Age, Wisdom, and Treachery
I’ve been pondering the fickle passage of time lately, thinking my life away as per usual.
I think it started when George Carlin wobbled into a Santa Monica hospital at the end of June and stepped offstage for good. On a lousy, otherwise unremarkable Sunday afternoon, an era passed us all by.
It’s not just that the guy was an institution, although there’s an element there that rings a little forlorn, too, after the deaths of kinsmen Pryor, Hicks, Kinison, and even weird, more recently departed souls like Mitch Hedberg. Because after all, who replaces these minds in the end? Who’s come up through the ranks to scrape the burnt toast of society and make something palatable, even laughable, out of the senseless world in which we live? Do we drop our standards and embrace a talentless hack like Dane Cook? I’ll give you that there’s some serious thinking behind people like Sarah Silverman or Lewis Black but there’s no one right now who is, as Hicks used to observe of Keith Richards, willing to walk right up to the edge and jump off with both feet.
I think my overly serious contemplation of Carlin’s legacy though comes from trying to wrap my brain around it. Let’s think about this for a second. When you’ve changed the very nature, the intrinsic make-up of your craft not just for yourself but for everybody else, too, what the hell do you do for an encore? Critics often lump artists like Carlin and Pryor in with the revolutionary comics of Saturday Night Live and Second City, born in the '70s, but you have to realize that like Lenny Bruce, they came from a world in which the most you could aspire to was six nights a year on The Tonight Show and bi-nightly gigs at the Sands in front of drunken conventioneers. Compare that short-sighted ambition with this hilarious, insightful and dare I say, prescient indictment of the Vietnam War from the time of George’s transition to bearded sage.
“And now, of course, we're leaving Vietnam... (explosion sound). We're leaving through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It's the overland route. It's the long way out. You gotta go through China and Russia to get out that way. What'll we tell them, man? ‘We'll only be here six weeks. Just looking for the Ho Chi Minh Trail!’ Wow. Maybe they'll buy it, you know? Of course, you have to remember why we're over there in the first place... Oh, yeah! It always comes to me. To free those people... So they can have industry -- yeah! US industry (sound of applause)! Those are the middle two letters of the word 'industry.' ‘U.S.’ And that is our job around the world. Run in, free some people and whip a little industry on them. "Here's your industry. Cool it awhile, will ya?" So that they can have the benefits of industry that we have come to enjoy... (Cough)!”
I also got to thinking about Carlin’s identification of himself not only as a comedian, “Occupation: Foole,” as he remarked, but also that he spent his entire life, to the last moment, trading in words. His latter years were earmarked quite often less by brilliant pieces like “Football and Baseball,” and more often by the vitriolic rants of a 70-year-old man. But while he may have violated the American ideal of sailing off into the sunset at 55, he also represented a concept that we hold near and dear in this country: that what we do is not merely an occupation but who we are. What’s the first thing anyone asks you at a cocktail party? “And what do you do?”
This whole circular thinking about age, work and idealism came up again when I saw a posting a few days ago by a writer I like very much, Max Barry (Jennifer Government), who at the tender age of 35 has been named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of Australia’s best young novelists. He writes on his web site: “When I was 23 and struggling to get anyone to notice I’d written a novel, it annoyed the crap out of me to see so-called ‘Young Writer’ prizes won by 35-year-old guys with no hair. In which parallel universe, I wanted to know, could those tottering old farts be considered young? … Somewhere out there, a curly-haired 23-year-old is muttering about the unfairness of it all. Suck it up, punk.”
But what about those writers who keep cranking out novels even though the hair has gone grey (or gone completely)? You have to give tribute to monoliths like Elmore Leonard, who turns 83 in October and has turned out a book a year for the last decade, or Donald E. Westlake, who turned 75 in July and has over 100 books to his name. Jesus, these guys make all of us look like young punks by comparison.
So in perusing the stacks of new books for this month, I thought I’d give a pass to all the shiny new Fall titles for just a bit and throw down props to a pair of guys who seem to be determined, like Carlin, to go down swinging.
First of all, it’s worth celebrating the latest from Lawrence Block, who marked the occasion of his 70th birthday by releasing a new novel about the coldest fish in his rogue’s gallery, the reluctant but relentless hitman Keller. Not exactly a spring chicken himself at this stage in his development, Keller is one of those characters who seemed almost ghostly in his early episodic incarnations, not so much a fully formed persona but the shadow of a person who has faded so fully into his role that his humanity has disappeared inside it. In a characteristically curt interview about his last Keller novel, Block said, “It seems to me that Keller has both roots and a conscience. They're just a little different from most people, and he's learned to cope with them differently.”
So it’s a bit of a surprise to see things change in the pages of the new novel, Hit and Run. Breaking the collective short story format he’s utilized up to now, Block has written a more traditional novel about his soft-spoken antihero, one in which the author as creator grants his creation a new life, of sorts, but also takes away some of his touchstones in the process. It starts, naturally, with a gig that seems as exciting as boiling eggs to a fellow like Keller. Fly to Iowa, of all places, wait for the signal to kill one Gregory Dowling. That things go awry is a given. That the lonesome killer and bona fide stamp collector is framed by his client for popping the Governor of Ohio and is the subject of a nationwide manhunt is a pretty epic plot for a killer whose normal day consists of chasing down rare stamps and strangling the occasional business owner. By the time Keller gets back to New York to find his handler has come to a bitter end, his get-away-clean stash gone and his beloved collection stolen, things have gotten very personal for the cold-blooded killer. Block is a hard case on his best day but the man writes a crime novel like no other.
Another great character among detectives gets a vacation of a decidedly different sort in James Lee Burke’s Swan Peak, also on shelves already. Never exactly a Pollyanna on the best of days, 71-year-old Burke took his famous soulful cop Dave Robicheaux down to some dark, dark places in The Tin Roof Blowdown. The man deserves a break and while he doesn’t exactly get one here, the familiar character benefits from being yanked out of his Louisiana element.
Surely those good folks in Montana aren’t as cutthroat as his fellow citizens down in the Big Easy, and so Robicheaux takes his wife Molly and his compadre Clete Purcell to visit another friend, Albert Hollister, in the secluded tranquility of Swan Lake. You’d think fly fishing in a remote creek straight out of A River Runs Through It would be safe enough but Purcell is a magnet for trouble and he finds it in the form of two thugs employed by the wealthy Wellstone Ranch, including one who Purcell remembers from the bad old days in New Orleans. Between threats from the Wellstone patriarch, the unsolved murders of two college students and keeping a lid on Clete’s temper, Dave has his hands full. It’s not the least complicated plot that Burke has ever concocted but the man can write a contemplative sentence to rival Plato in its deliberation.
“I’m not sure I believe in karma, but as one looks back over the aggregate of his experience, it seems hard to deny the patterns of intersection that seem to be at work in our lives, in the same way it would be foolish to say that the attraction of metal filings to a magnet’s surface is a result of experience,” sayeth Robicheaux. That’s just a taste of the things a man learns in the course of twenty-seven books. We should all be so lucky, to live so long and absorb all the little joys and tragedies life has to offer.
I’ll leave you for this month with a throwaway, out of context line that I discovered while sitting by the sea in Pacific Grove, California last month. I was reading a 1953 edition collecting the short novels of John Steinbeck and read this terrific line summarizing the men of Cannery Row, living as many of us do, on the fringes of society. In his introduction, the distinguished literary editor Joseph Henry Jackson writes of Steinbeck’s paisanos, “It should be noted, by the way, that a man deliberately dispossess himself; he may do this, too, for a variety of reasons, many of them sound enough.”
With that in mind, I’m off to test Jackson’s theory. Here endeth the lessons.