Sunday, August 30, 2009

Please Pleb Me

Not too many times I'm offered a welcome hand in stroking my own ego so I jumped at the chance Shane Rivers at Only Good Movies gave me to sound off about some flicks. It's a funky lil' sight where you're as likely to find a critique of the work of Godard as Michael Bay, so checkerout. Also got to give a much deserved nod to The Nerd of Noir who you should be checking out already. And as the Nerd himself might put it, you can read that shit right the fuck here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Your Cheatin Art

Earlier in the year I read Rogue Males, a collection of conversations with crime writers by Craig McDonald. It included an interview with Tom Russell, a musician I was unfamiliar with. Craig described his aesthetic as “noir set to music” and his decision to feature this conversation in a collection with the likes of Ellroy, Woodrell, Sallis and Bruen made me take notice.

I’ve tried hard to stay away from the dangerous and endless rabbit trail that the topic of music can be, on a blog, but I’d like to spend a little time discussing its place in narrative culture. Though, (or perhaps precisely because), we are removed further every generation from the days of oral tradition as the primary means of history and popular fiction, the power of a well constructed ballad remains a force like no other. It has that duel mojo of tale and hum-ability working for it making it distinct from the emotional abstractions of popular music and creating myth and demigod out of the characters therein.

Who doesn’t know who Bad Bad Leroy Brown was or where Joe was going with that gun in his hand, or what happened when Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue decided to cut loose? (They took the money and ran). For that matter, who doesn’t know why the narrator of Folsom Prison Blues killed a man in Reno? These examples are broad and popular enough that perhaps the stories hardly register anymore with those of us who’ve heard them enough, but that’s part of what I’m getting at – we know those stories. They’ve become part of our collective unconscious, both informing our understanding of the world and reflecting humanity back at us.

As this blog is dedicated to the darker side of film, literature and culture, the songs I’ll focus on will keep to that track, but while the darkness binds them, I’m interested in expanding the conversation beyond simply “murder ballads”.

That said, the first I’d like to talk about is one of the finest modern examples of the traditional murder ballad – Make Your Bed – by Neko Case.

Neko Case has made a career out of injecting country and folk musics with the kind of atmospherics and general spookiness that make me happy. Many acts attempt and fail at similar moodiness with heavy handedness and broad stroke lyricism,but Ms. Case says it plain and pretty at the same time. The EP Canadian Amp features traditionals and covers and exactly one, (or maybe two), original tunes - Make Your Bed - told from the pov of a woman ambushing her man's lover at their rendezvous spot. The backbone of the song is a spare banjo and the vocals are harmony thick while the lyrics are nastily precise, sung with enough remove and resolve as to be a forgone conclusion taking her revenge nearly out of the "crime of passion" arena.

This one keeps me up nights. Keeps me on the straight and narrow. Keeps me buying Neko Case albums too. She has many tunes about killings, ghosts and dark lullabies of nearly all other ilk too. Music that I don't flinch when applying the term Americana to.

Here, for your reading pleasure are the lyrics.

Make your bed the river young girl
Make your bed the river young girl
La la la la la la:
Make your bed the river young girl

Did you come here to meet him my dear
You're surprised to find only me
Well I put him to rest at the bend in the river
And the same I require of you

I'm thick with disease in my madness
Only one thought pacifies me
That the murky black water grounds your bones to sand
When the catfish have stripped off your hide

Make your bed the river young girl
Make your bed the river young girl
I know you can't swim but I'll tuck you in
Make your bed the river young girl

So go down as his trembling bride
For too frail are fury inside
And if there's a chance the Lord recognizes you
Pray he has more mercy than I

Make your bed the river young girl

Make your bed the river young girl
I know you can't swim but I'll tuck you in
Make your bed the river young girl

Make your bed the river young girl

Holy crap.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Long Haul

I was happy to see Stephen King name William Friedkin's Sorcerer starring Roy Scheider as number one on his list of movies "that never disappoint", (Entertainment Weekly). I love this movie and agree with him that it bests the original - Wages of Fear - directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, based on the novel of the same name by Georges Amaud. It follows a group of desperate men hiding out in a small South American village from various sources of trouble around the world. They've all ended up in the last place on earth they want to be and the last place of refuge existing for them and hang around waiting to die... until... there's a disaster for the big oil company drilling nearby. The pipeline is burst and on fire and because of the remoteness of the location, the best plan they can come up with is to send two rickety old trucks, (two because at least one of them is bound to perish)loaded with decaying dynamite, oozing nitroglycerin through the jungle to put out the blaze. The volunteers for the suicide mission come out of the woodwork because the reward for succeeding and surviving is a lot of money. Tryouts are held and four men selected to captain the two trucks at walking pace over harsh and antagonistic terrain. The tension is near unbearable and the volume is low as we get the feeling that even loud words could ignite the volatile payload. Hard to say why I never come across love for this film in print. Possible reasons I come up with are that: 1) It is a Hollywood remake of a foreign film and it's unheard of or at least uncool to think the latter version is better. 2)It was a financial disappointment, the first film Friedkin put out after The Exorcist and they poured tons of money into it. 3) It's the guy who made a huge hit out of a demonic possession movie and it's called SORCERER right? Why then is there zero supernatural element to the picture? Confusing possibly, I'll give em that, but audiences have had thirty years to rediscover this picture and it's just not happened, (not even in Scheider retrospectives after he passed away last year). Reading King's piece reminded me of another great truck-driving movie - Jules Dassin's Thieves Highway where a couple of desperate truckers with a precious early load of produce race to San Francisco to sell it at a market presided over by an early and not quite as ruthless, (or likeable) version of Deadwood's Al Swearengen named Mike Figlia, (Lee J. Cobb). Both films take aim at capitalism run amok and those left maimed in its wake and both feature fantastic and riveting sequences of people driving trucks, (no easy feat) and both are worth your trip to the video store or Netflix (and I hate to admit that I am now on there too). Netflix has already failed me too. After watching the feature of Thieves Highway, the Criterion edition had an excerpt from a doc about the scribe A.I. Bezzerides, who wrote both script and novel, featuring interviews with Barry Gifford, George Pelecanos, Mickey Spillane and Jules Dassin. Netflix don't have it. It's called The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides and I want to see it. Anybody out there with a tip, lemme know.

Monday, August 10, 2009


A couple years ago I got the news that Chuck Palahniuk was bringing his circus to St. Louis to support the novel Snuff and I read that there was a second author traveling with him in support of a first book of short stories called Knockemstiff. Great title. So I looked into to him. Turns out Donald Ray Pollock writes exactly the sort of heart breaking, bone shaking, fucked up realistic/comic/tragic work that makes people want to get off the wii and start mainlining the hard stuff, (books, I mean). When I went to see the Palahniuk tour, I was at least as excited to see DRP, who stood up in front of the 500+ people there and layed down some serious literary blacktop with his short story Bactine. Like William Gay, he was over the half century mark in age when his first book was published and thus entered the game with a lifetime of experience and seasoning informing his high octane prose which kicks ass and breaks glass from thirty paces. His first book, Knockemstiff, is a collection of shorts all linked in a fictional take on a real geographic location, the titular town in Ohio. He is currently working on his first novel.

Why a short story collection first?

As most people know by now, I was forty-five before I decided that I wanted to try and learn how to write. In all honesty, short stories just looked easier than novels at the time. I didn't know any writers, and I hadn't taken any workshops or anything like that. In other words, I really didn't have a clue as to where and how to begin, but I figured the best approach was to start with something small and maybe work my way up. So I typed out stories by writers that I admire, and then I carried them around with me and studied them, tried to get as close as I could to them. I told myself early on that if I could write just one really good short story, I'd be happy (I guess I still feel that way).

Where did Knockemstiff, the collection, come from?

The first two years that I was trying to learn how to write, I wrote mostly stories about characters that I didn't really know anything about: nurses, lawyers, professional types, etc. I'd read a John Cheever story and then try to write about a suburbanite, or I'd fall in love with an Andre Dubus story and try to write about a lapsed Catholic, that sort of thing. But every one of those stories was a failure. Then I took a correspondence course on fiction writing from a professor at Ohio University, Michael Brown. There were ten assignments, and somehow I ended up writing “Bactine” for one of them. That was the first thing I ever wrote that seemed to “work” for me. After that, I decided to stick to the place and the people that I knew something about. I had maybe seven of the stories pretty much finished when I began grad school; and then over the next sixteen months or so I wrote the other eleven and revised the older ones. I figure now that I'll probably rely on southern Ohio as my principal setting and source of inspiration because, let's face it, I'm not “worldly” in any sense of the word, other than I've had the usual troubles and heartaches that most people go through. I've lived in this area all my life and now I'm fifty-four. Too, I'm not concerned with being known as a “regional” writer or any of that other bullshit. I mean, if someone sets all their fiction in NYC or L.A., isn't he or she also somewhat a “regional” writer?

“Real Life” opens the collection and we see Bobby as a young boy, then we're given a glimpse of him as an adult in Knockemstiff's closer, “The Fights.” While not exactly triumphant, it's as close to a happy ending as the book could have plausibly had. Does it reflect an optimism regarding more of the characters in between?

That's a tough question! I wanted to leave the ending a bit ambivalent so the reader could make his or her own decision. A mushy ending, say, one with Bobby riding off into the sunset and a glorious future, would not have fit in with the overall “tone” of the book. Besides, there's enough books out there with sweet, happy endings. I have no interest in writing fantasy; and I'd rather try and look at things honestly in my own writing. Life is hard for most people. However, with that said, I must admit that there is a part of me that wants to believe that Bobby does stay sober and breaks away from the holler. He's also in one of the stories in the middle, one called “Pills.”

In the Del and Geraldine saga, too, amidst all the awfulness, there's a tenacious, resilient tenderness that keeps the worst of their humanity from completely swallowing them. While circumstances are completely unkind to the population, it is their own nature that the characters just can't seem to circumnavigate, does anybody get out alive?

I'm sure I'm not going to explain this very well, but one of the main ideas that I'm interested in is that most people, at some point in their lives, end up feeling “trapped.” It doesn't matter who you are: a hillbilly, a CEO, a big-time lawyer, a housewife in Chicago. It might be a bad marriage or ignorance or a drug problem or mental illness or poverty or just the feeling that you should have been a rock star instead of a chiropractor. At the same time, all of these people, including Del and Geraldine, have other feelings, too, better, more noble ones that reveal their underlying humanity. Sure, Del feels trapped by his marriage to Geraldine, but at the same time he loves her and wants to protect her. Like everything else, it's complicated. And, though I'm not sure that most of the people in Knockemstiff “get out,” I do believe they survive.

Why go to school at this stage in your life?

As I mentioned earlier, I began writing when I turned forty-five. I went through a period where I felt very disappointed with the way my life had turned out; I'd been at the paper mill for twenty-seven years at that point. Don't get me wrong: the mill was a great place to work in many ways, but I'd gotten to the point where I felt, like many of my characters, “trapped.” I'd always carried around this dream in the back of my mind that writing would be a nice way to make a living (I was very naive!), and so I told my wife that I was going to spend the next five years trying to learn how to write fiction. I didn't expect any sort of success, but I told myself that if I worked hard for those five years, then I could give myself permission to quit and go on to my grave knowing I'd at least given it a shot.

But by the time the five years had passed, I'd published several stories and I'd been accepted into the MFA program at Ohio State University. There were several reasons for going: one, I'd finally be around some writers; two, I'd finally be able to workshop some stories; and three: I'd written enough by this time to know that I wanted to keep doing it, and the program provided me with a way to finally break away from the mill, in that I was going to get a stipend for the next three years. With that said, though OSU was great to me in so many ways, I don't think a person needs to go to graduate school to become a writer. I just finished my degree about ten days ago.

How did the tour with Chuck Palahnuik come about?

Well, for one thing, Chuck and I have the same editor, Gerry Howard, at Doubleday. Gerry sent him a review copy of my book and Chuck offered to blurb it. I then met Chuck in Columbus when he was doing the Rant tour. The next year, when Snuff was about ready to come out, he asked if I'd like to so some readings with him. Listen, Chuck Palahniuk is one of the nicest people you're ever going to meet, and he's helped a lot of writers over the years. And those tours have to be grueling, but the man is dedicated to his fans.

Did it confirm or challenge any notions you had about what kind of writing or writer you want to do or be?

If anything, it gave me a glimpse into what it's like to be a bestselling author. Most writers that I know are doing good if 20-40 people show up at their readings, but Chuck has 400-600, sometimes more. And what I admire most about him is that he's managed to stay down to earth and not get the bighead.

When was the last time you ate a fishstick?

Ha! I guess it's been maybe four or five years ago at my mom's house.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Thanks a million to everybody who showed up last night for Noir at the Bar and made it such a fun evening. All the usual elements certainly helped: dim lighting, Irish oat sodas, surly sumbitches with books, but the sum outweighed the parts, I think we’d all agree. I read an excerpt from my yet to be completed Terry Hickerson novel, Peckerwood, (available to the public now as 1998 Was a Bad Year – Thuglit Issue 30). Theresa Schwegel totally showed me up with a slice her latest book, Last Known Address. It was a choice selection for the evening as it revolved partially around a young woman’s fateful choice to live in Chicago instead of St. Louis – a suggestion for any young women out there faced with this choice – choose the Lou. We took an intermission for boozy schmoozing with the likes of Rodney Wiethrop, afore mentioned afficianado and writer – friend of HBW and Robert J. Randisi – author of, I shit you not, some five hundred books under sixteen different pseudonyms. And speaking of pseudonyms, I took the opportunity during the break to introduce myself to Malachi Stone, the literary reprobate alter ego of one of St. Louis County’s finest upstanding citizens who will remain anonymous thank you very much. A wise choice that seems to be too as his novel St. Agnes’ Eve portrays a society of strip mall massage parlors, cranked out lawyers and their sexually deviant client/dealers and Satanism run amok beneath the idyllic veneer of West County. Seriously, if this novel finds a ballsy publisher, Mr. Stone will be well served by a secret identity to write beneath, but I will never look at the Chesterfield valley the same way. Scott Phillips closed the evening with his short Ten Gallons of Infected Saliva, or The Cuckold Avenged from the Jen Jordan edited anthology Uncage Me. Let’s just say that I was happy to have gone first in this line up of escalating perversity. Thanks to Byron Kerman at Sauce magazine, Paul Friswold at The Riverfront Times, J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet and Keith Rawson at Bloody Knuckles, Callused Fingertips for helping spread the word about N@B, Blake at The Delmar Lounge and Kelly at Subterranean Books for making it possible. See ya next time.