polish and from Detroit.  She has a lot of stories.

Can an Authentic Teacher Be Rich?

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.  New World Library.  235 pp.

It seems strange to write about a book that not only came out many years ago, but that became an international bestseller and made its author a spiritual superstar.  But a few weeks ago, when I felt on shaky ground because of some things that have happened lately, something compelled me to pick up this book, written long before the man was known, and I was overwhelmed at, and extremely grateful for, the brilliance of it.

The feeling I had this time—also all the other times—is that the things he’s saying seem intuitively right, but he’s proclaiming them boldly, not as hunches but as bold truth.  He cuts across the lines of all religions, seeing the truth in all of them and also where they have solidified into lifeless doctrine.  I was struck this time, for instance, when he said the primal unease that the Buddha spoke about, what he called dukkha, is basically the same as what Jesus meant by sin, a concept that has been ruined by religion if one ever has.  It’s because of our failure to be in touch with our essential being that we do the “sinful” things we think will bring us fulfillment, but they never do.

Tolle is not really a religious teacher, not only because he doesn’t subscribe to any religion but because his teaching transcends religion.  He’s speaking about the ultimate questions of life as if no one ever addressed them before.  He speaks with the authority of a prophet and the clarity of a math teacher.  He makes someone like Krishnamurti—the most comparable previous figure—sound positively inarticulate.

I didn’t remember to what extent he talked about the body, and how going into the body is a way of finding truth.  His chapter on “The Inner Body,” is the basis of everything he says, the doorway to Being and to the Now.  He doesn’t speak of meditation; as far as I know he’s never taught it.  It’s as if he’s inventing meditation out of whole cloth, the way he’s done everything else.  He appeals only to his own authority.

By now everyone must know the story of his miraculous transformation, the way he suffered from excessive thinking and depression for years until he had the thought, “I can’t live with myself anymore,” and realized what a strange statement that was, as if there were two of him.  Following that, somehow, his thinking ceased, and he saw the world from the other side of his brain.  Everything was just what it was, beautiful and perfect.  It seems strange that such a moment could come out of the blue, but really it didn’t; his long period of anxiety and depression set the stage.  The whole thing could have gone another way.

For a period of years he sat around on park benches enjoying life.  That seems to have been the temptation of every realized person.  The Buddha faced it himself.  But eventually Tolle began to help other people, and the number grew. Finally he put some teachings together in The Power of Now, published it with a small press and found readers by word of mouth.  Oprah read the book and made him a superstar.  He’s recently taught with Deepak Chopra.  Paris Hilton was carrying his book when she went to prison.  These things can make his work sound like a load of crap.  And of course there’s nothing easier than making fun of this kind of teaching.  Deep truths always sound like platitudes, the same things many others have said.

But as I sit with this book night after night, reading only a few pages but taking plenty of time, I’m struck by how clear and how true they seem.  As much as I love the tradition I practice in—Soto Zen—a lot of the teachings, especially those of the founder, Eihei Dogen, are impossibly hard to understand, however true they might be.  The intention may be to take you into another part of your mind, but I usually just get annoyed.  Tolle leaves me relaxed and at peace.

But recently I came across this article, by Christopher Titmuss, in which he excoriates Tolle for the prices he charges for his retreats.  The numbers are damning, and Titmuss points out that, at this point (probably even right after he wrote The Power of Now) Tolle could charge much less, even give talks for free, if he wanted to.  The man is worth $15 million.  He’s set for life.  Titmuss, who lives on dana from places like Spirit Rock, is not happy.  How come he don’t have no Vancouver penthouse?

Tolle wasn’t rich when he had his revelation, or when he wrote The Power of Now.  It’s also true—and rather fascinating—that there was a period of years—from ’79, when he had his revelation, until ’97, when he wrote the book—when he wasn’t doing much of anything, teaching friends in his living room.  During those years when he spent the days in bliss sitting on benches in the park, he was often sleeping on the couches of friends.  I don’t think we can say the man didn’t pay his dues, or that he wrote this book in the lap of luxury.

These teachings would perhaps be more authentic if they came from a barefoot man wandering the dusty roads of India, but if they did we would never have heard them.  It sounds as if, in order to get the word out, Tolle made an industry of himself (you wonder who’s making money behind the scenes), and then things got out of hand (by which I mean he became an overwhelming success).  Supposedly—though he does have that penthouse in Vancouver—he still lives modestly, isn’t running around Hollywood in a limo.

For me the teachings still seem authentic.  I would enjoy hearing what other people think.

Bake a Motherfucking Cake as Fast as You Can

Patti Cake$ a film by Geremy Jasper.  With Danielle Macdonald, Bridgette Everett, Cathy Moriarity, Siddharth Dhanajay, Mamoudou Athie. ****

I should admit up front that I’m not a rap fan.  I’ve tried—my nephew once made me a tape of rap’s greatest hits—but I couldn’t get into it.  I like the rhythm at first, and the whole gestalt, the body movements, stylized gestures.  But it’s a tad repetitive, to say the least.  The lyrics can be inventive and interesting—when I can hear them—but my favorite thing in music is the melody, and there ain’t no melody in rap.

I also don’t like the obviously offensive things, the belligerent tone, glorification of violence, the sexism.  Trading insults can be funny, but not when people mean them, and there’s a scene in the middle of Patti Cake$ where there’s a rap standoff in a parking lot and Patti winds up taking a head butt.  I know it’s a hard cruel world out there, and the rapper’s art just reflects that, but it also seems to promote it.  Maybe if people spoke more nicely they’d treat each other better.  I know I sound like an old fart, but I am an old fart.  I should pretend I like something that seems boring, repetitive, and offensive?

I nevertheless really enjoyed this movie, Patti and all the people around her.  It’s a story that’s been told a million times but Geremy Jasper has written a version for the current moment.  And he hasn’t overdone it.  Patti doesn’t become an international superstar.  She celebrates her greatest triumph with what looks like a late snack from McDonalds.

In a way the movie is about three generations of women, and about the ravages of cigarette smoking, which they don’t seem to have learned.  Patti (Danielle Macdonald), her mother Barb (Bridgette Everett) and her grandmother Nana (Cathy Moriarity) all live together, and to understate the case wildly, housekeepers they’re not.  The opening shot of their apartment is close to vomit-inducing.  They need to learn that it’s okay to empty an ashtray now and then.  Nana seems to have taken decent care of herself except for all the smoking, but Barb and Patti have a tendency toward overweight, and Barb is a boozer (requiring three shots before she can sing karaoke at the sleazy bar where Patti works).  Barb had a near miss at a singing career, but is still in there wailing.  She’s abusive to her daughter and puts down her ambitions, apparently because she sees herself in her.  Patti—despite all these strikes against her—hangs in there.

She has some important allies.  One is Jheri, a very winning Siddharth Dhanajay, who sees Patti’s talent despite her stumbles (she stupidly smokes dope when she has some time in a recording studio, loses confidence and her swag when she gets her first big break, a chance to perform at a titty bar).  Another is a mysterious rapper who is not identified in the cast list but is played by Mamoudou Athie.  He’s a hermit with a dark vision of things, but he too sees Patti’s talent and has a place where they can record.  The fact that Patti has to take care of her Nana doesn’t matter; they make her rasp part of the back-up vocal.  Thus the group PBNJ, and the eponymous song, is born.

Patti Cake$, then, is a movie about accepting your liabilities and limitations and making something of them, actually flaunting them.  Patti—if you’ll pardon the expression—has some balls when it counts, once when she gives herself a chance to perform in front of a famous rapper in his house, another time when she and her buddies get a shot at a talent contest.  Rapping as it’s  portrayed here is an odd mixture of hubris, verbal inventiveness, and thinking on your feet.  Patti, when she’s on her game, has all three.  And there’s something to be said for the sheer sweetness of this movie, the way this band of misfits comes together and supports each other in the face of all kinds of scorn.

I’d love to hear from somebody—all you hip young people out there—about what it is that makes a rapper good: is it the swag, the sheer nerve, the charisma and rapport with the audience?  In every situation she appears in, Patti seems by far the most talented person to me, the most verbally inventive, but people don’t necessarily respond that way.  It turns out that Danielle Macdonald, who gives a superb performance, is actually Australian (like every actor in every movie I see these days), so that she had to learn not only to rap but to talk like a Jersey girl.  It sounded authentic to me.  The real talent here is writer and director Geremy Jasper, who not only took this shopworn story and made it new, but wrote all the rap music in the movie.  He thus become the Ira Gershwin of rap (and we don’t need George, since there’s no melody).

I thought it was a false note, and a sappy moment, where there was a reconciliation of sorts between Patti and Barb at the end.  The woman had been abusive to her daughter for the whole movie; I saw no reason for her to come around.  Otherwise I didn’t hear a false note, so to speak (in a movie where there were no notes, basically).  You got rhythm, Geremy Jasper.  Who could ask for anything more, in a movie about rap?  Maybe a little rhyme.  But you got that too.

Taking in the Pain

Wind River a film by Taylor Sheridan.  With Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Kelsey Asbille, Gil Birmingham.  *****

When Wind River ended I turned to my wife and said, “That’s the most violent movie I’ve ever seen,” a statement which I soon realized was ridiculous.  What I meant was that the violence was the most wrenching I’d ever seen: I was emotionally invested in characters who were in deep trouble and were suffering.  Not one moment of the violence was gratuitous.  It was all an integral part of the story.

There was a scene toward the end which reminded me of a standoff in a Quentin Tarrantino movie, and I realized how different the two scenes were: every violent moment in a Tarrantino movie seems gratuitous, intended to titillate people who enjoy violence or impress them with how grotesquely realistic he can make it.  Nothing ever seems real in a Tarrantino movie.  It’s all a cartoon.  Every scene in Wind River seems real.  The inspiration for this movie is life as we live it, the necessity to absorb pain if we’re to go on living.

As the film opens we see a barefoot Native American girl running across a snow-covered Wyoming landscape.  The landscape itself is magnificent, and becomes almost a character, a force, in the movie.  She stumbles and falls, stumbles and falls again, as we hear the words of a poem that a friend of hers wrote.  She is bleeding from the mouth because, when you run at that altitude in the frigid air, your lungs eventually hemorrhage.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the man who finds her body, is not a law enforcement officer.  He’s a tracker, who kills the predatory animals—wolves, primarily—who attack livestock on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.  Finding her body is a wrenching moment for him, not only because he knows this young and beautiful girl, Natalie (Kelly Asbille), who was his daughter’s best friend.  His daughter had died some months before in similar mysterious circumstances, and this death brings back the other one.  It’s as if there’s an epidemic of Native American girls dying—Lambert himself isn’t Native American, but his ex-wife is—and the source of the epidemic seems at first to be the dead-end life that young men lead on the reservation, including Natalie’s brother.

A murder that occurs on a reservation is a federal crime, so it is the responsibility not of the local police, who are hopelessly understaffed anyway, but the FBI.  Any agent who showed up would probably be in over their head, but the one who does arrive, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), seems especially so.  In the midst of a terrific blizzard, where she is going to have to travel miles by snowmobile to see the body, she’s wearing a skimpy jacket and nothing to cover her head.  She’s also equipped with investigative procedures that aren’t going to work on the reservation.  The local head of police, Ben (Graham Greene), is savvy and sympathetic, but Jane has the good sense to see that her best helper may be Cory, not only because his tracking skills will be important, but because he, like Jane, is penetrating an alien culture.  The difference is that he’s been there for years.  He also has a deep human sympathy that would serve him well anywhere.

Jane is inexperienced in dealing with this population, as most agents would be.  “Why is it that whenever you people try to help us, you always insult us first?” says Martin, Natalie’s deeply bereaved father (Gil Birmingham).  Again, Cory is different.  There is a scene between Cory and Martin, two fathers who have lost their daughters, where the movie completely stops, and Cory tells Martin about a grieving workshop he went to, which seems out of character for the rugged Cory, but he admits he was desperate.  What he tells Martin, in effect, is that he has to take in the pain.  “If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her.”

That seems to be the message that people all around them haven’t absorbed; they’re running from pain with drugs, alcohol, any number of dead end activities (though the two girls, to their credit, were not.  They were girls, with the usual interests girls have.  But they were fully living their lives.  That’s part of what’s so sad about their deaths).  That long speech would seem canned if it weren’t so perfect, and if someone with less credibility than Jeremy Renner had delivered it.  Cory seems rugged, principled, ruthless, wounded, all at once.  He’s at the heart of the story, as its moral center, and Renner gives an Academy Award worthy performance.

It seems unfair to tell any more about the plot, not only because the outcome is so surprising, but because there’s a narrative switch toward the end that caught me off guard and made everything that happened far more poignant.  This is a modern Western, but not a Western where the good guys necessarily win.  They don’t even all stay alive.

What was it that killed Natalie, you finally ask yourself.  Was it drug-addled, horny jealous men?  Was it the hopelessness of life on the Indian reservation?  Was it the place itself, with its wind, its snow, its silence, more than some men can take?  The movie isn’t really about who did it.  It’s about how tragic the whole thing is, and the way a warrior goes about seeking justice.  Taylor Sheridan’s last movie, Hell or High Water, concerned the same thing.  Maybe the Academy will get it right this year, and give this screenplay the Oscar.

Servants of Life

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman.  Picador.  497 pp.  $17.00 ****1/2

This is the last book—the last of many—that my friend Levi recommended to me.  He always recommended books as if to say: Go buy this and start reading it tonight (though I never did that).  He went on and on about it the morning we talked (in the corner table in Whole Foods where we always sat, drinking coffee); he had a great memory for detail about anything he’d read.  The book sounded vastly complex, which it is, a novel about finance, mathematics, terrorism, international banking, the economic crisis of 2008, racism, friendship, romance, sex.  He had said all that to me, and then finished, with a little smile on his face, with the words, “But I think it’s also a religious novel.  It’s ultimately a religious novel.”

It was a slow, rich reading experience, sometimes astounding, sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes boring, and I had gotten to the last chapter, four pages long, and muttered to myself, “If this is going to be a religious novel”—which was the reason I was reading it—“it’ll have to do that in the last four pages.”

Then it did.  It did just that.  It was as if Levi were sitting there smiling at me.

The narrator is a London banker, a man whose family origins were in Pakistan but who grew up in Princeton with his professor father.  As his career and marriage are unraveling following the financial crisis of 2008—the very men who urged him to make certain investments just months before are now blaming him for doing so—an old friend shows up on his doorstep, so disheveled that our narrator hardly recognizes him.  But it’s a man named Zafar, who wants to reconnect, take a pause from his life, tell his story.  In a sense the whole book is about the story he tells, or the interaction of the two friends, the way they try to understand things together.  For a period of time their ongoing conversation is the most vivid thing in their lives.

Both of these men are in what I call the hyper-achieving generation, people with multiple talents and enormous energy, who can’t seem to decide what to do with themselves.  Should I go into I-banking?  Go to Law School?  Write a novel?  My wife hears these questions from Duke students all the time.[1]  Zia Haider Rahman, the rather young looking man in the jacket photo, has done all three, has also been educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Munich, and Yale universities.  There’s something obnoxious and annoying about that, I must say.  But the man has written a hell of a novel.  My hat’s off to him.

Zafar’s story involves an element of international intrigue, issues about terrorism and a trip to Afghanistan which span the whole novel, but much more interesting to me was his relationship with an aristocratic British woman named Emily, and the way that intrigue played out in both of their lives.  They both belong to a generation—here comes another generalization, which nevertheless seems true to me—which puts the work first, the relationship second.  They’re always meeting in some elegant hotel in a far-flung city for brief and erotically intense periods, then suddenly parting.  What frustrates Zafar—to the point of real rage—is that Emily never in the least explains what’s up, why she can only arrive on such and such a day (which he suddenly finds out that morning), must leave x number of hours later, though she doesn’t tell him that until it’s about to happen.  It’s as if her work needs to be secret—and for all I know it does—but she also has a certain hauteur, a coldness, of the British upper classes, as if to say, You don’t need to know that, little man.  You’re here to satisfy me, then I depart.  The relationship isn’t exactly like that.  But it verges on that.

Emily’s mother is the same way with Zafar, and there’s a scene where Emily and Zafar get together with another couple of Emily’s acquaintance, a European and his girlfriend, and there’s a subtle racism in the way the man treats Zafar that is unmistakable, and that Zafar, in a deeply satisfying way, will not accept.   Moments like that are a part of his rage.  The whole international intrigue is also part of it, but these smaller moments are important.

It’s impossible to summarize this novel, suggest all the things it brings together, but I’d like to talk at least briefly about those final four pages.  Zafar was a mathematics prodigy, that’s a major part of how the narrator remembers him, and one of his heroes was Kurt Godel, who is known for his Incompleteness Theorem, which I know nothing about.  What it seems to say, as it’s explained in the novel, is that mathematics forms a beautiful system that is breathtaking in its complexity, moments of discovery are almost religious in nature, but it depends on certain things that can’t be proven.  I assume that’s what is incomplete.  You can go to amazing places if you begin with those assumptions.  But what you know depends on things you don’t.

I won’t quote the entire, quite beautiful paragraph at the end where the narrator explains all this (really, if you do nothing else, you should find this book in a bookstore and read the last four pages; they won’t spoil a thing); I’ll just quote a few lines.  The theorem takes us “to the point at which two roads diverge, that we have to choose and the choice is not a happy one. . . .  Down one road is unbearable inconsistency, a world in which black is white and white is black and there is no way to tell them apart . . . The other road . . . no less daunting and hard . . . is a twilight world, for in its manifold embrace are things that are true, crystal blue propositions, which are as true as a man could ever hope to feel something to be true, yet which things—irony of ironies—the man will never know to be true, not because they merely lie beyond the wit of the creature but because mathematics herself condemns men to ignorance.  This is the strangest thing: mathematical truths for which there can never be proof.”

This is where, after this whole elaborate story, in a discussion of mathematics, of all things, the novel becomes religious, though it is not the kind of religion everyone is happy with.  What Zafar has been saying all along is that “understanding is not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but of ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our charge, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants of life.”

It helps to have someone to do that with.  As an earlier anecdote tells us in the same chapter, you feel better with a companion not because you would make decisions differently, but because you’ll feel better about them if you’ve talked them over.  The novel ends with a vision of “two people undeterred by time, walking and talking, bumping against each other, as they discuss the things that matter to them and why they matter.”

These words describe Godel and Einstein, but they also apply to the two friends in the novel.  And they’re a fitting coda to my friendship with Levi.

[1] The attraction of I-banking is somewhat beyond me, I must admit.  But it seems to be the ultimate area where brilliant people measure their achievement, and they measure it by how much money they make.  Everything in my life tells me that’s shallow, but they do it.  It’s as if their bank balance is their GPA, but there’s no limit.  You can go above 4.0.  Way above it.

Should Buddhism Be Secular?

Or Could We, on the Other Hand, See Every Moment of Life as Religious?

American Nirvana by Adam Gopnik.  The New Yorker Magazine, August 7 & 14, 2017.

I don’t know at what moment I realized that the goofy little practice that I stumbled into at my wife’s insistence in 1991, surrounded by a bunch of misfits in the basement of a building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had gone mainstream.  Was it when the word mindfulness had become a kind of buzzword (like Zen, the practice that my earlier one has morphed into), so that you see it not only in yoga magazines, but in women’s magazines, business magazines, Time magazine?  Was it when there was a new magazine actually titled Mindfulness (after you print the Satipatthana Sutta, what do you write about?)?  If not either of those things, it was certainly when I was leafing through the New Yorker, and found in the table of contents the words that I’ve used for my title, as a come-on for an article written by none other than Adam Gopnik, my own personal favorite among the New Yorker writers.  I’m almost always interested in the subjects he takes up, and find him a helpful and interesting guide. Now he’s discovered Insight Meditation?

The occasion, apparently, is a book by science writer Robert Wright in which he talks about his own experience of the practice.  I haven’t read the book (though I did read a recent article by Wright in the Wall Street Journal), and know only what Gopnik tells me, but Wright apparently has a regular practice of sitting and has gone on retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, my old stomping grounds.  He reports that the practice makes him feel better.  And I don’t intend any sarcasm when I say I think that’s great.  It makes me feel better too.

Gopnik says that Wright sees the center of meditation to be the discovery that our thoughts are not “who we are,” but just a random load of crap created by our conditioning and flying through our heads constantly.  We don’t have to believe our thoughts.  We don’t have to act on them.  We can just watch them, with mild amusement.  They’re not us.

I don’t in any way diminish that as an insight.  No less an authority than Eckhart Tolle calls that “awakening,” and it is certainly one of the important things we realize as we sit.  But I’m a little uneasy at calling that understanding the heart of meditation.  I’m even more uncomfortable at the idea of meditating because it makes you feel better.  This great tradition that is centuries old becomes one more feel good technique, just as yoga has been entirely secularized.  It’s something you do after your yoga and spin classes.  Spend a little time with your meditation app, and you’re ready for your dating app (and your booze ap).

It turns out that Gopnik himself has been meditating, with guided meditations by Joseph Goldstein, not a bad guy to start with, and has apparently, as Gopnik will do, started reading around on the subject.  What interests him is this question of whether mindfulness meditation is really a religious practice, or if it can just be done in a secular way.

He thereby happened upon Stephen Batchelor, a man who has been heading in the secular direction for years, with books like Buddhism Without Beliefs, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, and now After Buddhism (the man is running out of titles.  His next book will be, After Post Buddhism).  When, some years ago, a magazine raised the (rather boring) question of whether you can be a Buddhist without “believing” in rebirth, they called on Batchelor to argue the positive side.  Robert Thurman took the negative.

I’m with Batchelor on that one.  In fact, what my teacher Larry Rosenberg taught us about the whole subject of beliefs was the Buddha’s famous teaching the Kalama Sutta, in which he said not to believe anything unless you know, by your own experience, that it is true.  If I’ve experienced rebirth I don’t remember it.  So I’m not saying it’s true, and I’m not saying it’s not.

But Gopnik makes me uneasy when he equates Batchelor’s opinion with that of a science writer who has only recently discovered meditation practice.  Batchelor has done severe monastic practice, and when he talks about Buddhism being or not being a religion he knows whereof he speaks.  People don’t have to agree with him to see he is a serious man.

What Batchelor is trying to do, it seems to me, it to take away the stale trappings of religion, the things we’re supposed to believe, and look at what the Buddha actually said, and what he advised.  The Buddha left home and became a renunciate because he was facing the most deeply religious question of all, what Zen calls the Great Matter of Life and Death: if life ends in death, what is the point of living?  Apparently, on the night he sat under the Bodhi tree, he found some answer to that question.  What he taught for the rest of his life was not a verbal answer (he resolutely refused to answer any such questions) but a way of living that would lead to the answer.  You could call that way of living—which he outlined in the Satipatthana Sutta—the way of mindfulness.  But it isn’t a way to make you feel good.  It’s a way of facing the deepest questions of human existence.

I think that sitting meditation—the practice that I believe the Buddha was doing under the Bodhi tree, what we used to call pure vipassana, what Zen calls shikantaza—is the most religious act there is, a human being sitting in silence with what is.  The Buddha’s ultimate teaching is that all of life can be like that, every moment, every act.  But for me that doesn’t mean that Buddhist practice is secular.  It means that every moment of life is religious.

In a way it comes to the same thing, and it doesn’t matter what you call it.  We discover that every moment of life is sacred.  Robert Wright is headed there, whether he knows it or not.

He Showed Up

Levi G. 1953-2017

I won’t say that Levi was my best friend in the world—I have many wonderful friends—but he was the friend with whom I most resonated.  When I was in Asheville we met every week for a couple hours, having breakfast and drinking coffee.  As soon as we sat down we fell into the same deep conversation we’d been having for nine years.  Two hours seemed like twenty minutes.  We were on the same wavelength, somehow, about literature, writing, religion, our spiritual lives, psychology, addiction, our pasts, our present lives.  Every time we parted, and I was walking away, I felt a twinge of sadness, because that conversation, the likes of which I’ve never had with anyone else, was over.  It was as if it would never happen again.

Now it won’t.  Levi died early on the morning of August 6th of a massive heart attack.

I met Levi in a Durham men’s group that some of us formed in 1988 after a Robert Bly Day for Men.  He was a lively and provocative member of the group, very much involved in the Men’s Movement in those days, got to know Bly and Michael Meade and James Hillman personally.  Before long, he had gotten a job in the western part of the state and moved from Durham, kept in touch only sporadically.  I didn’t get close to him again until 2008, when my wife made the decision to rent a place in Asheville year round so she could look after her parents and her autistic brother.  We spent the summers in Asheville, along with every break in the academic calendar, and he and I met once a week to have breakfast and swap stories.

He’d been a serious alcoholic in his twenties, was sober only a few years when I first met him.  By the time he died he was one of the old crocodiles of AA, sober for over thirty years.  He told me that when he was a young man he worked at a restaurant in Williamsburg and would take his tip money to a bar after work and drink until the money was gone.  He’d wake up the next morning with a terrible headache and do the whole thing all over again.  He told me about one day of drinking, a Sunday, when he began with Bloody Mary’s, went on to multiple beers for a football double header, back to hard liquor in the evening.  I couldn’t believe the amount he put away.

One time when we were talking about our addictions, I said, “That thing most people have, that tells them they’ve eaten enough food, I don’t have that.”

He said, “I don’t have it for drinking.”

We stared at each other for a moment, thinking of all those limitations had meant to our lives.

One day he said to a woman friend—there was always a woman in Levi’s stories—that he thought he had a drinking problem and should go to AA.  She said she thought he was right.  She offered to go with him.

He never had a drink again.

He told me once that AA was a great example of the saying that, when two or three are gathered in His name, He is there.  He also once said that God entered the world in humble circumstances, in a stable, and he continues to enter the world in the humble circumstances of church basements all over the country, where people drink coffee from Styrofoam cups and admit their inability to handle their deepest cravings on their own.

AA was Levi’s church, which he deeply loved and was completely devoted to despite all its flaws and problems; he attended multiple meetings per week.  When we were out somewhere he was frequently greeted by other folks from AA.  They beamed when they saw him.

His other deep spiritual practice—one he shared with my wife, but took to a whole new level—was the Progoff Journal Workshop.  It was when my wife saw Levi at a workshop in Asheville in 2008 that she got the idea that he and I should start getting together.  I’d been disgruntled at the thought of being away from Durham for so long.  Levi made the Progoff method a major part of his life, and to say he had written thousands of journal pages is not an exaggeration.  Every time I saw him he carried the leather satchel which held the massive binder he wrote in, often with an expensive fountain pen he’d bought for that purpose (it was one of the few extravagances Levi had; he was not an extravagant person.  The only other thing he spent excessive money on was books).  We often talked about writing he’d done in the past week, and he often said, as we parted, that he was heading home to write in his journal.  I think it was another major tool in his sobriety; he faced the demons when they came up by writing about them.

His other spiritual practice was one we talked about constantly, though I had little familiarity with it.  I believe the story was that he was in his twenties or early thirties, breaking up with yet another woman, when she gave him a copy of In Search of the Miraculous.  “Start at the beginning and read it to the end,” she said.  Most guys, being given a spiritual book by a woman who was breaking up with them, would have built a bonfire to burn it, but Levi read it, had read it many times since; it was one of the most influential books in his life.  He subsequently drove many miles once a week to visit and be counseled by a woman who had done “the work” with some Gurdjieff disciple, then split off from him (Levi gave me the impression there were many such satellite people).  By the time I knew him he was mostly reading commentaries on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, not their original work, but that was his constant spiritual reading.  He was obsessed with literature as well, but the reading he talked about most was the Gurdjieff stuff.

Levi was a working class guy, with working class roots; he talked a lot about both of his parents.  His father was a taciturn factory worker, nothing like Levi (no AA, journal workshop, Gurdjieff work).  They had to move at one crucial moment in Levi’s life—breaking up his high school basketball career—because his father needed to find work.  Part of Levi’s story—we heard this even in the men’s group days—was that he was trying to move beyond that working class background, where men worked hard and drank hard and never talked much to anybody, certainly not other men.  He somewhat sabatoged himself when he was a young man, using the drinking and drug taking to ruin his first crack at college, but he graduated years later and then got a masters, had a long career as a substance abuse counselor.  He was a wonderful counselor, I’m sure, but I’ve always thought there was an academic and a philosopher in Levi struggling to get out.

Levi’s literary tastes were more post-modern than mine; he was obsessed with Thomas Pyncheon, whom I’ve never read, went on and on about Pyncheon’s theories of how we’ve gone wrong in our lives and politics.  There were certain books that Levi read repeatedly, Pyncheon’s work and various books about him, William Gass, also, every few months it seemed, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  He’d read much more in philosophy and psychology than I had, was always naming some modernist philosopher I’d never heard of.  He loved movies, YouTube videos, documentaries about philosophers.  I think that in recent years he spent more time looking at screens than reading pages.  He had an incredible obsession with the television series Mad Men, watching it multiple times and binging on it, finding in it the entire history of Western civilization.

Levi talked to me often about doing something more with his work, making sections of his journal into a book, writing a novel about some key moment in his life.  He never pulled the trigger on that.  I sometimes think the things he didn’t do—become an academic, become a philosopher, write a novel—had to do with the pull of his working class roots.  He’d come a long way, but couldn’t quite put his voice into the world.  He wanted to, but never did.

At other times, though, he realized that his journal was the great work of his life, a massive and obsessive attempt at self-understanding.  That’s what AA was too, and the Gurdjieff work, his brave and powerful attempt to examine his life as a human being in the world.  Thoreau set out to live life deliberately, but I can’t imagine living a life led more deliberately than Levi’s.

When my wife’s autistic brother lost his father, the man he’d lived with all his life, Levi began visiting him once a week as a counselor and helped him get past that.  He immediately, the moment he met him, treated him as an interesting human being worthy of respect.  He was Louis’ first real friend, though they met when Louis was 59.  Just a couple of weeks ago, when Louis was to start meeting with an autism therapist at a new office, Levi drove him there on a dry run, gave him the confidence he could go alone.  I ache for Louis as much as I do for myself.

The last time my wife saw Levi, at the beginning of another spring Progoff journal workshop, he had lost weight and looked different; his color wasn’t good, and he was having a problems with his gums, which he wasn’t looking after.  “I’m coming to terms with my mortality,” he said, rather solemnly, and she said, Come on, Levi, get your teeth fixed, take care of yourself.  But she remembered that moment when she heard he had died.

I too felt in recent weeks that he’d been looking back on things, wondering about his legacy.  I would guess that his legacy will be in dozens, hundreds, thousands of AA meetings where he stood up and spoke his wisdom, saw that living a life of sobriety wasn’t just a matter of not taking a drink—though it started with that—but facing whatever was leading you to drink, fear or anger or shame, facing that thing and feeling it, learning from it.  A life of sobriety was better not just because it didn’t damage people but because it was richer, facing the demons and traumas that pull us away from the beauty of living.

What I’ll always remember is those Saturday mornings when I’d be in some impossibly crowded Asheville coffeehouse and I’d get my coffee and go back to find a table, and he’d come in the front door to get in line, and look back and see me there, and smile.

Living Deliberately

Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls.  University of Chicago Press.  615 pp.  $35.00.

This is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.  Right at the moment I can’t think of a better one.  And it comes at an ideal moment for me.

The official occasion is the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, in 1817.  There is a whole wave of writing coming out about him now.  Thoreau’s life speaks to me because I’ve retired from my job at the university, and have a new opportunity to live my life deliberately, as he advocated (though I’ve tried always to do that).  It also—rather unexpectedly—spoke to me about our political moment, and showed a side of Thoreau I hadn’t seen before.

In 1850, when he was at work on the book that would eventually become Walden—one of the most optimistic and essentially moral works in all of our literature—the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, saying that any fugitive slave in the country had to be returned to his owners, whether he was in a slave state or free.  People who refused to assist in returning the slaves were themselves breaking the law.  Many people in Massachusetts were infuriated by this law, and by the fact that their own Senator, Daniel Webster, had voted for it.  Thoreau’s family, his mother and sisters, were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement, and continued to be, essentially becoming criminals.  Thoreau assisted them and fulminated in rage against the law in page after page of his journal.  Walden was finally published in the midst of this cloud, and at this tumultuous time in our history.

One of the things I most appreciate about Walls’ book is the way it takes us into this past time.  It gave me a real feeling for what it was to live in a country where Thoreau could say that “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” but where a railroad ran right past Walden Pond, and trains interrupted the calm multiple times per day.  It was a world where people made do with what they had, and got along on amounts of money that now seem tiny.  Thoreau got the lumber for his Walden Pond house from someone else’s, and his house was eventually moved and the lumber used for another project.  He lived for two years in a house that was roughly the size of the room I’m working in (10’ x 15’).  There was no privy.

His own family was not wealthy by any means—Henry had to be a scholarship boy at Harvard—but his father was a successful businessman; a relative had discovered a graphite mine and staked a claim to it, and John Thoreau started a pencil factory and ran it all his life.  Henry often worked there and inherited the business when his father died.  The pencil was an important instrument in Thoreau’s career, freeing him from ink wells and enabling him to take notes out in the field, on his long walks.  Among other projects as a young man he perfected the design of the modern pencil.

Walls’ book is not really revisionist, but every biography paints a different portrait of its subject, and she has a different take on Thoreau than any I had previously read.  She doesn’t see him as the grouchy curmudgeon that others have portrayed; he was a sociable and curious man who talked to people all the time, all his life, and had many close friends.  He was not as outgoing as his brother John, and was slightly weirder, more the solitary studious type.  When John suddenly died of tetanus at the age of 26, having nicked a finger with a razor, Henry was devastated, seemed to become more introverted and to go deeper.  It wasn’t quite like William Blake claiming that after his brother died he was in constant communication with the other world, but it had a similar spiritual effect.

It was startling to me—though this fact was sitting there in all the chronologies I’ve read of the man—that Thoreau was only 28 when he went to Walden Pond, 30 when he left.  He didn’t go to become a hermit, according to Wall—plenty of people came to see him at his little house, and he usually went home for Sunday dinner most weeks—but to devote himself to his writing; he’d been floundering around since graduating from Harvard, had worked as a teacher, worked briefly in the pencil factory, tried to make money by publishing writing or giving lectures.  He finally decided to reduce his needs and see how that worked.  He got a substantial amount of work done at the pond, wrote a draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, took the trip and wrote the notes that would later become the posthumous book The Maine Woods, and of course did the journal writing that he would eventually turn into his masterpiece.  He left not because he was tired of the experiment but because Emerson was going to Europe for a year and wanted Thoreau to look after his family.  It was Emerson who owned the land, and like a shrewd Yankee businessman he immediately rented the house to someone else.  Otherwise Thoreau might have lived there much longer.

For the rest of his life he lived in his family’s attic and made a living largely as a surveyor—a job in which he took great pride—and a lecturer.  Many of his most famous essays, including “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience,” were written first as lectures, and he gave them repeatedly, in a world before YouTube.  The man I’ve always thought of as a dour moralist was apparently quite funny as a lecturer, and left people rolling in the aisles (I’ve found parts of Walden hilarious).  He was also extremely energetic as a writer and scholar; in 1852-53 alone, he wrote 1253 pages in his journal, 500 pages in the notebooks he kept about Native Americans, and two new drafts of Walden.

That having been said, he spent plenty of time going on hiking expeditions, climbing mountains, accompanying people on hunting expeditions, though he himself didn’t hunt (he did eat the meat others got.  Despite that chapter Higher Laws in Walden, he seems to have eaten meat all his life.  But he was just as happy living on nuts and bread, whatever was available).  He had close friends who accompanied him on these expeditions; he seems to have been a man who had a few close friendships, rather than many acquaintances.  (Walls seems to think he was gay, though she doesn’t make a big deal of it, and there is no evidence that he ever had a sexual relationship.)  He needed to make money, and wanted to publish his writing, but was not terribly successful; he published only two books, and a smattering of essays, in his lifetime.  The original version of Walden sold a little over 2,000 copies.

The man was a perfectionist in everything—Walden went through multiple drafts—but he always seemed more interested in the new thing, writing up what went on that day, recording yesterday’s walk.  Though there was one period in his life when he was suddenly weak, apparently from the tuberculosis bacillae making their way down into his joints, he did not suffer repeated bouts of tuberculosis, the way some writers did.  But his final illness was quite debilitating; he stopped writing even in his journal.  His death bed statements have all become part of Thoreau lore: “I was not aware that we had quarreled,” when an aunt asked him if he’d made his peace with God, “One life at a time,” when he was asked if he was ready for the next life, and the final murmured last words, “moose, Indians.”

Thoreau has always been one of my literary heroes, because he understood the value of writing both as a way to explore the self (his journal is said to be 2.000,000 words long) and as a way of communicating with others (if he had written only “Civil Disobedience,” his place in world history would be secure).  He did live deliberately, and lived on his own terms.  Walls’ biography only increased my admiration for the man.  And my hat is off to her for a lifetime of scholarly work.  This book is the culmination of it.

Notes on a Remark by Elmore Leonard

How He Gave Up Booze and Learned to Relax

“By then I was in AA and perhaps not taking myself so seriously.  I do think my writing began to improve at this time, mainly because I wasn’t taking the writing so seriously, either.  I learned to relax and not think of it as writing.”

One of the things I most appreciate about the Library of America volumes is the Chronologies in the back, which work as mini-biographies.  The one on Elmore Leonard is especially extensive, because it was done by Greg Sutter, who worked for years doing research for Leonard and is now working on a biography.

Leonard was a Detroit guy who loved sports and was quite an athlete himself, loved to read, loved jazz and hanging out in jazz clubs, did some time in the military, went to the University of Detroit and landed a job in advertising, finally took a crack at being a writer.  It wasn’t that he had anything in particular to say; he was writing advertising copy for a living that thought he’d try fiction.  The market for Westerns was good when he was coming along—Leonard was born in 1925, began his writing career in the early fifties—and he had always love Western movies, so he tried his hand at that.  He didn’t become a household name—that wouldn’t happen for thirty years—but he got books and stories published and they were successful among genre readers.  Four were made into movies, so he had a connection with Hollywood.  When, some years later, the market for Westerns was drying up, Leonard didn’t blink an eye.  He turned to crime fiction.

I’ve said before that I think Leonard’s style is serviceable, if not particularly distinguished, but he had an absolute genius for telling a story.  52 Pickup is the single best example I’ve read; that book moves at such a rapid clip, every scene so abrupt, that it’s almost too much; you want to say, let me catch my breath here.  Even the ending is like that.  You think, what, that’s it?  (Although the last line is a classic.)  That story couldn’t have been better told.

In subsequent novels he relaxed a little on the plotting, or at least on the rapid pace.  Swag is as much about its two likable characters as it is about crime, and Unknown Man No. 89 is a love story (between scenes of extreme danger and violence).  It’s also a book about recovery.  Leonard wrote it around the time he gave up drinking, at the age of 51.  I found his statement about that fascinating both from the standpoint of recovery and from the standpoint of writing.

He says that when he went to AA he began not to take himself so seriously anymore.  That happens when you realize you can’t do everything on your own; you need a higher power.  He must have been one of the few people in the world who took Elmore Leonard seriously at that point, a successful genre writer who was nevertheless mostly unknown.  He was on the verge of being taken very seriously indeed, hailed as brilliant by much more famous writers than he.[1]  It was around the time that he stopped taking himself seriously that they started.

But the sentence I love is that last one.  “I learned to relax and not think of it as writing.”

What was it, if it wasn’t writing?

It was what Elmore Leonard did.  It was Leonard flowering as who he was.

The problem with many writers is that they’re trying to write well, trying to be something they’re not.  That creates a strain, and at the end of a day you’re ready for some booze.  But if you’re just doing your thing, doing what comes naturally, there’s no strain at all.  It’s like a jazz musician playing a solo.  You finish and have no idea what you’ve done.[2]

That brings to mind a statement by Allen Ginsberg that I’ve read to every one of my students in narrative writing.  Ginsberg is talking about being a poet, but at a certain level poetry and prose fiction are the same.  He says that you had to learn to write for yourself, and recommended that people do that by writing in a journal, as he had, doing a certain amount of writing that you never showed to anyone else so you can go to a deeper, more honest place.  He claimed to have learned that from Kerouac, who of course had great belief in a kind of spontaneous, automatic writing.  Kerouac and Elmore Leonard are strange bedfellows in the world of literature—throw Ginsberg in there and you’ve really got a mixed bag—but they all, one way or another, discovered the same thing.

Here’s how Ginsberg expressed it, in Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift.

“It means abandoning being a poet, abandoning your careerism, abandoning even the idea of writing any poetry, really abandoning, giving up as hopeless—abandoning the possibility of really expressing yourself to the nations of the world.  Abandoning the idea of being a prophet with honor and dignity, and abandoning the glory of poetry and just settling down in the muck of your own mind. . . . You really have to make a resolution just to write for yourself . . . , in the sense of not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what your self is saying.”

Elmore Leonard learned to write what his self was saying.  That’s when he became a star.

It’s like what the rabbi Zusya said in the Hasidic story.  “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’  They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

 

 

[1] Sutter gives us a list of his correspondents: Charles Willeford, Lawrence Block, Evan Hunter, Tony Hillerman, Pete Hamill, Russell Banks, Ross Thomas, Jim Harrison, James W. Hall, Andre Dubus, Dean Koontz, Walker Percy.

[2] As Dwike Mitchell reported in Willie and Dwike: An American Profile.

Lives of Crime

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970’s.  Unknown Man No. 89, The Switch.  Library of America.  809 pp.  $37.50.

I’ve begun to decide—as I read one Elmore Leonard novel after another (that’s one of the advantages of the Library of America; you get to soak yourself in a single writer) that he wasn’t a crime novelist so much as a novelist of the criminal classes.  He wrote about people who live outside the law, but often wrote about their ordinary lives.  We spend half of Swag hearing about how Stick and Frank hang around this great apartment they have, inviting the “girls” from down at the pool up for drinks and seeing if they can get lucky.  There’s a prostitute who lives next door, and through the wall they hear her exclamations of passion to please clients.  Frank does better with women than Stick, who finally gives in and makes a date with the prostitute.  She moans the same damn things he’s been hearing through the wall.

Unknown Man No. 89 is about a process server, a guy named Ryan who takes a certain pride in his work and his ability to get it done.  He’s not a criminal at first, just a guy who can find people and hand them papers without getting himself killed.  Eventually a man hires him just to find somebody—forget about the papers—and that’s how he gets involved in a con.  This Mr. Perez has a business where he finds people who have inherited money but don’t know it, and he gives them the information if they give him a cut.  The guy he wants Ryan to contact is a criminal himself, an extremely violent man named Bobby Lear who had robbed a bank a few years before and whom one of his accomplices is also trying to find.  Ryan tries to locate the man through his girlfriend, a young woman named Lee.  That slows the plot almost to a stop.

Lee is a drunk, sits around bars all day stupefied, one drink and cigarette after another.  Ryan—we soon become aware—is himself a recovering alcoholic and understands what she’s going through.  What follows is one of the most interesting portrayals of addiction and recovery I’ve read.  It isn’t always pretty, and the two of them aren’t always good, even Ryan.  But they face the problem head on.

Leonard wrote the book around the time he gave up drinking, on January 24, 1977, at the age of 51.  He’d been a successful novelist for years—not the first productive novelist to be an alcoholic—but thought his work improved after he quit.  He made a fascinating statement about that.  “By then I was in AA and perhaps not taking myself so seriously.  I do think my writing began to improve at this time, mainly because I wasn’t taking the writing so seriously, either.  I learned to relax and not think of it as writing.”

It wasn’t as if Ryan and Lee’s only problem was booze.  She still had that extremely brutal boyfriend to worry about, and various violent and treacherous guys who were trying to get the money owed to the guy, a considerable sum.  But to me the most interesting part of the novel was their developing relationship and their struggles with booze.  The book was quite romantic, at least when the bullets weren’t flying.  And it was a touching story, even if—as the expression goes—these people had made some unfortunate choices in the past.

There’s a shooting in a bar in the middle of that book that is incredibly suspenseful and violent.  It made me want a drink.

The Switch, I would say, is Leonard’s attempt at a feminist novel.  I say that with a perfectly straight face.  It wasn’t entirely successful.  But as a crime novel, a comic crime novel, it’s a winner.

Leonard makes the precarious move in this book of leaving the porn shops and the gentleman’s bars and the sleazy apartments that have populated his earlier novels, and entering the Detroit country club scene.  Mickey Dawson is the wife of a golf champion and businessman and all around turd named Frank.  He’s a drunk, like Lee, but not a repentant one (and if the number of drinks that folks put down in both of these books is anything like realistic, I haven’t spent much time with true alcoholics).  He’s rotten to his wife.  She’s sweet by nature, also has trouble asserting herself, even saying what she wants.  She doesn’t exactly love Frank, but she’s got a good life and the two of them have a son, whom she adores.  She doesn’t want to rock the boat.

Frank has been buying up real estate and furnishing apartments with stolen goods, devising various tax breaks as he does so.  That’s fine, except that he’s been dealing with criminals, and they have some idea of what he’s worth (which is more than we can say for Mickey.  He’d never tell her).  They get the idea of kidnapping her and holding her for the considerable ransom Frank’s able to pay.  They do that on the day when Frank is going to his place in Florida to see his much younger girlfriend.  It’s also the weekend when he’s decided to serve Mickey with divorce papers.  The papers can’t be served—even Ryan wouldn’t have been able to serve them—because she’s been kidnapped.

This—in case you hadn’t noticed all the mishaps—is a comedy, more like Swag than like Unknown Man No. 89.  A woman critic in the Detroit Free Press criticized the book for its portrayal of women, saying, “Leonard’s sexual attitudes are about as liberated as Mickey Spillane’s.  Even in a book that purports partly to be about a woman’s self-discovery, the women are defined mostly in terms of their physical attributes.”  I’d read that remark before I’d read the novel, and I honestly don’t think it’s fair.  There’s a lot in the novel about Mickey’s internal struggles (it hurts when kidnappers say deliver the money or you’ll never see your wife again, and your husband promptly does nothing), and while I didn’t find that portrayal terribly realistic—Leonard didn’t seem to know women from the inside (though that critic’s remarks made him resolve to do better)—he was at least in there trying.

The problem in the novel—if it’s a problem, which I don’t necessarily think it is—is that the girlfriend, a shrewd, scheming, sexy, liberated woman by the name of Melanie, is far more interesting than Mickey, partly because she’s such a schemer.  She lets us see that Frank is a lot dumber than he seems—another middle-aged man with delusions about a younger woman—and she inserts herself into the action in a way we never expected.  She can teach Mickey a thing or two about being assertive.  Mickey, to her credit, learns.

            We don’t find out what the actual Switch is until the very last scene, at least I didn’t.  The ending was as funny and surprising as the whole book.