Author: WPM

South FL

Running Notes: Richard Flanagan’s “Gould’s Book of Fish”

I’m impressed from the opening chapter’s skillful language and the narrator’s mind-altering and enthusiastic reaction over a book on fish, which he plans to duly explain to us. I think that we are in for something special.

Our narrator, a huckster antique dealer, has found a magical book on fish and is obsessed with it. After making serious inquiries of its origin and shopping it to the experts, he is discouraged by their disinterested reaction and ends up hanging around a bar where he loses the book when he steps away to take a leak. Immediately he compares the loss to the desertion of a lover: the one that ripped your heart out, leaving a contagion to find her again. Our narrator seems a sensible sort, however, and eventually attempts to overcome the loss by re-creating the book, using the pictures of a second similar book, which he happened upon but which has no prose.

The story has a sudden section shift, and there’s a new narrator. Now, apparently, the Fish book will be given its full history, as narrated by the author/artist William “Billy” Gould. He’s held prisoner in a coastal cave that fills with sea water to near ceiling level when the tide comes in. During the day when he’s not being abused by the guard, Gould draws and paints all the marine life around him. That much is sanctioned by his captors, but he is forbidden from writing text of any sort. He does so on the sly, using any colored substance including blood and octopus goo that functions as ink.

Continued 11/18/20

Various despots come in and out of Billy’s life on the island. He is only too glad to consent to do painting at their bidding, thereby avoiding the worst of prison life. By far the strangest character who orders him around is the Commandant, a shipwrecked pretender to his role as grand master of the island. His minions build a locomotive from shipped parts and lays out a railway that runs in one small circle, then commissions a grand MahJong Hall as the national palace, where Billy Gould paints the walls with the words from the Commandant’s unseen love and pen pal, Anne.

Eventually Billy’s painting and labors of mural art in both the train station and the Mah Jong Hall fall to ruin, as nature takes over during a lull in construction. An outside nation comes in to buy the guano deposits.

He goes back to painting fish, fretful of their future existence. Billy Gould is a visionary of the sterile and loveless world we are all heading into (though he sees it from the 19th century, and we see it likely too late).

Submicroscopic Reading Material

During my career I wrote many procedure manuals, and ever since have noticed how small or non-existent they are. I’m always on the lookout for the “The World’s Smallest Printed Procedure Manual.”  

The text and diagrams inside this one are unreadable without a magnifying glass, which of course is not supplied by the product owner, ANKER. The product is an emergency iphone charger.

Running Commentary, Reading Arundhati Roy

Notes from my slow, on-going read of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things.”

  1. So far, the book is showing signs of time-skipping. Events move backwards in the chronology from effect to cause. As with the twins, once separated and now united, then nope, they’re actually not–we’re going back to when they were kids next.  Roy used some non-sequential sections to great effect in “The Ultimate Ministry of Happiness,” a novel I’ve labeled as my favorite read in the past year.
  2. TGST is filled with family characters, and though their names are odd and distinctive, I still get them confused, and this is a big distraction when reading.  Much of this is cultural unfamiliarity: to me, the name Estha sounds like it should be a female, and Rahel male; I don’t get the “baby” nametag; I don’t get the “chi” added to Pappa and Mamma. Chacko sounds like a cartoon character. And, to add to the confusion, there are often too many characters jammed into a scene or expository section.
  3. I sensed (and was enchanted by) the poetic and/or lyrical bent of Roy’s prose on page one. As the pages move on, the quips and images become a little edgier, not so cozy. Sometimes the lines are satiric or bumbling Indian humorous, I suppose. I fear slapstick, but know there is seriousness at the underbelly. Indians have a complex caste system and a Whitman’s Sampler of religious and political persuasions. Certain behaviors are expected. Are readers in store for random dysfunction and microscopic accounts of trifling occurrences? What is the Indian way of writing, the posture, in this book? I have many pages left to learn more. The UMH novel, if I were running a comparative poll, is still way ahead in my estimation as the better novel. Early factors why:  readability and sophistication of subject matter and poetic ingredients.
  4. Almost a third in, and for the first time my attention is held for several pages. There is momentum and conflict. It happens when the family at last gets to the cinema to see (once again) “The Sound of Music.” They set out to do this many days ago, and ever since I had been reading and reading, trudging through some digressive if not inane sections. Roy’s clever weave of movie scenes into the character’s adventures at the theater, however sordid with urination, child molestation, and  a hint of twins incest, keeps me actively engaged.
  5. The family’s meet-up with Chacko’s ex and the bratty daughter at the airport. Class warfare is evident. Kids behaving badly, their evasive instincts correct. Hints of tragedy and irreconcilable facts. The presence of concrete kangaroo-shaped trash receptacles.  The Bluer Plymouth and all its tail-finned glory awaits in the parking lot.  Every sentence pregnant with meaning, the thematic texture of the book compounding  and taking on more weight of meaning, and we’re only at the halfway point.  It seems God the Lyrical Prose Writer is looking after Roy’s choice of words.

The Long Ago Story of a Training Film Producer

Extract from “Fantastic Response: Work Stories from the Great Information Age”

© 2010  William P. Moore 

Going to Work for Big Daddy

The people and places come and go, asking to be dispelled. The flashbacks are gray and disordered. 

One night at Cardinal Associates’ original office on Monroe Road, circa 1973, Big Daddy CEO held a “future stockholders” meeting. He and the head of sales spoke about how rich we were going to be. Big Daddy struck me as having a huge appetite, someone who wanted to eat life before it ate him. He was powerful when he held the floor, and I remember some of us were jittery with expectation when we got up to introduce ourselves. At the time I really wanted to believe in all the blue sky predictions. I never expected the Cardinal saga would leave such a trail of woe.  

In a dream set in the present I saw Jay the Courier, still alive, using his arthritically twisted hands to load DART audio-visual instructional units into the Cardinal station wagon. He didn’t stack them neatly so their bright red sleeves aligned with each other; he opened the tailgate and dumped them in helter skelter. His face had changed after three decades. His good-natured and gentle expression was gone, replaced with the gnarled bitterness of a prizefighter who had been beaten senseless and done hard time. 

CFO Mack Jax looked like a defensive tackle from the Knute Rockne era. He had his shirt off in the back lot of the Monroe Road office. He carried a circular saw and cut two by fours. His whale-like GMC Suburban was parked in the sparse lawn. Under a nearby lean-to, Redneck Eddie was bent over his Nikon shooting flat art. Both of them were sweating in the Carolina summer. 

Inside, a tall and determined looking figure occupied a newly partitioned office with fresh drywall. There were no decorations. His surroundings were glaring white. The wall-mounted air conditioner was set to Glacial. He maintained perfect posture at his clean desk. O. Donald, VP of Production, had all-American traits. He might have even been our Alpha male. Before Cardinal, he had worked as a TV anchor for Big Daddy. He wasn’t a military man, but his dress and presence could be described in military slang: he was strack – fastidiously turned out and squared away. His only vice was the endless chain of menthol cigarettes he consumed. At his desk he was reviewing a writer’s script, giving it the once-over with a stern sort of kindness. He arched his right eyebrow in a scrutinizing squint.

I interviewed in O. Donald’s grotto on Monroe Road in 1972, right out of college with an English Literature degree from Carolina, the place with the red decal as opposed to O. Donald’s Carolina with the blue decal. I arrived with two required scripts in hand. One was my description of how to tie a shoelace, and the other was a set of instructions, with real props, on how to bait a mousetrap. Something went right. I enlisted at $140 a week, back then the equivalent of my monthly rent. 

In a disturbing dream I am stitching fabric in my cubicle. I feel uneasily like a contestant in an early days version of Project Runway. I go into the studio with all my patterns and scissors and sewing shit and work with Redneck Eddie to photograph the program. O. Donald comes in to model the necktie we taught everyone how to make. The shot appears in the last frame. Out of view, the back of his shirt is girded with clothes pins to make the front look unwrinkled and the tie hang perfect, just like they do in the Sears catalog.

To my relief, I graduated to the automotive series and was now working with Tom W. One morning I got my first professional edit, a line-by- line critique from Tom W.  The review was an informal event. We leaned back in our director chairs, making irreverent remarks. Tom wore suits that looked British and sometimes he sported a pipe or a cigar stub. He was both country and urbane. He opened a pen and with its cap held between his teeth he marked my script with redlines that made the words work much better. His writing tips left a lasting impression. I think I told him that and thanked him. Unassuming, Tom might have felt embarrassed.

Cardinal held daily meetings first thing in the morning in a big pow-wow circle formed by our black canvas director chairs. Big Daddy would talk first and debrief us on his latest road trip. He gave details in dramatic fashion like Dickens on tour in America. In the last part of the meeting, there was a final go-around. We all attempted to say something clever, eager to be a recognized player in Big Daddy’s witty parlor scene. 

The Sales force took over another building a few doors down on Monroe Boulevard. It was a small shack across the street from a health food café. The Cardinal “bird wagons” were idly parked behind it, and the salesmen strolled around in their suits acting anxious. Their boss, the Head of Sales (who we codenamed Morey Amsterdam) would come by and make cracks to get everyone laughing. Sometimes another funny man would join in, Little Mel, who would leave his Accounting office and drop by to do some shtick. 

When the company relocated closer to downtown Charlotte, Big Daddy scored a two-story building once held by IBM. The fearless leaders had nice window offices. The rest of us, in the meantime, lived in a Mack Jax Architecture cattle pen, which was a matrix of sixteen plywood cubicles, raised in the middle of the second floor. Outside the pen you could hear us pecking away on our Royal manual typewriters. The cubicles had all the charm of an empty refrigerator crate. Some of us fashioned “doors” made of fabric curtain or beads or in one case a 78×30 sheet of brown wrapping paper.  Like a toilet stall there was open space at the bottom (I could tickle Squeaky Reichart’s ankles if I chose to). One morning I looked up and saw Shuman the Human next door. He chinned himself up to the ledge.  He was joking about something, his ruddy face coloring brightly. Then in my dream the wall became glass and I could see that Shuman the Human had folded his yellow tie forward between his collar in a creaseless non-knot, like some sort of dog tongue. It might have been a Paul Harvey fashion statement or even something political and it was frightening. 

In another vision Sam the Comic Book Illustrator was in my guest chair talking non-stop. I had passed the point of polite listening and was struggling to retain consciousness. Jones came by and stood by the cubicle entrance, a thin paper cup of coffee trembling in his hand. He recited a haiku then walked away. Sam stopped his chatter and paused, breathless. He gave me a cartoon look of astonishment and then exhaled in wild uncomprehending laughter. 

Big Daddy sat with his legs crossed in an empty office overlooking the parking lot on the second floor.  It was a small place where many of us escaped to eat our brown-bag lunches. Big Daddy had a stenotype machine in his lap and was showing Darkroom Wade the “Cardinal Key” that he had invented to denote the long sound of a vowel. Darkroom Wade nodded with enthusiasm and munched on a huge square of cheddar cheese. A trendy writer named Curt Pequeño twisted off the cap of a split-size bottle of red wine. Big Daddy asked Curt Pequeño if he could have some because, he said with conviction, “it smells delicious.”

Tapping down the hall in her 3-inch heels and mini-skirt, Motown Mama offered a tawdry sparkle to the grim surroundings of the cubicle cattle pen. She had blonde hair cut short like Liza Minnelli. She was more reckless than graceful. She was nearsighted and would bump into people. Her apparition ran headlong into me, causing her forehead to leave a pale swipe of makeup on my shirt. Later, Flakey Foont sat next to me during our tuna salad lunch at the YMCA cafeteria and sniffed at me oddly. “You smell like something funky,” he said. After lunch, in the afternoon when the sun was streaming in, the aroma blended with the tuna still in my nostrils. I went to the janitors’ sink (where at night Jones sometimes bathed) and tried to sponge-wash that section of my shirt. I couldn’t get rid of it. I smelled like Motown and wondered how long I would.  

We were at the annual summer picnic at the old WSOC-TV facility on Lake Norman. Redneck Eddie and Foot-Pedal Jerry were cooking a pit pig. They stumbled about in their swim trunks. Everyone was getting sloshed with keg beer. Me and Slick Eddie (who, besides being a photographer too, was nothing at all like Redneck Eddie) joked about being outcast hippies because we had on blue jeans. It was about 126 degrees outside. Earlier we had ducked off into a stand of pine trees and smoked a doobie. After lunch one of the salesmen, maybe it was Jolly Ben, arrived in a speedboat while swigging on a bottle of liquor. He set up shifts to take everyone skiing. If we said no, the crew taunted us. Slick Eddie finally yielded. He held the ski rope and managed to get up, his jeans pouring out torrents of water, then went about ten yards before he fell backward. People on the boat were yelling and laughing. When I caved to their taunting and got in the water, half of Lake Norman rushed into my mouth. I churned forward in my Levis in a submerged crouch, my head barely above the surface behind two ski tips. I was choking and wondered about drowning before I finally let go of the rope. 

O. Donald held a meeting with the Exxon guys upstairs where we had placed a conference table in the break room (at night Jones’ secret kitchen). When it was time for lunch we gathered downstairs at the front desk. It was in the days when Cardinal relaxed the dress code, but O. Donald asked that I wear a suit for the occasion.  It was an awful looking plaid suit with a puke tie. I had a shaggy mustache and my hair was long, making me even stranger looking.  The receptionist (I can’t recall her name) kept pointing and laughing at me. When we were outside the door, she was still laughing. Humiliated, I marched down Morehead Street with the entourage to a staid and overpriced lunch at the Red Carpet Inn. I found the atmosphere there funereal: dim lights, heavy Victorian furnishings. O. Donald seemed happy and spoke to the others in his smooth TV voice. The vision was ecclesiastical, with his highness holding forth at the table talking to brothers in his rectory. That’s all fine and good, but I never liked business lunches. I decided I hated my job.

I was only 26. I didn’t like the prospect of having to work and be unhappy. My thoughts and indulgences were dark.  One day I was complaining about it to Steven Krane.

He was looking through his desk drawer for some herbal bark to chew on.

 “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ve only got forty more years.”

In another troubling dream, I am standing at the console of a bulk cassette-duplicating machine. It is freshly loaded with Scotch 3M C90 tapes.  I thread the master Amway recording and (with guilt and loathing) push the button to generate twenty dubs. Most of us employed in the back room at Munwoe’s House of Tapes make cutting jokes about the lies and foolish propaganda in these tapes. But we ship hundreds of them every day via UPS. They are our paycheck. If only the studio had made as many DART cartridges. Sometimes a huge motor home with little American flags on its roof stops by the warehouse and a big shot with too much cologne parades in to collect his boxes of tapes. Day after day, during a long and desperate layoff period, I am insane and lost and doomed at Munwoe’s recording studio. O. Donald and Big Daddy eventually rescue me.

My mother died in the summer of 1975. I went to the burial in South Carolina and brought back peaches from my Uncle’s farm. Big Daddy took one from the basket and ate it, standing by my desk. Wet bits of fruit clung to his Van Dyke beard. He said it was the best peach he had ever eaten. He wiped up with a handkerchief and extended his condolences. Then we went downstairs and brainstormed on the How to Open a Bank Account series.

Writing Supervisor Flakey Foont was among the group of us who regularly played ping-pong after lunch at the Y across the street. The games grew more intense, and our hour always ran over. Maybe out of fear of O. Donald’s insistence on punctuality, Foont suggested we get our own setup. He was a good scoutmaster. He got a table and put it in an empty room upstairs. Foont talked some of us into buying special rackets with a nice foamy rubber surface instead of sandpaper. We held a tournament. Then the ping-pong fad passed. Next, he talked some of us into evening guitar lessons and flat-picking sessions. That didn’t last too long either. We knew that Foont was well intentioned. He made honest attempts to create “team spirit.”  But actually Cardinal had its own synergies that some of us understood and tapped into. Our morale required no artificial injections; just honest writing work, a steady check, and beer breaks at Gentleman Jim Conder’s Sundries down the street.  

As an aside, the ping-pong room was also where Cardinal presented its Christmas Slide Show, a clever “roast” production put together by Redneck Eddie. The party took place in the evening, and the spouses and investors came. I was stunned to see Jones on hand, clean and freshly shaven, wearing a new suit that someone had helped him buy, right off the rack.

 Weeks before, Jones took me into the basement of the building and showed me where he was living. We had to lower our heads and stoop under pipes and ductwork. We made a sharp turn and there, against the far wall and hidden from view by the large furnace, was Jones’ hard times bedroom. He had a table lamp, something that looked like a sleeping bag (it may have been the baby mattress Tom W. describes in his accounts of Cardinal), a rudimentary bookshelf with his books of “intellectual snobbery,” a typewriter, and a large pyramid of Schlitz beer cans. I mentioned that John Cheever once lived in a flophouse and wrote in the cellar. Jones wasn’t listening. He was preoccupied and nervous as hell. He asked me if I would help him move his things out “when the time came.” 

A variety of Winston Wolf figures visited and left, trying to help resolve Cardinal’s dilemma. At one desperate point, the name McGeorge Bundy was thrown around as someone who might help. Some of us wondered: the war escalator under LBJ? That McGeorge Bundy? (Looking back on this, I learned that after his White House days Bundy was the big cheese at the Ford Foundation, and – in a reach of logic – possibly had educational grant money to give away.)

Tom W has suggested that our scarring experience at Cardinal might have been our version of Viet Nam.  We tried to extend the metaphor, thinking of the film “Apocalypse Now” with Cardinal figures in the cast: Big Daddy CEO as Colonel Kurtz, VP O. Donald as Captain Willard, Professor Jones as the Dennis Hopper photojournalist, and Slick Eddie as Lance the surfer. The rest of us were anxiety-ridden troops who endured, defending a bridge over and over again at the last outpost. 

Down the hall a chorus of ghostly voices made an interrogatory wail:  “Who hired Bud Stewart?  Did you hire Bud Stewart?”  The Frito Bandito contractor stood outside my office in a tall pilgrim’s posture and asked, “What’s cooking, Boss?”

Towards the end, Cardinal built its own recording studio upstairs, essentially thumbing its nose at Munwoe’s House of Tapes. Stoic O. Donald did the narrations, and Foot-Pedal Jerry, jovial and servile, manned the board. I produced the last of my Cardinal programs in this makeshift studio, several pointless ones based on a Midwest vocational school’s programs. I think one of them was “How to Clean Your Icebox,” sure to get a huge response in the educational marketplace.

In a concurrent nightmare I came into O. Donald’s office for his group’s Production meeting and was twenty minutes late. I was hung over and my coffee cup had a broken handle, prompting me to announce, “I’ve lost my grip.”  The pun reduced O. Donald’s anger and he broke a smile. But then after the meeting, while the others left, he asked me to stay. In the dream I sat in O. Donald’s office alone for a few minutes while he went to the bathroom.  When he returned he was wearing a white alb with a maroon cincture. He stood above me and said even though we were in hard times and the company may not make it, he found it necessary to issue me a formal reprimand. 

In an alternate dream I was given a promotion. That was right after O. Donald reviewed the filmstrip for Fuel Systems XVII and decided that the open-end wrench in the photograph wasn’t backward after all, and bumped my salary grade up five notches, gave me a company car, and asked me to begin recruiting a staff of pretty female writers. Meanwhile Big Daddy announced that Cardinal stock had gone public and Merrill Lynch said the IPO was a huge success and we were instantly rich. Insolvent Professor Jones walked by and said he had just closed on a house. All of us went into the conference room and had a couple of six-packs to celebrate. 

            

2

 The Old Crow Ohio Meeting

After a wretched business class flight to Cleveland, I sat up late in a Ramada Inn with Big Daddy and one of his sales reps, Jolly Ben. We passed around a fifth of Old Crow bourbon and drank it straight out of plastic cups.

Jolly Ben was one of Big Daddy’s favorite salesmen. He was a large, good-natured guy whose sunny disposition didn’t quite fit the Cardinal mold. He worked selling to schools, and that environment was easier on the soul than the corporate market. I don’t think Ben sold for us very long. He may have left around the same time Mel & Bucky’s Accounting department was told to cut expenses and pulled the plug on the fleet of sales cars and the drivers too.

Sitting around in the hotel room, Jolly Ben and Big Daddy bragged to me about their previous trip. They claimed to have pulled strings to reserve an executive suite at the Ritz-Carlton, and as a result, bumped the Billy Graham contingency. They used the suite to entertain and hustle a bunch of middle managers from AB Dick or somewhere.

Big Daddy would often mix impertinence with gravitas.

The stories continued. I don’t recall most of his and Ben’s bullshit that night. I was along on the trip basically to observe and learn and sit in on a meeting scheduled with Dietzgen. Big Daddy wanted them to hire us to produce training programs on how to use their new automated drafting tools device. I was slated to be the scriptwriter.

Big Daddy got real serious for a moment. He turned off the room’s TV, which had been playing without sound. He lit his pipe and stood by the window. Did his best Douglas Macarthur stance. He said he was spreading himself thin in Ohio. He told me to take the lead. To meet by myself with the Dietzgen people in the morning, gather data, then go home and write a proposal. He said I needed to “wear a bit of a sales hat.”

I had only been with Cardinal a few weeks, and as a new writer, this assignment was an unexpected bomb of angst. I recalled that Big Daddy had told me that he and O. Donald wanted to groom Cardinal writers like they did their news reporters, to be versatile and capable of many jobs. 

As I felt my nerves grating against this new responsibility, Big Daddy and Jolly Ben shifted back to on-the-road stories and general hilarity.

I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. I silently wished I could just go back to my room and sleep. Big Daddy in his omniscient way knew this about me and prolonged the meeting, taking small jabs at my unease. We stayed up until the Old Crow was almost gone.

In the morning they dropped me off downtown for the Dietzgen meeting. I met with one or two of the clients and made small talk. Luckily most of our time was spent looking at the electronic drafting gizmo. The technician had some problems with it. The robotic t-square lurched and skipped across the drawing table. Only one company person gave me interview time, and he was like me: a small fish who wasn’t very knowledgeable about deals. Big Daddy and Ben came breezing in for lunch and then we all flew home early. They were not too interested in hearing about Dietzgen, so I figured something had changed with their client base in Ohio.

My cut-and-paste typed yellow-paper draft proposal to Dietzgen was never requested, and the document still sits in a musty folder in my file cabinet, decades later in Florida. Cardinal eventually did produce a couple of programs for AB Dick.

Rats Falling from the Sky: the Hotlanta Convention

During a brief period when Cardinal had a thread of a budget, many of us were enlisted to travel in support of an exhibitor’s booth at some national training convention somewhere.

Atlanta was an opportunity because of its close proximity to Charlotte. That took expensive airline fees out of the equation.

Mack Jax, the venerable CFO, was trying hard to raise capital. He called on all sorts of people. An anxious look came into his eyes. Once warm and avuncular, he now appeared distressed, bent in the spine.

Meanwhile, Big Daddy CEO had his minions build the exhibit’s booth panels and ship them south. The show’s union workers in Atlanta would install them. Then he orchestrated and set forth a caravan of vehicles and trailers, deployed in phases from our Charlotte office.

Six or eight or way too many of us piled inside one of the company’s station wagons, this particular one driven by Flakey Foont, our feckless supervisor. We left after work and traveled all evening. 

We were in the post-Watergate era, still in the Nixon-Ford Recession when everyone had to drive 55 mph. As dull as 55 was, the slower pace may have saved our lives. The U-Haul trailer was not properly loaded. Its swollen cargo load of Directed Action Response Training (DART) machines swung dangerously behind us.

One of the writers in the car, Randy R, a string bean of a fellow with a heavy Carolina accent, was wicked clever. He entertained us with descriptions and by keening snippets of Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings and other “Outlaw” country singers. At the time, all of those names were new to me.

Randy R later became a legendary figure for two things at Cardinal: 1) his “Randometer” which was a spinning abacus type device that generated random numbers for use in a cash register student program, and 2) his hip and rebellious response to a Yes or No question by an important Cardinal company officer during a crucial confrontation:  Randy said “Negative, man!”

Later that night, approaching the city, the conversations wore down and fatigue set in. Most of us rolled our heads around, shifted in our seats, and fought sleep. Then Randy R woke us up with a cry of alarm, claiming he saw rats falling out of the sky. At that moment the trailer began a jackknife move, which Foont successfully countered. 

As we exited I-85 and negotiated the Atlanta streets in search of the hotel, the talk came to room assignments. There were to be pairs per double-bedded rooms. Only we were one person too many, which meant someone would have to bunk in Big Daddy’s room. There was considerable fear in the car about this prospect. We did the only fair thing we could think of: we drew cards.

Unfortunately I lost.

Once we got to the hotel, before we did anything else, most of us hit the bar. I hit it a little harder than most.

I brought my suitcase and sorry ass up to the door of Big Daddy’s room at the Atlanta Riviera, sometime around midnight. I was praying that there were double beds in there. The door was unlocked and I went in.

He awoke and cursed at me. My heightened anxiety and the counter-wallop of several beers made me react in a talkative way. I said sorry I wasn’t thrilled about disturbing him either. I said it wasn’t my fault. I said I would be quiet and let him sleep. I said I was freaking glad there was another bed. Then I heard Big Daddy chortle in the darkness of the room. He said he didn’t know I could talk so much. He soon returned to his fitful, snoring sleep. I recall he got up before dawn. I wondered if it was his old pilot habits. He was showered and dressed and gone before I even got up.

The next night, one of the guys returned to Charlotte, and I moved into a normal room. It was a great relief.

I don’t recall much of the actual convention. I do have a lingering visual memory of our venerable CFO, Mack Jax, bringing lunch to everyone at the booth: a gigantic bag of miniature Crystal burgers. Very economical, we thought, using a nice word for it.

Stanley & Livingston: the Atlantic City Convention

Hard times across the country went on unabated. Cardinal Associates struggled to turn a profit, so the bosses stepped up a campaign to show force at national trade shows. Those of us in the trenches fretted about holding our jobs, and were happy to travel if it meant we could still get a check for a while.

This company excursion en masse was to the Convention Hall in Atlantic City (for years home to the Miss America pageant). There, in the mornings, CEO Big Daddy and his executive entourage began the day by drinking from Thermos jugs of coffee heavily laced with whiskey. Granted, it was chilly inside the vast old building (so huge it once held the first indoor football game), but their coffees were more for effect than warmth.

I had flown up to Philadelphia the previous evening, as Big Daddy shuffled his writers in and out of Atlantic City. At the Philly airport I happened to meet up with fellow writer Tom W, who had just left the convention. We were like two lost souls suddenly elated to find a kindred spirit. We were like Stanley & Livingston meeting on the strange dark continent.

But we were going in opposite directions. Tom had done his shift and was flying back home to NC. Meanwhile I had to catch the Atlantic City Shuttle, which was actually one of Cardinal’s fleet station wagons on special assignment, taking the troops an hour or two east into Atlantic City.

I expected the place to look friendlier than it did. Apparently we had come here near the end of Atlantic City’s old era, in a time of transition when casinos were coming up on the horizon. The area looked dire, bombed out. Citizens looked unhappy. The dingy gray February sky was filled with fast-moving war clouds.

The hotel where I was reserved was a nondescript place, hidden on upper floors between buildings, with much the look of a low-cost European hostel.

The bellman was a nervous and sweaty middle-aged guy who looked thin with cancer. He unloaded my bags and spoke bluntly. “I’m Gene,” he said. “If you need ice or liquor, call Gene. If you need directions, ask Gene. If you want pussy, Gene can get you that too.”

That night, I went out with fellow writer Randy R and searched the backstreets of Atlantic City for a place to have a beer. We wanted to avoid the clip joints on the Boardwalk, where it was freezing cold anyway. The town’s interior lanes were ominous and confusing, and our knowledge of Monopoly street names was of no use. We entered one neighborhood bar that was pretty hard-core. No music, no TV, no frills, just hard liquor and tough time customers. The bartender didn’t quite follow Randy’s NC accent. I was jittery. I ordered a shot of rye to go with my draft beer. I had never had rye. It just seemed like the kind of place one would drink it.

The next night some of the salesmen took us in their fleet wagon to a belly dancer joint. The food was earthy and tainted. The clientele were reptilian. Two of the salesmen, both aging Southeastern types with standard issue khaki-pants and blue oxford shirts, tried to bribe the belly dancer into leaving. The scene was more embarrassing than fun.

My memory of the convention itself is patchy. We manned the booth all day, our feet killing us, a group of fidgety writers trying to peddle DART modules. The days were long and tedious. Sometimes there were diversions at nearby booths, often some cheesecake models to gawk at.

The morning of the last day, I sat with some of the sales force over breakfast at a marginal cafe on the Boardwalk. One of the reps was a tall, pale guy named Evers, who looked downcast over his soupy scrambled eggs. In a soft, almost inaudible voice, he told me he was looking for another job, that Cardinal was cooked and his health was failing because of it.

The afternoon after the show’s close, those of us still in town were summoned to Big Daddy’s high-rise hotel room in one of the older, once-famous hotels, a rococo-styled building of fading grandeur. We crowded into Big Daddy’s guest suite and began to drink cans of Schmidt’s beer. It felt great to sit on the carpet and take our shoes off.

Big Daddy’s hair was slicked back and he looked tired and somewhat Nixonian. He gave a small pep talk. There was change in the air, he said. Everyone stared into their beer. Big Daddy tried to be optimistic, but didn’t unleash his usual theatrics. Our spirits were low.

After his meeting was over, I went out on the Boardwalk and walked north. Beyond the end of the famous steel pier where horses once dove, a swarm of brown seagulls screeched and flew in wide manic circles above the whitecaps.

__________

For a Gonzo-type history by others as well (featuring the comics of Professor Jones), see the Cardinal history website.

(END)

Joy Williams: “The Visiting Privilege”

joy(updated October 20, 2019)

It’s a big collection of her stories, old and new. When I first wrote this book report, I’d checked out the book from the library. This time, after reading a recent New Yorker that featured a new Joy Williams story, I bought the book.

As I wrote previously: How did I miss out on her all this time?  Who do I read that does short stories any better?

Williams can place characters inside a crucible in a story without us even noticing. Often the situations are odd and disturbing. Morals are stripped bare for examination. Sometimes there’s a whiff of Flannery O’Connor in the air. The stories also include many animals, who are equally random and resident on earth.

As I go down the Contents list, adding checkmarks by the ones I read, I find that each story reveals her mastery of the form. Each has its own set of themes, mysteries, and nuance. Unlike many of today’s hailed and awarded stories that are too often cleverly phrased throwaways, Joy Williams’ collected stories are solid and invite being re-visited.

Her writing is a reflection of our privilege to be cogent, alive visitors on Earth. Her book allows us the privilege to share in her observations, many of which are poetic and visionary. Her work should reside permanently in the study books for classes of American Literature: Modern Short Story.

“Signs Preceding the End of the World” by Yuri Herrera

It is sort of a puzzle and also a lyrical piece. In the sense of world statement, it’s a dark, futuristic view of an immigration apocalypse.

Unlike a lot of fiction here in the American Age of Super Realism, it does not make things so abundantly clear and  in your face. Instead the story coaxes the reader and invites involvement, as a poem does.

The main character is a brave woman named Makina, who is sent to carry an underworld package in exchange for finding her brother.  She is brave and lusty and intuitive and at the same time green and naive for never having traveled.

“When she reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning.”

The tightly written novella describes her journey into the land of Anglos and how alien the world appears to her. She has trepidatious episodes, and in the end we are left to figure what has exactly happened to her.  No place names are used, which makes the reading minimal and fresh.

PS- update: my latest take on “verse” as used in the book is “to be seen” or “to see oneself.”  Call it an educated guess.

 

Books, Photos, Etc: Spring in FL 2019


“The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez

A simple, well-written, and passionate story about Central and South American immigrants adjusting to a new life in the USA. The family characters are vivid and likeable, and the conditions and human dramas in their new less-than-desirable home in Wilmington, Delaware make it a page-turner.  There is fiery romance and pending tragedy between Maribel and Mayor, which is the heart of the book. There is a lot to be learned here by gringo readers.

 

th   “Waveland” by Frederick Barthelme

Down and out, a book of three or four people still hanging in there in coastal Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Being mean, being sweet, being survivors.  It’s Vaughn the architect’s story, simple yet complex (owing to his constant soulful introspection). Once again, like in his classic novel “Tracer,” we see a man who is separated and dashing proceed in his everyday life with a new girlfriend, who somehow/someway is tolerant of Vaughn’s getting back together with his ex-wife. All three end up in one house at one time, in a Tennessee Williams sort of crucible, making for a survival of a different kind. I didn’t like the three characters that much to fall in love with the book, and the dynamics came across like something I’d already read  before.  Still, I remain a big Rick Barthelme fan. Not many out there are writing from their heart and soul about everyday American men. He does it with truth, fairness, and guts.

 

“The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

I’ve been trying to read this book for years and in March made it farther than I have before, which is still less than 25% in. Ellison’s writing is true to the times, in the sense that it’s wordy, strident with complaint, indulgent in artsy be-bop, and filled with tangents, a style largely unagreeable to today’s more impatient “give it to me stoic and straight” readers. I wondered early about the influence of marijuana in the author’s self-edits.  Who can contest decades of critics and readers who have proclaimed this a great novel? It assuredly is, but it’s one I cant seem to settle into and press relentlessly ahead in the pages. I wish I could appreciate it for all its worth, and eventually will try again.

PHOTO SECTION

Pensive, outside the Elbo Room in Lauderdale, decades after College Spring-Breaks of Yore.

Houston Nightspots 1980-1986

(this site is now ad-free!)

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of traffic coming to read my article called “A Look Back at Gilley’s 1980.”

Here are some of the other bars I remember from the early 80s in Houston. Those were great days. If you were there, you’ll recall some of them.  I’ll add to the list as they come to mind. (though some I cant remember their names).

Any places you recall and want to share, send to   -> wpmfla at gmail.

Todd’s – Richmond Avenue area. Had the feel of a neighborhood bar, usually a good crowd, polite, well-to-do, and above all looking for love. Todds was one of the best meet markets on the Southwest Side. The dancing was full throttle by 5 pm. For the less energetic, there was backgammon.

Shanghai Red’s – Red-hot happy hour with dancing and a free buffet, all with a great view right on the Ship Channel. Disadvantaged locals ate for free and left, like a community service.

San Antone Rose – Cold longnecks, mixed crowd with C/W and Top 40, a little for everyone. On San Felipe, West Side. The Rose had a free happy hour buffet too. Their tamales were delicious, but smelly.

Cowboys – A crowded sort of upscale C/W bar. I think it was on Westheimer or Richmond, out west. I was there when a fight broke out. A friend of mine got clobbered.

Spats – A high-end bar and dance place in an office plaza near the Galleria. You had to know where it was. Beautiful people, heavy druggy amorous glamorous and booze-soaked. A paragon of disco’s.

Munchies – an artsy ice-house on Bissonett near Rice with string quartet music and mimes. There was another great ice-house closer to Bellaire but I can’t recall its name.

Yesterday Once More – best I remember it was located in South Houston. Lots of line dancing in an atmosphere of mostly Carpenter tunes ranging from the romantic to the morose. The place had a separate “Mood Room” with glass windows and couches.

Chaucer’s – an Arts Museum area bar on Bissonett and Montrose in the basement of the old Plaza Hotel. My favorite after-work hangout. I had a crush on Vivienne, the bartender. One night I slept alone in the hotel’s “crash room.”

Marfreless – in River Oaks, an unmarked and eclectic bar for couples. Superb ambience, great mixologists behind the bar. Marf’s had sofas and curtained nooks. I went there with dates several times, one more masher in the crowd.

Sillouhette Lounge – a cozy neighborhood nudie club on the unfashionable side of Bellaire Blvd.  Friendly, non-threatening. They don’t make em like that anymore.

Rockefellers – in the Heights, an old bank turned into a mini concert hall with big name shows and retro nightclub tables. I went on invitation from friends who were gay.  Those guys were always tuned in to the trendier places in town.

Cooters – I think that was the name, anyway. A large dance club and saloon on the opposite end of the shopping plaza from Todd’s, on Richmond Avenue.  Had the reputation of over-served customers. Some of the baseball Astros drank there. Some of the visiting Mets were arrested there.

Shamrock Hilton – The hottest place in town on March 17th. Great ballroom drunken mix. Lots of random kissing. One eventually learned to book a room far in advance.

 

 

“Guermantes Way” – Proust

9789176053393_200In 2016, after stalling out in Chapter 1 of novel 3 (of In Search of Lost Times), I came back to re-visit and am getting into it again.  I’ll need to go back and re-read that first chapter. Sometime.

But for now, I started where my bookmark was, and that’s Chapter 2. Young man Marcel is now out on his own in Paris, mostly in pursuit of young women. He has enough status and station to arrange to see women by formal letter and then sends for a carriage to bring them to his room. Or in Albertine’s case, he’s around when she pops in unexpectedly. The liaisons are described in slow, tedious actions. We are to assume that Marcel is still green and tentative.  His romantic interactions with Albertine (the boisterous girl from Balbec in beachy novel 2), despite the eloquence of his accounts, seem childish. While she is frank and forthcoming, he lacks the confidence and candor to be an effective lover.

We see a repeating syndrome. Marcel has a thing for an older female aristocrat, as he did as a boy with Swann’s wife the courtesan Odette (and later her daughter Gilberte too). This time his object of desire is the Duchess Guermantes, who as depicted, is a powerful and beautiful woman who could drink a man’s blood like wine. She is separating from her husband and at long last returns some attention to the once-adoring Marcel. He now, and this may change in later pages,  apparently has other conquests on his mind. His numb reactions to her invitations are pitiful and cringe-worthy.  He doesn’t seem to have his values in order. Hovering around him as a reminder of his impetuous behavior is the omnipresent moral enforcer the housekeeper Francoise.  As yet, I am not understanding his friendships with pals Bloch, Robert, and Charlus.

Stay tuned for more of this report.  Novel 4, Cities of the Plain, is under the same book cover. That should be fun,  Only a few hundred more pages to go.

“Lake Success” by Gary Shteyngart

 

At the turning point in his journey of misery and discovery, protagonist Barry Cohen daydreams of Lake Success, NY. It’s like looking for a rope when drowning. A Manhattan mega-capitalist who has spun out of the fast lane, he imagines it’s a safe landing spot, a more peaceful suburban life, replete with healthy sons and matching sinks and domestic bliss. Lake Success is a place of zero madness, he seems to believe, a nostalgic town of anonymity and normalcy.  It is perhaps no ironic accident on the author’s part that this real town was once the location of the United Nations HQ (the book is an international POC extravaganza, most of whom get along) and Sperry-Rand’s gyroscope engineering center (stability, anyone?)

“Lake Success” is an intelligent, piercing, and often humorous look at the Manhattan rich and the American not-so-rich and all the woes befallen to both. It’s set in 2016, the advent of the surprising and, to many, nauseating era of Donald Trump.

We get the added benefit of Shteyngart’s’s ability to write travelog, as he takes his main character by bus from NYC to Richmond to Atlanta to El Paso-Juarez (the author nails the fear of the place perfectly), and at last to San Diego to see his father’s grave.

For all the trouble Barry Cohen creates for himself, he comes out at the end, escaping ignominy and insolvency (he has 35 million left). He re-gathers accomplices in the land of ruthless hedge-fund players and goes on with his life, now single. It couldn’t be any other way. He is an unlikeable character from the start, and often his failures are well deserved. Only his magnetic charm and deep pockets save the day.

He does have a certain Holden Caulfield innocence once away from the trappings of Wall Street, and for this we can say he’s a likable jerk. He loves kids and passionately tries to change the lives of two of them. He dislikes phoniness, begins to realize the danger of designing women. He seeks the heart of the world, stripped down and pitiful, having run away from The Top – and at considerable risk to family and self. Sometimes we worry more about his black Mastercard or his prized watch collection.

It can get ugly.  Barry huffs crack and gets pathetically physical with a man behind a bus station. On another occasion he hooks up with a beautiful black girl seated next to him on the bus. After they have sex in a hotel room, Barry thinks she has stolen his things (she actually put them in the room safe). Both events are gratuitous and kind of creepy. Characters eat each other in this book like cannibals, capitalist ones.

In the Big Ending, we are preconditioned to feel warm and take out our hankies over his autistic son’s dramatic bar mitzvah. It’s difficult to feel much empathy or joy, considering the place of wealth and privilege Barry rented out so the kid can become a man.  Yet one concludes this too is consistent with the story.  Money is what he ultimately knows. Barry Cohen is, after all, still a  very rich asshole who can buy and settle for another kind of “Success.”

Corporate…..Literary

 

Paradigm……….Slant

Legacy Systems…………Old Material that’s Hard to Convert and Harder to Delete

Synergize……….Commiserate

Take Offline……….Cooling period

It is What It Is……….Crap

Robust……….Hemingwayesque

Drill Down……….Add detail

Leverage……….Contrivance

Scalable……….Not much ripple effect

Get Buy-In……….Land an Agent

Core Competence……….Syntax

Stakeholders……….Characters

Kudos……….Your piece has been accepted

Hats Off……….Honorable Mention

Stay the Course……….Keep writing where you left off

Core Values……….(too preposterous a phrase even for writers)

Lots of Moving Parts……….Too many stories in one

Bleeding Edge……….Experimental fiction

Move the Needle……….Surprise Twist

Define Target Audience…………Know your Reader

Discipline…………Genre

Appendices…………Flashbacks

Roles & Responsibilities…………Character traits & motives

Value-Add…………Meaningful or Resonant Content

Measurable Objectives…………Intent

Post Test…………Critics

Task Analysis…………Synopsis

Process Engineering…………Structure

Flowchart…………Plot

Example Scenarios…………What-If?

Quality Control…………Proofread

Levels 1, 2 and 3…………Dramatic Arcs, Action Scenes, Detailed Imagery

Reset…………Stop and Fix

Roughly Right…………Second Draft

NOTE: …………Author Intrusion

 

 

 

 

“Wapshot Scandal” by John Cheever

wapshotA 1960s novel, today it reads fresh and powerful.  Parts of it describe material that was likely shocking fifty years ago, but now is folded well into our huge complicated mix of what is socially and/or morally acceptable – or more cynically, what isn’t?

Cheever’s narrative about domestic America is like Updike on weed. It’s wild and often sad and then entertaining and always visionary. The glowing introduction by Dave Eggers describes Cheever’s fictional skills and mentions how much humor can be found in his scenes. Any randomly picked Cheever sentence can be a trove of insight, clever turn of phrase, or vivid imagery.

The book calls for a second reading in the future, a writer’s examination of technique. First time around, the read was for story, which seemed like a chain of episodes filled with human error, sexual misdirection, alcoholism, and misery. The events involve characters from the Boston-like suburb of “St. Botolphs.”

The centerline of the narrative is often without clear direction, and what begins as a focused report about this small community later breaks apart and rambles into tangential sub-stories occurring in distant cities and countries. In Chapter 31, the loop comes back to start when a train again arrives. It’s Christmas time and people begin to return home. A central figure is dying. Circles are closing. The sentences are sublime; someone is showing us how to end a novel. Angels come to the gates.

As an aside, I haven’t read (nor plan to) the prequel “Wapshot Chronicle,” which covers the St. Botolphs folks in their earlier years.

 

Lucia Berlin

luica berlinThis is a collection of short stories I was led to by a comment from Thomas McGuane on NewYorker.com, who names her as his favorite short story writer. I’d never heard of her (she is gone now, 1936- 2004). I wonder again, as with Joy Williams, how I ever missed her stories.

She was writing back in the Sixties and is a child of the Sixties and the Seventies and Eighties as well. She was a visionary, writing into the early 21st century, who never compromised her simple and realistic phrasing and eye for character detail.

Her picaresque life took her all over the world, though most of her sensibilities are primarily Southwest USA with a tablespoon of Mexico and Chile. She flew under the radar until finally getting published in national magazines. She was a sensation and a confirmation of what could be called honest art. In her lifetime, her reputation soared only among those in the know. So it’s good to see her books re-released so all readers can enjoy, as I have, the amazement of discovering terrific, unsung writers of our time.

 

Seasonal Poem Selection

Thanks

  by W. S. Merwin, 1927

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Florida Hurricane Novel “Oceanaire”

Published in 2015, the novel is a prescient look at how things can be here in South FL when the Big One comes to town.

Oceanaire is about a small community of neighbors and friends in Miami over the course of a summer. The story’s hurricane sections portray the major phases the characters undergo when experiencing a storm: Apprehension, Survival, and Coping. (South Florida style with a tilt toward comedy and pathos rather than tragedy).

Paperback:   LULU  /  AMAZON  / B&N / etc
      Digital:   Apple iBook  / Amazon Kindle

    Copyright ©2015 by William P. Moore

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