Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lightning Bug, by Donald Harington

Lightning Bug (Delacorte Press, 1970) is the first of Donald Harington’s Stay More novels.  Stay More is a mythical and dying Arkansas town where many of Harington’s novels are set.  This one is narrated by a five-year-old boy, Dawny, who, as he makes clear relatively early on, is Harington himself, or at the least a fictional Harington.  Lightning Bug is Dawny’s name for the woman of his dreams, Latha Bourne, and the center of this novel.  She is 38 years old and, as we soon learn, a person with a rich and varied past that includes rape, the loss of a daughter, incarceration in a mental hospital, sex in a cave, sleeping in the nude, loneliness, and more.  The lightning bug of the title suggests she is the object to which the other important character in the novel, not to mention a few of the secondary characters, are inevitably drawn.
This novel has its attractions.  The witty, dialect-heavy repartee between residents of Stay Moore can be hilarious.  The arguments among the various suitors who come every night to pay court to Sonora are an example.  The main character herself is a truly unusual character.  But she is surrounded by residents of Stay More who often as not wander into caricature and Lil’ Abner stereotype.  We have a moonshiner who is holding captive a revenue agent.  The agent talks so much that he manages to seduce the moonshiner’s daughter even while he is chained up.  The Stay More medical doctor offers his services to Latha if she needs a particular kind of satisfaction.  Everyone is hot to have sex all the time.  No one seems to have many scruples.
The five-year-old narrator, who is really narrating from some point in the future, and who makes clear that he is imagining the story as he’d like it to be as much as he is telling it as it happened, is a lot to swallow.  For a five year old he understands a whole lot.  He spies on people in the outhouse, people making love, people getting dressed.  He’s also in love with Latha, so much so that he vows to turn her into the stuff of legend, or at least of great fiction.  In one creepy scene he stays the night with Latha and after seeing that she sleeps in the nude insists on sleeping nude with her.  She allows it.  This is one of the great moments of his five-year-old life and of his adult life as well—he can never let it go, and this accounts I suppose for his passion in telling the story. Dawny is not convincing to me as a five-year-old.
The trouble is that this book is not great fiction.  The rich, sometimes lovely prose strains at artfulness.  The best description in the novel is that of the sound of the metal closer on a screen door (“WRIRRRAANG”).  At one point Harington has bullfrogs, crickets and cicadas, and katydids narrating through the sounds they make at night.  The self-consciously intense and playful and overdone prose—in sections of the novel, mainly at the beginning and end—insists on the wonder of the story being told, rather than letting the story speak for itself.  It’s difficult sometimes to sift out the fictional facts from the imaginings here.  The novel begins and ends with italicized and impressionistic monologues by the young narrator commenting on himself and the story and on Latha.  He several times interrupts the main narrative with sections in which he imagines what he wants to think happened.  What’s the point?—the point seems to be that some events he as the 5-year old narrator would not rather accept as having happened, so he comes up with an alternative narrative, addressed directly to Latha, in which he offers what he thinks she might like to have happened, or what he would like to believe.  It’s as if the miscomprehending mind of the 5-year old is all mixed up in the more adult and yet still relatively puerile mind of the grownup narrator.
The entire novel works towards the moment when Latha and Every will get together and make love—but he refuses to have that moment until they marry, and she refuses to marry him until they have sex.  Their arguments over this issue are amusing but not without frustration.  And although by the end of the novel we know the moment has occurred, we never get the satisfaction of knowing specifically that it has occurred—although Harington gives us in candid detail the other sexual episodes in Latha’s life with and without Every.
Every was the first boy Latha ever slept with.  She was 12 and he was 13.  They remain lovers throughout their early years, but she goes to another town for high school and meets other people.  We are given to believe (mostly by Every’s own tall-tale testimony) that he devotes his entire existence to loving Latha—he goes to war to protect her fiancĂ©. He becomes a preacher because he thinks he’s made a pact with God to cure her of her mental disease. He claims that God speaks directly to him and instructs him in what to do.  Yet he also robs the town bank, rapes Latha violently, and four years later after rescuing her from the mental hospital basically rapes her again while she is in a catatonic state.  Yet everyone is OK with this.  We’re to find him, I think, a persistent and admirable suitor.  Or maybe we’re simply supposed to find him typical of his Arkansas hillbilly kind.  At the least he’s a compelling liar.
One explanation for all of this excess is that it’s the mythmaking, legend-weaving mind of the narrator Dawny.  And often Dawny is embellishing tales already exaggerated when they come to him—e.g., Every’s stories of his World War II heroics, and his rescue of Latha from the mental hospital.  Another explanation is that it’s just the way Donald Harington thinks novels should be written.  In any case, this one often seems out of control, at moments beautiful, at others erotic, at still others juvenile and self-indulgent.  Harington insists so fervently on the special nature of his topic that he seems to feel he’s been issued indulgences for all the excess. However, I will read another of the Stay More novels, just to see how matters develop.


Up North, Pinky’s name is Patricia.  Down South, she is just Pinky.  The film never says so, but the name must have to do with her light skin color.  It is so light, in fact, that she can pass for white.  When she doesn’t mention to people up North that she is black, they assume she’s white.  Instead of struggling against the misperception, she accepts it.  It makes life easier for her.  She doesn’t have to explain where she’s from, who she is, why her grandmother sent her up North to school.  But when the white doctor whom she falls in love with, and who doesn’t know the truth, proposes, she has to decide what to do. She runs away back home to her grandmother to hide, and to decide.  “Passing,” with all the dilemmas and ironies that accompany it, is the crux of the film Pinky (1949; dir. Elia Kazan), which features Jeanne Crain as the title character, and Ethel Waters as her grandmother.

The South in Pinky is relatively monochromatic, or perhaps I should say dichromatic.  Black Southerners live in rustic cabins and engage in field work and menial labor while, in the distance, white columned plantation houses loom.  (The one exception is a young medical doctor).  It’s all pretty monolithic.  At first the film seems to suggest that nothing has changed in the South since emancipation and the end of the Civil War, but in fact we learn that some change has occurred.  The woman who lives in the plantation house, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) is old and impoverished, supposedly.  Her house is deteriorating and empty.  And while the stereotypical racist white South seems strongly entrenched, there are people who seem willing, when pressed, to think independently.

Pinky’s role is central.  This seems so obvious as almost to go without saying.  Her light skin is the key.  She returns to the South not as a menial laborer but as a professional nurse, skilled in her profession.  She’s also an extremely attractive woman.  Two white red necks who try to manhandle her comment on her figure.  She’s black, attractive, educated, professional—all of these qualities somehow intermingling and trying to cancel each other out in this 1949 film.  If Pinky were recognizably African American, if she were not so attractive and light-skinned, then the dynamics of the film would not work as they do. She’s everything as a black woman she should not be.  Pinky’s appearance does raise the question of what race really means, though I’m not sure Kazan’s film intended to explore the question.  Rather it intended to explore the issue of rights under the law, of human rights.

Ironically, we have to assume, given her light skin, that Pinky is the product of racial intermingling, if not by her parents then by some of her ancestors, perhaps even by her grandmother.  Pinky has the option of accepting a white man’s wedding proposal.  Because of her skin color, she can live as a white woman, and no one will know the difference.  The man who proposes, and whom she loves, suggests that they live in Denver, where she can “hide” who she really is.  He’s comfortable with her race, but only, apparently, if she hides it.  When she gives him the option of staying with her in South Carolina, where she will not have to hide her true self, he leaves.  One wonders what options were available to the ancestors one or two generations earlier who contributed to Pinky’s conception.

Pinky is saddled both by the presumptions of the film and of her grandmother concerning the obligations she must honor to her race.  To be clear, this presumption is that she has an obligation, that she’s not entitled to pass as white whether she wishes to or not.  It’s interesting to consider the difference between a film such as this one and the novel by William Faulkner Light in August.  The main character there, Joe Christmas, alternately chooses to live as a black man or a white man and occasionally as an individual who makes no declaration of racial identity at all.  When white people learn that he has been passing for white, that he has even been living with a white woman, they are enraged.  Their rage is racist in nature—Faulkner portrays a South in which clearly defined notions of racial identity hold sway.  The South of Pinky is somewhat different, at once somewhat more benign in attitude, but equally inflexible.  In the film, if Pinky chooses to live as the white Patricia, she’s free to do so up North, somewhere else, but at the cost of betraying her black-skinned granny and the black people of the South where she was born and raised.  It’s Pinky’s Granny, and the African American medical doctor, and Ms. Em herself (as we learn) who insist on this obligation.  Behind them, it’s the white writers and director of the film who insist on it.  A racial imperative has evolved into a social one.  To what extent does the social imperative become an evasion of deeper, more pernicious reasons?  I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the people who made this film, but it is worth considering the gradual evolution of motives—from a situation where a man must accept his black identity because his racist society allows him no alternative, to a situation where a young woman must accept her black identity because of obligations to her race.

Miss Em in the film is a stereotyped character who emerges from her chrysalis into another stereotype.  She’s the crotchety old white woman with a heart of gold—but is her heart gold because she wants to encourage Pinky to honor her obligation to serve “her people” or is it gold because she wants to ensure that the black-at-heart Pinky doesn’t escape to live a white existence in Denver?  Pinky assumes Miss Em is a hateful old racist Southern woman because she remembers being chased out of her yard once as a child.  She’s always assumed this was because Miss Em didn’t want a black child in her yard.  Pinky can’t understand the apparent friendship and close bond that her Granny shares with Miss Em.  Her Granny assures her the connection is real and human and that it has nothing to do with race.  In Pinky the friendship is one way Granny builds her argument for Pinky’s debt to her place.  It’s the result of living in a community where people value one another as people.  Pinky is skeptical of such thinking, as should we viewers of this film be.  No doubt there were such friendships—they’ve been documented in memoirs and fiction (recall the friendship of Molly Worsham and Miss Havisham in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust), but they seem to be reported most often as anecdotes rather than as representative of the norm.

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt

Jim Holts interesting, well written, often moving book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story  (Liveright Publishing, 2012) irritated me.  It is much better than Lawrence Krauss A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.  It reviews many of the major theories and arguments that seek to explain Why We Are Here. Not a religious book, it pays due homage to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens but also shows more respect for those who do believe in the concept and possibility of God than Krauss. It takes a relaxed, informal approach to its topic that doesn't condescend to its subject or its readers.  Holt interviews seven major philosophers and scientists, as well as one writer--John Updike (focusing on his novel Rogers Version)--as it seeks an explanation, philosophical or scientific, for our existence.  The interviews are for the most part a successful way of bringing out different theories and attitudes of the interviewees. Holt also makes this a personal book, in the course of his discussions pausing to discuss the deaths of his cherished dog (which I could have done without) and of his mother.   When I finished reading, I felt I had been exposed to sophisticated reasoning and high level thinking, but was no more satisfied about the question posed in the title than I was when I began the book.  Holt provides a range of possible answers to the question, rather than any one answer.  The fault with this book does not lie with Holt.  He does a better job than most writers on this topic.  His book is very readable (though some of the more arcane philosophical lines of thought are difficult to follow), and I would certainly recommend it.  But the problem may simply be that there is no answer to the question, or at least no answer we can know and understand.

In a way, the question is irrelevant, or at least pointless.  We are here, we exist, or at least we believe we do.  Maybe we should focus on how we make the short duration of our personal existence count rather than moldering away over a question whose answer (if someone could provide it) would have little impact on our lives.  

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Lauren Hillenbrand

 Lauren Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Random House, 2010) tells a remarkable story about the life and ordeals of Louis Zamperini before during and after the Second World War. What I suspect, however, is that there were many other stories from that time equally remarkable. What makes his story unusual is that he was willing to tell it. He was and is at an age well past 90 an outspoken and voluble person who loves to talk, who loves attention, and doesn't have any hesitation to share his traumatic and difficult experiences of World War II.

Zamperini certainly had an unusual life. He was the son of an Italian immigrant family that settled in California in the early 1900s. His family had a difficult life. His parents struggle to make ends meet, to give a life to their young children. Hillenbrand gives a wonderful account of Louis’s childhood days, his juvenile delinquency, his love of playing pranks, and the many worries he gave to everyone around him, who saw little hope for his future. Louis's discovery that he could run, and run fast, turned his life around.  He became a high school track star, and then a track star at UCLA, and won the acclaim of everyone in his hometown. He ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and was on course to set new world records in the 1940 Olympics.  World War II intervened.

Following the end of the war, after surviving forty-days on a raft after his plane crashes and three years of terrible and torturous conditions in prison camp, Louis returned home and eventually develops battle fatigue, known today as posttraumatic stress syndrome. About the time he is developing a severe case of alcoholism, he meets a woman he decides to marry. They have a baby, he finds it difficult to earn money, tries various schemes and investments, and people take advantage of him. His marriage and his life verge on collapse, until his wife convinces him to go to a revival meeting held by Billy Graham. Louie sees the light, the marriage is saved, he stops drinking, recovers from battle fatigue. This in fact is the end of his story. Hillenbrand skips 60 years into the future, and Louie is still alive and very much the man he was before, full of energy and optimism and ready to tell his story. This was not a satisfactory ending to me. After all Louis had been through, he walks into a prayer meeting, and he sees the light. It's just a little bit harebrained. 

Unbroken lacked the depth and sweep of Hillenbrand's first book Seabiscuit. The Depression was the center of that book, which focused on four very different individuals attempting to make their way through a difficult American decade. There were all sorts of ways one could find to be interested in Seabiscuit--the Depression, power of the media in attracting the attention of the public, pursuit of the American dream, horse racing, personal quests for redemption, and others. Seabiscuit had something to say about the nation at a particular time in its history. Louis's story doesn’t really make such a statement, despite its considerable attention to the suffering of American prisoners of war in a Japanese internment camp.   It tells a good story, offers plentiful details, makes clear that Louis endured astounding difficulties, both on a raft in the Pacific and as a prisoner of war and as a veteran trying to return to domestic life in the United States.  But it's shallow. It's an amazing story of survival, yes. But it's difficult to see what makes Louis any different from millions of other young American GIs who suffered through the war. 


Tuesday, September 25, 2012


The narrator of Bernie (2011; dir. Richard Linklater) tells us that Carthage in East Texas is where the American South begins.  This film is difficult to categorize.  It’s a faux documentary of sorts, based on true events.  The four or five principal characters in the film are played by Hollywood actors, but they are based on real citizens from Carthage, and throughout the film features interviews with individuals connected with events--they are all citizens of Carthage.  Their names and faces appear at the end of the film and roll past in the credits.

One can think of Errol Morris in this film, or even of the satiric documentaries made by the people who made Spinal Tap and A Mighty WindBernie is definitely a comedy, albeit a dark one, and a satire.  The satire aims at the community values of a small town that values friendliness and community involvement over the fact that its main character, Bernie, killed a woman.

Bernie himself appears in Carthage from a seemingly obscure background, hires on as assistant undertaker at a local funeral home, and goes about endearing himself to the members of the community—he is solicitous when they are bereaved, takes part in community activities, he has a beautiful singing voice, and his personality is winning.  He is somewhat effeminate, and in fact many of the townspeople suspect he is gay, but surprisingly they don’t seem to resent him for it.  Jack Black is excellent as Bernie, a much different fellow from Black’s usual roles. 

Bernie seems more comfortable with older women than women his own age, and one person he begins squiring around town is Marjorie Nugent, played in a droll if obvious manner by Shirley MacLaine.  She’s the most unpopular woman in town.  Avaricious and selfish, permanently estranged from other members of her family, crabby in the extreme.  Bernie gradually insinuates himself into her friendship, and before long they are living under the same roof.  He becomes her personal assistant, manages all her affairs, and accompanies her wherever she wants to go.

It’s clear that Bernie likes Marjorie’s money.  He has expensive tastes.  He wants to make gifts to various individuals and causes in the town, and her money makes that possible.  But gradually she turns abusive, treats him more as a slave than a friend, and one day he shoots her four times in the back and stows her body in a freezer in the garage.  He goes on living in her house, managing her affairs, spending her money, as if she is still alive.  He tells people who ask that she is recovering from a stroke.  Finally, her stock broker, who has been suspicious of him all along, manages to uncover the truth.

The townspeople give Bernie credit for not dismembering and disposing of Marjorie’s body.  He keeps it intact, so that she can be buried in the proper way when the time comes.  They think this shows that he really did care for her and wanted her to have a proper funeral.  The local district attorney (overplayed by Matthew McConaughey) moves the trial to another town because of Bernie’s popularity in Carthage.  Although the facts of the case are clear and Bernie has confessed to the murder, the townspeople support him throughout the trial and are outraged when he is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. 

Among the many ironies and paradoxes in this film, the tolerance and fondness of the citizens of Carthage for Bernie stand out.  He is popular and well liked, and Marjorie was an old crone, and that seems to make the difference.

The film implies but never deeply investigates the likelihood that Bernie is attracted not to Mrs. Nugent but to her money, that he’s a poser, a kind of flimflam man who insinuates his way into the heart of the community by pretending to be what he’s not, by spending someone else’s money, by creating a personality for himself that allows him to become the town hero, a modern-day George Bailey.  We can reach that conclusion on our own, or, on the other hand, maybe Bernie wins us over too.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Todd Akin

What bothers me most about the Todd Akin scandal is the deep and unbridled ignorance and the contempt for reason his statement about "legitimate" rape showed.  Akin has the right to believe what he will.  But should he be elected to office for his beliefs?  I would argue with Akin’ opposition to abortion on any day of the week, but I would not deny him the right to believe what he believes.  I wouldn’t deny him the right to run for public office.  I would never vote for him. And long before coming to his stand on abortion, I would vote against him because of his fundamental indifference to logic, reason, and sanity.  His thinking borders not only on stupidity but on the very brink of sanity.

Akin believes, apparently (though he now insists that he meant nothing of the kind—I’m not fooled) that forcible rape does not cause pregnancy because under the circumstances of rape a woman’s body “shuts down” and makes pregnancy impossible.  There is no scientific evidence anywhere that supports his view.  All the scientific evidence available supports the fact that rape (I do not say forcible rape because by definition all rape is forced) can cause pregnancy. 

Akin’s willingness to make distinctions about “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape suggests his underlying belief that many instances of rape are really “voluntary” or the result of alcohol and/or drug induced stupors.  In one way or the other, in his view, such instances of rape can be blamed both on the victim and the victimizer.  After all, isn’t every woman a seductress? Is that St. Paul whispering in his ear?

Akin believes what he believes, at the baseline, because of his religion.   And his religion isn’t everyone's religion.  At least I hope not.  His religion is one where you can say whatever you want as long as it supports a particular and narrow interpretation of God’s law.  It’s OK to blow up an abortion clinic because God wants us to, it’s OK to make the teaching of science in public schools a carnivalesque evasion of the truth (global warming, evolution) because God wants it that way. It’s OK to execute murderers but not OK to terminate pregnancies.  It’s OK to pray for someone’s recovery from illness but not OK to use stem cell therapy to effect a cure.  The list goes on and on. 

I’m not anti-religion.  I was raised in the Southern Bible Belt.  I attended church and took communion.  I think in terms of the Judeo-Christian vocabulary—sin, guilt, redemption, forgiveness, charity.  At some point when I lost my religion, I stuck with that Christian ethic and morality.  It still makes sense to me in a secular world.

But now I struggle with the idea that extremist religious thinking, poor education, weak minds, all go together to create a singular void into which all of our American values and ideals are being sucked.

I see no conflict between belief in God and belief in a just and humane world.  Belief in God shouldn’t lead automatically to rejection of science.  Belief in science shouldn’t lead to rejection of God.  And belief in God shouldn’t turn one into a moron.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Dark Shadows

Tim Burton’s sendup of the 1970s camp soap opera Dark Shadows (2011) is thoroughly botched.  Johnny Depp does a great job as Barnabas Collins, but the rest of the folks in the film struggle.  We see a lot of poor special effects that serve little purpose, several pseudo sex scenes that seem silly rather than erotic and that in any case are simply pointless—the one with Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer comes especially to mind.  The film vacillates between broad campy humor, silliness, and moments of extreme violence, as when, for instance, Depp’s character Barnabas informs a group of friendly and innocuous hippies that he truly regrets the fact that he is going to have to kill them.  You can feel in this film the influence of the HBO True Blood series, especially as Depp’s character struggles in various ways to overcome his vampire nature (I suppose this was an issue in the original series).  Yet True Blood is not comedy, and not a good influence on this film.

This film reminded me of the two Addams Family movies which were, I thought, quite entertaining.  The Addams Family television series was tongue in cheek from the start, based on the equally humorous and mordant cartoons of Charles Addams.  So the Addams Family films simply carry forward with the basic principle of their source.  But the Dark Shadows television series was not parody, and it’s been so long since it was playing that virtually no one can remember it.  The film as a result has no center, no real object of satire other than itself and its characters.

I found it a total waste.