A review of John Berger’s Pig Earth

People exaggerate the changes in nature so as to make nature seem lighter. Nature resists change. If something changes, nature waits to see whether the change can continue, and it it can’t, it crushes it with all its weight!  Ten thousand years ago the trout in the stream would have been exactly the same as today.

Stasis and disruption and the relation between people and their natural and urban surroundings are the themes John Berger writes about in his 1979 collection of essays, poems and short stories, Pig Earth.  Having moved from England, where he enjoyed considerable renown as an art critic and fiction writer, to the peasant villages of the French Alps, Berger settled into his role as an active participant in rural life, not only turning hay but observing and documenting the disappearance of a way of a once-pervasive mode of life.  Pig Earth was one result of his labors, the first book of a trilogy that took some fifteen-odd years to complete, a moving but not uncritical account of humanity’s struggle to conquer nature by symbiosis.

Maybe symbiosis isn’t the proper term if we agree that humanity is part of nature’s whole, but Berger juxtaposes the frailty of humanity with the earth’s uncaring and often violent strength.  Survival for the family of the subsistence farmer depends upon that family’s ability to tend to the needs of the plant and animal world (as well as more than a little bit of luck).  In the collection’s first true story, “A Calf Remembered,” a baby cow is delivered on a dark winter’s night. Here, Berger stresses the protections that nature and man have designed to ensure the survival of a young, vulnerable animal:  mucus, barn, salt, and sense.  The human spends his night in the barn protecting his property because it provides him not only with sustenance in the forms of milk and meat, but also companionship and a sense of duty.  When daily living requires acts that might mean life or death, the conscious and the instinct converge.

He sat on a milking stool in the dark.  With his head in his hands, his breathing was indistinguishable from that of the cows. The stable itself was like the inside of an animal.  Breath, water, cud were entering it:  wind, piss, shit were leaving.

Pig Earth is a book worth studying as people attempt to make sense of a world transitioning from one type of living to another and fuss over the sources of their own limited strength and vitality. Berger may not have been looking to pioneer a slow-living locavore lifestyle, but his subjects worry about their increasing isolation from the circles of power and industry.  They fret over the pointlessness of passing their knowledge to their children who need entirely different skills to survive in the rapidly encroaching urban wage economy.  In “The Value of Money” a father refuses a tractor, branded “The Liberator” by the manufacturer, that his son has purchased for him because it will render his faithful work-horse obsolete.  This same farmer kidnaps local tax officials because they want to confiscate the products of his labor without compensation for value that he exclusively created.  Unable to make them understand their wrongdoing, he sets them free because “you can only take revenge on those who are your own.”

The final story, “The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol,” is the lengthiest and perhaps most poignant narrative in the book. It follows the life of a bright, tenacious, physically stunted woman as she grows from young girl to town outcast.  While Berger admired much of the life in the peasant village, he would fail in his duty as critic and chronicler if he ignored its darker sides. Berger often sets the title character’s pluck against the resignation and superstition endemic to village life. When life requires struggle, most people choose to hoard.  When poor choices may lead to death or family hardship, capitulation to those in power, whether those rulers be the town’s big man or Nazi collaborators, can often seem the only obvious choice.  Lucy shows us that cowardice, no matter the circumstances, only seems easy. Pig Earth is highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review of Pig Earth in 2011. We run it again in appreciation of John Berger, who died today at the age of 90].

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A review of Philip K. Dick’s last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Suffering is the core of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a novel published just months after Philip Dick’s death in 1982. This is a book written by an author sure of his abilities, one who could confidently make this novel about big ideas turn on his characters’ struggles to control the trivialities of their day to day lives. While they attempt to make sense of the nature of God and unravel the mysteries of Christian teaching, they confront the questions that must have puzzled even Jesus’ own early advocates: is joy possible when good people are randomly confronted with confusion, pain, and death?  Dick tries to locate a mushy but viable middle ground in this sad, nimble, and touching novel.  Opening on the date of John Lennon’s assassination, Dick writes to commemorate the grinders, the survivors who manage to keep waking up, day after day, despite knowing that life often destroys those who dream too large.

The book is ostensibly based on the life and times of Timothy Archer, the iconoclastic American Episcopalian bishop of California in the 1960s whose unending search for truth led to his becoming friends with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., advocating for the rights of women, homosexuals, and the transgendered, and time in the national spotlight.  The quest for knowledge led him also to adopt a number of intellectual positions that conflicted directly with his duties as a representative of the Episcopalian church — for example, he was brought to trial for heresy for openly questioning the existence of hell and the Holy Ghost.  The character of Bishop Archer was based almost entirely on the life of Bishop James Pike, Dick’s friend, who, like his fictional counterpart, died of exposure in Israel’s Dead Sea Desert searching for the sources of early Christian doctrine.  Bishop Archer is the bright flame in this book, the Gatsby who pulls in everyone he encounters — not because he’s influential and wealthy, but because his personality is that rare combination of knowledge and empathy, a true man of God who recognizes no difference between the important writer and the indigent cancer patient.  The actions of Bishop Archer form the arc of the book, and his deeds are a mirror to the other characters.  They struggle to shape their own individual visions for their lives because they must work in the shadow cast by a giant they love.

Angel Archer, the bishop’s daughter-in-law and the narrator of the novel, becomes one of Dick’s most realistically drawn characters.  She’s tough, articulate, and well-read.  While those around her succumb to suicidal impulses and mental illness she survives by searching her mind for poems and plays she’s read and committed to memory.  She finds uncomfortable parallels between books and her life.  She values her education and her self-identification as a “Berkeley intellectual” but makes light of her own pretension, telling us that she’s read all the long books but remembers nothing about them.  Do we become apathetic to our own experiences if we’ve read previously about something similar?  Angel fears ennui but describes her own artistic awakening as a ridiculous mixture of pleasure and pain — an agonizing night spent reading Dante’s Commedia while drinking a bottle of bourbon to dampen the pain of an abscessed tooth.  Aware that intellectual exercises and games both trivial and consequential have led to the deaths of her husband, the bishop, and his mistress, she still can’t escape her own self-made prison of words.  “The problem with introspection,” she states while contemplating her own death, “is that it has no end.”  When nobody is left, she soldiers on, dedicating herself, a fragile shell, to driving and working and walking and talking, a person “who records on a notepad the names of those who die.”

Like the narrator, this book reveals its depth rapidly, in spurts of astounding erudition and scholarship.  Dick writes masterfully about nuances of early Judaic law and the formation of Christian thought, illustrates the petty jealousy, kindness, and warmth that seems inherent to certain friendships between between intelligent, rival women, and indicts our perception and treatment of mental illness.  He quotes John Donne, Henry Vaughn, and discusses Virgil and Goethe without arrogance and without disturbing the flow of his story.  Like his best works — A Scanner Darkly, The Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  — The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is fully drawn and completely real.  His best works seem to be filled with screwed up people trying to get by in a world that has been arbitrarily fucked up by war or technology or drug abuse.  This one is distinctly alive not because it’s set in an alternative world, but in sunny California that existed just three decades ago, close to the environs we currently abide.  A beautiful, moving coda from a man whose vision and prose changed and continues to challenge American writers.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in 2011. Today is PKD’s birthday].

“The Priest Is Us”: The Power and The Glory, Graham Greene’s Adventure of Religion and Faith

The Gospels are powerful not simply because Christ performed miracles and taught kindness, strength, and humility. Humanity has long attributed to certain individuals impossible deeds, tremendous suffering, and inordinate wisdom. We survey the collective memory and search for meaning in the lives of renowned teachers so that they might serve as an example during our own unpredictable, harrowing journey. What separates the story of Jesus from the stories of other merely great people in history is the idea that God manifested itself to humans as a human: wracked with doubt, vulnerable to temptation, victim of unimaginable pain.  Although he taught that love is the first commandment, Christ was flailed, tortured, left to die on a cross between two thieves, all ostensibly for no benefit but our own.  Wasn’t it Borges who said that every story is either the Odyssey or the Crucifixion?  The stories we tell each other, in their reflection, become the same nothing cycle of words, told again and again, a record of our inadequacy and cowardice.

Graham Greene, in his short and powerful novel The Power and the Glory, considers the life and death of Jesus as he narrates the life of a man brought low by pride and circumstances. The last priest someplace in southwestern Mexico flees from the authorities.  His hunters seek to free the peasant farmers who populate the land from exploitation and superstition with their own imperfect liberation theologies: the abolition of superstition and private property; the self-sufficiency that follows honest labor.  The men in red shirts ride horses and believe in the impending, always near, revolution.  On the back of a mule, the father sneaks from town to town, trying to fulfill his duty, but without understanding the significance of the words that tumble clumsily from his mouth in Latin. He performs sacred rites in exchange for sanctuary until even a hiding spot is denied to him. The police have started to execute men and boys in villages who they believe have colluded to shelter this wayward man of God.

As the priest travels, he finds himself stripped not only of the vestments of his profession: his chalice, his incense, his robes, and his bible, but his own air of invincibility, privilege and comfort. Exposed, fearful, living in a state of mortal sin and unable to confess, this fallen man of God, like Christ himself, is destroyed.  The priest is, by his own admission, a bad one. He drinks heavily and thinks too much of his own comfort. Led to his profession not so much by attention to the divine will but by a desire for status and privilege, during his exile he recalls fondly dinners lavish dinners with wealthy members of his assembly and the gifts they gave him. While he may have seen that the most of his flock made a meager living on small farms after taxes and fees paid to local bosses, he never stopped to consider the meaning of his own observations, busying himself instead with ambitions for his own greater glory. He is, for the first half of the book, greedy, proud, and self-concerned.

But, as he eludes the authorities and traverses the country, he becomes, in Greene’s capable hands, a symbol of redemption and an affirmation of a full but unrealized life.  Words that lacked meaning help to ameliorate the strongest pain he has ever felt. He is jailed, extorted, and rejected by the people who love him the most, but in humiliation finds real faith.  Performing the sacred rites of his profession, he confronts the banality of evil and comes to finally realize the true power of the promise he brought to those who came to him:

He had an immense self-importance; he was unable to picture a world in which he was only a typical part — a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had did; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.

This is a book about religion and faith, but The Power and the Glory doesn’t require its reader to have an inclination towards either.  It is an adventure story, recounted in bold, confident sentences, about a normal man who fears that incorrect choices will cause him to suffer. This fear is real and it manifests itself in the priest’s moral and ethical dilemmas.  We are asked to ponder those things that lead from sadness to strength.  The priest is us: we see ourselves completely in him and give him our sympathy.

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll — Álvaro Mutis

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is difficult to categorize. It’s an outlaw adventure story populated by men and women who live where and how they must; these are the people who work near shipyards and the banks of unexplored river tributaries, people who value candor and honesty but for whom strict adherence to the law is often inconvenient. The book is a philosophical rumination on friendship and creation, romance and deception, obstinance and poverty.

The book isn’t a novel, but a collection of seven novellas about Maqroll the Gaviero, written by Álvaro Mutis, who is, according to the introduction and the book jacket, one of Latin America’s finest poets and best friend of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A gaviero is the ship’s lookout, the sailor tasked with sitting atop the masts scanning the horizon.  His eyes must always be active.  He must be alert to the nuances of the sea and the capabilities of his vessel.

Mutis is present in these stories, but in a passive role, as reporter of the Gaviero’s adventures. Narrated in no particular order, selected so as to highlight Maqroll’s insatiable desire for experience, each story alludes to many imagined but unwritten characters, places, and events. We’re left with an incomplete impression of a rogue’s beautiful life—Mutis’s ode to his notion of the romantic seafaring gypsy.

The Gaviero is part of a group of wanderers who fascinate those who task themselves with creating whatever literature might be: the spies, pirates, and cowboys who abide the outrageous and rely as much on apathy as on strength in order to avoid the nooses and axes weilded by their enemies.

The Gaviero is not a symbol.  He is a fleshed-out character, as well as the embodiment of an ideal: the knife fighters and Viking poets idolized by Borges, a mixture of Robinson Crusoe, Sam Spade, and Don Quixote. He indulges fantasy but prepares for disappointment. He lives between lawlessness and acceptability. Barkeeps lose a new friend and a good source of business when he leaves town, and one woman always sits in the main room of her home, wondering whether anything she has given will supplement his resolve. He enjoys good food, uncomplicated wine, and the company of interesting friends. The Gaviero is who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.

Ilona Comes With the Rain finds Maqroll destitute in Panama City, Panama after the suicide of his ship’s captain. We learn this is a city “like a sedative, full of agreeable but unkept promises of unexpected happiness”; Ilona, the second story in the collection, is indicative of the tone of the collection. Washed up at a hotel owned by a fence and finding himself selling stolen goods outside of tourist attractions, the Gaviero encounters a familiar face by chance, a woman who takes him in, feeds, and clothes him. They make love and decide afterwards to open a brothel catering to men with a thing for stewardesses. It is a magical, buoyant tale and emblematic of the mixture of adventure and world-weariness that Mutis maintains throughout the collection. Before the tragic end we’re treated to stories about a pair of incubi, spirits of noblemen, who drive women insane, the dangers of allowing bookkeepers into whorehouses, and a blind Anatolian with the ability to guess a woman’s place of employment by the texture of the fabric of her clothes.

Throughout the collection, Mutis takes his readers from Malaysia to Finland, from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean.  We live, with the Gaviero, through malarial fever dreams, military interrogations, and assassination attempts.  Un Bel Morir is perhaps the standout story.  Our hero finds himself older, angrier, and  more alone than ever, in a languid town on the banks of a pestilent river.  Broke and bored, knowing better, he takes a job running cargo by mule train up a crumbling mountain trail for a Dutchman with cash (and questionable motives). The Gaviero must evade capture by the rebel forces he has unwittingly aided—as well as the government troops who question his history and motives.

Mutis spent most of his career as a writer crafting verse and not prose, and his poetic inclinations shine through in pieces like this one, a good story that becomes great when the beauty of the unchanging landscape is evoked and contrasted with the hero’s pitiful condition. The cycle of life.  In Un Bel Morir, Maqroll, surrounds himself with beauty, contemplates it, and then tortures himself with unanswerable questions:

. . . the aroma of perpetually damp foliage, the explosion of rich, unrestrained color, the thunder of water in the ravines singing its opulent descent in boiling crests of foam, an ancient restorative peace replaced the weariness of the road and the struggle with the mules. The sordid deceptions he foresaw in the uncertain enterprise lost all reality and were buried in the resigned acceptance of his Islamic fatalism.

This is a delightful book, but not a happy one. The Gaviero symbolizes the struggle to internalize the good while accepting the inevitability of the bad, the chance to create the type of death we envision for ourselves, one with as many or as few regrets as our daily lives will tolerate.

Mutis, a thorough Romantic, compels his readers, through the Gaviero, to examine our reasons for despondency, and instructs us to cherish our innate ability to fall in love with the world and with each other. This collection is an exhortation, a reminder that circumstances change but that innocent pleasures are abundant, available, and free.

War With the Newts — Karel Capek


Even though the plot of War with the Newts may not shock audiences accustomed to its “human-invention-intended-for- good-becomes-in-the-end-not-so-good” story, readers shouldn’t neglect this often-overlooked science-fiction classic from 1937 by notable Czech writer and satirist Karel Capek.  Humans, motivated by a range of impulses: greed, curiosity, and sometimes even the best of intentions, have created an uncontrollable menace and brought about the end to their dominion over the planet.  Computers, robots, even monkeys have spelled doom for mankind, but Capek warned, in this short and sparkling book, that while masses of intelligent amphibians must be dealt with cautiously, true danger arises from our manipulation of the natural world, the unceasing capitalist drive to increase production by exploiting the weakest, and our inability to foresee the consequences of our actions.

The action begins when a drunk but benevolent sea captain discovers a new species of amphibians inhabiting the waters near an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean.  These docile creatures are able to breathe on land, walk on their hind legs, and communicate using rudimentary sounds and gestures.  The captain trains them to speak a pidgin English and dive for pearls before arming them so that they might fend off the sharks that prey on their young.  Once he receives generous financial backing from a Dutch conglomerate, he ships them to similar islands where pearl harvests have been been impossible or unproductive.  Eventually big business determines that the tireless and fecund newts are valuable for the expansion and development of economic activities near the coasts and under the seas and develop a global marketplace for trade in their labor and bodies.  Educated, well-equipped, and trained to use with the most advanced technologies, the newts produce the greatest expansion of wealth in the history of the world before taking it all for themselves, returning the continents to the bottom of the ocean while requiring a small cadre of humans, relocated to the mountains, to produce the steel and weapons required to support their new Atlantis.

Written as a history book, Capek brilliantly footnotes his narrative with carefully crafted primary sources: newspaper reports, academic studies, religious tracts, political manifestos and corporate minutes in order to illustrate human reaction to new, unsettling circumstance.  A nimble author blessed with the knowledge and skill to write comfortably about a wide variety of subjects, Capek captures both the progressive and cautious voices that shape human reaction to the slow advancement of a new and underestimated intelligence.  He shows that agreement against economic interest is impossible;  labor, for instance, bemoans loss of work to newt hordes while agriculture comes to rely on the millions of new mouths that have to be fed.  Scholars measure, analyze, and categorize; anonymous tract-writers urge an uneasy populace to take up arms against sea-dwelling usurpers while the young and fashionable flock to newt cults, giving themselves up to sexual licentiousness they relish the mysterious and taboo.

But though Capek capably documents trivialities, most of his accounts reflect the time in which he lived and wrote, between the two great European wars, situated between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s new Germany, at the height of colonial exploitation, not yet separated by a century from the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the American Civil War.  In a report written by the “Salamander Syndicate,” the organization responsible for the organization and dissemination of the world trade in newts justifies the “humane” husbandry, categorization, and sale of newts according to their physical attributes.  Exemplary newts are invited to join committees and expound on their visions for a future shared with humans.  Echoes of American abolitionist thought appear in the debates waged in the media regarding the existence of newt art and culture, their assumed “soullessness,” and the minimal levels of education required for their lives as workers.

The newts, masters of human technology, eventually take over.  Humans, fleeing to higher ground,  are incapable of bringing the fight to the seas.   War with the Newts is an indictment not only of our ability to take without question unearned economic value, but also of our inability to halt the mechanisms by which we accrue those benefits once it becomes evident that the process of enrichment, by itself, is detrimental to the common good.  This is a very good book, a satire of the institutions that will fail when we need them the most, created by a writer whose demonstrated virtuosity deserves more attention.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer — Philip K. Dick

Suffering is the core of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a novel published just months after Philip Dick’s death in 1982. This is a book written by an author sure of his abilities, one who could confidently make this novel about big ideas turn on his characters’ struggles to control the trivialities of their day to day lives. While they attempt to make sense of the nature of God and unravel the mysteries of Christian teaching, they confront the questions that must have puzzled even Jesus’ own early advocates: is joy possible when good people are randomly confronted with confusion, pain, and death?  Dick tries to locate a mushy but viable middle ground in this sad, nimble, and touching novel.  Opening on the date of John Lennon’s assassination, Dick writes to commemorate the grinders, the survivors who manage to keep waking up, day after day, despite knowing that life often destroys those who dream too large.

The book is ostensibly based on the life and times of Timothy Archer, the iconoclastic American Episcopalian bishop of California in the 1960s whose unending search for truth led to his becoming friends with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., advocating for the rights of women, homosexuals, and the transgendered, and time in the national spotlight.  The quest for knowledge led him also to adopt a number of intellectual positions that conflicted directly with his duties as a representative of the Episcopalian church — for example, he was brought to trial for heresy for openly questioning the existence of hell and the Holy Ghost.  The character of Bishop Archer was based almost entirely on the life of Bishop James Pike, Dick’s friend, who, like his fictional counterpart, died of exposure in Israel’s Dead Sea Desert searching for the sources of early Christian doctrine.  Bishop Archer is the bright flame in this book, the Gatsby who pulls in everyone he encounters — not because he’s influential and wealthy, but because his personality is that rare combination of knowledge and empathy, a true man of God who recognizes no difference between the important writer and the indigent cancer patient.  The actions of Bishop Archer form the arc of the book, and his deeds are a mirror to the other characters.  They struggle to shape their own individual visions for their lives because they must work in the shadow cast by a giant they love.

Angel Archer, the bishop’s daughter-in-law and the narrator of the novel, becomes one of Dick’s most realistically drawn characters.  She’s tough, articulate, and well-read.  While those around her succumb to suicidal impulses and mental illness she survives by searching her mind for poems and plays she’s read and committed to memory.  She finds uncomfortable parallels between books and her life.  She values her education and her self-identification as a “Berkeley intellectual” but makes light of her own pretension, telling us that she’s read all the long books but remembers nothing about them.  Do we become apathetic to our own experiences if we’ve read previously about something similar?  Angel fears ennui but describes her own artistic awakening as a ridiculous mixture of pleasure and pain — an agonizing night spent reading Dante’s Commedia while drinking a bottle of bourbon to dampen the pain of an abscessed tooth.  Aware that intellectual exercises and games both trivial and consequential have led to the deaths of her husband, the bishop, and his mistress, she still can’t escape her own self-made prison of words.  “The problem with introspection,” she states while contemplating her own death, “is that it has no end.”  When nobody is left, she soldiers on, dedicating herself, a fragile shell, to driving and working and walking and talking, a person “who records on a notepad the names of those who die.”

Like the narrator, this book reveals its depth rapidly, in spurts of astounding erudition and scholarship.  Dick writes masterfully about nuances of early Judaic law and the formation of Christian thought, illustrates the petty jealousy, kindness, and warmth that seems inherent to certain friendships between between intelligent, rival women, and indicts our perception and treatment of mental illness.  He quotes John Donne, Henry Vaughn, and discusses Virgil and Goethe without arrogance and without disturbing the flow of his story.  Like his best works — A Scanner Darkly, The Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  — The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is fully drawn and completely real.  His best works seem to be filled with screwed up people trying to get by in a world that has been arbitrarily fucked up by war or technology or drug abuse.  This one is distinctly alive not because it’s set in an alternative world, but in sunny California that existed just three decades ago, close to the environs we currently abide.  A beautiful, moving coda from a man whose vision and prose changed and continues to challenge American writers.

The Road — Vasily Grossman

I’d never heard of Vasily Grossman until Timothy Snyder referred to him, briefly, as a Soviet journalist who published some of the first unflinching reports of atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers and Hitler’s secret police during their conquest of eastern Europe. In Bloodlands, Snyder lauded Grossman as a reporter guided by a clear moral vision and a keen understanding of the tenuousness of human life.  A Ukrainian Jew who rhapsodized the Red Army’s defense of Stalingrad and then followed it all the way to Berlin, he built a literary career under the Soviet system before passing away with little fanfare. Although his early novels sold in the millions, at the time of his death in 1964 his reputation in his homeland was shattered, his health had deteriorated, and his final novels were blacklisted.  He could count himself lucky to have lived through a number of purges of the U.S.S.R.’s literary elite.  Edited and compiled by Robert Chandler for the impressive New York Review Books imprint, The Road collects of a number of his short stories, essays, letters, and articles in one well-curated volume, an excellent introduction to an important but neglected voice.

Organized chronologically, Grossman’s stories are separated by brief biographical notes thoughtfully included by Chandler. Although the selections fall into early, middle, and later works, it becomes clear that Grossman’s life as a man and as a writer (at least how it is presented here) can be broken up into distinct periods marked by increasing dissatisfaction with life under Soviet rule. Chandler labels the periods, from earliest to latest: “The 1930s,” The War, The Shoah,” and “Late Stories.”  The works in this collection are sad—truly sad—but throughout he returns to remembrances of love and small gestures of tenderness.  He is marked by the excesses of the totalitarian regimes he waged war upon and lived under. As a result, his writing demonstrates an appreciation of kindness that could only arise from a true comprehension of both humanity’s potential for cruelty and the limitless power of an autonomous mind.

The first short section, “The 1930s,” collects three concise stories concerning the creation and dissolution of family bonds.  “A Small Life” describes a couple that decides to foster a child from their village orphanage who ultimately finds them weird and boring, while in “In the Town of Berdichev” a rough female commander in a military unit must take a forced leave when her pregnancy makes it impossible for her to fulfill her duties to her company. She fondly remembers the father who was shot down in battle, but struggles to balance her duty to protect her child against her duty to protect her county.  Perhaps the most striking of the three stories is the last, titled “A Young Woman and an Old Woman.” The title characters are both rewarded by their state employers with a free trip to a seaside resort and share a train cabin as they journey to the coast.   They talk.  The young woman, enjoying her rise through the Soviet system, befriends the older woman who has been saddened by the surprising detention of her daughter and her own stalled professional ambitions. These two subtly drawn characters never fully understand the hidden mechanisms behind their fleeting instances of happiness. Perhaps these mechanisms have been hidden by the totalitarian state or, maybe because they’re people, they will always be doomed to wonder.

As the book transitions to its second section, Grossman seems torn between his duty as a reporter to inspire his fellow citizens to sacrifice for the greater good and his need to rail against the injustices perpetrated by warring totalitarian regimes. Like “In the Town of Berdichev,” “The Old Man” finds Grossman adopting a tone that might almost be described as propagandistic. A quiet old man, a beekeeper whose livelihood requires patience and silence, overcomes a lifetime of reticence by braining a German soldier with a shovel.  Much better is “The Old Teacher,” a story about a village’s elderly teacher, a Jew.  Distraught by what he sees as Nazi soldiers advance on his town—long simmering feuds settled by prompt denunciations, families thrown out of houses, all sorts of groveling and obsequiousness—the old man reflects on his failings and his fleeting successes.  The teacher and the town’s other Jews are forcefully marched to a ravine.  There they are made to lie down and wait for the firing squad, positioned above them on a hill, to reload.  The victims, in their last moments, see brave assertions of individual dignity, dole out small kindnesses, and console each other with the hope that others will not suffer similar fates. “The Hell of Treblinka” and “The Sistene Madonna” close this section. The former is Grossman’s terrible and moving account of the discovery of the death camp at Treblinka, written while reporting the westward march of the Soviet Red Army. The latter is an attempt to explain the power of Raphael’s rendering of The Sistene Madonna. The Madonna and her child symbolize the universal mother’s struggle to  protect a child —  a child she must relinquish to the world. For Grossman,  the mother and son are recurring historical figures who reappear wherever human life is reduced to a simple mathematical calculation: at the death camps; in blackened cities throughout Europe; in the famine-ravaged Ukraine; at Hiroshima. Freedom requires individuals to confront existential fears — “Their human strength triumphed over the violence. The Madonna walked toward the gas chamber, treading lightly on small bare feet. She carried her son over the swaying earth of Treblinka.”

The final section contains a number of staggering stories, the type you shove into a stranger’s hand with a wild look in your eye. These are stories that remind you of the masters of the form, writers like Hemingway, Chekov, Eudora Welty, and Cortazar. “The Elk” is a fantastic rumination on illness, love, and political repression. “The Road” is written from the vantage point of an Italian mule conscripted into the war on the side of the Axis powers. As he is forcefully marched through northern Africa and then the Russian steppe strapped to heavy artillery he forgets the pleasure taken from green shoots and visions of young mares. His indifference permits his survival. In “Mama,” one of Stalin’s top advisers adopts the orphaned child of parents he may have had a hand in killing. Grossman gives his readers a glance of the luxurious and precarious lives of those residing at the very top of the Soviet system. Even Isaac Babel makes an appearance (read Red Calvary if you haven’t already).

The Road brings together a number of works by an artist who deserves greater recognition. Grossman witnessed some of worst atrocities of the twentieth century, and his writing demonstrates a need to speak out against a particular brand of cruelty.  His writing in The Road is brave not only because a number of these stories could probably have led to his imprisonment, exile, or condemnation, but also because he utilizes terrible situations to illustrate humanity’s best qualities. Without being obvious, he champions mercy, understanding, and unconditional love. Beautiful stuff. Pick it up if you can.

Bloodlands — Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s monumental new history Bloodlands is a staggering work of scholarship.  Using primary sources written in at least ten languages, Snyder documents the nightmarish history of that portion of eastern Europe that stretches from Poland north to St. Petersburg and sweeps southwest to the point where Ukraine runs into the Black Sea.  In these places, the titular bloodlands, the policies of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin converged to kill approximately 14 million people in less than a quarter of a century.  Snyder postulates that the eradication of such large numbers of human beings was possible because National Socialism was the perfect foil to Soviet Communism, and vice versa,  and because each system allowed totalitarian one-party states to deflect blame for their respective failings onto the other, or onto large groups of relatively powerless national, ethnic, or religious minorities.  Rectifying problems required starving, shooting, gassing, or otherwise disappearing hundreds of thousands of the people who inhabited these regions and who had no intention or ability to subvert whichever ruling regime claimed them as subjects at any particular moment.  The particular atrocities committed in these areas were largely overlooked in the West at the close of World War II as these victims and their memories disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

The book begins not in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union but a decade earlier.  After Lenin’s death, Josef Stalin found himself at the head of the Soviet Union’s security forces as well its sole ruling party.  When he recognized that revolutions were not about to sweep over the rest of capitalist Europe, Stalin prioritized ensuring that the U.S.S.R. remained a strong Communist nation and a beacon of hope to committed Marxists across the world.  Despite the  Communist ethos that capitalist excess would be negated by exploited industrial workers in urban environments, the Bolshevik Revolution had taken place in one of Europe’s most diverse and rural populations.  When Stalin took it upon himself to collectivize Soviet agriculture, disaster struck in the Ukraine and Bloodlands’ long and nuanced chronicle of paranoia and death properly begins.

The famine in the Soviet Union’s most fertile land, the Ukraine, caused at least 3 million people to starve in the early part of the 1930s.  After the seed needed to plant next year’s crop was requisitioned for the collective, nothing remained to eat and there was no future to look forward to, either.  People died where they fell, women prostituted themselves for bread, parents gave their children away to strangers, and villages ceased to exist.  Fires in chimneys marked the presence of cannibals.  Snyder writes–

In the cities carts would make rounds early in the mornings to remove the peasant dead of the night before.  In the countryside the healthier peasants formed brigades to collect the corpses and bury them.  They rarely had the inclination or the strength to dig graves very deeply, so that hands and feet could be seen above the earth.

In order to ensure their own corporeal and political survival, the Soviet leadership responsible for collecting the harvest had to steal whatever they could from the hungry.

And so it continued.  Hitler rose to power partially on the basis of his powerful condemnation of the popular German Communist parties, and used the famine in the U.S.S.R. to bolster arguments that doomed the opposition to his left and center.  Although Stalin argued that all the excesses of capitalism could be seen in the racist and nationalistic rhetoric spewing from the Nazis, these two nations signed a non-aggression pact and started the war in 1939 when they jointly invaded Poland.  The Soviet reign of terror commenced and the secret police killed and deported hundreds of thousands of class enemies and nationalists in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.  The Germans and the Soviets began to move Poles out of their homes.  The Germans designed policies meant to kill educated Poles in order to create a population amenable to slavery.  The Soviets killed Polish military officers who were capable of leading uprisings against their new rulers.  Both nations instituted their first policies of mass shootings contemporaneously.

When Hitler disregarded the treaty and invaded the Soviet Union (which now included the portions of Poland both nations had agreed to share), already vulnerable populations were decimated.  Nazism required that a superior race must take what it needed without regard to rule of law or human empathy.  Advancing German forces who came upon obvious signs of recent brutality by the retreating secret police forces of the U.S.S.R. and the Red Army saw “a confirmation of what that had been trained to see: Soviet criminality, supposedly steered by and for the benefit of Jews.”  Hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were condemned to die of starvation and exposure in makeshift camps.  Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring implemented a Hunger Plan, which, although unsuccessful, aimed to “transform eastern Europe into an exterminatory agrarian colony” by purposefully starving its inhabitants or deporting them to Siberia.  The German plan to achieve victory in Leningrad involved cutting off food supplies to the city’s 3.5 million inhabitants and covering all possible escape routes with landmines which would eliminate potential evacuees.  Even before the German security forces began purposefully destroying Jewish populations, a culture of cruelty and privation had been foisted upon innocent civilian populations.

The Jewish populations of cities and regions that had housed their families and their cultures for centuries were then systematically and brutally annihilated.  Snyder argues that Western minds have processed the Holocaust in a certain manner because in our history, the accounts of the soldiers who liberated camps in conquered lands to the south and west of the Reich predominate.  We have been privileged to hear the stories of survivors from the camps at Auschwitz like Primo Levy and Elie Wiesel, but Snyder points out that the labor and death camps at Auschwitz did not come on-line until near the end of the war and most of those sentenced to labor or die there were brought from German holdings in western Europe. Bloodlands is important because it documents that most of the horrors of the Holocaust were committed in the east.  69,750 of Latvia’s 80,000 Jewish citizens were killed by the end of 1941 by bullets.  With the help of Lithuanian conscripts and rifles, the Germans killed at least 114,000 of that nation’s 200,000 Jewish citizens.  Estonian volunteers for the S.S. killed all 963 Estonian Jews that could be found.  Himmler’s security forces were supposed to “pacify” annexed territories.  In Kiev, 33,761 human beings were killed in little more than a day by the concerted efforts of S.S. commandos and conscripted local forces as part of a sustained effort to eradicate Ukrainian Jews. Snyder continues–

Having surrendered their valuables and documents, people were forced to strip naked.  Then they were driven by threats or by shots fired overhead, in groups of about ten, to the edge of a ravine known as Babi Yar.  Many of them were beaten . . . They had to lie down on their stomachs on the corpses already beneath them, and wait for the shots to come from above and behind.  Then would come the next group.  Jews came and died for thirty-six hours.

The ghettos were in the east as were the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec.  By invading Poland and the Soviet Union, Hitler conquered the nations with the largest Jewish populations on the planet, and when it became evident that the German army, like Napoleon’s previously, were unable to conquer Moscow and the icy Russian plains, the death camps were opened with the express purpose to kill massive numbers of people in the shortest period of time.  Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were well-engineered for their horrible purpose of killing those who remained behind.

The Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw was burned to the ground.

Snyder asks the readers to remember that the lives he documents died because of policies that existed in the Soviet Union and Nazi German that promoted and committed deliberate mass murder.  The act of recording and remembering must be initiated where evidence is so easy to destroy or manipulate.  People complicit in the murder of their neighbors will attempt to mitigate their shame.  Even those with no connection to such events would probably rather think of something more pleasant.  Where the Nazis razed the Warsaw ghetto and dismantled the death camp at Treblinka in a matter of hours, Stalin purposefully changed the course of the historical discussion in the U.S.S.R. in order to promote nationalism.  The suffering of Jews and other innocents was sublimated to the overall suffering of the Soviet (mostly Russian) population.

14 million people.  Farmers, prisoners, gypsies, peasants, freedom fighters, and the unlucky.  Wives, fathers, and children.  Everyone died to placate ideologies that a great number of people of good conscience did not discount at the time.  Although the historical record is expanding, it seems inconceivable that our knowledge of such events could ever be perfected.  Appreciate your loved ones and relish the warmth in your homes and in your bodies.  Essential knowledge for every conscious, conscientious person.  Absolutely recommended.

The Skating Rink — Roberto Bolaño

The Skating Rink was the first novel Roberto Bolaño published, a murder mystery in Spanish, all the way back in 1993.  It’s a short novel, but full of devices and ideas that readers will recognize from the late Chilean master’s later and better-known works. Characters who populate the novel recount events as if speaking extemporaneously to a reporter or a detective and discuss ideas and themes that the author would return to again and again:  obsession, alienation, lack of national identity, underappreciated poets, homelessness, and homicide.  The Skating Rink is a brief novel at 179 sharp and engaging pages. It wouldn’t be incorrect to call it a minor novel, but it would be a mistake to consider it merely a warm-up for the more intricate routines that the writer would perfect in the future.

The novel is about the construction and existence of a clandestine ice rink built in a deserted mansion on the cliffs of a seaside resort town in Catalonia, Spain. Erected to please Nuria Marti, a beautiful figure skater cut from the Spanish Olympic team, the rink and its inspiration are reserved and glacial while the locals who populate the seasonally bustling city are, with varying degrees of success, just trying to hold everything together. When the body of an itinerant singer is discovered in the middle of the ice deep within the labyrinthine halls of the decaying house, everything the characters have strained to preserve begins to fall apart.

The book is narrated by three men who represent different strata of Spanish society. Enric Rosquelle is an outwardly arrogant bureaucrat in charge of the city’s various social service agencies whose desperate need for love leads him to embezzle the funds  in order to build the skating facility for the athlete he knows will never return his feelings. Gaspar Heredia is an illegal Chilean immigrant who works in a campground for tourists and falls for a homeless woman who never relinquishes the kitchen knife she keeps tucked in her jeans.  Remo Moran, a legal arrival from Chile, has enjoyed success as a businessman and as a poet and is anxious about his own precarious sexual relationship with Nuria. Each man is more or less aware of his shortcomings and they utilize similar Bolañesque (Bolañan?) digressions to explain their motivations and feelings. They come to know and discuss each other in their retelling of events and so become interesting, sympathetic, and full characters.  Enric is jealous of Remo and suspicious that South Americans in general trade in filth and drugs.  Gaspar relies on his old friend Remo for his job and secretly watches Enric coaching Nuria.

The sense of loneliness and the failure to take advantage of fleeting opportunities are palpable. In a number of places, the narrative and the novel’s setting evoke a Wong Kar-wai movie. In slow motion, men follow women through cobblestone streets, not quite able to grasp that thing they desire. Hang-gliders dance in the sky and while everyone else is watching the fliers against the cool blue sky, we’re being told about how she’s just disappeared through a door down a side street. Solitary women stroll up cliff-side highways while our narrators limp behind. I almost expect Gaspar to sit down next to Tony Leung while cellos or Chinese versions of well-known pop tunes play from a nearby jukebox.  Unlike Wong Kar-wai though, Bolaño sees the single-minded pursuit of unrequited love as pathological and often a precursor to violence. The men in The Skating Rink, like any number of other men who populate Bolaño’s novels, are unable to resist the wills of the women they love or submit to personally or professionally. Two men here are willing to sublimate their own wishes for those of Nuria, whose choice of profession illustrates her own desire to overcome the normal limitations of geography, climate, and national history. As they seek her favor, they find themselves acting in unfamiliar ways, on uncertain paths and  unconcerned with appearance or ethics.

Like most of Bolaño’s work, endings (and beginnings and middles) are ambiguous. Readers are left unsure as to what has actually happened and the murder remains (I think) unsolved.  The Skating Rink could serve as an easy introduction to the writer’s more complex creations because it deals with time and plot in a relatively conventional manner. The characters get to say proper good-byes and reflect on the things that have happened to them. Like a standard mystery, most of the knots have been untangled.  But because real understanding sits just outside of consciousness, this reader is still waiting for the feeling that my task is complete. There are occasional missteps, like when Bolaño compares an elderly woman’s voice to a locker room, but passages lodge in your head like slow songs on repeat in dark comfortable places. Like those jams, The Skating Rink might be a masterpiece or something to be forgotten when something better comes along.  It’s short, so listen to it a couple times and decide for yourself.

Pig Earth — John Berger

People exaggerate the changes in nature so as to make nature seem lighter. Nature resists change. If something changes, nature waits to see whether the change can continue, and it it can’t, it crushes it with all its weight!  Ten thousand years ago the trout in the stream would have been exactly the same as today.

Stasis and disruption and the relation between people and their natural and urban surroundings are the themes John Berger writes about in his 1979 collection of essays, poems and short stories, Pig Earth.  Having moved from England, where he enjoyed considerable renown as an art critic and fiction writer, to the peasant villages of the French Alps, Berger settled into his role as an active participant in rural life, not only turning hay but observing and documenting the disappearance of a way of a once-pervasive mode of life.  Pig Earth was one result of his labors, the first book of a trilogy that took some fifteen-odd years to complete, a moving but not uncritical account of humanity’s struggle to conquer nature by symbiosis.

Maybe symbiosis isn’t the proper term if we agree that humanity is part of nature’s whole, but Berger juxtaposes the frailty of humanity with the earth’s uncaring and often violent strength.  Survival for the family of the subsistence farmer depends upon that family’s ability to tend to the needs of the plant and animal world (as well as more than a little bit of luck).  In the collection’s first true story, “A Calf Remembered,” a baby cow is delivered on a dark winter’s night. Here, Berger stresses the protections that nature and man have designed to ensure the survival of a young, vulnerable animal:  mucus, barn, salt, and sense.  The human spends his night in the barn protecting his property because it provides him not only with sustenance in the forms of milk and meat, but also companionship and a sense of duty.  When daily living requires acts that might mean life or death, the conscious and the instinct converge.

He sat on a milking stool in the dark.  With his head in his hands, his breathing was indistinguishable from that of the cows. The stable itself was like the inside of an animal.  Breath, water, cud were entering it:  wind, piss, shit were leaving.

Pig Earth is a book worth studying as people attempt to make sense of a world transitioning from one type of living to another and fuss over the sources of their own limited strength and vitality. Berger may not have been looking to pioneer a slow-living locavore lifestyle, but his subjects worry about their increasing isolation from the circles of power and industry.  They fret over the pointlessness of passing their knowledge to their children who need entirely different skills to survive in the rapidly encroaching urban wage economy.  In “The Value of Money” a father refuses a tractor, branded “The Liberator” by the manufacturer, that his son has purchased for him because it will render his faithful work-horse obsolete.  This same farmer kidnaps local tax officials because they want to confiscate the products of his labor without compensation for value that he exclusively created.  Unable to make them understand their wrongdoing, he sets them free because “you can only take revenge on those who are your own.”

The final story, “The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol,” is the lengthiest and perhaps most poignant narrative in the book. It follows the life of a bright, tenacious, physically stunted woman as she grows from young girl to town outcast.  While Berger admired much of the life in the peasant village, he would fail in his duty as critic and chronicler if he ignored its darker sides. Berger often sets the title character’s pluck against the resignation and superstition endemic to village life. When life requires struggle, most people choose to hoard.  When poor choices may lead to death or family hardship, capitulation to those in power, whether those rulers be the town’s big man or Nazi collaborators, can often seem the only obvious choice.  Lucy shows us that cowardice, no matter the circumstances, only seems easy. Pig Earth is highly recommended.

The Savage Detectives — Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño’s “other” masterwork The Savage Detectives has been previously reviewed on this website, but my view is that the previous writeup was unfair and premature.  Perhaps those of us who love this book are not “serious” readers.

The plot was accurately diagrammed in the earlier post. The Savage Detectives is made up of three sections. The first section consists of the diary of seventeen year-old Visceral Realist poet Juan Garcia Madero, his record of his literary ambition and dawning appreciation of beauty and words. The second, lengthy section is a series of interviews, seemingly conducted by a single, unknown interviewer in an attempt to uncover the history of the Visceral Realist movement, a group of iconoclastic poets that lived in Mexico City in the early part of the 1970s. The third section revisits Garcia Madero’s diary as he and Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the nominal leaders of the Visceral Realists, scour the unforgiving Sonora desert in search of their own lost heroes.

Bolaño revisits familiar themes in this novel by asking what drives people to create, and what happens to those people when the things they create are pushed, like themselves, to the margins of society.  Garcia Madero’s drive to write forces him to confront his everyday existence as he attempts to shed his innocence.  He loses friends, quits school, moves in with a waitress, falls in love, has his heart broken.  He writes when he eats, he writes when he should be doing something else, he writes about writing.  He assumes that he and his comrades are on the verge of fame and that others are aware that everything the Visceral Realists do is bold and profound.  Why then, Bolaño asks, is Garcia Madero satisfied with reading his poems to others when he dreams of placing his work in well-regarded anthologies?  What happens when we realize that immortality is ultimately an illusion?  Where does the spirit go when the ghost leaves only a sheet behind?

The answers to the questions posed in the first book are addressed in the second, but there is no sense that the unknown interviewer is close to mythologizing the Visceral Realists in the same manner as the scholars who made a hero of Hans Reiter in the first book of 2666.  At least at the time the interviews were conducted, the Visceral Realists’ body of work is unknown to most, but to those with knowledge of their oeuvre, the Visceral Realists are remembered as hacks or kids from the wrong side of the tracks who preferred the commission of petty misdemeanors to dedication to their craft.  The reality, as usual, is located somewhere in the middle. The Visceral Realists are shown to be like any other group of talented, excitable and intelligent young people because they’re bound to be disappointed.  Their failure of their movement can be blamed on their own choices as well as on barriers erected by those ensconced in the Mexican literary establishment whose notions of where ideas ought to come from are not easily refuted.  Especially by those demanding entry to their small but exclusive club.

Mr. Biblioklept’s first review was essentially right when he stated that The Savage Detectives “is an epic about the banal, ordinary things that fill our lives: jobs and eating and getting to places and having one’s friendships sour and being disappointed and so on.”  Yes, sadness pervades the book.  The Visceral Realists put down their pens, or they move to America, or they run and hide from the things that they cannot control at home.  The Visceral Realists succumb to disease, lose their minds, attempt to cope, and they die.  An early friend of Arturo Belano’s recounts–

I imagined him lost in a white space, a virgin space that kept getting dirtier and more soiled despite his best efforts, and even the face I remembered grew distorted, as if while I was talking to his sister his features melded into what she was describing, ridiculous feats of strength, terrifying, pointless rites of passage into adulthood so distant from what I thought would become of him.

Although the young poets suffer defeat, they enjoy small but significant triumphs, the most important of which is the existence of the book being argued about in this space.  For Bolaño, whose business is the veneration of creators and their creation, the perseverance of the questions raised by the mere existence of the Visceral Realists and their permanent embodiment in a physical object capable of transmission in perpetuity is the ultimate victory. If the author is right that “the search for a place to live and a place to work [is] the common fate of all humanity,” then the young poets transitioning to adulthood don’t fare so poorly.  Most of them, despite their backgrounds, become citizens with some stake in the places they live.  They find work, they have children, they find adventure.  Some, like Arturo Belano, continue to write at an immense personal cost.  A man without a country, he’s the shadow who forms the substance of the book and allows his alter ego to demonstrate his remarkable narrative powers.

But what makes The Savage Detectives a complete work is that, like the characters of Borges and Cortazar, who so many in this novel profess to admire, the poets realize, sometimes too late, that brief and startling connections between people are always possible and love may be found anywhere.  La Maga and Oliviera meet on strange bridges in Paris, condemned men revisit their lives in the moment between gunshot and blackness, and poor, unlettered poets will continue to read, and despite derision and hardship, will continue to express their own vision of hope and possibility.

Red Harvest — Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett’s first published novel, Red Harvest, stars an unnamed dick, but the book isn’t so much a detective novel as it is an exploration of the destruction and renewal of a vice-ridden mining town named Personville.  The city boss, who serves “Poisonville” as both mayor and company president, can no longer control the strikebreakers he imported to bust up a prolonged work stoppage.  Initially retained by the editor of the daily paper to conduct background research for a developing story, the Continental Op is reluctantly hired by the mayor  to return the town to respectability.

Red Harvest is no murder mystery in the Scooby Doo sense because, unlike the Spillane novels reviewed last week, there is no particular villain to unmask.  Here, the action unfolds as the Continental Agency operative learns the personal histories of the town’s power players, assesses their motivations, and determines how best to play one set of guns against another.  The simple brilliance of this novel is Hammett’s ability to create believable characters in a handful of sentences, and then send them out to wreak mayhem against others.  Poisonville is as much a living character as Conan Doyle’s London or Bolaño’s Santa Teresa because it is so central to its citizens’ hopes, frustrations, and fears.  The detective apprehends, as bodies multiply, that the town is somehow getting the better of him.

The Continental Op might just be a stand-in for Hammet’s ideal reader.  Even though he’s privy to the same information we are, the detective is uniquely able to separate the relevant from the misleading and move the narrative forward.  He ingratiates himself with each of the opposing camps in town, analyzes their situations, and dispenses advice to their leaders based upon their own best interests.  Although the shakedowns, shootings, and betrayals were probably inevitable, the Op is the catalyst, the omnipotent narrator annihilating and rebuilding alliances.  Our detective’s actions lead to more than a dozen deaths, a prison break, riots in the street, blackmail, and his own frame-up for murder.

Rarely do writers trust their lead characters to create, and not merely experience, their own story.  I imagine that most characters, and most living human beings, aren’t capable or don’t want to always be in charge, preferring often just to passively accept whatever is foisted upon them.  Hammett’s writing in Red Harvest is so precise and inviting that those who pick it up might convince themselves, as they flip backwards twenty pages or so, that they could have played puppet-master just as easily.

The Mike Hammer Novels — Mickey Spillane

Online auctions allow book-lovers to engage in what could be labeled “biblio-sharking.”  Some poor sap needs to clear out his basement to make room for a foosball table or a Jacuzzi, and readers take his books for an extraordinary profit. While the seller may hesitate to dispose of their treasures, I’ll readily pay negligible sums to compensate him for his losses.  So, if your rumpus room means more to you than fiction, please please please place your ads on Ebay.

Some poor mug did just that last week, allowing me to take home 18 detective novels for five clams and nominal shipping and handling charges.  Because anthologies were included in the package, I scored twenty-four books for about thirty cents apiece.  Ed Biblioklept, kept busy for weeks at a time supervising hooligans and future delinquents of America, has granted me permission to review one of my purchases, the New American Library’s collection of Mickey Spillane’s first three Mike Hammer novelsI, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, and Vengeance is Mine.

Spillane sold hundreds of millions of detective and spy stories during a long career, and the Hammer stories guaranteed him an interested and rabid following.  Although private dick Mike Hammer finds himself in any number of slippery situations, Spillane’s central character, rather than any individual plot twist, is what makes these stories both convincing and compelling.

Hammer is the archetypal square-jawed detective, but he demands that you listen to his recollections of a case because he’s clever, resourceful, and vulgar. Although indelicate by today’s standards, Hammer is a tough guy for his times, beguiling dames who are used to getting just what they want, burning through decks of unfiltered Luckies, and drinking brandy for breakfast.  What’s timeless, though, is his belief that bad guys are afforded too many protections by an impotent system of justice and that once all the pieces are put together, one extraordinary man performs a public service by putting a few slugs in the guts of murderers.  In each of these stories Hammer begins unraveling the mysteries only after someone close to him has been killed.

This was the first collection of detective stories I’ve ever finished, and each page dragged me further into a black and white world filled with villains, vixens, and corrupt politicians.  The reader becomes an unpaid extra in a B-level film noir.

Hammer explained to me, a snob, the enduring popularity of the literary detective: “You’ve forgotten that I’ve been in business because I stayed alive longer than some guys who didn’t want me that way.  You’ve forgotten that I’ve had some punks tougher than you’ll ever be on the end of a gun and I pulled the trigger just to watch their expressions change.”  Mind what you think.