Friday, December 18, 2009

Book 21: The Pigman by Paul Zindel

During my junior year of high school I got into a bit of trouble. I was the President of the Drama Club, a title which I single-handedly transformed into purely figurehead status. Our first major production of the year was 'The Diary of Anne Frank'. Perfect for Christmas.

I played Mr. Van Daan, a member of the family stuck in the attic with the Franks. I got to be the guy who snuck out while everyone slept and ate food that was meant for the kids.

We did the play on Friday night as snow began to fall.

Late Saturday afternoon the snow came back with a vengeance. My drama teacher called me to tell me that the evening's performance was to be canceled. She also asked me to arrange for one of the members of the Drama Club to go to the school and inform those who showed up for the performance that is was canceled.

This seemed wrong to me. If one kid had to go to the school shouldn't all of us go? And if all of us went shouldn't we just do the damn show for whoever showed up in a snowstorm?

My teacher didn't agree. I called the former director of the Drama Club and my senior year english teacher. Great teacher. I asked him what he thought. He was very adroit, he told me that I should probably do what I was told while also implying that he didn't agree with it.

I was mobilized.

I let everyone know that the show would go on whether our teacher was there or not. The snow let up and we had almost a full house. Then the shit hit the fan.

I was banned from the spring musical.

And you know what wound up happening? Prout happened.

Prout was the Catholic All-Girls school in Narragansett. They were doing a production of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' and they needed someone who could do an Elvis impersonation. And who was, more importantly perhaps, a boy.

Someone had seen me singing 'Blue Suede Shoes' as part of an English project in our school library and passed my name along. Within a day or two I was in daily rehearsals surrounded by 40 teenage girls.

The moral of this story? Don't do what you're told.

'The Pigman' is one of those books that aims straight for your heart without reservation. Two disaffected teenagers befriend an old man, mostly out of scorn and a kind of latent cynicism. They abuse his friendship by throwing a huge party in his house when he is in the hospital after a small heart attack. He comes back early, unexpectedly and dies of a big heart attack.

In a crucial scene in the book John and Lorraine are alone at the Pigman's house and they dress up in clothes that he and his wife used to wear. Things turn a bit intimate and their charged platonic relationship threatens to turn into something else entirely.

Sounds like a bummer but it isn't. It is exciting. It is sexy. It is uproariously funny. Much like my journey from having gray in my hair and stealing bread from Anne Frank to wearing gold lame, hair swept up in a duck tail, swiveling my hips to a bunch of squealing teenage if I weren't just some kid banished from my own Drama Club.

As if I were Elvis himself.

Book 22: The Stand by Stephen King

For the first time since I was a freshman in high school I wasn't working for Belmont Fruit during the summer. My old friend Kate had hooked up with a company called College Pro Painters which operated on a franchise model. The more houses you paint the more money you make. Kate had switched from Belmont the previous summer while home from Yale and had made much more money than she would have at Belmont. I made the leap.

I also read 'The Stand' that summer for the first time.

And it is the only time in my life that I have ever been deeply tanned.

The whole premise of College Pro Painters was quantity. If you have a motivated relentless team you can make a mint. We did not make a mint.

Our boss was a college student named Sean. Nice guy but not a great manager. I was used to being at work every morning at 6:15 at Belmont. Seemed to me if we wanted to paint as many houses as possible than we should be on the ladders at sun up. But we weren't. In fact, if we were painting by 9 it was a good day.

I started to get a bit of an inkling that I might have a death wish working. I sought out the highest ladder point, the places that other people didn't seem to want to paint. I dangled from rooftops dabbing trim with sponge brushes, clutching a bucket of paint in my teeth. I straddled gutters and hung unhitched over three story drops. In short I was losing my mind.

Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Cotton seemed to be stuffed in my ears as if I were some bottle of over the counter medicine never to be opened, never used for the purpose I was made for. I didn't take lunch with everyone. I kept painting. Whenever I wasn't on a ladder I did pushups and situps. I had a hard time wearing t-shirts because I felt claustrophobic with the slightest bit of pressure on my skin.

To make matters worse we were not being paid regularly by Sean for all the work we were doing. Resentment started to openly fester. Things came to a head when the paint store where we picked our supplies up informed us that we couldn't have any more paint until Sean paid up. Which meant that there was no way he could pay us what he owed us, probably $2 grand apiece for a team of 5 or 6 painters. Yikes.

We traipsed over to his frat house and knocked on his door. It was probably 9:30AM. At first he started to get mad at us for not being at the house. When we told him that we were going to run out of paint later that day and that we couldn't buy any more he changed his tune right quick. We demanded checks. He said he couldn't. It was one of the more tense moments I've ever had. Violence was definitely in the air.

I was deep into 'The Stand' and in a trance. King does that to you. He is just relentless. The story seemed to unfurl like some horrific flag over a kingdom of death. No matter how fast I read the whole story seemed, much like the way I felt all summer, to be moving at a frighteningly slow pace. As if you'd been drugged or shot with a tranquilizer dart.

I marched over to Belmont and asked for my old job back. The next morning at 6:15 I dragged my tanned shirtless body to work and delivered fruits and vegetables all day on familiar routes. I missed being out on those ledges though. I must admit.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book 23: Deliverance by James Dickey

I had stumbled upon the movie on TV one Saturday or Sunday afternoon but I barely remembered seeing it, probably too caught up in pretending to play left field for the Boston Red Sox or sinking a last second half court shot for the Boston Celtics or diving over the goal line for a decisive touchdown. Or winning Wimbledon. You get the picture.

I somehow knew that Dickey was a poet first and that this was his only novel. I was intrigued by that, by someone clawing their way to the top of an arcane outdated field and then jumping genres to produce an enduring masterpiece. Plus a movie still famous for anal rape. Right on.

First the novel. I began reading it on a weekend night or summer night. Point being I did not have to be up the next morning. I read through until dawn and finished it.

A more harrowing night of entertainment you could not imagine. Dickey masterfully leads us into a savage unknowable landscape which is almost supernatural in essence. The men set out on what is designed to be some sort of back to nature back in touch with your testosterone trip and wind up fighting for their lives with the creatures who actually inhabit that world all the time.

After a terrifying sequence of events that you most likely remember from the movie, the main character is climbing a rock face in hopes of getting one clear shot at murder. I felt as if my fingernails were digging into the rock along with him. I was exhausted. I'd been reading for almost 8 hours straight but I couldn't stop. This mirrored the main character's experience to such a perfect degree that each word felt like a drop of sweat on my own forehead.

I closed the last page feeling as if I'd never be the same, as if I could never quite trust anything again. I don't know if any other novel I've ever read more directly imparts the central theme contained therein.

Now, the movie.

More specifically Burt Motherfucking Reynolds.

Anyone who only associates Burt Motherfucking Reynolds with Dom Deluise, stupid Camaro movies or even 'Boogie Nights' which is fantastic, needs to drop everything, infant babies included and watch 'Deliverance' right the fuck now.

Excuse the swearing but merely thinking about 'Deliverance' (movie or book) will cause a major uptick in bullshit male behavior.

Burt Motherfucking Reynolds swaggers all over this movie like a grizzly staring down another grizzly who thinks he can have a piece of Burt Motherfucking Reynolds' grizzly bitch pussy. Guess what? Burt Motherfucking Reynolds ain't gonna let you anywhere near that sweet grizzly pussy. Because he is Burt Motherfucking Reynolds.

All testosterone fueled language innapropriateness aside, Burt Motherfucking Reynolds pretty much defines 'movie star' in this film. He doesn't seem to be an actor. He is THAT guy in THAT situation. Seems easy, right? Well it ain't. Just because you are as tough as Burt Motherfucking Reynolds doesn't mean you can ACT as tough as Burt Motherfucking Reynolds.

Ask Jean Claude Van Damme. He could kick just about any ass in real life. He'd have seemed RIDICULOUS in this movie.

'Deliverance'. Check out film and book. Not necessarily in that order but it don't matter.

Book 24: True and False: Heresy And Common Sense For The Actor by David Mamet

My favorite part of this book is the dust jacket. Alec Baldwin says something to the effect that every actor should read this even though Mamet is talking out his ass most of the time. And he is right on both counts.

I have stayed away from talking about acting, actors, directors, etc. on this blog. The reason is quite simple. I want to work with even the people I would deride. I have done imitations of a certain Hollywood starlet that brought entire bar rooms to uproarious laughter and I hope to cringe in remembering it the day I act opposite her in one of her films.

I am VERY uncomfortable judging those who have the same aspirations and yearnings. The aforementioned starlet for example. She probably grew up dreaming of being an actress. She made it happen to an EXTRAORDINARY degree even though I personally can't stand much of her work. But should my opinion of her carry any weight whatsoever? I sort of feel like it shouldn't. Her accomplishments stand outside of any subjective view I might have.

Music is different for me. It is more personal, less collaborative, singular in a way that movies and acting is not. Being a singer/songwriter myself I feel quite comfortable calling out those that I have an aversion to. I don't quite understand this juxtaposition. I am fiercely protective of those actors/actresses who make me roll my eyes. But I'll tear Jewel a new asshole from the highest mountaintop. I am not saying this is how it SHOULD be, or that it makes any sense. Just how it is.

I would venture to say that David Mamet thinks this way. He seems to cherish the very fact that actors/actresses exist. He revels in their insanity, their willingness to put on various chicken suits and dance for us. But he has little patience for those of the breed who have any pretension. Who won't get their hands dirty. Who take themselves too seriously. Who don't take themselves seriously enough.

I bring up my dichotomous ethics in remaining neutral on actors/actresses but villifying musicians willy nilly because 'True And False' seems equally schizophrenic. One minute Mamet is championing those actors who are fearless to such an extent that they shock us with their choices. The next he is scoffing at actors who seem so into making choices. He barely seems able to go 2 pages without contradicting himself.

Several times in reading this book I rolled my eyes and thought, "Oh, sure, this sounds good on paper but try doing the 'To be or not to be' monologue that way, David Fucking Mamet. See how fucking easy that is, douchebag."

And that is what makes this book so much fun for actors. We are at once inside the club of 'good' actors as we read it, able to chastise those without our sensational skill, and outside Mamet's bullshit understanding of how we do what we do. Double pleasure. Double judgment!

I can't say how much fun this book would be for a non Theater person. For those of us forever caught up in stage left stage right shenanigans, it is like coffee after dinner and dessert. Not necessary or even healthy but just what we need all the same.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book 25: The House At Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

This book hardly even qualifies as having been written. It materialized out of the ether and entranced the entire planet.

I remember being mesmerized by the hollow trees and the stout honey jars. What was wrong with Eeyore? Why was Piglet so scared? How could someone as dimwitted as Owl believe so fiercely in their own intelligence? Why was Rabbit so pissed off at everyone all the time?

And then there was Pooh. I don't know about you but I RELATE. As a kid the world pretty much was incomprehensible and humorous at the same time. Pooh seems to exist beyond any action/reaction relationship to his surroundings. His essence floats from moment to moment treating everything the same. Pure equality of contact.

Cashel loved Winnie the Pooh as well. I would read to him from 'The House At Pooh Corner' which has portions that I'd forgotten since my childhood. His fevered end-of-day cheeks pressed against a pillow or my chest I would slowly take each word from the page and give them to him. More often than not I fell asleep as well with Tigger just about to appear.

Ah, Tigger. Anarchy. No boundaries. No sense of repercussion or consequence. Pure id. I remember being benignly frightened of Tigger when I was little, he was like the friend who convinced you to do something stupid like jump off the top of the jungle gym. But man was that kid fun.

I understand why I tear up when I think about Christopher Robin and all of his playmates. I am nostalgic for my own childhood, for Cashel's which is rapidly receding into the past. But as a kid there was nothing nostalgic about Winnie the Pooh at all. It was pure fun. WHY??? WHY???

Trying to articulate how this particular story achieves its greatness is like trying to make air into ink. Not only is it impossible but it would take magic and even then you couldn't quite be sure why or what you were really doing.

There is scaffolding inside of me. Way down at the roots where the foundation begins I have real memories of Winnie the Pooh staring bemusedly at the rising water around his bed. I couldn't have imagined that the memory of my own boy listening to the same story would one day be almost as far back down the scaffold. Before you know it he'll be reading to his child.

Was there ever a time when this world didn't exist? Seems to me that Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Christopher Robin came hurtling out of the Big Bang fully formed, just waiting for A.A. Milne to arrive and pin them down.

Book 26: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

This slight book has no right to pack the punch that it does. It has the feel of a drunken confessional from a self-obsessed theater student who has just fallen in love with his leading lady and male director all at once. Half the time you want to slap the kid and tell him to suck it up and the other half you ENJOY wanting to slap the kid and tell him to suck it up.

During the most turbulent of my college years my life somehow slid from intensity into a kind of dramatic self-parody. I had half-heartedly declared a History major which was a joke because I glaze over at the mention of anything that didn't happen today and have trouble remembering even the most earth-shattering moments in my own life. A first semester role in Noel Coward's 'Hay Fever' plunged me directly into the heart of the fantastic URI Theater Department and I never looked back.

And what did that immersion entail? A commitment at least as grueling as scholarship athletics. Each main stage production rehearsed for four weeks and ran for two. There were four main stage shows each year, which meant that for roughly four months you were either rehearsing or performing a play. Rehearsals were five or six times a week for up to four hours. Twenty hours a week which adds up to four hundred hours of rehearsal time per year.

And none of that includes the off-stage drama that exploded year round. Here are some snapshots.

An amoral ingenue who claimed she was pregnant by a friend. She claimed to have a Planned Parenthood appointment at a certain time. Since she had already proven herself not to be trusted we staked her apartment out and followed her throughout the day skulking like bad ass movie private eyes and smoking and drinking coffee. She went nowhere near the Planned Parenthood clinic. No child ever materialized.

That same ingenue (and I use that term very loosely) called 911 and reported a rape. Randomly another theater student was walking his dog in the general vicinity and was picked up for questioning. She was later charged with filing a false report. Our poor friend was very shook up because the cops truly believed he was the perp.

The girlfriend of the non-rapist incurred his wrath one night when she claimed that John Lennon was a liar. Now, you have to understand that the Non-Rapist was such a huge Beatles fan that this would be akin to telling Jerry Falwell that you believed that Christ liked little boys.

Parties at the house I rented down by the beach would not officially begin until everyone did a shot and jumped off the porch. We had roughly 40 shot glasses in our cupboards and we would line them up. The porch was pretty high too. But people jumped.

You could also get up on our roof and see the ocean. It was a gorgeous view. The girl I was circling came over early before a party in a minuscule black dress. She wanted to see the roof but the dress was so short that to climb up meant certain revelation of underpants. She paused, hiked the already teensy skirt up and over her hips and mounted the house.

She wound up sleeping that night in my roommate's bed with another guy.

These dramas constantly unfolded around all of us but were still somehow contained by the term "Theater Department". We would stumble out of a rehearsal for 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' having struggled to master some intricate group dance step and we would stagger down to Tony's Pizza for late night beers and improv. Legs were rubbed under tables, man on man, girl on girl, guy on girl, girl and girl on guy, et cetera.

Pitchers of beer disappeared in blinks of eyes and some sort of group tension carried us through the evenings.

'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh' is like that. It thinks it contains some nugget of tragedy, some kernel of human truth that exposes a vulnerability in our existence. But really it's just a boatload of fun.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book 27: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

I have no idea how I stumbled upon this book. I was not a voracious sci-fi reader as a teenager. I devoured Agatha Christie books but never got into Asimov or Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. But 'The Stainless Steel Rat'? That one got me.

James Bolivar 'Slippery Jim' DiGriz a.k.a. 'The Stainless Steel Rat' is an unrepentant criminal mastermind. He lives to steal, loves to rob, risks all to con. The very first 'Stainless Steel Rat' novel which was published in 1961 opens in the midst of one of his signature heists.

This is no ordinary stick-em-up gun in the teller's face bank job. No. Slippery Jim has staked out an out of the way planet with a particular way of doing business. Once there he assumes the identity of a small businessman, owning and operating an actual factory. He is turning quite a nice profit and actually getting rich from the above-board running of this business but money is not the point. The thrill of the job is what he is after.

After an impossibly elaborate scheme which could never be traced, he seems just about in the clear when some small detail goes awry. This is not out of the ordinary, the Rat is used to improvising. He comes to believe that he is being hunted by the Special Corps, an elite police force created especially for tracking down criminals who have mostly been eradicated by gene reprogramming.

He takes evasive action after evasive action, shifting disguises multiple times, doubling back, taking random streets over and over again until he himself barely has any idea where he is. He rushes down some dimly lit corridor and collapses into a room. Waiting for him is the Chief of the Special Corps, a former criminal mastermind and hero of The Rat, Inskipp.

The Rat has a choice. Join or die.

He joins.

And thus we have the ultimate storyline for an impressionable teenage boy. The anti-hero. The unwilling good guy. The lusty misfit.

None of this is to be taken seriously. This is part of the fun of Harrison's writing. If you can even call it that. The novels read almost like screenplays and I'm quite frankly shocked that no one has ever tackled this on film.

Dropped into the midst of all of this is a psychopathic ball of sex appeal, Angelina. Behind all of the crimes he is asked to investigate for the Corps she lurks, a Black Widow licking her lips in anticipation of a good romp in her web and a quick meal of Jim's head.

He is shocked at her willingness to kill, something he avoids simply because he has more fun leaving enemies in impossible situations. He may be a sociopath but he is not a psychopath. She is both and he is drawn to her.

Again, I am actually making this sound more serious than it actually is. The whole thing is cigar smoke against futuristic glass and one-piece jumpsuits zipped just low enough to cradle some alien stone between perfect breasts and cargo freighters hiding behind asteroids. It is ridiculous.

So ridiculous that when I saw a paperback copy at my local Good Will store I snapped it right up. And felt fifteen again, browsing the stacks in the Kingston Free Library on a Saturday afternoon, looking for an escape hatch to another world.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book 28: Life After God by Douglas Coupland

This is a pocket size book which contains infinity inside a small container.

I currently do not have a copy of this book because I keep giving it away.

I've heard it described as depressing because the characters it contains are all in crisis, almost beyond the reach of connection. But for me the opposite is true. To me it is a lifeline, a description of the strength that is inherent in us even when we are pushed to breaking points. And that breaking points are as much a part of life as triumphs, as ecstasy.

There is something deceptively simple in Coupland's prose, a kind of casual tone that is easy to dismiss as simplistic or lightweight. Compared to the density and verbiage of a Pynchon or a Vonnegut or a Faulkner he seems like a magazine.

But, like I said, that is deceptive. I believe that Coupland's work comes the closest to truly mirroring our modern society. It doesn't achieve this through bells and whistles, chutes and ladders. It does so the old fashioned way. Plot.

'Life After God' is so episodic that one might say there was no plot to speak of. Most people will notice the little drawings that accompany the first person narratives, the tiny size of the book. But when you actually pay attention you get a plot like no other, almost as if you had access to an email inbox after a tragic death.

More a collection of narratives than a collection of short stories, more a novel than a collection of short stories, more a rumination on modern existence than a story about someone ruminating on modern existence, these stories follow ropes to the people at the end of them.

I can't quite say how Coupland does what he does and why it moves me so. I only know that this little book got me through some of the most difficult times of my life. And when I read it if you'd told me things would get worse I wouldn't have believed you.

But they did get worse. Much worse.

And after they got worse I read the book again and it helped me again.

Somehow the pocket size nature of it is comforting, that such despair and desperation can fit inside such a tiny book, that these disasters and tragedies are portable, able to be carried without so much as a backpack. They could sit in your back-pocket as you hitch-hiked right out of your life, down the road into possibly worse circumstances but at least as far as out of the current malaise.

Or they can sit right on your bedside and help you be where you are. Help you see that 'Life After God' might not be so bad after all.