Friday, September 27, 2013

The Matter With Morris, David Bergen

The Matter With MorrisThe Matter With Morris by David Bergen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh for a change of heart — a true change of heart! Herzog, Saul Bellow.

Everything [Morris] had rejected in his father turned out to be true or correct: the parsimony, the frugality, the strictures, the chastity, the faithfulness. His father had been maniacal about living honestly and with integrity. He had recycled before it was in vogue. He had tithed more than ten percent. He had sheltered the homeless and fed the poor. He was not wasteful or degenerate. Many of these things Morris had rejected. He had thrown out the old and gathered up the new, the modern, the material, as if the past could be thrown out like a heap of garbage. It turned out that his father, in his stinginess and harshness, had been quite right about the world. It was damned.

Morris Schutt has reason to be so dour in his appraisal of things. At 51, his particular mid-life crisis is exacerbated by the entirely senseless death of his son — whom he goaded into joining the Army, then deploying for Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire. Morris, who writes a newspaper column that trades on wry observations of family life, now finds himself writing just candidly enough to get himself into trouble, and not candidly enough to climb out of it. This habit of half-measured caution spins Morris out of his marriage and into a weird moral limbo where he struggles to find purchase.

Morris's measured disclosures attract the attentions of another grieving parent — a mother in Minnesota, who's lost a son in Iraq. She and Morris exchange e-mails, then quickly switch to letters (a romantically antiquated form of discourse that also has the benefit of being more private and secure). Morris's curiosity gets the better of them both, and they meet in a Minneapolis hotel room. But Morris, who has revealed so much and so little to her, is unable to consummate the affair. For sexual release, or what passes for it, he needs the anonymity of call girls.

But here, too, he is foiled, when he discovers that his forthcoming escort is in fact a girl who used to date his late son. Now he — and she — know just enough to put him off the pursuit of sexual congress, and he takes it upon himself to nudge her toward respectability. The truth is the only person he's acquired any real intimacy with is his wife Lucille. And he has shut her out with his increasingly erratic and irresponsible behaviour — which now includes selling off all his assets for cash in a safe, and writing peevish letters to gun manufacturers, and the Prime Minister who OK'd their purchase and dispatch.

The epistolary aspect of the novel has drawn comparisons to Saul Bellow's Herzog (as does the above quote, which Bergen uses to preface the novel). It's a risky gambit on Bergen's part, and some reviewers gently note that Bergen doesn't quite reach the same heights of unhinged rapture that Bellow managed. I think this is an unfortunate distraction — Morris Schutt is not Moses Herzog, as Morris in fact points out to himself. Bergen's Morris is a man who, despite his penchant for reckless acting out, simply cannot shake his inherently instinctual cautiousness. Even Morris's raptures — of anger, despair, naked self-awareness — will be carefully measured affairs.

“To finish with Herzog, I meant the novel to show how little strength 'higher education' had to offer a troubled man.” Saul Bellow, in his forward to Allan Bloom's The Closing Of The American Mind.

Here, I think, is where Bergen's intentions are more closely aligned with Bellow — although, again, because the story is filtered through Morris's perspective, it is a growing self-awareness leavened by caution, even timidity.

Morris spots a beloved and admired professor — “Professor Karle” — from  his university days, riding a bicycle rather painfully. Morris recalls Karle as a man of vibrant intelligence, who diligently applied himself to a full and virtuous life beneath the awareness of death, and doing what he could to nurture this awareness in his students. Some weeks later, Karle succumbs to cancer. Morris declines to attend the funeral, but later purchases a few boxes of books from the man's library, which he scours in search of answers through his dilemma. He latches onto a few wise-sounding tidbits, but has to finally admit he does not have the same tenacity of focus that his former prof did.

He returns to his Divorced Men's Support Group, and drifts in and out of revery:

Doug, early in September at one of the first meetings, had talked about the individual, and how, for all the complaints about the plight one might find oneself in, most people wouldn't change places with another even if begged or paid. “Most of us are, healthily, in love with ourselves. This is necessary.” True, very true, Morris thought, though he couldn't imagine why some of these poor men wouldn't want to be him. He was fit, somewhat popular, not bad looking, had money, drove a Jaguar, slept with escorts, had free time, was intelligent, read and sort of understood Tillich, possessed an okay jump shot, and with the aid of several ancient guides such as Plato, he was slowly crawling up out of the cave. On the other hand, when he looked at the men around him in the group, he wanted nothing to do with their lives. Doug, the egalitarian leader? No, too old and boring. Mervine? Too pitiful, too painful to consider. Peter, the Filipino who lived with seventeen other family members? No, too servile, too simple. Ezra, the fallen Jew? No, though there was something attractive about the tribal camaraderie. Morris had been raised a Mennonite stoic in a tribe that wasn't a tribe at all, but more a failed cult whose main sources of entertainment were music, wordplay, and suffering. He had shucked that off quite quickly. And so on. If he would be forced to choose under the pressure of torture, he would surrender to the possibility of something beyond this room, into the realm of film. He would be Jason Bourne, and he would marry Mia from Pulp Fiction, and they would live in humid bliss on a small island off the coast of Cambodia.

So far as “ideals” go, this one is not just an unattainable fantasy, but one that looks pallidly bourgeois next to the soppy-stern religious ideal he was raised in.

Morris slowly returns his attention to his surviving family, including his father, who is in the early stages of dementia. Morris recalls with some distaste the religious extremes his father committed the entire family to, including a cockamamie “God will provide” missionary foray into the Congo. But as much as Morris may be discomfited by his father's ardour, the actions and disclosures of his late son prove just as nettlesome. The boy claimed to enjoy not just military life, but the carnage that came with it in Afghanistan.

A reader can easily spot the “changes of heart” that occur in this novel from one generation to the next. But it is Morris's cautious nature that proves to be the most striking anomaly — the truly radical departure — in the Schutt family line. The necessary changes of heart in a given lifetime are a subtler, nearly invisible business — which Bergen has explored with an exquisite and humane delicacy.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

My Braaaains: Overrated? Overheated? Or Just Missing?

This is going to be a bit helter-skelter, so bear with me. I'm here rearranging the words in my review of David Bergen's The Matter With Morristhe single most pleasurable read for me this year, and my current Favourite Novel From A Member Of My Tribe — when the randomizer of our household music machine spits out this chestnut:

Sally's into knowledge
Spent her years in college
Just to find out nothing is true
She can hardly speak now
Words are not unique now
'Cos they can't say anything new

You say humanist philosophy is what it's all about?
You're so open-minded that your brains leaked out!

Some Christian Rock lyrics for you, courtesy of a young Steve Taylor, circa 1983, which, in their blunderbuss way, take aim at the heart of The Matter With Morris.

I cringe to admit it, but at the time I thrilled to hear (young) Steve Taylor's droll delivery of those particular lines.

I was 18 years old, getting ready with the rest of my buddies (Mennonites, with precious few exceptions) to begin post-secondary education. I was also an earnest Evangelical — ditto, my mates. And we were aware that one of the risks attending post-secondary education was getting too smart for Church. Through the past 13-plus years of Sunday School we'd taken note of all the surly older brothers and sisters who left for a semester, then returned at Christmas with a dark new energy and a poisonous contempt for the Gathering of Saints. Surely not I, Lord.

Taylor's derisive snort didn't so much address the issue as turn tables on the stereotype — which, for a nervous 18-year-old, was good enough.

"Next stop: Bible College!"

Thirty years later, I remain a church-goer. And I call myself Christian, even if some in the flock would dispute the claim. The young Steve Taylor might not go quite that far, but he'd probably consider me deeply entrenched in the “Brainless” end of the spectrum.

Converting from one seemingly definitive state to another — even Apostasy — takes a lot of work, and I've better things to spend my energies on. I say this as someone who, briefly, in my 20s, considered converting to Judaism. The fact that I'm still a spineless* Mennonite probably reveals just how seriously I applied myself to that particular thought experiment. It struck me as a staggering commitment of energy, for limited returns.

Prior to this, a zen roshi I'd been spending some time with (Whisky Prajer, ever the dilettante — and why not?) suggested, “Stick with a religion for as long is it's useful.” I took her to mean it might be time to shed the old wineskin, but as I considered Judaism I began to comprehend the flip-side of the koan: I still needed the eggs. Better, then, to apply those qualities I found admirable in the alternative religion to the one I had grown up in.

So: brainless as charged — but sincerely so.

This is why I pay attention to conversion stories — the more dramatic, the better. What prompts a person to reboot into a seemingly alien Operating System? And does it take? How, and how deeply?

I tend to think there is less change happening than is being proclaimed, and religious history is liberally peppered with rascals and knaves keen to prove me right. Sergei Kourdakov is one such: a Russian defector who went from Communist-trained heavy, groomed to persecute hapless Believers, to penitent Believer himself. The Persecutor, Kourdakov's “memoir,” was a staple in the libraries of Evangelical churches, including the one I grew up in. I read the book when I was 10, credulously swallowing his sordid stories of rounding up furtive fellowships and subjecting them to all manner of humiliation and indignity. So promising a persecutor was our Sergei, that he was duly summoned to Brezhnev's high command, where he witnessed first-hand Empire-sanctioned orgies. The book's end-note indicated that Kourdakov had told his American friends that if he were to die in mysterious circumstances, they would know his former overlords had caught up with him. Needless to say, Sergei was dead at the time of the book's publication.

When I mentioned my reading material to my father, he took a deep breath, then said he had serious misgivings about what was being . . . sold here. I'm not sure what led my father to think he smelled a rat,** but some three decades later an independent documentary, Caroline Walker Pallis' Forgive Me Sergei, lays out a damning counter-narrative to the one I read as a child. In her review of the film, Katherine Jeffrey writes,

Ultimately [Walker Pallis] is forced to confront the overwhelming evidence that the central events of The Persecutor are not merely embellished but completely fabricated. No corroborating witnesses can be found anywhere Sergei lived, though physical descriptions of the cities are accurate and personal names are real. Christians in Petropavlovsk deny that the violent purges the book describes ever happened. Some of the villains of Sergei's childhood turn out to be ordinary or even admirable characters. Among Sergei's military acquaintances and childhood friends whose names and photographs appear in the book, and to whom passages of The Persecutor are read on camera, some react with shock or indignation, others with simple incredulity. The idea that one would lie in order to get ahead in America is unsurprising to them, but they resent having been used as (typically repugnant) narrative props for an outrageously fraudulent story.

It seems one needn't be predisposed to “humanist philosophy” to be so open-minded as to allow one's brains to fall out.

"Oh for T-shirt with witty caption!"

Speaking of humanist philosophy, now's a good time to give a shout-out to the Poindexters at The Christian Humanist. Although I'm predisposed to playing gadfly and leaving snarky comments on their blog and Facebook page, and they are predisposed to rapturous declarations common among academics and serious-minded religious types, my admiration for their attention to the apparatus is genuine. They take seriously the Protestant Imperative, which I enjoy and commend them for. Excelsior, dudes!

*“No brains, no spine, he's much too shy!”

**Possibly the fact that Sergei was shacked up in a Colorado cabin with a 17-year-old girl when it happened, and that the gun that killed him belonged, like the cabin, to the girl's father.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

All The Boss's Bastards, And Their Rowdy Little Bands

When I first heard about The Sons of Lee Marvin, I thought, “I want in!” When I heard who got it all rolling, I thought, “I'll stick to Groucho's Club, thanks.”

The initial Sons of Lee Marvin? Jim Jarmusch and Tom Waits.

A couple of cool hep-cats. Likeable. Enviable. Admirable, even. But as much as I like, envy and admire those guys, even I have to admit their respective acts have occasionally tipped into something a wee bit indulgent. Pretentious. Fey. Precious, evene.g., calling yourselves The Sons Of Lee Marvin, or more recently, The Bastard Sons Of Lee Marvin.

“Fey” and “precious” should be avoided by anyone claiming lineage to Marvin (blame your mother and you've really blown it). But “pretentious” isn't so bad. After all, Marvin was an actor, someone paid to pretend. Also, “pretenders to the throne” may have their deficiencies of character, but a lack of ambition isn't among them. If you're a slightly odd-looking dude, Marvin's throne is a fine one to pretend to.

The Boss's Bastards are a different breed altogether. These are the kids who listened to Darkness At The Edge Of Town and Born To Run and thought, “Yes. Yes! I can do this!”

"Le patron est mon père!"
They've got the throne in their sights. And, brother, they've got ambition.

I'm talking about grizzled vets like Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell, blue-collar sprats who scraped together enough for a kit and a van, called themselves the Drive-By Truckers then hammered themselves into public consciousness one rowdy juke-joint at a time.

If you want some idea of what that sounded like, Alabama Ass-Whuppin', their first live album (and my second-favourite DBT disc), has been re-mastered and re-released, here.

I'm also talking about younger acts, like The Hold Steady, Arcade Fire and The National, who caught the Boss's gene for earnest self-expression and spliced that into brooding contemplations of suburban ennui. And I'm talking about Okkervil River, whose latest, The Silver Gymnasium, (here) is all of that, plus — plus “irreverent” and “catchy as hell” and “fun” — and might well qualify as my favourite disc of the late-summer.

And I'm even talking about Low Cut Connie, who, at first listen reminded me mostly of early They Might Be Giants — though where the Giants came across as dweebs cracking wise between recess beatings, Connie came across as jokers whose next laugh was likely to come from delivering a few bruises of their own. But, like The Boss, Connie demonstrates just how far a tankful of attitude can take you in a crowded room of noisy drunks. In 1986 the Boss may have allowed Tipper Gore the last (non) word when he self-censored his live Mission Statement during “Raise Your Hand” (quote- “You think this is a free ride? You wanna play, you got ta pay! Now I wanna see you get up. And I want you to walk over to your radio, turn the mother [silence] as loud as she'll go, open up the windows, wake up the neighbours, 'cos if there's something you need, if there's something you want, you've gotta raise your . . .” etc. -end-quote) but Connie gleefully reclaims the prerogative. They also get the last word on fun: I bought Call Me Sylvia (here) back in January; nine months later it's proven itself the perfect soundtrack for the early evening hours of a Friday night, when a fellow wants the weekend to proceed on the right note.

But if you find your particular weltschmerz is best echoed in blue-collar anxiety, drama and miscreant tendencies, you'll want to hew closer to the Boss's country leanings. I refer you then to Eric Strickland & The B Sides. With their song-writing, Strickland and company have clearly graduated with honours from the George Jones School of Country, where strong drink is responsible for the bulk of one's errors in judgement, if also the bulk of one's succour. That sort of material is a natural fit on my playlists: this summer Eric's I'm Bad For You (here) formed a welcome “b side” to Wayne Hancock's Ride.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Today In Tar-Sands

Curious as to why the Keystone XL Pipeline is such a big, freakin' deal? These three pieces should go some distance to enlighten you. The POV that generates the lot of them is, I think, plainly antagonistic toward pipeline development, but they each contain specific, critical insights into some crucial failures of perspective, communication, and ethical commitment on the part of the various oil industry proponents, including our Prime Minister.

The first is a lengthy New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza. Lizza's comes closest to covering “both sides” of the debate, and although he does not state it explicitly, he adroitly exposes the vulnerability of the environmentalist arguments (see if you can spot it).* At the moment, it does appear as if the environmentalist argument has considerable sway. There are reasons for that, and among the most notable is that under Harper, “Canada's record of keeping its climate change promises has been deplorable.”

It should be said that Canada's record on that score has been deplorable no matter who's in power. But the fact that Harper can't even meet his own sub-par promises (“Mom! I swear! I'll make 48% on the next science test! Just please let me go to the skate park!”) makes him a non-negotiator. As John Michael McGrath points out, “There are many things Stephen Harper is good at, politically, but negotiation has never been one of them.”

*Here's a clue. Here is another.

Friday, September 06, 2013

It is a long way to the top if you wanna rock 'n' roll. And it doesn't include Mark Evans.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“I started to sense all was not well with me and the band. It was like the old story about a poker game: if you can't work out who the sucker is after the first few hands, well, it's probably you.”

Mark Evans
, Dirty Deeds: My Life Inside/Outside AC/DC

I'm wracking my brains, trying to locate my motivation for reading — and finishing — this book. I thought I was pretty much through with rock 'n' roll memoirs. Anyone who's read a few knows they are all remarkable — until they aren't. There is usually a point in these books when it becomes clear to the reader that the ego behind the words has ballooned into a state that no longer recognizes the common parameters of human existence. They remain savvy enough about commerce (particularly when it comes to selling themselves) but have lost perspective on just about everything else.

Mark Evans' story is somewhat distinctive: he got in on the ground floor of AC/DC, shortly after Bon Scott took over as singer/lyricist, just as the Young brothers' “experimental phase” was winding down and their “formula to success” phase was winding up. Evans picked up the bass and, together with Malcolm Young and drummer Phil Rudd, held down the low end while Angus and Bon did all the jumping around — in countless dodgy venues, all over Australia, then eventually in Europe.

The sound and the show generated international acclaim and success — everywhere but in the U.S. The plan was to book a studio and throw everything they had at the reel-to-reel, then hit American shores and tour the album until the wheels fell off the bus. There was just one order of business the band wanted to take care of first: shit-can Evans, and send him home.

So Evans returned to Australia, holding down the corner table of his favourite pub in the hardscrabble neighbourhood of his youth, while Highway To Hell shot his now-former mates to global rock star status.

There were, naturally, legal battles that ensued, during which Evans kept mum about his time and dealings with the band. Rock journalists looking for insight into those years had to content themselves with interviews with friends and roadies, one of whom summed up the scene as, “Mark was too nice a guy to survive that lot.”

The book goes some distance to confirm that observation. With an out of court settlement behind him, Evans emerges with typical Australian candour. He manages to be both blunt and magnanimous, self-effacing and rowdy, even into his senior years. He's frank about his errors in judgement, including a lengthy scene when he went too far taking the piss out of Angus. Evans doesn't seem to hold any grudges, though — he gives it up to Cliff Williams for holding down his former job for over 30 years, and shrugs with modest disappointment at being recused from the band's induction to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.

Far and away the most moving segments of Evans' memoir are its bookends: a near-Dickensian childhood marked by deprivation and heartbreak; and the late-in-life death of his first-born, so many years after Evans had settled down into a mostly “normal” life.

As for the middle, well, it's a rock memoir. There is Dionysian excess, to be sure, but in the wake of mind-boggling (and stomach churning) revelations like The Dirt or The Long Road Out Of Hell, Evans' “booze and birds” recollections are quite prim. As for the other band members, Bon remains something of a cipher, albeit of the Advanced Alcoholic variety. Drummer Phil Rudd comes across as an introvert who toed a fine line around the Young brothers. And no wonder: when it comes to near-feral control of an entertainment property, the Youngs put Col. Tom Parker to shame. Anyone outside their extended family skates on very thin ice indeed.*

Evans learned this lesson the hard way, which is really the final word on his experience with that group. That he's able to relate it with such charm and good humour is Evans' own final testament — and the critical element that kept me reading to conclusion.

*Witness current singer Brian Johnson's “memoir,” a book not about music, but about cars.