Month: July 2014

“A Hall of Mirrors” by Robert Stone

stoneIt’s a Sixties novel written in unadorned, straight-ahead prose.  The style is in the school of Hemingway, with flavors of Uris and Mailer, Ruark and O’Hara. Like the kind of gritty novel that used to bring men and their sons into a mid-century newsstand’s paperback section, where they could get books for less than a buck. Those days are long gone, so for me there’s an element of nostalgia in reading this novel ( from 1964). It reminds me of being a teenager in simple summertimes when multimedia distractions didn’t exist, and there we were with just a book, reading into the late hours, totally bought in, unable to put it down.

The characters include alkies and scarred women, hucksters and dangerous zealots. It’s a New Orleans of political crackpots and attendant injustices, as things purportedly were in that Oswald era.  The principle characters Rheinhart and his woman Geraldine are two drifters who end up in the Big Easy and happen to meet at a fascist-styled work factory. Their modus operandi is to do most anything to keep a roof overhead and survive.

Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia”

swamplandiaAt surface level, the story is entertaining. At another level, it’s visionary and mythic. The book takes place in the Everglades and at times seems mucky and absurd with all the gator show stuff.  Then again, after some reading patience, we see that the setting is transcendent, almost like a surreal Macondo village for one small family. At times the environment is genuinely fearsome, a primordial, superstitious land, a veritable hell-hole haunted by the horrors of Indian history and misguided development.

Russell knows her writing and her novel places us in various levels of reader reaction. It’s a book with well thought-out structure and theme. Various chapters were short stories brought to a united whole. She can cut a phrase and put forth detailed images that nail a setting and create a mood.  They are almost too good, the visual details. One wonders, how long (in a cynical, nihilistic, often numb reader nation, and in terms of literary modes and fickleness for “what works”and what is durable for artistic perpetuity) can such a delicate level of imagistic writing remain as paragon?

Russell brings us along, making the many digressions interesting, and meanwhile subtly getting us to care about the Bigtree family circle.  Then we get into Ossie’s call of the sexual wild and Kiwi’s dire employment at an apocalyptic theme park. When Kiwi leaves home, the chapters alternate between Ava’s 1st person narrative and third person limited for Kiwi.  It’s not orthodox, but it works.

At one point less than half in, I was dismayed and about to set the whole damn business aside for later.   But then came the growing mystery of the dredging boat and Louis and Ossie’s disappearance…then the author brings in a larger than life character, the mystical Bird Man who with  his quiet voice of accommodation becomes Ava’s apparent hero (though he’s far from it). They go on a supposed quest to find the wayward sister and head for a remote area in the marsh called the Underground. Along the way, Ava is confronted by reality versus illusion.  Is It Real or Not?  Is it Paradise or a Land of Buzzards?  Can someone like Mama Weeds really exist out there?

In dramatic parallel we get alternating chapters depicting Kiwi’s misadventures at a macabre theme park over on “the Mainland,” where life is anathema to the Bigtrees. As he works his way up the employment chain from park maintenance to lifeguard (and hero) and eventually seaplane pilot (again a hero), we realize the coming convergence of the two storylines.  All’s well that ends well. Their native home and its sustaining Alligator Wrestling Show does not survive “Carnival Darwinism.” Mainland life wins in the end. The sisters leave their aboriginal culture and have to march in line with the rest of the Mainlanders, wearing uniforms at school with white girls.

It’s tricky to tell where this story is located. Best I can tell, it’s fictionalized to the point where there’s no need to say, but real geographic names and areas (rivers) and landmarks (I-95?) both far and near are mentioned.  The swamp seems to range anywhere between Punta Gorda and Flamingo ( a lot of miles).

What They Wrote With

List of machines used for professional and personal endeavors from 1972 to the present.


Royal manual typewriter, the R. Waters Memorial AP press-room machine acquired during a beer-soaked deal at the Why Not Lounge and used at Cardinal Associates in Charlotte, NC. It has the AP Property# stenciled on the side. It fell off a U-Haul and is irreparably frozen in time. Now ignobly rusting in the toolshed.

  • IBM Selectric (a runaway train with interchangeable spinning golfball and fixed platen; sleek, fast as a hit of speed; once owned one in British racing green and wish I’d kept it for its Jaguar looks).
  • IBM TSO 3270 terminal, and primitive text editor, working off an oversized HAL mainframe in TX (Fluor).
  • DEC VAX UNIX terminal, and RUNOFF text compiler (first in-office terminal, i.e. not shared; came on a wheely cart with fifty pounds of cabling spaghetti and a blinking modem; used happily at Western Geo in Houston circa 1984).
  • Apple iie with add-on’s and WordPerfect (first home computer purchase, at such an exorbitant price I financed it like a car); tank-like but with little memory, two floppy holes, and a green-lettered 40-character screen, later expanded with an 80-column card.
  • Brother Electric typewriter (backup writing machine in the 80s, suitably noisy but a workhorse. Traded it to a dental assistant for a free cleaning.
  • IBM SPF 3278 terminal, and ISIL code (on-site at an IBM contract gig; the PF keys and weird red-starry-green displays proved more confusing than ever).
  • Epson – IBM PC clone, w/WordStar (at an IBM contractor company; the PC was garbage, as was the gig).
  • Data General, CEO word processor module (off the mini, at the Travelers software company; a stodgy system but intuitive; had a comfy-clunky keyboard).
  • IBM XT, w/WordStar (a 2-hole floppy disk special, grinded gears and groaned all day; it did, however, have a nice, tank-solid keyboard; se habla DOS aquí).
  • IBM AT, w/WordPerfect on an actual LAN (faster, but all that coding in WP using f-keys was painful, and keyboards were going lightweight, like typing on plastic hollow box).
  • Macintosh SE, w/Appleworks (FlightSafety’s tool of production – as required by our main client FedEx – and a damn good one in most respects).
  • IBM Windows PCs and laptops for years and years at AT&T; some machines were okay, some awful, all of them mediocre; the company usually gave us stuff near market expiration, like secondhand executive ThinkPads via trickle-down provisioning. MS-Windows OS in endless iterations, ending in my case with Vista, oh what a dog…
  • iMac G4 – Lollipop model, aka Lampstand, 14″ on swivel stick w/hemisphere base, circa 2003, retired 2011 and stored in the backroom closet as a museum piece.
  • Macbook Pro – reliable laptop backup and mobile unit.
  • iMac desktop (have had 2) – present workhorse, an aluminum 21″ slab with a simple wired chiclet keyboard. I’ve worn out the lettering on the S key. Otherwise durable, having endured food crumbs, sneezes, irate text-pounding, and beer spills.