About the Type

November 24th, 2008 at 7:21 pm

I have just completed a totally decent collection of shorter essays by the late great George Plimpton entitled “The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair and Other Excursions and Observations.”

The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair by George Plimpton

The slim collection concludes with information “About the Type:”

This book was set in Electra, a typeface designed for Linotype by W.A. Dwiggins, the renowned type designer (1880-1956). Electra is a fluid typeface, avoiding the contrasts of thick and thin strokes that are prevalent in most modern typefaces.

Just one facet of my debilitating bibliomania is a passing fascination with meta-aspects of books. It is not uncommon for me to read the publisher/publication page. I am quite fond of dedications. I always read the About the Authors.

(The Mr. Hyde to this Dr. Jekyll of bibliobsession is that I have great disdain for reading guides and book club-geared addenda and grow quickly weary of unnecessary footnotes.)

But not all books carry About the Type pages. Why? Do some publishers take great care in selecting the proper type for a certain volume, while other much less diligent and attentive publishers throw the craft of typography into the wind and use random types with reckless abandon?

And how does knowing the type affect my reading experience? I am certainly glad to have read Plimpton in the fluid typeface of Electra, but why did its About the Type seem so caddy? As if it was taking a swipe at those other modern typefaces for having the prevalent contrasts of thick and thin strokes.

And what’s Linotype?

And a renowned type designer? We probably still have those today but I fell asleep during the documentary Helvetica and did not find out.

Blindness by Jose Saramago

November 22nd, 2008 at 7:48 am

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Saramago set an enormous challenge for himself with his book Blindness.

You write a contemporary novel called Blindness about a pandemic of blindness. Whoa, Captain Obvious! On the nose, a bit? Had much metaphor recently? Does the blindness symbolize obviousness???

But of course, you don’t win the Pulitzer for hackwork.

You win it for the gritty realism that populates Blindness. You see, Saramago starts big (obvious blindness metaphor) and immediately goes small the rest of the way (right down to the blind people haplessly defecating in their own filth. Putrefaction makes several appearances.)

There is no better book than one that perfectly combines content and style.

Jose Saramago’s Blindness is such a book.

It is told with a sparse, tail spinning language. Sentences float and slam and ebb and flow. The result is a telling so bleak that several evenings after my warm glass of milk when I usually read I did not want to read Blindness.

It is a depraved descent into hell, a freefall aided by the literary aerodynamics of sparse punctuation, flowing run-ons, and conversations crammed into paragraphs:

“…Today is today, tomorrow will bring what tomorrow brings, today is my responsibility, not tomorrow if I should turn blind, What do you mean by responsibility, The responsibility of having my eyesight when others have lost theirs, You cannot hope to guide or provide food for all the blind people in this world, I ought to, But you cannot, I shall do what ever I can to help, Of course you will…”

In a story about blindness, Saramago strips us of literary luxuries. Quotation marks, question marks, and exclamation marks are absent. Not even a single semicolon is to be found within Blindness. Vonnegut would approve.

There are no proper names. Characters are referred to as doctor, old man, boy with squint, and girl with dark glasses. Saramago’s approach is ecumenical. His style is informal and immediate, utilizing the present tense and even first person plural.

There are small clarifications, authorial intrusions, which dampen the bleakness:

“The driver went blind just as the chairman was about to enter the building by the main entrance as usual, he let out a cry, we are referring to the driver, but he, meaning the chairman, did not hear it.”

Such asides are a welcome relief from Saramago’s vicious extrapolation of our modern existence in all its sinister glory.

So read Blindness. I don’t think the movie was so good.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

November 13th, 2008 at 5:12 pm

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

I wanted to read this book immediately upon its release because of its glowing reviews and its canine content. From what I was able gleam, it seemed a book I could get into.

Then Oprah chose it for her book club.

Now, I don’t really have anything against Oprah nor her book club, I think any mode of getting people excited about books and reading is a good thing, but why do I feel pangs of embarrassment for reading an Oprah book club pick? Why do I feel more affiliation with Jonathan Franzen, who snubbed her? Why am I still bothered by all that silliness over James Frey?

But I picked it up regardless.

The title is “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.” Most books, regardless of content, whether a financial self-help volume or even a cooking guide, are stories. So why must this one declare itself a “story” in the very title? The publisher even declared it “A Novel” on the cover, a common practice, and one increasingly necessary in this touchy, post-James Frey world we live in.

But Edgar Sawtelle (which I like to think is pronounced Suh-telly) is a novel, completely made up by David Wroblewski, a man who displays significant expertise in, among other things, the likes of dogs, dogs training, dog birthing, dog breeding, canasta, and sign language. The book, all 562 pages of it, is rich in life, full of the minute details and abstract psychology that we seem to miss in our everyday lives but is such a part of life. I was again and again impressed by how powerfully Wroblewski imagined the stirring aspects of communicating in sign language, the methods of dog training, family dynamics, a young boy’s daring coming-of-age, and the inner lives of dogs. But a cerebral, psychological novel this is not. It is full of action, narrative, suspense, and mystery.

There are fantastic images and sequences of dog training. One in particular in which our young protagonist teaches his young pups to instruct each other. A dog owner myself, I was inspired.

Wroblewski’s style is a classic, straightforward approach that does not draw attention to itself like so much postmodern charm with its neon nouns and gyrating gerunds. But rather, it is a quiet style that reveals itself only after you realize you’ve read 8 chapters and your cell phone is chiming with text messages from friends wondering “where u at?”

Such ease and pleasurable reading is why I think Wroblewski declared Edgar Sawtelle “a story.” Because it harkens back to a more traditional mode of telling stories, ones told around campfires and to children and through generations of cultures in order to teach, inspire, explain, and entertain. It is a conventional method of storytelling, not one obsessed with the formalist intricacies of the words themselves but how they can be used to evoke and share.

Books such as this often get lumped into unfortunate schemas such as “beach reading” and “pleasure reading” because they easily reward their readers with entertainment and satisfaction. And Edgar Sawtelle may very well become one of these books, a Titantic of books, a work immediately praised with monetary success and industry awards, but quickly fades away into forgotten shelves of past excitement.

Only time will tell. And by then, hopefully Wroblewski will have written four more.


November 10th, 2008 at 8:21 am

Outlaw Journalist by William McKeen

Like Wild Turkey into the Good Doc’s mouth, so too go volumes on the shelf about him. While most books about Hunter S. Thompson are good because they are about Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen’s “Outlaw Journalist” is good on its own accord, revealing the allure and talent of Thompson to an audience beyond his indoctrinated disciples. For all his presence and popularity, a Hunter S. Thompson biography could be accomplished with the literary equivalent of connect-the-dots or paint by number. Connect Hunter’s rebellious childhood with his breakout book about the outlaw motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels. Color in Hunter’s hyperbolic writing style with black blotter acid. In the parlance of Gonzo: load and shoot. Don’t aim.
So much has been written about Hunter S. Thompson, and his story is so mythic in its sweep, that it is difficult to summarize his career without restating stereotypes that have already been digested like so much mescaline by tens of thousands, if not millions, of his fans. With careful aim, McKeen avoids these trappings with “Outlaw Journalist.” There is very little of the hero worship and simple recounting of drugs and carousing that typify a story about Hunter S. Thompson. An acquaintance of Thompson’s and a professor of journalism at the University of Florida Gainesville, McKeen is uniquely situated to provide an atypical contribution to the growing cannon of criticism and analysis on such an outrageous and singular subject that is refreshingly divergent and illuminating in its academic classicism and straightforward tradition. In the David McCullough sense. In the Doris Kearns Goodwin sense. Which I felt was a fairly appropriate comparison for “Outlaw Journalist,” and then I got to page 216 and learned that Hunter once ran off with the Goodwin’s babysitter. It’s one amusing tale of many in “Outlaw Journalist,” a biography that is as good, fulfilling, and devoted to its topic as anything by McCullough or Goodwin, never shying away from the realities of its famous subject, but also moderating such antics with an academic examination of craft.
McKeen’s achievement resides in his balance and restraint. He tempers the excessive and unconventional biographical information that all readers will find fascinating in the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson with literary analysis that seems to be so lacking in other works about him, and so important for why Thompson is a relevant writer who demands to be read. It is McKeen’s focus on Thompson’s writing that make “Outlaw Journalist” an impressive and worthwhile read. McKeen methodically interweaves historical enlightenment with Thompson’s development as a writer, including both contextual influences and progression in his literary style.
Though McKeen provides plenty of anecdotes teeming with recreational hubris, the majority of the stories he shares pointedly illuminate who Hunter was as a person instead of merely indulging in clichés, hero worship, and perverse fascination with the glamour of substance abuse that only reinforce the stale theme of Thompson as some kind of mere cultural jester. We learn that while Hunter was indeed a difficult child growing up and a budding delinquent with an early disdain for authority, he was an aspiring scholar as well; starting a newspaper, reading Thucydide’s account of the Peloponnesian wars, and leading his friends to the library for bouts of reading between rounds of raising hell. We learn that Thompson broke into a morgue as an adult and stole his recently still-born daughter in order to bury her at home after the doctors had informed him that they would “dispose of” it. These are remarkable instances that McKeen shares, ones far removed from the madness and myths that so commonly surround Hunter S. Thompson’s reputation and tradition.
Writing about a man with a searing, vicious wit, McKeen proves himself to be a capable biographer of such an individual by being quite funny as well. In a biography’s pursuit in separating fact from fiction, McKeen deals with the legends surrounding Thompson’s firing from Time magazine early in his career. Did he just leave? Was he fired for insubordination and the destruction of a vending machine? Or did he create such a story to enhance his reputation as a rebel? McKeen settles the matter, telling us, “The truth is probably somewhere in between. One certainty is that Hunter and vending machines never got along.” That clears it up. Especially as a chronicler of Hunter S. Thompson, someone notorious for his exaggeration and paranoid drama, one is smart to ironically understate things as McKeen does in “Outlaw Journalist.” Even though McKeen insists that Thompson’s landmark work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” was a heightened version of reality, that Hunter and Acosta talked about the murder of Ruben Salazar and the merits of Acosta’s case against the city of Los Angeles while they were in Las Vegas, McKeen does quickly remind us that, “They also took a lot of drugs and ran amuck.” And that confirms things.
McKeen’s is an all-encompassing, enthusiastic biography, taking the reader with Hunter through the struggles, the poverty, the rejection, the antics, the jobs, and traveling with him from Louisville, Florida, New York, Puerto Rico, Big Sur, South America, San Francisco, and Colorado. “Outlaw Journalist” paddles through the mandatory rapids of Thompson’s life: the rebellious childhood, the time in the Air Force and early struggles, the breakout of “Hell’s Angels,” the success of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” and onto the waterfall of his later life with its struggle to cope with the myth he created and the reputation that enveloped him while his writing deconstructed into self-imitation and desperate regurgitation.
McKeen is a dutiful docent through this sprawling, unruly life, taking us to Thompson’s experience at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and showing how it galvanized and politically radicalized him, even peeping into his life for a rare moment of tears from the stoic man as a result of the violence he witnessed in Chicago. We observe the beginning of Thompson’s relationship with illustrator Ralph Steadman and their infamous coverage of the Kentucky Derby. We see Thompson react to Watergate, his rising notoriety and celebrity, and the incessant struggles with money and finances that colored his entire life. McKeen tells us when productive-and-prolific Hunter stopped and cocaine-snorting Hunter took over, all the while detailing the marital deterioration, mediocre speaking engagements, and infidelities that were a part of his private and professional life. The reader sees Thompson’s appearance as the character Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury comic strip and his slow devolution into a prisoner of his own cult.  We have front row seats for the great political writing that made Thompson so popular and become almost immediately impossible as his own fame became too unwieldy to be a true reporter.  We witness Thompson’s legendary relationship with Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine.  We follow him through his divorce, his time spent in Key West and his extended relationship with Laila Nabulsi, who would go on to produce the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
McKeen’s research and capabilities in fully realizing his subject’s environment and influences is splendid. As McKeen is certain to inform us about the idiosyncrasies of Hunter’s neighborhood growing up as well as the day-to-day activities of Eglin Air Force Base, so too does he provide an appropriate history of journalism, such as the Wall Street Journal’s little-person/big-picture approach to explanatory journalism that was becoming increasingly popular as Hunter started in the industry. McKeen also traces the rise of New Journalism with the growing prominence of writers like Tom Wolf and Gay Talese using the techniques of fiction in journalism. In order to place Thompson in the tradition of other writers and journalists, as well as the larger socio-economic puzzle that he was a piece of, McKeen also brushes up the reader on changes in TV journalism and politics, briefly noting the changes television brought to campaign coverage, the increasing grandiosity and theatrical nature of conventions, and the influence of writers like Theodore H. White.
One major appeal of Hunter S. Thompson in our current society of celebrity-worship, a fixation Thompson himself was subjected to, is that his story is a name-dropping extravaganza. He was friends with famous people. Not only was he friends with famous people, he did shocking and hilarious things with famous people that anyone could be jealous of doing with their humble “nobody” friends. Even Jackie Onassis called to check on her kids when she learned Hunter was staying in the same house as them. Such anecdotes of fear and adoration for Thompson, while serving a biographical purpose, are even more ironic and fascinating as McKeen posits them inside a larger survey of journalism, chronicling its rise in the 1970s into a pulpit for celebrity worship.
McKeen puts us with Hunter as events unfolded in subtle and effective ways that ground and illuminate Hunter’s work historically, such as McKeen’s note that Hunter’s article on Ruben Salazar in Rolling Stone appeared alongside a profile of the young singer Michael Jackson. These tidbits make “Outlaw Journalist” an exemplary biography, one that doesn’t extol and isolate its subject as a detached and god-like idol, but as a talented and unique man who worked hard and contributed to the culture he was a part of.
Beyond the lively biographical chronology, placed within larger industrial and historical trends and changes, however compulsory, absorbing, and compellingly told, it is “Outlaw Journalist’s” focus on Thompson’s craft that elevates it beyond mere portraiture and profile. McKeen roots Thompson in the lofty, storied lineage of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac, deferring to an old friend from Louisville to summarize Thompson with, “Philosophically, I always felt that he was firmly based in the stoicism of Hemingway and the hedonism of Fitzgerald.” But McKeen does not stop there, going so far as quoting directly from Hemingway so as to compare the two wordsmith’s similar sparse, straightforward styles. McKeen does a fine job of analyzing Thompson’s writing itself, deconstructing and examining it as metajournalism, journalism about journalism, and “getting the story.”
McKeen’s work insists that despite Hunter’s decadent reputation as an avowed drug user and vicious social critic given to belligerent ranting and raving, he was a very meticulous writer and cared about every word. McKeen relates a story in which a friend described Hunter sitting on a seawall in Cozumel, “reading a $1.25 newspaper that would have cost a more sober man 25 cents.” Hunter saw that and said, “No. No…it is better if we make it 24 cents.” Such scrutiny is what made Hunter great and such detail and inclusion inside of the larger chronological narrative of his life is what makes “Outlaw Journalist” such a superb profile of Hunter S. Thompson. It reveals a man, however eccentric and overshadowed by entertaining flaws, who was admirably committed to his craft.
McKeen illuminates and examines unpublished and lesser known manuscripts and articles that reveal Thompson’s progression as a writer, such as “The Gun Lobby,” a ‘bridge book’ between “Hell’s Angels” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” that followed Hunter’s shock at the assassination of Robert Kennedy. McKeen notes that it was written in an unusual style: “Rather than use the just-the-facts approach the subject would seem to require, Hunter turned it into a long narrative, with himself as the central figure, as the window through which to view America’s violent character.” Hunter S. Thompson as we know him, was born. From there, McKeen takes us along as we learn about Hunter’s procedures, his writing methods, his work habits, his relationships with editors and assistants, and his writing style as assembly that came in bursts of brilliance. McKeen details Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism as a process of aggregation that required a large contribution from editors, hand-holders, baby-sitters, and enablers. Despite this coven of crutches hobbling around drinking this man’s twisted brew, McKeen goes to great pains in insisting that Thompson was not the careless, drug-gobbling fiend that so many take him for. “It had never been easy,” McKeen tells us, “but Hunter had the gift of making his work appear so. His legions of stoned admirers probably really thought he took a hundred hits of acid before sitting down to write. But the craftsmanship those close to him saw as he agonized over his words spoke to how much went into making it look like a breeze.”
Analyzing and examining Hunter’s prose, McKeen deconstructs and isolates the writer’s work, detailing his specific themes and styles: the use of a confederate/sidekick, false editor’s notes, himself at the center of stories, “getting the story” as the primary story, and wild flights of fancy. Such basic analysis and identification of elements familiar to any casual Hunter S. Thompson reader seems simple, but as McKeen explains, “His narrative device, in which getting the story became the story, fit his political reporting perfectly. It allowed him to present a scene, then ask the questions readers asked. As he questioned his sources, readers were collaborators piecing together facts. Hunter presented himself as a manic and somewhat inept reporter, a clever way to mask his shrewd style.” Thompson wore a cloak of ineptitude and ignorance that allowed him to say things other journalists could not. Such a device permitted Hunter to contrast himself, the vulnerable hack/drug fiend, to the slimy politicians and establishment stalwarts he was writing about and railing against.
McKeen’s biography paints Hunter S. Thompson as a man who was indeed a special writer with immense talent and without rival, but hardly someone without significant flaws. Further evidence of McKeen’s balanced portrait and refusal to engage in blatant infatuation and praise is his inclusion of Thompson’s most obvious failures and disappointments. The Ali-Foreman fight was one of the biggest stories of the year and Hunter S. Thompson was there to cover it. Instead he sold his tickets and floated in a swimming pool of marijuana during the fight. Norman Mailer grumbled that Hunter’s fans were too easily pleased and would accept anything from their man. McKeen agrees: “Hunter could have given his fans a story about a nightmare assignment in a horrible, uncomfortable city. He could have written about smuggling elephant tusks into Kennedy Airport or his intense paranoia about the Zairean officials and their attitudes about drug use. His fans would have accepted anything, and loved it.” Inside McKeen’s framing of “Outlaw Journalist,” this isn’t so much a condemnation of Hunter’s fans and their lack of taste and sophistication as much as it is a testament to Thompson’s abilities and prowess as a writer and an essential thread, however disappointing, in understanding Hunter S. Thompson. He was good, very good, able to divine a story from any experience, but in many instances, simply didn’t.
With Thompson’s time in Vietnam, McKeen further explores the brash and absurd nature of Thompson. He was no doubt a man controlled by considerable vices, but a man who was aware of his flaws and made such afflictions into a semi-profitable and certainly prosperous career. But in Vietnam, as at the Ali-Foreman fight, Thompson is exposed as a reckless and disappointing hack who he had made a career of admonishing. Beyond McKeen’s recounting of Thompson’s “country-club approach” in Vietnam and his silly escapade to Hong Kong in order to buy gadgets and electronics when Saigon finally fell, McKeen arrives at his most severe criticism near the end of the book. McKeen observes that Thompson had prided himself on “getting away with it” and had turned such an act into a major theme in his writing to great success, but Thompson spent his later years trapped in a mythology he had created and stuck in a rut of self-imitation: “He had worked hard, but too often had taken the easy way out, seeing what he could get away with.”
It would be easy for a biographer to connect the dots left unconnected by Thompson’s late-career waning, obvious failures, and suicide and discern the form of a Cautionary Tale or Obnoxious Farce. McKeen does neither. Instead he colors in several important aspects of Hunter S. Thompson’s life that have only been lightly shaded in by the pencils of blind praise and celebrity worship with the permanent marker of serious literary analysis and balanced, cogent perspective. Thompson would no doubt be miffed by such a reasoned, straightforward telling, but the literary community and fans should be thankful as McKeen’s work on Hunter S. Thompson is a fitting, balanced portrait of a man who is, and has been, too easily caricatured, mythologized, and blindly embraced. Properly loaded, aimed, and fired, “Outlaw Journalist” hits the target.

Michael Crichton is Dead

November 6th, 2008 at 3:00 am

It’s a tough time to be a writer. And I’m not referring to the fact that thirty-seven publishers have passed on my high-concept, psychological thriller-novel about a Latino ascending to the Presidency. (Note to interested parties: I can easily change Latino to woman, homosexual, or Scientologist.)

David Foster Wallace. Dead.

Studs Terkel. Dead.

Tony Hillerman. Dead.

Michael Crichton. Dead.

Crichton was my favorite author for an extended period in my youth. I read every single one of his books, losing interest sometime after Airframe. Tastes quickly mature into elitist sophistication and one most stop reading books and start reading literature. But to this day I wonder why Travels isn’t more popular. It is probably Crichton’s best book (and the closest he ever got to a memoir/autobiography). I don’t re-read books because life is too short, but thinking back to all that time I spent in the very capable mind of Michael, I can’t help but think how much fun it was.

Say what you will about Crichton’s breezy genre tendencies and his poorly developed characters, the man has contributed some serious stories into our canon. Jurassic Park. ER. Eater’s of the Dead. Sphere. The Great Train Robbery. The Andromeda Strain.

Totally decent reading.

I bid you adieu, Good Sir.

Election Hangover

November 5th, 2008 at 4:16 pm

“This is our country, too, and we can goddam well control it if we learn to use the tools.” – Hunter S. Thompson, 1969

With the economy in shambles, financial books are finding a lucrative market.

With Barack Obama winning the election, his books see another bump in sales.

The rest of us drank a little bubbly last night and treated our dogs to a George the Lame Duck chew toy.

It was divine.

Book by Book by Michael Dirda

November 2nd, 2008 at 2:04 pm

Book by Book by Michael Dirda is subtitled “Notes on Reading and Life.”

Book by Book by Michael Dirda

This slender work by a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism is a “meditation on the intersection between life and books.” It is a casual piece, comprised mostly of quotes and personal observations, as if all aggregated from a notebooks, journals, and diaries.

Dirda concludes his brief meditation with, predictably, a quote:

“At the day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done.” – Thomas a Kempis

Which reminds me of a question posed by Zadie Smith in her introduction to the Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2003 in which she asks, “Should the young man hankering after a literary life read through his massive dictionaries or stand upon a pile of them to reach the high shelf where the whiskey is kept?”

Do you do, or do you read?

Do you read books, or stack them up in order to reach the booze?

I would like to think that the proper answer to both dilemmas is to do both.