R  A  L  P  H
    The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities 
Volume Seven, Number Two

Early Fall, 2001

The Folio
The Folio is the print version of
RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature,
Philosophy, and the Humanitieshttp://www.ralphmag.org/
It comes out every month or so, and contains what we believe to be some of our best on-line reviews and articles.
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Reviews may be reprinted by anyone, for any purpose whatsoever --- outside of the obviously daffy ones --- but should include information that readers can find us on the web at the address given above.

--- A. W. Allworthy,
Folio Editor
poo@cts.com

 
 

Being Dead
Jim Crace
(Picador USA)
Celice and Joseph are zoologists and university professors. They met thirty years ago at Baritone Bay --- so named because the sand, at certain times, during certain windstorms, sings with a low hum. The two of them had arrived on a field trip, along with several other scientists, and after a few days, the two of them succumbed to love-making in the dunes, among the singing sands.

Since the bay is about to be invaded by a new development, the two of them, now married, decide to return for one last visit to investigate again the humming dunes and, presumably, have a memorial lovemake scene. At the moment of their conjoining, however, they are attacked by a rock-wielding robber, who mashes in their heads, steals their loot, and leaves their bodies to the insects, gulls and crabs.

Crace gives us a full-bore description of the actual murder, and what happens to the various body parts: where they end up, how they begin to decay. This is his report on the now-defunct Joseph:

    When he fell on his back, his legs apart, his fat and puckered testicles were on display. They'd split and torn with the impact of a heavy blow. The swag flies browsed his chest and swarmed between his legs. They gleaned the urine and picked at the semen lacquer on his inner thigh.

It is a few days before their daughter Syl figures out that they are missing --- and a few more days before their bodies are discovered. By that time, what is left of them has turned even more gorpy. Our author goes at the description with no little fervor:

    In the warmer, gaping caverns --- sub-rib, sub-flesh, sub-skull --- the garish blues and reds and greens of their disrupted, bloated frames. They were too rotten now and far too rank to hold much allure for gulls or crabs.... The swag-fly maggots had started to emerge on this fourth day from their pod larvae, generated by the putrid heat in Joseph and Celice's innards.

§     §     §

Being Dead won the 2001 from the New York Critics' Circle fiction award. It has gotten a veritable army of bouquets from the literary heavies at The L A Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Kirkus, Booklist, PW, the NYRB. The Hudson Review said that Crace "will probably be the writer who defines this era for future generations." The Virginia Quarterly Review cited the book for its "gentle and poetic writing."

If you ever had a moment's doubt that there are lemmings running the American literary set --- let this be your clue. Being Dead is about as gentle and poetic as the bombing at Hiroshima. Dead, Celice and Joseph are certainly not much to write home about; alive, they aren't much better. This is Celice reluctantly disrobing for her reluctant rematch with Joseph in the dunes:

    The naked pigeon thighs. The balcony of fat around her navel. The strong and veiny legs.

Joseph doesn't fare much better, with his "dropped lip and short breaths...his retracted testicles... creased like walnuts." Crace doesn't even want the old bastard to enjoy himself in the passion department --- he saddles him with a premature ejaculation before they can get the engines up and running.

Rather than a novel about old love (as some critics have suggested), the author has created a smelly stygian mess. He has a strange fascination with bodily goo. He comes back again and again, during the course of the narrative, to report on new slimy creatures supping down on what's left of Celice and Joseph. He gives constant updates on how their bodies are faring in the full blast of the sun, and on the many beesties noshing down on this unexpected rich banquet.

And its not just an exposure of bodily juices and decaying parts. Crace goes after exposing all the other characters with a vengeance. We get a full-on listing of the foibles, personality kinks, the coarse and craven souls of those who appear in this messy contretemps: the fellow scientists, the police, the keeper of the corpses at the local morgue, taxi-driver Geo, and the one child Syl. They are all shown to be insensitive, noisy, unlovable. All get enmeshed in the claws of the author --- making him some kind of a psychological nosher in his own right.

If this is the writer who "defines this era for a future generation," let me off the bus. Please. Eudora Welty said that authors should always have love for their characters --- even if they aren't the nicest of people. Crace obviously doesn't care a whit for his and, indeed, doesn't seem to think much of the world in general. Publishers Weekly reports that he liked his Critics Circle Award because he hoped for "a fatter advance next time around." He also said that "there was nothing critics liked better than making a winner out of a loser --- and short books." With less than 200 pages of slime and goo, he may have a point.


--- Lolita Lark


Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men

James Agee
Walker Evans, Photographs

(Houghton Mifflin/Mariner)
In his introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee tells us that what he has done is not art, certainly not Art, don't call it art. He tells us it is something else again --- perhaps a disease, perhaps a fury, and if we are to understand it, we are to put Beethoven's Seventh or Schubert's C-Major Symphony on the phonograph and "turn it up loud" and then "get down on the floor" and "jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking."

    You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.

This, he wants us to know, is how we are to understand his work.

Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us. The quotation is from Sirach --- also known as Ecclesiasticus --- one of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The irony of the words is obvious and biting, for Agee is describing, minutely, the least famous, the poorest of the poor, the men (and women, and children) who lived in and around central Alabama in the middle of the depression, in the summer of 1936.

If you have never read Agee you might consider the possibility of dropping this review and calling up the American Book Exchange or Powells to get a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men so that you don't have to waste your time in having me tell you what a fine piece of work it is. Barring that, let me say that it's the work of a young man (twenty-seven) who knows words and knows how to use them and wants us to see and hear and smell and feel what it is like to be intimately involved with three families who are certainly not famous but certainly are poor --- "dirt poor" as we used to say.

Agee has set out to bring us into this world, and he does it with a vengeance. It is apparent that he is trying to do with words what companion Walker Evans did with the sixty-four pages of photographs that appear in this volume.

In addition to what some might call the excesses of description --- the exact shape and feel and color and texture of a pair of overalls take the better part of a page --- we have precise word-pictures of three families, their children, their houses, the rooms, the furniture, the walls, the chicken coops, the land, the land under the houses, the roofs of the houses, the feel of the sun, the heat in the kitchen, the dying trees, the dust, the withering crops.

In the hands of a lesser writer, these could be dumb beyond belief; in the hands of this poet --- for he is a poet, and a musician --- they often take surprising turns that pull one in. To those of us who have lived in or at least visited this part of the world, the prose brings back a flood of sensual memories. Here is the single dresser in the Gudger's shack:

    The bureau was at some time a definitely middle-class piece of furniture. It is quite wide and very heavy, veneered in gloomy red rich-grained woods, with intricately pierced metal plaques at the handles of the three drawers, and the mirror is at least three feet tall and is framed in machine-carved wood.

So far, so good --- we know that bureau, and we have seen the likes of it. Now Agee will personalize it:

    The veneer has now split and leafed loose in many places from the yellow soft-wood base; the handles of the three drawers are nearly all deranged and two are gone; the drawers do not pull in and out at all easily.

Not only has he given our bureau age and substance --- he has plopped in a word that almost sounds out-of-place (drawers that are "deranged") but which, as we continue, turns perfect, the necessary connotations of crazy, undisciplined, askew:

    The mirror is so far corrupted that it is rashed with gray, iridescent in parts, and in all its reflections a deeply sad thin zinc-to-platinum, giving to its framings an almost incalculably ancient, sweet, frail, and piteous beauty, such as may be seen in tintypes of family groups among studio furnishings or heard in nearly exhausted jazz records made by very young, insane, devout men who were to destroy themselves, in New Orleans, in the early nineteen twenties.

In a hundred words or so, Agee has given us an exact portrait of an old bureau mirror, bringing in melancholy, sweetness, insanity ("deranged"), adding words that might not (for others) belong ("rashed," "sad"), juxtapositions which are in themselves rash ("insane, devout") --- a word play montage that takes us from this one room into tintype photographs and out to the world of jazz musicians who are devout, insane (again), tired ("exhausted" --- a record that has been played too many times) and, finally, self-destructive.

Or take this, on the exact smell of the Gudgers' house:

    The odor of pine lumber, wide thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air. The odor of woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak, and cedar. The odors of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odors of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second, the odor of cooked corn. The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung or stored away, not washed.

With these two (snapshot of dresser; snippet of aromas), we are there, in Hobe's Hill, Alabama, in the hot summer of 1936. It is a writing that is cumulative, exactly defining a piece of furniture, or defining one odor, then another, then reweaving them together, then accumulating yet another. It becomes, in his hands, poetry and music, for music appears regularly as a counterpoint to the words, telling us to "lie on the floor" and subject ourselves to the pain and the beauty of it.

It's serious stuff, but, too, Agee sprinkles a few jokes around here and there --- such as taking time off (he calls it an "Intermission") to excoriate the editors of Partisan Review for a questionnaire on "art." Or in the beginning "Persons and Places," he lists all members of the three families, then,

    James Agee: a spy, traveling as a journalist.
    Walker Evans: a counter-spy traveling as a photographer.

And as "unpaid agitators,"


    William Blake
    Louis-Ferdinand Céline
    Ring Lardner
    Jesus Christ (referred to earlier as "a dirty gentile")
    Sigmund Freud
    Lonnie Johnson
    Irvine Upham.

Agee says at one point that he would prefer it if people would read the book aloud. With its heavy Biblical overtones, with its beautiful circular writing, with its poetry, and music --- it becomes a classic of American literature, as important (in its eccentric way), as Winesburg, Ohio, Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, A Farewell to Arms. It is high time that it is rediscovered, and the publishers deserve thanks for bringing it back in this fine edition.

--- R. J. Ringwatters


[Great Reviews of the Past]

San Diego:
A Pictorial History
Raymond G. Starr
(Donning)
The most crucial fact of San Diego's life and influence is mostly ignored by its locals, outsiders, military, boosters, and owning corporations. Contiguous to it, a bare twenty minutes to the south, is the second largest city on the West Coast: Tijuana. No other sizable U.S.
metropolis has such a confluence of "foreign" ideas, language, social roles, society, mind-set, religion and Third world perspective just around the corner. San Diego is part of a huge (3-and-a-half-million population) geographic complex, but it is a very peculiar complex, indeed.

In opposition to San Diego, Tijuana has never suffered under the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that defined 20th Century American cities: "Planning," "Zoning," "Optimum Traffic Flow," and "Redevelopment." Without these, and in consequence, TJ has grown to be one of the richest cities in the northern hemisphere as far as diversity, street life, and livability.

There are laws in Tijuana --- like north of the border --- prohibiting what a majority of the people may want, but there is a simple cure for that governmental miasma. It's called mordida --- the ritual greasing of the palm.

In the land of the free and the home of the brave, by contrast, we've set up a very strict oligopoly on the buying up of local, state, and federal governmental power. We choose to restrict it to those who own the marketplace --- for example --- to those mysterious Japanese, Koreans or Chinese, with even more mysterious names like "Johnny Chien Chuen Chung."

In TJ, it's a veritable democracy of bribery --- everyone, even the poorest worker, is allowed to buy up a bit of the government. If, for example, you want to set up a taller to fix cars in your front yard, you do it. All you do is pay a regular fee to the representative of the city --- your monthly tax for doing business, a permitless business permit, if you will. In cash.

If you want to set up a little grocery store --- you start selling fruit and tortillas and sodas out in the front room. Licensing is handled the same way: no paperwork.

If you want to join the army of on-the-street taco stands, you establish the business, and give your monthly contribution to both the local police, and to the representative of the city licensing dept. (If someone dies from your cooking, then there's real trouble).

And if you get caught for driving without a license, for ten dollars or so, you are permitted to avoid all paperwork. You sure as hell aren't required to spend the rest of your life in a soul-destroying central computer.

To our knowledge, what no one has done is to examine the structure of a Tijuana to figure out why it is so successful. We see the buses there going up and down hills, spewing diesel exhaust, and we think, in our holy cleanliness, "pollution." What we don't see is a marvelously efficient public transportation system that, for two or three pesos, moves people to wherever they want to go.

As soon as new settlers come in from Southern Mexico, they move onto any convenient vacant land, and the local version of the TJ zoning department comes out to complain, and soon enough, he's gone, with his baksheesh, and then a community begins, people build tiny houses out of whatever material is available --- no building department inspectors necessary --- and within weeks, the private bus companies start sending in their eight or ten passenger caláfias to connect them with the rest of the city, and, soon enough, someone sets up a car-repair service in their front yard; and someone else establishes a grocery in their front room, and someone else sets up a taco stand on the streetcorner in front of the grocery. The community grows from scratch: real and diverse (and safe). It's "local land-use planning" without any of those arrogant $150,000-per-year Berkeley School of Planning graduate students coming out in their $40,000 Toyota Land Cruisers to tell you what to do.

§ § §

I look at my clean neighborhood here north of the border, and remember six months ago when the old woman in the house right across the street died of congestive heart failure. They didn't find her body for three days. The rest of us didn't find out that she had died for a couple of months --- we just thought she was in there quietly watching TV. In TJ that would have been impossible.

I look at the apartment building built last year down the street from my house, here in my neighborhood, where (with planning department approval, and zoning approval, and building department approval), they tore down a fine old building from 1935 --- without consulting the rest of us --- and built a bargain basement poker-in-the-ass building: eight units into a 50 x 100 lot, with eight parking spaces jammed onto the front of the lot. This building has, in its brief life, been visited with a half-a-dozen burglaries --- because everyone is isolated with their own quarters, their own heating, their own plumbing, their own units, their own desolation. Thieves know, instinctively when there is none of what the real estate brokers used to call, arrogantly, pride-of-ownership.

In Tijuana, they would have taken the old house with its four or five rooms and, without bothering about permits, they would have added on a few more rooms in the back, fit in a few more families --- most likely relatives from other parts of Mexico who have inmigrated, looking for jobs. They certainly wouldn't have put a Berlin Wall of cars out front to cut off communication between street and building and tenants.

It reminds me of when I was in Washington DC, in 1957, they decided to "redevelop" the southeast part of the city. Before, there had been "tenements," maybe 16 or 20 of them for each block, each one of them facing onto the streets, each one with its own entrance to the street, each one with its own stoop and tiny yard --- steps for people to sit on in the evening, to cool off, easily becoming the "eyes of the street" (in Jane Jacobs felicitous phrase).

With your taxes and my taxes, the blocks were leveled --- the wonderful brick buildings built after the civil war were stripped bare, bulldozed, and the land sold off to "redevelopers," those people who own the city (capitalism is a system where you don't bother with bribes because you own the local government).

In their place, they put friendless, faceless twelve-story bookend apartment buildings that --- even in their early days --- came to be shabby and dark and decaying, smelling of too much cabbage and secret sorrows. That was forty years ago when we were just beginning to crank up the two most fearsome of the Four Horsemen: "Planning" and "Redevelopment."

§ § §

Having said all that, we would like to point out to those who have never been here that San Diego is weird in other ways as well. The city's mentality has been shaped not only by local and state corporations --- but, as well, by the military bureaucracy --- Navy, Army and Marines (the latter who, residing in nearby Oceanside, regularly do seek-and-destroy missions on their own wives and children; for more information on this, ask those who work with the area social services and police; the abuse figures are off-the-charts).

San Diego has a local newspaper combine so pusillanimous as to make the other henhearted newspapers of California (The Oakland Tribune, The San Jose Mercury-News, The Orange County Register) look like The New York Times by comparison. In addition, it would appear that this local newspaper monopoly (rhymes with "Copley") has the smallest newsroom West of the Pecos: outside of wire service features, there are a plethora of warm, sunny articles on the newly hatched penguins at the local Friendly Fish Combine, Sea World --- alternating with the he-kept wife-and-daughter as-slaves locked-naked in-the-closet for-ten-years routine, followed by the she's-dying-of-cancer but keeps-up-her-social-life routine. It's a merry joining of Barbara Walters, Jim Bakker, and the National Enquirer. Unkind critics have suggested that The San Diego Union has come to be the largest shoppers' throwaway in the nation.

Twenty years ago, the local mayor was hounded out of office by the three jejune local television stations in concert with the daily journalistic bag-lady. He got vengeance by getting hired on local talk radio as an latter-day Gordon Liddy, having his pay upped many of thousands of dollars in the process. His major contribution to the culture of the area has been to organize the local noisy Mexico-haters to go to the border on weekends and moon the poor of TJ who are but trying to get across to work. This shows them what a kindly bunch of people we have over on this side of the border.

Some of San Diego's contributions to the universe have been Gov. Pete Wilson and the KGB Chicken (who are often confused for each other) and the annual South California Championship flea infestation: each summer the fleas return, migrating back, presumably, from the likes of Santa Barbara and Palm Springs, causing the locals to twitch and jump like victims of syphilitic paresis.

In the summer, San Diego holds an annual Over-the-Line Tourney with teams bearing such exotic names as "The Ted Kennedy School of Driving," "The Booger-Eatin' Morons," "Club Baby Seals," and "Roses on the piano/Tulips on the Organ." It claims to be "America's Finest City," whatever that might mean, but, in truth, it is run in the usual way by the usual poltroons to profit the disgustingly rich at the expense of the disgustingly poor.

The photographs in San Diego: A Pictorial History are as heartbreaking as you would want --- showing the pillaging of a once grand downtown; the erection of fifty-seven story glass dildos; the junking of a more-than-adequate streetcar system (dismemberment paid for by General Motors); and the phasing out of the Coronado Ferry for a bilious roller-coaster bridge which is now in the most favored situs for suicides. Author Starr's choice of photographs is fine, and the documentation is adequate; only the text is pedestrian --- it gambols along on wooden legs. He must have studied writing at one of the local student factories like San Diego State, the University of San Diego, or General Haig High.

--- P. J. Wirth


Photograph
(Circa 1960)

You open the freezer one morning
In search of an onion bagel
To suppress last night's hunger
And find an old photograph
Hidden among the frozen foods.
You don't question how it got there ---
Stranger things have happened;
Rather, you take it in stride
And begin the thawing process.
About an hour or two later
It all comes into focus:
The year is circa 1960,
Your family carefully posed
Around the backyard swimming pool
Which will one day swallow
Your younger brother, Herbert,
Who will lie, motionless,
At the bottom of the deep end,
Before he is discovered by you.
But in the photograph, of course,
There is no sign of this tragedy ---
Just you two holding hands,
While your parents sit, lovingly,
On the edge of the diving board.
And that makes you wonder:
Who took this particular picture?
Any clue you hoped to find written
On the back of the snapshot
Has disappeared across the wet surface
And become, more or less, illegible.
This bothers you for a brief moment
Until you wash a week's worth of dishes
And place the photograph in the freezer, again.

--- From The Gentle Man
Bart Edelman
(Red Hen Press
Box 3537, Granada Hills CA 91394)


 

[The RALPH Top Pop Hits]
The twelve most popular book reviews, essays and readings from Ralph's first seven years --- being those that have received the most number of hits over the last few weeks.

  • Fetish. Edited by John Yau (Four Walls Eight Windows) "The pleasures here come from the unknown and the famous alike --- from Rudy Rucker and Robert Kelly and Laurie Weeks and Kevin Killian, but also Charles Bukowski, Paul Bowles, John Yau (the editor of the anthology) and, at the top of our list, a delicate fantasy by Guy Davenport, called The Haile Selassie Funeral Train."
http://www.ralphmag.org/newO.html

  • Prozac Backlash: Overcoming the Dangers of Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Other Antidepressants with Safe, Effective Alternatives, by Joseph Glenmullen, M.D. (Simon & Schuster). "Never mind that hundreds of thousands of patients with painful depression were returning to productive lives. Never mind that 99% of those who commit murder are not on Prozac. What kind of headline is that? Blow-torch Murderer Was Not on Prozac?"
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/AH/prozac.html

  • Victorian Painting, by Christopher Wood (Bulfinch). "Mr. Wood defines the Victorian period as lasting, as did the good queen, from 1837 to 1901. Wood also tells us that his Dictionary of Victorian Painters lists 11,000 artists --- indicating that the era was "hugely prolific." You can say that again. For those of us who are softies for this lush, garish, tearful, almost pornographic style of art, Victorian Painting is a treasure-pot. There are 500 illustrations which means that for sixty bucks, you get a lush, garish, tearful collection of watercolors, line drawings, and paintings --- many in color --- at 8.33 cents a shot."
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/victorian-paintingZN.html

  • My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latino King, by Reymundo Sanchez (Chicago Review Press). "Escape is almost impossible. Powerful economic forces are in place to keep the poor and the minority in the war zone. Rents are cheap. If you are Latino or Black, the 'hood is where your families live. Poverty and unemployment are the rule, so those who want to survive must go into one of the accepted tax-free ghetto businesses: protection, dealing drugs and guns, procuring and selling stolen goods, prostitution."
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/AC/bloody-life.html

  • Good-Bye My Friend: Pet Cemeteries, Memorials, and Other Ways to Remember --- A Collection of Thoughts, Feelings, and Resources, by Michele Lanci-Altomare (BowTie). "'The Peaceable Kingdom' in Hartsdale, New York, is the final resting place for nearly 70,000 pets, and one headstone shows J. Edna Hoover: The Greatest Little Girl to Walk this Earth on Two of Four Legs. The cat once known as Tisha Roberts at the San Diego Pet Memorial Park proclaims, I Am Too a People --- and at a cemetery in Las Vegas, a rabbit named Charles Clayton has his picture graved in stone, next to the words, You'll Be the Thump in My Heart 4 - Ever. It's signed, Luv, Jennifer."
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/AF/pet-cemeteries.html

  • Nude Sculpture: 5,000 Years. Photographs by David Finn (Harry N. Abrams). Lord knows if we can figure it out. Anytime we put a sex-toggle word in one of our computer titles, we begin getting repeated hits there, despite the innocence of the material. "Onanism" --- a silly bit of doggerel by Mark Twain --- gets a passel. So does "X-rated-video," a serious look at that strange world, and "Fetish" (see above). This one, Nude Sculpture, comes up all the time on our hit-list. You'd have to be stretching somewhat to find anything overly lurid in any of these glorious pictures. Nude Sculpture is just that: cold, hard, smooth marble. Perhaps our viewers just want to get their rocks off.
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/AI/new.html#nude

  • All the Time in the World, by Hugo Williams (Akadine --- Common Reader). "Williams' description of living in Franco Spain came so close to my own experience that I sat down and wrote him a letter. I told him I was President of the South-East Burbank Hugo Williams Fan Club, and I invited him to visit to make a presentation. I assured him that although we didn't have enough in the till to pay his passage from London, that, after his reading, we would guarantee him a place in the Club's faded front room over the Hung Chu laundry, on the couch, next to head of Milton (or was it Keats?) I also told him that we would pay for a testimonial dinner with his local followers at the nearby In-'N'-Out Burger."
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/hugo-williamsZC.html

  • Strange Foods: An Epicurean Adventure around the World, by Jerry Hopkins (Periplus/Tuttle). "It's one thing to read about these disgusting dishes --- it's even worse to look at them. The photographs are, so to speak, all-consuming. The author is on a fine line here. I mean, they do eat duck embryos, on the street, in the Philippines. But I am not so sure you are prepared --- I wasn't --- for the closeup of a young fellow on page 139, chowing down on one (they don't get cooked until they are aborted at mid-term) with bits of yellow you-don't-want-to-know all over his puss."
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/AA/strange-foods.html

  • Sex, Drugs & the Twinkie Murders, by Paul Krassner (Loompanics). "Krassner first and foreskin was and is a journalist and a reporter. His writing is clear and direct, and he marshals facts to make his point, no matter how bizarre: he trained himself to write in a snappy fashion, and he does his homework. In that way, we could say that he represents the New York Times of the acid set."
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/AK/krassner.html

  • The World's Most Dangerous Places, by Robert Young Pelton (Fielding). "This is your anti-travel guide --- a purge for all the Fodors and all those giddy travel sections in your home-town newspaper. There are thirty-four dangerous countries listed, with another twenty-four "Coming Attractions" --- including The Basque Country, Northern Ireland, and Panama. The descriptions are cynical, and scary, but the real prizes in The World's Most Dangerous Places are the charts and lists. What are the most dangerous places in the world for European travelers? In reverse order: Kenya, California, Turkey, North Africa, with the worst being (get this!) Florida."
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/newJ.html#dangerous

  • Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, Christopher D Morris, Editor (University Press of Mississippi). "Doctorow comes across as a saint, putting up with interviews from every literary peddler on the planet --- in this case, twenty-two of them, ranging from a hack on assignment for Publishers Weekly to a boor from Budapest, Hungary, with stentorian questions like, 'You majored in philosophy at Kenyon College. To what extent has your training in philosophy helped shape you as a writer?'"
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/newZC.html#doctorow

  • "Geography Isn't Destiny," by Jon Gallant. "Sweden could escape those dark winters and the Strindbergian gloom by simply announcing that it will henceforth be a Mediterranean country. The Irish can fulfill their dream to be as far from England as possible by describing themselves officially as an island in the Pacific Ocean, and offering to federate with Tahiti. Seattle will make unnecessary its pell-mell race to look and feel like New York City by simply announcing that it is the sixth borough, and has been all along. Other slighted backwaters, from Winnipeg to Newcastle, will claim to be adjuncts of Florence or Aix-en-Provence. The possibilities are endless."
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/gallant2.html

  • litany, by Carolyn Creedon.
      Tom, will you let me love you in your restaurant?
      i will let you make me a sandwich of your invention and i will eat it and call
      it a carolyn sandwich. then you will kiss my lips and taste the mayonnaise and
      that is how you shall love me in my restaurant...
      Tom, will you come to my empty beige apartment and help me set up my daybed?
      yes, and i will put the screws in loosely so that when we move on it, later,
      it will rock like a cradle and then you will know you are my baby...
  • http://www.ralphmag.org/litany.html


     

    [A Letter]

    Dear Ms. Lark:

    Are you the originator of the RALPH site?

    It has many originators.

    It's a wonderful site. I'm intrigued by your name...

    Me too. Larks are too.

    Are you having books published as well?

    Our books are listed at

    http://www.ralphmag.org/mho.html

    Are all of the pieces at the site professionally authored?

    All of us are professionally gifted amateurs. We are renaissance men, renaissance women.

    Thank you for your time.

    And thank you for yours.

    --- Alexandra Lind
    mgarvin1@bellsouth.net


    My Lucky Star
    Zdenka Fantolvá
    Translated by Deryck Viney

    (Herodias)
    Sometimes we vow to never read a Holocaust book ever again. To immerse ourselves in that world of beatings and starvation and deprivation and random ruination of a whole peoples leaves us frustrated (there is nothing we can do).

    At the same time, it makes us very uneasy, suspicious of any hint that our own country may be moving in just such a direction. Every time we hear another hate rant program on AM radio, we remember, uneasily, that it's exactly how Hitler got his power: broadcasting vituperation, directed at the enemy without...and the ones next door.

    For that reason, we picked up Fantlová's book just to leaf through it (planning to stay with it until it got too bad) but we were soon hooked. It's hook is not unlike a murder mystery (the Holocaust is a murder mystery), a tale of a surprise nightmare. We are involved in a child's loving and lovely childhood in Czechoslovakia, a generous father, a kind mother, child flirtations, journeys on the train to Prague, the heady smell of the woods, young love.

    Then, suddenly, German troops move in; suddenly she and her family find themselves wearing yellow stars; suddenly the laws are getting strange --- the very laws under which a whole nation operates; suddenly the Nazis are in her home, mercilessly beating her very dignified, very kindly father. And suddenly they are being sent "to the east."

    §     §     §

    As she goes from one camp to the next, she tells us that she learns one important lesson. She learns that things will always get worse. For five years, she passes through a succession of them: from Terezín --- a ghetto where plays and music were still permitted --- to, ultimately, Belsen.

    We learn, as she does, the crucial importance of tiny things. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, she and her sisters share a single sewing needle, but by having the ability to sew up the holes in their clothing, it is possible for them to survive the bitter winters. In Belsen, she is able to hide a single table knife, which makes it possible for her to dig for roots to eat. And through it all, she guards as her most precious possession, the copper ring given her by her lover just before they were parted. Tiny things that become precious, that make it possible to survive the worst.

    There are a multitude of moments that give life to this book, and to the writer, so that it is not all unremitting horror. In Terezín the prisoners are allowed to perform concert music, to give plays, to sing. The one drama production that goes over like a lead balloon is Molière's Georges Dandin. We would guess that the playwright's traditional cynicism was just too much for that prison audience.

    When she, her mother and sisters arrive at Auschwitz, she notices a slightly sweet smell of smoke hanging over everything. The odor makes her wonder if there is not a meat-packing plant near to the camp. The prisoners are given clothes taken from other prisoner's luggage, which has nothing to do with their size or weight. Fantlová is given "an olive green georgette evening gown with pearls all over and flashing sequins around a deep-cut neck."

    "Who, I wondered, could have been the owner of the green gown I was now wearing? Why did she bring it here? To what sort of place did she imagine she was going?" It had, she tells us,

      a nineteenth-century look and could have been worn in a stage play about society ladies who dressed for dinner. Now I would be wearing it in another sort of play, with a very different setting and plot.

    It is these asides, that take a dramatic story and not only make it believable, but touching. It is a grim story told with grace; we are left caring for one who went into such an abyss and, with astonishing will, survived.


    --- Ignacio Schwartz


    [National Private Radio]

    They tell us that this month we should be celebrating the 30th anniversary of National Public Radio, but for many of us who love radio, and what it can do, and what it can be --- I'm suspect it won't be much of a celebration. It'll probably be more like a wake.

    National Public Radio was set up in 1972 as a national, non-commercial radio network that would, in the words of its founding charter, "serve groups whose voices would otherwise go unheard."

    And for its first few years, it did exactly that. I remember one afternoon, sometime in 1979 or 1980, listening to a talk on NPR. It was one of those programs that moves the heart, one that makes chills go up and down the spine --- doing exactly what radio can do best. It was the rebroadcast of a speech that Joan Baez had given to the Washington Press Club. It told of her visit to a children's ward in hospital in Hanoi. It was a gentle, poignant description of what our bombs had done to the young and the helpless and the innocent of Viet-Nam.

    I recall thinking to myself that at last we had a national network that would give us, for a change, the truth about some aspects of America besides pop music and five minute newscasts and ads. I also remember thinking that the work that many of us did in setting up alternative radio stations in the 1960s and 1970s had finally been vindicated, and that a new form of lively, involved radio would soon be commonplace.

    It came and it went so quickly --- that promise. If you listen to NPR now on any one of the 605 public stations in this country, you will wonder what all the excitement was about. And you can forget all that stuff about "voices would otherwise go unheard." In the place of programs for the wondering and the curious (not to say the poor and the needy) --- you get those endless, mindless jazz programs, and word-games on the order of "Says You!" and "Wait, Wait --- Don't Tell Me," and the daily advertisement for The American Oligopolistic Way and Corporate Socialism called "Marketplace," all brought to you by Archer-Daniels-Midland and General Electric and Exxon and Texaco and New York Life. Oh yes, there's also the insulting patter of a couple of guys who think my car is so important that I want to hear about it for two hours every Saturday.

    Poor NPR. Emasculated. Lost its nuts. And at such a young age. They say it happened sometime in the 90s, with Congress insisting that NPR become self-supporting. But that's not it. The balls of great American radio were stolen away not by Newt Gingrich but disappeared in the early days when it was decided that public broadcasting would be built on the commercial model. Instead of the wondrous shit-kicking experimental radio coming out of England (the BBC) and Canada (the CBC) and France (RDF) and Japan (NHK) --- it was decided that NPR would be a gussied-up NBC, CBS, ABC. And soon enough, it began to follow their rules: don't rock the boat; don't get the natives up in arms; don't question the system; and most of all --- don't mess with the sponsors. Thus, NPR.

    There have been many over the years who tried to change American radio. In the first years of KPFA Lew Hill created an impeccable American version of the BBC. There were community radio stations that opened the doors (and their microphones) to anyone who had something to say. Even now there are a few radio crazies around and about called pirates --- those nut cases who start broadcasting on a whim until the federal marshalls turn up with shotguns and convince them to turn off their transmitters. But none of these had the funding and quasi-governmental backing of NPR.

    Where did it go wrong? For $100,000,000 a year, a quarter-million dollars a day, we get "The Savvy Traveler" and "Along for the Ride" and "Only a Game." It's only a game, right? And that hundred mil. Where does it come from, where does it all go? As they said in "Chinatown," if you want to know why everything is so weird, follow the money. 2% of NPR's budget comes from the feds, 55% from member stations. The rest? Mostly foundations and Archer-Daniels-Midland, Exxon, GE etc etc. So many bucks invested in maintaining the status quo. Don't rock the boat.

    Every now and again I think that it's all a delusion --- that something important and alive is happening out there in radioland --- that I just don't know where to look. Maybe they do it when I am asleep. I tune into "All Things Considered" and I hear bits and bites of news that I could get on any of the commercial stations, an extended review of rock records --- rock! --- or a mini-interview with someone in Washington who will appear next weekend on "Meet the Press." I hear a light-hearted feature on fashions, another (another!) peek at the stock-market, and a one-minute review of books. And I then know that NPR has gone the way that Devo used to sing about. They've devolved. The promise made to us so long ago is long forgotten.

    Ten years ago I got a C-Band satellite receiver and started listening to the Canadian Broadcasting System network. Now that's radio. Great classical and ethnic music. Wonderful jazz --- a jazz program in which the producer actually went out and did some serious homework on the masters, mixed voice and biography and music: Bix Beiderbecke, Miles Davis, Fats Waller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. Talks --- serious talks --- on politics and science and art and poets and writers: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, Yeats, T. S. Eliot. Instead of one-minute reviews of books, a full half-hour of serious interviews with authors. And O yes, radio dramas, commissioned by the CBC, performed as high art.

    One of them came in to my bedroom on a Saturday afternoon, sometime back in 1991 or 1992. It was called "Grasshopper Hill." I was lying in bed reading and, at the same time, listening idly to their drama-of-the-week. Then I stopped reading. He had been caught by the Nazis, put in a concentration camp. At the end of the war, he emigrated to Vancouver, ended up teaching in a college there. He was describing to her --- another teacher, his lover --- what it was like.

    He didn't want to tell her everything but she insisted so one day he told her about being in the camp, working during the day in the storehouse for eye-glasses and hair and jewels they called "Canada," Canada was the paradise for working prisoners, the one place where you could have everything, especially food, taken from the new victims. Food which, sometimes, you had to kill for.

    As he talked, his anger, his bitter mocking anger, his jeering tone, all came clear. He had seen too much. No matter how hard she tried, there would always be that between them. He had seen too much there, in that other Canada. Love, any love, could never ever reach him.

    In slightly more than an hour, I learned more than I could ever want to about what it was like to be in Auschwitz --- what it did to the soul, and the heart, and the ability to be touched. It was a radio drama which could and did change one's view of the world, change one's vision of what we laughingly call "western civilization."

    I made contact with the CBC and finally found someone who had helped make the program. I talked her into making a copy for me (highly illegal). I made several copies --- sent two to NPR, one to the President, another to Susan Stamberg (who I had met a couple of times). I also sent a copy to my local PBS station. I asked them to listen to the tapes, try to figure out a way to get them broadcast. I thought "Grasshopper Hill" that important.

    I don't have to tell you what came of it all. I was the innocent. I was still thinking of the NPR we had back there in the beginning --- the National Public Radio that had been set up to give voices to those who had been voiceless for so long. At least, I was thinking, they would respond to my request; thank me, at least, for trying.

    You might try it some day. Go to your local "public" station (or NPR) and tell them you've found something beautiful or interesting that you think should be broadcast. Or tell them that you would like to help them put together a program on something of importance to the world, or to your community. Something outside the local traffic and police reports, something besides the five minutes news of rapes or robberies or accidents or mayhem. Tell them you would like to see them program something beyond "Only a Game" and "Marketplace" and "Says You!" Just try.

    It's very simple, really. All you have to remember is that early on, public radio was just that --- for the public. But then, somehow, while we weren't looking, they privatized it --- gave it to those who had far more say-so than you or me; turned it over to people who had and have a bitter distaste for controversy, and challenge, and complicated issues.

    Public radio has suddenly become very very private. National Private Radio --- owned, lock, stock and barrel by those who have all the chips.

    Until those times, twice a year, when they crank up the money-beg machine and tell us that we're listening to Public Radio. National Public Radio. Yours and mine. To support. Until the goal is met.

      During the course of this, you will notice that I have jumbled National Public Radio and its programs and Public Radio International and its programs along with local public radio stations. They pretend to be discrete, but in truth they all come out of the same pot --- a pot-full of fear and trembling.

    --- L. W. Milam

    [This article appeared in slightly longer form at salon.com]


    Testament of
    Revolution

    Béla Lipták
    (Texas A & M Press)
    Lipták was studying at the Technical University in Budapest and one day in 1956, he went to the weekly Communist Youth meeting --- they were all required to attend --- when someone from Szeged stood up and said he wanted to speak. He represented a free student association, MEFESZ.

    The party secretary told him, "You have only one duty! Your duty is to study!...You don't want any ideas from Szeged!"

    Lipták finds himself thinking of the student trying to be heard,

      Does he not understand that we are nobodies, that our collective name is "Shut up!" Does he not understand that he is nothing, that I am nothing, that we have no say in anything? Does he not know that the microphone is only for the Party collaborators and nobody, but nobody, else talks into it?

    But one student started applauding, then more, then more, and finally the "penguins" --- the ÁVK aparatchiks of the local Communist party --- leave the auditorium. Suddenly, Hungary has a revolution on its hands.

    Reading Testament is like reading a novel where you know that something terrible is going to happen, but you get swept into it, just like the students do. It 's all so innocent --- reminding us of the Summer of Love: students put roses in the tank-cannons; money boxes are left unguarded... placed on the streets to help those who are wounded in the early days. Peasants from the country come into Budapest to bring food to the students.

    Lipták was so poor he couldn't afford new shoes; he wired his old ones together until one of the revolutionary stalwarts said that he couldn't possibly be a leader with such sloppy footwear. But he --- twenty years old, a true innocent --- is suddenly a leader in the MEFESZ, bringing in arms, hiding from the tanks and the turncoat ÁVH. When those who have supported the Russians through the previous years suddenly disappear, he and some friends invade their offices, and find liquor, food, drawers filled with magazines:

      As I opened them, I could barely believe my eyes. The women were doing unimaginable things. One was standing on a fire escape of a skyscraper with nothing on except high heels and a feathery hat. As she was descending, she was giving a goodbye kiss to a young man in the upper window, while another man was already caressing her from the stairs below. As I turned the pages, my blood pressure rose and I got dizzy.

    Lipták's simple but heartfelt language is enough to bring up all those warm feelings we may have for the soon to be foiled uprisings from the past, where suddenly thousands of the oppressed rise up spontaneously against oppressors, whether it be the Philippines in 1900, Warsaw in 1944, Cuba in 1958. In the square in front of Hungary's Parliament tens of thousands of people suddenly appear in the night. The Communists turn out the lights:

      Somewhere far, far away, at the other end of the square, somebody put a match to a rolled-up issue of the party paper, the Szabad Nép (Free People). Others followed this example, and within a few minutes thousands of flickering torches illuminated the plaza. It was a serene and unforgettable sight. As we stood hypnotized by the flickering of thousands of flames, a deep voice somewhere in the back started singing the national anthem. A quarter-, perhaps half- million people in this gigantic square stood to attention as the hymn spread, filled the square, and rose to the sky.

    But, as all revolutions must, it quickly turned sour. Stalin had General Pal Maleter, an Hungarian official with whom they were to sign a treaty, kidnapped and murdered (as they did the Premier, Imre Nagy). Thousands of Russian tanks poured into Budapest. Towards the end of the spectacular but futile weeks, Lipták sneaks over to the campus and the ÁVH drives in and shoots Béla Jancó, one of the young leaders. Lipták lifts up his submachine gun, tries to pull the trigger:

      I checked the safety latch, but it was open. It was not that; it was something else...It was something in me, some hateful, ugly weakness that made me incapable of protecting my friend, of stopping those animals.

    Jancó dies. Later, when Lipták goes to help lift up his body, one of his shoes slips off:

      I made a bewildered delirious effort to put the shoe back on his foot. I was convinced that if I could do that, somehow everything else would fall into place. If I could only put his shoe back, all other things could still be fixed. If I could put it back, his body would not be so stiff, he could still sit up, he could still tell us the outcome of that meeting he had come from, and most importantly, he could still tell us that there was hope, that it was not over. But the foot was too stiff, the shoe could not be put back on, and under the enormous Hungarian flag, which covered the whole bier, one of Jancsi's stiff feet remained covered by only a torn sock.

    The Russians move in and crush the uprising. Lipták escapes to Austria and, ultimately, to the United States (Eisenhower ignored the uprising but later issued a proclamation to accept 32,000 refugees from Hungary).

    §     §     §

    As I was preparing this review, I told one of my friends about A Testament of Revolution. He sent me the following e-mail:

      My abhorrence of Stalinism, which had formed already, was reinforced by what I read about Hungary in '56 - '57.

      A thing I noticed back then was that while the Stalinists were always pathological liars, Hungary brought out a new trait in the Stalin-apologists --- willful unawareness, rather than direct lying.

      I remember, that very year, checking The Nation magazine in the library to see how it handled Hungary. I was appalled to observe that they simply ignored it. Pretty much the same ever since.

    He goes on:

      I continue to keep track of The Nation. The magazine periodically offers me free trial mini-subscriptions to four issues. I accept, then cancel after the fourth issue. Then, after an interval, they send me the free offer again, I accept again, then cancel again. Their subscription department is apparently exactly like their political department: they never learn.

    --- S. J. Rimsfield

    Keep Singing
    Two Mothers, Two Sons, and
    Their Fight Against Jesse Helms
    Patsy Clarke and
    Eloise Vaughn

    (Alyson)
    Patsy Clarke lived all her life in North Carolina. Her husband was a respected businessman and a stalwart in the Republican Party.

      We subscribed to conservative publications such as Human Events and The Dan Smoot Report and hosted John Birch meetings in our living room. We worked on petitions to impeach Supreme Court justice Earl Warren.

    In the early 1990s her son Mark was diagnosed HIV-positive and confessed to her that he was gay. Shortly afterwards, he became ill with the symptoms of full-blown AIDS. He died at age thirty-one, in considerable agony. Clarke realized that she had created a situation where until the last few months, Mark fought his illness alone, isolated from the family.

    Jesse Helms, one of the two Senators who represented her state (and who had been friends with her husband) was attacking gays on the floor of the Senate, trying to block funding for further AIDS research. Ms. Clarke wrote him a letter, reminding him of the kindness he had shown when her husband had died in an airplane accident. She asked him to be equally kind with those who were dying or had died of AIDS.

    He responded,

      I know Mark's death was a devastating blow to you. As far as homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not. As for Mark, I wish he had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity. I have sympathy for him and for you. But there is no escaping the reality of what happened.

    For those of us reading these words in the clear light of day, there's a word for his response. It is called hard-hearted. However Ms. Clarke is nothing if not a fighter. She and Eloise Vaughn --- an equally well-connected conservative in North Carolina politics, and one who had also lost a son to AIDS --- created MAJIC, Mothers Against Jesse in Congress. They opposed him vigorously in the 1996 election, horrifying many of their friends and fellow church-goers.

    They gave speeches, raised funds, appeared on national television, and so rattled the cage that Helms had them put down as number two on his Nixonian-style "enemies" list. The Senator won reëlection, Clarke and Vaughn lost, but they attracted a fair amount of attention. This is their story. It is told in a simple and guileless way.

    The only problem as we can see is that the two ladies didn't choose to challenge the good Senator on his own territory. He is right in saying that the Bible condemns homosexuality outright. Leviticus 20:13 says that if a man shall lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. But Leviticus casts a wide net: it also condemns to death those who commit adultery, incest, and who "lie with a beast." Thus one who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible might ask that Gary Condit --- the Congressman from California who has recently admitted to adultery --- be put to death, preferably in the ancient Old Testament way, by stoning.

    At the same time, the Bible does speaks affirmatively of other, more unusual life-styles. For example, it sees slavery as an acceptable, natural fact of human existence. Leviticus 19:20 says that if a man "lieth carnally with a woman that is a bondmaid" (eg, a slave), then "she shall be scourged" (eg, beaten). The man, however, shall not be punished. Why? Because "she was not free." One, thus, can only be punished for carnally knowing one who is not a slave.

    Exodus, in Chapter 21, speaks frankly about the buying and selling of humans. If thou buy an Hebrew servant, it says, six years he shall serve: in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. But there is a kicker: if the master buys a wife for the slave, and if

      she have born him sons or daughters: the wife and her children shall be her masters'.

    It goes on to say that if the owner "smite" his slave, and kill him, "he shall be surely punished." But there is this caveat: if the slave does not die promptly, if he continue to live for "a day or two, he shall not be punished, for he is his money." In other words, the slave represents real assets. In present day terms, this is known as "the capital imperative."

    §     §     §

    It is obvious that since Helms is a firm believer of Biblical inerrancy, he should be a force for enforcing the manifold strictures of the Old Testament. On the basis of the many passages in the Bible that speak positively of "bondsmen" and "bondswomen," we would suggest he introduce in Congress a Second Helms Amendment, one that would call for the repeal of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery.

    In addition, if he truly wants to punish the wicked, Helms Amendment #2 could also be a vehicle to reintroduce ancient penalties --- like the stoning of sinners. For instance, Deuteronomy 22:18 tells us that if one has a "stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother," then

      the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die.

    Further, if a daughter is "not a maid," and "the tokens of virginity be not found," then

      the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.

    The man who violated her? The elders will "amerce" (penalize) him for his malfeasances to the tune of "hundred shekels of silver." At the current exchange rate --- approximately four New Israeli shekels to the dollar --- that would be twenty-five U.S. dollars. A paltry price indeed for a man to pay for his sins.


    --- Carlos Amantea


    [Another Letter]

    REF: Paradox-of-the-Month

    Dear Lolita Lark:

    Say, I was wondering. Is this for real? ---

      Oh, I know I too shall and be as when I was not yet, only, all over instead of in store. That makes happy, often now my murmur falters and dies and I weep for happiness as I go along and for love of this old earth that has carried me so long and whose uncomplain-ingness will soon be mine. Just under the surface I shall be, all together at first then separate and drift through all the earth and perhaps, in the end, through a cliff into the sea, something of me.


    --- Samuel Beckett

    In other words, did Samuel Beckett really write it, or is it just a hoax, so to speak, somewhat similar to "All That Spring"

    http://www.ralphmag.org/briefsK.html

    Thank you in advance for clearing up this thorny dilemma, namely, whether or not I should post a link to "Death."

    --- Donald M. Wilson
    The Samuel Beckett On-Line
    Resources and Links Pages
    lifeform@Samuel-Beckett.net
    http://www.Samuel-Beckett.net


    [The Clock]

    It was about 1300 A. D. that the step was taken of momentarily interrupting rotary movement by a crown rod and balance wheel. This function was called "escapement" and was the means of literally translating the continuous force of the wheel into the visual principle of uniform but segmented succession.

     
     

    Escapement introduced the reciprocal reversing action of the hands in rotating a spindle forward and backward. The meeting in the mechanical clock of this ancient extension of hand movement with the forward rotary motion of the wheel was, in effect, the translation of hands into feet, and feet into hands.

    --- Understanding Media
    Marshall McLuhan


    Chump Change
    Dan Fante
    (Sun Dog)
    John Fante was one of those unsung American writers of the 30s and 40s. His stories, Big Hunger, his novels, Road to LA and Ask for Dust, along with the autobiography, 1933 Was a Bad Year, are classics of obscure American literature. Chump Change, is, by contrast, a personal tale of Junior growing up as son of this famous writer.

    My memories of the older Fante's writings are particularly benign. It's a kindly school of fiction that I remember even now, years after reading it, with great fondness. The work of Junior is a different breed entirely, more like picking up an already-opened soft drink and after the first slug, realizing far too late that someone has dumped a half-smoked cigarette in it, or, better, a roach.

    There's boozing and stealing cars and boozing and picking up whores and boozing and attempted suicides and boozing and fighting with the family and snorting coke and blacking out on smarmy motel rooms and upchuck and dog-shit in the back seat and trashing cars and putting unmentionable things in women's purses.

    The blurbs compare Fante Junior to Bukowski. This is automatic. If someone writes about drinking and puking it all back up we naturally think Bukowski. But hidden in Bukowski's novels was always a hint of very rough compassion, a high and rollicking sense of humor, even a tad of shame. Not much of that here. The only compassion to be found in Chump Change is the author's affection for a revolting, aged, and thoroughly ugly dying bull-dog --- one who belongs to his dying father.

    The death of Fante Senior is the core of the story here (along with puking, etc). It takes almost the full 200 pages for the old man to finally give up the ghost, so I guess the pooping and snarling bulldog (carrying around a rotten gopher, in his mouth, in the back-seat of the stolen car) must have some symbolic value.

    By contrast, there are very few moments of glee in Chump Change. Sneaking Rocco the dog into the hospital room for a last farewell to the old man is one. The build-up Junior has to go through to get a job as a salesman for a singles dating club is another.

    Best of all, there's the stealing of his wife's credit card and, with it, a visit to a local mini-mart liquor store to fill up three shopping baskets with Mad Dog 20-20 (there's that symbolic dog again), "Genoa salami and ten kinds of frozen dinners and crackers and mayonnaise and salad dressing and a dozen brands of plastic cold cuts." The counter next to the cash-register fills up with "packages of light bulbs, telephone cords, and plastic-wrapped flash lights."

      Oreos and Malomars went in and chocolate chips by the dozen. Bags and bags. Peanut butter and oatmeal and even twenty packages of coconut macaroons that I knew I'd never eat.

    "I had a mission," he tells us.

    Junior is obviously one of those people who you and I wouldn't want to meet on a bet. Like a mad dog, he will turn on you snarling and grinding his teeth and stinking of booze. If for some stupid reason you loan him some money, he goes right out and spends it so he can come back drunk, beat on your door at three a.m., and demand another loan.

    §     §     §

    Having said all that about this disgusting tour de force, I want to tell you that I couldn't put it down, in all its vomiting moiling seething alky-shaking mess. I read it at a sitting. It's probably not unlike being at the scene of a massive freeway pile-up, or maybe witness to a drive-by shooting. After it's all over, you want to know everything --- how it happened, why it happened, who got hurt, and, in the heap of bodies over there, if there are any who survived.

    In Chump Change, the survivors are few. Fante Senior doesn't make it. Neither does Rocco (nor his rotten gopher). Fante Junior does more or less --- but after all the boozing and shakes and stabbing himself in the belly and those disgusting Malomar bars and potato chips and cheese puffs he keeps throwing down (and promptly throwing back up) I am blessed if I can see how.


    --- R. F. Rowse


    [Query on Thomas Wolfe]

    RALPH:

    I just discovered your website --- beautifully designed, it is.

    I have a question --- a literary one, of course.

    At the bottom of the various screens is the clickable, highlighted phrase:

    GO HOME AGAIN

    According to T. Wolfe, one can't go home again. Have you hit upon something new re this long-held assumption?

    Congratulations again on this lovely site.

    --- Martha Sachs, Curator
    Special Collections
    Penn State Harrisburg Library
    mxs@psulias.psu.edu


    Dear Ms. Sachs:

    Interesting. We've been around all these years, and you are the first one to comment on the design of the on-line RALPH.

    We spent months learning HTML by trial-and-error, making up colors, leaning the hard way the difference between div align=left and div align=right. It is fascinating... if one has the desire, as we did, to be a 21st Century Blake (which we could define as control, as much as possible, over the means of production).

    Finally, after a year or so of mistakes --- mistakes that appear immediately when the page is called up in hyperspace --- we figured out how to get, on a limited screen, what we wanted.

    Simplicity was our goal: not too much crowding; black-and-white photographs, especially old ones, especially old cuts. Lots of space. Nice --- not obscene --- colors. Appropriate contrast between type and background.

    Knowing all the while that unlike movies or books or magazines (and like TV and radio), we are dependent on the machinery that our visitors bring with them. Thus if they have lousy color definition and ratty screens, no matter how good we are, they won't get what we are striving to give.

    In that way it's like early television: go to the lowest common denominator. The difference is that those early transmissions were, in the McLuhanesque sense, form being moulded by function. In contrast, we saw the chance to give some art to one of the oldest literary genres --- that is, a mix of essay, review, poetry, and fun.

    In regards to your second question...

    We don't believe Wolfe, anyway. He was so prolix that he most probably wrote somewhere, You can go home again. He was a master at contradicting himself because he was a writer who specialized in writing too much.

    We much prefer the words of J. R. Payne,

      Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home
      Home, home, sweet, sweet home!

    Perhaps we should use this at the bottom of our electronic pages.

    Lolita Lark
    --- RALPH
    poo@cts.com


    [Spring Pastoral]

    Liza, go steep your long white hands
    In the cool waters of that spring
    Which bubbles up through shiny sands
    The color of a wild-dove's wing.

    Dabble your hands, and steep them well
    Until those nails are pearly white
    Now rosier than a laurel bell;
    Then come to me at candlelight.

    Lay your cold hands across my brows,
    And I shall sleep, and I shall dream
    Of silver-pointed willow boughs
    Dipping their fingers in a stream.

    --- Elinor Wylie (1885-1928)
    From Three Centuries of American Poetry
    ©1999 Bantam Books