Sunday, December 11, 2011

A handful of shows

Sonny Rollins will live forever, right? I ask because I passed up the opportunity to catch him last month…at the Olympia…in Paris. What was I thinking? (I returned home to the news that Sonny’s contemporary, the drummer Paul Motian, who I harbored hopes of seeing at the Village Vanguard during one of his week-long residences, has died.)

Every year, holidays approaching, I resolve to attend more than a handful of shows in the coming year. If you don’t think attending more live music performances counts as self-improvement, I tell you it does. If it seems to lack the punitive element you require of a resolution, well, you can decide on something to give up, to pay for your price of admission.  

March 26th, 2011; bad restaurant on the waterfront on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama; unknown trio w/policeman: A blistered and hung-over Canadian couple also staying at the Hotel Don Chicho shared a tale of a “fantastic” trio of musicians (“Algerians and Jamaicans, we think”) playing at the island’s bars and being shut down, night after night, by the police. Was the band too loud? Had the club owners neglected to pay off the cops? It wasn’t clear, the Canadians said, but it was a shame.

That night or the next, six or seven bars deep into a night on the town in the Caribbean, we stopped, for a second, late dinner, at a pleasant-looking restaurant with a horrible kitchen. The infamous trio arrived just after us, and soon began setting up the equipment (guitar, drum kit, congas) that their tiny, beautiful girlfriends had, with great visible effort, loaded in for them; then the cads commenced playing, and…they were as good as advertised, playing tight arrangements of American rock tunes – the Doors, the Stones, Sublime’s “Santeria” – that the guitarist sang in a charming, French-accented baritone.

We were enjoying the free music, the band’s enthusiasm (palpable, even though they were playing for ten people, girlfriends included), and the serendipity of it all, when the cop walked in.

He was a short guy, and exuded the phlegmatic quality common to all authority figures in a corrupt Central American country. Smoking a cigarette, he stood to one side of the band, facing them, studying them, arms folded, while they finished a number, clearly unnerved by his presence. He stepped forward and spoke to the guitarist; the bartender had made his way out to the floor, hovered behind the band. Here comes the shakedown, I thought, or the eighty-six.

Then the guitarist handed his guitar to the cop, who played and sang (in Spanish) a few bars of a delicate ballad, shyly acknowledged the applause, handed the guitar back with a word of thanks, and walked out into the night.

April 19th, 2011; Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan; The Stooges: A hometown Stooges show at the beautiful Michigan Theater would have been great, and Iggy Pop seemed up for it; but this date was a tribute to the late Ron Asheton, a weird, self-congratulatory, all-things-to-all-people kind of affair. First, Henry Rollins took the stage, for a monologue on the importance of the Stooges, to rock and roll in general and his life in particular, leading up to a note-perfect anecdote; unfortunately, Rollins talked for another twenty minutes, thus setting the tone for the night.

Iggy, acting against the express wishes of the venue management (he said), invited all who would fit to join him onstage – twice.

Mike Watt, as he coaxed feedback from his bass, dry-humped his Marshall stack – twice.

The head of the Michigan Theater Foundation, a local bank president and a high school classmate of Iggy’s, told a funny anecdote about his first meeting with the former Jim Osterberg; and, standing in for the mayor, presented Iggy with the key to the city.

Iggy Pop, a man in his sixties, who could have simply said “No, thank you” when this presentation was first suggested, rolled his eyes, lobbed the key over his shoulder, and put me in the terrible position of feeling embarrassed for a bank president.

July 20th, 2011; Toledo Zoo Amphitheater; Steely Dan: “Thanks for coming to the zoo!” Donald Fagen said, after opening the show with a beautiful rendition of Aja.

There’s only one way to deliver a found joke, a sure laugh, the kind everyone knows is a gift: you have to convey a certain humility. Fagen faked it perfectly.

Looking around now, it’s hard to believe that Steely Dan ever had a place at the top of the popular culture of this country. I don’t even know how to begin explaining them to the people of today. Except, perhaps, thusly: “Imagine the Coen brothers were musicians…”

And most people who do remember them are either obsessive fans, like myself, or utterly despise them.

“Do it again!” the drunk next to me continued to shout, after Becker and Fagen left the stage.

“I don’t think they’re going to do it again,” I told him.

November 11th, 2011; Jazz at Pizza Express, London; Michael Janisch/Aruan Ortiz Quintet feat. Greg Osby: Ronnie Scott’s is the premier jazz club in London, but they had booked Dave Brubeck’s Sons Play the Music of Dave Brubeck for the duration of my visit to the city. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away: Greg Osby! The less-promising-sounding Jazz at Pizza Express turned out to be a fine venue: small basement room, great sound, comfortable seating. Janisch, a big, affable American bassist, and the Cuban-born pianist Ortiz, led the band through their own compositions as well as pieces by saxophonist Osby and Fats Waller (“Jitterbug Waltz”). They played a complex and thrilling set, with Janisch, Ortiz and drummer Rudy Royston never merely comping, but improvising their own trio/duo interactions behind the solos from Osby and trumpeter Raynald Colom (from Barcelona).

This was a Friday night in Soho, and several of the larger tables in the room were taken by groups who’d obviously come from work by way of the pub, ordered pizza, had too many drinks, and could not shut the fuck up. Finally, Ortiz, after saying a few words prior to the final tune of the set, offered to wait until the crowd stopped talking before playing again. The room went quiet, but about twenty thin-skinned patrons walked out during their last number.

As the friend I was at the show with pointed out, none of this was new. Listen to any renowned live jazz recording and you’ll hear crowd chatter, dishware noise, etc. (This is probably the secret history of fusion. A jazz musician, tired of not being able to hear the drummer over the sounds of a tableful of salesmen trading jokes, buys himself an amplifier. “Talk over this, motherfucker!”)

But it posed a small dilemma for me the next morning, when Ortiz and Osby sat directly behind me on the “Chunnel” train! How could I let them know I’d greatly enjoyed their set, without also blurting out that I wasn’t one of the talkers in the room? When the train pulled in to Gare du Nord, I did just that. (They were more than gracious.)

November 17th, 2011; Sunset Sunside Jazz Club, Paris; Francois & Louis Moutin w/ Rudresh Mahanthappa & Jean Michel Pilc: Francois Moutin plays bass on several of alto saxophonist Mahanthappa’s albums, and in pianist Jean Michel Pilc’s trio, but I don’t know if the three of them had ever played together before, or with Francois’s brother Louis on drums. Based on this set, I’d say no, but it was an awe-inspiring clash of styles and temperaments. Louis’s playing owed more to Charlie Watts than to Tony Williams (or, perhaps, Rudy Royston’s non-stop inventiveness was still too much on my mind). Mahanthappa switched from Indian music infused modalism to free jazz blowing and back, often leaving Pilc, whose own solos pointed to classical training and a fondness for the Romantic, sitting on his hands. Francois was a monster, up for anything. Does it sound like a mess? It was a gig. It was great. To quote the only English on the club’s menu, “Jazz is freedom.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hanging focuses the mind

“Production values!” the pint-sized filmmaker in Super 8 declares, rallying his pre-teen crew to capture footage of a moving train or, you know, a girl. (His closest competitor at the upcoming film festival is a high school student.) His crew may look flummoxed – this is a running joke – but when they see the finished product, they’ll know what he’s talking about: because they’re making a horror movie, and they’re all horror fans.

Comedy will make idiots of us all, but horror can make people smarter. Point out that a supposed comedy is badly cobbled together, mean-spirited, and ugly-looking, and you’re likely to hear “Yes…It is funny, though.” Apparently, our lives are so fucking awful that anything that elicits a laugh gets a free pass. But if the lighting is a shade different in two shots in the same scene of a horror movie, there’d better be a good reason for it – a story reason – or viewers will start to disengage; you seldom hear anyone who enjoys horror say of a horror movie, “Yes, it’s not good…It is scary, though.”

You get smarter because you have to find a way to talk about these things. At The Onion AV Club, there is a recent feature article with British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) programming a 24-hour Halloween movie marathon. He speaks about a scene in David Cronenberg’s The Brood – the murder of the schoolteacher – and he speaks very specifically about the elements that go into making the scene so horrific and memorable. Here’s the thing: Wright’s a professional filmmaker, but he doesn’t say anything that I might not have heard in a conversation I had, thirty-odd years ago, with a janitor who’d just seen the original Nightmare On Elm Street the night before and had his mind blown and wanted me to understand – once I’d assured him I wanted to know – just why it was so scary…and how.

I think my first time was the birds on the jungle gym in The Birds, and my most recent was the scene in the pool near the end of Let The Right One In(I remember that scene in The Brood, too, and a couple in Cronenberg’s They Came From Within, and I haven’t watched those movies in about twenty-five years.)

Something has happened to you, and you have to find a way to talk about it. You have to be very, very specific; you have to make yourself understood.

Nobody walks out of the cinema after an Adam Sandler movie or a Kate Hudson movie feeling that way.


A few recommendations: Avoid the French “extreme horror” film Martyrsit’s everything you were warned Saw and Hostel would be (but really aren’t). Let The Right One In is great, but don’t let that put you off the American remake, Let Me In, which is in some ways superior (the carjacking scene). AMC’s The Walking Dead is well-made, but aren’t you tired of the zombie apocalypse by now? Do see Attack The Block, out on video etc. this week; it’s not horror, if you want to split hairs, but it’s a blast.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Making his toast at my wedding reception, the best man joked, for far too long, about my puzzling, feckless, pre-engagement life, the laughter diminishing from genuine to polite to, finally, non-existent, when he said he’d been concerned, if not too surprised, the time he learned that Pauline Kael was granted a restraining order. No more than seven people in the room recognized the name, I’m fairly certain, and the majority of those seven had heard the joke in some form, if only very occasionally, since the early ‘80s. A fine speaker, the best man was able to get the room back.

The origin of this long-running in-joke is a dull one: I discovered Pauline Kael’s writing while a teenager, and soon my friends saw me carrying around paperbacks with titles like I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and with an author photo of an older woman with a mischievous grin. Before long, I’d receive her books as gifts, with inscriptions less-subtly pornographic than the titles, ostensibly autographed by Pauline herself; I’ll spare you any examples.

The other part of it is, I asked for it. I read her film reviews in The New Yorker religiously, and quoted passages from them with ease. As we headed out on a Friday night to see Blow Out, say, I’d let slip that Pauline Kael says it has a dreamlike clarity and inevitability. Don’t I sound like a fun teenager?

I’ve been reading about Pauline Kael the past few days; later this month a new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow (whose previous book was a life of Ethel Merman) will appear just days after a new Library of America compendium of her work, The Age of Movies.

I don’t know how I feel about this news. I can share my consumer take on the matter: I won’t purchase the biography, though I might bring home a library copy and skim it; I’ll snatch up the Library of America book the day it lays down, because all but one of my Pauline Kael paperbacks have been lost to time. In a way, the existence of this new book seems as strange to me as the Library of America’s two-volume series of American noir crime novels, from 1997; it seems, in other words, like an embalming. But noir and hard-boiled fiction is tough to keep pinned down, and Charles Ardai and his Hard Case Crime imprint, along with some crummier-looking but equally worthwhile reprints from other specialty houses, started shoveling it back onto the store shelves in paperbacks, as God intended. I don’t think there’s anyone left out there to champion Pauline Kael in her native state, in books she gave titles like Deeper into Movies and Taking It All In. Always a divisive figure among her contemporaries, the younger generation of critics are mostly dismissive of her. (All of it has always smacked of sour grapes to me.) Does anyone remember that the former won the National Book Award, and still came out in paperback with its title in hot pink? To me, the title The Age of Movies suggests that, twenty years after her retirement and a decade after her death, Pauline Kael is as lost to time as the paperbacks I used to own, as dead as James Agee. But read something she wrote, and she seems more alive than David Denby, I promise you. Why wouldn’t she hate a title as definitive-sounding as The Age of Movies?


I had never seen a copy of The New Yorker until I thumbed through one in a waiting room at the University of Michigan Mott Children’s Hospital sometime in the late seventies. My younger brother, Matthew, born with Muscular Dystrophy, increasingly spent more time in the respiratory intensive care unit there than he did at our home, and, for the bulk of my high school years, my routine was to come straight home after school, leave for the hospital with my parents as soon as my dad came home from work, eat dinner at the cafeteria there, and spend the rest of visiting hours sitting in a waiting room – the RICU was a ward, and no visitor under the age of eighteen was allowed; my brother was in an iron lung, and couldn’t be wheeled out for a visit.

Bored, surrounded by human misery, I was grateful to discover the magazine. Movie-mad, I only bothered with The Current Cinema, and the short reviews in Goings On About Town. During Kael’s tenure, the “Revivals, Classics, Etc.” sub-section had its own grouping of short reviews – all by Kael; they were taken from the “Notes” she had written on hundreds of classic Hollywood and foreign films while curating for a revival house (in Berkeley, if memory serves.) Leaving the rest of the magazine unread, I went through the supply in the RICU’s waiting room quickly, and began systematically searching the other waiting rooms in Mott and, eventually, the entirety of the University of Michigan Hospital, for back numbers I hadn’t seen yet. All of this had to be accomplished with a certain amount of stealth, as well, because my parents had an expectation that I would stay close at hand, or at least, not go missing from the waiting room for any extraordinary amount of time.

Looking back, I can see that I was lonely and scared. At the time, reading Pauline Kael may have been mostly solace. But there was nothing else like it for me. Until then, I had read the movie reviews in the Detroit Free Press, written by Susan Stark, before she jumped to the Detroit News. I had stared at the print ads for the never-reviewed dreck I would be cackling through at the drive-in a few years hence. I enjoyed “At The Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert” on public television, initially because of the film clips and the barely-contained hostility between the two men, but later for their special episodes, when they set aside the weekly reviews to discuss “Trends in Cinema”: a full half-hour, for instance, devoted to the disturbing rise in the use of the killer’s POV shot in slasher films.

Kael in print was this sort of intellectual enquiry into the aesthetics of what many intellectuals would dismiss as junk, with what felt, to me, like the entire weight of a classical education thrown behind it. I wanted in.

Maybe that was all I knew, really. I was an imaginative kid, a good student, but not a great one. I didn’t have the discipline of a great student. But I knew education was my best chance. My parents, children of the Depression, hadn’t made that American Dream leap, about wanting their children to do better than they had, at least not where education was concerned. They had other things on their mind, for God’s sake. I was on my own.

This was the era of the last gasp of the public intellectual in America, a truly weird period when it was possible to know William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer strictly through their appearances on television talk shows. I tried to follow their arguments when I caught them on Dick Cavett, but they might have been speaking Greek most of the time, as far as I could tell.

Pauline Kael, even when I couldn’t grasp what she was getting at, was using language in a way that was exciting to me. And, thanks to my discovery of the city of Ann Arbor, just outside the hospital environs, and its ridiculous number of film societies, I was soon able to re-read her notes having seen Wages of Fear or The Seventh Seal for myself.

Film, besides, was the great democratic art – of necessity made by committee, never made by auteur alone, and meant to be watched by The Crowd. I felt justified when I refused to acknowledge much of a difference between seeing Fellini’s 8 ½ at U of M’s Modern Languages Building or David Cronenberg’s Scanners at the Drive-In Algiers; it was all part of a continuum. If trying to find my way into American intellectual life in a pre-internet world without roadmap or actual mentor involved sitting in the dark, with Karen Allen or Nancy Allen or Theresa Russell up on screen, en deshabille, what could be better? If I didn’t find my way to the academy, I would get by, or at least learn to think critically, without it.

Is that too grandiose? I soon found English teachers who helped me develop my critical thinking, and I eventually made it to college. Here is what Pauline Kael did for me, then: She made me feel less alone in my conviction that Blow Out and Used Cars and Diner were perfect movies. Did it matter that she loved DePalma but hated Hitchcock? In the years since she left the scene, I have found myself occasionally thinking, right in the middle of a movie, Pauline Kael would love this. Reese Witherspoon’s leaping victory dance in the school hallway in Election. The monster’s first appearance, rising from the river, in Bong Joon Ho’s The Host. All of Flirting with Disaster and Citizen Ruth, and most of Dick.

In fact, I’m certain I’ll be disappointed when I pick up The Age of Movies, because my lizard-brain will expect new reviews: the latest compilation. What does Pauline think of The Social Network?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hush now…the grown-ups are talking

The Debt, directed by John Madden; The Tree of Life, directed by Terence Malick; Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen; Insidious, directed by James Wan; Bridesmaids, directed by Paul Feig; X-Men: First Class, directed by Michael Vaughn; Thor, directed by Kenneth Branaugh; The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom; Super 8, directed by J.J. Abrams; Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston; Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt; David Copperfield, illusionist; Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh; The Swarm, directed by Irwin Allen; Shock Value, by Jason Zinoman; A Serious Man, directed by Joel Coen; John Carpenter’s Halloween, directed by John Carpenter; Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller; The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney; Melancholia, directed by Lars von Triers; Tower Heist, directed by Brett Ratner; Flirting with Disaster, directed by David O. Russell; In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol  

The silly season ended, emphatically, with the arrival of The Debt in theaters: Captain America stepping aside, to let the Israelis have a crack at the Nazis.


You could make a really good movie that featured Helen Mirren sporting a dueling scar. The Debt is not that movie. That movie wouldn’t complete her look with an unflattering pantsuit, sensible shoes, and a babushka, and then ask her to compete with Jessica Chastain, playing the same character (riiight) in flashback – a Mossad agent used as bait to trap a Nazi concentration camp “doctor” (played by Jesper Christensen) and transport him to trial.

I wonder why the director or the producers, when they watched the dailies of the great scenes between Chastain and Christensen, didn’t ask for the rest of the movie to be re-written – or jettisoned. But they didn’t, and the result feels more like a trimmed-down television miniseries than a movie; and there the thing sits, serious and misshapen – in a word, adult; and summer is over.


I left the theater after The Debt reviewing my summer movie-going experience. How silly were the summer movies? Well, even the ringer, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, had CGI dinosaurs in it, so…pretty fucking silly.


Still, the season had its consolations: Paris looked fantastic in Midnight in Paris; Rose Byrne, likewise, in Insidious, Bridesmaids and X-Men: First Class. Kenneth Branaugh’s Thor was more fun than anyone could have expected. The “dueling toasts” sequence in Bridesmaids and the “dueling Michael Caines” sequence in The Trip (another ringer) were both well-crafted showstoppers. Super 8 and Captain America: The First Avenger deftly recreated the vibe of late ‘70s/early ‘80s Steven Spielberg, a feat with which this moviegoer (at forty-seven years of age, gripped by nostalgia, eyes brimming with tears in the darkened cinema) could find no fault…and Rise of the Planet of the Apes finally sold me on the notion that Andy Serkis is a remarkable actor.


When all is said and done, though, here’s the problem with the summer movie season: one can remember Michael Fassbender’s performance in X-Men: First Class and think, Errol Flynn; but look at Michael Fassbender in a still from the movie and one’s first thought is, David Copperfield?


(I failed to mention 3-D because I just don’t care.)


Contagion had an intriguing ad campaign. Would American moviegoers buy a ticket to watch Gwyneth Paltrow die a horrible death? It turned out they would. (I think Contagion may currently be enjoying the longest first-run this year for a film not featuring Rose Byrne.)

I have no problem with Gwyneth Paltrow. I’ve usually enjoyed her acting, and I know little to nothing about her outside of her acting. I avoid celebrity news as much as possible. It’s easier than you may think.


Contagion splits the difference between the ‘50s creature-features I grew up watching on television (with scene after scene of scientists discussing the strange monster/alien menace that would not appear on camera until the final reel – in the form of a man in a rubber suit) and the ‘70s international-thrillers I grew up watching in theaters (with interstitial titles like “LISBON—May 14th,” and Omar Sharif/Nehemiah Persoff showing up in the second hour; here the role goes to Marion Cotillard, as sure a sign of movie-progress as I’ve ever seen.)

At times – and I can hardly express how happy this made me – I felt I was watching a really good update of Irwin Allen’s 1978 flop, The Swarm.


Here’s a typical exchange from The Swarm, lifted from the Internet Movie Database:

Jose Ferrer (Dr. Andrews): Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants safe. Fail-safe! The odds against anything going wrong are astronomical, Doctor!

Richard Chamberlain (Dr. Hubbard): I appreciate that, Doctor. But let me ask you. In all your fail-safe techniques, is there a provision for an attack by killer bees?


In his recent book Shock Value, an entertaining brief history of ‘70s horror films, Jason Zinoman recounts how the low budget filmmakers of the era, like John Carpenter, addressed what they called “The Monster Problem.” Everyone who has seen a scary movie knows what they are referring to: The more the audience sees the monster, the less scary it is; but you have to show the audience the monster, or your movie is a rip-off.

Contagion is an adults-standing-around-talking movie, but it’s also a horror movie. (Any movie with this many actors, no matter how attractive, playing medical professionals is a horror movie.) I think it may be one of the best of its kind – the horror movie that can’t show the monster. (Another fine, recent example is the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. It is a horror movie. The monster is God.)

Here is how Contagion solves the monster problem: Throughout the movie, as a scene ends, the camera lingers woozily behind, showing us handrails and doorknobs and bowls of peanuts for longer than we want to look at them. If this reminds you, as it did me, of the clutch of shots at the end of John Carpenter’s Halloween, showing the empty rooms and stairways and porches where Michael Myers had earlier materialized, I doubt it’s a coincidence. Contagion doesn’t have a boogeyman, but it shows us things to fear, and it keeps showing us the body bags.


Moneyball has a distinct advantage in the adults-standing-around-talking genre: A baseball game regularly intrudes on the talk.

The film hit theaters during the final days of the regular season for Major League Baseball, with the Wild Card spots in the playoffs still up for grabs. The TV ads framed the story as a father/daughter-relationship-drama starring Brad Pitt, presumably to fill seats with baseball-haters for the first month of release, and then (presumably, hopefully) get a second wind at the box office when the World Series ends. That’s a lot of baseball and a lot of Fridays, geniuses. The upshot is, Moneyball will be gone from the box office before a lot of baseball fans have a chance to see it, which is a shame, because it’s a very good movie, and baseball fans will appreciate it the most.

In a way, the monster problem surfaces in Moneyball too. The film begins with Pitt trying to cope with the fact that teams with more money have stolen away his star players, and ends with Pitt summoned to the lair of the very worst of said teams, to meet with its owner and have the price of his own soul gauged; as they converse in a luxury suite, a fabled left-field fence is visible in the background.

The monster in this film, in every sense, is green.


The Ides of March has an insurmountable problem. It’s not that the candidate played by George Clooney wouldn’t have made it to the Ohio Primary dodging the God question. It’s not that Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing opposing campaign managers, have but one scene together, and it’s a whiff.

No, the insurmountable problem is that a major character is played by a dead-eyed ingénue named Evan Rachel Wood, whose acting suggests she first met other humans on the day she reported to the set.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and, as with Juliette Lewis, I will slap my forehead seven years hence and say, “You know, she really is appealing.” But I just don’t see it happening.


I had thought that The Tree of Life would be the oddest perfume commercial I sat through this year. Then I watched Melancholia.


Judging by the trailers I’ve sat through lately, the serious season takes a hit in November. I’m excited that Tower Heist reunites Ben Stiller and Téa Leoni (who were both so funny in Flirting with Disaster, in 1996), but I’m not the least bit optimistic about it.

Still, I wonder if Tower Heist and In Time – a dystopian action  flick, set in a future where your time on earth is currency, and the peach-fuzzed underclass (represented by Justin Timberlake) surrender actual minutes of their lives to the smooth-skinned, increasingly-immortal corporate masters (represented by some smooth-skinned actor from the TV show “Mad Men”) for lattes and such – will be greeted by think-pieces on the rise of a new “Occupy Movement” film genre. Because that would be pretty fucking silly.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The abandoned baby

We have reached the point in the month of October when I suddenly forgive my (generally) as-yet-childless neighbors for decking out their houses and lawns in spider webs and headstones on the first of the month. Yes, okay, Halloween is fun. Here’s an awful Halloween story:

My little brother Matthew and I are riding in our family station wagon with our father. It’s late October, and the trees are nearly bare, but the lawns of our town are filled with brilliant-colored leaves. Here and there, along the curbs, piles of leaves have been raked into the street for disposal. Our father is shaking his head.

“Do you see that?” He points out the piled leaves I’d already noticed. “That’s one thing you should never do, Joseph.”

I’m not sure what our father is talking about, but we live outside of town, in the “country”, and collect our raked leaves into a compost pile on the undeveloped acre next to our own. Our father works in town, so I’m excited for what he will say next; hoping I’ll learn something which will, possibly, make me seem like more of a “townie” to my classmates.

“What, Daddy?”

“Why, rake leaves into the street like that? Didn’t you hear that story on the news?”

My little brother, sitting in the back, leans forward.

“Somebody had a baby they couldn’t keep,” our father continues.

“Why?” my little brother asks.

We’re both adopted, but he asks this stupid question.

“Because it couldn’t cry,” our father says. “So they had to stand over the crib all day, to see if it needed anything, and they couldn’t get anything else done. So they decided they couldn’t keep the baby. But they didn’t know what to do with the baby. So they put it in a cardboard box, and hid it under a pile of leaves, just like that one. And someone parked their car in the leaves…and crushed the box flat.”

My little brother and I are stricken. The station wagon rolls along silently for a moment.

“I bet they felt bad,” I say.

“Who?” our father asks.

“The people who threw the baby out.”

“Never mind them. Think about the guy who parked his car on top of the box!”

And, with those words, our father cuts the wheel of the station wagon to the curb, pulls to a stop on top of a big pile of leaves, and shifts into Park.

The next thing I know, he’s out of the car, leaning back in though the open door with a helpless, dumb grin on his face: “C’mon, we’re late!”

We’re late for Mass. The Catholic church is a block away. The bells are tolling. The sidewalks are filling with little Italian widows, dressed head to toe in black, tottering on their heels like witches. There are piles and piles of leaves between our station wagon and the vestibule. Our father is going to have to be a lot nicer if he wants us to move.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The whale (part one)

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach; Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville; The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte; The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas; Leviathan, by Paul Auster; The Natural, by Bernard Malamud; The Natural, (directed) by Barry Levinson; The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth; The Magic Barrel, by Bernard Malamud; Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth; David’s Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan; The Dawn Treader Book Shop, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman; “People Who Died,” from the album Catholic Boy, by the Jim Carroll Band; The Summer Game, by Roger Angell; Why Time Begins On Opening Day, by Thomas Boswell; End Zone, by Don DeLillo; White Noise, by Don DeLillo; the Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling; American Pastoral, by Philip Roth; Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I suppose it’s possible to finish reading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and not want to pick up Moby-Dick immediately. The fictional liberal arts college in Wisconsin where the novel takes place, Westish, trades charmingly on a once-nearly-forgotten guest lecture by Melville, and Melville and his greatest novel function as touchstones among the characters. For me, this sort of thing never works – it’s the novelistic equivalent of having characters in your movie watch a classic movie, and it only takes a few frames of Hitchcock, say, to make me lose interest in Tony Scott completely. Why should I bother with The Club Dumas, when The Three Musketeers is readily available? That’s always been my thinking, though I’ve made exceptions when the great novel in question is also an invention (i.e., the prisoner’s novel in Paul Auster’s Leviathan [a title referring Hobbes, not Melville, by the way]). But no matter, because Harbach pulls it off, also charmingly, and I moved on to Moby-Dick as a matter of course.

You and I may differ, though. You might decide you want to read another baseball novel, instead, or books about the game. Reviewers have taken the publication of the book as an opportunity to reiterate their admiration for such baseball novels as Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. (Malamud and Roth…I’m reminded of the joke, a favorite among booksellers: What’s the thinnest book ever published? The Great Jews of Sports.) I haven’t read either book, but I’ve now ordered them. I have very fond memories of reading both Malamud’s National Book Award-winning story collection The Magic Barrel and Roth’s controversy lightning-rod (dirty book) Portnoy’s Complaint as a high school student, in the seventy-five cent Dell mass market with the drawing of the uppermost floors of a New York tenement on the cover (Malamud) and the shocking-yellow Bantam (Roth), picked up in nearby Ann Arbor – purchased at David’s Books for fifty cents, or stolen from The Dawn Treader Book Shop. (We did not steal books from David’s Books, which was on the second-story above Discount Records at the time and kept books stacked on the stairway, inviting theft. We did occasionally steal books from The Dawn Treader, which was in a basement on State Street then and kept a first edition of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book on prominent display, under glass, at its front counter – which could have been mere prudence, but rubbed us the wrong way. David’s: cats roaming about, exposed brick, windows that looked out on the neon signs of the Michigan and State theaters; lone employee playing chess with a bald teenager – leukemia? Dawn Treader: a basement, staffed with scolds. Take your pick.)

[We assumed the bald teenager had leukemia because this was around the time of Jim Carroll’s great “People Who Died.” Of course, we were also immortal teenagers, and joked about the possible lethal toxicity of used bookstore odor.]

I’ve started reading Roth novels down through the years, but I don’t think I’ve finished one since Portnoy. Yet I never even tried anything else by Malamud. I think I hated the film of The Natural so much that, even though it obviously had little to do with Malamud, I put him out of mind, and the books drifted out of print for a time, taking care of the rest of it.

So: books on order, and, after the World Series is over, we’ll see what’s what. At that time last year, I went for non-fiction about the game, and read collections by Roger Angell of the New Yorker (The Summer Game) and Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post (Why Time Begins On Opening Day) – which are still in print or, if not, easily picked up used, and pretty much essential if you care to read about baseball.

You might decide you want to read another college sports novel. End Zone, Don DeLillo’s great college football novel, which Chad Harbach cites in interviews as an influence, is my favorite DeLillo book: compact, furious, as funny as White Noise but even loonier, somehow. (Like The Art of Fielding, it’s also a great school novel.) Here’s the opening paragraph, which you can imagine coming from the mouth of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor:

Taft Robinson was the first black student to be enrolled at Logos College in West Texas. They got him for his speed.

Then again, you might just decide to re-read The Art of Fielding, the way some Harry Potter readers, all-too-aware that the next book would not appear for a year or more, turned back to page one of the newest Potter book as soon as they’d finished it. (Harbach worked on his manuscript for a decade.)

I thought about Rowling’s books almost as often as I did Melville’s while reading The Art of Fielding. I’ve read none of the Harry Potter books, but I worked in bookstores during the series’ run, and envied the young readers their untroubled enthusiasm (especially before the industry turned it into a circus). I also (secretly, problematically) envied the adults – a number of my co-workers among them – who said Screw it, chucked aside their vexing copies of American Pastoral or Middlesex, and committed not just to Potter but to the cleaner lines and storytelling virtues of Young Adult fiction en total. I too wanted to fall asleep with a footnote-free slab of story hugged to my chest. A teenaged wizard riding a broomstick wasn’t my ticket, though. I’d have to wait for a teenaged wizard at shortstop.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A barrel of monkeys

My father had seven brothers. What was it like, growing up with seven brothers? More fun than a barrel of monkeys: that was always his answer. And yet he stuck me with only one brother (a younger one, at that; a crybaby, too – in a word, useless). Why did he do that?

When I was young, I found the idea of having seven brothers very appealing. I liked to picture my late grandfather, Shorty, who I never knew in life, on the pitcher’s mound of a baseball diamond, with his eight sons filling the other positions on the field. Even as a child, I realized how improbable this picture was: I knew the story of my youngest uncle hiding behind my grandmother’s legs when his eldest brother returned home from the Second World War. But it was the most contained, most perfect of the fantasies I had devised to will the entire family into the same place at the same time, which never happened in my lifetime – if, indeed, it ever had.

Though we didn’t see them all together, we nevertheless saw my father’s brothers nearly every Sunday of my childhood. They shouldered their way through the door into their mother’s house or a brother’s house, carrying crock pots and baker’s boxes and cases of beer in cans, trailed by our aunts and cousins, filling up the small houses and neat backyards in Livonia and Garden City and Dearborn.

I watched them closely, looking to learn what being a brother meant, with my eye mainly on what latitude being a brother afforded you. As far as I could tell, it meant that you never passed up an opportunity to abuse your brother’s children’s trust for the sake of a laugh.

Want some chocolate? my uncle asked – offering me an opened tin of Copenhagen.

Want mustard on your sandwich? – knife poised over the horseradish.

We children spent part of every Sunday in tears, mothers or aunts scouring our tongues with wet washcloths, our backs turned to a room filled with laughing men.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"It is designed to break your heart."

March 11th, 2011; Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin, FL; NY Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays: I’d never been to Spring Training before; I wanted to see the Detroit Tigers, but I was in Florida for just a few days, and this was the game I could attend. Dunedin is a pretty little town on the Intracoastal, and it feels far too small to host as major an attraction as a ballpark, but there it is, right next door to the public library. The Yankee team was a split squad: Nick Swisher, former Tiger Curtis Granderson, and a bunch of boys who wouldn’t see the Bronx this year. The crowd was everything you want the crowd at a spring training game to be: leathery, silvery, overfamiliar. “Nice try!” the old ladies, half in their cups, called to the young men returning to the dugout after failing to get a hit…and they really meant it. Toronto Blue Jays 10, New York Yankees 3

May 12th, 2011; AT&T Park, San Francisco, CA; Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants: I flew to San Jose for Game 7 of the Red Wings-Sharks series, arriving late morning on the day of the game, and thought, Why not spend the afternoon at the Giants’ game? I’d been to San Francisco before, but not AT&T Park. The view from the upper deck has to be the most beautiful sight in all of baseball. Out in the Bay, Treasure Island disappeared and re-appeared throughout the afternoon, just like the Giants’ offense. (I wonder how many times that’s been written.) SF Giants 3, Arizona Diamondbacks 2

June 19th, 2011; Jingu Stadium, Tokyo, Japan; Chiba Lotte Marines at Tokyo Yakult Swallows: If you visit Japan during baseball season, you can watch live broadcasts of Seattle Mariners (Ichiro Suzuki) or Los Angeles Angels (Hideki Matsui) night games on TV. Because of the time zone, you’ll be watching during breakfast. They are shown commercial-free; during the American TV timeouts, the cameras roam odd corners of the stadiums, or find Ichiro or Matsui stretching or just sitting in the dugout. There’s no commentary, just the ambient sound of the ballpark, slightly muted. It’s eerie and magnetic, but relaxing. In contrast, attending a Nippon League game is exhausting. It is a three-ring circus, with the game itself rarely in the center ring.

The stands are divided into Home and Visitors sections, like a college football stadium. The home team has a cheerleading squad, twenty strong, which takes the field between sides; fans sometimes accompany them onto the field between innings, raggedly performing the cheers alongside the squad, or playing catch with their own children. In the stands, meanwhile, beer girls, dressed much like cheerleaders or, given the uniform caps, stewardesses from the golden age of air travel, climb up and down the steps, dispensing beer into plastic cups from SCUBA-like tanks worn on their backs. (There is a different uniform in a different bright color for each kind of beer each beer maker sells.) When the home team is at bat, each player has their self-picked entrance song, played over the public address system, just as in American baseball (auto-tuned dance-pop), but they also have their own unique crowd chant, accompanied by its own unique rhythm – banged out on souvenir hollow-plastic bats (sold in pairs) by the crowd – and a few distinct notes played by trumpeters seated here and there among the crowd (fans? employees? I couldn’t tell you) and, in some cases, the syncopated raising and lowering of parasols in team colors. The crowd chant continues for the entire at-bat.

Wladimir Balentien, from Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, a former top MLB prospect who played two seasons with the Seattle Mariners, was a huge crowd favorite, with the most pleasing and best-choreographed crowd chant: “Home run, home run, Balentien!” But he twice hit into inning-ending double plays with the bases loaded. Chiba Lotte Marines 7, Tokyo Yakult Swallows 1

July 2nd, 2011; Comerica Park, Detroit, MI; SF Giants at Detroit Tigers: Driven from the best seats I’ve ever had at a ball game (ten rows behind the visitor dugout) by a lashing rain. Left for home during the rain delay, something I’ve never done before, but the sky was genuinely terrifying. Never before had I seen a sky like that in life. In Ghostbusters, maybe. SF Giants 15, Detroit Tigers 3

July 3rd, 2011; Comerica Park, Detroit, MI; SF Giants at Detroit Tigers: As beautiful a day as you will ever see in Detroit. With two on and one out in one of the middle innings, the hilarious old man seated behind me asked: “Who’s up?” Old Man’s Relative: “Brennan Boesch.” Old Man: “Well, he’s due.” (Boesch had 3 RBIs already.) Tigers 6, Giants 3

August 9th, 2011; National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY: On June 2nd, 2010, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga seemed to touch first base with his right shoe to get the 27th straight Cleveland batter out for a perfect game. Umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, although he later apologized for having “kicked the call.” Galaragga retired the 28th batter and accepted his near gem with extraordinary sportsmanship.—text of card on display with Galarraga’s shoes.

September 10th, 2011; Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI (via national broadcast); Notre Dame Irish at Michigan Wolverines: Yeah, football. Historic first night game at Michigan Stadium. First instance this year of a Tigers game being brushed aside, or treated as an hors d’oeuvre – in the middle of the pennant race! – because of a football game. It won’t be the last. September is a hard month for baseball fans.

September 13th, 2011; The Art of Fielding: This debut novel by Chad Harbach, set in the world of college baseball, received a lot of press and sounded hard to resist, even though I’ve been disappointed by the big new literary doorstops for some years now, especially when there was a sports element that seemed to promise to keep the thing wedded to story: there’s apparently a lot of tennis in Infinite Jest, but not in the first 200 pages (not that I remember, anyway); the hunt for Bobby Thompson’s home run ball didn’t make Delillo’s Underground less of a slog. I needn’t have worried about The Art of Fielding, though. Don’t you worry either. Just pick up a copy. “It is designed to break your heart,” the late Bart Giamatti, former MLB commissioner, said of baseball; the quote would make good copy for this book.

September 16th, 2011; Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (via FoxSports Detroit broadcast); Detroit Tigers at Oakland Athletics: the Tigers clinch the American League Central Division Title for the first time in 24 years. Tigers 3, A’s 1

September 23rd, 2011; Moneyball: Inexplicably bombing at the box office in Japan while I was there was a film titled Moshidora, starring the country’s sweetheart, Acchan, making her move from pre-fab teen pop idol (as an “elected leader” of the group AKB48; its ubiquity is nearly impossible to exaggerate) to solo artist (billboards for her first single were stuck to the side of every other building in Tokyo) and lead actress. Her first film role found her cast as the manager of a high school baseball team, who turns the team’s fortunes around when she discovers the writings of Peter Drucker. I am not making this up. If I spoke Japanese, or if the film had been subtitled in English, or even if I just could have snuck off on my own and none of my friends been any the wiser…I would have seen the movie; but I don’t feel I have to have seen it, or Moneyball, to say the following with authority: Brad Pitt is no Acchan.

September 24, 2011: What time is the next show of Moneyball?

October, 2011: I have tickets for the first game of the American League playoffs in Detroit…and I’ve registered to buy tickets to a World Series game. Here’s luck!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ratted out

Possible spoilers ahead, for those interested in reading/watching the following: Drive by James Sallis; Drive (directed) by Nicolas Winding Refn; Charley Varrick (directed) by Don Siegel; Reservoir Dogs (written & directed) by Quentin Tarantino; Queenpin by Megan Abbott; No Country For Old Men (directed) by Joel Coen; Thief (directed) by Michael Mann

The new movie Drive is based on a short novel by James Sallis, from 2005. I read it that year or the next, then pretty much forgot about it. That statement, in and of itself, isn’t so much a dismissal of the book as a consequence of the ridiculous number of books of its kind I was reading at the time – two or three a week. There was something of an explosion of neo-noir crime fiction writing around the middle of the oughts, along with dozens upon dozens of reprints of long-unavailable paperback originals from the post-war noir boom. I’d always been drawn to the genre and wanted to figure out how to write in it, and I was grateful for the opportunity to read the old stuff, and I was curious to see if I could tell whether the wave of cynicism recently attendant to the War on Terror would inform this new writing in the manner that cynicism about the idealized America that the veterans of World War Two found themselves returning to informed the moral landscape of the crime novels of the Gold Medal paperback era. Whew. Well, in a word, no. With the exception of a few major talents, most notably Megan Abbott and Jason Starr, the writers of the new noir seem like a bunch of kids whose sense of the genre’s history begins and ends at Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and even the best of their writing is similarly an exercise in style, with little consideration for much more than being “cool.” They pretty much treat the hard-won cynicism of their literary forebears as if it were something you can buy at a tattoo parlor.

It’s hard to say where Sallis fits in. I’ve read nothing else by him, but the bibliography at his official website includes a private detective series, three books on jazz guitar, an “experimental” novel, a translation of Raymond Queneau, work as a science fiction editor, and books of poetry. There’s nothing that says your basic polymath can’t also be a credible noir writer, but Drive just isn’t very good. Here’s the opening:

Much later, as he sat with his back against the inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

The story is but one paragraph old and I’m already confused. Much later, later still, but for now: Are we in the Motel 6 at paragraph’s end, or not? Are there two motels and twin pools of blood, one lapping toward him in his memory? How’s about Writer being, as they say, in the moment? Leaving the whole “pressure of light” business unparsed, it’s pretty important, in a thriller, to know the basic journalistic facts about the action at hand; it’s difficult to feel any tension if you have no idea what’s at stake, and it’s impossible to know what’s at stake when the logistics of the situation are indiscernible. (This is the same reason that most action scenes in contemporary films, with their splintered editing, leave no lasting impression.) Poets needn’t be clear thinkers, but someone turning their hand to noir had better be. The paragraph above unintentionally reads like Phillip K. Dick at his worst: with a head full of amphetamines, and the rent past due.

The film adaptation opens with more promise, with a pre-credit sequence that’s controlled and tense. After laying out the terms of his employment over the phone (“You don’t need to know the route…I’m the one driving…that’s all I do…you have five minutes inside…”etc.), Ryan Gosling exits an anonymous room in L.A., wordlessly retrieves an inconspicuous-looking, souped-up Chevy from chatty garage owner Bryan Cranston (“No one’s going to be looking at you in this car, kid”) and pulls up in the dark outside a chained gate in an industrial area. He straps a wristwatch to the steering wheel as two men in ski masks cross the street carrying bolt cutters. He tunes in the Clippers game on the car radio and the police band on a small portable. The men break open the gate and enter a warehouse through a loading dock door.

Up to this point, the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, seems to have the patience of a spider, and he maintains it through the getaway that follows – a sequence of Gosling evading, rather than outrunning, the police – that’s  smarter and more exciting than…anything in the rest of the movie, unfortunately.

Having established Gosling’s character as a smart, cool loner, the film introduces his neighbor Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, to start the process of rendering him stupid and uncool and lonely. Irene has a husband in prison and a young son, who looks up to Gosling; a chaste romance has barely begun when the husband is released, returns to the apartment, and puts his family in jeopardy – unless Gosling helps him out. He does, but everything goes pear-shaped, and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, as criminal associates of the aforementioned Bryan Cranston, need their bag of cash and their pound of flesh, in no particular order.

That’s it for the plot; it’s been done before, perhaps definitively in the great Don Siegel film Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker and John Vernon. That, at any rate, was the movie I kept thinking about as I sat in the theater watching the second half of Drive. Joe Don Baker is terrifying in that movie, and he manages it without covering himself in blood; Walter Matthau stays a step ahead of him by not losing his cool. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling’s character never saw Charley Varrick, so we are treated to the sight of him stomping on a man’s face until the man’s jawbone scuttles across the floor, revealing a penchant for savagery that makes no sense (nothing has prepared us for it), and from which the movie never recovers.

(An aside: there is a scene with very similar violence in Megan Abbott’s novel Queenpin, and it is tremendously effective. You might think the major difference would be that one is shown on the screen, and the other only described on the page, but the scene in Abbott’s book is harder to read than the scene in Drive is to watch. The major difference is that everything in Abbott’s book before that scene builds toward it, and everything after it is slowly backing away. In other words, everything has prepared us for it, yet it is still shocking. If it were a film instead of a novel, it would be in black and white, but that one scene would be in color.)

It’s true that it’s been many years since I saw Reservoir Dogs at the Michigan Theater and half the audience walked out in the middle of the scene when Michael Madsen cuts off the captive policeman’s ear, even though the evisceration takes place off-camera. I have a feeling that Nicolas Winding Refn would defend the gore in his movie as merely staying abreast of what people have come to expect in horror movies and video games, and by people we both would mean the 15 to 25 year olds who are the target audience for most movies. But there’s a huge audience for Drive that was lured in by the ridiculously-beautiful look of the trailer, and the footage of Albert Brooks saying “Whatever plans or dreams you might have…you’re going to have to put them on hold…for the rest of your life”…as if he was realizing a lifelong fantasy of playing the Kirk Douglas role in Out of the Past. That audience didn’t object to being shown what it was shown in Saving Private Ryan, but it must wonder what place charnel house imagery has in a stylish little noir.

How can this sort of story be filmed effectively, then, without blinking, while still seeming contemporary? As a recent example, think of the conclusion of the scene in No Country For Old Men when Josh Brolin shoots the pit bull that’s been pursuing him on the river: the dead dog he pushes off his chest is an obvious prop, without a drop of blood in sight; it diminishes the thrill of everything that’s come before not one iota.

Worse, to me, than any viscera in the film is what seems to be the idea behind it: an idea about purity. Gosling the loner loves Mulligan (and her child) with a purity you and I cannot understand, the film seems to say, and, to defend her, he has to say goodbye – which gives them permission to share the lone kiss they share – and turn himself into an animal. You are primed from the early scenes in the movie, and from all the movies of this type you’ve enjoyed in the past, to watch Gosling use his skill for outwitting cops against his fellow criminals, but, when his dream girl is in danger, he has to get down and roll around on the killing floor, ruining his pretty silk jacket.

And what of this pure love? Refn allows his stars to do little more than make eyes at each other, shyly, as if they were pre-teens. (In Michael Mann’s Thief, thirty years ago, James Caan courts Tuesday Weld by showing her the childish collage he made in prison, from magazine clippings – but Mann allows them to marry.) Would letting them take things any farther make Mulligan a bad mother? Would it make Gosling’s desire to protect her questionable somehow? This is the kind of old Hollywood morality that noir originally came into existence to cure, the kind of thing those WWII vets looked at and said, “Give me a fucking break.” 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A trick of memory

I was hired as a bookseller at the original Borders store in Ann Arbor in 1994. If you asked the townies, Borders was already finished by then: Tom and Louis Borders had betrayed their longtime employees when they sold the company to Kmart, two years earlier; we were corporate drones now. In truth, Kmart was hands-off, but the townies had a point. The Ann Arbor store had just moved to a larger building, to accommodate the addition of music and video departments and a café. More locations were opening, diluting the experience for faithful customers who had always made pilgrimages to Ann Arbor. The company was poised to go public and begin its near two-decade suicide.

It didn’t feel that way at Store #01, though. The original manager was still running the shop, still doing the hiring. The famous book test was still handed out to anyone who asked for a job application. Copies of the Sunday NYT Book Review and the New York Review of Books were complimentary for staff. A glance around the break room would typically find employees reading The Odyssey, say, or The Master and Margarita, or working the NYT crossword in ink. The closing shift often moved en masse to one of the nearby pubs. We rented houses together, stayed at the store for two or three years, left for law school. Only a dark night of the soul caught us referring to what we did as working in retail.

My lasting regret is that I didn’t become a bookseller there a decade earlier, because my first few years at Borders are probably my favorite years of my life. A trick of memory has had me mourning Borders’ demise as if those days at Borders were the sum total of my experience with the place, because the people I met then render dull most everyone I’ve met since, and the business of bookselling makes the duller, more-remunerative work I’ve done seem duller still.

The truth is more complicated, but not by much. I left Store #01 after four years, to open a second Ann Arbor location on the other side of town, in a new big box at an old shopping center along the interstate. It was just as sexy as it sounds. Customers pushed shopping carts from the pet supply next door through our narrow, carpeted aisles. The display space in stores was now sold to publishers, who increasingly threw all their marketing money at celebrity books. The famous book test was gone, and a visit to the break room would find the unspeakably-young staff watching television. It was, undeniably now, retail work. I fled back to the downtown store, where the good fight was still being fought, as soon as possible. But life led me away from Ann Arbor, and I quit in 2002.

And then…what? A decade of ill feelings. I can’t say I was much of a customer any longer; it had never bothered me greatly in childhood when a shoebox-sized Little Professor didn’t have the book I wanted, but to walk empty-handed out of a store the size of Borders, where I’d once been able to find anything, passing floor stacks of Glenn Beck’s latest on my way to the door, made my blood boil. Worst of all, when the life that led me away from the bookstore became intolerable, there was nowhere to retreat to – what once felt like home was now unrecognizable.

Now it’s over, and the idiots one expected to gloat are gloating, and eleven thousand more Americans are out of work (with more to follow). The only real lesson to learn from the story is perhaps the one Americans never seem ready to learn: Small may not be ideal, but Big is Crazy. Doesn’t anyone think eleven thousand is a lot of souls to be working in bookstores? And that’s only half the field. For comparison, there are less than fifty thousand UAW workers at General Motors.

I feel bad for everyone involved at the end, but I feel the worst for my friends, for my younger self, and for the store in Ann Arbor. For years, it was the best bookstore in the world; then it was reduced to a skeleton by ignorant suits, and now it’s gone. I’m not sure what was gained. A woman who gave many more years of her life than I did to the place recently posted on Facebook that this great experiment helped lead to a better-informed, more tolerant country. I rushed to agree with her, but the voice in my head said Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?