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Saturday
Jan092016

"Raymond Chandler" by Wayne Christeson, "You Spin Me Right Around" by Larry Singer, "Orange County Seafood" by Charlie Keys Bohem

Raymond Chandler

by Wayne Christeson

 

 

In 1948, in Harper’s Magazine, the English poet and critic W.H. Auden wrote:

 

[Raymond Chandler’s works] are serious studies of

a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his

powerful but extremely depressing books should be

read and judged, not as escape literature, but as

works of art.

 

Well, in all deference to Mr. Auden, there is nothing depressing about Raymond Chandler.  And though received criticism pigeonholes him as a “hardboiled” writer,  there is nothing hardboiled about him either: he is about as different from Dashiell Hammett, who truly is hardboiled, as a three minute egg is from a ten minute egg.  Chandler’s novels are far richer than mere detective stories, and when he is on his game, which unfortunately he sometimes isn’t, he is as good as almost any other American writer. 

In many respects Chandler is the equal of Hemingway, whom he often burlesques, or Thomas Wolfe, or other writers of his era. In subject matter and ease of style he may be closer to Scott Fitzgerald. The reason Chandler is not more highly regarded is that he didn’t write symbolically or allegorically, or about serious subjects like war or politics—or bullfighting.  And he didn’t see himself as a “literary” figure.

What Chandler did was create a detective, Philip Marlowe, who is one of the strongest and most genuinely likeable figures in fiction. And he sustained a steady evenness of tone for Marlowe’s character over a period of almost twenty years.  That’s not easy. 

Marlowe is dismissed by critics as a simple cynic, but he is actually a wry and clear-eyed observer of full-bodied Americans who find themselves in desperate situations.  His characters are substantive and human in the sense that they often do not fully recognize what they are doing and, in fact, that they are fooling themselves.  They may respond to their plight with cowardice or mendacity or even brutality, but it is unusual for one of them to be purely evil, unleavened by complexity or humor.  Chandler’s characters have something about them which is genuinely sympathetic because he is able to juggle the ancient complements of tragedy and humor without becoming absurd or unrealistic.  The power of his characters grows from the rich complexity of good and bad, dishonesty and stupidity, which afflicts them all. 

Marlowe tries, sometimes at considerable cost, to maintain his moral integrity in a world of these people, and for the most part he succeeds.  But his integrity is based on a code of honor and discretion which is peculiarly his.  His integrity may require him, in the end, to look the other way, or to bury part of the truth in order to save someone’s reputation or illusions about himself, which in Marlowe’s eyes are often the same thing.  In his own way, Marlowe is a realistically forgiving man: there is almost never a clear triumph of good over evil in his life, for he recognizes life for what it is.  Marlowe’s life is an exact and exacting application of American flexibility and pragmatism.

Chandler was classically educated at Dulwich College in England, but he spent his working life up until age fifty in the Southern California oil business.  He lost jobs continually to a combination of heavy drinking and womanizing, and he lost his livelihood altogether when the oil boom petered out.  When he had nowhere else to turn, he began writing pulp stories for detective magazines like Black Mask and gradually realized that he could write well.  He did not publish his first novel until he was almost fifty, and that novel was one of his best, The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep was so fresh and American that Hollywood decided to make a movie of it with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  It’s not a bad movie-- with the voice-over at the end: “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill?  You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep ...”-- but the best film of a Chandler work may be the Robert Mitchum version of Farewell, My Lovely.  It’s not surprising that it’s so difficult to catch the complexity of Marlowe on film, but it’s odd considering how deeply the movie culture informs Chandler’s work and how effortlessly cinematic his writing is.

Chandler was too drunk to write the screenplay for The Big Sleep, so the studio brought in some other screenwriters to try to salvage it—most notably William Faulkner, in his brief and mis-begotten fling with Hollywood.  There is a story, and a telling one, about how the screenwriters reached a point in the plot where they could not tell what happened.  So they called Chandler and asked him. Chandler was on a bender at the time, and he said he would get back to them.  When two weeks had passed and Chandler had still not called back, the studio called him again, and this time he admitted, “You know, I’m not really sure about that myself.”

True or not, it is a telling story because it illustrates how little concern Chandler had for plot.  Character and atmosphere were everything to him, and if the plot made sense, all the better.  In typical Chandler fashion, he said once that his operating principle was, “If you reach a point where you don’t know what to do next, have a man walk through the door with a gun.”  He didn’t write like Dorothy Sayers.

The beauty of Chandler’s writing—and its fun—comes from the combination of his graceful classical style and his foreigner’s love for fresh, rough American language. Look, for example, at the beautiful, panned-in moment with Anne Riordan from Farewell, My Lovely:

 

I put the light on her face and she blinked.  It was

a small neat vibrant face with large eyes.  A face with

bone under the skin, fine drawn like a Cremona violin.

            A very nice face.            

 

“Blinked” is the critical word here, briefly freezing the scene like a snapshot. The Cremona violin is characteristic of Chandler’s famous similes, but it isn’t just facile wordplay.  It emphasizes the taut strength of the curved bone finely drawn under Riordan’s delicate face; it connotes airy, vibrant openness behind the face which resonates with the power of fine music, expressed through her widened eyes. “Drawn” extends the reach of the simile into the tight, astringent stroke of a bow across the violin’s strings, or a knife across the throat. The scene momentarily stuns Marlowe, as surely as it does Riordan, and it seizes Marlowe’s romantic perception of beauty.  But then he steps back, and with purest irony he adds, after a cinematic caesura, “A very nice face.”  Cynical?  Hardboiled?  No: there isn’t any question about how Marlowe feels about what he sees. 

Or look, in the same story, at the first scene between Marlowe and Lindsay Marriott. Marriott’s fey, abstracted, not-to-be-bothered pose—“The effect was as phony as the pedigree of a used car”—betrays the fear and indecision of a soft gigolo who, as long as it is easy and relatively safe, works his weak but deferential charm on wealthy women. Chandler establishes Marriott’s character in his uncertain movements, punctuated by his inconsequential, legato dialogue, while Marlowe remains for the most part imperturbable and still.  Marlowe can sense that Marriott will end badly: Marriott braces his back against, of all things, the curve of his grand piano, like a parlor warbler.  But Chandler never makes Marriott a figure of fun. Marriott is flawed, weak, sad, and at the end of his rope. After he dies, Mrs. Grayle says, “Poor Lin.  He was rather a heel.”

Marlowe’s character is established in the same way, though more in his distanced internal perceptions than in what he says and does—which are often the ironic opposite of what he feels.  It is clear from his professional but wryly disgusted attitude toward Marriott what kind of man Marlowe is. Yet from the quietly lyrical descriptions of the house above the sea, Marriott’s flowers and the car he drives, Marlowe expresses his observer’s distance, his dispassionate ability to penetrate the silly ostentation of Marriott’s things and see their beauty—“The big foreign car drove itself, but I held the wheel for the sake of appearances”.  These are not cynical or sarcastic  perceptions: they are clear-eyed and wry, regretful that beauty should have come to this. His thoughts are truly compassionate, for  Marlowe carries compassion in his heart, no matter how cruel or fraudulent people may be. In his heart he is a romantic who seeks after redemptive qualities in the harshness of his world.

In a famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler concludes:

 

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption ...  But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid ... He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it ... The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.  

 

Chandler was for many years admired as a serious writer overseas.  Marlowe’s idiosyncratic code of honor made him a natural object of interest for existential analysts of “radical freedom” like Sartre and Camus, though Marlowe and Chandler would certainly have scoffed at that.  But finally, as Chandler’s legacy has matured, American critics have begun to recognize the beauty and importance of his writing. He has recently been chosen by the Library of America to be included in the pantheon of America’s greatest writers and re-published for permanent preservation along with Hawthorne and Melville and Henry James, and all the rest. 

Chandler would have been amazed, and Marlowe would probably have responded with his wry best to Auden’s over-blown opinion—something like, “What the hell is a criminal milieu?” (though Marlowe would certainly know).  Or, to steal a phrase from Farewell, My Lovely,  “If there’s A Great Wrong Place, Mr. Auden, that’s me you hear ringing the doorbell.”

 

You Spin Me Right Round

by Larry Singer

 

The big event of the day began innocently enough, but that's how they always start, don't they? The words that started everything were "Stat Counter", but they could have been any of the other 1,025,109.8 words in the English language that provided the opening salvo to today's adventure. I was trying to tell Billie how she could get good stats for her blog. We were at the Writer's Roundtable but the only round table was the one I was sitting alone at, moved to be within earshot of everyone else at their square table. It's not that I didn't want to sit with everyone else. It's that it is not as convenient for me as a circular table. My big power wheelchair doesn't fit that easily due to the joystick, arm rest, and casters.  Whereas most of the time, I'm just "Larry", at least to myself, it's times like that, where I have to sit at the "kids table" that the reality of my disability, a quadriplegic, floats to the surface, and I am "the disabled guy". Mind you, that was a minor reminder, compared with everything else that happened that day. As a matter of fact, it was so minor, I didn't think of it til just now when I began writing about the rest of the day's events, all of which served to remind me thatI'm disabled.

            Upon reflection, Alexander had just one horrible, no good, rotten, lousy day to contend with, and Lemony Snicket's series of unfortunate events were child's play. No...when life has its way with me, the struggles are of Jobian proportions.

            So "Stat Counter"... Billie and I were trading notes on our blogs, mine a rare music blog and hers a collection of letters from Vietnam. I was attempting to give her tips on driving up traffic to her blog by way of linking with other blogs found in Stat Counter stats. I turned on my chair as I had done countless times already that day, without incident, and rolled to her to show her something on my iPad. When I got close, it happened. At first it seemed like nothing. Oh, I rolled over something, or I'm caught on this chair leg, or anything else other than "my wheelchair is frozen and will not move". But that's what it was. My chair was frozen on the left side, so it made my chair continually veer to the left in a spinning movement. It was as if Billie was Magneto and when I got closer, she disabled my chair's motor.  And of course, when it first happened all my twisted mind went to was a vision of androgynous lead singer Pete Burns of 80's one hit wonder band Dead or Alive singing their one hit "You spin me right round baby right round..."

            I had no time for that, as I had more important things to think about....like Stat Counter. And as my mind is apt to do when crap happens, I start counting the stats of all the unfortunate circumstances that have happened to me, and do a compare and contrast to see which was the most unfortunate. Was it the time the power steering hose blew in my van on Walnut St. at 11 pm? The tow truck driver, avoiding all contact with me wanted to know if "he could get in the cab". After informing him I was fully capable of speaking for myself, I also let him know that I am permanently stuck in the chair. Flexing his mental muscle, he asked if "he can get on the floor". After informing him again that I am capable of speaking for myself, then I informed him of the even higher unlikelihood of me getting on the floor. So then, this Einstein said that since it is illegal for me to ride on the back, if I see a cop on the freeway, "just duck". Even though, according to MapQuest, we were 36 miles away, when we arrived at home at 2 AM he demanded $129 because the 48 miles he calculated were 8 miles over my allotted 40. It was too late to argue with this extortionist, but when I contacted Dodge Roadside Assistance the next day, the MENSA member of a customer service representative's explanation for the discrepancy was because the tow truck had "bigger tires".

            The executive lunch crowd started getting bigger at Panera. People were passing by wondering why this wheelchair person was sitting alone in the middle of the restaurant with no tables around him. A couple of people sitting nearby kept looking up and staring, holding themselves back from moving to help. And then my mind wandered to Aldrich Park at UC Irvine, where I was zipping through the park to class and my caster came flying off after hitting it with the cement cracks created by an uprooted tree. And after sitting with my head between my knees for about 5 minutes the sweet young petite girl who was studying in the park finally realized I wasn't doing a down dog and asked in her soft voice "ummmm...do you need help?" Unless she was a collegiate Wonder Woman, it was going to take some brawn, which came in the form of the three burly football players walking through the park. They righted my upper torso and lifted the chair and put the caster back in its socket, but the rest of my day consisted of rolling the wheelchair equivalent of tiptoes, hoping the caster did not slip out of the now insecure socket.

            Above the din of the yuppie crowd was Panera's piped in Muzak...a mix of non-threatening, soulless, generic "quiet storm" music programmed to appeal to the widest audience. And there it was...Michael Jackson arguing with Paul McCartney about who's girl it was. This meisterwerk in banal, insipid pop pablum, which fit in perfectly with Panera's intent of having aural innocuity was all my mind needed to get the neurons firing along the synapses in my brain. When this started, my mind started clicking through the Viewmaster of "Larry Singer's series of unfortunate circumstances" and settled on a single frame…a snapshot of Michael Jackson spinning while grabbing his crotch. What does Michael Jackson have to do with my story? The last time a side of my wheelchair froze was the day Michael Jackson died. This was my "where were you the day JFK was shot?" moment...the day Michael Jackson died. And that day I was spinning circles in the living room of my house. I couldn't even make it out the door to catch the bus, so we had to rent a van. When we got to the shop, the technician informed us I needed a new motor, which would take 7 to 10 business days to arrive from Ohio, but this was a long holiday weekend so add 2 days to that. The next stop was another shop to get a rental for the downtime, but this was a longshot since they were a scooter shop. They did have a chair, though it looked like it was last used to transport the infirm around Bedrock Memorial Hospital. Because life can never give me  my fill of misfortune, I definitely left my mark on the shop while during the transfer the clamp on my urinary drainage bag flipped open and the contents emptied on the floor.

            Michael Jackson beat it out of my thoughts when I remembered I had more important matters to tend to. That memory did remind me of a cold hard fact...repairs like this won't be done in hours or days. It may take weeks or months. I focused on what I had to do for the next few weeks, and seeing how ferociously active I am, it was a lot.

            So there I was, at Panera, with three relative strangers who were there to talk about writing, not do makeshift wheelchair repairs. One of the "strangers" happened to be one of my doctoral instructors when I was in graduate school but, dammit Jim, he's a doctor, not a mechanic. I generally tend to be an extremely optimistic and "silver lining" thinker, but my score on the LOT-R (an optimism/pessimism measure) was skewing to the "P" side. My mind emptied, all I could see was the worn carpet in front of me and the front door, 50 feet away (a far distance to travel in a 500 pound chair that doesn't move), which would lead to the two tiered ramp, leading to the parking lot, ultimately leading to my van. Oh, and damn, there's that entitled idiot who parked his handicapped placard equipped SUV over the crosshatch making the turning radius in to my van more tight. But why was I bothering with these pie in the sky thoughts? Getting INTO my van wasn't possible until I was OUT of Panera. My mind should probably tend to more immediate concerns, like should I have a freshly baked croissant or a blueberry muffin when the morning crew comes in and wakes me up?

            So the group came over because, bless their hearts, they thought they could do SOMETHING for me. My 26 years of experience informed me there's nothing that could be done. I know that they are all very competent writers, but writing me a new ending wouldn't be in the cards. An act of God would help, maybe. I did give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe there was SOMETHING that could be done, and had them check the clutches, which are easily accessible. Nope...all in order. Then they started firing suggestions about maybe pushing my chair or putting me in one of Panera's chairs...but that aforementioned 26 years experience....it knows all too well about the viability of any of that happening. No, my ONLY chance, and a snowball's one at that, was finding a wheelchair repair shop in Orange County, and one that could handle electric wheelchairs, and one that was available RIGHT NOW, and one that could come and do a repair in the field, and one that would be able to do said repair with me in the chair. To take total poetic license and mix metaphors, my chances now were finding a needle in a snowstack in hell.

            I hit the phone and called the closest shop I knew (coincidentally about a mile and a half away off the freeway). I explained my dilemma and wasn't expecting a miracle, and the receptionist said she would see if she could reroute someone. I spent the next five minutes on pins and needles anticipation, and when she came back on the line, the lift in her voice encouraged me. She was able to reroute the tech. He would be there in 20 minutes. Thoughts of warm morning baked goods dissipated in my head as I had a small glimmer of hope. I then realized the reality of the situation...sure I had a tech coming, but if he didn't bring a magic wand, or a crane, there wasn't a lot he could do. At the very least, someone would be there that spoke "wheelchair".

After we hung up, my phone rang with a number I didn't recognize. I answered thinking it was the tech. It wasn't. It was Brinks home security calling to let me know the glass break sensor has  discharged...in my house.... 10 miles away. With me stuck I the middle of Panera. I called my wife and explained my dilemma and had her go home to survey the situation.

            After sitting motionless for 30 minutes, suddenly the door opened and I was momentarily blinded by a flash of light coming from above. When the rods and cones in my eyes settled, I saw him.... my savior, a guy in grungy jeans and a white tee holding a toolkit and searching around the dining area. I called him over, and he got right to work. He assessed right away, the left drive wheel was stuck. He searched deeper and found the cause of this inactivity was the control module in the motor. He knew he had a spare motor back at the shop, if it was the correct one was a different story. Plus, the most important element, I couldn't be in the chair. Many people who are similarly injured have a helper with them at all times for such situations. The price of independence for me is that I have no such thing. I put out APBs to my caregivers to get some on-call assistance.

            Assistance, of course, would only be needed if I made it home. There was still the matter of getting to the door, down the ramp, across the parking lot, to my van, up the ramp (still with the tight corner, thanks Mr./Mrs. Entitled), and then being turned with a tighter corner and pushed in to my driver's space, ensuring lockdown in the wheelchair lock below me. My savior started to push, but he may as well have tried pushing a tank. A couple onlookers who had seen the events taking place and sensed that something was awry offered their services. My chances now improved exponentially. One of them got the idea to put something under the paralyzed wheel to allow it to skid. They got a plate and put it under. Doing a sign of the cross at this point would have been warranted, but, being Jewish, I opted for a Star of David. On the count of three I moved more in the next 20 seconds than I had the entire previous 45 minutes. The plate, made of plastic, was designed for light salads, not 500 pounds. 15 feet and the first one broke. They went and got a second while the lunch rush of 25 onlookers stared in astonishment at what they were observing, wondering how they were going to tell this story so their coworkers would believe them.

            Four broken plates later, my samaritans somehow managed to get me from my stagnant  position in Panera and in to the drivers space of my vehicle locked in place. I said my thanks and they wished me well, and I closed my van door. The battery died in the chazaride, so I needed a jump. Then my mind wandered to…my bladder? Yes, I just remembered one thing I should have done BEFORE becoming permanently stuck in the driver shaft of my van…empty my urinary drainage bag. The little child inside me embarking on a cross country road raised his hand and said “I gotta go!” I figure if I could potentially get stuck in the van, I had to make room in the bag. Luckily my sister lived close by and luckily she was available. I made the trek to her place and 20 cc’s at a time with a torn styrofoam cup, she emptied it for me. Then, my stomach told me that the muffin I had at Panera was not sufficient to sustain me. My sister brought me an assortment of snacks that you stock when you have growing boys and let me have some.

            In the interim, one of my caregivers, Mady, returned my text and said she could help. Her office was literally right across the street from the shop. I thanked my sister and was on my way. I scooped up Mady and we went across the street. We got to the wheelchair repair shop and I had her go in to get someone. The repair guy came out and informed me that they couldn't do anything with me in the chair. He told us to go get some "furniture movers" from 99 Cent Store and he would show her, my 110 pound caregiver, how she could move me. Given the ordeal three strong men had in getting me in to the van...it wasn't happening. I contacted the Irvine fire department, and they said that they could totally help me, so we headed home. They arrived five minutes after we did. The jaws of life were not necessary, but they came up with a plan to pull me out of my van and place me in my spare chair. Luckily I had a spare in the garage, though its battery hadn't been charged in a while. It had just enough juice to get up my ramp and get into the driver slot to take Mady back to her office and my chair to the shop. I made it there minutes before closing, and I waved the chair goodbye as I watched them push it in to the shop. It is industry-standard to never make promises other than "We'll call you when it's done", so I left with ambiguous feelings of hope.

            Luckily, I now had wheels to get me from point A to point B, granted, the battery indicator showed that I had the petrol fuel tank equivalent of about 1/8 of a tank left in the current charge cycle. I thought about tomorrow, whatever point b's I had to go to since I "might" get a call letting me know that my chair will be ready. I thought about the act of God, albeit less extensive than today's, that would need to occur to pick up my chair, take it home, and get me in to it. So I checked my calendar and realized the greatest irony of all...I had an all day workshop scheduled on Teaching Resiliency to Children. Add another stat to the counter.

            My first point B this day was to stop at the market to pick up milk. After visiting the dairy case, I confidently rolled towards the register and realized just how clear my head was not being plagued with thoughts about being stuck and sleeping in my van. The barrenness of my mind allowed other thoughts, like catching the glimpse in the corner of my eye of the big orange machine I just passed by.  Then I saw, of all people, Clint Eastwood. There he was, Dirty Harry himself, saying to me "you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?" Well, Clint, as a matter of fact, if I told you about my day, even you would say I was lucky. What more could go wrong? I turned toward the orange lottery machine and had a clerk insert my $20 bill. Scratching the tickets off later fit in perfectly with today's theme of some luck colored by a lot of misfortune...I "won" $4. What luck.

Orange County Seafood

by Charlie Keys Bohem

 

Have you ever eaten Orange County Seafood? You start with bread and butter. Sometimes it's rye, sometimes white, sometimes a baguette you have to rip apart with your teeth like a Geek at a chicken. There are wines. There are a lot of wines because people come to restaurants like these with the idea of spending a lot of money. There are also some beers, always summer beers and usually Blue Moon, and some cocktails. Then there's the menu, which is a list of stock items - a house salad made of crunchy, tasteless iceberg lettuce with the option of several salad dressings including but not limited to: a ranch that tastes mostly like sour cream, and an Italian with an unsettlingly sexual consistency - unrealistic and more in the vein of “impossible amount of bodily fluid” hentai. Oil and vinegar is your best bet. There are steamed clams in salt water with a buttery oilslick on top, crab and shrimp cocktails, crab cakes, and a lot of different fish that have all been filleted and cooked down into generic white food matter. The fish come with sides like steamed greens, which sometimes try to choke you and stick in your teeth, which isn't good if you're on a date. Also steamed vegetables, and mashed potatoes. Your date will probably order the vegetables and the greens and you'll feel guilty eating the potatoes. The fish ascend in feudal tiers from very cheap dab to unlisted market prices you don't find out until you get the check. Lobster and tuna are the king and queen of the seafood section. The check is usually a fantastic sum when you compare it to the size of the dabs, or the tuna brick. This is especially true after desert, which is chocolate cake with a scoop of ice cream. You pay the check and then you go home, and find out maybe that you got scombroid poisoning from tuna that sat out too long and accumulated histamines shit out by a bacterium that thrives in heat. When they cooked the tuna, all of the bacteria died, but the histamines remained in tact, and the posthumous spite of a hundred thousand dead microbes gives you a synthetic allergy attack for a couple hours until you fall asleep. Otherwise, if you don't get scombroid, you feel fine, you feel full, and you go home, maybe with your date. It wasn't disappointing. Anywhere else you could have eaten is fifty miles away, too, because the county is like a little butter spread over a million square miles of bread—bread you have to tear apart with your teeth, like a geek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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