Wednesday, 16 August 2017

AT MOUNT RUSHMORE: My London Review of Books Essay

Sunday in the National Park with Donald. I wrote about the encounter Nate and I had at Mt. Rushmore with the Trump triumphal float last Sunday. It's up at the London Review Of Books blog; you can link to it here.

I had originally begun with a long paragraph starting with the protests and deaths in Charlottesville, and giving a summary of how, over the past 50 years, America has got to this point, but the piece as published is better without the attempt at historic analysis, which in any case I have written here before.

Viewing Mt. Rushmore, we felt the America the way people used to believe it was, or at least should be. Even a cynic like me could feel sincerely about the promise and the greatness of the nation. The Trumpmobile crew were gleefully tearing about everything about that America, under the guise of making it great 'again', and without the slightest sense of irony, celebrating that destruction. They were feeling empowered, almost strutting in the face of those whom they knew they were offending, and to watch them empowered further by the park rangers broke my not so knee-jerk patriotic heart.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

REMEMBERING TY HARDIN

While wandering around 1880 Town in Midland, South Dakota today, I came across a copy of the famous photo of the Warner Bros.' TV western stars drawing their pistols. What made this one special was that it was autographed by Ty Hardin, who at that point was playing Bronco Layne in a series that had originally been a replacement for Cheyenne, when WB had contract trouble with Clint Walker, and now was rotating through schedule spots with Cheyenne and Will Hutchins' Sugarfoot.

But it reminded me that Hardin died last week, and I wanted to write something then, so it's a good excuse to say a couple of things about him now. One thing I hadn't known was that he was a football player. His obits said he got a scholarship to Blinn Junior College, then attended Dallas Bible Institute before joining the Army. Then he enrolled at Texas A&M and, so the story goes, played for Bear Bryant there. It's hard to check, because he didn't graduate, but the stories I read said he played tight end, in the days before that was a position. He registers no stats as a receiver from 1954-56, when A&M had John David Crow, Bobby Joe Conrad, and Jack Pardee. I did find a picture of him in a football uniform, but I don't know who's it was and he looks younger than a post-Army Ty Hungerford.

What I did know a bit about was how fragile his career was. It resembles, in some ways, Clint Eastwood's early career, except that Hardin made a couple of bad decisions, whereas Clint made a couple of good ones. But they got into TV by luck, more or less. Both were hired originally because of their good looks, as beefcake. Clint was wone of the last of Universal's apprentices, and he had been trying to get into acting. Hardin (or Orison Whipple Hungerford, Jr. as he then was named, though Ty was his family nickname) was spotted by a Paramount scout at a costume party (he was a cowboy) and was signed to a contract. He had bit parts in a couple of films, including Last Train To Gun Hill, billed as Ty Hungerford, when, like Clint, he got lucky and landed a TV gig.

Hardin met John Wayne, and  when he tried to get the Ricky Nelson part in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. Wayne introduced him to Hawks, who was with William Orr of Warners. Orr soon bought his contract. Warners changed his name to Hardin, gave him acting lessons, and introduced him into the Cheyenne series as Cheyenne's cousin. He was an instant hit, and Bronco ran for four years. His best film part was in Merrill's Marauders, and it looked like he was on his way. After Warners, he was getting 'exposure' roles in big films like Battle Of The Bulge and PT 109, where he had a blonde goatee, but not yet any serious starring parts.

Then Hardin made a couple of bad decisions. One was to pass on a western role offered by an Italian director, Sergio Leone. He wasn't the only actor to either pass or want too much money, and of course the part eventually went to Clint.  The next one was to pass on the TV show Batman, ironically because he had a committment to film in Spain, on a  sort of spaghetti western, Hugo Fregonese's Argentinian Savage Pampas.

Hardin played the lead in Riptide, a series that was made in and set in Australia, but was shown in the US. He was in Custer Of The West, and in a weird British circus horror film, Beserk, with Joan Crawford. But his career stalled. He made three disposable spaghetti westerns in 1971, and then worked only intermittently, though he had a part in a TV movie remake of Red River, which starred James Arness and Bruce Boxleitner in the John Wayne and Montgomery Clift roles, but had parts for oher old western TV stars like Hardin, Guy Madison, Robert Horton and John Lupton. Hardin was tall and good looking, but unlike Wayne or Eastwood, never really learned to control his image on screen.

Off screen was another story. His third wife was Marlene Schmidt, the East German-born Miss Universe of 1961. Ironically, she went into the film business after they divorced. In all Hardin had eight wives, and ten children. Which may help explain why he had problems with the IRS, which helps explain why he helped found the Arizona Patriots, which sounds like football team but was an anti-tax, anti-government Tea Party type group that evolved into a militia. In 1986 they were raided, and accused of planing to attack a federal office in Utah. Hardin wasn't charged with any crimes, but the group disbanded.

The photo above is not Hardin as a militia leader, but a fan show where he appeared alongside Clint Walker and Will Hutchins, and he was the only one not quite in costume. I find it tremendously nostalgic, especially now, viewing a Wild West town that only moderately appeals to my 13 year old.

Hardin died at 87. It is easy to imagine scenarios in which he was a successful film actor, or a busy TV star. But his other difference from Clint was lacking Clint's study of the business, and his nous for it. Clint's acting and directing careers are actually meshed to his producing career; he became virtually a studio himself; this would have been beyond Hardin. On the other hand, there aren't many people, not even Clint, whose obituaries will say 'he is survived by his eighth wife; his previous seven marriages all ended in divorce.'  And I found, while writing this, the reverse angle of that famous photo, an earlier unused take. That's Hardin on the left, nearest to the camera. Those were the days.

















Monday, 7 August 2017

RICHARD LANGE'S SMACK

Rowan Petty is a grifter on a downward roll. He’s eking out an existence in Reno, pulling phone scams for a guy who he had originally brought into the business. His wife left a long time ago, his daughter doesn’t speak to him. It’s the holidays, and that’s a bad time to try to cold call people to detach their money from them. So one cold night on the street he meets Tinafey, like the comedienne, but all one word, a hooker with a smile, and pretty soon he’s helped her out of a jam, and he has to make a decision.

I first came across Richard Lange’s short story collection Sweet Nothing when I was judging the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger award, and I pushed one of the tales, Apocrypha, to which we gave the prize. And Smack works for the same reasons his stories do.

Grifters live in a world where decisions you have to make outside the grift can always lead to trouble. An old friend, or colleague, of Petty’s, approaches him with a score. Don’s been on the downward spiral too, ever since his wife died, but he picked up a tip on a big cache of money smuggled out of the Middle East and being stored in LA by the brother of one of the thieves. Petty had turned it down, but it’s the holidays, he’s sick of working for someone, and his daughter’s in Los Angeles. So he says yes to the job, and invites Tinafey off for a holiday trip.

Of course, it’s no holiday. No sooner has he started to reconcile with his daughter, she’s in the hospital, and the job, which looked hinky in the extreme, becomes more attractive, even after parties unknown start butting into the action. From this point, Lange weaves a tale which involves battered veterans, con men, his ex-wife and her brawny enforcer of a husband, and those various crooks who might get in the way.

It’s a classic noir, where it’s almost impossible to get what you want, and in which every possible road out turns into a dead end. Petty’s a scammer, and used to be a good one, but he’s not a hooligan, and the world of violence is one he’s always wanted to avoid.

Lange makes this work not in the way he resolves the plot, but in the way he draws his characters. He controls the pace of the story beautifully, letting the twists grow naturally, and letting the reader experience them through the eyes of those characters, particularly Petty, but also the soldier Diaz, whose original scam this was, and who’s coming to collect. There's a constant sense that trust is a fungible commodity in this world, and of course the grifter's world is in some ways a metaphor for our own.  The tensions are internal, and the real beauty of the story is the way the reader begins to root for Petty, an amoral thief whose life involves cheating marks, to succeed in something far more serious. The Smack is an exercise in finely pitched writing, and the kind of noirish tale you relish even as you dread turning the page to get closer to its conclusion.


The Smack by Richard Lange

Mullholland Books £14.99 ISBN 9781444790047

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

Friday, 4 August 2017

BILL GRIFFITH'S INVISIBLE INK

Bill Griffith is a cartoonist, most famous for Zippy the Pinhead, who began life in underground comics and became a successful syndicated strip, the four panels a day kind of thing we used to read in the newspapers, and the funny papers sections on Sundays. One day, living in Connecticut, he gets an actual letter, hand-written and posted, from his uncle in North Carolina, who has boxes of family memorabilia, if Bill is interested.

Invisible Ink is the story of what is a Pandora's box of memory and investigation. Years before, Bill's mother –his uncle Alan's older sister—had confessed, moments after his father had died, to Bill and his sister, that she had carried on a long-term affair with the man she worked for, a cartoonist called Laurence Lariar, for whom she worked as a secretary. Now, looking through his family's past, Bill begins to put together a fuller picture of his parents: his often absent (in the military) and generally angry father, and the the mother whom he knew, even at an early age, was no June Cleaver.

The thread holding this all together is Lariar, and the unlikely synchronicity of Griffith's following in his trade. He tracks Lariar's career as a writer as well as a cartoonist, as a hustler on the fringes of the entertainment world, because it's a world he understands. And through that he gets to draw his mother into sharper focus, the needs her affair filled, the expectations, or maybe dreams, she had of happiness. He discovers his mother's own writings, and that also lets him understand better his father. And of course, himself.

Griffith's story is told brilliantly. It encapsulates the world of the Fifties and Sixties perfectly; growing up in Levittown, the promise of more life in New York City, the social strictures, the built-in repression, and behind it all that underlying sense of unspoken frustration that might be seen to define his parents' generation (and who knows, maybe all). He tells the story with great sensitivity, and using Lariar's cartoons as well as his own to illustrate it, and show the ways in which cartoons reflect the world in which his characters are living. It's a memoir too, of the kind of passion we feel at his age, of wanting to know more about the things we maybe half-understood at the time, then thought we understood when we were adult, but realise only as we start to reflect on our own lives and possibilities and pasts, that perhaps we didn't understand them at all. That maybe we didn't really know what it was about the people we are supposed to love most, because we are supposed to be their greatest loves. Bill finally gets to meet his parents, and they are different people from the ones he knew growing up, and different people from the ones he's discovered through his research. As perhaps we all are.

'How did they become two different people over the course of their marriage?' Griffith asks himself, and us, and Uncle Alan, who says 'I don't know, Bill...it's a funny world'. This is a fascinating, tender book, which leaves you looking at it silently, with your own cloudy memories coming back, sombre and joyful, and with a nostalgic sadness welling up behind your eyes.


Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist
by Bill Griffith
Fantagraphics Books, $29.99, ISBN 9781606998953