Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

Val Lewton: Art vs. life

“Life isn’t a support-system for art,” Stephen King writes in his wonderful book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." “It’s the other way around.”

Those words came back to me this week while watching the fascinating and sobering new documentary “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows," produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese and premiering on TMC Jan. 14, with a DVD release to follow.

In the 1940s, Lewton was the unquestioned master of the American horror film. Tapped by RKO to produce a series of thrillers to compete with Universal - home to Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man - Lewton took a more subtle approach. Beginning with 1942's CAT PEOPLE and through the Boris Karloff-starring BEDLAM four years later, Lewton's films were moody, evocative, sensual, surprising and often disturbing. They included I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (loosely based on JANE EYRE), THE BODY SNATCHER (Karloff's greatest performance) and THE SEVENTH VICTIM, a deadly serious drama about a devil-worshiping cult in Greenwich Village that's a spiritual predecessor to ROSEMARY'S BABY. Lewton's films were the cinematic equivalent of the dark and haunted novels of Cornell Woolrich. He even adapted Woolrich's novel BLACK ALIBI into the classic 1943 film THE LEOPARD MAN.

Overseeing every aspect of the productions personally, from costumes to script rewrites, Lewton was a true auteur, even though he worked with - and mentored - a stable of talented directors, including Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson. Despite the constraints of both the censors and RKO's B-picture budgets, Lewton produced an unprecedented number of quality films in a short period. However, as Scorsese says in his narration, "He was always at war with his bosses, and he was never satisfied with his achievements."

When CAT PEOPLE became a surprise hit, it turned RKO's fortunes around. But Lewton was still bound to a contract and salary he referred to as "almost picayune." However, he refused to go along with the standard Hollywood practice of letting his agent break the contract and renegotiate. "I can't quite reconcile myself to that," he wrote at the time. "It's a great problem with me, self-interest against self-respect."

Instead, Lewton soldiered on, sometimes with less than a month between wrapping one film and beginning another. He produced four films in 1943 alone. Though his work was already being acclaimed by critics such as James Agee, to RKO Lewton was just another workhorse contract producer. Plagued by insomnia, Lewton soon found himself exhausted. "There's hardly a night ... that I got home before midnight," he wrote. "For the first time in my life, I am really tired."

The pace took its toll. He suffered his first heart attack in 1946 at age 42. After recovering, he eventually made his way to other studios, including Universal, where he produced only one film, the Western APACHE DRUMS. He had just signed on to work on an independent unit with up-and-coming producer Stanley Kramer when he suffered another - fatal - heart attack in 1951. He was 46.

TCM will follow MAN IN THE SHADOWS with a marathon of eight Lewton films. The documentary will also be available as a bonus disc on the revamped VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION due out Jan. 29.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Tough chicks and the men who love them

This Thursday (12/6/2007),I'll be joining Megan Abbott, S.J. Rozan, Jonathan Santlofer, Alison Gaylin, Jason Starr, Reed Farrel Coleman and others (including Star-Ledger film critic and current New York Film Critics' Circle chairman Stephen Whitty) for a group signing at Partners & Crime in New York's Greenwich Village to celebrate the new Abbott-edited A HELL OF A WOMAN: AN ANTHOLOGY OF FEMALE NOIR, from Busted Flush Press.

The book collects 24 original stories by the likes of Sara Gran, Vicki Hendricks, Donna Moore, Vin Packer, S. J. and others. And although the stories are predominantly by women, a few token males round out the collection, including Ken Bruen, Eddie Muller and Daniel Woodrell.

The book also contains more than two dozen appreciations of "Favorite Women of Noir" by a wide selection of writers, of which I am one. Peter Spiegelman chose to write about Ella Raines, star of the classic PHANTOM LADY. Jason Starr muses on Carmela Soprano - you get the idea. I chose Gloria-Ann Cooper, the razor-wielding protagonist of Bob Ottum's once-bestselling-but-now-almost-forgotten 1977 novel THE TUESDAY BLADE.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Random Readings, Vol. 4

This installment of Random Readings is from Clive Barker's new novel MISTER B. GONE. Truer words ...

It was love that moved all things. Or rather, it was love and its theft, its demise, its silence, that moved all things. From a great fullness - a sense that all was well with things, and could be kept so, with just a little love - to an emptiness so profound that your bones whined when the wind blew through them: the coming and going between these states was the engine of all things.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pontificating about Page 99

Out of town the next two weeks, with only intermittent internet access, so blogging will be minimal. However, in the meantime, the very busy Marshal Zeringue asked me to submit THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE to his patented Page 99 test (not to be confused with his Page 69 test). The results can be found here. It also also gave me a chance to go public about my hitherto-unspoken debt to writer/director James Gray's haunting LITTLE ODESSA.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer 1923-2007

"Every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit."

And I think that says it all.

However, if you want more on Mailer (with whom I share a hometown, Long Branch, N.J.) be sure to visit here, which has maybe the best collection of links on the net, including this one, to a great Entertainment Weekly interview that was one of the last Mailer gave. We'll never see his like again.

Monday, November 05, 2007

'Torch' passing & 'Deadly Secrets' giveaway

This week I was invited to participate in a collaborative web-only "serial short story" over at Barnes and Noble's Crime Club. Conceived by Edgar-winning author and Hard Case Crime mastermind Charles Ardai (aka Richard Aleas), the story is titled, fittingly, "Passing the Torch." Charles kicked it off with the first installment Oct. 26, and succeeding chapters have been written by the likes of Jason Starr, Ken Bruen, Karen Olson, J.D. Rhoades and others, each picking up where the other left off.

+ Also, as mentioned in an earlier post, The Star-Ledger's three-CD set of its "Deadly Secrets" podcast - narrated by me - is now available. It collects all 15 chapters of the paper's groundbreaking series about Robert Zarinsky, a convicted killer serving time for murder who has since been linked to a series of unsolved slayings of young girls in Central New Jersey. The series was written and reported by Star-Ledger staffers Robin Gaby Fisher and Judith Lucas, who conducted more than 100 interviews between them. The story continues to unfold, and details can be found here.

The CDs and reprints of the series can be ordered here, but in the meantime, I'll send a free copy of the CD set to the first four people who message me at my site. It's true crime writing at its best.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

One book and beyond ... Vol. 4

Continuing my personal list - inspired by The Rap Sheet's One Book Project - of crime, mystery and thriller novels that were “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.”

Only two people I know have actually read this book – myself and Joe Guglielmelli of the late, lamented Black Orchid Bookshop in New York. And that, folks, is a crime.

MARTIN QUINN was Anthony Lee's first novel and, as far as I know, his only one so far. Published in 2003, it's the story of a tough Irish kid who's adopted - Tom Hagen-style - by a Russian mob family in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. There's a romantic triangle, various whackings, a betrayal and a reckoning when Martin has to decide whether to turn state's evidence and testify against his fellow gangsters. Pretty standard stuff, you might think, like a compact but literate New York crime movie from the likes of James Gray or Sidney Lumet. But what sets MARTIN QUINN apart is the writing. The story is told in a spare but vivid third-person style that's so full of emotion and detail it might as well be first-person. It's finely nuanced, and makes even familiar settings and scenes seem fresh, infused with a vibrant life and energy that almost leap off the page. It hooks right from the opening paragraph:

He thought, again, You're not going to kill him. It was an awakening, the idea. It was like emerging from the woods into a dusk-lit clearing in your head. It was peace coming down.

I first learned of this book when Amazon paired it with my novel, THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, which came out at the same time, as one of its "Better Together" promotions. The connection, I guess, was the boardwalk setting in both novels - Brooklyn in his, the Jersey Shore in mine. I ordered it for that reason, without having seen it in a store or read a single review of it. The book's New York atmosphere was so strong you could just about smell it, and as unlikeable - and unredeemable - as most of the characters were, the writing put you right into their hearts and minds. It made me jealous.

The novel was supposed to be the first of a two-book deal, but if the second ever surfaced, I'm not aware of it. MARTIN QUINN was eventually reprinted in trade paperback, with the generic title THE FIX, and seems to have vanished just as quickly as the hardcover. That's a shame, as is the fact we've yet to see another book from this ferociously talented writer. Anthony Lee, come back.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Loose Ends Pt. 2

Bearing down on the new book this week, with hopes of having it finished before the next millennium, so blogging will be sparse for awhile (or should I say even *more* sparse?), except for another One Book and Beyond entry which I intend to post later this week.

Some other odds and ends:

+ Paul Guyot messaged me earlier this week to ask why I didn't acknowledge Bruce Springsteen's 58th birthday (Sept. 23) on the blog that Sunday. I guess I figured anyone who cared already knew, and those that didn't know didn't care. However, on Monday I did attend the first of two rehearsal shows for Springsteen and band's "Magic" tour at the beautiful, historic (but non-air conditioned) Convention Hall on the boardwalk in Asbury Park.

Springsteen has held rehearsal shows for most of his recent tours at the venue (or in the adjoining Paramount Theatre, both built in the 1920s), and it's always a special experience. In addition to being walking distance from my front door, Convention Hall is also a fairly intimate venue for a rock show. Seating only about 3,000 (fewer for the Springsteen shows), it's a lot smaller than the arenas he generally plays, and is roughly equivalent to a high school gymnasium. Reportedly, only 1,500 tickets were sold for each night, making the occasion even more intimate.

However, despite its rich history, CH is essentially just a big concrete box. As a result, the sound has never been good there, and Monday's rehearsal show was no different. Springsteen brought a full arena stage and sound system and it was almost too much for the venue. I was shoving bits of tissue paper into my ears seconds into the opening song, "Radio Nowhere." The combination of the sound coming from the stage and then bouncing off the wall directly behind me was physically painful - and I have been to a *lot* of shows.

Performance-wise, the show and setlist were a little rocky too, but the new songs are terrific and it's always a wonderful thing seeing Springsteen at CH. Some of my favorite concertgoing experiences have been at the venue, especially the truly great series of charity holiday shows Springsteen and the Max Weinberg Seven performed there in December 2001. After the events of the previous months, those shows felt like a collective tension release. And never has "My City of Ruins " - which he performed each night - seemed so heartbreaking.

+ For those interested, the podcast of "Deadly Secrets" that I narrated for The Star-Ledger is now available - for free - as a 3-CD set. The 15-part series - tracing the life and crimes of suspected serial killer Robert Zarinsky - is also available as a tabloid-sized reprint. You can find information on both here.

Above, from left, Danny Federici, Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen on stage at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, Sept, 24, 2007. Associated Press photo.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The definition of Soul

A lot of activity this week, so I've been remiss with blogging, but a quick interim posting here:

I don't think I've heard a more affecting piece of music lately than N.J. soul singer Bettye LaVette's version of Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia," recorded for a new three-CD compilation called "Song of America" (31 Tigers/Split Rock Records) just out this month. The anthology is a collection of folk and contemporary songs that offer a musical history of America, featuring artists such as John Mellencamp, the Mavericks and others (it features a second Springsteen track as well, Matthew Ryan's minimalist electronica take on "Youngstown"). But LaVette's "Streets" is the gem of the bunch. A Detroit native, LaVette was a popular soul singer in the 1960s and '70s whose career went awry. At the age of 60 (and now living in N.J.), she's staging a comeback of sorts, releasing a new album, "The Scene of the Crime" (backed by the Drive-By Truckers) this month, and scheduling some performances as well.

I've heard a lot of different versions of "Streets," including a duet Springsteen and Elton John performed at Carnegie Hall in 1995. But none of those - including Springsteen's original - come close to LaVette's. She nails the song so perfectly it's almost frightening, not unlike what Johnny Cash did with Trent Reznor's "Hurt." iTunes has the track available as a download, so give it a listen. It's the real thing.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Loose Ends

Been off the radar a bit lately, finishing up with the Star-Ledger's "Deadly Secrets," series and the accompanying podcast, as well as work on the new book. But there are few things worth noting that have arisen in the meantime.

First, if you haven't already heard "Radio Nowhere," the first single from the new album by that band pictured above, it's still available for a limited time as a free download from iTunes. I first heard a leaked mp3 version of it about three weeks ago and liked it a lot, though on those first few listens, I kept hearing Tommy Tutone's "867-5309," mixed in with a little bit of BOC's "Don't Fear the Reaper" (which reminded me of the first time I heard "Dancing in the Dark" and thought it sounded *exactly* like Rod Stewart's "Young Turks").

However, if you really want to get a taste of the album, due out Oct. 2, stop by here, which has a 30-second snippet from each of the songs, linked together into a single file. Or at least it will until someone pulls it.

After watching and enjoying - but not being overwhelmed by - AMC's MAD MEN pilot, I did finally catch up with the first four episodes this weekend and I'm beginning to think it's quite brilliant. Hard to believe HBO let this one get away. For an in-depth discussion of each new episode as it airs, knock on this door. That's also where you'll find a well-considered and cogent argument about why THE FRENCH CONNECTION isn't such a great movie after all, though I'm not sure I agree.

And finally, Paul Guyot, guest blogging over at Murderati, has written a real keeper about navigating the television pitch process. It's the first of a series and a near-perfect blend of humor and solid information.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

'Deadly Secrets'

Today begins Part One of "Deadly Secrets," a 15-part series in the Newark Star-Ledger about Robert Zarinsky, the imprisoned New Jersey killer who was convicted of the brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl and remains the chief suspect in a long string of unsolved homicides in the state. It was written by two-time Pulitzer finalist Robin Gaby Fisher, based on more than a year of reporting by her and fellow Ledger staffer Judith Lucas. The Ledger asked me to narrate the daily podcast version of the series and I was happy to oblige. It's a powerful - and sometimes almost unbelievable - story about how a killer eluded justice for years and left a long trail of death and ruined lives behind him. And why he just might go free before long.

If the name sounds familiar, it's because Zarinsky's been in the news again lately. In 1999, he was charged with the murder of a Rahway police officer during a botched robbery in 1958, a case that had gone unsolved for more than 40 years. Though Zarinsky's own sister testified against him, he was ultimately acquitted. According to the jury foreman, the jurors believed Zarinsky had done it, but that prosecutors, hampered by the passage of time since the crime, hadn't adequately proven their case. The officer's wife - Elizabeth Bernoskie - sued Zarinsky for wrongful death and was awarded $9.5 million in 2003, though she only collected $150,000, via a mutual fund Zarinsky had inherited. Bernoskie, now 76, used the money to pay legal fees and then split the rest amongst her six children. But Zarinsky sued back and, last month, an appellate court sided with him and ordered Bernoskie to repay the $150,000 - money she no longer has - to Zarinsky. She's now in danger of having to forfeit her house in order to meet the judgment.

It's quite a story, and quite a series.

Monday, August 06, 2007

One book and beyond ... Vol. 3

Continuing my personal list - inspired by The Rap Sheet's One Book Project - of crime, mystery and thriller novels that were “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.”

Jonathan Valin's 1989 novel EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES would be another candidate for the short list of the ten best private eye novels ever written. It was Valin's eighth novel about Cincinnati private detective Harry Stoner - and the most uncompromising.

It starts off in fairly standard PI fashion. Stoner is hired to find Ira Lessing, a prominent businessman and philanthropist who's gone missing in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. When his bloodstained BMW is found abandoned, everyone fears the worst - and with good reason. Stoner soon discovers Lessing had a secret life neither his family nor his business partner ever suspected. The investigation leads him into Kentucky's seamy riverside red-light districts, and a world of teenage hustlers, prostitutes and junkies. Stoner has a hard time letting go of the case, even after Lessing's badly beaten body turns up, and a teenage boy confesses to the murder. Stoner suspects the real killer is still out there, a theory confirmed by a subsequent blackmail attempt and threats to destroy the dead man's reputation by revealing the lurid details of his other life.

It's become a cliche in modern detective fiction to give the hero a dangerous, more physical sidekick, who can carry out acts of violence and vengeance that the hero would like to but can't, without becoming less sympathetic in the eyes of the average reader. This device allows the hero to keep the moral high ground while at the same time offering readers the satisfaction of a violent demise for the villains. It's a useful plot device, which is why so many use it, but it's also a cop-out. The heroes don't have to take the responsibility for - or face the repercussions of - the violent acts they've benefited from. That's why it's called fiction.

In CIRCUMSTANCES, on the other hand, Valin effectively shows these devices for the contrivances they are. He gives neither Stoner nor the reader an easy way out. The book does offer a sense of catharsis and closure, but only after Stoner commits an act in the final pages that few writers would be brave enough to let their heroes do. It's shocking and surprising and at the same time makes perfect sense. And it feels like real life.

However, it also brought the series to a level of intensity that might have made it difficult to go back to business as usual. The next Stoner book, 1991's SECOND CHANCE, seemed tame in comparison, and the one after that, THE MUSIC LOVERS, was an intentionally lightweight lark. The 11th in the series, 1995's MISSING, revisited some of the same themes as CIRCUMSTANCES, but it sometimes seemed like Stoner had shot his bolt in the final scenes of that earlier book. And Valin may have felt the same way. There has yet to be another Stoner novel - or a book of any type - from him to date.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sad news from the book world

As many of you already know, Bonnie and Joe at New York's Black Orchid Bookshop have decided to close their doors this September after 13 years in business.

In addition to being one of the best independent stores in the country (for which they won a well-deserved Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America last year, and got a standing ovation at the Edgars banquet), Black Orchid also served as a gathering place and nexus for dozens of writer. As the site of their annual pre-Edgar and mid-summer parties, the store often hosted an amazing collection of disparate authors, who could often be found milling about on the sidewalk outside. I made many friends there, not the least of whom were Bonnie and Joe themselves, who were always warm and welcoming (on only my second visit to the store - and my first time meeting Bonnie - she lent me $20 so I could get dinner nearby without having to go to a cash machine first).

And boy, if they liked your books, you were in clover. Their love of the genre made them the ideal booksellers, and their enthusiasm - and dedicated clientele - formed the essence of what's commonly known as "handselling." I can't count the number of times I've heard from people who first became aware of my books via a recommendation from Joe and Bonnie.

Black Orchid will always have a special significance for me personally as well. It was the first bookstore I ever walked into as an author. In February 2003, the week THE BARBED-WIRE KISS was released, St. Martins had me hit all the N.Y. stores one day to sign stock and meet the various booksellers (accompanied by the lovely and talented Rachel Ekstrom, then a publicist for SMP). Our first stop was at Black Orchid, and although Joe wasn't expecting us that day, when I walked in the door, Bruce Springsteen's THE RISING was playing over the in-store speakers (the exact song was "Mary's Place" if I remember correctly). And I knew there couldn't have been a more auspicious omen than that.

I've been back to the store dozens of times since, sometimes as a customer, but that February day will always be locked into my memory. Because while I was talking to Joe and signing books - with Springsteen singing in the background - it was the first time I actually *felt* like a writer. And the Black Orchid felt like home.

More on the store, and Bonnie and Joe in the future. In the meantime, it's good to know they're still having their annual party Aug. 16, which will not only commemorate the anniversary of the store, but also Joe's (and my) birthday two days previous. This will be a sad one though, and it'll be tough to walk away from that place for the last time.

So if you have a chance, come by Aug. 16 (81st St. betw. First and Second), say hello, buy some books. Cliche or not, there's no other way to put it - it's the end of an era.


And finally, it's hard to believe that today is 30 years to the day since these events took place. It's a strange world, and it moves much too fast.

Monday, July 16, 2007

One Book and beyond: Vol. 2

It may seem odd to qualify any of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels as overlooked or underappreciated, considering the amount of attention he generally gets, but his 1993 novel THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD has never been granted the status I think it deserves. It is, in my mind, the ne plus ultra of the Scudder books and maybe one of the ten best private eye novels ever.

It starts with Scudder investigating a seemingly random street killing - a man shot dead at a payphone - and ultimately turns into a meditation on death, friendship, infidelity and New York itself. As Scudder tries to uncover the motive for the murder, his own personal life is in upheaval. And though his relationship with his ex-hooker girlfriend Elaine is deepening, he finds himself inevitably drawn to the murdered man's young widow. At the same time, an old lover of Scudder's has discovered she's terminally ill and makes a final request of him - get her a gun so that she can end it herself when the pain becomes too much to take.

Storywise, as far as the Scudder novels go, DEVIL is relatively low-key. It has none of the violent intensity of the two books that preceded it - A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE and A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES - or the intricate plotting of some that followed. And though on the surface the subject matter may seem grim, in the end the book is oddly life-affirming. We're all looking for comfort in the night, Block seems to be saying, and we should take it where we find it, because the whole carnival might just end at any minute, and more than likely before we're ready.

The climax of DEVIL is a quiet one - there's no action, no last-minute danger Scudder has to think or fight his way out of. And the resolution of the mystery is simpler than we ever expected it to be. But at the same time, in its closing pages, the novel attains a sense of almost cathartic release. And along the way Block gives us - as usual - some of the best dialogue anyone's ever written anywhere. This one's a keeper.

Monday, July 09, 2007

One Book and beyond ...

Back in May, the Rap Sheet launched its One Book Project, soliciting more than 100 novelists, critics, and fans to choose one crime/mystery/thriller novel that was “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.” My choice was David Bottoms’ terrific 1987 novel ANY COLD JORDAN (one of only two he wrote, the second being EASTER WEEKEND, which is just as good. These days, Bottoms is better known as Georgia’s poet laureate).

ANY COLD JORDAN wasn’t a difficult choice. It’s beautifully written and all too well fits the definition of “unjustly overlooked.” But it also started me thinking about the other books that would have made my shortlist. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to sing the praises of a few of them. Some are in print, some aren’t, but all are great in their own way and worth seeking out.

Leonard’s Gardner’s 1969 novel FAT CITY would have been my first choice for the One Book Project, except it’s not really a crime novel. What it is is a beautifully etched portrait of the underside of American life, as told through the stories of two men in Stockton, Calif., in the late 1950s. Billy Tully is a punch-drunk fighter who fears his career and his life are over – at age 29. Ernie Munger is an 18-year-old service station attendant with a pregnant girlfriend and not much of a future. He’s a fighter too, an up and comer with some skill, who nonetheless soon discovers he’s in way over his head.

Billy and Ernie meet in the first chapter – during an impromptu sparring bout at a YMCA – and then go their separate ways for much of the novel. Gardner follows their painful arcs through alcoholism, domestic strife and just pure bad luck. It’s not even that they’re trying to escape their grim existence – it’s almost as if they’re denying to themselves that any other way of life exists. The novel is populated by those who were once full of promise, people who keep making bad decisions and then punish themselves – sometimes brutally – for making them. But they just can’t seem to stop.

Gardner, a Stockton native, fills the novel with sparse but evocative descriptions of his hometown, and the bleak vista that awaits those who live there. At times, it’s like a Tom Waits song come to life, vivid and almost lyrical in its bluntness. And every sentence is just about perfect.

Here’s Gardner’s description of Tully’s transient hotel room, from the very first page of the novel:

“His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung trouble.”

Seventeen words and you’re there, in that room, in that world. By the time this short novel comes to a close, nothing earthshaking has happened to its protagonists, no sudden glimpses of clarity or last-chance shots at redemption. Instead, they just keep on keeping on. When we last see Tully, he’s in yet another hotel, finally surrendering the little ambition he has left, until “hearing the sounds of the street, he drifted in the darkness with his loss.”

FAT CITY is maybe best known for the excellent 1972 film John Huston made from it, starring Stacy Keach as Tully and Jeff Bridges as Ernie, with a screenplay by Gardner. It’s been in and out of print over the years and is currently available as part of the University of California Press’ “California Fiction” series (which also includes the late A.I. Bezzerides’ THIEVES MARKET, which became the Jules Dassin film THIEVES HIGHWAY). FAT CITY may not be a crime novel, but it’s as noir as they come.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

On the road

Traveling this week, with little internet access, so no blog entry this weekend. Back soon.


JULY 1 UPDATE: Still on the road, but we - finally - have a winner on the June 16 trivia question:

In which of Donald Westlake's "Richard Stark" novels does Parker pull off a job in Monmouth County, N.J.?

James Cubby of Fair Lawn, N.J., was the only one to come up with the correct answer, 1963's THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE. In that second Stark novel, Parker and his crew rob an armored car outside a diner in Freehold (though they hide out in Old Bridge, in neighboring Middlesex County, afterward). Jim wins a first-edition hardcover of Stephen King's BLAZE, the lost "Richard Bachman" novel.

Back on blog next week.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tony, Bozo, trivia and a giveaway

In conversation with a friend last week, the topic of television urban myths came up. You know the type - Mikey from the Life cereal commercial died from eating Pop Rocks and soda, Alice Cooper was Eddie Haskell on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, etc. What prompted it, oddly enough, was the release on DVD of the first season of the BOZO THE CLOWN SHOW. The topic soon turned to the oft-repeated story about the tyke who, angry at losing a ring toss, told Bozo on live TV to "Cram it, clown!" before being warned that was a "Bozo No-No."

The story is at best apocryphal, though latter-day Bozo Larry Harmon has said it actually happened - though his story changes from time to time (also, there was no single television Bozo. Different actors played him in different markets. Individual stations purchased the Bozo "franchise" and then produced their own shows). That hasn't kept it from being passed on as fact though, and you'll occasionally find someone who says they actually saw it broadcast live. Ditto Soupy Sales and his "I see F, you see K" jokes. Fortunately, thanks to the internet, we now have a resource we didn't have when all of this stuff was originally being passed on to us as kids - www.snopes.com.

Snopes is the encyclopedia of urban legends, which are then confirmed, debunked or left uncertain (Snopes color codes them by verdict). Snopes classifies the Bozo story as "indeterminate" but likely false. The Soupy Sales jokes? Never happened. The Groucho Marx "I love my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while" line? He never said it.

The phenomenon goes back even further. The 1930s kids show radio host who signed off and then said "That oughta hold the little bastards", not realizing the mike was still live? Totally fictional, but given further life by the "bloopers" records craze of the late 1960s and early '70s. But as Snopes also points out, those records mostly consisted of "re-creations," re-recordings and outright fabrications.

On the other hand, e-mail now allows these things to spread like wildfire. And a few days after the Bozo discussion, I got a flurry of forwarded messages claiming to have the true explanation of the final scene in last week's show-ending SOPRANOS episode. According to the e-mail, all the clues point to Tony being killed in that last cut-to-black moment, and that the diner where he and his family are eating is filled with characters from previous episodes, all of whom want Tony dead.

Though there may be some validity to the "Tony got killed" explanation (though I don't agree with it, as I wrote last week), the evidence the e-mail uses to prove its point is deeply flawed and in some cases totally false. Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Ledger had to go on record more than once debunking the theory point by point, but readers were still forwarding it to him days later.

As someone who's spent more than 20 years in the news business, I have a deep-seated animosity for these sorts of things - rumors masquerading as fact, arguments built on fiction, total untruths passed along as conventional wisdom. It makes me angry to get anecdotal e-mails ("Don't go to the malls this Halloween," "Don't flash your car lights" etc.) that have been forwarded by people who never once stopped to think about what they were passing along, or checking into whether it was true or not (or even likely) before they did.

The SOPRANOS e-mail is a relatively harmless example of this, but it's still the same thing - careless disinformation. And as news services move away from print and struggle to get things on-line as quickly as possible, there are more opportunities for these things to get out there, under the guise of actual news. Alan cites a Reuters story that quoted an HBO spokesman agreeing that the line "Everything turns black" in an earlier episode was a significant clue to explaining the finale. However, as Alan explains, there was never any such line. The Reuters story was eventually pulled and rewritten, but not before it had already been picked up by thousands of other news outlets. The SOPRANOS e-mail hasn't made it to Snopes yet, but I'm guessing it will before long.

Apologies for the soap-boxing. In return for your patience, and in keeping with our SOPRANOS theme, it's time for another giveaway, this time a copy of Alain Silver and James Ursini's great new collection GANGSTER FILM READER, featuring more than two dozen essays on the gangster film (and plenty of SOPRANOS content as well). But, of course, it comes with a trivia question:

In which of Donald Westlake's "Richard Stark" novels does Parker pull off a job in Monmouth County, N.J.?

First one to message me at my Web site with the correct answer is the winner.

And while you're searching the net for the answer, check out this brilliant recreation of a memorable scene from Martin Scorsese's CASINO.

Monday, June 11, 2007

More Sopranos

As advertised, Alan Sepinwall of the Star-Ledger's exclusive interview with David Chase about last night's SOPRANOS finale can be found here.

ALSO: Although I neglected to mention it in my original post, I did write a short piece on the various demises of other fictional gang bosses that ran in Sunday's Star-Ledger. It can be found here.

Addio, Tony ...


It's probably a little too early to have even processed my thoughts from tonight's episode, but I'll give it a shot:

As in previous seasons, the major action took place in the penultimate episode. After the chaotic gangland violence last week, this one took the "life goes on" approach that some had predicted. After a suspenseful opening, it totally undercut the tension 20 minutes in with Tony having a sitdown with representatives of the N.Y. crew and settling their major differences. From there it was on to non-Family family matters (except for the killing of Phil Leotardo, popped at an Oyster Bay filling station), and, as in the past, a season-ending tableau of the four Sopranos gathering for dinner. No earthshaking events, no major conclusions, except for the curveball thrown at the end, when some nervewracking cutting (Is it a hit? Who is this guy eyeing Tony?) led only to a fade-to-black - long enough to make you think there was something wrong with your TV - and then silent credits. Life does go on, creator David Chase (who wrote and directed tonight's episode) seemed to be saying, and if this guy who just walked in the restaurant isn't there to whack Tony, maybe the next one will be.

Other thoughts:

+ I had a hard time buying Agent Harris' decision to tell Tony where Phil Leotardo was hiding out, or his seeming joy ("Maybe we'll win this thing!") when he heard about the murder. It seemed uncharacteristic, based on what we've seen of Harris over the years. To give mobsters information that would directly lead to a murder - and to know that beforehand - just seems like too large a moral and professional transgression for Harris to make. That Chase showed him in bed with a female fellow FBI agent - after an angry cell call from his wife earlier in the show - didn't help much. It felt like a necessary plot device to give Tony's crew enough info that they could locate and murder Phil, in order to resolve that storyline.

+ Chase's daughter, Michele DeCesare, made a return appearance as Meadow's friend, Hunter Scangarelo, for the first time since 2001.

+ Livia's spector loomed larger than ever in these last few episodes, with several dialogue exchanges directly recalling her ("Oh, poor you" and "Always with the drama" especially).

+ The seashore safehouse scenes were shot in Long Branch, N.J., blocks from the house where I grew up.

+ Though Chase's fade-to-black ending made perfect sense dramatically (like the final shot in John Sayles' underrated 1999 film LIMBO), I can imagine it made a lot of people *very* angry.

For much more coherant thoughts on all this (written, amazingly, within 15 minutes of when the episode ended), read Star-Ledger TV critic Alan Sepinwall's story here. Alan will also be talking over the finale with David Chase tomorrow (June 11) and will be posting that interview afterward. And for additional vigorous analysis and discussion, drop by The House Next Door as well.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Eat the Monkey: A true tale

While in the local Rite-Aid around midnight Friday night, I noticed something new in the frozen food case: a small red and white box bearing the label "Dwight Yoakam's Chicken Lickin's Buffalo Style Bites. " "Wow! Only $1" the box read. "Just Heat 'Em and Eat 'Em."

Of course, I bought two.

Why? Not because I'm a huge fan of the country singer/actor, whose cowboy-hatted silhouette appears on the box, or even because I was hungry. I bought them because from the moment I saw the box, I knew I'd be telling people the story of how I stumbled upon a Dwight Yoakam food product in the middle of the night in a 24-hour drugstore at the Jersey Shore. And, of course, I knew their first questions would be "Did you buy them? How were they?"

So I bought them - and ate them. Because without that, the story had no ending, no payoff. For the story's sake, I had to do it.

Here's a better example:

In 1990 I went on a rather Graham Greene-ish vacation to post-invasion Grenada. Tourism on the island was still in a free-fall at that point, restaurants and hotels were few, and my traveling companion and I were among only a half-dozen American tourists on the island. An empty lot across from our hotel had once been the site of the Cuban military barracks, long-since blasted and bulldozed, and a scenic taxi trip up the mountain passed a blockhouse that had been destroyed by the 82nd Airborne, whose members spray-painted their ALL-AMERICAN logo on the side of the bombed-out building. It made me strangely proud to see it.

The island was beautiful, and aside from the occasional surly cabdriver (we were told that many former militia members and party hardliners had been relegated to menial jobs post-invasion), everyone seemed very happy to meet and talk with a couple of Americans. Sometimes though, they'd cut a conversation short if it drifted too far into politics. It was like they were wondering who you *really* were, and were watching what they said accordingly. One Grenadian told us that in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion, the local medical school suddenly saw an influx of new students - all of whom were American, male and inordinately fit. They were CIA and military intelligence types, who seeded themselves among the mostly American students so that they could see to their safety and control their whereabouts when the invasion came. In other words, everyone knew something was coming. It was just a question of when.

But I digress.

On one of our first nights there, we dined at a highly recommended local restaurant. The setup, we were told, was a little different. You called ahead, told them you were coming and then they put on an extra plate for you - of whatever they happened to be cooking that night. No ordering. No menus. No choice.

The restaurant itself was kind of endearing. In fact, it was someone's house - with prefab metal sheets propped up over an improvised outside dining area. Spider monkeys skittered through the trees and the taxi ride there was often interrupted while the driver tried to nudge an errant cow off the road.

The meal was varied - a sampling of local Grenadan dishes, brought to us by a charming hostess who announced each dish as she placed it before us. Grilled beef, lobster fritters, goat, mixed local vegetables and finally a dish of what looked like tiny beef slices. This, she informed us, was filleted monkey.

What to do? I knew from the moment she identified the dish that I would be telling this story when I got back home, how one night in the tropics I was unexpectedly served a plate of primate, man's closest relative. And I knew that when I told the story, the first questions would be "Did you eat it? How was it?"

So here it was, a new life experience being made available to me, as well as a good story to tell. Do I pass on the monkey and rob my story of its payoff? Or commit a crime against nature and possibly evolution? I had to decide quickly, before my monkey got cold.

I ate the monkey. It was excellent.

It tasted like beef, but flaked almost like fish. It was light, but flavorful. Not gamy at all. It went down very easy, helped no doubt by the 14-oz rum punch that was served with dinner. I enjoyed it.

So there it was, the punchline, the payoff. "Yes, I had monkey offered to me and yes, I ate it and this is what it tasted like." All in service of a story.

The moral? It goes for writing as well as any type of storytelling. When you're offered a new experience, take it. To tell the true story, the *whole* story, you have to live it. You have to dive in.

In other words, you have to eat the monkey.

The Buffalo Style Bites weren't bad either.

NEXT WEEK: Addio, Tony

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Grindhouse thrills

I spent a lot of time at the movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at indoor theaters and drive-ins alike. It was a very impressionable period for me (though I had to rely on others to take me, or at least drop me off, not being old enough to drive) and a lot of those movies likely warped me for life. After all, it wasn't exactly THE BAD NEWS BEARS or THE BLACK STALLION I was seeing. It was more likely ROLLING THUNDER or THE KILLER ELITE (and god bless those underpaid ticket sellers who never bothered to check IDs.)

With that background, I was keen on the concept of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's GRINDHOUSE and its attempt to pay homage to the low-budget exploitation films of that time. Double feature - cool! Trailers in between - cooler! Unfortunately, I wasn't that taken by the movie itself. I felt both of the films - PLANET TERROR and DEATH PROOF - were too long by about 20 mins. each. And though I liked quite a bit about DEATH PROOF, I found it relentlessly padded in classic Tarantino style, with endless circular discussions of pop culture and close-ups of women's feet. As great as the last 20 mins. of DP were, I found the first two-thirds somewhat numbing. I can't imagine how it plays now that Tarantino has extended it to feature length for European release (it debuted at the Cannes festival earlier this month). In all, I think the double-feature gimmick would have worked better if the films had been shorter, and the joke not played out so long. And, as writer Jim Harrison has said, after awhile the whole post-ironic irony thing becomes nothing more than "scratching your own tired old ass."

However, this weekend I got to revisit a genuine grindhouse film from that period, 1975's RACE WITH THE DEVIL, starring Peter Fonda and the great Warren Oates. I saw the film on its original release at a Pennsylvania drive-in, paired with BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (the same drive-in where I saw VANISHING POINT and FRENZY, among other films). I hadn't seen it in the intervening 32 years though, and I wasn't sure how it would stand up.

I shouldn't have worried. When it comes to genuine bang-for-your-buck grindhouse value, RACE WITH THE DEVIL delivers.

The plot's as simple as they come, but RACE hits a trifecta of '70s genres. It's a road movie, supernatural thriller and rural action flick all in one. Oates and Fonda are motorcycle designers who head off on vacation in a Vogue motor home (on loving display, inside and out, for most of the film. Its furnishings include an early '70s microwave oven) with their wives, played by Loretta "Hot Lips" Swit and Lara "Dark Shadows" Parker. They're traveling from Texas to Colorado, but on their first night out in the Great Nowhere, they stumble upon a group of Satanists making a human sacrifice. Vacationers flee, Satanists follow. And follow and follow. That's the story. (If it sounds familiar, 1993's JUDGMENT NIGHT, starring Emilio Estevez, is essentially the same movie set in urban Chicago rather than the Southwest.)

Once that chase begins, RACE almost never lets up. Every small town they come to is creepier than the next. Everyone stares at them knowingly and the phones never seem to work. The film hits high gear with a long stretch of pre-MAD MAX highway mayhem, with Satanists in a variety of vehicles trying to run them off the road or clamber aboard the RV to get at the driver, with the vacationers occasionally popping off at them with a shotgun.

If *that* sounds familiar, it should. Watching RACE WITH THE DEVIL, it occurred to me how closely the chase choreography mirrors what George Miller did in the climactic chase of THE ROAD WARRIOR six years later. Of course, the whole concept dates back to John Ford's STAGECOACH in 1939, but the two chases echo each other so closely that someone involved in ROAD WARRIOR had to have seen RACE WITH THE DEVIL at some point. Instead of WARRIOR's tanker truck, the target is an RV, but once the final chase - down a long straight stretch of desert highway - gets under way, the similarities abound. The Satanists drive a bizarre assortment of vehicles - including, in both films, a tow truck - and scramble onto the roof of the RV to attack it from above. Plowing along at high speed, the RV swerves from side to side, pushing smaller pursuing vehicles off the road. Cars careen, crash, tip over and roll a dozen times. Stuntmen fly through the air, earning what hopefully was a generous paycheck. The only thing missing is a gyro-copter dropping rattlesnakes on the bad guys from above. And it all happens in what Roger Corman would have called "a cracking 88 minutes"

Make no mistake, THE ROAD WARRIOR is a far superior piece of cinema in every respect. Its climactic chase is brilliantly conceived and executed, and can take your breath away no matter how many times you've seen it. But its roots are in RACE WITH THE DEVIL, a film which effortlessly encapsulates what Rodriguez and Tarantino were striving so hard to emulate. For an authentic grindhouse experience, look no further.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Warren Zevon and the Secret of Life

A few months before he died of lung cancer in 2003 at age 56, Warren Zevon appeared on his old friend David Letterman's show, for an hour devoted totally to Zevon and his music. When Letterman asked if he'd had any revelations since learning of his terminal diagnosis, Zevon thought for a moment, gave that trademark enigmatic smile and said "Not unless I know (now) how much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich."

The recent months have seen a flood of reissues of Zevon CDs, as well as a book written by his ex-wife, titled I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD, after one of his songs. Just this month, on the New West label, came a new two-CD set called "Preludes," consisting of outtakes, demos and alternate versions of some of his early songs. The second disc is a 1999 radio interview with Zevon conducted by Austin, Texas, DJ Jody Denberg, shortly after the release of Zevon's great acoustic album "Life'll Kill Ya." The record had several reflections on mortality, including the title song and the prayer-like "Don't Let Us Get Sick." It was three years before Zevon would learn about his cancer (asbestos-related mesothelioma), though he was already no stranger to songs about death and dying. During the interview, Denberg asks about his fascination with the topic.

"The fact that life'll kill ya is just that," Zevon says. "It's a fact ... I think you have to spend a fair amount of time realizing that you will be (dead), so that you remember to enjoy everything that you possibly can every minute you're not. You always want to try and tell younger people that, which is very difficult, 'cause they don't really hear it because they feel that life has been imposed on them. And, of course, they're absolutely correct. But still, you want to tell them 'Hey, you could be having a lot of fun.' ... As Snoop Doggy Dogg and my father used to say, 'It's all good'."

Monday, May 07, 2007

At the gates of Eden

Back in town and - thankfully, after two awful weeks on Flintstones-era dial-up - back up on a working DSL connection ...

There's much about the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in the news these days, including Queen Elizabeth's recent visit. And by coincidence this weekend I finally saw Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD, a slightly fact/slightly fiction retelling of the first days at Jamestown and the love affair between Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher).

Malick is a filmmaker who divides audiences into two camps. You're either mesmerized by his films or bored to tears. I fall solidly into the former. I've seen THE THIN RED LINE half a dozen times, and could watch it a half dozen more. If I decide to watch five minutes and no more, I end up surfacing an hour later, only vaguely aware of how much time has passed. You don't watch Malick's films, you climb inside them - or not, depending on your tolerance for multiple voiceovers and endless shots of waving grass and monkeys chattering in trees.

For some reason, however, I'd never seen THE NEW WORLD until now, put off perhaps by the mixed reviews and the fluctuating running times (the DVD contains Malick's shorter, tighter 135-minute cut, as opposed to the 150-minute premiere cut). I should have known better. It's a masterpiece.

All of Malick's films are, in one way or another, about the expulsion from Eden, and THE NEW WORLD is perhaps the ultimate realization of that theme. It's also the most moving of Malick's films. While its historical canvas is an epic one, its central tale is simple, compact and universal. Where does love live? How does it grow - or die? Released from chains when his ship reaches the strip of land that will become Jamestown, Smith learns to connect with both the natural world around him, and the true, pure heart of an Indian princess, whom he eventually abandons. It would be merely storybook cliche, if Malick and his actors didn't make it all feel so achingly real.

Smith's story is played against - and echoes - the larger historical context. The settlers dig for gold rather than plant corn, and ultimately starve as the result. Smith finds the love that makes him whole and then leaves her to pursue rumored passages to other seas. But when does the quest end? At what point does one recognize the riches around them? Or find that what they've been seeking has in fact been there for the nurturing all along? To quote Emerson, whose work resounds in Malick's films, "To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven."

In a heartbreaking scene late in the film, Smith and Pocahontas - now known by her English name of Rebecca - are reunited a final time in England. In the interim, she has married a farmer, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and given birth to a son. "Did you find your Indies, John?" she asks. The look in Farrell's eyes - longing, regret, pain - says it all, but the next line drives it home. "I may have sailed past them" he admits.

I could go on, but much more cogent and in-depth discussions can be found in the vicinity of here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Stark raving

Apologies for the lack of posting, but I'm out of town with only intermittent Internet access. However, over at Matt Zoller Seitz's blog The House Next Door, you can find my thoughts on PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP, THE DIRECTOR'S CUT, just out today on DVD. It's based, of course, on Donald Westlake's first Richard Stark novel, THE HUNTER, and is director Brian Helgeland's original version of the 1998 film, before he was fired and a third of the film reshot for its theatrical release, at the behest of Paramount and star Mel Gibson. The DVD release feels like a different film and is essential viewing for fans of the Stark novels.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Random Readings Vol. 3

I came across this Charles Bukowski poem for the first time last week. As the man says, it's a beauty.

The Laughing Heart

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Charles Einstein 1926-2007

Charlie Einstein was a pro.

A veteran newsman, novelist, sportswriter and television scribe, Charlie was one of a kind. I got to know him well over the last six or so years, while serving as his editor at The Newark Star-Ledger. For as long as anyone could remember, Charlie had been writing an Atlantic City entertainment column for the paper, and was still doing it well into his late-70s. I inherited the editorship of the column in 2000, and thus began a series of weekly phone conversations with Charlie about his column, books, movies and life in general, generally punctuated with his trademark “Stop me if you’ve heard this one ...” jokes.

To me, at first, he was just the gravel-voiced, old-school columnist who turned in a short piece each week in a style that was more akin to Ed Sullivan’s “Talk of the Town” than anything that had actually appeared in a newspaper after 1950. Often our exchanges included comments along the lines of “Uh, Charlie, I think we should change this reference. I don’t know if many people these days know who Yogi Yorgesson is.”

But gradually over the course of those phone calls – a little bit at a time, often through oblique allusions – I started to pick up on some of Charlie’s amazing history. His father was Harry Einstein, a radio, vaudeville and film comedian who billed himself as “Parkyakarkus” and was a regular on Eddie Cantor’s NBC broadcast (he also became posthumously famous for suffering a fatal heart attack at a Friar’s Club roast in 1958, when tablemate Milton Berle’s cries of “Is there a doctor in the house?” were misconstrued as shtick).

Charlie had two half-brothers as well, from his father’s second marriage – Albert Einstein and Bob Einstein. Albert, of course, eventually became writer/director/comedian Albert Brooks, and Bob went on to cable fame as “Super Dave Osborne” and is now a regular on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Charlie would never volunteer any of this though. You had to come to those conversations already armed with background information, or the references would fly right past you. Born in Boston, Charlie attended the University of Chicago shortly after the Manhattan Project produced the first nuclear chain reaction in an underground laboratory beneath one of the school’s athletic fields (“We used to joke that our locker room was the nicest in the country,” he’d say. “But the water in the showers was radioactive.”)

In Chicago, Charlie started working for International News Service, which would eventually become part of UPI. While there he wrote his first novel, THE BLOODY SPUR, a newspaper drama/serial murderer thriller based on the crimes of “Lipstick Killer” William George Heirens, a University of Chicago student whose murder spree terrorized the city in 1945-46. The book was published as a paperback original by Dell in 1953 and the film rights were bought by Fritz Lang, who turned it into his 1956 movie WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, starring Dana Andrews and Ida Lupino (“The producers tried to sue Andrews because he was drunk on the set all the time,” Charlie once told me. “Which is funny because he was supposed to be playing an alcoholic in the film.”)

More books followed, as well as dozens of stories for magazines such as MANHUNT and SATURN, as well as “slicks” such as HARPER’S and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. But sportswriting grew to be his true love. After moving to San Francisco in the late ‘50s to work for the Examiner, he began covering the Giants and became friends with Willie Mays, a friendship that would last the rest of Charlie’s life. He co-authored Mays’ memoir “My Life in and Out of Baseball," and was the author of the oft-reprinted "Willie’s Time: Baseball’s Golden Age.” In the ‘60s, Charlie appeared in a pair of TV documentaries about Mays that were collected and updated in the recent video “Willie Mays: Born to Play Ball.”

Charlie soon became a major figure among sportswriters, and edited four volumes of the classic "Fireside Book of Baseball" series. But he continued to write fiction as well, including, in 1967, a science fiction novel for Fawcett’s landmark Gold Medal line, THE DAY NEW YORK WENT DRY, about a drought-plagued Manhattan collapsing into chaos. His editor there was an old friend, the legendary Knox Burger, whom Charlie had written for at various publications and publishing houses since the end of World War II. More than fifty years later, Burger would become my first agent. (“I always hated that title,” Charlie told me in 2001. ”My title was ‘The Day New York RAN Dry.’ Knox changed it to ‘The Day New York WENT Dry.’ Made it sound like it was about Prohibition or something.”)

Charlie soldiered on, writing a baseball column for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s, and continuing to turn out novels and nonfiction works (he wrote one of the earliest TV tie-ins as well, a 1959 paperback adapting stories from television’s NAKED CITY). His 1978 novel THE BLACKJACK HIJACK became a TV movie titled NOWHERE TO RUN, starring David Janssen and Stefanie Powers. He also wrote scripts for LOU GRANT, to date one of the most accurate recreations of life in an actual metropolitan newsroom.

In semiretirement, Charlie returned to where he started, the news business. After relocating to New Jersey, he began writing that Atlantic City column for The Star-Ledger, a gig he held for nearly 20 years. The news content of the columns was minimal, the style anachronistic, but I soon discovered there was no sense in trying to alter Charlie’s voice. It was unique.

But in the last two years, he was fading and he knew it. Living alone outside Atlantic City (Corrine, his wife of 42 years, had died in 1989), he was often plagued by memory issues, his copy riddled with typos. He wasn’t ready to hang it up yet though. At the age of 75, with the aid of his sons, he bought a computer and learned how to use it, so that he could file his column electronically (for the two decades previous, he’d mailed them in, typewritten). I spent many afternoons on the phone with him, talking him through technical glitches (“I hit SEND and it says it’s sending but it’s not going anywhere!”)

But mostly I think Charlie just wanted to talk, especially to someone who knew something of his past, of who he’d been before, what he’d done. I sent him a signed copy of my first novel, THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, when it came out in 2003. In return, he autographed a first edition paperback of THE BLOODY SPUR for me. “To Wally, best among editors,” he wrote in it. “Where were you when I needed you?”

In early 2006, I got a very terse e-mail from Charlie, that was CC’d to others who knew him. He was leaving New Jersey, he wrote, at the urging of his son Mike, who wanted to bring him back to live near he and his family in Michigan City, Indiana (the picture at top, taken last April, is Charlie and his granddaughter Cayla). At first, Charlie hoped to continue the column, but that soon proved impossible. He called me a month later, after settling into his apartment at an assisted living facility. “This is a great place,” he told me. “I’ve got a nice room, a TV, my computer. But I’m locked in!” Still, he said, he was enjoying the slower pace and was catching up on his reading, including my second novel, THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE, which I’d sent him with the inscription “Here’s my Gold Medal book ... 30 years too late.” More importantly, he told me, he’d started another novel himself.

In March 2006, I got another e-mail from him. “Wally,” it read. “One of the few pleasures of dementia is that of saving the best for last, and by last I mean writing to you. As excuses for not writing sooner go, that must rank right up there with Custer’s order not to take any prisoners, but it did give me the chance to re-read THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE ... and where in my inscribed copy you apologize for being too late for Gold Medal, know that you weren’t too late. You just skipped the grade.
All Bests,

On Thursday afternoon, I came out of a story meeting to find a voicemail message waiting for me from Charlie’s other son, Jeff, Cayla's dad, telling me that his father had passed away the day before. It was followed by an e-mail from Mike. “I am sad to report that Charlie passed away yesterday afternoon at St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital in Michigan City,” it read. “His health had been steadily declining over the past year, culminating this week in the onset of pneumonia.  He was admitted to the hospital yesterday morning and quickly slipped into unconsciousness from which he did not emerge.  He was simply too weak to fight back any longer.  He died peacefully in his sleep."

Peter Genovese wrote a fine obituary of Charlie (with comment from Willie Mays) which ran in Saturday’s Star-Ledger. It can be found here.

(UPDATE: Unfortunately, in the years since this was first written, the Genovese obit seems to have been purged from the NJO archives.)

Monday, March 05, 2007

Track Marks, Part Two

Following up on last week’s entry, here is the first installment of what I feel are some of the best – or at least most entertaining – DVD commentaries out there today, in rough alphabetical order. Comments welcome.

ANIMAL FACTORY (Columbia Tri-Star). Commentary by Danny Trejo and Eddie Bunker

Not many people saw this great Steve Buscemi-directed prison drama from 2000, though it sported a brutally authentic atmosphere and a terrific cast, including Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Mickey Rourke, Seymour Cassell and the great Mark Boone Jr. The commentary adds yet another level of authenticity, coming as it does from ex-con-turned-novelist Eddie Bunker, who wrote the book it’s based on, and ex-con-turned-actor Danny Trejo, who co-stars and, with Bunker, co-produced. They were fellow convicts at San Quentin in the 1960s, and the commentary gives them a chance not only to reminisce about the day-to-day realities of prison life (“Some of the most politest people in the world are in the penitentiary,” Trejo says, “The last thing you want to do is be rude to another killer”), but also to marvel at where life took them afterward (“Boy, we come a long way, Bunk”).

Bunker, a career armed robber, sold his novel “No Beast So Fierce” to Hollywood while he was still in prison, and saw it made into the Dustin Hoffman movie STRAIGHT TIME. After his release, more novels (the best of them is 1981’s LITTLE BOY BLUE) and film roles (most notably Mr. Blue in RESERVOIR DOGS) followed. Trejo eventually became a drug counselor and served as a consultant on films such as RUNAWAY TRAIN and HEAT. He’s since become one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood, with roles in the SPY KIDS films, the new SHERRYBABY and the upcoming GRINDHOUSE. But their commentary here brings them back to another time, before Hollywood or anyone else came calling, and their futures promised only more of the same. Bunker died in 2005. His 2000 memoir, EDUCATION OF A FELON, is a classic.

Friday, March 02, 2007

And for those wondering ...

... what Dave does in his free time when he's not solving decades-old crimes or commenting on the weather, there's this from yesterday's New Orleans Times-Picayune:

At 43, Fabre is youngest in the nation
Thursday, March 01, 2007
By Bruce Nolan

A Baton Rouge parish priest became the youngest Catholic bishop in the country Wednesday in a two-hour ordination ceremony in which the Rev. Shelton Fabre was given a share of the leadership of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Fabre, carrying a crozier, or shepherd's staff, that once belonged to Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel, walked around the packed interior of St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter absorbing applause from family, scores of New Orleans priests and about two dozen visiting bishops who participated in the ceremony.

Fabre assumes his office today, although he said in a recent interview that he, Hughes and Bishop Roger Morin have not yet decided how to divide the administrative duties of the archdiocese, which spans seven civil parishes surrounding New Orleans. Fabre will become pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish and will live there, although that parish's administrative duties will be handled by the Rev. David Robicheaux.

At 43, Fabre is the youngest Catholic bishop in the country and one of 10 active African-American bishops.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Track Marks, Part One

You never know what you’ll get with DVD commentary tracks. Some are pointless recitations of the action you’re already watching; others are brilliant and insightful companion pieces. Some will keep you rapt, others will have you hitting the STOP button after five minutes.

In the Netflix era, many commentaries probably go unheard in the rush to return the disc and get another. And if you weren’t that crazy about the film the first time, why watch it again? But occasionally the commentaries are hidden gems, sometimes more compelling than the films themselves.

They can also be instructive, specifically about how certain scripts were conceived, developed and eventually filmed. In his commentary for the special edition of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, director William Friedkin refers to the film’s handful of deleted scenes as “scaffolding.” You need them during the construction of the building, he says, but once it’s built, they’re redundant.

That’s true of writing fiction as well, I think. I had Friedkin’s remarks in mind when I cut nearly 20,000 words out of THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE before delivering it for the first time. The initial draft had a lot of backstory on the characters, which was necessary for me to know as I was writing it. But once I’d completed that draft and understood the characters more, I could mercilessly trim what wasn’t essential.

Commentaries can also be master classes on the film in question, even when they’re recorded by someone not involved in the production of the film. The best example of that right now is Eddie Muller, a k a The Hardest-Working Man in Noir. Muller, who’s also the author of the novels THE DISTANCE and SHADOW BOXER, is one of the principal commentators on the Fox Film Noir series (he also co-authored the recent autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” and runs the annual “Noir City” film festival in San Francisco.). Muller’s scene-specific commentary on films such as NO WAY OUT (pictured), ANGEL FACE and I WAKE UP SCREAMING are both entertaining and packed with information. Muller not only does his homework, but his enthusiasm for the films comes across as well. Often, as the final credits are rolling, you feel he still has more to say.

Over the next few days, and periodically after that, I’ll be listing (in rough alphabetical order) what I feel are some of the best – or at least most entertaining – DVD commentaries out there today. Comments and recommendations welcome.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Genius at work

Let us now praise YouTube, which allows us access to something like this, which is probably funnier than anything on Saturday Night Live in the last 20 years. The same folks are responsible for this and this.

Some other links for the week:

^ She's the high priestess of punk and a recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Jersey girl Patti Smith is still a kid at heart. Check out this appearance on the ABC Saturday morning show "Kids Are People Too" from 1979. And she knew all the words ... or most of them at least.

^ In keeping with his practice of occasionally previewing new music on his web site, Richard Thompson has recently posted an Mp3 of his song "Dad's Gonna Kill Me," from his forthcoming album "Sweet Warrior." The "Dad" is Baghdad and the song is one of his best in years.

^ And on the same topic, if you want to get really depressed about the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq, check out this clip from a 2003 "Frontline" special.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

An eclectic musical weekend ...

... and it was. First up, on Friday night, was the great Dave Alvin and his band The Guilty Men at New York's Bowery Ballroom. Alvin, formerly of the Blasters, is one of America's great unheralded songwriters. Whether you've heard of him or not, chances are you've heard one of his songs - "Fourth of July" (recorded by X and featured on a SOPRANOS episode last season), "Marie Marie," "So Long Baby Goodbye," "Long White Cadillac," "Bus Station," "Dry River" ... the list goes on. Alvin, sharing a bill with James McMurtry and The Heartless Bastards, opened the show with an 80-minute set that included only one song (Jackson Browne's "Redneck Friend") from his latest album "West of the West," but leaned heavily on material from previous albums, including 2004's "Ashgrove." Foremost among these was his noir epic "Out of Control" ("Baby's gotta make a living/ And I don't mind waiting out in the car/ I've got some nine-millimeter muscle/ In case things go too far"), which he introduced as a "new economic blues."

I was listening to Alvin a lot while writing THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE, and a handful of his songs - especially "Interstate City," "Abilene" and "Out in California" sort of made their way into that novel by osmosis. As a nod to Alvin, when Johnny Harrow goes to ground in a seedy Asbury Park motel in HEARTBREAK, I put him in room 503, which figures prominently in "Interstate City."

Saturday night was quite a different event: Legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone's first-ever U.S. performance, held at Radio City Music Hall. With a 100-piece orchestra and 100-member choir, Morricone conducted selections from his film scores over the years (he's done nearly 500), and the two-hour program featured excerpts from, among others, CINEMA PARADISO, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, THE MISSION and, of course, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY.

Having had much of that music as a personal soundtrack in my head for many years, it was slightly strange to hear it in a cavernous hall like Radio City, with audience members rapturously air-conducting with closed eyes and yelling "Bravo!" at the end of every movement. In addition, the Westerns that Morricone scored for director Sergio Leone (at right with Morricone in the photo above) are so irreverent and sardonic (lots of squinting and sweating and scratching), that hearing their music performed in such a formal concert setting was odd. To have the maestro (in tux and tails) walk off-stage and return with the soprano on his arm, preparatory to her singing the coyote howl of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, seemed a weird and not totally comfortable collision of worlds.

Still, it was a magic night (though a pre-concert announcement calling it "one of the greatest events in the history of New York" brought snickers from the waiting audience). Reviewer Bradley Bambarger summed the whole event up beautifully in his review for the Newark Star-Ledger, which can be found here. Morricone picks up a well-deserved honorary Oscar later this month, but why it took so long is an answer only the Academy knows.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Arctic chills

In the dark days of winter, nothing cheers you up quite like an 800-page novel about a doomed Arctic expedition.

That's one way to look at Dan Simmons' brilliant new novel THE TERROR. Simmons, whose other novels span a variety of genres (his first book was the breakthrough horror tale, THE SONG OF KALI), has come up with an idea that, at first, seems simplicity itself. He takes as the basis of his story the true-life tale of the Franklin Expedition, an 1845 voyage by two British ships, the Erebus and The Terror, to the Arctic to explore the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The two ships had 134 men between them and supplies that would supposedly last five years. Historians surmise that with the two ships hopelessly icebound, the surviving 129 crew members set off by land in hope of finding open water or rescue by a whaling ship. All of them perished on the ice, from accident or starvation. Remains of the crew members - some showing the marks of cannibalism - were later found.

There have been many explanations for what happened to Franklin's men, one of the most plausible being that their tinned provisions were tainted and crew members were struck down with lead poisoning. In Simmons' novel, there's an even greater threat stalking the men. A savage, almost mythical, beast that lives on the ice and hunts them down one by one.

Since history tells us the expedition had no survivors, you'd think that element of suspense - who lives, who dies - would be absent from the novel. But Simmons has woven the whole thing into a compelling epic of survival and horror and courage. It's an ice-cold fever dream that draws you in deeper with each chapter, each new trial the survivors face. And though Simmons has dedicated the book to the makers of the 1951 film "The Thing," THE TERROR is no pulp thriller. It's deadly serious and deeply involving. Not only is it one of the best horror novels in years, it's one of the best horror novels ever.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Random Readings Vol. 2

This installment of Random Readings is from Donald Westlake's 1974 novel BUTCHER'S MOON, the 16th of Westlake's novels written under the pseudonym of Richard Stark and featuring the ruthless professional thief known as Parker. MOON was the last Stark/Parker novel until 1997's COMEBACK (Parker's lived on in six books since, including the latest, ASK THE PARROT), and it's one of the best, although sadly out of print. It also contains one of the hardest-boiled passages in crime fiction, a scene (slightly edited here) that's a perfect mixture of character, action and dialogue. And, of course, in the Stark way, it seems absolutely effortless.

A little set-up: Grofield, a confederate of Parker's, has been kidnapped by mobsters who want to lure Parker into a trap and get rid of him for good. To prove they're serious, they cut off one of Grofield's fingers and have a low-level gangster named Ed Shevelly take it to Parker. Shevelly and Parker are sitting in the front seat of a stolen Mercedes, Parker at the wheel, gun in hand, when Shevelly opens the small white box he's carrying ....

Parker looked at the finger. The first knuckle was bent slightly so that the finger seemed to be calm, at ease, resting. But at the other end were small clots of dark blood and lighter smears of blood on the cotton gauze.

Shevelly said, "Your friend is alive. This is the proof."

Shevelly seemed uncomfortable now, but to be pushing himself through the scene out of some inner conviction or determination. Almost as though he had a personal grudge against Parker...

Parker glanced at the finger. "That's no proof of anything," he said.

"If you don't get to Buenadella's by noon tomorrow," Shevelly said, "they'll send you another finger. And another finger every day after that, and then toes. To prove he's still alive, and not a decomposing body." ...

Parker, studying him, saw there was no point arguing with him, and no longer possible to either trust him or make use of him. He gestured with the pistol toward Shevelly, saying "Get out of the car."


"Just get out. Leave the door open, back away to the sidewalk, keep facing me"

Shevelly frowned. "What for?"

"I take precautions. Do it."

Puzzled, Shevelly opened the door and climbed out onto the thin grass next to the curb. He took a step to the sidewalk and turned around to face the car again.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm's length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly's head. Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself, shouting, "I'm only the messenger!"

"Now you're the message," Parker told him, and shot him.

- From "Butcher's Moon," copyright 1974 by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)