Friday, 18 May 2018

TOM WOLFE AND AMERICAN STUDIES


Although Tom Wolfe was in many ways the poster boy for 'The New Journalism', and appreciations of him focused on his revolutionary writing style, Wolfe's classic journalism, and indeed his fiction, was informed equally by the unlikely fact that he had earned a PhD at Yale University in the then-newish field of American Studies. During the war, Yale's American History department was the prime recruiting source for the OSS, and after the war the American Studies programme, concerned less with history than with American civilization, appears to have been no different for the CIA. Rather than go into academe, Wolfe went to work on the Springfield (Mass) Union, then went straight to the Washington Post and reporting from revolutionary Cuba. Connect the dots.

American Studies would appeal to the CIA, who were funding all sorts of arts and literary project, trying to establish the value of American life. Wolfe's doctoral thesis was on the CPUSA's Depression-era League Of American Writers, and in later years Wolfe would link the sociological concerns of his writing to his study of Max Weber's 'Status Theory', and interesting combination for a writer who was anything but leftish. But it's easy to see its fruits at the heart of a couple of the early pieces that made his name. The most famous are 'Radical Chic', about the conductor Leonard Bernstein's cocktail party for the Black Panthers, and 'Girl Of The Year', about society wild child Baby Jane Holzer. Were you to read only these, you might picture Wolfe, the Southern Dandy dressed in trademark planter couture, solely as a gadfly in the social scene, a reportorial version of Gore Vidal or even Truman Capote.

Where many of the so-called new journalists got involved with the people they wrote about, making the story about themselves as much as their subjects, Wolfe remained apart. Instead, he used his prose style to draw the reader in, as if in place of himself, recreating on the page that feeling of 'being there', as Jerzy Kosinsky would say.

But what gave Wolfe's work its muscle was not socio-economic analysis, nor typographic flamboyance!!!,  but the mythic aspect of American literature which he gleaned in his studies: the way the American hero, 'hard, isolate, stoic and a killer' in D.H. Lawrence's words, was self-made, tested as an individual, and fled from the encroachments of avaricious society. In Wolfe's eyes, Junior Johnson, the stock-car racer who learned his trade evading Federal agents while carrying his father's bootleg whisky, was indeed 'The Last American Hero'.

Although not actually the last. For Wolfe he was the forerunner of Chuck Yeager, the test-pilot with the Right Stuff. Just as Johnson was subsumed by the growth of corporate NASCAR racing, so Yeager gave way to NASA, who insisted on total control of their astronauts.

This vanishing American hero (to use Leslie Fiedler's phrase) recurs in variations even as Wolfe reports on America civilization becoming a more and more bizarre beacon for the rest of the world. I was still in my early teens when I devoured The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (1965), his first collection. The title story is about two car-customizers, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth and George Barris 'King of the Kustomizers'. As a kid I knew nothing about Baby Jane Holzer, but despite having only slightly more interest in cars, I devoured the pictures of hot rods in Rod & Custom magazine, built plastic models of Big Daddy's cars like the Beatnik Bandit. Wolfe's story is about the way Kustom Kulture in Kalifornia seeks a freedom unavailable in, say, Detroit, or even New York. It's also about the battle between designers, one creating art without thought to functionality, the other building artistic works one could actually drive. It's a theme repeated in Wolfe's 1981 polemic against modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House.

In 1965 I was already listening to the disc jockey Murray the K on 1010 WINS in New York. Wolfe's essay 'The Fifth Beatle' portrayed Murray less as a leader of the nascent counter culture than a frenzied self-promoter, the 'king of the hysterical disc jockies' , though those of us who listened knew the hysterical crown actually belonged to 'Cousin' Brucie Morrow, whom Murray replaced on WINS. Ironically, two decades later, after the publication of Bonfire, first serialised in Rolling Stone, Norman Mailer called Wolfe 'the hardest-working show-off in the literary world', in effect a novelistic Murray the K. The ensuing feud with what Wolfe called 'my Three Stooges', Mailer, John Updike and John Irving concerned the quality of his fiction, which Wolfe self-flatteringly described in terms of the social realism of Zola, Dickens, Balzac and Dreiser. In his riposte to the Stooges, 'Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast' Wolfe argued writers should be focused on 'the material' of American life, not their own talent. Funnily, the two novelists he cited were Joseph Wambaugh and John LeCarre: early Wambaugh was everything Wolfe may have thought Bonfire to be, and a good counter to Updike, but LeCarre's spies moved in a world very much apart from the billion feet, especially the billion American feet.

Although Irving might be said to be the most self-consciously Dickensian of Wolfe's Stooges, and Updike the most obvious opposite of what Wolfe wanted to do, the feud with Mailer is paradoxical, if not in their fictions (though Mailer's mythic takes in, say, An American Dream or Why Are We In Vietnam? are as full of American Studies as Wolfe, and former originally was serialised in Esquire!) than in their non-fiction. We think of the New Journalism as being defined not only by flamboyant writing like Wolfe's, and by less flamboyant long-form, but by the insertion of the writer into the story, which was very much not Wolfe's MO. It was however, Mailer's, or did you miss the point of Advertisements For Myself? He did it in the third person (something he learned reading Henry Adams at Harvard, probably in American Studies!) or Hunter Thompson's. Wolfe himself credited Gay Talese's 'Joe Louis At 50' as opening his eyes, while some of the new journalists, say, Jimmy Breslin, were working in the style of great columnists--bringing the freedom of the column to their reporting. The point is that, in non-fiction, this was very much a shared enterprise, without the back-biting. But when we entered into the realms of fiction, all bets were off. Could Wolfe have dug back into his own past and written anything like Mailer's vast novel about the OSS and early CIA, Harlot's Ghost (whose promised part II never appeared)? To do so might have required Wolfe's own presence; Mailer, on the other hand, was playing the observer here.


But his critics felt the difference between Wolfe's material and his 'talent'. It goes back to Wolfe's writing his way out of the diffidence of being an observer. Perhaps there is his own element of class involved. His family had money; if he were in the CIA he might possibly have been supported by them. In Bonfire he captured the sense of the greed-driven Eighties perfectly, his involvement with the characters almost matched the ones about which he'd reported. But that was because they were the Ivy League elite, the ones who had once gone into the CIA, and cover jobs in journalism, but now were busy being a different kind of Masters Of The Universe, by moving money and living large. But after Bonfire, away from the types he knew well, his three later novels revealed the limits of observation as opposed to creation, most famously in I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), in which Wolfe very much wasn't his black woman from a poor background who attends an elite university. He was expanding an observation about an issue in society into a framework he was unable to fill convincingly.

Wolfe's most famous book remains The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), chronicling his travels across America on an LSD-fuelled trip with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, including Neal Cassady and the Grateful Dead, a journey that also spawned parts of Hunter Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels. Kesey of course is best-remembered today for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1962) a moving novel about an issue of sorts, but more tellingly a daringly-constructed and written study of an individual hero's battle with society. That was also, more obviously, the theme of Kesey's now-neglected second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion (1964), the tale of the Stamper logging family's battle against unionzed loggers in Oregon. Although it is very much rooted in realism, the characters often speak in first-person monologues, like a new journalist's patter. I think of Paul Newman, as Hank Stamper in the final scene of the film adaptation, riding down the river like Huck Finn, straight out of your American studies class, flipping a middle finger at the world.

Wolfe of course remained aloof from the merriest of the Pranksters' pranking. But it's hard not to think that in Kesey and his rebellion against the norms of Sixties society, and his return from the West to the East on his bus, Wolfe saw his most crucial themes laid out for him, in one psychedelic, tie-dyed pattern. That he could never reproduce this in his fiction should not come as a surprise. After all, after the Magic Bus, neither could Kesey.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

SILENT FEET (a poem after Eberhard Weber)

When I found the manuscript pages of Silent Feet I was pleased at how well I remembered it, and how well it held up. I wrote it 40 years ago, just after the poem Coachwheel Yellow, a villanelle which I posted here back in 2016, and to which you can link here. Or look on the side of the blog page, where you can link to all the poems posted here.

The connection is the studio/greenhouse, and the same very specific place and situation in both poems. 'Silent Feet' is another ECM poem, inspired by a song, in this case the title track of Eberhard Weber & Colours' 1977 album. It remains one of Weber's best songs, and the way his bass swirls and builds around the other players (Rainer Bruninghaus on piano, Charlie Mariano on reeds and John Marshall on drums) is superb. This would be around I time I saw them at The Round House in Camden.

Today I was looking at the album's cover art, by Maja Weber, and wondering why when I wrote this I did not make more of the Watership Down connection (to the cat were given silent feet and eyes that can see in the dark; I have another poem with the latter title which remains unfinished) at the time. Maybe I wasn't looking at the LP sleeve. I wrote it originally in August 1978 and changed it only slightly in the next year. It was accepted for publication by two magazines which folded, before being published in 1987 in a very small magazine called Magazing, in Glasgow, but the 'finished' version appeared in Brief (Canyon, California) issue 5, 1989. I made a few more changes recently in the version you are reading here.



SILENT FEET
                                                 (after Eberhard Weber)

The colours jump off his brush, names on a list
Eager to complete itself.
The canvas stretched like a target; his eyes
Controlling a weapon he cannot dismantle.
The angle of the easel is determined by
The relationship developed between hand and eye.
It can be considered
From the outside, by a woman watching
In the doorway, on bare feet, silently
As his arm reaches
To connect the line of the body
With the canvas, reclining
In its plane. He senses
Her presence, still outside but changing
The contours of the studio. The patterns
roll against his eyes like waves. She hears
Him turn before he does, before she sees
It happen. Her eyes are nervous, bird's song;
They meet his askew; they move away,
Return; she hears him move again; he sees
Her, a flutter of wings outside;
She is gone.

MARK BILLINGHAM'S KILLING HABIT

Someone is killing cats up North London way, and although Tom Thorne can't help but feel tomicide is not his proper calling, he's going to be seconded to his old Kentish Town stomping grounds, an improvement over his new commute from his partner Helen's place in Tulse Hill up to Hendon. And he knows there is always the possibility the serial feline killer might move on to something more satisfying, for both of them. That's the grim reality for Thorne, an honesty that makes him one of British crime fiction's most compelling detectives.

But once up NW5 way, he works out a mutual assistance deal with DI Nicola Tanner, suffering her own recent loss, but investigating the murder of a drug dealer, a case which isn't as open and shut as it seems.

Savvy readers might think they know where all this is going, but one of Mark Billingham's strong points is the way he manages to confound expectations. There are twists along the way, and one big and very convincing one at the climax which will satisfy puzzle fans as well as those of the classic Scandi/British school of police procedurals.

Beyond that, what makes Billingham so good is the way the twists move within his own story and his relationship with the police itself. His cops are a rainbow coalition, ahead of the British curve in many ways, and the way their personal lives stack up, survive problems or not, is as much a thriller in its own way as the crime plot. And like John Harvey, one of the masters of the genre, the cops' own situations are often mirrored by the story itself: here there's an interesting doubling between a criminal held in protective custody and Thorne's own troubled relations with his partner and her sister.

Billingham is good enough with characters that when, for example, Thorne attends his first gay wedding, of the tough-talking Sergeant Christine Treasure, it actually brings a smile to the reader's face. It's that quality of writing that makes Mark Billingham, my old podcast partner on The Crime Vault Live (interest declared) one of the best, and most consistent, writers in the business.

And of course, there are the cats.

The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham
Little, Brown £18.99 ISBN 97807551566949
published 14 June

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

THE BEST TIGHT ENDS: JASON WITTEN, ANTONIO GATES & MY GRIDIRON TOP TEN

Last night on Talksport2's Nat Coombs Show starring Gnat Coombs we were talking about Jason Witten's retirement and the Chargers' release of Antonio Gates, and I mentioned the following article which I wrote last August as a Carlson's GOAT (greatest of all time) column for issue 31 of Gridiron (and if you haven't yet subscribed to Gridiron, why not?).

I have left the article as it was written (with one change in the second 11), though of course now Witten is no longer active and he has 11 Pro Bowls to his name, while Gronk is still active (after much soap opera drama by the 'hot takes' bunch) and now has four first-team All Pro selections and five Pro Bowls to his credit, tied with Ditka and more than Mackey or Winslow. Dallas certainly was expecting Witten to return as a full-time player, while although I fully expect a team, probably a very good team, to pick up Gates, he will certainly be much more of a situational player.

Were I writing the piece now, after the 2017 season, I would probably move Witten at least into a tie with Gates at number nine. I realised that the arguments I made in favour of Tony Gonzalez at number one apply similarly to Witten--his longevity at high quality is so unusual for the position it argues in his favour. In fact, although I'm pretty well set on the top five, the next five or six are very much fungible in my mind: the higher peaks for more limited time are balanced off by extended quality. I noted too that when Witten caught his record 110 passes in a season, he was not the consensus All-Pro (that was Gronk), and averaged only 9.4 yards per catch. My feeling is that the top five guys, at their peaks, all had to be accounted for by defenses in ways that separated them from the pack. 


THE TOP TEN TIGHT ENDS


Tight end wasn't even recognised as a position until the Sixties; in 1961 the UPI and NEA all-pro teams chose their first TE (rookie Mike Ditka); the AP followed suit in '62 (Ron Kramer). The growing use of halfbacks as flankers (eg: Lennie Moore, Frank Gifford) meant one end stayed in the line; Vince Lombardi made Kramer, a 250 pound sometimes tackle, that guy on a permanent basis. The position called for a balance of blocking and pass-catching skills; in those early years athletic guys like Ditka, John Mackey, or Jackie Smith gained lots of yards on mis-matches. One beneficiary of the change was Pete Retzlaff, who came into the league as a halfback, became a flanker, then a split end, finally, as he slowed a little, moved in as a tight end. In four seasons, he was all-pro once, could have been twice, and went to the Pro Bowl three times. Rule changes that opened up the passing game in late 70s saw the explosion of Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome and others, until Shannon Sharpe became a prototype for the receiver-first guys we see today.

Ranking tight ends was difficult. Blocking is a skill that is not quantified, where reputation often matters as much as success. Many times the TE with the best stats used to lose out with all-pro voters to someone who was perceived as a better blocker. Some great TE seasons were undervalued by all-pro voters because they came on lousy teams, as if the idea of your TE being your top receiver was a joke (see Bob Tucker 1972). I've tried to balance receiving and blocking, and factor in longevity. One thing that stands out is the demand of the position works against a lot of great seasons, but great tight ends often have long careers filled with seasons less than their peak. There are a number of great TEs whose best seasons always seemed to come when someone else was having a better one (Ozzie Newsome). Finally, I've listed the number of first team all-pro selections and Pro Bowls for each guy. Take them with a grain of salt. There were multiple all-pro teams for most of the history of the NFL; they didn't always agree, and although the AP team is the generally accepted one today, there are a couple of others. The Pro Bowl picks two tight ends from each conference, but is also less reliable every year as the event itself becomes an increasingly irrelevant circus. Note Tony Gonzalez' 14th Pro Bowl came as an alternate! So here's my pick of the position:

Runners-up: 21. Russ Francis (0/3) or Steve Jordan (0/6) 19 (tie) Jerry Smith (1/2) or Jay Novacek (1/4) 18. Bob Trumpy (1/4) 17. Mark Bavaro (2/2) 16. Ben Coates (2/5) 15. Fred Arbanas (3/5 AFL) 14. Keith Jackson (3/5) 13. Pete Retzlaff (1/3) 12. Todd Christensen (2/5) 11. Ozzie Newsome (1/3)

The countdown (active players in bold):
10. (tie) Charlie Sanders (3/7), Jason Witten (2/10): longevity at this position is unusual; most of the greats tend to have five Pro Bowls in their resumes. I thought Sanders' might have been lucky to be chosen in all three of the all-pro seasons, but there was a reason voters respected him, which was partly his blocking. Whitten became the record holder for most catches in a season for a TE with 103 in 2012.

9. Antonio Gates (3/8): Undrafted out of Kent State where he was a basketball player, Gates is the poster-boy for the match-up style pass game of the modern era. Became a decent blocker, and even now with his speed gone can post-up defenders in the end zone as well as anyone in the league.

8. Jackie Smith (0/5): Smith could easily have been first team all pro three times, especially in '68 and '69 (when he also rushed 12 times for 193 yards and 3 TDs). But he was viewed as more of a pass-catcher, and the Cardinals as pass-happy, in a still run-orented era. Forget his famous drop for Dallas; he never should have been playing for the Cowboys anyway.

7. Shannon Sharpe (4/8): The same skill set as Smith, but played in a system and era that encouraged those skills. A willing if not terribly effective blocker, not as good as Smith, but a huge mis-match problem for defenses.

6. Dave Casper (4/5): From '76 through '79 the best in the business, then joined on the Raiders by Ray Chester and Christensen. Ghost to the Post remains as good as Alley-Oop in the list of plays named for specific players.

5. Rob Gronkowski (3/4): Injury is all that is keeping Gronk from consideration for the top spot; he may be the best combination of blocker and receiver of anyone on the list, capable of handling defensive ends one on one, of beating defensive backs downfield, and with reach and hands up there with Gates or Gonzo.

4. John Mackey (3/5): Mackey was the TE on the NFL all-decade team of the 60s; then Mike Ditka replaced him when the NFL chose the 75th anniversary squad. At the time I made the case for Mackey, but looking closely at the all pro selections, I realised in 67 his selection could easily have gone to Jackie Smith or Jerry Smith; in 68 it should have gone to Jackie. He was a ferocious blocker with great speed and running ability; injuries curtailed his career.

3. Mike Ditka (4/5): If you want to call him and Mackey a tie I'd be happy. Ditka's rookie season, 1961, saw him catch an unheard of 56 passes for 1076 yards and 12 touchdowns. He lost the AP all-pro to Kramer in 62 but got UPI's and was clearly better. He wore down as well, but hung on as a blocker with Dallas. Like Mackey, absolutely ferocious after the catch, and teams didn't have what we now call strong safeties in those first years.

2. Kellen Winslow (3/5): Gronk before there was Gronk, though he wasn't the in-line blocker Gronk is. 1980 was his second season, but first as starter and like Ditka in '61 his line 89/1,290/9 revolutionized the game, recognizing the changes in coverage rules made him a match-up nightmare. He had another 1,000 yard season in '82 as did Newsome (1,002) and Joe Senser (1,004), while Dan Ross racked up 910. Winslow simply wore down after nine seasons, but his epic performance against Miami in the 1981 playoffs, catching 13/166 and blocking a field goal to prevent the Dolphins winning, is one of the greatest individual games ever.

THE TOP TIGHT END: TONY GONZALEZ

When you compare players, you have to judge peak performance and career performance. You might make an argument for Winslow, or maybe Ditka, or even Casper at their peaks, but nobody did it so well for so many seasons as Gonzo. You can judge tight ends by the receiving skills, their running skill, their blocking. You'll see Gonzalez referred to as another basketball player converted to tight end, but that's wrong. He was a football player too. As a high schooler he shared the Orange County athlete of the year award with some golfer named Tiger Woods, and for three years at Cal-Berkeley he played football first and then switched to basketball. He was an All-American tight end as a junior, when he came out for the NFL draft; 6-6 power forwards averaging 7 points per game weren't high on the NBA's want list anyway. It took the Chiefs three seasons before they focused on Gonzalez' skills: in his fourth season he registered the first of his four 1,000 yard seasons; Christensen, Winslow and Sharpe had three each.

But what stands out about Gonzalez' career is that longevity. 17 seasons. No major injuries at a position where the wear and tear of blocking, combined with the catching over the middle, invites pain. The consistency of 14 Pro Bowls. The success of moving to Atlanta, where he was unlucky enough to enjoy only one complete season of Julio Jones distracting defenses away from him. Detractors will point to his only adequate blocking, to a perceived lack of breakaway speed; he's more like Gates than Gronk in that sense. They'll point to a lack of a Super Bowl ring, but frankly, that's not a reflection of his play. It's almost impossible to conceive of another career like Gonzalez's. You may prefer a different guy if you're choosing for just one game, but over a career, there's no doubt who ranks number one.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

BEAST: MICHAEL PEARCE'S DEBUT PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER FROM THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Michael Pearce's debut feature Beast, which played at the London Film Festival in October, is set on Jersey, and begins at a birthday party for Moll, who has the spotlight stolen from her by her sister's announcement of an impending baby. Moll, who is kept well under the thumb of her domineering mother Hilary, escapes from the party and spends the night dancing. But when her dancing partner begins to get aggressively amorous on the beach in the morning, she is rescued by Pascal, carrying the rifle he's been using to poach rabbits.

Part of the beauty of this very assured first feature lies in the constant contrast between the posh Bergerac world of Jersey, and the darker world underneath. Moll, a tour guide who shows visitors the island's pleasant side from a bus, is also kept well under hell by her mother, made responsible for care of her invalid father. Pascal, the wild woodsman, begins to set Moll free, but we become aware there are secrets in her past. We also learn the island is being rocked by a series of kidnapping/murders of young girls, and as the relationship between Moll and Pascal deepens it becomes no real surprise that Pascal becomes a major suspect.

Beast depends on its stars to make this mix of stories and styles work, and they deliver. Irish actress Jessie Buckley is a revelation, hiding and releasing bits of her character in ways that only occasionally don't surprise. She's asked for a lot of emotion, but manages not to overwhelm Johnny Flynn as Pascal, who has to be even more of a chameleon, and present a charming face to the Jersey world to which he doesn't belong. And Geraldine James, as Hilary, is a figure worthy of a horror film, holding in her own repressed fury and fear of her place in the island's society.

Pearce's script twists and turns while never losing the basic duopoly of its love story. There is so much contained passion and violence, he needs the sensitive camera of Benjamin Kracun to let the landscape, the seascape, the very atmosphere play against and with his story, bringing out elements of the gothic as well as the romantic, of crime and horror. Note the difference in the two posters for the film if you doubt me. The harsh meeting of sharp-edged rocks, cliffs and sea works perfectly here, and so too the confines of the small island. There is a scene inside a country club whose tightly pressed walls and fragile furniture and place settings almost demands to be spoiled. There's another, an interrogation scene with the excellent Olwen Fouere as a police detective, which blends oppressive space and colour with her own hammering power.

Without getting into spoilers, it is difficult to express further admiration for the script, but as much as it keeps one guessing, plays with carefully placed reference, and builds and tests sympathies, it has an ending whose ambiguities are worthy of some great thrillers of the best. This is an assured and exciting first feature, in fact, I cannot remember a first British thriller I've enjoyed as much in years. And Buckley in particular is an acting talent to watch. Recommended wholeheartedly.

Spoiler Alert: do not read what follows if you're very good at reading between lines, or if you're sensitive to spoilers. But come back and read it after you've seen the film: 

At the screening I attended, there was some debate about which character was, in the end, the Beast, and Pearce said this was a source of argument whenever the film is show. But the movie's title is not 'the' Beast, but Beast, and to me it seemed pretty clear, especially after the ending took me  away from the Thelma and Louise finish I thought had been set up. Pearce's beast is not a person but a feeling that lurks in many of us, and something we need to recognise, understand and control in ourselves. This is what Buckley conveys so brilliantly, and what Flynn is so good at covering up.

 BEAST is on general release at of 27 April 
Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Friday, 27 April 2018

THE WORD (A DREAM, MONTREAL 1975): a poem

I was poking through an old notebook the other day, and found
this. I scribbled it down a year ago, and hadn't thought of it since,
but when I re-read it the actual dream came back to me. I've changed
the words a little, mostly to include details I took for granted in 
my sleep. I couldn't find a photo that looked right, though I did find
one of the building where I lived. The Word was a wonderful bookshop
just around the corner; run by Adrian and Lucy. It's still there, looking
a lot smarter than it does in that relatively contemporaneous photo.
The Star is long gone. I finally met August Kleinzahler at The Word 
one day in 1981, when I arrived to do a poetry reading at McGill,
after years of missing him in various places. He's not the badly dressed
guy in the suit. I do think the dream may reflect as much about
my present circumstances in Britain as it does about Montreal
in 1975. Though I note April 15th is the day US taxes are due.
The poem is published here for the first time. 



THE WORD (A DREAM, MONTREAL, 1975)

A man in a cheap gray gabardine suit, black
Fedora and a thin black undertakers' overcoat
Hanging off him like a shroud stops me 
As I clump through the icy drifts interred
On the corner of Milton & Lorne, by The Word.
It's 30 below. I'm wearing desert boots, fleece
Lined denim jacket, my Canadiens toque. He asks,
In flat declarative Midwestern American
English, to see my papers. Qui etes vous? I ask.
Your papers, he says. I was just on my way,
I say, to pick up a paper. The Star, or maybe
The Gazette if the Star's sold out. He shivers.
You think you're funny? We know who you are. 

15 April 2017

 

Sunday, 22 April 2018

POWER & BEAUTY IN CHINA'S LAST DYNASTY: ROBERT WILSON AT THE M.I.A.

You enter the exhibition through a darkened room in which you remain for five minutes, with slight illumination on a small black-glazed porcelain vase. You are invited, indeed almost compelled to meditate on what you see, or do not see, and when the doors open you enter a white room brightly lighted and echoing with noises of bells and whistles. Welcome to Power and Beauty in China's Last Dynasty.

Many successful exhibitions make their points didactically: thematically, chronologically, they order and explain their theses. Shortly after seeing Power and Beauty at the Minneapolis Institute Of Art, I returned to London and visited the British Museum's Living With Gods, which draws across various religions to show ways in which they reflect the same experiences of life. Given that dynastic China lived with gods in the form of their emperors, Robert Wilson's exhibition covers much of the same territory, but in a more focused and totally different way.

Wilson, perhaps best known for his design of Philip Glass' opera Einstein On The Beach, has selected objects from the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China for some two and a half centuries, until 1911, and placed them in ten small rooms, each with its own design, atmosphere and sound. Most tellingly, the rooms and objects are not curated, explained, as the viewer moves from room to room. Instead, after soaking in their impact, after speculating on their presence and meaning, it is not until you leave the exhibition that a docent hands you a guide, inviting you to reflect on your own reactions, and measure them against their historical, social and artist background.

It is a hugely exhilarating experience. Room by room your senses open up, sometimes trying to connect what you see and what you see with what came before. Sometimes you simply stop and absorb the effects, as if you were being drawn into the lives of the objects rather than drawing them into your own. After I was handed the guide, I began to retrace my steps, but after reversing into two rooms I stopped, preferring to collect my own responses first, then measure them against their provenance; absorbing the things themselves as they engaged Wilson, before borrowing their context.

You emerge from the meditative darkness and come a room of white walls with a large display in the centre, familiar perspex holding small treasures. The sounds of bells and whistles attract your attention as you study the display. But entering the third room, you are overcome by the smell of the straw-lined walls, the percussive noise, the constant changing of light. Hanging before you are robes that reflect grandeur, and you feel, with the smell of straw, somehow detached from them. It turned out the room was devoted to Order and Hierarchy; my senses had been followed where they had been led. The explanation of the objects simply reinforced the overpowering reality.
Thus it followed, room by room. Darkened walls and harpie-like screams as you tread on soft carpet; a powerful smell of sandalwood as you're met with a throne and dragons. Icons presented in a shiny, modern setting, with deep bass sounds suggesting chants or whale song. Three meditative screens met in what we might think of as traditional Chinese sounds in one room; in the next walls of icy silver, lush clothing and jewellery and an aria from Turandot. The senses begin to draw themselves together, and then a darkened room decorated with a contemporary mountain scape, crashing sounds and koto music, and a wonderful rough jade sculpture of mountains taking pride of place. It's as if the previous rooms have melted themselves into this presentation, and then you move to the final room, like the first one simple, but as bright as the first was dark, walls glowing white from within. As the first did, this room contains only one object: a green jade vase, accompanied by the sound of waves hitting rocks. It's something eternal, yet fleeting, and I walked back to it twice before actually leaving the exhibition and receiving my guide, as if it were telling me the dynasty's story, recalling its memory for me.

There is no point in delving deeper into the thematic breakdown of the rooms, or how my reactions moved in different directions from their intent. Because my reactions are part of Wilson's intention; his instinct is to reflect on the way in which an ancient China presented itself, to itself. You view as an outsider, trying to understand this new but long-hidden world. The exhibition itself is a metaphor for something that did not disappear totally with the passing of the Qing Dynasty, but the Power to which it refers resides, in the end, in its Beauty. Beauty was encouraged, indulged as a by-product of power, as were philosophies and religions which had a symbiotic relation to power. But watching that green vase, as if it were the only reminder of what I had just seen, I felt sure that, like the statue of Ozymandias, that beauty was what endured long after the Qing were gone. I say 'long after', but it has only been a century, and what, in the end, is a mere hundred years?

Power And Beauty in China's Last Dynasty
concept and design by Robert Wilson, with Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art at MIA
at the Minneapolis Institute of Art until 27 May 2018

Saturday, 21 April 2018

LIES WE TELL: MITU MISRA'S FIRST-TIME THRILLER

When billionaire Demi (Harvey Keitel) drops dead in his private flat in Bradford, his chauffeur Donald (Gabriel Byrne) discovers his final job is to clear the place of any traces of Demi's mistress Amber (Sibylla Deen). But Amber has other problems with her life in the Pakistani community of Bradford, and Donald finds it impossible not to try to protect her from the violence that threatens her. Because there's a video....

When Lies We Tell had its theatrical release, most of the interest lay in finding out how first-time writer/director Mitu Misra and his producer Andy McDermott (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ewen Glass from Misra's story) were able to put together such a cast together for such a stylish-looking debut film. Misra was no recent film graduate; he is a 58 year old self-made millionaire, who sold off his double-glazing company to bankroll his dream of becoming a filmmaker. A certain amount of northern chutzpah and an equal amount of innocent enthusiasm seemed to do the trick, bringing the big names on board, and the story itself may have done a lot of the rest.

Amber is the focus of the film, caught between the world of Pakistani immigrants and the world of white Britain into which she wants to move, to practice law, something which her affair with Demi is financing. But she was married off at 16 to a cousin, KD, who has also made part of that transition, as a local gangster. By going public and accusing her cousin of raping her, Amber won a divorce, but also the suspicion of her community and the smouldering hatred of KD, who now wants to marry Amber's younger sister. Into this world of threat comes Donald, morose and lonely, divorced and living on a run-down farm with Billy, his ex-wife's brother.

Although Lies We Tell doesn't look like a first-time filmmaker's effort, in large part to the exceptionally sensitive cinematography of Santosh Sivan—a leading light in Indian film, and as much a star catch as Keitel or Byrne—his shooting sets the tones of each scene, and because the movie leaps around in tone, the pictures actually accentuate that. Which isn't always totally positive, as there are otherwise has a number of hallmarks of a beginner, not least the urge to cover loads of bases as if to prove the ability to work in all sorts of styles. The script is somewhat repetitive, especially where the younger sister is concerned, with conflicts restated that don't need to be, and the dialogue is often melodramatically one dimensional. The result is that KD, played with great enthusiasm by Jan Uddin, becomes almost a parody of villains we've seen before; similarly the women around Amber's family are classic harpies. But there are other fascinating touches, like KD's abuse of his English girlfriend Tracy, again a take on big-time gangster roles, and a sudden burst of strength from Amber's father (Harish Patel), which comes after one of the film's most realistic scenes, of men's release while betting on cock-fighting.

It's the up and down tone and the hesitation in resolving the film's many story-lines (Demi's son, for example, wants a piece of Amber) which both slow it down and make it frustrating. The Donald-Amber relationship, a riff of sorts on Mona Lisa, only really gains traction when she finally visits the farm, whose Hovis commercial look remind us of the wider context.

Deen, who comes to the role from Neighbours, is a revelation as Amber, and Misra lets her fill the screen. We've seen morose Byrne before, but he does it well, and makes it easier to believe the nature of their relation. Mark Addy is brilliant as his counterbalance, Billy, and there's a nice cameo from Gina McKee as Byrne's ex. But you have to wonder about the twists and turns, the back and forth, the odd longeur. Where did Amber get Donald's number? And why, in one key scene, is KD travelling without his minders? Not many first-timers begin on as grand a scale as Misra, and if it's not a solid success, it has its moments. The key question will be whether Lies We Tell will help him convince the next batch of talent to sign on board.

Lies We Tell is now available on download and on DVD

Friday, 20 April 2018

JOHN HARVEY'S BODY & SOUL

Frank Elder has almost got his quiet life in Cornwall sorted. Elder fled there after he moved from London to Nottingham to help his wife's career. His wife's infidelity destroyed the marriage; his daughter's life spiraled out of control, especially after she'd been kidnapped by a sex offender when she was 16, and though Elder was the one who rescued her, he could not put her life back together. In the end, he fled. Now he does odd jobs, some for the police, visits the pub, has an on and off relationship with a woman who sings jazz. Until out of the blue his estranged daughter asks to visit, and arrives in London with her wrist bandaged, demanding he ask no questions.

Of course he does, and she leaves, but Elder follows, and discovers Katharine was working as a model for Anthony Winter, a well-known artist, and their relationship ended badly. He returns to Cornwall, but then Winter is murdered, and Katharine Elder is the number one suspect. And just to make things worse, Adam Keach, Katharine's kidnapper, has escaped from custody.

If Resnick is John Harvey's greatest detective, Elder has always been a sort of id to Resnick's ego. Quick tempered, often harsh, not the type to calmly think things through. He's also risked more than Resnick, and as the summary above suggests, not always successfully. So his motivations in this case are a powerful drive, in a sense a chance for Elder to redeem or maybe even vindicate himself. And while he may be sleeping occasionally with a jazz singer; Elder didn't even like jazz.

His real skill lies in the way Harvey makes the story reflect the inner turmoils of his characters' relationships, the ways they deal with life. It's always been one of the hidden highlights of his writing: balancing off the small pains inflicted by those we love or think we love, against the greater pain inflicted by the criminals his cops pursue. Although Elder, and to an extent Kate, remain the centre of the book, we see the conflicts reflected in the other characters he encounters—ex colleagues and friends on the London and Nottingham forces, his ex-wife, even his new circle in Cornwall. But it's mostly the shadow of exes that lowers over the story, as if the past is returning for a reckoning. Harvey is very good at the small nuances of people's everyday behaviour; alongside the tension of suspense comes the equally compelling tension of their lives. Body and Soul indeed; just listen to the song.

We saw the last Resnick novel not so long along, and retired from crime writing. He came back for this, Elder's last case, and as the various strands of the story weave together toward the climax it is every bit as touching as Darkness, Darkness was. If you've read this far, you might be interested in following this link to an appreciation of John I wrote for Windmill Books, on the publication of that novel four years ago. 

I have to declare an interest here: I don't know anyone who's written as many novels as John has, and I know very few who have written so well. But I also don't know many nicer people than John Harvey, so my declared interest may be interpreted as the hope John will write another novel, and once again surprise and delight.

Body and Soul by John Harvey
William Heinemann £14.99 ISBN 97811785151804

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

PHILIP KERR'S GREEKS BEARING GIFTS

Greeks Bearing Gifts appeared just around the time of Philip Kerr's death; it is the thirteenth Bernie Gunther novel and one more was finished and is due to be published. As a number of tributes noted, his best work may not have been in the Gunther series (particularly A Philosophical Investigation), but March Violets is certainly one of the outstanding debut novels for any series characters, very much in the Chandler tradition but set not in LA but Nazi Berlin, and the series was compelling because Kerr made Bernie Gunther one of the most interesting series detectives.

In the classic hard-boiled tradition, Gunther is defined by an inner-code, although given his circumstances his is more ambiguous and flexible than most. Being a cop in Nazi Germany, and in the Germany which followed, poses all sorts of moral and ethical questions, forces all sorts of compromises and makes Gunter always a bit of a flawed hero. He reminds me in many ways of Hammett's Continental Op, especially in the way the Op tends to tell everyone the truth while everyone tells him lies. But where the Op is cynical, Gunther is somewhat more cautious and self-protective.

That is the heart of this novel. It opens in Munich in 1957, where Gunther is living under a false identity and working as a morgue attendant. Unfortunately he is recognised by a Munich cop, and drawn into a complex scheme involving payments from East Germany funneled through an ex-Nazi general to left-wing parties opposed to the proposed new EEC. In fact, the set up is a knowing riff on Chandler's story 'Pearls Are A Nuisance', and when it leads to Gunther landing a job as an insurance investigator we get another, even more thinly-disguised riff on James M Cain's Double Indemnity, on whose screenplay Chandler worked.

All this set up leads to Gunter being sent to Greece to investigate a claim for a sunken yacht, and as those two nod and wink set-ups would remind us if we needed reminding, nothing is what it seems. The claimant turns up dead and Gunther finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy or two involving gold stolen from the deported Jews of Salonika. And, of course, at odds with the Greek police, and perhaps with the Mossad too.

If this sounds complicated, it is, and that is the weak part of the story. It goes back and forth and back again, and there is a lot of explication, including the German and Greek post-war political landscapes. Bernie makes progress, but the problem keeps shifting, like the waters above the yacht. He's assisted by the local agent for his insurance company, a familiar figure of familial corruption recognisable from any number of British spy thrillers, and forced to realise that his whole presence may be part of the set-up.

There is also a femme fatale, as you'd expect, and given that he is Bernie Gunther and not James Bond, he is rightly suspicious. But Elli's character is another problem—that both denouements of their relationship take place off stage merely highlights her lack of depth as a potential betrayer. It's odd, because he's using shorthand for these characters from noir: one crucial villain is basically described as Sydney Greenstreet, which doesn't work and actually doesn't seem like it should be all that accurate.

But the denouement of the story itself is something that takes place off-stage. In one sense, that is a problem for a thriller, but in the sense of Bernie Gunther as a ture hard-boiled character, it works, at least in part because it has been set up by all that exposition. In hard-boiled fiction, as in real noir films, the world is not put right by the detective's work: he must accept that its corruptions continue. Given the scale of the corruptions Kerr lays out, that really is the only possible ending. He adds an historical footnote regarding the real characters who appear in his tale, which simply reinforces that finish.

I would have preferred a more taut narrative, a more ambiguous femme fatale, and perhaps more direct resolution. But in the sense that Gunther loses in order to gain whatever closure he achieves, Kerr has kept the tale firmly in the tradition of one of the most fascinating detectives of our era. He will be missed.

Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr
Quercus, £18.99, ISBN 9781784296520

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 15 April 2018

THE CHELSEA HOTEL: IF THESE DOORS COULD TALK. NOTES ON MY FRONT ROW DISCUSSION

I was on BBC Radio 4's Front Row Friday night, discussing the auction of doors salvaged from the renovation of the Chelsea Hotel, bought by a property company and being turned into, well, part of whatever most of Manhattan has been turned into today. You can link to the programme on the IPlayer here; it's the second item, about 15 minutes in, and sadly was rushed for time for a subject that has so much popular culture currency. But we probably should have concentrated primarily on the relative value-ranking of the sold doors.

Setting the scene was taking too long, so I never got a chance to get to the most crucial character in the story, Stanley Bard, who ran the place from the Seventies onward. This was probably my fault, as I am fascinated by its origins: the architect Philip Hubert virtually invented the concept of a 'coop', and built the Chelsea (in 1884 not 1885) to house both artisans and artists, the upper floors having studios while many apartments were allocated to people who'd worked on the construction. The twelve story building was not, as is widely reported, the tallest building in New York when it opened; it was however the tallest without a spire (Trinity Church, at 279', was almost twice as tall). But by 1890, when structural steel took over in building, as it had in Chicago, Pulitzer's World building, 20 stories and 348 feet, took the mantle.

Hubert's vision didn't work out financially, and new owners included the very rich, and one of the mainstays of the Chelsea would always been its attraction to what someone called 'the troubled children of the very rich'. When the hotel had more financial problems during the Depression, it was bought by three partners, one of whom was Stanley Bard's father, and eventually Stanley took over as manager. He was finally forced out when the heirs of the other two partners decided to sell the hotel, which finally happened in 2007.

Bard would have been a better starting place;  I should have begun with the idea that there was never a house dick at the Chelsea in its glory days. Stanley let people do what they wanted, as long as they weren't 'destructive to the hotel'. That didn't apply to Edie Sedgwick, who famously fell asleep and set her room on fire; Bard moved her to the first floor, where the lobby staff could keep an eye on the room, and protect the art, often accepted in lieu of rent, that decorated the walls.

We did touch briefly on the way the Chelsea remained a melting point for bohemian artists and what we might today call 'trustafarians'. It's first peak was probably in the Fifties, when New York was the cultural capital of the world, and lots of the people who made it so were at the Chelsea, the beat writers, the abstract expressionist painters (Mark Rothko paid his rent with paintings). Arthur Miller wound up there in 1961 after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe, before moving to his farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut.  That's him with writing with Elia Kazan looking on, in his tidy room. Miller described the hotel as having 'no vacuum cleaners, no rules, no shame'. We mentioned Dylan Thomas, who didn't actually die in the hotel, nor actually drink himself to death at the White Horse, but the fact he was staying there was enough. Most of the Beats stayed at some point, though William Burroughs didn't write Naked Lunch there. Jack Kerouac's door went for $30,000.

In the Sixties Andy Warhol's crowd and musicians made the Chelsea. Warhol's film Chelsea Girls is more remembered than watched nowadays, while Shirley Clarke's Portrait Of Jason may get the actual feel of the place in the Sixties the best; Clarke was a resident there. Oddly, Chelsea Girls doesn't include Warhol's superstar, Viva, who was a long-term resident. Bard's efforts to get her to pay rent were legendary, cornering her in the slow lift, or yelling at her in lobby, but they only once wound up in court (her rent, legally controlled, was $920 a month). Once when the people in the flat next door moved out, Viva knocked a hole in the wall and doubled the size of her apartment. If you remember her film performances, you might imagine her righteous indignation. My favourite Chelsea Hotel photo is probably Viva and Patti Smith standing on one of the beautiful wrought-iron balconies, or maybe the one with singer Eric Andersen tied up with them there. Smith and Sam Shepard lived there, in a room slightly less neat than Arthur Miller's. Which reminds me, when you hear Viva talking about the suicides at the hotel, like her upstairs neighbour who landed head-first on a table in the courtyard, you get a real sense of ho-hum, don't you wish you could watch your neighbours do that, about her. Talk about neatness.

The highest price paid for a door was $100,000, for room 211, where Bob Dylan wrote 'Sara'. I wonder if Dylan was staying there because the Chelsea was where Harry Smith lived (and died). Smith's Anthology Of America Folk Music was a bible of sorts for Dylan; listen to The Basement Tapes if you don't believe me. And of course Leonard Cohen's (424).
That door went for $85,000. Host Stig Abel opened the show by playing a clip of Cohen's 'Chelsea Hotel 2', but spared the post-Archers audience the best line: 'giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street', which sums up what the hotel quickly became and may be the greatest rock/sex line ever. Janis Joplin, who was giving the head, and making an exception for the less-than-beautiful Cohen,was in room 411. Jimi Hendrix stayed  in room 430; his door drew only $13,000.

After that the decline began. Rich rock stars took rooms, tourists flocked to see them. After Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen, in the bathroom of room 100, Bard divided the room into two to stop tourists making a gawk shrine of it. There's a great picture of the two of them in the bathroom. What I love about it are the toothbrushes neatly lined up in the holder on the wall. Alex Cox's Sid And Nancy is probably the best of the movies set there; it's also one of funniest films of the 80s. Much more telling than Madonna's book Sex, which was the end of the line for the old Chelsea, being sold for celebrity, the entire hotel treated like the discarded doors would be 30 years later. In its later years stars like Rufus Wainwright would check in for a year and then release a record written in the Chelsea, as if they could appropriate a sense of artistic suffering and struggle by footing the bill for its artistic rub.

Stig also mentioned Arthur C Clarke writing 2001 there. It was actually the screenplay for the film he wrote there, with Stanley Kubrick also staying: according to Barry Miles, Clarke kept a telescope in his room, and used it to look into windows. Those were the kind of stories I wanted to bring in; a painter named Alphaeous Phileomon Cole lived in the hotel for 35 years and died in 1988 at the age of 112; he was supposedly the oldest living man on earth at the time. Or the masochistic heiress Isabella Stewart Gardiner picking up fellow drunks to beat and rob her. Of Julian Schnabel's daughter doing her college homework in the bar of the El Quijote restaurant in the hotel lobby. Charles Jackson, who wrote The Lost Weekend, killed himself in the Chelsea in 1968.

I was fascinated by the families who lived there. I didn't mention the novelist Joseph O'Neill, who lived there with his wife and three children. I did mention the composer Virgil Thompson, a long-term resident, whose flat 920 was bought after his death, and kept in period features by the couple who bought it. You can find pictures of it online, and it gives you a sense of the grace of those upper floors. It also made me think of the couple who bought it, also with three kids, sending them out trick or treating on Halloween up and down the Chelsea.

At the end of the item Stig asked me whose door I would choose he opened it up to anyone in history--trying to reduce my choices I fell on Kerouac, as I'd been trying to figure out how to get his one-night stand with Gore Vidal at the Chelsea into the conversation. I should have said Rothko, far more of an artistic idol for me, and the first thing I would have done would be look for paint drippings. When I called the Gramercy Hotel 'just around the corner and down the street' I was speaking figuratively: I wanted to get in the idea Beat and Warhol crew member Gerard Malanga always used to put his friends into the East Side hotel: when I finally had some money I stayed there too: you got a key to Gramercy Park, one of the nicest squares in New York, and it was two blocks from Pete's Tavern. Charles Ives lived off Gramercy Park; I liked the contrast with Virgil Thompson in the Chelsea.

Looking at what I've just written, it's no surprise I felt I hadn't done the best presentation: there is just too much. But I was hoping for Stig to ask if the passing of the old Chelsea was the end of an era. Being me, I managed anyway to squeeze in these lines, which I did not read well as I was rushing to get the item finished quickly. They're from a poem called The Hotel Chelsea:

Anita! Soon this Chelsea Hotel
Will vanish before the city's merchant greed.
Wreckers will wreck it and in its stead
More lofty walls will swell

The old street's populace. Then who will know
About the ancient grandeur, marble stairs,
Its paintings, onyx-mantels, courts; the heirs
Of a time now long ago. 

It was written by Edgar Lee Masters. In 1936. As former Chelsea Hotel resident Robert Crumb said: "It's always the end of some era in New York".

Monday, 9 April 2018

RUSTY STAUB: LE GRAND ORANGE, JE ME SOUVIENS

That title is a little bit misleading. I never saw Rusty Staub play for the Expos in person; his two stints in Montreal didn't coincide with my one. Staub was the Expos' first real star: he was bright, handsome, hit for power and learned French (though from New Orleans he didn't speak the Cajun variety). By the time I lived in Montreal,, Staub was playing for the Mets, and I saw him on TV-- the Mets had traded for him in 1972. That was a powerhouse trade, with the Expos collecting Mike Jorgensen, Tim Foli and especially Ken Singleton for Staub.  The Expos got good value, but the Mets got someone who helped put them over the top in 1973. Staub played with in injured hand most of the season, then separated a shoulder in the playoffs, where he hit three home runs as the Mets beat the Reds for the National League title. He played six of the seven games of the World Series in right field despite being not really able to throw the ball, and hit .423 as the Mets lost 4-3 to Oakland.

It's always hard to trade the face of your franchise, but Staub went on to play a similar role in New York. He was born in New Orleans, and he seemed to personify that easy going personality and love of life we think of when we think of the Crescent City. Everybody seemed to like him, not just the fans, and for years they still talked about him in Montreal, and still do, even although his first run was only three seasons.

Oddly enough, Singleton became the same sort of local hero in Montreal Staub had been, just as likeable, though in his own different style; eventually he would be a broadcaster for the Expos (as Staub was for the Mets) and now he is in his final season covering the Yankees.

It was in Montreal Staub was nicknamed 'Le Grand Orange', because of his hair, for the same reason he was nicknamed Rusty (his given names were Daniel Joseph). It's funny that after Montreal he spent four seasons with the Mets and five with the Tigers (as well as a final stint of five more years with the Mets), both teams whose uniforms featured orange that matched his hair.

Staub was a bonus baby for the expansion Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros), but he did get one year in the minors at class B Durham before the Astros brought him up. He was only the second 19 year old rookie to play 150 games in a season. He didn't do all that well, but by the time the Astros traded him to Montreal he'd been an All-Star two years in a row, though hitting only 16 home runs in the two years. The Astrodome was a nightmare for hitters.

I recall Bill James pointing out something interesting about Staub's career. James was always making the point that statistics need to be taken in context, and one of the major contexts in baseball is the nature of your home field. Staub, like Joe Morgan or Jimmy Wynn, was already a fine hitter when the Expos got him: but Parc Jarry was a much better hitting environment than the Astrodome had been. He then played in a great pitchers' park for the Mets, and a great hitters' park for the Tigers. He demonstrates through his Win Shares system that Staub's value remained remarkable consistent even as his stats seemed to get better. And that his biggest year in Detroit wasn't as good as any of those.

Staub had a long career, by virtue of those years on on-the-job apprenticeship in Houston, and his final years with the Mets, where he was a fine pinch-hitter and useful bench player. James rated him 24th among right fielders, just ahead of Pedro Guerrero, in his Historical Baseball abstract, but that was 17 years ago. Interestingly, that's just behind Singleton at 18th and the Expo great Andre Dawson at 19th.

Staub's value is increased by his long career: James runs an interesting comparison of his 356 win shares compared to Joe Dimaggio's 385. But Joltin Joe played in only 13 seasons: he had some time in the Pacific Coast League, so arrived in New York a more finished product at age 21, and he also missed three seasons to the war, so the two are not as close as the career win shares would indicate. Besides Guerrero, the guys immediately behind Rusty are Rocky Colavito, Jack Clark, Roger Maris and Gavy Cravath: that's a pretty strong group.

Staub started two charities which were huge successes, one his own educational foundation, the other for New York police and fire fighters' widows and families.  He also owned two restaurants in New York and was a great cook himself (more of that New Orleans tradition). Tall and graceful at the start of his career, by its end he was more like Boog Powell than Jim Gentile. He died on this season's opening day, of a heart attack. The Mets had a moment of silence for him. Were there still an Expos team in Montreal, that silence might have extended beyond a moment.