Thomas Hardy – take two

Let’s try this again…last time I pulled a classic not-paying-attention trick – I hit “Publish” instead of “Save,” and then trashed the previous draft.

So as I was I was saying….

A movie trailer for a new version of Far From the Madding Crowd got me thinking of Thomas Hardy. This is the fourth movie based on Hardy’s fourth novel and the first one that brought him critical acclaim and commercial success. The 1967 film version, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and Terrance Stamp, launched me on a long Thomas Hardy reading jag.

This version of Far From the Madding Crowd is the movie I most clearly remember from my teenage years. Not only did Hardy’s melancholia mesh with my teenage angst, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only teenage boy to fall in love with Julie Christie.  Observe her gaping audience as she sings “Bushes and Briars:”

You can’t read Thomas Hardy without noting his stark vision of tragic fate in human affairs. The simplest act or coincidence can trigger chains of events that lead to disastrous outcomes. In Far From the Madding Crowd, an anonymous valentine, sent as a joke, leads to heartbreak, murder, and a hanging.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, also made into four movies, a snatch of conversation overheard at a crossroads by Tess’s drunken father leads to heartbreak, murder, and a hanging.

Gemma Arterton as the doomed Tess, 2008.

Gemma Arterton as the doomed Tess, 2008.

In Return of the Native, Hardy’s sixth novel, the beautiful Eustacia Vye, who longs for greater life than she can find on a remote heath, suffers the fate of a Greek tragic heroine. Her moves to escape her fate bring it upon her. Eustacia and her husband’s mother drown. In grief and despair, the husband becomes a preacher.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachian Vye in "Return of the Native," 1994

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachian Vye in “Return of the Native,” 1994

With recurrent themes of the conflicting demands of culture versus nature for the individual, as well as liberal doses of illicit sexuality, Hardy’s 19th century works were popular with 20th century readers. Seeming to contrast with that is a tragic vision more purely classical than any other novelist I can think of.

And let’s face it, we Yanks love good British period dramas whenever we can get them, whether set in Camelot or on Egdon Heath. So you better believe I’ll be in line to see the new Far From the Madding Crowd when it’s released. It might even prompt me to take another foray into 19th century literature, something I thought I had long left behind. We never know where imagination will turn…

Another note on tricksters


I want to argue a paradox…that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on. – Lewis Hyde

It has always made sense to me that the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when times were hard for so many, gave birth to our great movie tricksters: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges. Their send ups of the 1%, among other things, are still hilarious. Where are their equivalents today?

My self-imposed moratorium on negative blog themes has passed. As I caught up on news I had kept at arms length, I found myself thinking often of trickster stories. In part because they are funny, and most of the news is not. And partly because the folly of tricksters has a sacred dimension while the folly of our headline makers is often just foolish.  If you invite the Three Stooges to lunch and serve pie, the outcome is fairly certain. I read that the Georgia legislature voted to allow patrons to carry guns into bars; the result is likely to be just as predictable, but without the catharsis of laughter.

stooges pies

In his introduction to Trickster Makes This World (1998), Lewis Hyde emphasized several key points:

1) Tricksters both make and violate boundaries and live in relationship to them. Where there are no boundaries, trickster creates them, as in several Native American creation myths where Coyote makes the land and separates it from the sea. Where there are cultural boundaries, tricksters blur or invert the distinctions: right and wrong, friend or foe, male or female, living or dead.

2) Tricksters are usually on the road, and this makes them outsiders.
Through most of human history, solitary travelers have been rare. Until the last century, most people lived and died close to the area where they were born. Nomadic people travelled as tribes or clans, but Hyde says trickster is “the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road of dusk,” who may pass through city and town but only to “enliven it with his mischief.”

charlie chaplin and dog

Hyde points out that although there is an abundance of clever women who know how to be deceptive in world mythology, they are seldom full-time tricksters. Once the evil is vanquished, the curse lifted, they tend to settle down. Coyote and Loki do not domesticate, and the older cultures who gave us these stories would have had trouble imagining a woman who opted for a solo life on the road.

3) Tricksters are liars and thieves, but they are not petty criminals.
Tricksters steal things like fire and cattle, and according to Hyde, are often honored as creators of civilization. “They are imagined not only to have stolen certain essential goods from heaven and given them to the race but to have gone on and helped shape this world so as to make it a hospitable place for human life.”

We cannot be too doctrinaire about these things, for there is a distinction between “large” stories, like creation myths, and “small” folktales, where trickster sometimes steals cattle for himself. When he does so, however, in tales like “The Little Peasant” from Grimm, it is usually a case of swindling a swindler, or people who are dishonest and greedy to start with.

For obvious reasons, trickster isn’t welcome in corporate boardrooms. Like Robin Hood, he is into redistribution of wealth. He’s the patron of whistle blowers everywhere, and will gladly gum up the machine when it is no longer serving the greater good.

Perhaps that is why we need him now more than ever. We don’t even have to do anything. Hermes travels as fast as thought. For good and for ill, trickster is already here.

Chaplin modern times

A great story I neglected to post

I found this during a year-end cleaning of my “Drafts” folder – an unfinished post inspired by a newspaper article in July which details the life’s work of unsung folk artist, Arthur Harold Beal, garbage collector for the town of Cambria, CA.

Just down the road from the Hearst Castle, that world-famous monument to excess, lies Nitt Witt Ridge, the house on the hill that Beal lovingly crafted of driftwood, river stones, beer bottles, abalone shells, toilet seats, and other assorted junk.  Beal started work in the 30’s was still going in 1992, when he died at the age of 96.

Nitt Witt Ridge by megpi, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0

Nitt Witt Ridge by megpi, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0

Michael O’Malley, a plumber in town, bought the Ridge for $42,000 in 1999.  Unfortunately, the sale price did not include water rights, so he and his wife cannot live there, and because it is zoned residential, they can’t open the house for public tours.  Several times a week in the summer, O’Malley gives private tours, in return for donations, to people who contact him directly.  He is something of an expert on stories surrounding the Ridge’s creator.

Beal used to say he salvaged his wood from the ocean, but O’Malley points out the quality of the material, and suggests that Beal might have “salvaged” it from local construction sites late at night.  Beal seems to have been a curmudgeon.  Some people asked to visit the house while he was still living.  If he liked their looks, he’d let them in, if not, he would shake his fist and yell, “Move along, small change.”  O’Malley found a video of Beal on a 1981 TV episode of “Real People.”  At age 81, with a long beard and a walking staff, “he looked like a mix of John Muir and Dennis Hopper.”

Here’s a brief but informative clip of O’Malley giving a tour of the house:

Last summer, when I started this post, I added descriptions of other architectural oddities, like the Watt Towers and the Bottle House of Rhyolite, NV.  The story grew too long and languished until now.

The end of the year is a good time to contemplate things like Nitt Witt Ridge.  While others compile their lists of “The Best of 2013,” here is my contribution to a list of things wacky and weird.

Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman: A book review


As I worked on a recent post, Favorite Fictional Detectives, I realized I didn’t remember the details of Skinwalkers, a key Tony Hillerman novel that I read soon after it was published in 1986.  I read it again and found it to be a thoroughly satisfying mystery.  I offer this brief review to encourage others who may not know Hillerman’s work to give it a look.


Officer Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police, tosses and turns one night in the airstream where he lives in the desert.  When his closest neighbor, a feral cat, shoots through the pet door, Chee gets up to peer out the window at what might have scared it so badly.  Probably a coyote, he thinks.  For a moment, thinks he sees a shape in the darkness.  Then the night explodes.  Three shotgun blasts tear holes in the trailer just above the bed where Chee was sleeping moments before.

In the morning, as he cleans up his trailer, Chee makes a frightening discovery.  Among the shotgun pellets that litter the floor is a small bone pellet.  Navajo witches, or skinwalkers, inject bone into the bodies of people they want to kill.  The bone produces the fatal “corpse sickness.”  This bone fragment links three apparently separate killings that Lt. Joe Leaphorn, a senior tribal detective, has been trying to solve without success.  When Leaphorn and Chee join forces, their first problem is persuading anyone to talk, when tradition holds that speaking a skinwalker’s name will attract his harmful attention.

Chee is learning to be a traditional Navajo healer.  With a background in college psychology classes, he understands his role to be restoring people to the core Navajo values of beauty and harmony.  Skinwalkers have fallen away and try to take others with them.

Leaphorn is not a believer, but he learned by hard experience that other people are.  Early in his career, when he ignored talk of witches, three murders and a suicide were the result.  As he and Chee grope through the dark, a very real menace is watching from a direction they do not expect.

This book represents fine storytelling, with characters and a setting that are outside our normal experience.  It’s one of the best mysteries I’ve read, and I suspect it will make you want to read more of Tony Hillerman’s work.

Authenticity and folklore

In his comment on my review of Once Upon a Time, Calmgrove zeroed in on one of author Max Luthi’s key concepts, that fairytales show us “man’s deliverance from an inauthentic existence and his commencement of a true one.” Luthi gives us story examples: “a penniless wretch becomes wealthy, a maid becomes queen…or a toad, bear, ape, or dog is transformed into a beautiful maiden or handsome youth.”

What can we make of such a statement in terms of our own lives? Is there anything we can learn from stories of toads and bears transformed?

Rumpelstiltskin by Henry Justice Ford, 1889. Public domain.

In trying to answer the question, our first hurdle is trying to figure out what an “authentic existence” might look like, a philosophical exercise right up there with defining “the true,” “the good,” or “the beautiful.” When I try to imagine “authentic” in our world, one of the first things that comes to mind is Crazy People, 1990, a movie in which Dudley Moore, as an advertising executive, is checked into an insane asylum after he suffers a nervous breakdown and begins writing truthful adds.

Truth in advertising wins Dudley Moore a straight-jacket in “Crazy People,” 1990

Fairytales mirror philosophy and religion in their concern with lives well lived, but they are much less precise in prescribing what to aim for and how to proceed. When someone achieves their happy destiny, we see outer events representing that highest good, like a royal wedding or the discovery of buried treasure, but what works for one hero or heroine may not work for others.

This observation offers a segue into the first of several attribute that fairytale heroes and heroines seem to share – they chart their own course. In Luthi’s terms, they are “wanderers” who “set forth into the unknown in search of the highest, the most beautiful, or the most valuable thing.” Most often, but not always, it is male characters who cover the greatest outer distance, but in Faerie, the unknown waits outside your door. Cinderella’s journey begins with a solitary trip every day to weep at her mother’s grave. The smallest step into the forest is fraught with danger for one who goes their own way, whether the goal is the end of the world or the prince’s ballroom.

Arthur Rackham illustration from “The White Snake”

A second attribute of successful folklore characters is kindness, at least for those creatures who turn up with guidance for the quest. It is not the kind of universal compassion espoused by religion, but is more practical and down to earth. Cinderella is kind to birds, and they always assist her, but she makes no objection when they later peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. The hero of “The White Snake,” who learns the speech of animals, goes out of his way to help ants, fish, and ravens, who will later save his life, but he doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his horse when events demand it.

According to Max Luthi, the fairy tale character’s estrangement from conventional social relations allows him or her to connect with help from unexpected quarters, with toads or foxes, crones or dwarves. Luthi often distances himself from Jungian interpretation, but not in the case of fairytale helpers. They can be viewed,not only as outer creatures, but “as forces within the soul of the individual which are at first in need of assistance but finally unfold and develop.”

A third attribute of folktale heroes and heroines is patience. Things take a long time to unfold. In the Grimm brothers version, Cinderella has no fairy godmother. Instead she plants a hazel twig on her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears every day until it is grown. Only then do the tree and the dove that lives in its branches grant her wishes. In “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” a former soldier works in the devil’s kitchen for seven years, forbidden to bathe, cut his hair, his beard, or his fingernails, or wipe the tears from his eyes.

“Kitchen work,” as Robert Bly calls it, applies to both men and women in fairytales. In Iron John, he wrote, “The way down and out doesn’t require poverty, homelessness, physical deprivation, dishwasher work, necessarily, but it does seem to require a fall from status, from a human being to a spider, from a middle-class person to a derelict. The emphasis is on the consciousness of the fall.”

Fairy tale time, as both Luthi and Bly point out, is not literal time. Seven years in the kitchen might equate to several decades for the writer who has to make a living by some other means. Yet in all the stories, this tempering process is essential. Shortcuts don’t work. After seven years, even the devil is forced to keep his bargain.

Arthur Rackham, “The Goose Girl”

When I was young, I assumed the signs of an “authentic life” were visible – at a minimum, bohemian trappings were required. Now I know that such plumage is far too easy.

The courage to go one’s own way, to keep one’s own council. To be kind to the odd and despised parts of oneself and to give them a hearing. The poise and patience to allow events to unfold at their own pace rather than try to push the river. Fairy tale heroes and heroines champion themselves and their deepest desires. Their stories lead us to wonder what would happen if we follow their example. What do their footsteps look like in the 21st century?

Remembering Max Headroom, a visionary TV show

max headroom newsweek

In 1984 I joined Intel as their graphic workstations  were shrinking from video arcade sized units to large desktop computers. In my spare time, I sometimes played with a Commodore64 and saved quarters for Space Invaders. The first IBM personal computer did not roll out until the following year.

That was the state of technology when Max Headroom was born.  The creation of a British trio, George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton, Max was an artificially intelligent, disembodied personality who lived in cyberspace before the term was coined.  Computer animation wasn’t advanced enough to portray the computerized look the group was after, so filming Max required a four hour makeup session that actor Matt Frewer described as “a very painful, torturous and disgusting enterprise.”

Rocky Morton described Max as a “very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host,” but he was also “media-wise and gleefully disrespectful,” which endeared him to younger viewers.

Max appeared on American TV in 1987, as a talking head – literally – in a TV newsroom in a dystopian near-future dominated by large corporations and television.  Although he became a spokesman for “The New Coke,” and appeared on Sesame Street, only 13 shows aired.

Part of the problem was that Max was down right irritating, with his visual and vocal stutter and an op-art background that was the best computer animation could do at the time.  Here is a 3o second sample from his Coke commercial:

The fact remains that Max Headroom was decades ahead of his time. In one episode, for instance, terrorists blow up all TV towers in the city, pushing the population to riot when they find they have nothing to watch. In the nick of time, city officials pacify everyone by distributing hand-held video viewers loaded with old reruns.

Remember, this was 1987, when the best technology Hollywood had to offer wasn’t enough to capture the vision of Max’s creators.

So what brought Max Headroom to mind right now?  Beyond Max’s “dystopian future dominated by large corporation and television” that is.  Why today, December 3, 2012?

Yesterday, after  a series of storms, I ventured out to the supermarket and walked in just as they played the Christmas carol holiday song I hate most, “Little Saint Nick,” by the Beach Boys.  I had to compliment the store, however – the sound was just barely audible.  Not loud enough to cause real annoyance, I thought, but enough to keep silence at bay, which might cause people to riot.

That brought Max to mind.  “Ha-ha-ha-happy Ho-ho-holidays, everyone.”

The Prophet by Michael Koryta: a book review

Half the storefronts are empty in Chambers, Ohio.  Abandoned steel mills stand as silent monuments to a past that will never return.  Two brothers, Kent and Adam Austin, work in two of the biggest industries that remain in the town – high school football and bail bonds.  Their careers, like most everything else in their lives, were defined the night someone kidnapped and murdered their sister when the three of them were in high school.

The brothers have hardly spoken during the 22 years since their sister was taken.  Kent is a local hero, a winning football coach and a man of faith, who talks of God and family to murderers in his prison ministry.  Adam drinks too much, aches for revenge, and lives so close to the Chambers criminal element that differences often blur.

A man who calls himself “the prophet” slips into town.  His passion is murder and something more:  “Bring him the hopeful and he will leave them hopeless.  Bring him the strong and he will leave them broken.  Bring him the full and he will leave them empty.”  When a 17 year old girl is murdered, one whose faith Kent had tried to nurture, both brothers understand that that the killing is personal.  Someone has come to town to rip the old wound open and threaten them with new ones.

Michael Koryta (pronounced koo-ree-ta) decided he wanted to be a crime novelist at the age of 16.  While still in high school he interned with a private detective.  His first  novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye (2004) won the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize before he was 21.  He had four more crime novels under his belt when he took a stunning turn by injecting supernatural elements into his thriller, So Cold the River (2010), which I reviewed here  He followed this up with two more books in the same vein, The Cypress House and The Ridge in 2011.

The Prophet has no overt ghosts, though people are haunted, and Adam regularly talks with his dead sister. The prophet is flesh and blood, but his menace lurks in every shadow.  The “un-natural” and the “super-natural” are so “natural” in Michael Koryta’s novels that his evil terrifies more than it does in most horror stories.  We never know much about the killer, but we do see, in his memory, his methodical method of stalking and killing a bird when he was 11.  That’s enough to make him more chilling than Count Dracula.

In crossing genre boundaries at will, Koryta’s new book delves deeper into the 21st century human condition than mystery and horror novels usually do.  A chill wind blows through this rust belt town, under gray and threatening skies, as well meaning men and women find redemption and renewal elusive – and yet, heroism, loyalty, faith, and family all matter.  As the high school football players learn, you get back on your feet and back into the line because there is nothing else you can do.

There are very, very few authors whose books I will buy they day they come out.  There are few books these days that I find I cannot put down.  Once again, Michael Koryta did not disappoint.  I downloaded The Prophet the morning it came on line and put everything else on hold until I had finished.  You may well find yourself doing the same.

Here is a recent interview in which the author discusses The Prophet:

RIP Maurice Sendak

If you haven’t heard, Maurice died today of a stroke, at age 83.  Here is a nice five minute interview he gave in 2002 that ran on the PBS Newshour tonight.  It’s illuminating to hear him say, “I don’t know how to write for children.  I don’t think anyone knows how to write for children, and those that say they do are frauds.”

He goes on to say, “I write for me,” and adds that it isn’t always easy to be driven by something internally that is “riotous and strange.” What a great gift he gave to riotous strangers!