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.