Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Shield

On May 23, The Beloved Spouse and I celebrated the tenth anniversary of our first date. Went to Famous Dave’s and sat as close to our original booth as we could; ordered the same meals. (We eat pretty much the same thing every time we go there, so it’s not as nauseatingly romantic as it sounds.) We then went home and kept each other up until quarter to three Saturday morning.

Binge watching the last ten episodes of The Shield.

People have been after me to watch The Shield well before it went off the air in 2008. You know me: I had other things to do, and the other commercial TV shows that had been recommended around that time hadn’t panned out. Still, The Shield persistently worked its way to the top the Netflix queue, visible every time I went in there. When All is Lost included our interest a couple of months ago and we were experimenting with a trial subscription to Amazon Prime, our Saturday evening became free and we figured what the hell.

We were hooked after the first episode.

I had for years considered The Wire to be the zenith of television, even better than The Sopranos. (Deadwood is such an outlier in so many ways it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons.) Now I’m not so sure. The Shield takes advantage of a somewhat smaller cast contained in a smaller container to show character relationships evolve and fold back over each other. The plotting is tighter and the timing is perfect. Every season Vic Mackey and the Strike Team evade ever more serious problems. Then, just about the time one wonders how many times creator Shawn Ryan can make this believable, he wrapped it up with what I believe is the finest closing episode I’ve seen, true to the tone established over seven years, and containing the quality all good endings have: initial surprise, followed by a sense of inevitability. David Chase should have seen the end of The Shield before he copped out with his ending of The Sopranos.

The writing is spot on. Each episode has a minor plot or two that unfolds under the overarching story of the season. Some resolve in a week, some take longer, and some seem to be resolved, only to appear several weeks (or even seasons) later. The Shield is a perfect example of the kind of fiction I love, storytelling in a “keep up or catch up” style that rewards the engaged viewer. What seemed to me at first to be a plot hole late in Season Five was exploited as a key clue early in Season Six. Pay attention folks; we’re going to ask questions later.

The acting is uniformly excellent. The only actor I’d heard of before this was star Michael Chiklis, whom I’d seen in a couple of network series I hadn’t cared for. I can’t say what his range is, but he was perfectly cast as Vic Mackey. Walton Goggins—better known today as Boyd Crowder on Justified—plays Shane Vendrell, Vic’s primary sidekick who’s not as smart or brave as Vic, but is willing to be just as ruthless, and has a tendency to project what he would do onto others, a dangerous combination in a character and a tricky performance to pull off, which Goggins does to perfection. I could go on like this for a while, but suffice to say all the actors are well cast and excellent, from series regulars to one-week, two-minute appearances.

What makes The Shield work best is its guerilla style of filming. Few sets were built, and quite a few scenes are filmed without getting clearances. When it appears Vic is taking his life in his hands chasing someone across a busy street, that may well not be controlled traffic Chikilis—and the cameraman—are running through. Shot exclusively with hands-helds and Stedicams—Ryan in one special feature seems proud of the fact the show never owned a camera dolly—the documentary feel is accentuated by the actors often having no precise marks to hit; the cameras keep up as well as they can, sometimes shifting to a speaker after he or she has begun the line. It keeps things edgy and forces the audience to remain in the moment. How can we know what to expect next when our eye into that world isn’t even sure?

This may have affected TBS and I more than some because we were able to watch the entire series without commercial or season interruptions; I bought the complete boxed set in the middle of Season Two, when I knew Netflix wouldn’t be able to keep up with us. We’re still wound up, so much so we re-watched the final episodes of Seasons Five and Seven Monday night. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about The Shield as time goes on. Suffice to say if you share my perspective on this kind of story and its telling—if you’re reading this, you probably do—The Shield is not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Twenty Questions With Tom Pitts

Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco, though not from either Karl Malden or Michael Douglas. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. His new novel, Hustle, was recently released by Snubnose Press. Tom also has a novella, Piggyback, to his credit, and more short stories than you can shake a stick at, published by such respected and varied outlets as Crime Factory, All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Powder Burn Flash, and others my typing skills and time available do not permit me to mention; check his web site and blog for details.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Hustle.
Tom Pitts: It’s funny, I had a friend who is struggling with addiction mention he hadn’t yet read the book and I told him, “When you’re ready to relapse, buy Hustle. It’s like a passport to all your dark places.” It’s a story that beings with two drug-addicted gay hustlers trying to blackmail an elderly client of theirs. Only it’s the wrong client. Somebody else already has their hooks in this bastard for something much bigger.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
TP: It started as a short story idea. I wanted to write something in third person with the narration sounding like first person. When I hit page five I realized it was going to go much further than a few thousand words.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Hustle, start to finish?
TP: The first few pages sat for a while—they needed to gestate—but once the ball got rolling it took about four months. I was on a roll. I’d be lucky if they all came that easy.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
TP: I’ve already mentioned the hustlers, the man they try to extort is a powerful San Francisco attorney named Gabriel Thaxton. Problem is, Gabriel has a history of being involved with young men, and one of those young men is a psychopath named Dustin who is living in his mansion and already working his own kind of evil on the old man. The hero of the book, though, is the lonely old biker Gabriel taps to help him out of the mess. Bear is a biker who’s always been on the fringe of the big clubs. He and Gabriel have done business in the past, so he feels he owes the old guy. But, in returning the favor, he gets sucked into the cyclone of violence.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Hustle set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
TP: The time is the present. Smartphones and YouTube play a role. I wanted something current. The place? San Francisco. There are parts set in Marin County because it’s wealthy and isolated out there—good for the ol’ shootout at the OK corral thing—but most of it takes place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Why? Two reasons: The first is because I know SF the best. I’ve been here thirty years and have lived all over the city. All my jobs, from bike messenger to taxi driver to dispatcher, have all been related directly to the streets of the city. But mostly it’s in San Francisco because the theme, gay hustling and drug addiction, seemed very SF-centric to me. And in San Francisco, no neighborhood is sleazier than the Tenderloin.

OBAAT: How did Hustle come to be published?
TP: Initially, Brian [Lindenmuth] at Snubnose said he’d be interested in publishing the book. He was one of the first to read it. Then, with Hustle in tow, I landed an agent, but after the first few rejections, it became clear that a big house taking such an unsavory story would be unlikely. My agent already had my next novel in hand, ready to shop, so I decided to seek out Snubnose again and ask Brian if he was still interested. Snubnose had been very good to me with my first novella, Piggyback, and I like being with them, they’ve got a great roster and a good rep.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
TP: I like crime stories, and a sprinkling of the greats. I haven’t been reading enough out of the crime genre lately. I love Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo, James Lee Burke, Denis Johnson. The kind of guys that you read and think, fuck it, I’ll never be that good in a thousand years. I always feel under-read, I’m always up for discovering some new.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
TP: Like it or not, Elmore Leonard influences me most. I’d like to be influenced style-wise by all sorts of big shots and mega-talents, but the lean and direct Leonard is what I find myself drawn to when it comes to telling a story on my own.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
TP:  Seat of my pants, baby. And, yes, it’s San Francisco, so that’d be long pants.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
TP:  I push forward through a scene at a time. Even though I may only get 4 days a week in, I shoot for a thousand words a day. But it’s the scene that dictates how far I go, much more than the word count. If I’m stuck, I’ll go over the previous day’s work and revise it. That happens a lot, so I’m a bit of a revise-as-you-go kind of guy.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
TP: Clarity. It sounds simple, but the job of a writer is to get readers to see what you see in your head. Keep it simple, make it clear.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
TP: That’d be family time. Whatever we manage to do, I have fun doing it—even if they’re hating it!

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
TP: It’d have to be the good review, ’cause there ain’t no money being earned! Not real money anyway. I don’t think I could live a week on what writing brought in last year.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
TP: Is someone making that offer? Do I get to squander the cash by jumping into the movie business? I’d have to read the fine print and check for loopholes.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
TP: I guess number three, but it’s a trick question. Number two often offers better royalties than anyone in the game. There is also an ability to have a say in the final product with number two that you sign away with number three. Also, number three is a gamble. Little fish/big pond syndrome. Not to mention they call them advances for a reason. I learned this in the music business. Sure, you get that first check, but for the big guys to admit turning a profit and coughing up any more dough is another matter. That’s been my experience anyway, but keep in mind that I work for Gutter Books and I’m a Snubnose Press author.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
TP: This week? Beer.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?
TP: Baseball. I live in Giants country. I actually penned a novella that‘s centered around a three-game series between the Dodgers and Giants. It’s a crime tale, but it’s very baseball-centric. What’s that I hear you asking? What’s my favorite baseball book? Why, Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo, of course.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
TP: Um … how does it feel to be nominated for the National Book Award?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?
TP: Sadly, I was once again overlooked. Thank you for asking, though.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

TP: My novel California Libertine is being shopped to the big boys, so while I wait for rejections I’ve started a new book—as yet untitled. It’s morphing as I go. It’s not the novel I set out to write, it’s quickly turning into something better, letting me ask my favorite question: I wonder what is going to happen today? For me, that’s still the best part about writing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Pass the Popcorn, Please

It’s been a while since I commented on movies I’ve seen recently; binge-watching The Shield has taken up most of our TV viewing time. But, we have seen a handful, and I’m stuck for a blog post today, so here goes.

Pain & Gain. Didn’t know what to expect, adding this to the Netflix queue on a recommendation, and was pleasantly surprised. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson play a pair of muscleheads who lust after The American Dream™ (no, not Dusty Rhodes) and decide to get it by kidnapping millionaire Tony Shalhoub. Loosely based on a true story, this is a comic noir of half-baked ideas and half-assed execution. The kidnappers lack discipline, experience, and a clue, and things go as badly as one might expect. Director Michael Bay plays it for laughs and gets the tone just right. (Yes, that Michael Bay. Thus might be my favorite movie of his.) Lots of fun. Wahlberg and Johnson are well cast; Shalhoub is as good as always. Ed Harris makes a cameo appearance, and, as usual, is as good as it gets. Not a timeless classic, but a couple of hours of off-kilter fun.

Ride the High Country. George Pelecanos got to program an evening of Turner Classic movies; this was one of his picks. (I hope to get to them all.) Randolph Scott and Joel McCrae play a pair of over-the-hill lawmen who team up to guard a gold shipment from the wildcat miners to the bank. Unknown to straight-arrow McCrae, Scott and his young sidekick plan to steal the gold. The kid falls for a farmer’s daughter (Mariette Hartley in her first role), and things go bad at the camp, leading to a hazardous trip down the mountain where you don’t know who to trust. The two old pros play it out to the end in a movie that could have been cliché-ridden but instead gives a new look that presages the new wave of Westerns Clint Eastwood was about to start. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, and hints of where he’ll go with The Wild Bunch are evident. Far better than I expected from a 1962-vintage Western.

American Hustle. Meh. Lots of good bits that didn’t add up to as much as they could have. Too long, and I have an impression the original cut was even longer. (The voice-over near the beginning jammed exposition down your throat like a freshman composition major summarizing Genesis.) The director seemed to want to make a Scorsese picture, and only Scorsese should try that. (Not even him, sometimes.) Christian Bale was good, though he often seemed to be doing an Al Pacino impression, which made me think of how much better Pacino would have been when he was the appropriate age. The women carry the movie; Jennifer Lawrence steals all her scenes, in a good way. Louis CK was perfectly cast. Not a waste of time, but not something that deserved bumping to the top of the queue. (As we did.)

The Seven-Ups. Another of Pelecanos’s picks. In the style of the French Connection (directed by French Connection’s producer, Philip D’Antoni), Roy Scheider leads a team of cops that investigates only crimes with a penalty of at least seven years. His snitch (Tony LoBianco) is playing both ends against the middle. Lots to like, but it never grips you like The French Connection. Not only does the whole not exceed the sum of its parts, it doesn’t quite equal it. Best car chase ever though, covering more ground, units coming and going, and all doing stuff cars can actually do. No jumping or flying or rolling and continuing to run or shit like that. Just serious driving, well photographed. (For those who wish to cut to the chase, here it is. The cop in the trunk is Ken Kercheval, who would go on to play Cliff Barnes in Dallas.)

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Foundations of Learning

It’s college graduation season. The Beloved Spouse and I connected with The Sole Heir to see her beau graduate from St. Mary’s College of Maryland on Saturday.

I love spending time on college campuses. High schools, for that matter. Middle and elementary schools. For all their faults, those are the places where Learning lives, and there is no more noble aspiration for any human than to learn. It doesn’t matter what, or why. Learning for the sheer hell of it is among the handful of things that separates us from the other animals, Celebrate it.

The Sole Heir and The Sole Heir’s Beau attended school in Montgomery County MD, widely accepted as having among the best schools in the country. (TSHB attended a private school that was no slouch itself.) My high school had a few Advanced Placement courses and a smattering of honors, but a school of less than a thousand students in a town of about 13,000 in a faltering early 70s economy didn’t have the resources to do much more. This did not in any dilute the value of my time there.

What matters in any educational environment, more than facilities and programs and supplies—all of which are important—are teachers. Watching Cosmos the other day, I got to thinking of how I gained my enthusiasm for certain things and not others. Natural skills and inclinations played a part, of course, but in each case I could point to a teacher who sparked an interest in me that burns to this day. I’m sure none of them are still teaching, and several may well be gone altogether, but that doesn’t mean karma will ignore calling them out.

Jim Lagoon, band. He goes first, because it was he who peeled back the first layers of the opinion that which led to a Master’s degree in trumpet performance. Among the proudest days of my teaching career were those when I subbed for Jim, or for someone else and spent time with him, as was treated as a peer.

Paul Shiring, chemistry. His chemistry classes indirectly sparked my interest in physics, acoustics, astronomy, meteorology, and natural sciences in general. Watching a balloon expand in a Bell jar as he created a vacuum, or seeing what happened when two innocuous chemicals were placed in conjunction with each other—no way to stop it once it starts—impressed on me the idea that Nature runs things, and always has more to show us.

Joe Boario, history. He never lectured; he told stories. All of them true, all of them fascinating. Mr. Boario showed how things are connected so I knew history rhymed before I ever read Mark Twain’s comment. Finding the pattern, the relevant historical thread, has served me well in an era where recent history is too rarely taught.

Bill Eberhardt (civics) and Bob Jones (Problems of Democracy). Both taught largely through discussion and debate and made fascinating content that is often perceived as dry as dust. I still remember our eighth-grade class’s discussion of eminent domain. (“You mean if two old senile people have a house and they want to build a road there…”)

Lee Herps, social studies. I didn’t appreciate Mr. Herps in eleventh grade; none of us did. Later, when I understood he wasn’t teaching us things to remember, but yardsticks by which to measure, I wished I’d paid better attention. Herps should have taught college; he was wasted on high school kids.

Dudley Risher and Marko Arezina, algebra. Math is in everything, and they taught me not to be intimidated by it, but to embrace the fact, because it meant anything could be figured out.

Karen Baldwin, psychology. Probably a hippie, though most Burrell students—such as me—would be too square to recognize it. I think she only lasted one year at Burrell, but in that small window I learned there were more ways to think about things than I had considered.

Last and obviously not least, Larry Seeley, English and creative writing. I knew he was special when he asked the class why it takes Hamlet so long to kill Claudius after speaking with the ghost. After a spirited discussion, Seeley waved us off and said, “If Hamlet walks right down and kills his uncle, the play is fifteen minutes long. No one would pay to see that.” Then he spent the time to show us how successful writing appeals on multiple levels, and that entertainment can be enlightening, and uplifting content can be entertaining. I wrote my first story in his class, after he learned I’d discovered Mickey Spillane and suggested writing a PI story.

I wish I’d thought of doing this twenty years ago, when It might have mattered more—or at all—to these teachers. I didn’t, and that’s on me. Wherever they are, I hope they garnered even half as much satisfaction from teaching as their students benefitted from their efforts, whether we knew it or not, or wished to acknowledge it. Stopping my inventory here doesn’t mean teachers stopped influencing my life after high school—far from it—these are the people who teed me up to be ready for what the others had waiting.

Thank you.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Virtues of Reading

Patti Abbott has a knack for prompting discussions through her blog and Facebook. Last Monday this appeared on Facebook:

A depressing story on NPR about kids reading books. Most do not read for pleasure despite books like The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter books.

Brainstorm: how can we get kids to read more? 

Several suggestions followed, all with merit. Then John McFetridge, who’s building a reputation based on not looking at things quite the same way as others, posted this:

Is there some reason why reading books for pleasure is better than doing anything else for pleasure?

Instant tangent in my thoughts. The discussion proceeded—my suggestion included—as if the answer to this question was self-evident. Intelligence is knowing the right answers; John showed how wisdom lies in asking the right questions.

Let’s start with my belief that reading is, by far, the most important thing a person can learn. If schools do nothing else, they should create good readers. (Why they do not is another discussion.) Not because people should read for pleasure, but because good readers can learn just about anything they want, with minimal outside assistance, if they can read well enough, and know how to use reference materials. The ability to teach through media other than direct interaction is what differentiates humans from the rest of life on this planet, and we abuse the opportunity as if it had no value.

That’s a strictly educational perspective. John’s question remains: Is reading for pleasure somehow a more noble action than doing something else for pleasure? There are few things I enjoy as much as reading; large chunks of my annual summer staycation are eagerly anticipated as reading time. I find time to read at least sixty books a year in the cracks between a full-time job, my own writing, family responsibilities, and other activities. Reading for pleasure can take me outside myself and my personal experiences—how much I have learned about differing perspectives and human nature in my recreational reading cannot be measured—yet it’s rare I can hold myself to a continuous session with the same level of concentration I can find for baseball. A couple of weeks ago I spent nine hours watching the Pirates lose a rain-delayed doubleheader in Baltimore, and was never bored. Not for a second. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic about the pastoral virtues of baseball; most of that is bullshit. There is something about the game that resonates with me in a way no other activity does; I can always watch a ball game. Doesn’t matter if it’s major league, minor league, or a sandlot game I pass by with time on my hands. Would that time be better spent reading?

It depends. No activity is what we need for every minute of every day. Some days we need recharged, some days we need elevated, some days we need to level out. This is one of the virtues in reading for pleasure: there are as many different kinds of things to read as there human psychic needs. The variety is almost limitless.

Reading’s primary virtue may be how it allows us to focus while still multitasking. Well-written fiction can be read purely for pleasure, but can one read and enjoy a book such as Les Edgerton’s The Bitch and not at some level learn there’s more to habitual offender statutes than we at first thought? I knew a large part of the Thai economy was based on sex, but had no idea of the effects of that, and the Thai people’s attitudes toward it, before I read John Burdette and then, in more detail, Tim Hallinan. No one who reads John McFetridge can think of Canada as that bland, frozen country to the north, any more than Florida development can be viewed the same way after reading Carl Hiaasen. Adrian McKinty’s Troubles Trilogy gave me a peek into Northern Irish living in the 80s without risking life and limb. Reading for pleasure provides opportunities for covert education and enlightenment rarely found elsewhere.

So, yeah, I think reading for pleasure is, in many ways, better than doing a lot of other things for pleasure, though it’s not a universal truth. It’s easy for those of us who base so much of our lives around reading and writing to think so. Too much reading can make it easy to remove oneself from the real world and those in it. It’s a great escape, but a reading addiction can be as harmful in its way as a drug dependency. My father keeps up with newspapers and magazines; his “leisure” time is spent working in his yard, and in his wood shop. I may be expanding my sensibilities, but he actually creates something, which too many of us who live largely intellectual lives value too little.

Back to John’s question: Is there some reason why reading books for pleasure is better than doing anything else for pleasure? Yes, there are several, but they are all time- and need-specific. Even avid readers need other outlets for pleasurable activities that recharge their souls in different ways.

Play ball.

Monday, May 12, 2014

But Is It Art?

Will Self got his knickers in a bunch a couple of weeks ago about the death of the novel. Well, the death through lack of sales and public attention of what he considers to be “the novel,” by which he appears to mean “literary novels,” more specifically, “his novels.” I don’t expect you to read the entire diatribe. I couldn’t. If this self-absorbed and condescending essay is any indication of his fiction, then his novels aren’t just dying; they’re committing suicide.

This is, at its core, another self-pitying example of a “literary” writer lamenting a lack of sales and recognition compared to what he considers to be inferior work. As The Beloved Spouse would say, “wah.” To begin such a discussion is to admit defeat. The writers of the past, whose recognition the modern “literary” writer seeks to duplicate, did not, by and large, think of themselves as writing for posterity. They became “literary” after their deaths, because their books outlived them, not because that was the original plan.

Musicians have this debate all the time, though it centers along the lines of, “Why are programs so overloaded with dead composers? Where is the new music?” There is a lot of new (classical) music out there; few want to listen to it, with good reason. Not because it’s bad, but because around a hundred years ago composers started writing for their peers. Not even their peers, really, but those they liked to think of as their peers. A culture grew where an ever-smaller cadre of composers praised music that became ever more obtuse or formulaic in its adherence to arbitrary rules. Music that contained traditional elements (melody, harmony, tonality) was dismissed as “reactionary.”

This is a not uncommon situation in the arts. I was once coerced into a trip to the National Gallery of Art by someone who wished to appear more cultured than she was. (Editor’s Note: I am not claiming to be more cultured than she, just that I make no effort to appear otherwise.) At one point we encountered a painting that looks very much like this (bonus points to anyone who can identify the actual painting; its name escapes me):

Our discussion proceeded along these lines:
Her: What do you think?
Me: Huh?
Her: What do you think it means?
Me: You’re shitting me, right?

I’m a believer in art for art’s sake. I don’t consider my writing to be art—an opinion in which I need not stake out a lonely outpost to defend—I do it for the pleasure and satisfaction of the act, much the way a preschooler is more interested in process than results when finger painting. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with authors/musicians/artists who deliberately create for an audience so far to the right of their perceived bell-shaped curve no one else can understand it, let alone “appreciate” it. Too narrowly self-defining one’s audience guarantees its limits; the creator cannot then reasonably complain about a lack of acclimation.

This is not to say current cultural standards are not deplorable. Not enough people read, or listen to music, or, hell, even think about things beyond what’s right in front of them. This is not a new concept. Just as old ballplayers claim the game was better in their day, the erosion of cultural standards has been lamented since the origins of cultural standards. Here’s the thing: if you want to be popular, create things the general population can get into, and not things you think the general population should get into, if they had a clue. By all means, create those things; just don’t bitch when they’re not popular. No society owes any artist a living, not when there are too many people hanging on by their fingernails.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Foul Language

The panel in which I participated at Bouchercon last year on noir and hard-boiled fiction was asked how important foul language is to those genres. I took it upon myself to answer, as Grind Joint is full of the kind of tasty morsels that give the FCC and the American Family Association the drizzles. I wanted to hear what everyone else had to say, so I kept my answer succinct:

“It’s a big fucking deal.”

It is, but not for the reasons some think. Foul language is no different from other language in the context of a story: it serves a purpose, or it shouldn’t be there. I don’t choose language to offend anyone, though I know some of what I write will do just that. To me, there is one reason to use foul language: to help to characterize. Much can be learned from how a character speaks, and who he speaks to in what manner. As almost everything I write is either close third-person or first-person POV, this rule also often applies to narration.

As eighty-year-old women are not inclined to say “fuck” (unless the person sitting next to her has shouted, “Bingo!”), long-haul truck drivers are not often heard to say “dad gum it” when the trailer rolls off the back of the tractor at 80 mph. Some might. If so, this is a perfect opportunity to show his even-temperedness, or Christianity, or failure to grasp the gravity of the situation. Whatever. It serves a purpose.

James M. Cain once said,

“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hardboiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”

Cain captured something I have thought without being able to enunciate for some time, though I make a minor modification I think he would forgive: I try to write as the character would speak, and the kinds of characters I write, generally speaking, are comfortable with foul language. The Russian gangster and black heroin dealer and small town cop use different levels of vulgarity with different frequencies, and under different circumstances. The cop’s elderly parents, not so much.

The goal—and the trick—is to answer the question, “What would this character say here?” Not “What would a character say if I wanted to get this on network television?” or “What would this character say if I want to be sure not to offend DixieLady25365?” Dialog should be truth, even when the character is lying. Expressing character through that person’s speech is as good an example of “show, don’t tell” as I can think of.

Readers are not blameless when offense is given. The easily offended owe it to themselves to perform some due diligence. Look at the title and subject matter; read the back cover. Read a few random spots and see for yourself. Authors and publishers have no more interest in unnecessarily offending anyone than the reader has in being offended. Readers who fail to do this relinquish the right to credibly dismiss a book with a one-star rating, and a review no more detailed than, “This is a good story, but the author is a disgusting potty mouth.”

My ultimate fantasy is to be at a signing or on a panel, and asked why I use so much foul language in my stories. I’d like to have the presence of mind and equanimity to cite all of the above, and to be sure the questioner understands my intent is not to be offensive, but to serve a greater purpose in the context of the story. I’d conclude by saying I’m sorry he or she was offended, and, in the future, if they have doubts about me, my advice is not to buy the fucking book.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Baseball is a Demanding Mistress

It’s not easy being a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. Lost more than they won every year from 1993 – 2012, often a lot more. Now they’re good—made the playoffs for the first time in 21 years last fall—which doesn’t mean they’re any easier to watch. Literally.

The Pirates come to Washington to play the Nationals every year. The best thing that can be said about Nats Park is, it’s a ballpark, and it’s hard for a ballpark to suck. (Though I’ve heard Tropicana Field in Tampa makes an effort.) This year a two-game interleague series brought the Pirates to Orioles Park at Camden Yards, a true gem of a ballpark. I got two tickets for Tuesday (taking The Sole Heir) and two for Wednesday (with The Beloved Spouse). 

Tuesday it rained. Hard. With even worse rain predicted for Wednesday, I expected every effort to be made to get Tuesday’s game in. Both teams had open dates on Thursday, leaving a perfect make-up day. The Sole Heir arrived a few minutes before five. We took care of some logistics, and I went upstairs for a bathroom break while she moved her car to a longer-term space. She told me as I reached the bottom of the stairs from the bathroom: game postponed, rescheduled for 7:05 on Thursday. We salvaged the evening by waiting for The Beloved Spouse and going to dinner together.

On Wednesday it rained harder. We’re talking continuous rain, a couple of inches of standing water in my back yard, dams opened to relieve pressure. Game postponed at 2:30, to be made up at 4:05 on Thursday as the first half of a doubleheader. I was able to shift my work schedule a little, but no one else could on such short notice, so I went alone, something I hadn’t done since my army days when I lived fifteen minutes from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The forecast called for a high of 74, early morning low of 50, partly cloudy. I dressed appropriately and hit the road.

I arrived about ten minutes to four, got a pretzel and a Coke, and settled in. Pirates led 1-0, Charlie Morton cruising along when it started to rain. Then harder, until the tarp had to be rolled out for a half-hour rain delay, during which time I ate supper. (Sweet Italian sausage with peppers, fries, and another Coke.) Morton had nothing after the break and the Pirates lost 5-1, leaving 13 men on base. (That is not a misprint; thirteen men left on base.) Second game scheduled to start at 8:10.

I roamed the concourse between games so I was under cover when it started to rain again, harder now, drops bouncing off the concrete like bacon grease out of a frying pan. Game Two was delayed until 8:55. I got a snack of a hot dog, pretzel, and a Coke, which, along with my earlier sausage, fulfilled my weekly allotment of PLA. (Pig Lips and Assholes.) As I sat for the second game, I turned to the Pirate fan seated behind me—with her Orioles-loving family—and said, “After all this, Daddy’s going to be pissed if they leave another thirteen men on base.”

They left fifteen. Orioles starter Chris Tillman threw 49 pitches in the first inning, the Pirates loaded the bases with one out, and scored two runs only because Tillman walked them home. Pirates’ starter Brandon Cumpton hit the wall in the sixth and the Pirates blew a 4-0 lead. Orioles manager Buck Showalter, proving he’d paid attention to the selection of managers  Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa to the Hall of Fame, attempted to assert his qualifications by showing he can delay a game with pitching changes as well as either of them.

Bottom of the tenth, score tied at five. Orioles catcher Matt Wieters leads off. Weiters is a sore spot for Pirates fans. The hands down choice as best player available in his draft class, the Pirates passed on him to take pitcher Daniel Moskos. Pirates management at the time swore Weiters’s projected signing price had nothing to do with the selection; they thought Moskos was the better prospect. The Orioles representative at the draft pulled a hamstring running to the podium to get Weiters’s name in. Moskos had a cup of coffee with a Pirates team that lost 105 games a few years ago. Wieters is a switch-hitting catcher with power who plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. 

The Pirates countered with rookie Stolmy Pimintel. Alone at the game, I had nothing better to do than to watch Stolmy warm up; everything he threw was in the dirt. I wondered if this might be a problem.

Wieters stepped into the batter’s box at 12:52 Friday morning. Stolmy’s first pitch was in the dirt. The second was in the bleachers. I was on my feet and on my way home before Wieters touched first base, as soon as I saw the ball pass behind the foul pole and I knew it was fair.

My personal box score: two losses, two rain delays, $41 in concessions (I ran out between innings for Cracker Jack during Game Two), 28 men left on base in 19 innings. Total elapsed time at stadium: nine hours, eight minutes.

The Beloved Spouse and I have tickets for next Saturday’s game at PNC Park against St. Louis. My Andrew McCutchen game jersey is already washed and ready.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

April's Best Reads

April was a good month for reading. Max Hastings’s Inferno, which took up so much of March, set the bar high. Other writers were up to it.

Inferno: The World atWar 1939-1945, Max Hastings. The Second World War is too large a topic to be handled in detail in a single volume; Hastings acknowledges as much in the foreword. He then proceeds to provide more than a military history, echoing the best elements of Cornelius Ryan’s brilliant work (The Longest Day, The Last Battle, A Bridge Too Far). With insights gathered from generals, politicians, soldiers, and civilians, Hastings has written a masterful history that not only touches on all aspects of the war, but provides incentive to look for more detail on matter one might not have been aware of before. A fluid and eminently readable writer, Hastings spares no one with his criticism—though not without taking conditions into mind—and praises where earned—again, not unconditionally—providing adequate evidence for either. I’d intended to read this in chunks, mixing in fiction along the way, and found I couldn’t put it down. Highest recommendation.

Jimmy Bench Press, Charlie Stella. The darkest of the Godfather’s oeuvre, and I’ve now read them all. Shows the most overt influence of George V. Higgins in both the dialog-driven story and the darkness of the plot, which resolves itself in the only way it could, never giving away too much. Cheapskates may still be my favorite Stella for the humor with which it handles the mob; this is just as good. Brilliant storytelling that never draws attention to itself.

Colt, Jude Hardin. Maybe even better than Pocket 47, the original, and still my favorite, Nicholas Colt story. Colt is approached during the annual drunk he uses to commemorate the anniversary of the death of his wife, daughter and band, by a young man who wants him to find his biological father. Colt passes out, the kid disappears, and very little goes as expected afterward. Just when Hardin makes you worry he’s about to have jumped the shark, he reels things in with a satisfying and believable ending.

The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping, Les Edgerton. Imagine Les Edgerton’s writing. Dark, despairing noir. Habitual criminals. Rapists. This is nothing like that. The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping has a plot John Dortmunder would have trouble negotiating, and Edgerton milks it for all it’s worth. Not for the faint of heart, the crime that really sets the story off involved kidnapping a gangster—no, I can’t do it. I don’t want to spoil even that much. Suffice to say kidnapping, sexual fetishes, forced amputation, Tourette’s Syndrome, certain death, and one-way tickets to Skagway AK are all played for laughs, and he pulls it off. You may find the book takes a little time to catch its rhythm; the beginning is good, but feels at time like he’s trying too hard. Stay with it. Big fun. My daughter described the movie Ted as “Really funny and wildly inappropriate.” It’s like that.

Miami Blues, Charles Willeford. Another of those writers I decided I’d better get to before I missed my chance. (I have a recurring nightmare I’ll be in a horrible accident and the EMT ready to plug me into a bag of blood will pause when his partner asks, “Have you ever read [insert name of author I really should have read by now]? I say no and the EMT says to his partner, “Fuck him. Let him die.” At least now Willeford can’t kill me.) I saw the movie twenty years ago—Fred Ward was born to play Hoke Moseley—and thought this would be a good place to start. It was. Willeford is everything I’d heard he would be. Written so the eye pulls itself across the page, the characters, story, dialog, and setting come together to create a story greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts were impressive themselves. Funnier than I expected, too.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré. I’d read a few lesser known le Carré’s before. After seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a few months ago (the Gary Oldman movie version), I decided to get into the books that made his name, and started here, pretty much at the beginning. le Carré is a master, worthy of his praise. I’m not so old I remember the state of the world in the early 60s, but that’s okay: I get it now. Propelled through a dreary landscape by top-notch, understated writing, until it comes to an inevitable and oddly satisfying ending TSWCIFTC is the kind of novel almost never written today: a thriller that leaves you thinking about human nature when the book ends. It’s time to start working my way through his oeuvre in detail. (Side note: I read the 50th anniversary edition, with a foreword by the author. It’s worth getting just for that.) (Bonus side note: I haven’t seen the movie; I know Richard Burton starred. Imagining Alec Leamus’s lines spoken by Burton works very well, indeed.)