Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Maybe the "Worst" isn't so bad after all

During the time when I was an active Authonomy member, I read some incredibly bad writing. But a yellowed newspaper clipping reminded me that these Authonomists couldn't hold a candle to Michael “The Fastest Typewriter in the East” Avallone.

The article, a “Weekend Whodunits” column by Henry Kisor, in the April 17, 1987 Chicago Sun-Times, reviewed Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to the “Worst” in in Mystery Fiction (Mysterious Press) by Bill Pronzini, a compendium of bad mystery writing, mainly of the hardboiled variety. Kisor begins with this excerpt from “one of a series of abominable pulp mysteries of the 1950s by Richard F. Prather, that featured a private eye named Shell Scott,” Take a Murder, Darling:

He was dead, all right. He had been shot, poisoned, stabbed and strangled. Either somebody really had it in for him or four people had killed him. Or else it was the cleverest suicide I ever heard of.

Two of the funniest examples were from the speeding typewriter of Avallone, who seems to have had trouble with human anatomy:

“His thin mustache was neatly placed between a peaked nose and two eyes like black marbles.” (Don't Die in Bed)

“She...unearthed one of her fantastic breasts from the folds of her sheath skirt.” (The Horrible Man)

Pronzini even finds examples from more contemporary mystery writers: “The sun [was] shining its ass off.” (Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker, “who of all writers should have known better,” remarks Kisor.)

Pronzini's examples were not exclusively American. “Nobody,” writes Pronzini, “approached the art of name-calling with more verve and scorn” than British writer Berkeley Gray's detective, Norman Conquest. Kisor provides a few examples:

“'Reach, slugs!' he said calmly.”

“'There are a a lot of things you don't know, reptile.'”

“'It's a shame that a chunk of hellspawn like you should be one of the throng.'”

“'Say that again, filth, and my trigger finger will give a very nasty jerk.'”

But it's an American Kisor uses for the final quote in his column. “Nobody,” he writes, could construct a stumbling metaphor better than Joseph Rosenberger... in his Death Merchant spy series:”

Tuskanni stood in the open doorway at the top of the stairs, a .38 Colt automatic in his hand, watching as the burly drivers tried to bring down the two brothers—their efforts making as much sense as the termite who was a conscientious objector and went around trying to eat up draft boards.

The column inspired me to read Pronzini's book. As I recall, though, Kisor managed to get the best examples from the book. But rereading the article gives me pause to reconsider my judgment. All of the examples are in grammatical English, with no comma splices, dangling participles, or other errors. Richard Prather uses “all right,” as opposed to the “alright” which abounds in Authonomy—even among the better writers. (What's scary is that the spell check in Open Office Writer has no problem with “alright.”) Avallone may have had trouble placing the parts of the body, but he knew the parts of speech. Quite a few of my fellow Authonomists don't.

“May their roscoes forever spit 'Ka-Chow! Chow!'” concludes Kisor.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Forgotten Books Friday: "Up 'Til Now," by Eugene McCarthy

Some months ago I found Eugene McCarthy's Up 'til Now: A Memoir (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987) on the library discard shelf. It's a witty and very readable look back at American politics from 1948 until the 1980s by the man who dared to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.

Up 'til Now includes a large section about the '68 campaign, but McCarthy's bitterness over it—especially over Robert Kennedy's decision to enter the race—makes it the weakest part of the book. But when he writes about his 1948 campaign for Congress and his years in the Congress, he's at his best. Take, for instance, his comparison of 1968 and his first Congressional race in 1948:

The support I received in the anti-Vietnam campaign of 1968 was described by some observers as motley and unprecedented. It was in fact little different from that which I received in 1948—from students, some old enough to vote, some not, old liberals, and party persons, especially women.

Or his description of the Philadelphia delegation to the 81st (1949-1951) Congress:

It was a noteworthy bunch, consisting of four members: Green, Granaham, Barrett, and Chudoff. They were all of the same height, roughly five feet four inches. The word was that Bill Green, who was the political boss of Philadelphia, would not approve any Democratic candidate for Congress who was taller than he. None of the delegation was. Moreover, the delegation of four sat in the last row of the House Chamber and voted as one man.

When he gets to his 1968 campaign, he seems defensive. He never really explains why he made virtually no effort to win after the California primary, except to write, "After the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the chance of carrying the antiwar issue at the Democratic convention was, barring unforeseen developments, lost."

His bitterness about Kennedy colors his entire treatment of 1968. He has a point—Kennedy's organization did run a ruthless primary campaign against McCarthy, in addition to coming into the race only after McCarthy had made his impressive showing in New Hampshire. Still,
McCarthy has nothing to say about the 1968 Democratic Convention or his lukewarm endorsement of Hubert Humphrey after Humphrey broke with Johnson on Vietnam.

He's surprisingly kind to Richard Nixon. "I think it fair to say... quite possibly no one could have done any better in ending the war unless he had ended it sooner, but quite certainly no one could have done any worse."

But he does go on to write that "traces of the old Nixon showed through." McCarthy is bothered
less by Watergate than by Nixon's 1971 "enemies list."

In the final section of his book, "Entropic Politics," McCarthy writes,"The politics of the United States, and especially of the Democratic Party, following Watergate and the end of the Nixon administration might best be labeled 'entropic,' a state attributed to society generally by Professor John Ahearn of Stanford University as having 'no goal' and 'no path of effective action.'"

McCarthy sees the America of the late 1980s as "overtransported and overfueled... overdrugged... overadvertised, over info-tained...overbureaucratized... overincorporated... overdefensed."

In the course of his scathing, but largely accurate assessment of American society, he goes on to say, "President Reagan and his administration have judged the growing power of the corporation to be a good thing." Yet he does not explain his 1980 endorsement of Reagan over Jimmy Carter, who had proposed an extensive program of energy conservation in 1979. While McCarthy's personal dislike of Carter is well-known, McCarthy must have realized that Reagan was working hand in glove with the multinationals.

In spite of all its shortcomings, Up 'Til Now is a refreshing look at American politics. And in a time when the TEA party folks are screaming for term limits and denouncing career politicians, McCarthy's book reminds us why we need professional politicians. In what is really a eulogy for Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, he writes:

Philip Hart was a politician. He recognized politics as an honorable, necessary, and difficult vocation. He practiced it not as "the art of the possible," which is wholly inadequate as a definition, but as a discipline of mind and will, as a profession that should carry the common good beyond what is considered prudent and possible. He knew that politics is not a game to be scored, to be marked by winning and losing, but that it is a continual challenge.

I was too young to tramp through the snows of New Hampshire for Gene. I did what I could, selling McCarthy's Million buttons to my high school classmates, and working to nominate McCarthy at the Cedar Falls High School mock Democratic convention. (See "When I was Clean for Gene.") Even though it reminded me of McCarthy's many contradictions, quirks, and foibles, reading Up 'Til Now gave me a new respect for the man, who died in 2005, and for the thousands of idealistic students who cut their hair, put on suits and dresses, and went off to campaign for the only Democrat willing to challenge LBJ over Vietnam.