Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I'm going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.
As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). And it's why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we'll always have Flowers for Algernon.
Some of you have met Eli Stein before; he's written Litkicks articles about P. G. Wodehouse and Al Jaffee, and he's my father. He's also a cartoonist with a body of published work dating back to the 1950s. If you've read a lot of the Wall Street Journal or Chronicle of Higher Education or Good Housekeeping or National Enquirer, you've probably seen his work, and might recognize his clean, round graphic style, which to my admiring filial eye always resembled the classic drawing style of Syd Hoff or Charles Schulz.
A couple of really great finds for you today ...
My temperature was no better than lukewarm as I pondered the cover of a book called The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground, a Library of America anthology edited by Glenn O'Brien. The Library of America isn't known for edginess, and books with the word "hip" in their subtitles don't have the greatest track record with me.
Then I looked at the table of contents and immediately realized I had misjudged this book. Wow! We kick off with an excerpt from Mezz Mezzrow's classic jazz memoir Really The Blues, a hell of a good place to start, and instant evidence of an anthologist who knows his stuff. Then we blast away to Henry Miller, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon, a sweet rumination on Shakespeare's Hamlet by Delmore Schwartz, followed by "You're Too Hip, Baby" by Terry Southern ... and then just as I start to wonder where the cool women are, a real surprise: the lyrics to the 1952 song "Twisted" by Annie Ross of the now too-little-remembered folk/hipster trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, a comic tune later resurrected by Joni Mitchell that begins with this line:
Two excellent new books remind me of the vortex of interests that's always coursed beneath the surface here at Litkicks -- a vortex, in fact, that is central to the literary/artistic sensibility that has fascinated and informed me through my whole life. These interests roughly include music and literature and art and poetry and comedy and New York City, and the two excellent new books are Text and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture by Simon Warner and The Best of Punk Magazine by John Holmstrom.
I can't actually review either of these books, because they're too close to me (in two separate ways). Text and Drugs and Rock and Roll is a thick and extensive study of various connections between popular literary and musical underground scenes of the past several decades, including both essays and interviews by Simon Warner, a Beat Generation scholar who teaches music courses at the University of Leeds in England. This is a subject I have explored in depth here on Litkicks, and Simon was kind enough to include an interview with me in this book. I'm particularly proud to be in this book now that I see what a handsome volume it is, and I'm glad that I got to spout off a bit on why "Tangled Up in Blue" is a great example of Bob Dylan writing Beat, and why Jay-Z reminds me of Jack Kerouac. The book also includes interviews with Jonah Raskin, David Amram, Michael McClure, Michael Horovitz, Ronald Nameth, Jim Sampas, Pete Brown, Steven Taylor, Kevin Ring and the late Larry Keenan, as well as in-depth sections on Jim Carroll, Peter Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, David Meltzer, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Richard Hell, Genesis P-Orridge, Pete Molinari, Ben Gibbard and Tuli Kupferburg.
I've just learned that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park/Book of Mormon fame have been animating some passages from seminal Western Buddhist author Alan Watts. The videos are excellent! Here's Music and Life, with a message well worth hearing:
I've just thoroughly enjoyed (and learned much from) a graphic novel biography of Bertrand Russell. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth was written by Apostolis Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitrio, illustrated by Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna and published in 2009. It was recommended to me by a young and voracious reader of comic fantasy/adventure novels who thought the subject matter would appeal to me. He was absolutely right.
This book breaks my pattern of slight prejudice against Bertrand Russell, which was grounded in two things. First, like many enthusiastic Wittgenstenians, I've been all too aware of Bertrand Russell's role as the straight man to the curvy-thinking Ludwig Wittgenstein during the height of the analytic philosophy craze at Cambridge University just before the First World War.
Russell was the hard-headed mentor, according to this well-known narrative, and Wittgenstein was the brash young student who surpassed the teacher, blowing Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's pretentious Principia Mathematica apart by revealing the naturally obvious fact that, all blackboards of incredibly complex scribbled formulas aside, logic is actually not based on deeper foundational truths at all, but simply is. (I'm sure Wittgenstein would have said it better, but it was Wittgenstein's revelation that turned Russell's years of hard work from a live theory into a museum piece.)
I don't know much about the noir genre, but I checked out a new graphic novel called Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue because I like Vince's beat-inspired writing and artwork, which often emphasizes themes from Michael McClure and Gary Snyder. Vince Larue also drew a very cool cover for my 2011 Kindle book about poker, The Cards I'm Playing: Poker and Postmodern Literature.
It's a strange leap that Larue makes from Snyder-inspired Zen Buddhism to macabre mystery comix, but Dark Heat shows many familiar influences, and also touches upon psychological and spiritual themes that remind me of The Sopranos, Psycho, Paul Auster, The Watchmen, Fletch, Taoism and a whole lot of good movies that have Steve Buscemi and/or Viggo Mortensen in them. This story begins in gritty realism, and ends with a postmodern exploration into what's real and what's not. For your noir pleasure: Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue.
James Joyce's experimental masterwork Finnegans Wake gets a visual treatment by Jason Novak in the Paris Review. Novak wastes little time pondering the novel's meaning or plotline, noting that it "begins halfway through its final sentence" (indeed, it does).
Myself, I've never been able to actually finish reading Joyce's grand gesture to introspective modernism ... but Jason Novak's 7-panel cartoon, which deftly illustrates a symbolic anecdote from the book, will help me fake it at parties.
How can I possibly capture the wealth of goodness inside two thick new volumes of classic lit comix, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons and The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From "Kubla Khan" to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray? There is a lot of depth here. These collections must be seen.
The three-volume anthology is the work of Russ Kick, one of the editors of the alternative-minded Disinformation website, and Kick's curious sensibility leads to a blissfully broad vision of multicultural literary classicism, from Coyote and the Pebbles: A Native American Folktale by Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor to the Mahabharata illustrated by Matt Wiegle to the Arabian Nights, adapted by Andrice Arp to Hagoromo: A Japanese Noh play, adapted by Isabel Greenberg. (And those selections are all from the first volume; I've barely begun to enjoy the second, and a final third is heading our way.)
The great works of western literature are here too, of course: The Odyssey by way of Gareth Hinds, a transgressive Hansel and Gretel by S. Clay Wilson, George Eliot's Middlemarch via Megan Kelso. I can't possibly write about all the pieces that deserve attention in one blog post, but I would like to show a few panels.
It seems everything we know about the 1960s is wrong. Facts about the both celebrated and maligned decade are one thing—hey, we’re up to our paisley headbands in the facts!—but the truth is far more elusive. Michel Choquette, a former contributor to the National Lampoon and longtime Montreal-based writer, has waited more than 40 years to lay some truth on us about the 1960s, via a massive, exhaustive and utterly idiosyncratic project called The Someday Funnies. Choquette began this project—an attempt to re-create the look, feel and truthiness of the 1960s through the talents of hundreds of the world’s hippest cartoonists, seers and writers—in 1971.
Originally the impulsive idea of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who wanted to run some strips assembled by Choquette as a special supplement to his magazine, it grew into book length. And had Choquette’s prodigious energy not eventually petered out, it probably would have grown to encyclopedic length. Ultimately, Wenner backed out of both the supplement and the book, a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next decade which saw Choquette thwarted by false promises of publishers, artists who never delivered work, investors who backed out, and the sheer expense of publishing large format color illustrations. For some reason, Choquette hung on to the pipedream and even continued to solicit work far and wide, and The Someday Funnies entered into that mythical realm of things that could-have-been.
Indeed, as Jeet Heer notes in the introduction to the recently (and finally!) published edition of The Someday Funnies, the project was “more rumor than reality—an urban legend of sorts,” like a volume in the imaginary library conjured by Borges. It had always sounded, as Heer put it, “like something out of a fairy tale”, something too good to be true: a tabloid-sized collection of comics from all over the world, the sort of thing about which comic fan-boys and fan-girls would just shrug and say, “I’ll believe it when I hold a copy in my hands.”