Trying to Ruin the Land of Oz

A while back, a guy came out a line of figurines called “The Twisted Wizard of Oz.” Variety called it “a dark, edgy and muscular PG-13, without a singing Munchkin in sight.” Now, another guy is writing a screenplay for this alternate Oz, and apparently Warner Brothers is going to run with it. From Variety:

“I saw those toys, and Dorothy as some bondage queen isn’t something I want to do,” Olson told Daily Variety. “The appealing thing about the Baum books to me is how wildly imaginative they are. There are crazy characters from amazing places. I want this to be ‘Harry Potter’ dark, not ‘Seven’ dark.”

Help us. I guess reworking something established and popular has better chances of getting off the ground than creating something similar but new. That’s how I explain the Camelot and Robin Hood rewrites.

Last Things, by Ralph McInerny

Here I am, a bona fide professional writer, and I’m stuck for words to describe the loveliness of today’s weather. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art less humid and more temperate….” I should have taken the day off and gone to the state fair and fired questions about Bohemian Grove at Michael Medved. But, as Yogi Berra once sagely remarked, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

If you think you know about the Father Dowling mystery books because you used to watch Tom Bosley in the ridiculous TV version some years back, be assured that you don’t. Father Dowling is a priest named Father Dowling, and he does live in the Midwest and he does have a nosey housekeeper, but that’s about the extent of the similarity.

The original, authorized Father Dowling is a sort of clerical Sherlock Holmes (he’s tall and thin and smokes a pipe), but kinder and more inclined to suffer fools (and sinners). He was once a rising young star in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but job pressures led to alcoholism, and the church sent him to Fox River, Illinois, a transitional suburb of Chicago, as a sort of second chance-cum-penance. But he discovered that parish ministry is his real calling, and he loves taking care of his little flock. Except for the remarkable number of unsolved murders that seem to crop up. (Also it should be noted that there are no roller-skating nuns to be seen anywhere.)

The drama in Last Things centers on the conflicts and dysfunctions of the Bernardo family, whose patriarch is Fulvio Bernardo, owner of a string of local greenhouses. Fulvio has only been moderately honest in his business dealings, and has been serially unfaithful to his pious wife, Margaret. But now his health is failing, and his children are gathering for the end.

The children include Raymond, who was once a promising young priest, but he ran away with a nun, with whom he now lives out of wedlock in California. Andrew is the underachieving middle brother who teaches English at a local college and has a live-in as well. Jessica is a successful novelist, much envied by Andrew, and remains a believer. She’s planning to write a novel based on her family’s story, and there’s an aunt who is much alarmed at that prospect, going so far as to ask Father Dowling to persuade Jessica to drop the project.

But it’s Andrew who gets into big trouble, when an insufferable colleague blames him for holding back his career, and starts a campaign of harassment against not only Andrew but his whole family. And when the colleague is found murdered in the street, well, who do you think comes under suspicion?

Father Dowling works it all out, of course, relying on his profound understanding of human motivations and sins. Along the way he also helps Raymond come to terms with the guilt he’s been carrying (and denying) ever since his defection.

All things taken together, I think I prefer Father Dowling stories to Father Brown stories. That’s heresy, I know, but although I’m crazy about G.K. Chesterton about 80% of the time, I always found the FB mysteries a little facile, a little too neat. They seem to me analogous to an archer shooting his arrows first and then painting targets around them. The Father Dowling stories are richer and more humane, less didactic (which isn’t to say there aren’t moral and theological lessons).

As a Protestant, of course, I find points in the stories where I disagree with some of the detective’s basic assumptions about Christianity. But it doesn’t interfere much for me, and the quiet, peaceful presence that Father Dowling imparts to these stories make reading them a comfort and a delight.

Anne Rice Endorses Clinton, Takes Flak

Author Anne Rice apparently has stirred up her readers by posting a letter of endorsement for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign on her website. I heard her talk about it with Alan Colmes, giving her reasons for making this political statement when she had sworn off those statements before. You can hear that conversation on her site. She also talks about her books, how she wouldn’t have used the word vampire had she to write them over again, and her Christian faith.

On the political matter, Rice said many people were telling her they would not vote for a president this time around. I hope that isn’t you. I understand being disappointed in our choices and in the sorry discourse we call debate, but we are a government of the people who are responsible for our own representation. We need to access the men and women who have stepped forward to serve or abuse political office and vote for the best one. The government will not respect your freedoms if you ignore it. So stop whining that Reagan or George Washington isn’t running and plan to vote in your primary and general elections.

Lawn blogging… the absolute bottom

What do I have to write about tonight? Can’t think of much. Did the usual thing at work. Came home and mowed the lawn.

The weeks of rainy weather we’ve had have turned my lawn around in a way that amazes me. Very few bald spots now, and the grass is thick—thick, I say! Like hair on an Airedale. OK, granted it’s not all the kind of grass you want, in an ideal world. When I reseeded some bare spots last year, it appears I’d bought an entirely different species of grass, one which now sits ghettoed in minority patches, agitating for equal rights and reparations. And I’ve got some crab grass, and some Creeping Charlie (I actually kind of like Creeping Charlie. And since concrete walls separate my yard from both my neighbors’, so I can’t infect their lawns, I see no reason not to indulge it).

But it’s thick! It covers the ground. Back when I lived in Florida, I used to think back on a lawn almost precisely like this (my aunt’s in St. Paul, which I’d often mowed). For all its departures from canonical orthodox lawndom, folks in Florida would have paid big money to have this kind of thick, green grass. And often did.

What I wrote above is deeply disturbing to me. All my life I’ve been a guy who’s “not into lawns.” I used to say, “Show me a guy who keeps a perfect lawn, and I’ll show you a guy with a lousy marriage.” My dislike for golf springs mostly from my distaste for broad expanses of mown grass. My original intention in buying a house was to get a townhouse, so somebody else would do the lawn.

And here I am now, taking an interest in my lawn.

I must be evolving into a better, finer soul.

I hate it when that happens.

If I ever start talking about aerating and water features, somebody do an intervention.

Spook, by Bill Pronzini

There are a million injustices in the mean streets of Publishing Town. The greatest of all, it goes without saying, is my own failure to find a new publisher. But not far behind is the tragic fact that Bill Pronzini is not a major, bestselling mystery writer.

He’s published and respected and he wins awards, but he’s never broken out as I think he should. He has everything I want in a mystery writer. He sets out a good puzzle, but he also paints a good character, which is what I really want.

I realized years ago, reading Science Fiction, why I don’t care for most Science Fiction. It’s because the authors treat their characters like specimens on a dissection tray. “Let’s poke the subject here, and see what its reaction is.” They had no compassion for their characters, and I put down their books with relief.

There are mystery writers like that too, but Bill Pronzini isn’t one of them. His characters are 98.6 F warm. They act like real people, for real motives, and Pronzini has compassion on them—even the bad ones.

His continuing character is known as “The Nameless Detective,” not because he’s a man of mystery, but because Pronzini started writing about him in short stories without giving him a name, and once he’d established him that way it would detract from the stories to suddenly drop a name on him (although he did let us know, some years back, that Nameless’ first name is Bill).

Nameless has grown over the years. He started out as a young San Francisco private eye who consciously modeled himself on the hard-boiled sleuths of the old pulp magazines, of which he is a collector. He was also a heavy smoker at the start, which gave Pronzini the chance to kill him off from cancer in one memorable short story. But (like Conan Doyle) he succumbed to the temptation to bring his detective back. Nameless had a remission, and has taken care of himself since then.

He’s middle-aged now, and married to a woman named Kerry. They’ve adopted a little girl. He’s planning to semi-retire soon, and has taken on a partner, a young black woman named Tamara whom he mentored. In this book they also hire an operative, a former cop named Jake Runyon. Runyon has many personal demons, which helps him fit right in.

In Spook, the agency is hired by a San Francisco film company to discover the identity of a homeless man whom everyone called “Spook,” a gentle, mentally disturbed man who was shot to death in an alley behind their studio. It’s not supposed to be a Whodunnit. It’s just that the filmmakers liked the man, and would like to notify his family, or arrange for burial themselves.

Following the clues they turn up, the detectives send their new operative, Runyon, out to a small town in the Sierras to discover the tragic story behind “Spook’s” decline. Runyon doesn’t mind. He has absolutely nothing in his life anymore except for his work, and he provides an empathetic eye as he turns over the old log he finds, to see what worms writhe underneath.

But there’s more than just worms there. There’s a wasp—someone very angry and very crazy, with a brainful of hate and resentment. And a gun.

Pronzini is a fine, professional storyteller who draws you in and makes you care. Profanity and sexual situations are on the low side for the genre. I recommend Spook, and all Pronzini’s novels.

The real Josey Wales: my theory

Had a very pleasant TV evening last night. One of our PBS stations was doing one of its increasingly frequent telethons, and they broadcast the “Celtic Woman: The New Journey” concert.

I avoided “Celtic Woman” the first few times they broadcast it (I’ve never actually seen the original concert). The simple pairing of adjective and noun in the title somehow communicated an image of aggressive, ugly feminism. Betty Friedan with a harp. Gloria Steinem burning some randomly selected male in a wicker man… er, person.

What was my amazement, then, to discover that the production is actually a marvelously staged concert featuring lovely women in pretty gowns, singing their little hearts out in voices right up there in the Sissel class. And the cutest little blonde you ever saw (who obviously knows how cute she is, and works it) dances and fiddles simultaneously, to the wonderment of all.

That’s entertainment. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it the next time your PBS station begs for money (any minute now, probably).

Just don’t make a pledge.

After writing about Forrest Carter the other day, and getting my TV picture back, I decided to watch my DVD of The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Brought back memories, it did. No movie has ever invaded and inhabited my life like that one did. I saw it thirteen times, back when you actually had to go to a theater and buy a ticket if you wanted to see a movie.

It resonated with things going on in my own life at the time (including a temporary move to Missouri, which I may tell you about someday if you’re good).

And I was deeply fascinated with the Wild West, particularly the Missouri border war, at the time. I even bought a couple replica cap and ball Colts, which I practiced with a lot (the folks were still on the farm back then, and I could drive down and shoot without paying any range fees).

I much appreciated the pistols in the movie. I was constantly aware, as I watched, of how many bullets Josey had fired. Because with cap and ball, you’ve got to be aware. Those old charcoal burners can’t be speed loaded. It involves a rather painstaking process of measuring in powder, jamming the ball home, and capping the nipple, one round at a time (you also cover the chamber opening with grease, to prevent chain firing). Which is why Josey Wales carries so much iron. It’s not an exaggeration in the movie. For a man in his situation, to carry one pistol would be suicidal, and two would be barely adequate. There’s not only the issue of being unable to re-load under fire. Those caps also have a way of jumping inside the cocked hammer, getting down into the mechanism, and jamming the whole pistol for you.

Thinking about the story, and about Forrest Carter’s life story (which remains in large part a mystery), I came up with a theory about this white supremacist and speechwriter for George Wallace who turned himself into a renowned New Age Cherokee wise man.

I think Gone To Texas (the novel on which The Outlaw Josey Wales is based) is to a large degree autobiographical.

The story of Josey Wales (if you haven’t seen the movie) is of a man who has been on the losing side in a war. He has lost his family, and the entire way of life he has known has been taken away by the government. He flees to Texas, robbing a bank on the way to pay his expenses (this is a difference between the book and the movie. In the movie Josey’s young friend is wounded by nasty Union soldiers who treacherously offered the guerrillas amnesty, then ambushed them when they’d given up their weapons. In the book, he’s shot while they’re robbing a carpetbagger bank). Along the way, Josey joins up with two Indians, and then with other whites, and they all make a new life in Texas thanks to Josey’s shootin’ skills and personal integrity. In the end Josey finds peace, living under a new name.

Asa Carter was on the losing side of the Civil Rights conflict. Politically ruined, he fled to Texas too, assuming the identity of a Cherokee along the way and taking a new name. He also robbed the “carpetbaggers,” not with a pistol, but with a “big con.” A huge, beautiful con that worked like a charm almost to the end.

I could wish he were a more sympathetic character, because he played the American left like a country fiddle.

He knew that in the new, post-segregation world, he could never be a big, important man as a white man obsessed with race.

But he figured out that he could become a big, important man as a Native American obsessed with race.

We hate white racists. But we love Indian racists.

He knew that he’d never get a book published and made into a movie writing as a white man who hates the government.

But he figured out he could write an anti-government book, and get a movie deal, if he moved the story back to the Civil War, when the government was Republican (Hollywood hates Republicans even a century ago, when the Republicans were the liberals. Check it out. Find me a recent movie set in the 19th Century that has a single good thing to say about Republicans, even though they were the party of abolition and rights for black people).

(As a parenthetical note, the scaly senator in the ambush scene in the movie is an actual historical character, Sen. Jim Lane (R) of Kansas, one of the slimier specimens to ever slither through American politics, which is saying a lot. He went to Kansas as a pro-slavery man, but quickly realized that prospects were better on the abolitionist side, and so “flip-flopped.” He used to make it a point to attend revival meetings on his campaign trips, and would go weeping to the altar rail, over and over again, after which he would allow himself to be baptized by the preacher. One farmer is said to have told his son, “Don’t water the cows downstream from where they baptized Jim Lane.”

Remember Mary Surratt, the woman convicted of participating in the Lincoln assassination, the first woman legally hanged in the United States? Nobody expected her to be hanged. Everyone figured President Johnson would pardon her. President Johnson expected to pardon her. But the pardon didn’t get to him, because Jim Lane and a friend physically barred the way, keeping Mrs. Surratt’s daughter, weeping, outside the door.

Jim Lane eventually committed suicide when a financial scandal caught up with him.)

Racism is a stupid philosophy, but that doesn’t mean all racists are stupid people. Asa/Forrest Carter found a way to siphon off liberal money and get his victims to thank him for taking it from them.

It must have felt sweet. When he was sober.

The Chess Machine, by Robert Löhr

For his first novel, accomplished German author and playwright Robert Löhr spins a remarkable yarn from an obscure historical incident. In 1770, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen revealed a clockwork device called the Mechanical Turk. It was a chess-playing automaton or at least was presented as such. In reality, it was a clever bit of gears and controls beneath the wooden façade of a stern Turkish chess master (about which Edgar Allen Poe writes in this essay, having witnessed the Turk many years later).

In The Chess Machine, Löhr uses that stone to produce a 300-page soup of deception, ambition, lust, loyalty, prejudice, and faith—with a touch of murder. The lead character is the man within the machine, the brilliant Tibor Scardanelli. Tibor’s religious worldview frames most the drama. When he is first offered a job as the automaton’s mind, he refuses it, citing the commandment to avoid false witness. Within a day his circumstances become so desperate that he runs to find Kempelen to accept the offer. From that point on, Tibor, a dwarf who had lived as an outcast of society, has to become non-existent, because no one can know that Kempelen has been associating with a man who could fit inside his new chess machine.

When he arrives at the workshop which is to be his entire world for several months, Tibor meets another outcast working with Kempelen, a Jew named Jakob whose woodcarving gives the Turk its mystic aura. The three men are a wild success everywhere they perform, which stirs up envy among the mechanicians who know it can’t be done and fear from priests and parishioners who believe it’s of the devil. The deception grows dangerous when a beautiful woman dies while alone with the machine. That’s more of a teaser than you’ll get from the video created by the book’s Dutch publisher.

Tibor causes the most trouble for himself when he sneaks away from Kempelen’s in-house arrest to breathe the wild air of the world. One time he gets caught up in a Viennese masquerade party. Another time he takes refuge with a somewhat deranged sculptor. In both cases, he is carried away by the lust of the flesh and deeply troubled by his sin. This is the most realistic conflict Löhr describes. Tibor is powerless over his sin, and he pleads for God’s absolution. Yet even while he prays, one time, his thoughts turn salacious. Horrified at himself, he stabs his legs with carving tools, hoping to pay for God’s forgiveness. I wish I could say he learned that forgiveness was already bought for him through Jesus Christ, but the story ends ambivalent on this point—perhaps leaving his faith at an altar, perhaps only leaving one faith tradition for another.

The Chess Machine winds up slowly and spins a dramatic finish. It isn’t a safe book (thinking of Association of Christian Retailer guidelines), but it is enjoyable and smart. Translator Anthea Bell did an excellent job bringing this work to English.

Dark night of the soul on a bright day

I’m happy to report that my TV has decent color again. I told you a couple weeks ago how a nearby lightning strike messed up its color, leaving the people with purple faces. The set’s internal degaussing function may have been gradually mproving the problem, but the progress was at a rate of about one pixel per start-up.

My renter persuaded me to take a magnet and pass it over the screen in the bad places. Not just a couple passes, but a real “scrubbing.” And behold, I’ve got my picture back.

Now if only there were anything worth watching on.

The weather today was wonderful (or so I surmised from looking out the library windows and checking the temperatures online). One of those ideal days—lightly clouded skies (though it was clouding up by the time I took my walk), neither too cold nor too hot—that you imagine when you’re young, thinking about what the future will be like. It’s never like that, of course, but sometimes you get a little of the weather.

The world is a-buzz today with news of the publication of letters from Mother Teresa, in which she expressed feelings that God was far away from her.

This is news?

Only to people who a) have never been serious Christians (granted, there are a lot of those) or b) have never read any serious Christian writers. Sure, you won’t get much about Dark Nights of the Soul from Joel Osteen or Benny Hinn, but try reading St. Augustine. Or Pascal. Or C.S. Lewis.

Make up your minds, folks—you can criticize us for being Pollyannas, out of touch with the harsh realities of life, or you can call us posers because we don’t always feel the joy of the Lord.

But you can’t have it both ways.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture