Tag Archives: book excerpts

Good World


I had some free time over the holiday weekend, so I adapted a John Haskell short story that has been making me cry since 2004.

Here’s the audio:


Here’s John’s book, which is wonderful.

And here’s a video I made based on another one of his stories.


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The Pleasures of the Super Gossipy Johnny Carson Biography

On my flight to Armenia I read Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin, Carson’s longtime lawyer, business manager and friend. I recommend the book for three reasons: First, it’s the kind of book you can read in five hours like it’s an airport whodunit.

Second, it’s a portrait of an era so bygone it might as well be Jane Austen:

Sitting across the room was Tom Snyder, the host of The Tomorrow Show, the NBC program that followed Johnny’s. Snyder, who was dining along, sent our table a round of drinks. […] Johnny had long harbored a serious dislike for Snyder, based on nothing but his performances on TV. He thought Snyder had no talent and was an officious bore, and after Johnny had his second glass of wine, we could see his anger bubbling just below the surface. […]

Johnny kept eyeing [Snyder] and finally said, ‘Why the fuck is he staring at me? I’m going to go over there and kick the shit out of that guy.’ […]

Johnny lunged across the table and grabbed for Snyder’s throat. He got nowhere close. Quinn got in front of Snyder and I pulled on Johnny’s arm and McMahon moved his bulk in between.

And another one:

The last time I saw Rick Carson [Johnny’s son, who later died in a car accident] was at the Tonight Show anniversary party that took place on the Queen Mary in October 1987. […] Dinner, dancing and entertainment were part of the festivities, as was a casino where people could play blackjack, roulette and craps. Rick was playing in the casino and drinking heavily. His father went to see him in order the keep him under control, and a screaming match ensued. Johnny lost his temper and began yelling, and Rick responded in kind. Johnny pulled back his fist—he was going to slug his son—but somebody stepped in and hustled Johnny away.

In case it isn’t clear what’s happening here, this is the most famous person in America drunkenly attempting to beat up his own son at a fundraising event on a cruise ship. Media were in attendance, as were members of Carson’s staff, their spouses, hired help. Yet we are only hearing about this now.

Then there are the women. Bushkin describes the weekends Carson used to play Vegas. Two shows a night, 10 weeks a year, his material never changed, and neither did his pre- and post-show routine. He would glad-hand his celebrity friends (five minutes at a time—one of Bushkin’s jobs was to make sure Carson was never trapped in conversation with another person too long), then find girls from the slot machines or the front row and take them back to his hotel room.

The next day Johnny called to make sure the girls would be coming to the show. ‘Maybe they would like to join us at a small dinner party afterward,’ Johnny suggested, ‘up in my apartment.’ […]

The three girls were skinny-dipping in the rooftop swimming pool, while Johnny, wearing nothing but an apron, served then wine from a silver platter.

Maybe I’m naive about the lifestyles of celebrities these days, but this sort of thing strikes me as unimaginable today. One of these women would tweet a photo of the Carsonalia, would YouTube a clip of Carson sleeping off the revelry the next morning.

But reading the book, you realize that it’s not just the technology that has changed. Carson’s fame peaked when he was in his late 40s to his mid 60s. This was a married man, with three kids from the first (of four) wives that he all but abandoned.

Bushkin notes that Carson smoked four packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life, that he drank to excess nearly every night, that he kept a .38 in his glove box. At every location, Carson relied on an architecture of bellhops, hotel managers and personal secretaries to facilitate a steady supply of alcohol and hook-ups with women of diminishing age-appropriateness.

‘In the environs of a Las Vegas hotel,’ Bushkin writes, ‘a free-fire zone where no wives were allowed, it was generally accepted that the bigger the star, the greater the latitude for indiscretion.’

The third and deepest source of the book’s pleasures is its Big Reveal of Carson as an extreme introvert. As Bushkin describes him, Carson was charming, generous, lively and gracious—but only in small amounts, and under conditions where he controlled each interaction. A one-on-one interview, on his own show, six minutes at a time, with breaks to sell lawnmowers and hair polish, that was Carson’s ideal way of interacting with people. He hated cocktail parties and public appearances, situations where he wasn’t able to choreograph who he would meet, what he would talk about and for how long.

As you can see in the above clips, Carson had a nasty streak. His friendships, his professional relationships, his marriages, nearly all of them ended abruptly and permanently after a perceived slight. It’s like Carson realized that he liked being alone more than he liked his agents and managers, his wives, even (spoiler alert) Bushkin himself. One by one, they all end up under Carson’s emotional guillotine, never to be contacted or acknowledged ever again.

Bushkin notes that Carson died alone, his hospital bed un-surrounded by friends or family. His retirement from television was one of the largest outpourings of emotion in history. Days of tearful actors and audience members telling him how much he meant to them. But behind it all, it turns out Carson had no inner circle, only the outer one.


Filed under America, Books, Serious

Will I be pretty, will I be rich?

The program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, […] set up two years before the Final Solution: Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas’ others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate.

Questioned after the war, each one of those people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession. The doctor didn’t kill anyone, either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors.

The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job — and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty?

[…] Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair.

That’s from Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones‘.

Reading the novel’s first few pages (all of the above appears before, like, page 10. This book is Not. Fucking. Around.), I keep wondering if the post-WWII generation is the first in history to live with this understanding, that they might have acted monstrously if they were born in different circumstances.

I don’t know how previous generations and civilizations looked upon their history, but I doubt it was with as much guilt and apology as we do. From colonialism to slavery to segregation to 1980s shoulderpads, everything I’ve learned about history combines to form a sort of collective cringe.

I wonder if this began with the struggle to teach Nazism to the people who had survived it, fought against it, participated in it. When I learned about Hitler’s Germany, it was always with an acknowledgement that it could have been me on either end of the rifle or the gas chamber. I was asked to empathize not only with the victims, but with the perpetrators, in a way I wasn’t with other historical episodes.

Maybe it’s because the history is so proximate. Maybe it’s because the people committing the crimes, and dying of them, look like our friends, dress like our grandparents, write and talk like our movies. Maybe it’s because a whole society was at fault. Maybe you learn about the moral capsize of an entire civilization, and you just naturally put yourself inside it. 

I have no idea if this is genuinely new to the time or place in which I grew up. I don’t know if French schoolchildren in the early 1900s were asked to imagine themselves committing atrocities during the Napoleonic wars. I don’t know if Spanish kids were told that it might have been them branding apostates during the Inquisition.

But I’m glad to be reading Littell, I’m glad we look at our histories this way. Honesty beats triumphalism, I hope. I wonder how it changes the way we think. I don’t know if it makes us guilty, but I certainly hope it makes us careful.


Filed under Berlin, Books, Germany, Serious

‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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Filed under America, Books, Journalism

John Steinbeck on Seattle and the Problem With American Cities


Here’s another excerpt from Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley‘:

Next day I walked in the old port of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed—a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago.

And here a generality concerning the growth of American cities, seemingly true of all of them I know. When a city begins to grow and spread outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in; poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe businesses take the place of once flowering establishments. The district is still too good to tear down and too outmoded to be desirable. Besides, all the energy has flowed out to the new developments, to the semi-rural supermarkets, the outdoor movies, new houses with wide laws and stucco schools where children are confirmed in their illiteracy.

The old port with narrow streets and cobbled surfaces, smoke-grimed, goes into a period of desolation inhabited at night by the vague ruins of men, the lotus eaters who struggle daily toward unconsciousness by way of raw alcohol. Nearly every city I know has such a dying mother of violence and despair where at night the brightness of the street lamps is sucked away and policemen walk in pairs. And then one day perhaps the city returns and rips out the sore and builds a monument to its past.

How did he do all this on a typewriter?!


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The First Page of Don Delillo’s ‘Cosmopolis’

When I used to work at the Seattle Times, I hung out a bit with the book reviews editor. I asked her once how she decided among the dozens of books she received every week, which ones to review.

‘Read the first page,’ she said. ‘If you want to keep reading, do.’

This has given me a weird compulsion to read first pages of novels whenever I’m in bookstores. Yesterday I spent about an hour in Foyles in London doing this, and the best one I found was Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis:

Hella wanna read the whole thing now!

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Two Other Things I Learned From ‘The Taste of War’

One: The shark-lamprey relationship between the US government and Big Food goes all the way back to World War II

The War Advertising Council was attended by representatives from advertising agencies, corporate advisers, the media and officials from various interested government departments such as the Office of War Information. Together they agreed on the outlines of public information campaigns. In this way the government co-opted the food industry to do the work of spreading healthy-eating propaganda while still allowing them to make money, or at least keep their brands in the public eye, guaranteeing them future–if not always present–sales.

The problem was that the food industry tended to use the language of the new science of nutrition to sell its products, regardless of their real health benefits. Thus, the American public were urged to eat grapefruit because it was rich in ‘Victory Vitamin C’, but they were also told that Nestle’s cocoa was a ‘concentrated energizing food’, and children’s love of sweets was encouraged by campaigns which promoted the benefits of sugar by pointing out that it was an essential part of a combat soldier’s diet.

Doesn’t Winston Churchill have some quote about how in a just economy, the government must be a referee, not a player? Well he should.

Two: Your grandma is a fucking liar.

In May 1943 an opinion poll found that rationing and wartime food shortages had barely made any impact on American meals. Two-thirds of the women surveyed asserted that their diet had changed very little since the introduction of rationing, and three-quarters of the women acknowledged that the size of their meals had stayed the same. The minimal impact that ration had on American eating habits is revealed by the passing comment of a woman from New York, who noted that coffee rationing, which cut consumption from three cups to one a day, was ‘the wartime measure to have affected one the most.’

Collingham reports that food rationing actually improved the diets of a significant number of Americans, since farmers increased production and the surplus inspired free school meals and other in-kind social programs. The Greatest Generation truly made sacrifices during World War II, but less or worse food doesn’t appear to be one of them.

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I found an R. Crumb sketchbook in a used bookstore and read it on a train



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Germany’s Only Natural Resource Is a Bunch of Whiny Nerds. And That’s a Good Thing.

This week I’m reading Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations. It’s an investigation of why countries are good at certain businesses but crappy at others. Why is Switzerland  good at making chocolates, South Korea good at making TVs and the United States good at making laptops in China?

There’s a whole chapter on Germany. We’re gonna need a bigger highlighter.

In Germany, the engineering and technical background of many senior executives produces a strong inclination toward methodical product and process improvement. […] These characteristics lead to the greatest success in industries with high technical or engineering content (for example, optics, chemicals, complicated machinery), especially where intricate and complex products demand precision manufacturing, a careful development process, after-sale service, and hence a highly disciplined management structure. 

Porter says Germany is a rock star at high-grade manufacturing (think BMW, Bayer and Merck) because as far back as the 1890s, German labor was expensive, so companies had to train workers and automate production to get the most productivity for their money. Germany still has years-long apprenticeship programs, and factory floors are apparently more likely to resemble a Bjork video  than a Dickens novel.

Another reason for Germany’s tech-nerd prowess is its lack of natural resources. Without an infinite spigot of oil, minerals or farmland, German companies got good at wringing every last mark out of their imports. When the rest of the world began to demand conservation and efficiency, German companies were there to meet it.

So Germany is a world leader in high-level exports not because it had natural advantages but precisely because it didn’t:

Disadvantages, […] such as high labor costs or resource disadvantages, have created further beneficial pressure. […] A good example is in the agricultural field, where farmland is scarce and labor expensive. The result is a pressing need for high productivity, and Germany had the greatest number of combines per harvestable hectare in the European Community in 1983. German agriculture also placed a very early emphasis on fertilizers as far back as the nineteenth century.

So where does Germany suck?

[…] An area where Germany has serious weaknesses […] is in the consumer sector. The historical lack of television and radio advertising (the major television channels can show advertising only about 20 minutes per day, with commercials all bunched together, and not on Sunday), coupled with the technical orientation of most German managers, means that image marketing skills are poorly developed.

[…] It is rare that a German firm succeeds in an industry in which intangible brand images and mass communication are important to competitive success. This is in stark contract to the case in America, Italy, or even Japan.

Porter’s book was published in 1992, so the specifics are out of date, but the general point still stands. Germans are visibly less image-oriented than their Italian, French, Scandinavian or British counterparts.

My personal theory on this is that the total eradication of social structures after World War II basically took the class system with it. The primary reason people are interested in fancy clothes, reflective shoes and asymmetrical haircuts is to demonstrate their class status, and in Germany that concept doesn’t really exist anymore. In France and Britain all of your consumption, from your clothes to your groceries, is class-coded. In Germany everyone pushes a cart around the dollar store in their sweatpants on a Saturday afternoon regardless of their income.

I think this still holds true too:

German buyers, both in households and in industry, are sophisticated and extremely demanding. Quality is insisted upon, and no one is bashful about complaining if it is not delivered. Buyers in the United States are often early buyers of new products or services but are not particularly demanding by international standards. German buyers may be somewhat later, but are among the toughest in the world.

‘Early adopters’ in present-day Germany are the people with two-way pagers.

Porter blithely notes that Germany’s dominance in high-end printing presses as far back as 1900 was partly due to the tendency of German consumers to complain to newspapers if they got ink on their hands. American readers didn’t put pressure on the periodicals, who never put pressure on the printers.

So in conclusion, according to Porter, if other countries want to emulate Germany’s success, all they have to do is torch their farmland, dismantle their oil pumps, overpay their workers and start complaining. Maybe Europe has a future after all.

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‘I did not want to endorse wantonness’

I read the nicest passage today:

My daughter is sometimes sensitive beyond reason. Once, as we were sitting around a campfire, I absentmindedly crushed a cricket that had crawled near the flame. My daughter burst into tears. I did not know what she was crying about, which made everything much worse. I begged her to explain what was wrong.

‘You murdered it!’ she finally said, between her sobs.

‘Murdered it? Murdered what?’ I said.

She stopped crying, looked at me coldly. ‘I suppose you really don’t know,’ she said.

I looked blank.

‘The cricket!’ she said. ‘The poor helpless cricket. Why did you have to go and do that? It wasn’t hurting anything, was it?’

‘No,’ I had to admit, ‘it wasn’t.’ At the same time, I was impatient and unrepenting. My God, I thought, I have raised an eremite. I wanted to say: ‘Be reasonable.’ And: ‘You know, there are greater tragedies in life than the wanton death of a cricket.’

But I kept silent, out of confusion and embarrassment, and because I did not want to endorse wantonness, however trivial. In some moral sense, I suspected she was right. That is one of the troubles with morality: its indifference to distinctions of degree; its impracticality. 

It’s from ‘Bones’, by Paul Gruchow, part of that Best Essays of 1989 collection I’m still meandering through. I like how it demonstrates, in one little anecdote, both the necessity and the uselessness of using morality to guide behavior.


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We Are All Texas Oil Millionaires

I’m reading Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of The Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. Burrough quotes a 1962 Nation article about Texas oil millionaires meddling in politics:

He believes his riches were in no way the result of luck but of his own foresight, courage, and initiative–all made possible by the American Way of Life. […]

Although he may never have got as far as high school, he is an authority on textbooks, the tariff and winning football formations, the Constitution, geophysics, currency inflation, and how to get rid of warts.

He is fond of writing letters to office-holders and potential office-holders advising and/or threatening them about the course they should follow. Given half a chance, he will, out of his accumulated wisdom, drop homilies, maxims, aphorisms, texts, proverbs and parables for the benefit of his fellowman, whom he professes to love dearly. 

Fifty years later, it’s still true about businessmen, and an increasingly accurate description of politicians themselves.

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Another Excerpt from John Haskell’s ‘I Am Not Jackson Pollock’

This is about an elephant, electrocuted one hundred years ago. Her name was Topsy, and she was famous at a time when people were still amazed by an elephant. Plus she did tricks. Wearing a gauze tu-tu she could stand on her back legs, raising her front legs up into the air. She was a star attraction at Coney Island and because of her fame she had her own trainer, a man named Gus, who fed her, bathed her, cleaned her stall and naturally a bond was formed between them. Love, you could call it. Gus knew that love was essential in the training of animals and so he encouraged that love. He gave her bananas when she was good as a way to reinforce their affection. He also had a stick, which he used, but because for Topsy the connection they had was paramount she loved him for the bananas and forgave him for the stick.

When she got older and her novelty wore off Gus drifted away. Other, more important animals required his attention so that by 1900 she was mainly used for heavy labor. He hadn’t exactly rejected her – he would still leave her some food – but he didn’t bathe her, he didn’t comfort her, and he certainly didn’t return her love. That was what she wanted; that was what she was used to. When a person gets used to a thing and then that thing is taken away, the person becomes destabilized, and in that state it’s not too hard to go a little crazy. Topsy didn’t go crazy, but she was hurt and she was sad. And she couldn’t talk about it. She didn’t have the language.

She could think and feel, but she couldn’t express herself because the language inside of her was elephant language, plus it was inside of her. And so, unable to communicate her thoughts and emotions, she started acting out. She was frustrated by her inability to affect her environment and so she became more difficult to work with. Elephants remember so well because their experiences are stored in their bodies, and they have big bodies, and her big body was filled with unpleasant thoughts and emotions. She tried to banish these thoughts and emotions but she couldn’t. She couldn’t deny them or ignore them because she was filled with them, literally.

One day two of Gus’s friends stop by after work. They’d been drinking and they were horsing around, teasing Topsy, and one of them, as a joke, throws a lighted cigarette into her mouth. Because of the structure of the elephant mouth she can’t spit it out; it continues to burn, like a fuse, until suddenly something explodes in her. From her face alone you wouldn’t know. She looks calm and peaceful. From her big, sleepy eyes you wouldn’t sense the rage, and she doesn’t know her own rage, and when she turns, she’s not aware of any particular desire to kill. She’s not actually conscious of hating the two men, one of whom is standing against the main support post. But she grabs the man with her trunk, lifts him up, throws him against the post and there’s nothing except the sound of the snapping of bones. A scream maybe because Gus, who’d been outside, comes into the tent. The other man, the one who threw the cigarette is on the ground underneath her foot and partly out of anger and partly out of her desire to communicate her unhappiness to Gus she raises her foot over the man’s face, and then she lets her foot come down.

First the man screams, and then the foot comes down. And then his head collapses, mixing in with the hay and the dung. Gus, over by the tent flap, is just watching, silhouetted against the light. The first man, still alive, limps away to the edge of the tent and it wasn’t just the cigarette, Topsy knows that. She watches Gus with her large eyes and she wants Gus to know what she’s feeling. There’s no recognition on his face but she’s hoping. Even as she’s surrounded by men with sharp poles she watches Gus to see if he knows what he’s caused. As she is led away in chains she keeps looking back to see if now, finally, he understands.

There was a silent film made of Topsy’s death. It was a one-minute short produced by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company. The camera was there, part of the semicircle of fifteen hundred spectators at the new Luna Park, on January 4. Topsy was standing, surrounded by people. The cameras started rolling. And then the six thousand volts of this new invention called electricity were sent into the elephant’s body. At first nothing happened, then the quivering, then the throes. The smoke rising out of the bottom of her feet. The film captures the muscles of the elephant going limp and lifeless, the elephant remaining upright after the muscles had gone, and then the muscles stiffen, and then the huge beast collapses into the dust. The whole event took about ten seconds and the camera captured almost everything. The difference between the film version and actually being there is that in the film, when the elephant falls to the ground, there’s silence. In 1903 at Luna Lark the earth momentarily rumbled.

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‘He Spends His Evenings Like This’

This morning I finished ‘I Am Not Jackson Pollock’, a collection of short stories by John Haskell. I’ve drawn out my reading of it because I want to savor each one.

Each story is a collage of unconnected anecdotes from historical and fictional characters. They’re told as if they’re being presented to a child. This, for example, is about Orson Welles:

What he does is buy up boxes of plastic soldiers, gray or silver little men in uniform, and it doesn’t matter what war they were in, they’re all doing basically the same thing: throwing grenades, shooting guns, slicing something with a bayonet.

These are his people and what he does, he keeps a candle burning on the table and he sits at his table and takes a soldier and holds the little man over the candle flame, keeping the little arm or hand or gun close enough to the flame so that the plastic begins to thaw and melt and then drop, and he lets it drop; when it’s ready he lets a drop fall onto another soldier. He holds that other soldier under the first one and lets the drop of wet plastic fall on the breasts of the soldier below. He’s making breasts.

Very carefully, dripping the arms of the plastic men drop by drop, he creates the breast nodes, building up incrementally the rounded curve of the female breast. Each arm makes about one and a half breasts so sometimes he uses the head or the leg or a piece of artillery.

Parts like the head are hard to control, and sometimes from the head a drop falls and spreads over an entire chest. That’s not good. That recalcitrant soldier has to be thrown away. That soldier is a failure and he can’t stand failure.

Which is fine. He has plenty of raw material. On his table he’s arrayed a whole army of these little men, the finished ones.

To finish them he takes them by the heel and dips the body in a mayonnaise jar filled with creamy pink enamel paint that he’s devised for just this purpose, for the purpose of looking like flesh, or an approximation of flesh, the flesh of the skin of an actress or ballet dancer who resides in the back of his memory.

He spends his evenings like this, creating these figures, diminutive, naked-seeming and large-breasted, with traces of a molded soldier’s uniform beneath the painted flesh. They’re floating on his table, an ocean or sea of flesh-toned soldiers with protruding part like women. But not quite women.

This is bullshit, of course. Orson Welles never did this. Haskell’s just using him as a springboard to explore what it might have been like to be him for a few uneventful days at a time. Stories in the collection give similar treatment to  Janet Leigh, John Keats and Laika the space-dog, among others. All are similarly inaccurate and similarly gripping.

What I’m fascinated by isn’t just how the above excerpt manages to be funny and sad at the same time, but how the language sets such a sharp tone it’s almost a soundtrack. The constant repetition, the simplistic language, the technical descriptions, it reminds me of being read stories by my grandparents when I was a kid.

I’m not entirely sure that grandparents ever actually did that, or if I’m just importing memories from Friday-night sitcoms growing up, but either way, that’s what these stories made me think of. And I think that’s just what they were going for.

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It’s rare to read a book that you hope will be turned into a movie


Last week I finished ‘Alone in Berlin’, a novel written by Hans Fallada, a German dude, in 1947, right after WWII. It’s vaguely based on a true story about a Fredreichshain couple who wrote anti-Nazi postcards and left them in hundreds of Berlin stairwells for years before being caught and executed in 1942.

I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction lately (much of it about WWII), and I had forgotten about the irreplacable function of fiction to answer the question ‘What was it like?’ The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich might put notches on the timeline, but it takes fiction to really walk you through the daily compromises of life under the Nazis.

The terror of the people who find the postcards is especially palpable. They risked death just by finding an anti-Nazi message in their building. If they leave the card there for someone else to find, they might be accused of distributing the postcards. But if they take it with them, they could be accused of writing it. It’s a moral dilemma for a world without any morals.

The postcard-distribution scheme didn’t come to anything, of course, either in real life or in the novel. It didn’t galvanize Germans to rise up against their shitty leaders, or open up their eyes to the injustice of their regime. Almost all the postcards were immediately reported to the police and confiscated (after their discoverers were interrogated, of course), and the German couple who devised the scheme were executed without fanfare.

In the book, the protagonist confronts his show-trial defense lawyer:

But the lawyer didn’t leave, and after a long pause he said, ‘Can I ask you what made you do it?’
‘Do what?’ asks Quangel [the postcard writer] cooly, without looking at the elegant lawyer.
‘Write those postcards. They didn’t accomplish anything, and now they’ll cost you your life.’
‘Because I’m stupid. Because I didn’t have any better ideas. Because I thought they would accomplish something, as you put it. That’s why!’
‘And don’t you regret it? Aren’t you sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that?’
Quangel cast a sharp glare at the lawyer, his proud, old, tough bird-glare. ‘At least I stayed decent,’ he said. ‘I didn’t participate.’
The lawyer took a long look at the man sitting there in silence. Then he said, ‘I have to say, I think my colleague who defended your wife was right: You are both mad.’
‘Do you think it’s mad to be willing to pay any price for remaining decent?’
‘You didn’t need the postcards for that’
‘That would have been a kind of tacit agreement. What was your price for turning into such a fine gentleman, trousersand polished fingernails and deceitful concluding speeches? What did you have to pay?’
The lawyer said nothing.
‘You see!’ said Quangel. ‘And you will continue to pay more and more, and maybe one day, like me, you will pay with your life, but you will have done it for your indecency!’

This is the central point of the book: That it wasn’t only the decent who were persecuted, but also those who were insufficiently indecent. The cop investigating the postcard case is sent to prison for not solving the case quickly enough. Prison guards are fired for showing tiny clemency to the prisoners. You can see how, on a societal level, as soon as you roll this particular snowball down the hill, it becomes an avalanche.

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‘Weren’t the simplest tasks hard?’


Here’s the coda of a George Saunders short story about a guy who ends up in prison after accidentally smothering his boss to death. Like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, it’s all mirth and whimsy until the past paragraph:


Do I have a meaningful hobby that makes the days fly by like minutes? No. I have a wild desire to smell the ocean. I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us.

He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.


Maybe the God we see, the God who calls the daily shots, is merely a subGod. Maybe there’s a God above this subGod, who’s busy for a few Godminutes with something else, and will be right back, and when he gets back will take the subGod by the ear and say, ‘Now look. Look at that man. What did he ever do to you? Wasn’t he humble enough? Didn’t he endure enough abuse for a thousand men? Weren’t the simplest tasks hard? Didn’t you sense him craving affection? Were you unaware that his days unraveled as one long bad dream?’

And maybe as the subGod slinks away, the true God will sweep me up in his arms, saying: My sincere apologies, a mistake has been made. Accept a new birth, as token of my esteem.

And I will emerge again from between the legs of my mother, a more beautiful baby, designed for a different life, in which I am masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner.

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