Monday, October 16, 2017

"A Chance Conversation" Now Online

My essay, "A Chance Conversation" is now online in the October number of The Cumberland Review and can be viewed here:

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Full Mehitabel

            Until I spotted The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel (2006) on a bookstore shelf, I had thought that the omnibus edition of Don Marquis’s Evening Sun columns featuring the louche Mehitabel the cat and Archy, the vers libre poet reincarnated as a cockroach, was all there was of those two. The omnibus edition was called The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel and came out in 1940, combining the three previous Archy and Mehitabel collections Marquis had published; it was reissued in 1950 with a brilliant introduction by E. B. White. In fact, as I learned from Michael Sims’s introduction and notes to The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel, there were many more of Archy’s columns (supposedly all the columns were left in Marquis’s typewriter in the morning, having been written by Archy’s launching himself onto each key headfirst during the night) from their inception March 29, 1916 until the last column two days before Christmas in 1922.
            Sims presents the columns in the form and order in which they appeared, while Marquis had selected, rearranged, and sometimes altered them in the previous collections. He omits a few very short walk-ons where Archy makes a pitch for war bonds, including one of these so that we can see what they were like. Otherwise we have all of them, rather more of Archy than of Mehitabel. Archy comments on the war effort, goes to Washington, stows away on the ship carrying American diplomats to the peace conference in Paris, but characteristically spends most of his time there with a down-and-out Russian who claims to be the Czar. Archy talks about the influenza epidemic and the coming of Prohibition as well as many other current events and passing fads.  He has running contract negotiations and threatened strikes with his “boss” Marquis, hoping to get larger type for his column and food left in the newsroom. Most notable of the events omitted from the omnibus edition are Archy’s two deaths: Marquis kills him with a flyswatter, mistaking him for some other insect, early in the series, and later on Archy talks about practicing and mastering getting out of his body (spiritualism and related phenomena were big in the twenties); he returns to his body one day and finds it squashed. Each time, to his chagrin, he is reincarnated as a cockroach again.
            Mehitabel is her usual self, lamenting how she’s come down in the world (she was once, she says, Cleopatra), but always ready for a ramble on the roof tiles or romance with an itinerant tom; “life,” says Mehitabel, “is just one damn kitten after another,” but her motto is toujours gai, almost always with a “wotthehell” added.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Purple Bird of Pompeii

I’m really enjoying a book of Penelope Lively’s short stories published in 2016 and titled The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories. Lively’s lean prose reminds me of another Penelope: Penelope Fitzgerald, my favorite English novelist at the moment.
The Porphyrio porphyrio of the title story narrates the last day in the garden of the Pompeian house of Quintus Pompeius. Elsewhere a thoughtless couple of young “artists” end up painting a mural in a remote Spanish village house—and carrying water from the well to pay their keep when their car breaks down. A couple married long enough for the shine to be off have a row and make it up. A graduate student writing about her own family history has a momentarily dangerous identification with an ancestor. A woman invites the “other woman” who stole her husband forty-two years before to have it out over lunch. In a series of interviews with sister, friends, lovers and husband of her subject, a biographer may have uncovered the truth both lover and husband tried to conceal from her—which as it happens neither knows the whole of. Will it be in the biography? A young caregiver discovers her charge has a shocking past in “License to Kill.” In these stories, just the first half of the book, Lively uses a refreshing variety of points of view: the bird, the young caregiver, several people in their eighties, and all the interviewees of the biographer. The fifteen stories here average about a dozen pages each and are told in clear and spare prose.
Her subject, much of the time, is what happens instead of the happily-ever-after, though the outcomes are not all unhappy. She doesn’t repeat herself, and in only one story does the scale seem inappropriate: “Lorna and Tom” seems more in need of a novel’s scope—but Scott Fitzgerald already wrote it and called it, not Nicole and Dick, but Tender Is the Night.
Often her couple will just be “rubbing along comfortably,” to use one of Lively’s expressions, when a new job project or a new house will change the dynamics of their relationship. Houses are important in these stories and in two, “DIY” and “The Weekend,” they have more than natural resonance. Lively cultivates both small surprises at the ends of stories and gradual recognition throughout. She concludes with something of a mystery thriller, also about marriage.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


We used to talk about California as being the place where all the flakes of the country had migrated, and most people probably would have agreed with the Bellows quote from Seize the Day: “In Los Angeles all the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn't tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California.” At the moment California in its decisions about immigration and about pollution and greenhouse gasses and other matters seems to be much more sane than the rest of the country, where so many of the screws seem to be loose. This reversal came to mind when I was reading Kurt Andersen’s book about America’s nuttiness from its beginnings until the present, when to many of us it seems as if we have gone completely down the rabbit hole into wonderland. Andersen doesn’t call it wonderland; he calls it fantasyland, and his whole title is Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: a 500-Year History (2017). This will be seen as a book about how we got Trump, but in fact Andersen has been working on the book since 2013 and thinking about it long before that. It may conclude with Trump, but, it’s really a long book posing the question why Americans are now and always seem to have been so prone to crackpot religion, hucksterism, conspiracy theories, get-rich-quick schemes and their modern product of lottery fever, magical thinking about remaking ourselves body and soul, quack cures and the turning of vitamin production and herbal remedies into an industry whose billions challenge even the cosmetic industry. At times, Americans seem eager to believe anything—except what people who actually know something about the subject have to tell them about vaccines or climate change or whether Barack Obama was born in the United States. For Andersen, this American exceptionalism keeps coming back to religion. No country in the developed world has the passionate adherence to religion by so much of the population as we see here. Even in countries where there is an established religion and, nominally at least, almost the entire population are believers, it turns out that a much smaller percentage of those people are in fact observant or regular in their religious exercises. Andersen’s book is going to ruffle feathers in a lot of congregations’ dovecotes, and I’m not sure that it is going to make liberals much happier than it makes conservatives. But Andersen has amassed a huge amount of evidence about American credulity.