Goines' gritty novels enthralled Queens-based cocaine kingpin Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff while he served eight years of a twelve-year sentence for drug trafficking. Upon his release in 1995 McGriff made it his mission to re-invent himself as an entertainment mogul by producing movies based on these books. He befriended two younger record company entrepeneurs, Irv and Chris Lorenzo, who ran the Murder Inc. hiphop label. He acquired film rights to two Goines novels, Black Gangster and Crime Partners, and began working closely with the Lorenzo brothers, who styled themselves "Irv Gotti" and "Chris Gotti", to get the films into production.
Snoop Dogg, Ice T and Ja Rule were in the cast of Crime Partners, but by the time production was completed there wasn't enough money to spend on a theatrical release, and Crime Partners was released straight to DVD, gathering little attention from cinephiles, and too much attention from federal prosecutors, who viewed ex-con McGriff's involvement as a sign that Murder Inc. was laundering money for known criminals.
The case went to court in Brooklyn earlier this year. Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Russell Simmons and others from the hiphop community came to show support for the Lorenzo brothers, as did a large contingent of family members. The prosecution's case turned out to be surprisingly weak, and the brothers were cleared of all charges last Friday.
In essence, what was on trial in Brooklyn was the right of entertainment figures to hang out with criminals. There's no doubt that the "Gotti brothers" tried to embellish their street cred by kicking around with a legendary neighborhood drug kingpin, but the prosecutors were wrong to assume that McGriff was leading his younger friends into a life of crime when in fact indications are that the brothers were trying to help their older friend establish himself in a legitimate business.
What seems dirty about this is that the federal government never seems to mind when white entertainment figures play the same game. It's well-known that ex-convicts like Joey Gallo were employed to lend authenticity to Mafia movies in the 1970's. There was a hilarious episode of the Sopranos about this a few seasons ago, in which young gangster Christopher Moltisante shows up on a fictional Jon Favreau movie set and is treated like a god.
The Lorenzo/McGriff case got a lot of publicity in recent weeks, but unfortunately the novelist at the core of the controversy got little play. Donald Goines is widely read among African-Americans, but his books are largely unknown outside that population. The rapper DMX starred in another movie based on a Goines novel, Never Die Alone in 2004, directed by Spike Lee acolyte Ernest Dickerson, and another Goines title, Daddy Cool is also in the works, though this film probably won't smash through any racial barriers either.
This series began in 1915. I've been reading it faithfully since, I think, 1984. I still remember the total shock I felt when I first wandered into, and got ambushed by, a Raymond Carver story. That was in one of these books. Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, T. C. Boyle -- I met them all here. I love it that the book's appearance has never changed -- it's still charmingly under-designed, feeling more like a galley than like a finished book, which is perfectly okay with me and probably helps maintain the unusually reasonable price of 14 bucks.
Like Herman Melville, Doyle struggled his whole life to break free of the chains of his literary success. Doyle even famously killed off Sherlock Holmes, in the hope that readers would finally agree to read about other characters. The readers wouldn't, and Doyle eventually relented and brought the detective back to life.
Sherlock Holmes is a character you can approach from many angles. Too often he's a cliche -- a dog with a felt cap and a magnifying glass, or Peter Brady with a felt cap and a magnifying glass. In fact Holmes was a troubled loner, a Hamlet figure, playing his violin alone in his chambers at night, drug-addicted and society-deprived, and congenitally incapable of ever approaching the one woman he loves, the untouchable Irene Adler.
At the age of fifteen, Gaines left his home in Point Coupee, Louisiana to reunite with his mother and stepfather in California, entering his first library when he was sixteen. He attended San Francisco State University and later won a writing fellowship to Stanton University. Gaines has won numerous awards, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and recently retired from regular teaching at the University of Southwestern Louisiana at Lafayette.
Professor Gaines presented an instructive and enjoyable lecture to a packed auditorium at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville on the night of November 8, 2005. The author of such novels as A Lesson Before Dying, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, Bloodline, and a new collection of essays and short stories called Mozart and Leadbelly, Gaines spoke on the art and craft of writing and read selections from A Lesson Before Dying to bring his teaching to life.
A Lesson Before Dying takes place, as do most of his novels, on a sugarcane plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, which is where Gaines was born. Set in the 1940's, it is the story of a young black man, named Jefferson, wrongly accused of murder. Far from building a competent case for the man's innocence, the white public defender tells the jury that Jefferson is not smart enough to premeditate a murder. The lawyer says that to execute Jefferson would serve no more a purpose than putting a hog in the electric chair. The jury sentences the young man to die, anyway. It becomes the reluctant goal of a black schoolteacher named Grant Wiggins, pressed into action by his aunt and Jefferson's godmother, to visit the jail and convince Jefferson that he is more than an animal so he can die with dignity.
Ernest Gaines' fascinating insights and anecdotes on the construction of this novel made this lecture a valuable learning experience. During the Question and Answer opportunity, an audience member asked Gaines if he always knows the ending of a novel while he is writing it. He answered with an analogy about taking a train from San Francisco to New York. When you board the train, there are certain things you know. You know meals will be in the dining car. You have a good idea of the number of hours you will sleep each night. Other things cannot be anticipated - the weather, who you might meet, or unexpected stops. Therefore, you start with what you do know and what you intend to do, and let it happen. You usually reach New York, but occasionally, you might end up in Philadelphia instead. Gaines said that if he always knew everything that was going to happen in a one of his novels, "I'm afraid it would be boring."
Case in point: Gaines was not sure if Jefferson would actually die at the end of the book. "The governor could have granted him a reprieve," said Gaines. While writing the novel, one of Gaines' students introduced him to an old man who had been the defense attorney for a seventeen-year-old boy. The jury had found teenager guilty and sentenced him to die. The first attempt to carry out the execution failed when the electric chair malfunctioned. The authorities returned the prisoner to his cell, only to bring him back to die some months later, when the chair worked properly. According to Gaines, the elderly former-attorney wept when he recounted the event, including a chilling description of the portable electric chair - the kind of wood it was made from; the time of day a flatbed truck arrived at the jail to deliver the chair with its own generator; the way they had to test the apparatus before the actual execution. You could hear the hum and crackle of electricity two blocks away, the man said. When Gaines heard these details, he knew they were too dramatic to leave out and all the more effective because they were true. Gaines' fictional condemned man, however, gets a reprieve from neither the governor nor faulty wiring. Either of those possibilities was too unrealistic for a poor black man in a small plantation town in the 1940's.
Two other devices in the novel that Gaines says he did not anticipate were the radio and the notebook. He needed a way for the teacher, Grant Wiggins, to connect with Jefferson. It had to be gradual and realistic. The two men only saw each other once a week for several weeks. We assume that Jefferson is pondering his situation constantly, but conveying the gradual shift in his thought process could gave been overcomplicated or tedious. On the other hand, a sudden change of heart would not be very convincing or realistic. Gaines decided that Grant would buy Jefferson a portable radio. Listening to the radio all day and night, said Gaines, Jefferson formed a subliminal bond with Grant that did not require much explanation or exposition. The radio is something tangible to carry the reader through the changes. Grant also gave Jefferson a notebook and pencil to record his thoughts. These notebook pages become windows into Jefferson's mind. We read Jefferson's feelings after he has formed them and written them down, thus implying the thought process.
Another audience member asked Mr. Gaines why he chose to write his novel A Gathering of Old Men from the viewpoint of several different people.
"Using different voices was Faulkner's technique," said Gaines. "And, I like doing the different voices."
Gaines went on to explain that in A Gathering of Old Men, each character had subtleties a single narrator would not "pick up on". He said he was going to have the character Lou Dimes tell the whole story, but Lou Dimes would not have observed, for example, that when the child Snookum is running from house to house, he is pretending to ride a horse, "spanking" his own butt "the way you spank a horse when you want that horse to run fast." On the other hand, Gaines had originally planned to write The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman from different character's viewpoints, but that didn't work. That book turned out to be Jane Pittman's story from beginning to end.
A young writer, musician, and UNF student named Chris Pringle asked Mr. Gaines if he listens to music when he writes, and if so, what type of music does he find conducive to writing.
"I like quiet chamber music," Gaines replied. "I don't listen to Beethoven when I write because, well, Beethoven demands that you listen to him. Mozart, yes. Mozart adds to the writing process. I also like Bessie Smith. I like blues and jazz."
While introducing Ernest Gaines, English Professor Kathleen Hassall compared him to three writers: Welty, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, because of Gaines' capacity for "empathetic projection" - the ability to inhabit other people in his writing. "All of Ernest Gaines' books address the question of the hero," says Hassall. "His heroes are not necessarily the iron man or the warrior, but rather, the good father; the teacher; the good leader, who accepts the weight of his powers."
British novelist John Fowles died this weekend at his home in Lyme Regis, England at the age of 79.
The Magus was Fowles' definitive work, a tour de force in every sense. An earnest but vapid young man accepts an invitation for what appears to be a conventional teaching job on a small Greek island where an eccentric wealthy landowner holds court. Once there, the young man discovers himself imprisoned within an elaborate constructed world in which Greek myths come frighteningly alive and philosophical theories about mankind's Dionysian and Appolonian impulses are put to test.
The vast sprawl that surrounds high-finance corporate publishing is more than the minor league of literature. It's a permanent home for an incredible range of wildlife and humanity. Here are some of the books that showed up in our mailbox recently:
Seriously, much is murky about this whole situation, which makes the nation of Turkey appear ridiculous to the rest of the world. It's sad because Pamuk was originally greeted as a proud literary representative of a Turkey that had advanced beyond its Midnight Express image (remember that one?). As Laila Lalami reported last month on Moorish Girl, the bad reflection these lawsuits cast on the Turkish national government may not be fully deserved, or at least is probably not well understood.
Jonathan Lethem is lashing out at pro-realist critics like James Wood in a fascinating Morning News interview, and I've got to jump into the middle of this fray.
The fashionable postmodernist speaks strong words, according to the account by Morning News writer Robert Birnbaum. Lethem answers recent criticism of his writing style by positing himself as a target of oppressive, wealthy literary purists:
"Look, let me be brutal. When you encounter the argument that there is a hierarchy where certain kinds of literary operations -- which we'll call 'realism,' for want of a handier term, though I'll insist on the scare quotes -- represent the only authentic and esteemed tradition, well, it's a load of horseshit. When you see or hear that kind of hierarchy being proposed, it's not a literary-critical operation. It's a class operation. In that system of allusions, of unspoken castes and quarantines, mimetic fiction is associated with propriety, with the status quo defending itself, anxiously, against incursions from the great and wooly Beyond. When 'realism' is esteemed over other kinds of literary methods, you're no longer in a literary-critical conversation; you've entered a displaced conversation about class. About the need for the Brahmin to keep an Untouchable well-marked and in close proximity, in order to confirm his role as Brahmin."
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Things are not that simple, and I can't believe anybody's letting him get away with this. I don't think Lethem's words are brutal, but they are unfair and probably slanderous, since there's no evidence Lethem's critics are any more Brahmin than he is. Lethem is waxing like Robespierre all of a sudden, but the pose doesn't work, and the logical conclusion of Lethem's theory is that we must each like magical realism or else we are corrupt.
I don't know if Lethem means us to take his charge of cultural oppression seriously or not. Maybe critic James Wood is a fascist snob, but I really doubt it. Lethem talks in this interview about his affection for the New York Mets, and in fact the tactic he's using against Woods and the Woods ilk is the same tactic Mets fans use against Yankees fans -- they're elitist uptown snobs, and we're the salt of the earth. Yeah, sure. If Lethem's just speaking trash talk at Wood here (and that's what I think is going on), he should be more careful not to be misunderstood.
Now, on to the meat of the matter. Okay, so Lethem takes a lot of flack from pro-realists who despise his playful use of genre conventions, and these pro-realists must all be colonialist racist hypocrites. Well, Jonathan, what about me? I love it when postmodernists subvert genre conventions, and in fact this describes one of my favorite novels in the world, Paul Auster's City of Glass, which you obviously read before creating Motherless Brooklyn. City of Glass is a dizzying, gloriously impossible metaphysical pseudo-mystery that leaves a reader emotionally spent and intellectually exhilirated.
Motherless Brooklyn, on the other hand, is a pleasant, cute crime drama that feels phony and leaves a reader pondering what to eat for dinner.
Lethem speaks of his own work in grandiose terms:
"When you look at Motherless Brooklyn, the language, the Tourette's, is the fantastic element. In that book the linguistic distortion, the metaphor, runs amok as if a dream of language has broken out in a typical hardboiled detective novel."
Sure, that's exactly how I felt when I read City of Glass. Just for the record, I do like Jonathan Lethem's work. I even got all the way through Motherless Brooklyn, which is more than I do with 9 out of 10 books I pick up. But I always found him derivative (cf. The Invention of Solitude, 1988, Paul Auster; The Fortress of Solitude, 2003, Jonathan Lethem) and lacking in power -- a mannerist, a Yaddo familiar -- Kafka without the harrow, DeLillo without the noise.
Maybe his future books will prove Jonathan Lethem to be a groundbreaking literary figure, but I don't see him anywhere near that pantheon yet. I also wish he'd stop name-checking Brooklyn and the New York Mets. I know the territory between the Gowanus Canal and Flushing Creek as well as Lethem does, and like 50 Cent says about Ja Rule, I never heard anybody say they liked him in the hood.
Finally, as the photo accompanying this interview proves, the guy needs to stop going to Donald Trump's barber.
I like King but I haven't read anything by him in years. But I picked it up and bought it. Just like that. It helped that it was only five bucks (it's a paperback).
It felt strange to buy a book without knowing anything about it. I love Vonnegut, but I won't just buy anything from the guy, and I didn't buy his new book. But, somehow, Stephen King + new + noir + detective story = done deal!
What about you -- is there an author whose book you would buy, sight unseen? Why, or why not?
Crawl Space is by Edie Meidav, who specializes in sharp fables of historical consequence. Her first novel, The Far Field, took us to a heart of darkness inside colonial Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) between the first and second world wars. Meidav might have spent her career exploring the literary terrains of Southeast Asia, but Crawl Space delivers a change-up, taking us to a modern-day French village where a villainous Nazi collaborator awaits the latest in a lifetime of war crime prosecutions.
This villian is the story's narrator, and with a gleeful guilt-soaked voice that somehow recalls Humbert Humbert in Lolita he tells us how he's evaded conviction with facial surgery, good lawyers and dumb luck. Of course, just as Humbert did, the narrator will convict himself before the book is over. Meidav is a skillful storyteller, and my only gripe with this book is the choice of subject. Nazi atrocities have become a cliche and are certainly old news in a world that serves up wartime atrocities like McDonald's serves up hamburgers. The territory is overly familiar -- why not take us to Bosnia, or Africa, or Korea, or Iraq? I like Meidav's approach to historical analysis through fiction, but there is newer ground to cover, and I'm looking forward to her next journey, wherever it may take us.
Steve Aylett's Lint is a completely wacky outing, a biography of a crazed science-fiction author named Jeff Lint who never existed. Being unfamiliar with the sci-fi genre (and, obviously, a real dupe), it took several paragraphs before I realized the book is an elaborate and unhinged comedy (I puzzled for much longer than I should have over the remark that Lint used to write under the pen name "Isaac Asimov"). Lint offers a wide sweep of pulp/junk/underground culture, with clever fake book cover reproductions and a vortex of cameo appearances by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Maurice Girodias and Gene Roddenberry. I love the part about Lint's JFK conspiracy theory, which posits that the same assassin killed several presidents: "... the Magic Bullet was a ricochet from that fired by John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln in 1865. In outline, the bullet entered through Lincoln's left ear and emerged through his right eye, swerving out of Washington's Ford Theatre and heading north, felling politician Thomas D'Arcy McGee as he walked to his home on Sparks Street, Ottowa; ricocheting back along its original course, the bullet hit President James Garfield as he boarded a train ...". There are several pages of this before the bullet even arrives at the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza.
Michael K. Gause's Tequila Chronicles is a charming chapbook that must have been inspired by Baudelaire's instruction for life: 'Be always drunken'. The image of a wine bottle graces the cover, an actual beer coaster is pasted onto the last page, and every poem is annotated with the variety of alcohol the poet remembers imbibing while writing it (despite the chapbook's title, beer and wine seem to be his favorites, and one can only wonder what tawdry circumstances led him to annotate one poem with "unknown"). The visual style even recalls Baudelaire, with a simulated hot-metal font that looks vaguely Parisian. Too many chapbooks are ciphers, and I like it that this one has a clear theme and a consistent style. I give the poet high marks even though I suspect he may need some fresh air and exercise.
Finally, a note about these reviews. We began asking authors and publishers to send us review copies several weeks ago, but were dismayed to receive a flood of emails containing Word documents, PDF files and pasted-in poems. The point of book reviews is to inform readers of works they can buy, and there's little point in telling readers about books that are not yet available for them to enjoy.
Most distressingly, when I explained this to a few of the authors in question, more than one replied to me that the books they sent are in fact published (usually via iUniverse, AuthorHouse, xLibris, etc.) but that they did not want to spend money buying me a review copy. People. You are asking me to spend several hours of my time reading your book ... I think you see where I'm going with this. No more PDF's or Word files, please ...