The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don't know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.
You may have noticed a mild obsession with cartoons here on LitKicks, though not so much with the elaborately drawn comix and graphic novels that are the hip thing today. I'm mainly interested in a few classics, which I reference constantly: Charles Schulz's Peanuts, Mad Magazine, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman. I'm sure this is due to the influence of my father, Eli Stein, who has been a professional cartoonist since 1957.
Under Milk Wood
I'm not sure if I can fairly describe a 1972 film starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole as a humble unknown, but then I did not know this film existed until Sundance Channel aired it last month, and I have a feeling many others who care about the poetry of Dylan Thomas don't know it exists either. The Welsh poet wrote Under Milk Wood as a late-career playscript in 1953. It's a gentle, poignant look at the busy but solitary souls who live in a small village called Llareggub (the name is famously a dirty joke, which will reveal itself if you spell it backwards). The beautiful setting, quaint humor and deft ensemble storytelling may remind you of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, James Joyce's Ulysses or anything by Chekhov.
Who knew that George Plimpton's classic work of participatory journalism (in which he somehow convinced the Detroit Lions to allow him to train with the team as a backup quarterback "from Harvard") was once made into a film starring Alan Alda? I sure didn't. The 1968 movie is a breezy pleasure to watch. Alan Alda -- the then-unknown son of Broadway musical comedy star Robert Alda, with M*A*S*H still in his future -- transforms himself into young Plimpton with a light touch and a relaxed smile. The Peanut-esque jazz score helps, and there are great exterior scenes of Alda and co-star Lauren Hutton cavorting in the beatific New York City of the 1960's, along with charming cameos by the actual members of the Detroit Lions football team, including Alax Karras at the height of his athletic career, years before his own TV career skyrocketed with the unfortunate Webster. Karras and the other Lions provide the main drama in the film when they discover the ruse Plimpton/Alda is playing on them and decide to teach the writer some lessons -- first rudely, then affectionately -- about the importance of trust on a football team.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
This is a wonderful old black-and-white about a beautiful but flinty widow (Gene Tierney) who moves into a haunted cabin on the British cliffside and forms a quasi-romantic bond with a charming but bitter dead sea captain, played by a bearded Rex Harrison. This becomes a literary film halfway through, when Mrs. Muir runs out of money and the ghost offers to help by narrating his bawdy life story (it becomes a bestseller). There are amusing scenes in the office of a publisher, where a slimy children's book author attempts to divert Mrs. Muir's interests away from her spectral lover. The funniest moment comes earlier as Harrison dictates the manuscript to Tierney (as a ghost, he can't type). They argue over a word that greatly offends Tierney, but Harrison insists it belongs in the book. She finally gives in, punching in the unknown word with four staccato taps.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was released in 1947, and two decades it became the basis of a television series starring Hope Lange. I've never seen an episode, but I trust that it was better than Webster.
The hype about this play, which got rave reviews but no Tony Awards in last night's ceremony, is that it's the most violent thing to hit midtown Manhattan since Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen checked into the Chelsea Hotel. It's definitely got a harder-hitting attitude than most Broadway shows, which some people think is great while others fear the Quentin Tarantino-ization of Broadway.
At the beginning of the evening I did not have a strong position on this matter, and I entered the theater ready to be swayed one way or the other.
The lights fall, the audience ruffles its jewelry, and the spotlight shines on two very scared Irish men, a father and a son. The son seems to have just smashed into the family's beloved cat, Wee Thomas, with his bicycle. The cat is dead, and this is bad news because the family's eldest son is a famous (and famously deranged) terrorist who loves the cat more than anybody else, and will surely kill his brother for killing his cat.
As James Kirkwood once proved in a novel called P. S. Your Cat Is Dead, an expired feline is sometimes all the material required for an entertaining evening. The father and son desperately try to scheme a way out of their impending doom as the terrorist returns home, having interrupted an important act of torture (which is apparently his day job) to rush back as soon as he'd heard his cat was in trouble.
We soon learn that this terrorist exists without a coherent cause. He has splintered off from his I.R.A. splinter group, and is now left in a ragtag gathering of tired friends who mouth bored cliches about Irish freedom. He's in love with guns, though, and so is a neighborhood girl who adores him and has a habit of shooting the eyes out of cows. The strange thing about all of these people is that they seem addicted to violence the way people can be addicted to television or junk food. It's all anybody talks about in Inishmore, the only language anybody understands.
More gun-toting people show up on stage, and most of them end up killing the rest of them, after which the stage of the Lyceum theater turns into the grisliest tableau I have ever seen on a Broadway stage, featuring enough fake-blood and bleeding limbs to power a Korn video.
Let's just say that the stage crew must have a hell of a clean-up job every night. The play starts moving fast as it moves towards the end; secrets are revealed, more cats are killed, more people are killed, and we discover which character will truly emerge as the Lieutenant of Inishmore by the end (hint: it's not the tough guy).
The play does suggest Tarantino (which is not, in my opinion, a bad thing), but it also suggests Harold Pinter and David Mamet, and I recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind watching a human body get jointed with saws and drills while enjoying a relaxing evening of theater. In other words, it's a good play but it's not a date play (and I think I personally lucked out that my girlfriend was busy that night).
More than any work of drama, though, what this play suggests is the newspaper I'm going to read tomorrow morning. As shockingly violent as this play is, it's really only just violent enough, just cartoonish enough, just Absurdist enough to equal the real crap that's going on around the world today. Aggresion speaks. From Ireland to Israel to Palestine to Iraq to Iran to Chechnya to Moscow to Darfur to Texas, the warlords shout their slogans and hold us all at gunpoint, and we cower in fear instead of standing up and fighting back. The characters in this play are almost ridiculous enough to be real.
If you're interested in catching The Lieutenant of Inishmore the next time you're in New York City, the theater is offering a discount code to readers of LitKicks: just go to www.broadwayoffers.com and enter code INHDS28, call the box office via the website above, or show up in person with the code at the Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan.
But something compelled me to pick up his latest novel, Wake Up, Sir! and I am now a believer in the worthiness of Jonathan Ames. In fact I'm still glowing from this artful book, which radiates a complex warmth beneath its comic surface.
The book is an explicit homage to a favorite writer of mine, P. G. Wodehouse, in that it features a hedonistic narrator with a calm valet named Jeeves. Ames's hero Alan Blair is a modern slacker with a manic personality and a slippery grip on reality, and he speaks in the same bemused cadences as Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster.
But there are also echoes of Charles Bukowski and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the utter self-deprecation that permeates this narrator's every thought. Ames writes by letting his character spill out everything about himself, whether he wants us to know it or not. It's a cathartic, ecstatic kind of self-revelation, and in this context I have a better understanding of the performance I saw in Greenwich Village a few years ago. This book is tamer and has a surprisingly polite tone, but the veneer breaks often, as in the ridiculously detailed long scene in which the narrator discovers he has an STD and goes into a frenzy of suicidal yearnings and obsessive self-shaving and cleansing that lasts 14 pages. Somehow, believe it or not, the 14 pages are fun to read. It's all so remarkably childish as to be endearing; reading this book is like watching a child throw a hilarious fit.
Some reviewers of the book have hinted that Jeeves is imaginary, while other reviewers treat the character as fully real. I take a strong stand on this matter, because I believe the proper way to interpret this book is as a series of strong hints and clues -- a Dan-Brown-like codex, even -- which proves that, beyond any doubt, Jeeves is not real, and is in fact the central psychological metaphor of the book. Here's why I'm sure.
First, nobody but the narrator ever interacts with Jeeves. When they go to a writing colony, we are told that Jeeves will dine with the kitchen staff, but no further mention is made of this and there is a chilling sense that Jeeves will not be dining anywhere. Likewise, when they are driving, Jeeves does not appear to ever take the wheel.
The second clue is the more subtle one, and is designed to be noticed only by hard-core Wodehouse fans like myself. There is a curious subplot involving some stolen slippers which the hero is accused of having absconded with, and when he then finds himself in a very uncomfortable situation at the end of the book, the stolen slippers return in such a way as to miraculously save the situation. This is a classic Wodehouse ending, and the hero even thinks to himself that Jeeves must have devised the solution. But that's the twist -- it turns out somebody else did it. This blunt reversal is the clearest signal that Jeeves can only reach the edge of reality in this novel, and is in fact, like Harvey the rabbit, like Donnie Darko, like the creepy twin kid in Thomas Tryon's The Other, like Leland Palmer's Bob, like Tony Soprano's Kevin Finnerty, like Hamlet's Ghost, an utter figment.
Despite this Matrix-like undercurrent of meta-meaning, the book's plot generally glides sweetly upon the author's felicitous prose. Two highlight scenes: the surreal moment when the narrator resumes his psychotic alcohol abuse at a party with several equally unbalanced writers, and the hilarious scene when he first arrives at a rural writer's colony (based on the real Yaddo) and becomes convinced that he has been deceived into staying at a mental hospital, based on the grotesque facial appearance of several nearby poets.
Ames hints on his own website that Wake Up, Sir! may be made into a movie. If this happens, I hope Ames will play himself and Stephen Fry will play Jeeves (he got it right in a recent television production, although co-star Hugh Laurie was absolutely absymal -- I'm talking Tom Hanks bad -- as Bertie Wooster, and made the series unwatchable). Perhaps this film will be the great Wodehouse movie that has never been made (in fact, Arthur starring Dudley Moore and John Gielgud was not too completely far from this mark; Wodehouse seems to inspire great homages).
I hope the Ames film happens. I think I'm going to pick up his new book of essays next. I'm not sure what to expect.
Like many musicals from the great age of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart, Pal Joey is not a masterpiece because of the plot but because of the songs. The best way to enjoy it might be to listen to the original cast recording of the show's 1950 revival, a nearly perfect album full of hot, slick numbers like "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", "You Mustn't Kick It Around" and "Plant Ya Now, Dig Ya Later". Forget Rent and Phantom of the Opera; if you're looking for good showtunes, this is the stuff.
I've read and enjoyed many John O'Hara novels and short stories, but I've never been able to find a single one of the numerous New Yorker "Pal Joey" pieces that inspired this play. The stories were once collected in book form to coincide with the release of the awful 1957 film version of Pal Joey, which is one of the worst things Frank Sinatra ever did (he completely failed to inhabit the character, and the film cut most of the best songs). This book went quickly out of print, and while a few used copies can be found, I get the feeling from the looks of these descriptions that they'd arrive with crackly yellow pages and a weird smell, so I never bought one.
I also could have gone to a library and dug up the original New Yorkers, but I never did, and this is where the situation was stuck for many years, until I suddenly got the Complete New Yorker eight-DVD set for Hanukkah. I felt a great thrill of anticipation as I fired up Disk 7 (1937-1947) and entered "John O'Hara" into the author box.
First thing I noticed: John O'Hara wrote a lot of New Yorker stories. A real lot. I click and click, one story after another (I quickly gave up trying to read them all; it's a lifetime's worth) but there's no nightclub crooner named Joey to be found. Then I reach Oct 22, 1938, a modest issue with a cover illustration of a fox hunt observed by two carloads of tourists. And there it is on page 23, sitting quietly across a full-page cartoon featuring a tuxedo'd gentleman seated next to a hooker in a courtroom who asks "Just visiting the city?" The title is Pal Joey.
I dig in and immediately start enjoying the fast pace. O'Hara is a master of slang and dialogue, always expressing himself best when letting his characters do the talking. Here, Joey is the talker, and a glance at the first Pal Joey story quickly explains the odd title phrase, which I've always wondered about. It turns out the stories are all written in the form of letters from one roving young jazz singer to another, and they're addressed to "Pal Ted" from "Pal Joey".
I'm also amused to see that O'Hara is using the quaint technique of showing us all his character's spelling errors, which combined with all the slang makes the stories come off something like Flowers For Algernon filtered through Damon Runyon. The vocabulary is fascinating; a girl Joey's pursuing is a "mouse", a business idea is an "angle", and, more than a half century before MTV began taking us into the homes of Missy Elliot and DMX, a home is a "crib".
Due to the Complete New Yorker's crappy excuse for a search engine (they really should have hired me to design this DVD package; I would have done a better job and probably charged less), I am not completely sure that the twelve Pal Joey pieces I found represent all the pieces O'Hara ever published in the magazine. But these are the only ones I could find. It's interesting that the series ends abruptly in 1940, which is the year the Broadway play opened.
Let's take it from the top:
Oct 22, 1938: Pal Joey
"DEAR PAL TED: Well at last I am getting around to knocking off a line or two to let you know how much I apprsiate it you sending me that wire on opening nite." It's a self-contained piece, and it's easy to imagine that O'Hara intended to be done with this Joey character after this one appearance. Joey fills Ted in on his travels from Michigan to Ohio, where he meets a new mouse with a rich father and also finds a new nightclub to work in. "Well you might say I ran the opening nite. I m.c.'d and they had a couple kids from a local dancing school doing tap, one of them not bad altho no serious competition for Ginger Rogers." Joey proudly encloses $30 towards a $50 loan from Ted, which he guesses Ted didn't expect: "I guess you kissed that fifty goodbye but that isn't the way I do things."
Nov 26, 1938: Ex-Pal
The developing plot takes a disturbing early turn when Joey accuses his Pal Ted of violating an important confidence. Joey told Ted to look up a certain girl, and Ted did, but then Ted told the girl what Joey said about her, and it got all over town and now Joey's in big trouble. "The way I get it you meet this mouse and right off you shoot off your face about I wrote you and told you to look her up and she gets the wrong impression because as I understand it she thinks you think all you have to do is mention my name and you are in." Ted's indiscretion costs Joey his new job, and at the end of this piece Joey is heading for New York City.
April 1, 1939: How I Am Now In Chi
I still haven't located the storyline from the play, but we seem to be getting closer. All the action in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey takes place in Chicago, so I am glad Joey didn't spend too long in New York. The story of how Joey is now in Chi starts in Michigan again, in fact, and it involves the same mouse from the October and November installments who he is still fooling around with. But her high society friends and relatives close ranks against the slick newcomer, and Joey ends up being personally escorted to the local train station where he is put on a train to Chi-town somewhat against his will, though he manages to get some free chewing-gum and magazines out of the deal. This is the best Joey piece so far, and contains many amusing observations about high society customs. "Then around the end of January they were having this ball in honor of the President (Roosevelt) to get up a fund that they would give for this infantile paralasys. Very white of them as they sit around all year and say what a heel he is, and on his birthday they give him this ball ..."
May 13, 1939: Bow Wow
Score! This is the story that shows up in the first act of the play, and it's also a solid piece. Joey meets a sweet-looking mouse peering into a pet shop window, and to make an impression on the young woman he pretends to be a dog-lover. "Then she said why didnt I buy this puppy and I said for the same reason why I didnt buy a Dusenburg, money. Well the effect it had on her was wonderful. I could see tears in her eyes ... I began telling her about Skippy the airdale that I didn't have when I was a kid and pretty soon got to believing it myself, all about how my heart was broken when poor little Skippy was crushed beneath the wheels of a 10 ton truck." In the mus ical, of course, this is the point where Joey starts singing 'I Could Write A Book', and I can almost hear the orchestra cueing up. In lieu of music, the text version provides added detail such as the girl's name (Betty Hardiman) and how long it took Joey to score with her (at least a month).
Oct 7, 1939:Avast and Belay
Nazi Germany has invaded Poland, and Joey is getting patriotic. He urges Ted (who appears to be considerably more successful than Joey at this point) to consider a scheme wherein they both join the Navy and start a Navy jazz band. "Charley said a band like this no doubt would be booked for liberty bond engagements when they start selling liberty bonds to the people. I tho't of an angle there and asked Charley, 'Suppose we are booked into a town to sell these liberty bonds for the government do we get our percent of the gross' but Charley said not with Mr. Whiskers at the gate, nobody cuts in on Mr. Whiskers."
November 25, 1939: Joey on Herta
The DVD copy of this issue (digitized from paper, and stored in PDF facsimile format) contains two charming electronic coffee stains right on the sixth Pal Joey piece. For real. Anyway, our hero has now become a mentor and manager to a young female vocalist, but has no taste for the excruciating details of the music promotion business. "So I entered into the situation and informed them that i would take care of the clothes dept. and out of my own pocket advanced her $9.50 so she could pour herself into a $39.50 no. that showed everything but her scar where she had the appendisetis if she ever had it (some spelling I admit)."
December 23, 1939: Joey on the Cake Line
Joey's down on his luck at Christmastime. "Well Merry Christmas, as the saying goes. Guess I will have to go to bed for 24 hrs so I dont have to stop hating my fellow men."
February 3, 1940: The Erloff
I'm not sure I fully get this piece, and I'm also starting to despair of ever finding the second storyline from the musical, in which an older, married society lady meets Joey at the club, falls in love with him, sings "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", agrees to fund him in starting his own nightclub, Chez Joey, and then pulls out of the deal when he fails to keep up his side of the gigolo act. I haven't run into this lady yet, and I know there aren't many stories left. This is a typically funny one, but I really don't get the title joke, in which a rich old man refers to everything as "the erloff". Is there a meaning in there somewhere? I always need jokes explained to me, especially jokes from 1940. Anyway, I like the way Joey describes nightclub ambience, as when he describes a singer he does not enjoy: "The old dame got up again and began horse-whipping The Lamp is Low."
March 2, 1940: Even The Greeks
This is a pleasant anecdote about a greek coffee shop in wintertime Chi ("I mean weather that is so cold that the other day this pan handler came up to me and braced me and said I look as if I had a warm heart and I gave him a two-bit piece because if it wasn't for him would not of known if i was alive or frozen to death"). The coffee shop story is also heartwarming, though Joey is not the lead character in the tale and there's less Joey here than usual. Also: three pieces left and still no sign of the elegant society lady.
March 30, 1940: Joey and the Calcutta Club
Another anecdote. O'Hara's getting lazy with these pieces. But the tall tale is a good one, involving a pretty woman with a British accent and a good sob story. Joey picks her up (he thinks) but she ends up scamming him out of some pocket cash. The next day he learns she's played the same game with several other men around the club. They then decide to partner up with her when a new target arrives in town. "You have to admire a girl like that from Buffalo, N.Y. where she is from. That is how English she is."
May 4, 1940: Joey and Mavis
I can't tell for sure, but maybe this is the society dame story I've been waiting for. Except it's quite different from the version in the musical. Her name is Mavis (she's Vera in the play), and she's not married but rather a wealthy widow. And she doesn't fund his dream nightclub, Chez Joey, but instead simply talks of hiring him for a new nightclub she might open. I'm not even sure if this piece is the origin of the musical's female lead, but she's the only rich broad who comes into the club with an entourage while he's performing, so I think this is as close as we'll get. "I do not know how I happen to miss Mavis but I did not see her until I had to go in again and polish off some more dittys and they had a table ringside, and I went over and asked them if they had any request nos. and Mavis asked for two requests but did not have both of them only the Beguin no. The other was an oldy like My Buddy which they were singing during the civil war. I know it but forgot the lyics. She looked around 32 or 33, inclined to take on a little weight but I also like them zoftick as some goose in the band says."
July 13, 1940: A New Career
Is this the last Joey story ever? I don't know for sure, but it's the last one I found amongst hundreds more O'Hara New Yorker pieces. It's a funny little piece in which Joey overhears some compelling music, plunks it out on a piano, and decides he now has a future as a songwriter. Here's his farewell to the increasingly successful Ted, who now has a secretary, and to us:
"I know there is no larceny in you Ted boy so what I am going to do is go to a music store and get one of those recording machines and play the tune and cut a wax of it. I will cut a couple and send one to you so that if you lose it or anything I will still have one and anyway that will show that it was my idea. Then when I send it to you you play it over and see if you think it has possibilities and if so maybe you can get Johnny Mercer or somebody to write some lyrics for it. I will guarantee to let you play it first over the air and who knows but perhaps that is not a new career for me, that of song writer. I have a lot of ideas along this line and only need a little encouragement. My tune can be played as either a rumba or conga, fox trot or waltz. If I could get a good Ascap rating this year I would quit this business in a minute and stop worrying about Harry the explorer. So look in the mail any day now for a record. Be sure and tell your secretary that anything from me is to go to you without opening it.
I got the Complete New Yorker for Hanukkah. This impressive eight-DVD set contains digitized facsimiles of every page in every weekly issue of the New Yorker from 1925 to 2005. That's quite a mound of cultural signification. The boxed set is shaped like a monolith, and at first it feels like one too.
Digging in to a collection like this is not easy. I bet most people who buy this set or get it as a present just jump in and start breezing through, and then quickly find themselves gasping for air. That's the wrong way to use a set like this, and I'm not going to make that mistake. I'm going to plan my expeditions carefully, working towards specific goals. I've got a few missions in mind, most of them focusing on the magazine's first two decades. I will be posting reports of my discoveries here.
First, I'd like to figure out exactly what the the New Yorker was. It's interesting that this culture rag was born in the same era as Time magazine, both institutions brought to life by smart young entrepeneurs who understood the importance of advertising. The New Yorker and Time were both "indie" outfits of their era, and both drew readers in by printing punchy, highly opinionated articles.
Time became the pillar of a vast multimedia corporation, but the New Yorker has always kept a tighter focus and clung to a certain essence. What is this essence, exactly, and what is the nature of this beast? Well, let's click through to the earliest issues and see what we find.
The debut issues of the New Yorker had little substantial writing. The whole magazine was short bits -- talky gossip and humor items, mixed with a few longer analytical or creative pieces, most of it under either of the headings Talk of the Town or Behind the News. This, for instance, appears in the Talk of the Town section of the very first New Yorker, dated February 21, 1925:
As it grows throughout the rest of the country cross-word puzzling wanes in New York. At least it wanes in the small group that helped make it fashionable when it was revived a year or two ago. Not that Simon & Schuster, whose green, yellow, red, mauve, ochre and blue puzzle books flood the country, are worrying. This week they are publishing a new volume of the series. According to the advertisements "celebrities" contributed all the puzzles contained in it, and (business of blushing furiously) they tell me (oh, how my cheeks are burning) mine is one of the best in it. At least I think it is.
In the second issue, dated February 28, we find this extended anecdote:
"Well, young man," said the Great Editor, "I suppose you want to become a writer."
A timid bow signified assent.
"Have you lived?"
"Of course, of course. What I mean is, have you sinned -- sinned greatly? Have you tasted any of the dregs of life?"
"Not since my last class reunion. The cocktails were terrible."
The Great Editor frowned. It was evident my obtuseness made him impatient.
"I'm afraid you don't understand", he said, a bit sharply. "I shall explain. There is no field at present for imaginative works. The reading public wants actuality. You must write something that has happened to you. Now," he broke off, "let us consider your own life. Have you ever had an illicit romance; ever stabbed your mother-in-law with a bread knife -- great title for a story like that, 'The Bread Knife and the Butter-In' -- every poisoned your wife?"
"I'm not married," I interposed.
"Ever eloped with a married woman?" he went on. "Ever rolled drunk in the gutters; ever been divorced because of a duchess -- even a countess will do, if it's well-written; ever blackmailed anyone -- blackmail hasn't been done lately; ever fought a duel over a notorious adventuress; ever cheated at cards?"
He beamed expansively.
"These are a few examples of what I mean," the Great Editor concluded. "Go out and live, my boy, and when you have a real story to tell come back."
I am determined to accept his advice. I shall begin at the bottom and work up.
Accordingly, I wish to ask my friends not to become alarmed if they see me rolling around any of the town's better gutters. I shall be merely gathering inspiration. They will owe it to literature to leave me where I lie.
That's basically the kind of stuff the debut issues of the New Yorkers consisted of. Okay, let's add up the ingredients here:
-- Excessive use of irony
-- Rampant sense of exclusivity with small group of fabulous friends
-- Chronic self-pity mixed with compulsive fake-coy self-promotion
-- Jokes that don't make sense
-- Subtle but disturbing hints of true mental illness
Do the math. You see it as clearly as I do ... the original New Yorker was a litblog.
These days, of course, the New Yorker is more like public television with ads for Omaha Steaks. But it's good to know that, way back then, the proto-Alqonquin crowd was just as pointless, just as trite, and just as greedily insecure as we all are today. Okay, maybe not that bad, but close. The only difference I can see is that this stuff was printed on paper.
My first expedition into the New Yorker archives is complete. I'm now taking a deep breath before going back in for my second mission, in which I will unearth the earliest scribblings of a favorite writer of mine (though largely forgotten by literary critics): John O'Hara, who started writing for the magazine when he was 23.
He was residing in France in 1940 when the Nazis over-ran the country. As a British citizen, he was interred as an enemy alien. The Nazis knew they had a prize catch, however, for Wodehouse was famous throughout the world, and they were anxious to use him for propaganda purposes. They transferred him to a prison in Berlin and made him an offer: he would be treated decently if he would just make a few pro-German radio broadcasts. He agreed to do so -- to save his skin, he would later say -- he would also claim that they were harmless broadcasts in which he simply joked about his imprisonment.
But he didn't anticipate the repercussions. After the war, the good-natured comic author was branded as a traitor and collaborator by most Britons. He was never actually tried for treason, but in effect he was "drummed out" of his native land.
He came to the U.S., eventually settling in Remsenburg, Long Island, where he resumed his interrupted literary output. He became a U.S. citizen in 1956 and was eventually forgiven and even knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1975. He died in 1975 at the age of 94 and was buried in Remsenburg.
Why this history lesson? Well, my daughter and I were recently visiting the Hamptons, near Remsenburg, and decided we had to take time out to pay a respectful pilgrimage to P.G.'s gravesite.
Easier said than done. If you research it on the internet, you will learn that Wodehouse is buried in the "Historic Remsenburg Cemetery", and you will even find a photograph of his gravestone. Remsenburg is a small (but very affluent) town near the Hamptons -- we figured it would be a cinch to find the gravesite.
Three of us set out to do so -- me, my wife and our daughter -- one day this past July. Arriving in Remsenburg, we drove around the largely residential community for a short time, hoping to get lucky. We sighted no cemeteries and finally decided to ask directions at the Remsenburg Post Office. An elderly woman was just leaving the Post Office, carrying her mail -- obviously a local resident -- so we asked her for help (remember, Wodehouse was Remsenburg's most famous resident for many years). She said, oh, sure, he's buried in the "historic cemetery" and we could walk there from the Post Office. She gave us directions, we thanked her profusely and walked off, relieved that our quest would be over so easily.
In a few minutes we arrived at the cemetery, and, believe me, it was "historic". First of all, it was tiny, about the size of my living room/dining room area. And second, every stone there looked like it was from the Revolutionary War era. With one glance, it was obvious that P.G.'s gravestone was not going to be found there.
Dejected, we searched around the immediate area carefully, walking a few blocks in each direction to make sure we weren't missing anything. Then, back to the Post Office.
This time we went inside and spoke to the clerk (no other customers were around). She called her boss in from the back for additional help. They both agreed that Wodehouse HAD to be in the "historic cemetery". We assured them that he was not there and wondered if there were other cemeteries in the area. They couldn't think of any, but referred us to a community center across the street, where people might be able to help us. After more thank you's, we went across the street where we were lucky enough to find five people of various ages who were planning an upcoming social event. After we explained our quest to them, they went through the "historic cemetery" routine with us. When we explained that we just came from there, they began to seriously try to locate other cemeteries in town, using ancient wall maps that were hanging in the room.
Gathering all the info we could from the maps, and with many thanks, we continued on our way. To make a long story just a little shorter, in the end we couldn't locate any of the cemeteries that were indicated on those old wall maps -- don't know what happened to them, but they simply weren't where they were supposed to be.
By this time, we were getting antsy -- who needs this aggravation, it's only a gravesite! But a quest is a quest.
What we decided to do was drive out of town slowly, keeping a sharp lookout for anything that might hide a cemetery. We were at the point of giving up in defeat, when we passed a church building we hadn't seen before, the Remsenburg Community Church. With hope all but gone, we walked behind the building and saw gravestones! Not just a few, but many, and lots of new ones, at that. The graveyard extended in a thin line behind the church and went back a long way. What the heck, we all agreed, let's give it a try. Slowly we made our way back, checking stone after stone. Toward the rear of the grounds, there it was -- P.G.'s gravestone.
We spent about fifteen minutes at the site (big photo opportunity) and then happily returned to our car, our Wodehouse pilgrimage successfully completed.
However, I am interested in the upcoming film version of Steve Martin's appealing novel Shopgirl. This book was an exercise in Beverly Hills minimalism: a wealthy older man conducts a crisp love affair with a shy clerk at an expensive clothing store. He discovers in her an empty intellectual vessel, devoid of ideas and conviction, but with a capacity for love that touches him deeply (for a short while before he moves on). The book revels in her exquisite emptiness, laying out the blueprint of her brain as if it were an uninhabited house on a very fashionable street.
What is this craving, this yearning, that we call love? Well, let's look to literature for answers. In the works of William Shakespeare, love is a life-defining event, a sudden all-consuming passion, a realization of adulthood, and also a tragic miasma from which many will never return. In Shakespeare's world, love was not safe. Romeo and Juliet did not survive it; neither did Hamlet or Ophelia, nor Lord and Lady Macbeth, nor Othello and Desdemona.
These were Shakespeare's most powerful and memorable characters, all of them doomed. But Shakespeare also wrote comedies, in which he generally allowed his characters to live. My favorite is "A Midsummer Night's Dream", a vast and perfect riot of romance and human error.