Mike and Bill, Just Chillin’

This photo kept me smiling all day. Let us take a breath and remember that for all his wealth and power, Michael Bloomberg remains a tiny, pinch-faced man whose best professional days are behind him. Poor guy needs a glass of something expensive.



Weekend Beats: Brown Sugar

Snowed in with grading here, even though it’s 70 degrees. Wacka wacka! More posts about books and school later this week, we promise.

In case you need cheering up as the days shorten and the cooler dark comes on, enjoy this pristine classic that you’ve sung and danced along to alone before (admit it), and also probably lied about having sex to (if you are over 25). As a fellow Virginian I can’t help but catch some residual pride off D’Angelo, and I wish the man well with his career’s evolution.

Summer gets sticky in the VA, especially in eastern cities like Richmond, D’Angelo’s hometown. Lucky for us that riparian mosquito-molasses vibe sweetens the song just right.

1.8 million “likes”? Should be more like 1.8 billion.

Weekend Beats: No Static

Given both TGR editors’ love of Steely Dan, it’s surprising that it has taken so long for this to happen: “F.M. (No Static at All)” (1978), an exemplary blurp of suede decadence. Man. The Carter era! Quaaludes and sideburns.

Named after a gigantic dildo in a William Burroughs novel, Steely Dan made sure to never be as entirely repulsive and boring as an “experimental” text like a Burroughs novel. They understood that pleasure is an art, and this oleaginous cut exemplifies how SD made some of the world’s best driving music.

Go See Cal

Before he died, quite suddenly, a few years back, my uncle and I had a Cal Worthington moment. If you were lucky enough to see one of Cal’s commercials, you know what I’m talking about. If not, here:

We were rapping about something, I don’t remember what, but somehow we got on to TV, which led to commercials, which led to Cal. My uncle swore Cal had been run out of Bakersfield on a rail, which is how he ended up in Long Beach. Near as I can tell from reading Sam Sweet’s great little Paris Review blast, that probably didn’t happen. But it also totally could have! Mid-century papertrails were made of actual paper, so tracing Cal’s movements up and down the spine of California would require work most of us just don’t want to put in anymore. But it’s almost better not knowing. Cal’s commercials were charming in their complete lack of cultural content. Compare Cal’s wingwalking and ape talking with this creepy garbage:

This paean to middle-American, conservative, rural, masculinity is the kind of fantasy Klaus Theweleit would tell us is an indication that we’re about two clicks away from fascism. It imagines a world where working class men are driving around in $40K trucks smiling about the prospect of going home and holding hands with high school sweethearts. In reality, the men who can afford to drive these trucks and the men who “get to work on time” aren’t the same dudes. In fact, there probably aren’t even jobs for the working class guys to go to anymore. And if this fantasy man ever did marry his best girl from high school, they probably got divorced a few years back when money got real tight. But Chevy thinks it’s best to lie to people about the country they live in. And they’re probably right.

Cal wasn’t interested in selling us an ideal. He just wanted to sell us cars. There’s a level of honesty in his ads that we’ll probably never see again. We’re so desperate to be cool, authentic, and, above all, validated by ads that we can only appreciate Cal’s spots ironically. “They’re so bad, they’re good!” To hell with that. They’re good because they’re memorable without being emotionally manipulative. Unlike Apple, or American Apparel, or Chevy, Cal Worthington respected us enough to make himself the fool in our place. That’s something worth buying.

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

What Gatsby indeed, Carey Mulligan. As you could probably tell from my post about Fitzgerald’s ledger, I am a little bit nutty for the bard of the Jazz Age. Perhaps because I live in LA, or just because I feel prematurely old, I identify with the washed-up Hollywood Scott more the cocky young playboy of the early 1920’s, but it goes without saying that the work Fitzgerald produced from 1920 to 1934 was a whole hell of a lot better than what he wrote once he relocated to the west coast. Fitzgerald’s best work came out during a stretch when Americans were churning out poetry and fiction that changed literature forever. Here’s a partial list:

  • Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (192o)
  • T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1921-1922)
  • Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923)
  • Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925)
  • Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925)
  • Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926)
  • Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1926)
  • Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
  • William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929)
  • Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1929)
  • Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930)
  • Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931)
  • Faulkner’s Light in August (1932)

There was a bunch of other amazing stuff written by Americans during this period, and obviously my own prejudices inform the above list (I’ll cut a man who tries to tell me Faulkner didn’t pwn 1929-1936). But missing from this list is the best novel ever written by an American: The Great Gatsby. Smart people disagree with me about this, and that’s fine. If you want to say Absalom, Absalom! is the tops, I won’t argue. If you try to tell me Moby Dick is, I’ll take you seriously. But come on. The Great Gatsby does more in 200 pages than most writers accomplish in entire careers. Just read this:

For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed. And all the time something within her was crying for a decision. She wanted her life shaped now, immediately — and the decision must be made by some force — of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality — that was close at hand.

That force took shape in the middle of spring with the arrival of Tom Buchanan. There was a wholesome bulkiness about his person and his position, and Daisy was flattered. Doubtless there was a certain struggle and a certain relief. The letter reached Gatsby while he was still at Oxford.

I have probably taught The Great Gatsby more than any other novel in my teaching career, and every time I try to impress upon my students just how little the novel has to do with love. It’s a story about horny, ambitious young people who use other people like drugs. For Gatsby, Daisy is merely a necessary part of the dream of himself he made up as he rowed out to Dan Cody’s yacht. For Tom, she’s a necessary part of the maintenance of his position in the Social Darwinist order. And for Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, and the other half dozen men are just ways to feel desired, secure, and valuable.  The image of the “beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids” on Daisy’s floor captures it all, and I think that image might be my favorite in all of American literature.

The less that can be said of Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation, the better. Others have already panned it, so I will simply add this: while Luhrmann’s Gatsby predictably features some nice party scenes, it doesn’t think enough of its viewers to let them figure out what the “beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids” mean. The film is like Sparknotes come to life, as the characters mouth awful bits of invented dialogue that tell us what we should be taking away from each scene. And don’t get me started on Nick. In Luhrmann and Tobey Maguire’s incapable hands, Nick Carraway is transformed from one of the great mysteries of American literature into a simpering, sycophantic pud. Read or reread the book instead of seeing this triviality.

Today in Allen Iverson News

If you like watching fun basketball games, you probably liked watching (or like–thanks, YouTube) Allen Iverson ball. Dude was built like an elf and shot too many bad jumpers, but as a creative, articulate, borderline-psychotic volume scorer, as a player whose neurotic self-enclosed style ended up shortening his career in the NBA, he’s a Romantic hero. Cf. Kobe Bryant. Unlike Kobe he’s an acrobatic poet; he’ll break your heart.

Unfortunately his personal life sounds like something Percy Shelley or John Berryman would get up to. Highly recommended–the article, not the life.

Coming Clean

While I don’t subscribe, I read Esquire sometimes. But even when the situation is a five-minute wait at Supercuts and I’m just flipping through it, I feel kind of sleazy, because Esquire is gross in multiple ways that matter, all of them tangled such that it is difficult to theorize said grossness. But, a few theses.

First, it’s that the thing is called Esquire, which sounds like an all-schoolgirls wank mag from 1950s  Britain. (Hastag, Philip Larkin.) Second, it’s the high-definition postindustrial lifestyle they sell: men’s jeans that aren’t Levi’s and cost $200, beard lube, Dwayne Wade’s bowties, a main-page tab called “Women.” Sometimes the magazine verges on Maxim territory. Third, it’s the embarrassing fact that like a lot of young professionals (stop snickering) I am insecure about stuff like my tie pin and my car, which was built during the first Clinton Administration, and so I read Esquire and worry about my abs.

The rub, at least for this coastal intellectual, is that they employ serious writers like Charles Pierce and Stephen Marche, so you end up reading them even when you aren’t at Supercuts. Come on, they are covering the death of the mighty George Jones like crazy, which is the only way to cover No Show’s shuffle off the mortal coil. They published this little ethnographic masterpiece. They put D Wade in a magazine that sort of reviews a few books from time to time. Esquire was a reasonably serious publication for fifty years during the last century, and it still carries a little of that cachet.

A favorite piece is A.J. Jacobs’s “I Think You’re Fat” (2007), which I’ve used in a number of classes. America’s children love it. Jacobs investigates the fascinating Radical Honesty movement, which espouses the unworkable but compelling idea that even little white lies constitute an existential wimping-out:

The movement was founded by a sixty-six-year-old Virginia-based psychotherapist named Brad Blanton. He says everybody would be happier if we just stopped lying. Tell the truth, all the time. This would be radical enough — a world without fibs — but Blanton goes further. He says we should toss out the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you’re having fantasies about your wife’s sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. It’s the only path to authentic relationships. It’s the only way to smash through modernity’s soul-deadening alienation. Oversharing? No such thing.

Queasy? Me, too. Camus can do, Sartre is smartre, but Blanton is striking and Jacobs makes deft experimental use of the good doctor’s philosophy. Have at it. It will take you ten minutes. You dick.