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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.



They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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In Emily Gould’s Perfect Tunes, Music Isn’t a Recipe for Success

On the page, the main character’s musical aspirations never feel as alive as her interpersonal relationships.



Perfect Tunes

Emily Gould’s second novel, Perfect Tunes, is nothing short of frustrating. Gould’s writing comes to life when revealing the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship, as it does extensively in the latter two of the book’s three parts. But her approach to writing about music leaves much to be desired. Music drives the lives of her characters, but you almost wouldn’t know that from the lack of musicality to Gould’s prose.

Part one of Perfect Tunes introduces us to Laura, a recent college grad and aspiring musician, who moves in with her best friend, Callie, in New York City. Laura quickly takes a job as a hostess at an upscale bar, where she’s subject to the demeaning treatment of her male supervisor. One night at a music venue, she meets Dylan, whose band, the Clips, is on stardom’s doorstep. They begin a tentative romance, and as Laura navigates the inadequacies of their relationship and pursues her own artistic goals, a pair of tragedies strikes and Gould ruptures the book’s narrative, jumping forward about a year into part two, which covers the early years of Laura’s single motherhood—material that, with its authentic portrait of the day-to-day challenges of childrearing, often recalls the last few stories in Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows. As her daughter, Marie, grows into a toddler, Laura puts her artistic aspirations on hold. All the while, Callie’s music career flourishes.

Part three, the novel’s most compelling section, deals with teenage Marie’s relationship with Laura—and with her stepfather and stepsister, whom Laura meets toward the end of part two. For the first time in Perfect Tunes, the narrative moves outside Laura’s consciousness and into Marie’s, opening up wonderful new dramatic avenues. Gould skillfully tracks Marie’s struggle with depression and Laura’s guilt about feeling unfulfilled by a life devoted to parenthood. There’s a particularly moving scene when Marie, confused and disturbed by a recent turn of events in her flirtation with a classmate, comes home drunk, and after a tense confrontation with Laura, Marie off-handedly remarks, “We’ve never been close.” We instantly share Laura’s reaction of shock and bafflement, because Marie’s infanthood, when mother and daughter had “slept in the same bed, breathing in the same rhythm, Marie’s legs kicking [Laura] in the stomach as she drifted from one dream to the next,” was so well-rendered in part two.

But the novel’s other main focus—Laura’s musical aspirations and how they conflict with her responsibilities and identity as a parent—never feels as alive as the mother-daughter relationship. Early chapters, when Laura is young and childless, fail to show what it is, specifically, that songwriting does for her. For one, Gould isn’t quite up to the task of transmogrifying music—a fundamentally non-verbal art form—into vivid sentences. Throughout, Perfect Tunes is full of vague descriptions and clunky dialogue (a loft apartment is “big” and “weird”; Dylan plays a “fuzzy banger”; and a song has a “simple structure and a basic, hooky chord progression”), and when it comes time for Gould to express the feelings brought on by a great song—or even capture the reasons that music is so important to her characters—she either avoids the matter or simply flounders.

Especially in the novel’s second section, Gould very much misses the opportunity to dazzle readers with descriptions of Laura performing with Callie for the first time in years, and to an enthusiastic crowd. She chooses to summarize the event in a single, brief paragraph, and then the rest of that chapter is spent merely informing us of how adrenalizing, how transcendent an experience Laura had on stage. By the end, the reader never gets to feel the moment, to experience it firsthand. (Gould pulls a similar maneuver when 9/11 strikes early on in the book—the first of the two tragedies alluded to earlier.)

Across Perfect Tunes’s pages, we also don’t get much sense of what Laura’s music sounds like. Descriptions of her music are mostly limited to exegeses of her lyrical themes, while references to other bands are rare, and, apart from an early mention that Laura considers her songs “anti-folk,” Gould completely avoids telling the reader anything substantive about the fruits of her protagonist’s creative labor. This is a disappointing deficiency of ambition in an otherwise engaging and moving look at a woman’s interpersonal relationships.

Perfect Tunes is available on April 14 from Avid Reader Press.

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Innocence to Experience: Paul Lisicky’s Later: My Life at the Edge of the World

It settles into a distinct rhythm as time passes and Lisicky’s relationship with his chosen town deepens.




At the start of his memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, Paul Lisicky is a literary fellowship recipient in his early 30s. He’s about to stumble into what will become his queer community in the middle of the AIDS crisis in early-1990s Provincetown, Massachusetts, where at that time “it was impossible to speak a sentence without folding death inside its structure.” What follows is a deeply meditative and deceptively meandering series of vignettes, asides, observations, and questions both rhetorical and otherwise that cohere to reveal a writer grappling with the costs of desire, how to build an identity more powerful than shame, and the ways that loss can become a place in which to live.

Provincetown as a haven for members of the queer community—particularly during the years when Lisicky first lived there, when people he saw at the bar one weekend might be gravely ill or even dead the next—is both the setting and the implicit subject of his memoir. Andrew Holleran’s essential works of fiction about another queer mecca, Fire Island, mostly written or at least set before the onset of AIDS, depict the destination as a hotbed of delirious excess, a place in which to lose rather than find yourself. Reading them while knowing what comes next has now turned them into ghost stories, their writer unknowingly depicting a world about to disappear. In Later, Lisicky gives individual faces to the victims we often speak about collectively, and what might seem at times on the verge of becoming a catalogue of relationships, some dizzyingly fleeting and others more enduring, becomes instead an intimate glimpse into daily life during an epidemic, a montage of faces lost or forever changed. “The dead hover over and about us—maybe they are watching us through holes we can’t see, maybe they’re inside the light bulb, warming its thin glass,” Lisicky writes. “Can you hear them humming in unison?”

In the early days of what would later become a long-term residency in Provincetown, Lisicky refers to his clothing style at the time as “the ubiquitous costuming of my twenties, the look of inclusion and aspiration, but also the look that once allowed me to disappear.” He literally sheds the evidence of his old self and instead dons a motorcycle jacket and Doc Martens, beating the leather against stone to break it in. “I beat them to suggest that anger belongs in the spirit of my clothes,” he writes. “It’s not the year for perfection and the ideal fit. At this point in time we are only damaged, scraped, burned, and used.”

When Lisicky comes home for a visit after his first months away, his mother—who in the opening pages of Later sends him off to a world she’ll never understand, he fully believing she expects him to die of AIDS—reacts with palpable shock, and even fear, to his new look. He imagines her picturing him having rough sex somewhere in the dark, an anonymous man “fuck[ing] HIV into me.” And in this way, he’s marked the before and after in his own life, becoming someone his mother can only partially recognize.

Weaving their way carefully through Later are glimpses into Lisicky’s upbringing in a house of violence and rage, and reflections about his parents serve as bookends to the story of his life in Provincetown. A self-examination on the subject of queer rage—about internalized homophobia, about shame—sends him “back again in the house of my childhood, listening to my raging father, and I see how weak it makes him, hear how it turns him into an idiot, no captain of himself, and then he’s using it against my brothers and me.”

While he has certainly come to Provincetown for some kind of escape, Lisicky’s past is still never far from his present. When he returns home for the holidays, leaving behind a new boyfriend who he realizes he’s implicitly instructed not to call him there, he recognizes just how tenuous and fragile his new identity is. He feels flung back into his former self, 17 years old again, the world around him uncertain and unstable. “It’s awful to be reminded that what we’ve made of ourselves is so flimsy,” he writes. “Can be lost in all of two minutes.”

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, whose title refers both to the geographical remoteness of Provincetown and the bleakness of the prospect of living a life with no future, settles into a distinct rhythm as time passes and Lisicky’s relationship with his chosen town deepens. A steady stream of people enter into his life just as others leave suddenly, tragically. “A friend asks me how the prospect of illness changes people’s experience of identity and time,” he writes. “What does it do to them? I am too close to the question to answer it.”

But now, from the distance of years, Lisicky’s memoir itself seems to be offering up a response in the form of its patterns, its recursions, its steady stream of questions—some of which can never be answered. When his father dies decades after his first years in Provincetown, he finds himself immediately traveling back out “to the place I associate with death,” and at first he reflects upon his father’s stubborn will to live, even at the age of 91 and despite evidence of his failing body. But then he realizes that, to him:

“…every death will always be an AIDS death; everyone will always die before their time, whether they’re twenty-one or ninety-one. Nobody will ever get enough affection; everyone will be abandoned emotionally by the people they’d counted on, who get hardened by procedures, the insurance industry, the medical establishment, the funeral industry at the end. And for all that’s against their terrible journey, the dead burn brighter to me than they do when they’re alive.”

Later’s final chapter, in a sudden jump forward in time to what basically amounts to the present, centers around how PrEP—a highly effective drug in the prevention of HIV—has changed the queer community forever, and not just in terms of our sexual practices. For Lisicky, when he first goes to Provincetown, “the air we breathe is drenched in its possibility,” and he finds himself marveling at the spectacle of a generation of queer men having more or less fully shed the constant fears that so many of us have always associated with sex.

Having poetically and achingly reflected at length earlier in his memoir about the relationship between the erotic and the destructive, desire and dread, Lisicky now describes with no small amount of awe the image of a handsome man in his 20s lying on a circular table having sex with four men at once, “simply a young man who hasn’t had to take the costs of a plague into his blood. He isn’t rebelling, isn’t saying fuck you to the parents who could have disinherited him, kicked him out of their house, said unforgivable words. He’s not hiding.”

While observing this scene, Lisicky is confounded by the nonchalance of it all, the way this young man doesn’t think twice about bending to the will of desires he’d perhaps never learned to fear. About PrEP, Lisicky writes that “[w]hen people in their twenties swallow this pill, they take a different story into their body.” But Later is the story of other bodies at other times when the possibility of the future was still only just that, a testament to the audacity of being ourselves and risking the danger and violence and murderous institutional discrimination that once necessarily accompanied our happiness, in spite of the odds stacked against us and the uncertainty that defined our very existence. And for that, it’s already timeless.

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World is now available from Graywolf Press.

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Interview: Don Winslow on Broken and the Jazz of His Crime Fiction

The acclaimed crime novelist discusses his new collection of novellas, his influences, and more.



Don Winslow
Photo: Robert Gallagher

Don Winslow is a testament to life as the best school of writing, as he’s as colorful as the characters who appear in his propulsive, sensual, political, and often brutal crime novels. An ex-private investigator, a rancher, a surfer, a hiker, a jazz enthusiast, and a journalist who’s studied the intricacies of Mexican drug trade for his acclaimed Cartel trilogy, Winslow is a man of vast experience, empathy, and curiosity who dramatizes all perspectives on the criminal ecosystem, from the hippie stoner to drug czars to all the cops, reporters, immigrants, and imperiled children who’re trying merely to get by.

Honing over the years a clipped-paragraph style, Winslow fashions novels that simultaneously suggest tabloids, op-ed pieces, and Norman Mailer-style epics. But his new collection of novellas, Broken, finds him working in more moderate and relaxed keys, after writing a handful of the biggest books of his career: The Cartel and The Border, the final installments of the Cartel trilogy, and the searing The Force, about a corrupt New York City cop.

Broken thrives on misdirection, opening with one of Winslow’s most violent pieces of writing—the title novella, about a New Orleans cop who hunts the drug dealer who tortured his brother to death—before seguing into mellower character studies that recall his earlier, chiller, more comfortably genre-based origins. In “Crime 101,” a jewel thief intersects with a rumpled yet calculating police officer; in “The San Diego Zoo,” a bizarre case of animal armament leads to unlikely romance; in “Sunset,” an aging bail bondsman, the titanic Duke Kasmajian, reflects on a vanishing way of life while overseeing a final chase, leading to lovely ruminations on scotch and West Coast jazz, among other things. The last two novellas, “Paradise” and “The Last Ride,” return the book to more violent and topical terrain: the American drug war and our government’s inhumane imprisonment of fleeing families on the Mexican/U.S. border.

These stories are all animated by Winslow’s ear for dialogue and feeling for place, particularly San Diego, which becomes a recurring symbol of a vanishing way of life, a paradise that’s gradually being commodified into nonexistence. The Pacific Coast Highway, an ongoing subject of reverie in Winslow’s books, serves as a kind of circulatory system in Broken—a route toward contemplation and healing. Throughout these stories, Winslow also rhapsodizes on the little elements of Americana that can offer transcendence, from the classic ballgame-and-hot-dog date to the ritualistic grilling of fish for fish tacos. Winslow’s juxtaposition of such details with this country’s slide into political sadism suggests nothing less than the internal war to remain decent in an age of sensationalized heartlessness. (On Twitter, Winslow is a mercilessly astute critic of Donald Trump’s lies, incompetence, and trademark callousness.)

Particularly given our current social calamity, Winslow’s Americana continues to haunt me. Ball games. Grilling with buddies with beers on the deck. Intoxicating sex with someone you’ve just met by chance. These are heartbreaking things to ponder as the COVID-19 epidemic forces us into isolation. In this light, these rituals become even more fantastical, even more poignant, even more seemingly lost, than Winslow could’ve possibly intended.

How are you doing with this thing personally?

I’m fine, thank you. My wife and I live way out in the country sort of north and east of San Diego on an old ranch, and it looks pretty much the same around here as it always does. It’s kind of quiet and not many people are around and we’re hunkered down. We’ll just see how this goes, I guess. I have to tell you, it feels a little weird talking about a book during all of this. “Oh, people are dying, people are suffering, let’s talk about me.”

I’ve felt the same way about writing movie reviews lately.

Right? But life goes on, I guess. I know I’ve been reading more and watching a lot of old DVDs and things, because we don’t get very good internet service up here. So, you know, I guess we serve our purpose. [laughs]

I was reading Broken while COVID-19 was creeping into Virginia where I live, and, I hate to call art an “escape” because I think that’s often a horrible reduction, but this book was an escape.

Well, I think escape is one of the purposes of art. I think it can be engagement and escape. I’m not insulted by that at all. If people are entertained and it takes them out of this thing for a little while, God bless.

Broken is a collection of novellas that’s arriving after a few of your weightiest and most political novels. Did you consciously think of it as a palette cleanser?

Well, it’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m not sure I’d put it exactly that way, but I know what you mean. These were stories that I had had in my head for a while with the exception of the final one. And I knew that they were too substantive to be short stories but they were certainly not going to have the epic bulk that you alluded to. If I may use a different analogy, I’ve been sort of running ultramarathons for the last 20 years, you know? And so it felt it would be refreshing to run a middle-distance.

There’s a clever structural misdirection in this book. It’s called Broken and fans of your recent work may have a bleak expectation. The title story certainly fulfills that expectation, but many of the stories are warm, comparatively light character studies. At what point did you begin to consider that pervading arc?

Pretty early on. The three middle stories [“Crime 101,” “The San Diego Zoo,” “Sunset”] I’ve sort of had in my head for quite a while. The titular story was a bit later. And then I thought that this collection really needed a bookend, a story that matches the feel of “Broken.” And so then that structure became apparent to me. I think a lot about jazz because I listen to a lot of jazz. And sometimes there’s that kind of opening statement, the melody that’s being written down, you know, and then you go off into this middle phase where people are improvising on that, which, sometimes, tonally, is very different from where you started, until you circle back to the opening theme. In the case of this book, we open and circle back to brokenness.

So you have the same interests as your character Duke then?

[laughs] Yeah, which comes in handy, you know? Jazz has been a big thing with me since I was a kid and I took an especial interest in West Coast Jazz, you know, though I like other stuff as well. And so that was just fun to write and kind of visit.

To continue this jazz metaphor, particularly the idea of riffs on a theme, the broken motif is certainly in the lighter stories, too, just expressed differently.

Yeah, exactly. Not to torture this metaphor, which is kind of fun, but you know there’s going to be a certain chord progression that you’re not going to completely depart from. Well, some jazz does, but the kind of jazz I really love doesn’t. And I know who I am as a writer and as a person; many of these themes are going to come out anyway. In terms of chord progression, I was always very clear about the order of the stories.

Did you write the stories in chronological order?

Not exactly. Again, I knew what the order was going to be, but I’d been working on some of these stories for a while. I’d been working on “Crime 101” for a couple of years and never quite “got it.” I had the opening line of “San Diego Zoo” in my head for literally years. But I didn’t know what it meant. It was a line that struck me funny.

When I read that, I thought, “This is a new Winslow. Where the hell is this going?”

We live out on an old ranch and brush clearance is a huge issue because of wildfires. I had a bunch of downed trees and somebody asked, “Why don’t you get a chainsaw?” And a buddy of mine, this old cowboy, was standing next to me and said, “Giving Don a chainsaw would be like giving a revolver to a chimp.” [both laugh] Which sadly is true. I’m notoriously clumsy and not very mechanical. And he was right: I probably would’ve cut my hand off, or my leg off, or something. Well, somehow that line evolved in my head into “No one knows how the chimp got the revolver.” It stuck in my head for years, and when I was committing to doing these stories and trying to figure out what was the next thing after “Crime 101,” I typed that line out and just made the rest of it up. I was playing that great game “what if?” I did not know how the chimp got the revolver until I typed the end of it.

What’s striking about “The San Diego Zoo” is that it’s genuinely, unforcedly sweet, especially coming after “Broken,” which is a bitter pill to swallow.

“Broken” is one of the toughest, harshest pieces I’ve ever done. It was fun to go to sweet, you know? And I agree with what I think you’re saying: that there’s a very fine line between sweetness and saccharine. But there’s not much chance of my crossing over into that. [laughs]

Did you consciously perceive a relationship between “Broken” and The Force?

Of course. I’d written that big cop book, and I knew there were going to be similarities here. But I also knew there were going to be important differences, and I very deliberately set “Broken” in a completely different location to help achieve that, but sure I knew the reader would say “this is kinda like The Force.”

The Force is one of my favorite books of yours. I think you have a daring, uncomfortable empathy with your antihero.

An uncomfortable empathy is a good way to put it. A little frightening. I spent a lot of time with cops in doing that book, but I have my whole life anyway, because I was a private investigator. I had a lot of cop friends, and I really did feel an empathy with Denny. I’m not trying to make moral judgments about my characters. I might have them, independent of the book, but it’s not my job to create good guys and bad guys; it’s to create as realistic people as I can, and get the reader close to them. I’ve sat down with a lot of objectively evil people: serial killers, psychopaths, drug folks—you name it. None of them define themselves as monsters. They have a point of view, we might loathe it, but they have a point of view.

“San Diego Zoo” is dedicated to Elmore Leonard and “Crime 101” to Steve McQueen, which makes sense when you read that story, though it feels very Elmore-y to me too.

Absolutely. And Michael Mann. I don’t run from my influences. I’m very happy to proclaim them, and one of the great thrills of my life was spending an hour with Mr. Leonard. We were in the same room one time very early in my career on my first book, and I was too shy to go up to him. And then later, I might’ve done a film with him, which didn’t work out, and he died, sadly, shortly thereafter. But I got to be on the phone with him for an hour.

Did he live up to your expectations?

Oh, even more. I don’t think I said five words. He got on the phone and said, “Don Winslow, you were two-years-old when I wrote 3:10 to Yuma.” Which was the most charming way of putting me in my place. And I said, “Yes, sir, but I tried to read it.” And he laughed and told stories for an hour, nonstop. It was me, my agent, his agent, and him on the phone. And I was standing in the rain. We were living down on the coast, and we didn’t get good cell reception in our apartment. In fact, if you stepped two feet closer to the beach you couldn’t get cell reception. So, I went outside, and it was one of those rarely raining Southern California days, and I stood in the rain for an hour listening to Elmore Leonard. I would’ve stayed there all day.

That’s got to be one of those moments you keep in your pocket.

Absolutely, man. Absolutely.

I’m not trying to blow smoke, but I think you’re playing on Leonard’s level these days.

Well, I wouldn’t say that, but thank you, I try. We all revere him in the genre. And he’s one of those guys you’ve never heard a bad word about. Or Michael Connolly, who’s terrific. Or Lee Child or Dennis Lehane. These guys, who’re so huge and so great, are genuinely nice people.

That’s great to hear. I’m a big crime book guy.

Yeah, apparently. [laughs] And you know I dedicated another story in Broken to Raymond Chandler, who’s the granddaddy of us all, and if I write for another hundred years I’m never gonna write as well as him.

Your Chandler story, “Sunset,” may be my favorite in this collection.

I have a fondness for that story, which I wrote from beginning to ending. I sat down, started typing and almost literally didn’t stop until it was over a few days later. I just knew the story.

To borrow an element from that story, to belabor another metaphor, it has the feel of scotch: It’s mellow, there’s depth there that doesn’t announce itself.

Well, thank you. I wanted to write a sunset story that was a little mellow and was a little mature, and talked about some older guys, you know? And talked about loss of a lot of things: loss of loved ones, loss of a hero, loss of a certain kind of life.

There’s an additional commonality to these stories that affirms the “broken” theme. In every one, there’s a decisive moment where a character essentially says, “Screw it, I’m going to act for decency, against the fabric of my surroundings.”

Yeah, frankly you’re the first person who’s picked up on that. I think the ultimate question of crime fiction has become the ultimate question for all of us in these times that we live in, and I’m not happy about that. For me the ultimate question of crime fiction has always been, for the characters: How do you to attempt to live decently in what’s basically an indecent world? Increasingly, we’re living in an indecent world.

To piggyback on that, this book offers a vision in which people must act apart from mass politics, divorcing themselves from the media maelstrom. Is that fair?

I think that’s fair. In some ways, in all these stories, there’s a return to older values. The last story, I’m sure you picked up on it, is a neo-western, quite obviously. And I thought it would be more interesting if I made that guy a Trump voter, a conservative.

Yeah. I follow you on Twitter and I know what your feelings about Trump are, which I share. But I like that you don’t editorialize the conservative at the center of “The Last Ride.”

It just struck me as a more interesting slant on it. And then this guy changes his mind, you know, and goes back to what I would think of as those older western values.

There’s an image in “The Last Ride” that I don’t think I’ve seen in a western before. That startling image paralleling the hero’s fate with that of his horse.

I went to college in Nebraska and worked on ranches. I’ve lived in Idaho, Montana, out in California. I’ve had cowboys all around me, and I’ve seen too many horses put down. It’s a terrible moment. And I thought that was just the right ending.

In some interviews, you’ve wondered if your style as a writer is too flexible. I find your voice distinctive though, with those short, machine-gun paragraphs. Do you achieve that structure in the editing phase, or do you compose that way?

Basically, I’m composing it that way, but I make it better, I hope, in the cutting phase. When I do first drafts I’m not thinking about the reader much at all. I just try to get it down, and then, with every subsequent draft, I’m thinking more and more about the reader. What is the reader hearing? What is the reader seeing? We sometimes forget that reading, though certainly an intellectual activity, is also a visual activity. I pay a lot of attention to what the words look like on the page, and if the look is achieving the effect that I want it to. So, in reference to that kind of machine-gun thing that you’re alluding to, sometimes I think words just need a lot of space around them so that they do stand out. But, other times, if you want to grab the reader and not let him or her go a while, then you want the page to look very dense, so that there’s no space for them to take a break. You want to control the ride that you take them on that way.

It’s funny to hear you describe this process. As someone who writes reviews, I often edit according to how I like the visual shape of a paragraph in a word document.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Chuck. This is going to sound really goofy, but sometimes I’ll step away from the screen to the point where I can’t make out the words, only the shapes.

It’s almost as if such abstractions allow you to see your over-writing.

I think that’s absolutely the truth, and it does sound crazy.

With jazz, crime novels, and other arts, there’s an East Coast/West Coast distinction. With your traveling, with your New York- and California-set novels, it seems that you can lay claim to both coasts. Do you have a preference?

I don’t think so. I come from blue-collar New England, not tweed New England. [laughs] My dad was first-career military. I’m from a fishing town. My old man used to take me to the fishing factory, where they rendered all that shit. From 500 yards you could smell it. And he’d say, “If you don’t buckle down and steady you’re going to spend the rest of your life shoveling fish guts.” I came from a Bruce Springsteen kind of town that’s now become a touristy town. All that has always been a big part of my life, and I go back there every year, and I probably do more surfing there now than I do here.

But when I came to the West Coast, which was in the late ‘80s, as an investigator, I just fell in love. There’s no other way of putting it. And I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I drove on the Pacific Coast Highway. I went, “My God,” and I’m still in love with it. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve driven that road down here, and I never get bored with it, it always excites me.

I go back to New England and I eat fish and chips and chowder and out here I’ll have my beloved fish taco. The two oceans are also very different, very different kinds of personalities, if I can put it that way, and I love them both. I feel like I have the best of both worlds. You need to come out here when this blows over.

Broken is now available from Harper Collins.

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Brian De Palma’s Pulp Cocktail Are Snakes Necessary? Goes Down Easy

Though there’s a consistent amount of sex here, the book still feels like an act of extended foreplay.



Are Snakes Necessary?

Once you could count on the release of a new Brian De Palma film every few years, many of which abounded in recurring motifs that suggested a secret conversation between the director and his admirers. There were Hitchcock references, particularly to Vertigo and its symphony of shifting female identities and male voyeurs hopelessly enthralled with sexual illusions. There were also tracking shots of astonishing virtuosity, unapologetic fetishizing of beautiful women, lusciously lurid cinematography, purplish scores (usually by Pino Donaggio), and an overall sense of playful abandon and adventurousness that renders most contemporary thrillers anemic by comparison. At their best and not-so-best, De Palma’s vintage films often felt like the ultimate fusion of brains and balls—explosions of the potentialities of pulp moviemaking.

Written in 2016 and now available from Hard Case Crime, De Palma and Susan Lehman’s Are Snakes Necessary? seeks to fill the void left by the filmmaker’s lack of output over the last decade or so, an absence which has often been accompanied by frustratingly unfulfilled rumors of various projects, as well as the half-hearted Domino. Composed of short, punchy prose and bite-sized chapters, this slim genre novel reads very much like a script for a new De Palma project, one that’s rich in the debauched and rarefied play lands of the rich and famous, aspiring photographers (voyeurs), male predators, and beautiful and imperiled women, with a soupcon of political intrigue on top. Yes, even Vertigo is evoked, as a blonde becomes a brunette and a variation of the perverse twist of De Palma’s unofficial remake of Hitchcock’s film, Obsession, is indulged. This naughty pulp cocktail goes down deliciously easy.

Three male and three female protagonists (De Palma, a former engineering student, values such symmetry) are sent by their hungers and ambitions on an elaborate collision course against the backdrops of heavily mythologized, movie-ready cities such as D.C., Paris, and Vegas. Barton Brock is a manager-slash-fixer for Lee Rogers, a Republican senator up for re-election who hires as an intern 18-year-old Fanny Cours, the daughter of one of Lee’s former conquests. Also mixed up in this inevitable sexual melee is Elizabeth Diamond, the trophy wife of a rich art collector, and Nick Sculley, an aspiring photographer who, like John Travolta’s character in Blow Out, requires a bit of real-life tragedy to inform his art with meaning.

The fun of the book springs from its abject, unapologetic horniness, which is more distinctive in our timid times now than it was in De Palma’s heyday, and from attempting to figure out which formula it’s going to settle into. (Short answer: several at once.) Much of the novel is devoted to these characters hanging out and discussing status and strategy, so that De Palma and Lehman may note their designer apparel and particularly their varyingly terrific bodies. (Fanny is said to be in the “full flush of carnality” and there are sentiments offered about the bodies of French women, bedroom voices, and the fit of white T-shirts on young, cut men, among other things.) Though there’s a consistent amount of sex here, the book still feels like an act of extended foreplay, as we’re conditioned by De Palma thrillers to await the violence that goes with the carnality. The climax atop the Eiffel Tower and its resolution ingeniously pay off the various story strands, offering a tragedy and its inadvertent avengement.

Still, Are Snakes Necessary? also illustrates the limitations of attempting to recapture the visceral qualities of cinema via prose. De Palma and Lehman’s writing is confident, but it still only faintly conjures the wrenching, surreal power of a classic De Palma sequence, whether it’s the prom scene in Carrie or the anguished murder in front of a Fourth of July fireworks display in Blow Out. The Eiffel tower sequence in Are Snakes Necessary?, with its vicious, mathematical toggling between various parties as they hurtle toward violence, is clearly meant to suggest one of De Palma’s greatest hits (the authors even specify which part of action is meant to be seen in slow motion), but the poetry is missing. De Palma is a maestro of juxtaposition, composition, and performance calibration, not of words on a page.

Though there’s fun in figuring out which of De Palma’s staple of actors might have played each role in Are Snakes Necessary?—Brock is the Gregg Henry character, Fanny is Nancy Allen, and so forth—on the page these characters are just mice being moved through a narrative contraption. Without De Palma’s stylistic gamesmanship, without the poignant, daring melodrama of the director’s preferred style of acting, the personality and obsessiveness of De Palma’s worldview is compromised. Are Snakes Necessary? offers a fascinating glimpse, then, as to how a script for a director is fleshed out by the other stages of a film’s creation. The book is a serviceable, even compulsive page-turner, but it could be a hell of a movie.

Are Snakes Necessary? is now available from Hard Case Crime.

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Jenny Offill’s Weather Reckons with the Intimate Rhythms of the End Times

How do we deal with a crisis when it isn’t presented as such?




It was an unusually warm February night and the room at the Brooklyn-based Books Are Magic was filled from front to back, our collective body heat radiating across the space to the point of discomfort. We were all listening to author Jenny Offill as she answered questions about her newest novel, Weather. “I’m usually so bored reading about climate change,” she said, “I thought this book could be a useful thing.” As many authors try to capture the period we live in, the anxieties we face within ourselves and as a larger whole—by, say, referencing such hot-button issues as climate change and economic disparity—Offill places herself within the conversation without being overbearing, without shouting too loudly.

Weather focuses on Lizzie, a librarian, a mother, a wife, a sister, and a daughter. She carries the cargo of all of those identities, and it’s immediately apparent that she’s addicted to responsibility, to being relied on without realizing it’s a flaw: “‘I wish you were a real shrink,’ my husband says. ‘Then we’d be rich.’” She has a brother recovering from addiction who can’t stay off her couch, a fiscally irresponsible mother, and a son who’s capable of breaking her heart. “Are you sure you’re my mother?” he asks at one point, “Sometimes you don’t seem like a good enough person.” Then there’s her husband, who’s steadily becoming fed-up, or worse, disinterested in where Lizzie seems to be focusing her energy. Not to mention the awkward encounters with her next-door neighbor. And the driver she won’t stop paying in fear she’s his very last costumer. Lizzie is consumed by problems ranging from the end of the world to the drug dealer who lives in her apartment building.

Offill establishes the motif of time from very early on in the novel:

“I tell him that old joke about going backwards.
We don’t serve time travelers here.
A time traveler walks into the bar.”

This captures the feeling you may get when reading Offill’s novels, including Weather. “Look here,” she seems to say with her words, holding our childlike palms, dragging us from one site to the next. Offill replicates a similar form here as in her 2014 novel Depart. Of Speculation, creating intimacy with her narrator through spontaneity, short-formed paragraphs, and skipping forward through linear time. Lizzie is the former grad student and mentee of Sylvia, a national expert on climate change and podcast host of “Hell or High Water.” It’s not long until Sylvia hires Lizzie to answer emails sent from fans of the podcast—doomsday preppers to social activists who both share a common interest in the collapse of society and the end of times. It’s the means by which Offill examines these two American identities, poking fun at both, illustrating where the two intersect on a Venn diagram.

“What does it mean to be in this Twilight stage,” Offill asked at Books Are Magic, “The stage where you know and you don’t know?” She’s a smart writer, of course. She knows subtlety, and knows how to create a tone that will make us laugh, pull at our heart strings, and, above all, genuinely surprise us. But most importantly, she knows how create a form which elucidates the way we perceive the everyday. It’s a perfect time in American life to have a writer like Offill, whose idea of a novel seems the most conducive to replicating our daily lives from the minor burdens, which can feel like Shakespearean tragedies, to our widely shared conflicts, those which are ignored and then ignored until they boil over.

In Weather, as the questions sent to her by fans of “Hell or High Water” become more and more esoteric, Lizzie feels the metaphorical tides slowly rising to her feet. She feels time running out but isn’t sure exactly what she will have to face. And in such moments, Offill offers generous insights to us readers: “My #1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.” Can’t we all feel this too? At the reading she speaks of taking on more activism, playing a role instead of just standing idly by. She asks us all: How do we deal with a crisis when it isn’t presented as such?

Jenny Offill’s Weather is now available from Knopf.

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Reconciling Memory: Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World

Stamm accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story that’s simultaneously disorienting and comforting.



The Sweet Indifference of the World

Early in Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World we learn that its narrator, Christoph, is a writer, and you may wonder if the novel is going to unfold as so much autofiction does today. That is, as a story about a novelist—perhaps Swiss, perhaps middle-aged like Stamm—wrestling with their personal history or fame or the ordinary events of their life. It’s a practice that’s increasingly familiar, which, of course, isn’t to deny its ability to produce some outstanding work. But Stamm isn’t predictable, and he isn’t ordinary, and over the course of this especially slim novel, he accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story that’s simultaneously disorienting and comforting.

The novel tells the story of two couples: Christoph and Magdalena, and Chris and Lena. Both men are writers, and both women are actresses. According to Christoph, and as recounted to Lena, the couples’ lives are the same—somehow folded in and upon one another in the narrative of the book—but separated across 20 years. Stamm’s language is spare and thin, avoiding unnecessarily heavy prose in a way that makes Christoph’s story all the more urgent. Stamm dispenses with quotation marks, paragraphs, and ordinary indicators of internal and external dialogues. And it all works perfectly.

A fourth of the way through Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, “I can’t tell you the end of the story…the only stories that have endings are the ones in books. But I can tell you what happened next.” This warning, like almost any page of the novel, could be picked up and read entirely on its own. Stamm has constructed a narrative less about what did or didn’t happen but, perhaps, what could have. Does the novel give any certainty by the end that Christoph and Magdalena were once Chris and Lena? By the time Sweet Indifference reaches its end, it isn’t that the answer is irrelevant, but that the question was far more interesting.

In the novel’s disoriented narrative, in which each character layers upon another like a palimpsest, Christoph is the one reliable thread able to pull the reader through the maze. His certainty and conviction toward Lena helps to keep us anchored. But Christoph’s brief encounter with his own doppelganger momentarily suspends this security and leaves both the narrator and reader disconcerted. When Chris questions Christoph’s claim that he did (and eventually Chris will) publish a book, the former takes solace from the fact that he can find no record of it online. He rejects that this other man is his definite future.

Another detail that Christoph gives in order to try to strengthen his case also turns out to be false. When he later recounts this event to Lena, Christoph announces, “This is the most painful part of the story…He was right. I must have seen the scene somewhere and made a memory of it, incorporated it into my life.” In this moment, Stamm leaves it to his readers to settle the meaningfulness of the contradictions on their own.

Midway through the book, an old man abruptly walks into a café and mutters, “It’s too late…it will always be too late.” Has the cycle begun to fold back upon itself a second time? We can’t be certain. At the outset, Sweet Indifference can be puzzling and slippery, but along the way the same distinctive style that distorts begins to coalesce into something more enlightening. Instead of dissonance, Stamm manages to produce an unusual harmony. It often comes across as a meditation structured around one man’s effort to understand, mold, restructure, and interpret himself through memories—both false and real. Or as if Christoph—or whoever might stand in for him—is talking with himself to find some meaning from what did or didn’t happen 20 years ago. More than any ordinary novel, Sweet Indifference is a process.

At one point in Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, “[T]hat’s what I always liked about books. The fact that you can’t change them. You don’t even have to read them. It’s enough to own them, and pick them up, and know that they will always remain the way they are.” If Stamm is speaking to some distressing urge to reconcile one’s life with a wishful memory of it, then perhaps all it takes is some perspective. This is a book that invites many questions: Are Christoph and Magdalena actually some version of Chris and Lena? Why does the novel end exactly where it began? Or does it? Is Christoph hurt or alleviated at the end of his journey with Lena? And as to whether there are definite answers to any of these questions, Stamm invites us to stumble upon them for ourselves, perhaps at some later stage in life when, revisiting the book, it will all make a different kind of sense.

The Sweet Indifference of the World is available on January 21 from Other Press.

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John Sayles’s Yellow Earth Is a Masterfully Fair Hearing on Human Nature

What animates Sayles’s fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences.



Yellow Earth

In the middle of John Sayles’s Lone Star, which tells the intricate, intergenerational story of a Texas border town, comes a moment, no longer than 30 seconds, where two Army officers—one a black woman, the other a white man—talk furtively in the background of a bar scene. The camera nestles into their booth as they speak in hushed tones, and suddenly a new dimension to their relationship, which appears decorous and professional, is revealed. They’re soon interrupted by the town sheriff, and with only a few lines exchanged, we learn everything we need to know about these lovers on the sly.

Sayles, a screenwriter, director, editor, and novelist, excels at seeing each of his characters as the protagonist of their own story. And his rare ability to inhabit the intersecting perspectives, motivations, and desires of a diverse dramatis personae is in full evidence in his new novel, Yellow Earth. The novel takes place near the beginning of the Obama administration, on North Dakota’s Three Nations Native American reservation and in the fictional neighboring town of Yellow Earth. Both the town and the reservation are situated atop the Bakken formation, where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been underway since the early 2000s.

As the story begins, a representative from a Texas oil company goes door to door convincing residents to sign leases on their property so that drilling can commence. The chairman of the tribal council, Harleigh Killdeer, is all for it, dismissing the objections of a few outspoken dissenters in his community and promising “sovereignty by the barrel.” The ensuing oil boom brings with it a population surge in Yellow Earth as workers flood the town, accompanied by an increase in violent crime, drug trafficking, and prostitution.

Recalling Upton Sinclair’s Oil! in its canny political observations and vivid descriptions of drilling and extraction techniques, Yellow Earth is about the economic stratification, moral corruption, and opportunistic exploitation fomented by capitalism. Over the course of 400 pages, a landscape is transformed by greed and avarice in the populist guise of free-market speculation and community enrichment. The gulf between the optimism of Killdeer’s public relations blitz and the situation on the ground is pronounced in the poor conditions the oil workers live in, vividly sordid strip-club scenes, and recurring images of environmental waste.

While most of Sayles’s characters are morally compromised, rather than purely good or evil, he’s guilty here of crafting a cartoon villain: Brent Skiles, a steroidal, Ayn Rand-quoting drug runner who cons Killdeer into forming a company to serve as a front for his trafficking operation. And for his part, Killdeer ends up looking like a fool, almost to the point of incredibility. More compelling are less prominent characters, such as the animal behaviorist with a grant to study prairie dogs who falls in love with Yellow Earth’s sheriff, or the radical Teresa Crow’s Ghost, who dogs Killdeer with reminders of their people’s history of being exploited and pushed around by the government. No character is minor in Sayles’s world.

Another of Sayles’s strengths is his affinity for depicting different regions of the United States, from Louisiana swampland to urban New Jersey to an Alaskan fishing community. In particular, he has a knack for describing physical landscapes and capturing dialects. In some of his earlier fiction, the latter is a bit too pronounced, rarely a line of dialogue going by without a phonetic spelling or an apostrophe at the end of a word. But Sayles is a bit more restrained here, using sentence structure and idiomatic phrasing, sometimes omitting words or even resorting to clichés, to capture local patois across typically talky scenes. He employs close third-person, present-tense narration to facilitate the frequent switches in point of view; each chapter is anchored to one character’s experience, and the narrative voice is inflected by that character’s way of speaking and thinking. When taken together, the sequence of chapters creates not a sense of omniscience, but of kaleidoscopic subjectivity.

Without falling prey to false “both sides” equivocation, Sayles masterfully balances and gives fair hearings to competing agendas and doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of human nature; by the same token, he doesn’t give in to cynicism or despair. What animates his fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences, and an imagination expansive enough to portray their inner lives. He doesn’t fetishize diversity, but his stories are naturally diverse as a result of his engaged interest in the world around him. Now entering the fifth decade of his career, Sayles remains a standard-bearer for the American novel.

John Sayles’s Yellow Earth is available on January 28 from Haymarket Books.

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In Find Me, the Sequel to Call Me by Your Name, the Echoes of Love Are Resounding

André Aciman’s novel is a series of ghost stories interrupted by fleeting flashes of light.



Find Me

The Ancient Greek verb opsizo, as the reader is told in Find Me, André Aciman’s sequel to his 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name, is a way to name the act of arriving too late to the feast, “or to feast today with the weight of all the wasted yesteryears.” Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a brief yet fervent summer romance between two young men, Elio and Oliver, at Elio’s family’s Italian villa. Samuel, Elio’s father, now divorced in Find Me many years after the events of the earlier novel and traveling by train from Florence to Rome to read from his most recent book at a university, explains the meaning of opsizo to Miranda, a young and beautiful American woman he meets on the train. An intense mutual sexual attraction quickly develops between them, and what follows is an improbable yet captivatingly believable romance between the older man and much younger woman. Perhaps Samuel has in fact arrived at the feast just in time, laden with empty years but not yet bereft of the possibility of real, lasting love.

The echoes of a conversation between Samuel and Elio in Call Me By Your Name, when the father advised the son about how to value even the loss of love as evidence of a life fully lived, are immediately apparent in Samuel’s approach to his unexpected courtship with Miranda in Find Me. “We only want those we can’t have,” he says to her, referring to his habit of revisiting a particular location in Rome that always reminds him of another lost love that he doesn’t share with the reader. “It’s those we lost or who never knew we existed who leave their mark. The others barely echo.” And Find Me is essentially a novel of echoes. Each of its disparate sections, narrated first by Samuel, then by Elio, and then by Oliver before Elio eventually gets the final word, interrogate the ways in which the past—whether in the form of lived experiences or in imagined detours—is where we are our truest, most yearning selves. The echoes are sometimes more beautiful than the sounds that they reflect.

The danger, of course, lies in the possibility of succumbing to opsizo, failing to capitalize on possibilities existing in the present. Just before kissing Samuel for the first time, Miranda accuses him of not being a present-tense kind of person. “This, for instance, is the present tense,” she says before her tongue first grazes his lips, and the section of Find Me that comprises Samuel and Miranda’s first day together takes up more than a third of the novel, an intensely present-tense sequence that challenges us to value a narrative almost entirely devoid of conflict, built instead on gentle surprise and the visceral pleasure of witnessing the origins of an unlikely love affair between two complex and very forthcoming characters.

And Find Me’s subsequent section, told from Elio’s point of view, cleverly reverses the age dynamic between narrator and object of affection as Elio, a decade after Oliver, unexpectedly falls in love with a much older man—a man his father’s age, in fact. “I’d lost my soul for so long and was now finding I’d owned it all along but didn’t know where to look for it or how to find it without him,” Elio tells us, a sensation also described by Samuel when he says to Miranda that everything in his life before “was all leading up to you.”

Oliver, too, in the decades since his affair with Elio, has abandoned a significant part of himself to the past, specifically to events that took place at a certain Italian villa. Now a relatively happily married professor with two grown sons, he still entertains possibilities for a more uncontainable desire, in the form of flirtations with colleagues and yoga classmates, even as he believes that his chance for true happiness was lost when he turned his back on Elio all those years ago. When a guest at a party he’s throwing in his Manhattan apartment plays a piano piece that Elio once played for him, Oliver realizes that “some arcane and beguiling wording was being spoken about what my life had been, and might still be, or might never be, and that the choice rested on the keyboard itself, and I hadn’t been told.”

In her 1997 collection of essays, The End of the Novel of Love, memorist and critic Vivian Gornick argues that somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, as a result of a cultural turning away from the traditional social order with regards to gender, the subject of romantic love—once a wellspring for narrative—had lost its potential for depth and complexity, its reliable knack for drama. She writes that the “idea of love as a means of illumination—in literature as in life—now comes as something of an anticlimax.” But in Find Me, the anticlimax is the point. Aciman dispenses with the notion of love as fuel for narrative and instead uses its power of transfiguration as the measure by which to evaluate a life.

For all its straightforward narration, Find Me has layers of complexity that come through as echoes between its sections, dialogue repeated in slightly different cadences by characters as they circle around issues of time and fate, life and death. The novel’s beating heart is the fact of mortality and the tragedy of aging, which is staged in stark relief by the age discrepancy between the members of the novel’s first two romantic pairings. This theme is made literal by Samuel’s death after he has a child and lives several happy years with Miranda, and the threads of fate and chance woven throughout Find Me—the title itself a call to action—all amount to the fear of dying before we ever truly get to live. “I think all lives are condemned to remain unfinished,” Elio’s older lover says to him, perhaps already recognizing how their affair will end. “This is the deplorable truth we all live with. We reach the end and are by no means done with life, not by a long stretch! There are projects we barely started, matters so unresolved and left hanging everywhere. Living means dying with regrets stuck in your craw.”

Later, Oliver recalls a moment on the street when he met the gaze of someone from his department at the university who should have recognized him but who failed to acknowledge him at all. And he explains that he believed for a moment that he had died—“that this was what death was like: you see people but they don’t see you, and worse yet, you’re trapped being who you were in the moment you died … and you never changed into the person you could have been and knew you really were, and you never redressed the one mistake that threw your life off course.” Find Me is a series of ghost stories interrupted by fleeting flashes of light, just like the lives of the characters described in its pages who find and lose and find again their great loves. But it’s the possibility of light that we all live for, as these characters remind us. The chance for someone to dim everything that has come before into shadow.

And, sometimes, a second chance.

André Aciman’s Find Me is available on October 29 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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The Very Queer In the Dream House Explodes Expectations of Memoir

The book is Carmen Machado’s deeply intelligent and fiercely innovative account of her experience of domestic abuse.



In the Dream House

Queerness has always called attention to itself, and so must the art that explores its increasingly expansive borderlands. Queer forms break apart recognizable structures and expose them as incommensurate for the expression of an experience that by definition exists in opposition to the status quo. Queer narratives, too, inevitably call for new structural packaging, and autobiographical accounts of queer experiences have begun to formally reflect the often Gordian nature of the lives they represent on the page—lives irrevocably knotted by politics and power structures designed to resist their very existence.

“The memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection,” writes Carmen Maria Machado in the opening pages of In the Dream House, a deeply intelligent and fiercely innovative account of her experience of domestic abuse. Machado’s richly layered narrative takes the form of a personal story embedded within an extensive cultural history. “[Memoirists] manipulate time; resuscitate the dead,” she writes. “They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” The necessary context in this case is that of queer stories in a historical dialogue that has too often excluded them or written them out, and Machado explores the ways in which internalizing and then rejecting the dominant narrative has prevented queer people from understanding that our differences—which we’ve by turns reluctantly and defiantly come to celebrate—do not preclude ugliness. She explains that “queer does not equal good or pure or right. It is simply a state of being—one subject to politics, its own social forces, to larger narratives, to moral complexities of every kind.”

Machado takes a hard look at her former self in her memoir, a self painstakingly excavated through calcified layers of doubt, confusion, and shame. Most of In the Dream House is written in the second person as an address to this unearthed self, a younger version of the author who suffered at the hands of a female lover in a relationship that forms the narrative backbone of a more general exploration of the historical representation of queer domestic abuse. The “I” speaker is the author now, happily married to another woman and living at a safe distance geographically and otherwise from the “you,” the lost and naïve girl who suffered through so much without understanding why. “I thought you died,” Machado says to the “you” who otherwise occupies these pages, “but writing this, I’m not sure you did.”

In the Dream House is structured as a series of brief sections titled after various tropes expressing particular elements of her time in what she coins as the “Dream House,” a rental in Indiana where her girlfriend lived during most of the duration of their relationship, and which Machado frequently visited from where she was attending graduate school in Iowa. The relationship is narrated from its origins as a chance meeting in a diner in Iowa (“Dream House as Inciting Incident”) to a request for a drive to the airport to pick up the other woman’s then-girlfriend (“Stranger Comes to Town”) to a fateful, breathless first hookup (“Lesbian Cult Classic”) and a first confession of love (“Romance Novel”). The relationship trajectory briefly arrives at an experiment in polyamory (“Star-Crossed Lovers”) before dissolving into a monogamous relationship (“Entomology”) fraught with jealousy (“Appetite”) and gaslighting (“Lost in Translation”), and finally to an atmosphere heavy with frequent verbal and emotional abuse with the constant threat of physical violence.

Machado’s story is punctuated by harrowing moments of conflict that feel, because of their specificity, almost uncannily familiar. We come to inhabit her mind so wholly that the claustrophobia of her relationship with this other woman is made present first in the mind and then in the body like some foreign infiltrator, a cancer spreading quietly beneath the skin. The book’s hybrid nature is essential to its project, a marriage of form and content that elevates its subject by allowing it to accrue meaning in unconventional, surprising ways. Had Machado presented her subject in a traditional form, it would have gone against its own premise, and interspersed between the chronological narrative of increasingly severe instances of domestic abuse are brief forays into cultural criticism and queer history that further contextualize the ways in which we can be conditioned to accept abuse as normal, or as something we deserve, as Machado works through how the dominant culture views abuse narratives.

She interrogates films like Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a quietly seething portrayal of a man sexually drawn to a murderer at the cruising grounds they both frequent, and George Cukor’s Gaslight, the suspenseful story of a woman made to believe she’s insane so that her husband can dispatch her to an asylum, as a way of showcasing elements of her own experience reflected back to her by popular culture, illuminating exactly how she’s been manipulated and controlled. Machado also includes an extensive retelling of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the Cardassians and tortured into claiming that he sees five lights strung up above him where he’s being held, when in fact there are only four. He suffers and suffers but still maintains that he sees four lights instead of five, even as his resolve gradually weakens. Later, after being rescued, he retrospectively acknowledges that he was about to finally submit. “I would have told him anything,” he explains. “Anything at all. But more than that, I believed I could see five lights.”

One of Machado’s central preoccupations is with the erasure of queer stories from conversations surrounding domestic abuse. “I have spent years struggling to find examples of my own experience in history’s queer women,” she writes. “Did any of them gingerly touch their bruises and know that explaining would be too complicated? Did any of them wonder if what had happened to them had any name at all?” She’s meticulous about research and context, as in a section (“Dream House as Ambiguity”) in which she explores historical accounts of court cases that ruled on instances of domestic abuse between women, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that the only stories that persevere over time are the ones with overly salacious details about overly extreme acts of violence. In an extended and devastating section called “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” she guides us through a series of otherwise banal decisions that resulted in her abuse—responding defensively to accusations of moving too much in her sleep, for example, or deciding whether or not to wash her girlfriend’s dirty dishes after being commanded to do so—and thus thrusts us squarely into the world she finally, by the end of the book, has escaped. A world of unpredictable cruelty, a world where she was always afraid of what the consequences of seemingly banal actions might be.

The verifiability of women’s stories of abuse becomes central to In the Dream House’s final pages. Machado bitterly conveys the frustration of being the victim of wounds invisible to the naked eye, no bruise or scar available as evidence to make plain what she’s suffered, in language reminiscent of the testimonies of the women of the #MeToo movement whose stories are all that they have to show for what they’ve endured. “I think a lot about what evidence, had it been measured or recorded or kept, would help my case,” she writes as she attempts to affix an ending to her story, some kind of stopping point. “That there’s a real ending to anything is, I’m pretty sure, the lie of all autobiographical writing. You have to choose to stop somewhere. You have to let the reader go.”

Machado imagines trying out different endings to her memoir, and she describes the effort to do so in the language of a craft essay, thinking about a potential reader’s experience of her story and debating whether to end on some kind of “narratively satisfying confrontation,” perhaps leaning in to a more conventional structure than the one she has otherwise chosen. But she instead leaves us in a place of ambiguity much like the experience of queerness itself, an identity category which has always struggled to be defined in terms of its own choosing. It’s an uncomfortable and indeed unsatisfying place to end a story about abuse, as the abuser is only exposed as such through the telling of a story that could easily dissolve with the slightest suspicion of exaggeration. But a necessary condition of Machado’s project is to spark dissatisfaction on the part of readers looking for any kind of definitive resolution.

“You have no reason to believe me,” she tells the reader. But she isn’t begging us to accept the truth of her account. She’s daring us to doubt it. “If a tree falls in the woods and pins a wood thrush to the earth, and she shrieks and shrieks but no one hears her, did she make a sound?” Machado writes. “Did she suffer? Who’s to say?” And the question reverberates through In the Dream House, louder and louder, building up to a scream.

Carmen Machado’s In the Dream House is available on November 5 from Graywolf Press.

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With The Institute, Stephen King Channels Political Outrage into Familiar Horror

It’s in the moral murk of a politically loaded situation that King finds the richest seam of his story.



The Institute

For years after the publication of The Shining, fans wondered what happened to Danny Torrance, the boy with the psychic powers at the center of the 1977 novel. While promoting Full Dark, No Stars in 2010, Stephen King acknowledged in an interview that he liked the idea of a world where Danny and Charlene “Charlie” McGee, the pyrokinetic main character of 1980’s Firestarter, could get married. According to the author, “they would have totally wonderful children.” Though Doctor Sleep would later conclude Danny’s story, and close down the possibility of that particular union forever, King’s latest novel suggests that the idea continues to flower in his imagination.

The Institute is chock-full of “wonderful” children or, at least, some very ordinary children with extraordinary powers. At its center is the Institute, a facility in the woods of Main that houses kids who’ve been abducted because of their telekinetic and telepathic abilities. There, the children are tested and tortured in order to enhance their wild talents. And into this hellish dominion enters Luke Ellis, a boy with middling telekinetic reach but dizzying intellect.

Meanwhile, ex-cop Tim Jamieson settles into his new home in the South Carolina town of DuPray, a place as Kingsian to its core as the man himself. Good-natured and kind, unflinchingly but undemonstratively moral, and with a newfound willingness to follow his hunches, Jamieson is the sort of hero that King has been writing about since 1979’s The Dead Zone. Our introduction to DuPray and Jamieson, who takes a job as a “night knocker” for the local sheriff, is warm and meandering, but its brevity is a tell: that King won’t be writing in his more sweeping epic style. The baroque backstories and irrelevant divergences that mark the highs—or lows, depending on your perspective—of King’s fiction are here offered in miniature. It’s a hurried sketch rather than a meticulous painting of a small community.

For better and worse, after this brief introduction, the novel jumps the 1,000 miles north to the Institute, remaining there for the better part of 300 pages, abandoning Jamieson and DuPray for so long that readers may forget that they ever existed. When Jamieson suddenly reappears, the jarring effect is both a testament to the absorbing power of Luke’s narrative and a sign of how weakly King has woven together the two strands of The Institute.

Though the “special” child is a well that King has drawn from many a time, the novel has a political edge that rescues the trope from the shadow of redundancy. The Institute is about separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, all in the name of national security and the better good. Even though King has stated that he wasn’t inspired by ICE and the migrant crisis, it’s almost impossible to separate the fiction from the headlines. And it’s in the moral murk of this situation that he finds the richest seam of his story. The Institute, you see, has a practical purpose. And while that purpose is best left for readers to discover for themselves, it will spoil nothing to say that the novel offers a philosophical quandary: How many children are you willing to destroy to save the world?

Such a question allows King to move away from the Manichaean notion of good and evil that limits much horror fiction. The Institute’s staff ranges from jobbing professionals to zealots for the cause. Sprinkled in are a few obligatory sadists, but these are the least interesting of the children’s tormentors. Queen above all is Mrs. Sigsby, who combines the primness of Dolores Umbridge with Nurse Ratched’s terrifying psychopathy. She’s the villainous heart of the novel, yet her cruelty is neither unthinking nor indulgent. She’s merely the result of an unblinking ideology that allows her to see children as resources rather than human beings.

King has always been particularly good at etching the bureaucratic villain. His writing is sophisticated enough to acknowledge that few humans pursue evil for its own sake. Mrs. Sigsby is the very opposite of an agent of chaos. But her pursuit of order involves a complacent evil that’s more terrifying because of its authenticity. Like everyone else, she has a boss, and quotas to meet, and little time to consider the moral implications of her actions. And her eventual undoing ranks among the more satisfying of King’s resolutions because Mrs. Sigsby represents the walls of bureaucratic unkindness that plague 21st-century life.

The children are charming, of course. No one writes kids for adults as well as King. The Institute has been marketed as It for the new generation. This seems mostly to be a publishing gambit to grasp the coattails of Andy Muschietti’s successful two-part adaptation of It. But there’s some truth in the comparison—namely, in the realistic camaraderie fostered between the kids, who face and overcome the apathetic cruelty that adults represent.

All of which makes it a shame that the book is so rote, as it sees King continuing to dip his toes in the same murky, shallow waters of crime fiction where much of his work has been stuck for the last decade. The author remains in the top tier of storytellers. Much has been made of this, often in reductive tones—as if storytelling isn’t what we’re all here for. Such benign dismissal neglects his deceptively simple style, the crafted tone of voice that seamlessly marries the everyman and the extraordinary. It overlooks the heart and heat that radiates off the page of a King novel, and in The institute his skills actually come to the fore more than usual because the story itself is fairly insubstantial.

The ideas are there: the juxtaposition of a human America against a corporate one, the meeting of physical and psychogeographic landscapes, that even in a multifaceted situation there’s a clear definable line of goodness. But King has wielded them more elaborately and successfully elsewhere. In The Institute, he offers them as the axes of a yarn that’s wholly relevant, and which nods toward the underlying complexity of any project based on serving “the greatest good,” but which, even at close to 600 pages, feels too fleeting to offer answers.

Stephen King’s The Institute is now available from Scribner in the U.S. and Hodder in the U.K.

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